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!
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!
Exhibitions in Brussels #1 BELvue Museum
In 1871, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, American journalist Henry Stanley met the explorer David Livingstone and spoke the famous words: “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” After spending several weeks together the two men separated – Dr Livingstone to continue his search for the source of the Nile and Stanley on the first of his explorations in Africa.
Henry Stanley’s travel journal, acquired by the King Baudouin Foundation in 2001, formed the centre piece of an exhibition at the BELvue Museum dedicated to the time these two remarkable men spent together. Through their letters and journals we travelled with David Livingstone and Henry Stanley as they explored together around Lake Tanganyika.
The letters written by Dr Livingstone detailed his growing opposition to slavery and told of his mentorship of Henry Stanley. Stanley’s travel-worn compass and binoculars gave credence to his evolution as an explorer in his own right.
Artefacts from the tribes with whom they came in contact were collected by Dr Livingstone and many of these were sent home to his daughter Agnes after his death in 1873.
And what was Dr. Livingstone’s reply to the most famous question ever asked?
“Yes. I feel thankful that I am here to welcome you.”
You know those Armageddon themed movies where the streets of the city are silent? Have you ever wondered what it would be like in a city with no cars? If you’re in a European city on 22 September you’ll find out – it’s Carfree Sunday!
European Carfree Day began during the oil crises of the 1970s. Car driving was banned on Sundays in an attempt to save fuel. Since then Carfree day has become an international day to celebrate walking, cycling and taking the train. The only vehicles allowed are Emergency Service Vehicles and buses; that’s when the cyclists and pedestrians take over.
Brussels embraces Carfree Day wholeheartedly and from early morning thousands of cars remain parked while their owners find other ways to enjoy the city. There’s standing room only on trains and buses and bicycles fill the streets.
From a vantage point looking over the city the atmosphere is eerie. The only sounds to be heard are birdsong, laughter and children calling to each other. Festivals in the parks attract large crowds and people take advantage of the empty streets.
It’s a strange feeling to be walking in the middle of a main road and instead of looking out for cars it’s bikes and rollerblades you have to avoid.
At 18.00 the prohibition on cars comes to an end and it doesn’t take long for the streets to become busy again. The utopian vision of life without cars comes to an end but hopefully more people have been inspired to find alternate ways of travel. Give the environment a break – don’t take your car!
For more on Carfree Sunday, click here.