Belgium: Brussels

The city of Brussels is the capital of the Brussels-Capital Region, the capital of Belgium, and the capital of the European Union. Though not part of the Flanders region, the Brussels-Capital Region sits geographically within it, forming just a tiny splotch on a map (blue in this case) of Belgium’s three regions (Flanders and Wallonia are the two large ones). It’s somewhat confusing, geopolitically speaking.

City Center

We started our week in Brussels loosely following an introduction-to-Brussels walk from GPSmyCity, a self-guided walking tour app. First impressions: Brussels builds big. With all the roles Brussels plays within its region, country, and the European Union (EU), it is no surprise that there are some architecturally incredible and governmentally important buildings within its midst. Add to those, the historically significant palaces, cathedrals, and the like, and there was a lot to take in as we roamed this fascinating city.

We wandered past the Palais Royale du Brussels (Royal Palace), through Mont des Arts, poked our noses into the 175-year-old Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert covered shopping street, and rounded a corner to come upon the magnificent Grand Place, the main plaza in the city where we stood and ogled for quite some time (and we weren’t alone in our behaviour).

For a break from the hubbub at the street cafes and bars, we stopped in at the subdued A La Becasse pub to taste traditional lambic beers, including a gueuze (which blends old and new lambics with a second in-bottle fermentation) and kriek (cherry) beer. As a non-beer drinker, I found the lambic doux and kriek brews to be more like ciders–not at all beery tasting (the best description I can provide with my non-beer-familiar palette). Kriek was like a sweeter fruity cider, definitely cherry flavoured, and lambic doux like a drier apple cider–both surprisingly drinkable.

European Quarter

Our accommodation was at the edge of the European Quarter so it was easy to spend a very interesting couple of days in that part of the city. Though we weren’t aiming for it, a glimpse of the arches in Parc du Cinquantenaire caught our eye. We changed direction and were drawn further into the park until we could see the full expanse of the arches and building wings. An enormous Belgium flag usually dominates the center arch, but we visited on Pride weekend and a giant rainbow flag filled the space instead. The park and buildings were built as a gift to Belgium in 1880, the 50th anniversary (thus cinquantenaire) of its independence.

Switching to the more modern, our next awe-inspiring site was Le Berlaymont, headquarters of the European Commission (EC). Built in the 1960s, a stylized image of the four-winged building is used as the logo for the EC. Many other buildings in the area carry the familiar circle of stars emblem of the European Union.

After a rainy first day in the European Quarter, we headed out again the next day to find even more fascinating spaces.

A food market obscured the small Place de Luxembourg (but we appreciated this later when we purchased a crepe sandwich on our way back through). Across the road, the raised circle of the Esplanade Solidarność 1980 drew us into its expansive plaza and beyond to the buildings of the European Parliament. We toured the parliament’s Hemicycle debating quarters and then the interactive Parliamentarium to learn about EU governance. Both are very interesting and free to visit.

Parc Leopold adjoins the European Parliament building campus and pays homage to the land’s previous occupants of the zoological gardens. Ostrich sculptures bury their heads (except for one curious one) in the garden and penguins cavort in the playground. The park also contains a number of historic buildings, including the former Institute of Physiology, the location of the Fifth Solvay Conference on Physics in 1927 where scientists gathered to discuss the nascent quantum theory. A photo of attendees of that conference has been described as being the most intelligent picture taken, with 17 of the 29 attendees being past or future winners of a Nobel Prize (including Albert Einstein and Marie Curie–the only female attendee).

Sablon District

Our next wander was into the Sablon District, which is dominated by the Palais du Justice, whose gold-trimmed dome (under restoration, it appears) can be seen from throughout the city. The plaza around the building–now a parking area–is a good spot for a view of the city.

After a refreshment at an outdoor cafe in Le Grand Sablon area we were ready to wander up the hill to Le Petit Sablon, a park-like square surrounded by wrought-iron fencing and 48 small bronze statues, each representing a craft practiced in Brussels.

Comic Book Route

Throughout our meanderings in the city, we managed to locate a number of street art images that are part of the Comic Book Route, a project that began in 1991 and now includes over 50 murals representing various Belgian comic strips like TinTin and Astérix. If you’re into comic books and comic strips, there are many other attractions and activities to check out in this self-proclaimed comic strip capital of the world.

Foods of Belgium

We have done our part to try the four main food groups in Belgium while in Brussels: Belgian fries, waffles (both the light, crispy Brussels and the chewy, caramelized Liège versions), beer, and moules-frites (mussels and fries). Though we have no photo to demonstrate, our pots of mussels were both amazingly delicious and twice what either of us needed to eat. The jury is out for me on whether fries go with mussels, but it is a traditional Belgian pairing (of which Ken whole-heartedly approves).

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