Christina here. Have you ever travelled somewhere without any expectations whatsoever, just willing to go with the flow, explore and see what you find? That’s exactly what I did the weekend before last. Yes, I have been out travelling yet again – lately it feels as if I live out of suitcase permanently! – but this time it wasn’t for research or family purposes. My husband, elder daughter and I wanted to go to a specific concert which happened to be held in Brussels in Belgium. So we decided to take the opportunity to have a long weekend there to see the sights. Who wouldn’t?
I had never been there, so I didn’t really know what to expect. It was kind of freeing to not have an agenda or a lot of “must-see” items on the itinerary. I speak passable French and wasn’t worried about making myself understood, but I had no idea whether it would just feel like being in France or if Brussels was very different. It turns out it’s fairly unique.
Belgium is a country with three national languages – Dutch (Flemish), French and to a very small extent, German (although only about 1% of the population speak that) – and they are very serious about using the first two at all times. I don’t know how many people are dual language speakers, but if not, they need never worry about feeling left out as all the signs etc were bilingual. I thought that was admirable. The two are very different as one is a Latin language and the other Germanic, but I loved listening to both.
Brussels is also a city of contrasts. The architecture is an eclectic mix of old and beautiful vs ultra-modern with some seriously quirky designs. Somehow, they work together and create a charming whole. In the centre of town there were lots of cobbled streets and quaint little alleyways. There were quite a few hills – a bit of a slog for a couch potato like myself – and lots of winding roads.
It was a pleasure to wander around and just take in the sights, and almost everywhere you went you were teased with the delicious scents of either chocolate, waffles or French fries. Those seemed to be the national dishes and very tempting they were too! We felt obliged to taste them all as it would be rude not to, right? And it definitely wasn’t a hardship – those waffles were scrumptious! As for the chocolate, I won’t tell you how much of it we brought home with us nor how much was consumed on the spot …
My favourite place in the city was the Grand-Place, an old-fashioned stone-paved square in the centre of town and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was surrounded by the most amazing old buildings, former guildhalls as well as the city’s Town Hall and something called the Bread House. These all had statues, gilded details and other embellishments. I felt as though I’d stepped into a Grimm’s fairytale, and when I saw a bride and groom appear on one of the balconies it definitely seemed like a prince and princess had stepped outside to wave to the crowds. It was magical!
Not far from there is the famous “Manneken Pis” – a statue of a small boy who is peeing into a fountain. Apparently it dates from the 17th century and nowadays a replica is displayed while the real one is in a museum. I have to admit that I was extremely underwhelmed by this – not only is he tiny, but I really couldn’t see the appeal or figure out why he was so renowned. Although he is usually naked, he is often dressed in clothes and has hundreds of costumes. This turned out to be the case when we first saw him. Very odd indeed!
There were museums galore to explore as well. My daughter’s favourite was the Comics Art Museum. Comics – or bandes dessinées as they are called there – are hugely popular in Belgium, and the museum was interesting. The most famous one is of course Tintin, whose creator Hergé (real name Georges Remi) was Belgian. I was a big fan of the Tintin stories as a child, although they are rather dated now. They are exciting adventure stories and I loved his little sidekick, the dog Snowy (or Milou as he’s called in French). I couldn’t resist buying a plushy one, but didn’t purchase the books themselves.
There was an automobile museum – Autoworld – where I got to pose with one of the James Bond cars. Who wouldn’t want an Aston Martin like that?
I found a room with some wonderful old carriages which would have been paradise for all the Wenches. They even had a London hackney carriage, which appear in so many Regency stories. And there were of course cars from all eras, starting with the oldest ones that simply looked like carriages without a horse. Fascinating!
The Art & History Museum was a bit like our British Museum in London – huge and with an eclectic collection of just about everything. We didn’t have the energy to see it all, so we honed in on a few specific sections: the Merovingians (who were around just before the time of my Vikings), the Romans, and a beautiful exhibit of a luxury Art Nouveau shop that had been recreated in its entirety. It was originally designed in 1912 by architect Victor Horta and was the premises of famous jewellers Wolfers Frèrers. The patterns on the glassware, statues and jewellery were gorgeous!
Finally, we had to visit the Lace Museum, as Brussels/Belgium is known for its exquisite lace. I know the heroines in our Regency stories are always coveting the best quality lace and they would have loved the stuff produced here. I have never tried it myself, but I have seen it done and it’s a laborious process created using needlepoint or bobbins. So many stunning patterns!
The most astonishing thing to me, though, was the incredible ease with which we reached Brussels from London. In just two hours on the Eurostar train we were there, and it was a very smooth and comfortable journey. The wonders of modern technology and building ingenuity!
Have you ever visited Belgium? And are you a fan of comics in general and Tintin in particular? I found his adventures very exciting and loved the humour as well.