Brussels is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city with a rich history. The streets are always bustling with people heading in every direction. Come for one last walk with me and enjoy the sights of this wonderful place. Just make sure you look up and down as well as straight ahead, because there are surprises everywhere.
I am not a beer drinker but I am married to a passionate home-brewer and collector of commemorative beer cans. So it was inevitable that while we were in Brussels I would find myself sitting in a bar, sipping a brew and learning all about Belgian beer.
The Brussels Beer Experience is one of Sandemans New Europe most popular tours and our host for the evening was Tristan; a Canadian who, like my husband, is a lover of all things beer-related. When his wife was offered a job in Brussels he thought all his Christmases had come at once – he could indulge his passion and get paid to share it with others. Our tour started at Scott’s Bar, opposite Galeries St Hubert, where Tristan delved into the fascinating history of beer. Did you know that the ancient Egyptians were brewing beer at least 7000 years ago?
There are more than 800 types of Belgian beer and we tasted four of the most well-known. Trappist beers are only produced at ten monasteries in the world and six of those are in Belgium. Our first Trappist beer was Chimay Blue and our first lesson of the night was how to pour the beer from the bottle into the glass – to get the best flavour it’s necessary to pour right into the middle of the glass – the bigger the head the better! The Chimay Blue had a light floral flavour and I really liked it…we were off to a great start.
Our second stop was down a long, narrow alley to Au Bon Vieux Temps – The Good Old Days, where we tasted Westvleteren. At 10 euros a bottle we were hoping it would live up to its reputation as the best beer in the world.
It’s been made by the Trappist monks of the St Sixus Abbey at the Trappist Westvleteren Brewery since 1838. Only 60 000 cases of beer are produced each year, it’s only sold from the Abbey and an appointment is needed to buy it. This time we shared a bottle; it tasted just like beer to me, but my expert taster-husband told me it was indeed a very flavoursome brew.
After leaving Au Bon Vieux Temps we strolled along Boulevard J. Anspach, with Tristan all the while regaling us with stories about the bars we passed, until we got to Moeder Lambic, the home of Cantillon Lambic beers.
Lambic beer is created using organic wheat and barley and hops. Spontaneous fermentation happens when the beer, left in the open air, is exposed to native spores, wild yeasts and bacteria. Tristan told us the beer should have a dry, sour taste…and it did! My choice was Kriek Lambic, brewed with cherries, which was not quite so dry nor as sour.
The last bar on our tour was also the most famous. Delirium Café Brussels is known for stocking the biggest variety of beer in the world. We were so engrossed in looking at the all beer related memorabilia and souvenirs covering every available space that we didn’t even have a drink.
With more than 3100 different brews for sale, how could we have picked just one?
A holiday in any European city would be incomplete without visiting a church or two. Many are as grand on the inside as they are outside and the churches in Brussels are no exception: there are 14 major churches and many more which aren’t so well-known. Two of the largest and most beautiful are The Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula and The National Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
The Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula is a short walk from the Grand Place in the centre of the city.
There has been a church on this site since the 9th century. Many additions, both Gothic and Baroque in style, were made before the church was finally completed in 1519. Its gothic spires tower above the surrounding buildings and the carved stonework of its façade, complete with elaborate portals and gothic gables, is intricately detailed.
Like the outside the lavish interior is in parts Gothic and elsewhere Baroque in style.
Saint Michael and Saint Gudula are the patron saints of Brussels and both are portrayed inside the church.
Saint Gudula lived in the 8th century and devoted her life to serving the poor. This left her little time for prayer during the day so every night she would walk to church for Midnight Mass. The story goes that the devil, angered by her good works and piety, tried night after night to trap her by blowing out her lantern. Each time, Gudula would pray and the lantern would be relit by God. Her relics have been preserved in the church since the 1100s.
By contrast, construction on the National Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Koekelberg began in 1905. With each World War work was further delayed and the Basilica was only finished in 1969. It is the fifth largest Church in the world and the largest Art Deco building ever constructed.
With its massive green copper dome and its two attendant Art Deco towers the Basilica can be seen from the centre of Brussels.
Inside there is an atmosphere of serenity, enhanced by the vast spaces beyond the altar and chapel.
An elevator takes visitors to the panorama, a gallery walk around the outside of the dome. From a height of 52 metres the view to the outer suburbs of Brussels is expansive. Inside at this level, a mezzanine floor wraps around three sides of the cathedral, with views down into the central space and across to the eight stained glass windows illustrating the life of Jesus. A gallery of modern religious art on this floor also showcases paintings and sculptures depicting the image of Jesus Christ.
Allow at least a couple of hours to visit each of these magnificent churches. While they are very different, both are splendid examples of religious architecture and historical storytelling. Your time will be well spent.
At the northern end of the Parc Royal in Brussels on Rue de la Roi stands an elegant, neoclassical building set behind a high wrought iron fence.
We knew it was a building of importance because there was a security guard on duty at the gate, but nowhere could we find a sign to explain the significance of the building. The guard, sensing our curiosity, and perhaps feeling a little curious himself, came over to talk to us.
He explained that the building was the Federal Parliament, home to the government of Belgium. His pride in this beautiful building, known as the Palace of the Nation, was evident as he spoke of its history and its magnificent interior. “You must do a tour of the Parliament,” he told us. “It’s full of gold inside.”
This was an unexpected opportunity too good to pass up so we walked for quite a distance around to the visitors’ entrance on the other side of the building. What the guard had neglected to tell us was that we needed our passports as proof of identity in order to enter the Parliament. Luckily we were carrying our drivers’ licences with photo ID and the guards on the security desk at the door were satisfied with those. So with photocopies made and paperwork signed, we were finally able to join a tour.
When Belgium’s provisional government was formed in 1830 the National Congress took up residence in the Parliament building. The government investigated different parliamentary structures and finally chose to follow the Westminster system. The two houses of Parliament are decorated accordingly, with the Chamber of Representatives in green and the Senate in red.
The staircases on either side of the peristyle are also colour coded. The green one leads to the Chamber of Representatives and the red staircase to the Senate.
Along the corridors are meeting rooms and small offices, complete with beautiful paintings showing historical sittings of the Parliament and chandeliers covered with gold leaf.
That friendly guard on the gate was right. The Palace of the Nations truly is a beauty, and if he hadn’t told us we would have missed it. Weren’t we lucky!
Friday, 20 September, 2013
We were out taking photos of Brussels by night when a police car went by with its lights flashing – nothing unusual about that we thought. But then came another, closely followed by several police on motorbikes. It was then that we noticed the intersection was closed and the streets were blocked off. We thought perhaps someone famous was heading our way; maybe a member of the Royal family or a Government official. Of course, along with a few other curious pedestrians, we stopped to watch.
Suddenly, around a corner came a cavalcade of riders on bikes and roller blades. The sound was overwhelming – horns, whistles and people calling as they went past in a flash. It seemed like all of Brussels was on the move.
And then, in an instant, they were gone and the street was quiet again.
And what was this mass movement on wheels?
It was the Roller-Bike Parade, which takes place in Brussels every Friday evening from June to September – riders and rollers, celebrating pedal power in safety on the streets of the city.
Belgium might be most famous for its lace, chocolate and beer, but did you know that it is also known as the home of the comic strip? With worldwide sales of comic books in the millions and more than 700 comic artists, Belgium is the biggest producer of comic books in the world. From Tintin to The Smurfs, comic strips are everywhere in Brussels.
Follow the Comic Strip Walk from De Brouckère metro station to the Grand Sablon to see the most loved comic strip characters come to life. There are 52 vibrant murals painted on the ends of buildings across the city.
Just remember to look up while you’re walking!
As a quilt maker I am always drawn to works of art crafted with textiles and threads. Many community groups create beautiful pieces which tell the stories of their towns and cities, both past and present.
Buckler’s Hard, in the New Forest in Hampshire, England, was a major centre for ship building in the 18th century. At St Mary’s Chapel the altar cloth, designed and stitched by Belinda, Lady Montagu, features the Tree of Life, representing the timber used in ship building. Around the border are the names of the ships constructed on the Beaulieu River, including three which took part in the Battle of Trafalgar – Agamemnon, Swiftshure and Euryalus.
This delicate yet detailed piece hangs at Fishbourne Roman Palace, in West Sussex, England. It is a map of the village of Fishbourne and was created to celebrate the millennium.
Bruges is famous for its lace makers and one of the most intricate pieces of lace is this map of the city, created in 2008. It shows the museums, churches and streets of the old town and stands on the bank of one of Bruges’ canals.
I’m inspired to get out my needle and thread each time I see works of art like these.
I’ve written about some more beautiful textile creations in these posts.
Have you ever said to someone that you’re planning to visit a particular place only to have them say, “It’s not worth it. There’s not much to see. Don’t bother.”? Then you have to decide whether to take this unsolicited advice or ignore it and see for yourself.
One of the places we really wanted to see while we were in Brussels was Waterloo, site of the famous battle between the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon Bonaparte. We’d been told there wasn’t much there and it wasn’t worth making the trip but we decided to disregard this advice and see the battlefield for ourselves. After all, we weren’t going to be in Brussels again anytime soon and it was easy enough to get there on a local train.
The journey from Brussels Central Station took about 45 minutes. When we arrived at the station at Waterloo we were the only ones who left the train, and the station and surrounding streets were deserted. The tourist information office in town was a 15 minute walk from the station and we ambled along, passing local homes, parks and a school, but still without meeting a single soul. We were beginning to wonder if what we’d heard was right.
The Tourist Office is located in a charming 19th century building and it was there we needed to buy our tickets for all the battlefield attractions.
It was also there that we received the best advice of our whole five week trip. The lady in the office was so helpful and friendly. As soon as she heard we had come to Waterloo by train she gave us all the information we needed to get to the site by bus. She was able to sell us bus tickets as well as entry tickets, told us where to wait, the number of each bus we needed and at which stop to get off. She also advised us to visit the Wellington Museum before going to the battlefield so that we didn’t have to come back into town. By the time we left the office we were armed with all the information we needed to see everything and enjoy our day.
Our first stop was St Joseph’s Church of Waterloo, next door to the tourism office.
The oldest part of the church is the Chapel Royal, consecrated in 1690. In the Chapel there are 27 plaques dedicated to the fallen of the Battle of Waterloo. Some commemorate all those who fought here while others tell the sad story of just one soldier.
Across the road, in an 18th century coaching inn, is the Wellington Museum.
It was in this building that the Duke of Wellington set up his headquarters in the days before the battle and then wrote the report of his victory over Napoleon to the British government. The museum has rooms dedicated to both armies, with armour, swords and guns found on the battlefield, letters and dispatches and descriptions of the battle from both sides. The museum was just the right size – big enough to learn about the battle and what we were going to see on the battlefield without having to spend several hours there.
Next we found the bus stop we needed, and just as the tourism office lady had told us, along came the bus at exactly the right time. We told the driver we needed to get off at the battlefield stop and he was happy to help us and made sure we knew when to get off the bus and which direction we had to walk – more friendly advice we were happy to heed.
From the bus stop to the battlefield and the Butte du Lion we walked for another 15 minutes past farmland and country homes. In these surroundings the Butte du Lion or Lion’s Mound could easily be seen in the distance. This artificial hill was created on the orders of King William 1 of the Netherlands to commemorate all those who fell during the battle and in particular his son, the Prince of Orange, who was wounded by a musket ball.
Near the Butte du Lion are two buildings which should not be missed. The first is the Visitors’ Centre where there is a wealth of information about the battle and those who took part in it. There are two films showing: “Waterloo, History of a Battle” which describes the life of a soldier using footage from a re-enactment in 2009, and excerpts from the 1970 movie “Waterloo”.
The second building houses the Panorama, a massive painted canvas 110 metres long and 12 metres high. It was created by Louis Dumoulin, a French Navy artist, and depicts the scene of the battle at 4 pm on 18 June, 1815 as the French troops began an unsuccessful attack on Wellington’s right flank.
The painting, accompanied by a sound track of cannon fire and the cries of the soldiers, is so realistic we felt like we were first hand witnesses to this moment in history.
To complete our battlefield experience we climbed the 226 steps to the top of the Butte du Lion and were able to finally see for ourselves the site of the Battle of Waterloo. There are information boards around the fence so we could easily imagine the opposing sides as they bore down on each other.
On top of the mound is the statue of a magnificent lion, its front paw resting on a globe of the world. The lion, heraldic emblem of the King of the Netherlands, symbolises peace, courage and victory.
Standing at the top of the Butte du Lion we celebrated a small victory of our own. We definitely made the right decision when we decided to ignore that advice and make the journey to this fascinating historical place.
So, when you’re given unsolicitied travel advice, do you take it or leave it?
Pedestrians crossing the Place Royale in Brussels may stop and admire the neoclassical façade of the Church of St Jacob-on-the-Coudenberg, which dates from 1776, or gaze at the statue of Godfrey de Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade.
Many don’t know that beneath their feet are the remains of another chapter in the story of Brussels, hidden from the eyes of the world for nearly three hundred years and only revealed again in the 1980s. The Palace of Brussels, dating from the 12th century, was the palace of the Dukes of Brabant and the main residence of Charles V. It was a vast complex of luxurious State buildings, chapels and galleries. No expense was spared and it was filled with beautiful works of art.
On 3rd February the palace was destroyed by fire and it lay in ruins for forty years. It was replaced in the 1770s by new royal residences and government buildings and the old foundations were all but forgotten.
Excavations began on the foundations of the palace chapel in 1986. The massive cellars and kitchens of the Aula Magna, an enormous banqueting hall, were revealed as well as the remains of Hoogstraeten House, the private mansion of the Lalaing family.
The rooms and passages are dimly lit, and it’s easy to imagine what these workspaces would have looked like, filled with people, so many centuries ago.
Rue Isabelle ran from the palace to the Cathedral of Saint Michael and Gudula. It is now protected from the elements by overhead concrete slabs, but the buildings which opened on to the cobbled road were originally at ground level. The roadway, sometimes narrow and uneven and in other places broad and more level, follows the slope of the Coudenberg hill. It was redeveloped by the Archduchess Isabel in the early 1770s and was named after her.
Wandering along the passages and walking through stone doorways onto the street, it feels like the people who were here long ago might simply come walking round the corner again. The echoes of the thousands of visitors who come here every year could easily be mistaken for the voices of those who lived and toiled here in the past.
The history of the palace on Coudenberg may be covered over but it’s alive and well under the bustling streets of Brussels.
Exhibitions in Brussels #2 The Bourse
I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do. Leonardo da Vinci
When most people hear the name Leonardo da Vinci they think of the Mona Lisa or The Last Supper. But da Vinci was much more than a painter. He was a sculptor, engineer, geologist and mapmaker. He was a musician and a mathematician, architect and anatomist, botanist and writer; and he was a prolific inventor.
Many of his thoughts were recorded in a collection of codices; small notebooks filled with his drawings, theories and ideas. It is the contents of these codices which formed the basis of the exhibition “Da Vinci – The Genius”, on display at The Bourse in Brussels last year.
Following the information da Vinci recorded in the codices Italian craftsmen have constructed more than 120 full size interactive recreations of his inventions and machines. They used tools, methods and materials which would have been available in the 15th century. Models of da Vinci’s inventions – flying machines, a bicycle and even a tank complete with cannon, filled the beautiful rooms of the Bourse, Brussel’s old Stock Exchange.
The exhibition also featured replicas of the codices and animations telling the stories behind the Vitruvian Man and the Mona Lisa. The findings of a scientific examination of the famous painting by French engineer Pascal Cotte are detailed in the “Secrets of Mona Lisa”.
Among his 25 discoveries were the lady’s eyelashes and eyebrows, lightly painted in with single brushstrokes, and delicate lacework on her dress.
At any time there are several “Da Vinci – The Genius” exhibitions in major cities around the world; at the moment they are in Nuremberg in Germany, Johannesburg in South Africa, Tel Aviv in Israel and Kolding in Denmark. If one comes to your city, don’t miss it!