A Grand Adventure

Brussels streetChristina 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.

Gold grand placeBelgium 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.

WaffleIt 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 …

Chocs

Grand PlaceMy 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!

House grand place

Manneken PisNot 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!

Tintin charactersThere 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.

James Bond

 

 

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?

 

 

Hackney

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!

 

CadillacMy absolute favourite, and the car I’d want for myself, was this amazing 1959 Cadillac, although I would prefer any colour other than pink.

 

 

Art NouveauThe 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!

BobbinsFinally, 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!

Lace

Statues grand placeThe 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.

17 thoughts on “A Grand Adventure”

  1. Ah, Brussels! Thanks, Christina, for reminding me of the winding streets, the grand plaza, and the magnificent chocolates. I recall buying a little bag of truffles (different from the type I’m familiar with) and passing the bag back and forth between us until it was too soon empty.
    I’ve done a fair amount of research on the city for my books because of the pre-Waterloo time, but I’ve only visited briefly a couple of times. And from your descriptions, I need to go back and see more! Especially that recreated Art-Nouveau jewelry shop. (What can I say? I like bright sparklies.)
    As for the famous statue of the pissing boy, I think that’s a guy thing–the triumph of being naughty. *G*

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  2. We only traveled through Belgium, spending one night there.We arrived late with two kids and there was no room at the inn so they fed us a simple delicious meal and put us up in the room maids slept in in the summer season.

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  3. My parents were Dutch, and my father mentioned Manneken Pis a number of times when I was a child. I saw it as a teen and like you, Christina, was surprised at how small it was. I wonder when the actual statue moved to a museum; it was in the seventies that I saw it.
    More recently, I was in Brussels in 2014 with my mother and sister. We visited a cousin I’d never met. It’s likely that chocolate was also consumed.

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  4. Lovely blog, Christina. We visited Brussels many many years ago, when I was eight, and I recall being utterly fascinated by the women outside a cathedral making lace. They wore lace hats and their fingers flicked the bobbins around with such speed and dexterity and they stuck pins in here and there to make the patterns, and the lace slowly grew before my eyes. I’ve never forgotten it

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  5. It was difficult to avoid the chocolate Kareni, that’s for sure! Brussels is a lovely place – I’m glad you got to visit as well.

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  6. Thank you Anne! That sounds fascinating – it’s definitely a skill and must take years of practice! I didn’t see anyone making lace this time but I have seen it done in Sweden.

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  7. I spent a lot more time in Antwerp, because I had family there, but the Grand Place in Brussels is beautiful. The other Belgian food specialty is mussels, also served with French fries(Moules frites)

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  8. Oh yes – I really wanted to try the mussels as I love them! But I know from experience it only takes one bad one to make you very ill and I didn’t want to risk it. Hopefully next time!

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  9. Thanks for such a lovely post and wonderful pictures. I read comics every day that I can. They make me see life as it should be- just a wee bit off kilter.
    I have never been to Belgium but you have made me see what I have missed. Thanks again.

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  10. Getting there by Eurostar would be my kind of travel. I HATE flying! I’m actually terrified of it. Sounds like a wonderful place though and that you had a great time. I’d be safe enough with the chocolate as I developed an intolerance to cow’s milk about ten years ago 🙂

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  11. Yes I’m not too keen on flying either! So sorry to hear you can’t have chocolate but those waffles pretty good too!

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