I love trains. I wish we had more in the US. The train ride from Paris to downtown Brussels took about 1-1/2 very pleasant hours. 15 minutes or so before we arrived, an attendant came by asking if we wanted to reserve a taxi at the station. And miracle of miracles, there was our driver as we debarked with our luggage. We were staying at a Marriott Courtyard that is located outside the center of the city because my daughter Lara had enough points for us to stay free for six nights. Our rooms weren’t going to be ready until later in the afternoon, so we stored our luggage and following the helpful directions from the staff at the desk boarded a local bus back to the center of Brussels to explore the Grand Place.
The Grand Place is the central square of Brussels and is surrounded by 17th century guild halls and the 15th century town hall. The architecture is a combination of Gothic, Baroque and Louis XIV that together make up a style called Flemish Renaissance, but somehow it all works. The current Grand Place was actually rebuilt at the end of the 17th century after Louis XIV of France bombarded the city using the spire on the town hall as the main target. Ironically, the town hall survived pretty much intact, but the wood and stucco guild halls surrounding it burned down. Remarkably, the Bruxellois rebuilt the halls in only four years, this time using bricks and stones. There are lots of sidewalk cafes and souvenir shops on the square and the streets leading into it. But it mainly functions as a public space for the whole city where events as varied as the Tango Festival and the July Ommegang or folklore festival take place. In 1998 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is considered one of the most beautiful squares in the world.
Not far from the Grand Place is the Manneken-Pis or pissing little boy statue. I have to say that in my not-so-humble opinion this attraction is definitely “much ado about nothing.” On our way through the square to reach him we saw every kind of trinket you could possibly imagine with his image on it. What a disappointment when we arrived at a small, crowded square and saw a pretty little fountain with this baby-doll size peeing boy. But beloved he is. He was naked when we saw him, but often he’s fully clothed. Opposite the Town Hall on the Grand Place is the Maison du Roi or King’s House which houses the Brussels Museum. One section of the museum is devoted to a display of the outfits made for the Manneken-Pis.
We had made absolutely no plans for our stay in Belgium. We hadn’t even read much about the country. We did have the vague notion of going to Brugge for a day, maybe seeing the comic museum in Brussels since we are Tintin fans, drink some beer, and definitely eat some chocolate and waffles. So when we returned to the Marriot, I grabbed some brochures to help formulate a plan. That’s when I realized Waterloo was nearby. The next day was Sunday, a good day to go to the Belgium Comic Strip Center and perhaps do some antiquing in the Grand Sablon. We could do Waterloo on Monday.
Tintin and Chocolate
The Belgium Comic Strip Center is housed in a magnificent Art Nouveau building that was originally designed by architect Victor Horta as a textile warehouse in 1906. Horta was a huge influence on the French architect Hector Guimart who designed many of the Metro station entrances in Paris. Brussels was actually the center of Art Nouveau architecture that flourished from the late 19th century up until World War I. Advances in glass and iron technology made it possible to construct buildings with large open spaces by replacing solid walls with iron pillars and to install large windows to bring in natural light. One of the great achievements of Horta’s career was the Maison du Peuple (House of the People), a large building for the Belgium Workers’ Party that contained offices, meeting rooms, a café and even a concert hall seating 2000 people. The building was completed in 1899 and was dismantled in 1965 to be replaced the following year by a generic high rise. Its demolition has been called one of the greatest architectural crimes of the 20th century. In 1984 the Belgium Comic Strip Center was founded with two aims – “to promote the comic strip as a valuable cultural medium and to maintain the architectural masterpiece which it is housed in.” It accomplishes the latter splendidly.
According to the Comic Strip Center, Belgium has more comic strip artists per square kilometer than any other country in the world. Comics are referred to as “the ninth art.” I found the comic strip exhibits mildly interesting, tame, in fact, when I think back to R. Crumb and Zap Comix, but the Comic Strip Center markets to children as well as adults. It’s a little hard to yoke the Smurfs with Mr. Natural.
From the Comic Strip Center, a pleasant walk took us to the Grand Sablon which has an antiques market on the weekends. Unfortunately, we arrived at the tented antiques market around 2 pm when the sellers were packing up. But that freed us up for a nice lunch and some chocolate shopping. We found a small restaurant called La Malcour and had a lovely lunch of gray shrimp croquettes and leek soup. After lunch we found our way to a wonderful artisanal chocolate shop named Passion Chocolat.
The only serious rival to Belgian chocolate is Swiss chocolate, and most chocophiles claim Belgian to be better. Two things contribute to making a superior chocolate – the quality of the bean (the closer to the equator the better) and the fact that no vegetable oil is ever added to the chocolate brew, only cocoa butter from the bean itself. Unfortunately, Belgium’s access to cocoa beans has a very dark history. In the late 19th century King Leopold II armed with a loan from the Belgian parliament brutally enslaved much of the population along the Congo River in Africa. He hired the Welsh-American journalist Henry Morton Stanley (of “Dr. Livingston, I presume” fame) as his advance man in the area. Much of the land went into the growing of cacao plants for chocolate. Leopold ruled his private kingdom along the Congo River for thirty years and became immensely wealthy. He was finally forced to give it up in 1908 by the Belgian parliament. Belgium, however, still has access to the best cocoa beans in the world. Brussels’ population is about a million and there are 500 chocolatiers in the city, that’s one chocolate maker for every 2000 people. The average Belgian consumes over 15 pounds of chocolates annually.
Back at the Marriot I ask our helpful front desk friends how best to travel to Waterloo and Brugge, thinking, of course, that there had to be some convenient bus or train service we could use. Not so from where we were staying. It would take too much time. Our best bet was to rent a car. I had driven in southern France, Mexico and Haiti before so no problem. We arranged for the hotel shuttle to take us to the nearby airport the next morning to rent a car.
Waterloo and a World’s Fair
At the airport the next day we went to the Hertz desk and requested a car with automatic transmission and GPS. We were given a Mercedes-Benz. I’ve always wanted to drive a Mercedes-Benz. This was turning out okay. With Lara as navigator and GPS interpreter we set our coordinates and started out for Waterloo roughly 20 kilometers south of our hotel. What a nice ride . . . I considered trading in my Saab. The only initial disconcerting moments occurred when we came to full stops and the engine shut off completely. Over 50 years of driving conditioned me to think the engine had stalled. Not so with this German-engineered marvel. The engine didn’t idle and it started right back up again when I stepped on the accelerator as though it had never shut off.
The June 18, 1815 Battle of Waterloo is Europe’s Gettysburg at least in terms of popular repute. Historically, however, it was a battle between monarchists of the old type represented by Wellington’s British forces, the Dutch and the Prussians versus the new type represented by Napoleon who rose to power on the populist shoulders of the French Revolution of 1789. The most positive thing to come out of the battle and the defeat of Napoleon seems to be the much needed 40 years of peace on the European continent that followed.
In July and August there are reenactments of the cavalry and infantry charges and cannon firings at the battlefield site but not in February. The main attractions are the painted panorama of the battle, the wax museum, two movies about the battle and the Lion Mound. One of the movies is actually a remarkable battle scene excerpted from the 1970 Russian-Italian film Waterloo directed by Sergei Bondarchuk and produced by Dino de Laurentiis. It was shot long before all the digitized and computer generated special effects we see today. The battle was recreated using 15,000 Soviet army troops and 2,000 cavalrymen with fifty circus stunt riders and their beautifully trained horses. Rod Steiger plays Napoleon and Christopher Plummer is Wellington.
Overall, though, the battlefield is not well-preserved and only moderately interesting. We climbed the 226 steps up the Lion Mound to the thirty ton iron lion at the top and had a lovely panoramic view of the Belgian countryside. A good portion of the battlefield was used to construct the 140’ high mound two years after the battle.
Returning to the city, we decided to visit the Atomium, Brussels’ Eiffel Tower. It was built for the 1958 World’s Fair, Expo ’58, as a symbol of the city and wasn’t intended to last beyond the fair, but its popularity ensured its survival. Shaped like a giant atom, it is half sculpture and half architecture with the usual great panoramic views of the city at the upper levels accessible by a combination of escalators and an elevator. It was rebuilt between 2004 and 2006, but it still felt to me like a temporary structure. Parts have been closed off completely for safety reasons. I sensed a distinct wobbliness on the escalators (though Lara thinks I’m crazy). There are also exhibition spaces. When we were there, there was an interesting exhibit showing the relationship between Art Nouveau and later Soviet Constructivism.
Brugge Day 1
The next morning we set some coordinates into our GPS and headed for Brugge, about 62 kilometers from Brussels. I confess I was not at all prepared for the pace of the traffic on the main highways in Belgium. The speed limit on A10/E40, the highway we took to Brugge, is 120 kilometers an hour (75 mph) but most of the traffic is going 140 kph (85-90 mph). The condition of the highway is really good but the speed was disconcerting. Plus, the signage is in Flemish, not even French. I was white-knuckling it the whole way. Fortunately, Lara was a superb navigator with the GPS and the car performed flawlessly.
Like Amsterdam, Brugge is a canal city, the capital and largest city of the province of West Flanders in the Flemish region of Belgium. Its golden years were from the 12th through the 15th centuries when it was a trade center for northern Europe. In 1309 the city mercantilists opened a stock exchange, possibly the first in the world. After 1500 Brugge began to decline and was gradually replaced by Antwerp. Several attempts were made during the subsequent centuries to revitalize the city, but nothing took hold until the latter half of the 19th century when wealthy British and French tourists discovered its medieval charms. After 1965 the medieval center of the city underwent a major restoration and now it receives 2 million tourists annually. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Because we were basically day-tripping, Lara suggested the best way to get a quick overview of Brugge was to take a carriage ride for 40 Euros ($51US). In a very comfortable hour our driver pointed out the best restaurant, a brewery, the best chocolate shop and the key historic landmarks. Before we left him, we had him mark the locations of the restaurant and the brewery on our map. On our carriage ride we also learned that Brugge was the birthplace of the Flemish mathematician Simon Stevin who introduced decimals to Europe in 1585.
Hungry after our carriage ride, we made our way to Den Gouden Harynck Restaurant. The Michelin-starred restaurant is located in a beautiful 17th century building that had once been a fish shop. We had no reservation, but it was Tuesday in February, so we were seated immediately. We found the restaurant to be lovely and unpretentious with attentive but not intrusive service. The luncheon menu is a three-course prix fixe at 39 Euros ($50US), wine additional. Dining at Gouden Harnyck was worth the anxiety of the drive. My starter was a scallop ceviche seasoned with nigella seeds followed by a beautiful piece of fish with grilled vegetables and smoked potato purée. I forget what we had for dessert, but we also ordered the cheese cart. The cheese cart was fabulous. I didn’t count the number of cheeses on the cart but it was a lot. We were each allowed a choice of three.
While we were relaxing with our cheese selections and finishing our wine, the chef Philippe Serruys came over to chat. He had been making the rounds of the dining room. What a charming and amusing individual. I was impressed by the way he introduced himself to a young British family who were there with their three very well behaved children. He told us how he and his wife had gone to Arizona to visit their youngest son who was training to be a pilot. Not realizing how big the United States is, they decided they would take the opportunity to visit San Francisco. So they rented a car and started driving. As he put it, “It’s like driving from here to Moscow.” He described a pit stop they made in Nevada and noticed the price list had gas, beer and bullets on it. Freaked out, they took off and eventually made it to San Francisco in one piece. I told him we were trying to fix that, but it would take a while. My daughter and I had a thoroughly delightful afternoon.
We had hoped to visit the brewery our carriage driver had pointed out to us, but it was 4:00 by the time we got there and the tours were over for the day. We would just have to return to Brugge the next day. Leaving late in the day to return to Brussels and our hotel, we ran into awful traffic and our GPS fraulein directed us through all these tunnels under the city which was not the route we had taken in the morning. Hindsight being 20/20, we probably should have planned on staying overnight in Brugge.
Brugge Day 2
Late the next morning we arrived back in Brugge and found our way to De Halve Maan (The Half Moon) family brewery, the only brewery in the city still in operation. Located in the middle of the old city, the brewery was started in 1856 by Leon Maes. The Maes family has managed to keep the brewery going through two world wars, an economic depression and the rise of the automobile, the suburbs and supermarkets. At one point the family even produced soft drinks. In 2005 Xavier Vanneste, the sixth generation of the Maes family, thoroughly modernized their production facilities. Now they seem to be riding high on the artisanal beer trend which they helped create.
The tour costs 7 Euro ($9US) and lasts about 45 minutes with lots of climbing up and down narrow stairs and ladders. There was actually a blind man in our group and there are absolutely no provisions for handicapped folks. I tip my baseball cap to him. Included in the tour fee is a glass of Brugse Zot served in the pub adjoining the brewery. The pub also serves very good traditional Belgian food. But be forewarned, the portions are huge. I recommend having the cheese and ham soup and sharing an entrée of mussels or rabbit stew. The rabbit stew is more like a large pie and absolutely delicious but enough for 2-3 people.
Wallonia Finish and Fun
The next day was our last full day in Belgium and we decided to drive to Liège, an industrial city with medieval roots about 60 kilometers east of Brussels in the French speaking Wallonia region of Belgium. Charlemagne was born here. Our plan was to stop along the way to visit a brewery recommended by a colleague of Lara’s. Fraulein GPS got us to the village where the brewery is located but it was closed. Still, it was nice driving into the countryside and being off the highway for a bit.
Liège is not a pretty city but it does have an interesting historic town center of which we only caught a glimpse. The city is an educational center, so it has a young population and an active night life. On the internet Lara had found another Michelin-starred restaurant that we wanted to try called Le Jardin des Bégards. [January 2018, unfortunately, the restaurant is no longer in business.] The restaurant was located in a fabulous garden built up against the walls of a 16th century monastery. It was quite a delightful experience walking into this peaceful retreat from a bustling, not particularly attractive city street. During the warm weather months patrons could dine outdoors in this garden, but not in February. In fact, it had been spitting snow on and off all day.
Le Jardin des Bégards offered a prix fixe lunch with three courses for 65 Euros ($85US). We began with a duck carpaccio with black truffles and pecans glazed in aged balsamic vinegar and thin shavings of parmesan Reggiano. For my second course I chose a deconstructed lobster ravioli on a basil and tomato marmalade with a cucumber infused butter foam. I finished with a filet of sole with new potatoes and broccoli in a citron flavored sabayon sauce. We were satisfied to enjoy Chef François Piscitello’s unorthodox Italian cuisine inside his beautifully minimalist restaurant with its exquisite mahogany interior walls, open kitchen and glass outer wall looking out at the winter garden.
After lunch we drove back to Brussels to return our rental car and make one last bus trip back to the city center to do a beer tasting at a bar Lara had spotted in the Grand Place. As much as I loved driving that beautiful car, I was not at all sorry about returning it. I had had enough of high-speed autobahn driving.
We spent our last evening in Brussels at a crowded tavern tasting a selection of six local brews. It was a pleasure to relax and just drink beer. I’m not much of a beer drinker, but Belgians are. They are as serious about their beer as the French and Californians are about their wine. The tavern where we enjoyed our tasting didn’t have a card to give me and I didn’t write down its name, but I’m sure it’s not a particularly distinguished place in any case. However, it was crowded with locals and students who were more than happy to give us their opinions about what we were drinking. We had fun.