A date with Brussels

Print edition : March 23, 2007

A ramble through the city of Tintin, home to the world's best chocolates.

TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SWATI MAHAJAN

The Grand Place, one of the most famous city squares in Europe. The site was a sand bank between two brooks in the 12th century.-

IT is a land of fine dining, its narrow, cobbled streets boasting a vast array of gifts from the sea and the aroma of chocolate wafting in the breeze. Elegant buildings, centuries old, rise up to the skies and their intricate work seems to speak to you in a language from the past. It is probably the only place in the world where the small statue of a peeing little boy can claim a status equal to that of the Statue of Liberty. Eccentric, off-beat, culturally tolerant and vibrant, the city of Brussels today holds an important place in the world as the headquarters of the European Union (E.U.) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). It is also home to the European Commission and the Council of Ministers of the E.U. Lonely Planet describes Belgium as a "bizarre little place" and as Europe's "most eccentric country". The description is certainly true of its capital.

It is surprising that Brussels has never figured as a major tourist destination. Perhaps overshadowed by famous neighbours such as Paris and Amsterdam, the home of Tintin has gone relatively unappreciated for its exotic sea food, its delectable chocolates, its architectural marvels and surrealist art, its cafes and pubs, and its beautiful galleries.

Officially, Brussels was founded in the year 979 but legends and unconfirmed stories indicate that the city had a sixth century origin. It was then that Saint Gorik built a little chapel on a small island formed by the two arms of the Tenne, the river that is a part of the Brussels landscape.

During the middle ages and also later, every city in the Low Countries had guilds or corporations that had a stake in the city administration. Wealthy and politically powerful, they met regularly to discuss the rules of their trade. In Brussels, the guilds built their houses around the main town square, of course. The most famous guild hall is in Grand Place. The guilds were restored and preserved in the old style after the French bombardment of 1695. Former irregularities in style were done away with.

The manneken-piss near Grand Place. A local legend says the statue is a little boy turned into stone by a witch.-

In the 13th century, a revolution took place. The guilds started fighting against the rich and mighty of Brussels.

Over the centuries, Belgium was ruled by ever-changing European powers. It was not until 1830 that Belgians finally won independence, from the Dutch, and formed their own kingdoms. The subsequent years saw the start of Flemish nationalism, creating tensions between Flemish (or, Dutch) and French speakers that continue to this day.

Belgium underwent an economic boom after the Second World War, accentuated later by Brussels becoming the headquarters of the E.U. and NATO. Known for its liberal ideas and moral freedom, Belgium was the second country in the world to legalise gay marriage and euthanasia.

Brussels does not let visitors forget that it is the home of Tintin. The city sports hoardings of Tintin, Captain Haddock and Snowy and shops stock masks, costumes and toys based on the comic series.-

Many Belgians think of themselves as Flemish or Walloon first, and as Belgian next. In 1962, the country was reorganised on linguistic lines to ease tensions between the Flemish and Walloon communities. To the north of the country lies Flanders; the Flemish-speaking people of this region make up 60 per cent of the country's population.

South of the divide is Wallonia, home to French-speaking Walloons who make up the other 40 per cent. Brussels, stuck in the middle, is one of the few officially bilingual capitals of the world. Its population includes more than a hundred nationalities - Europeans to Moroccans, Turks and Africans. The Africans are slargely from the former Belgian colony of Congo.

Walking down the web of cobblestone alleys, with umpteen eateries and shops selling wonderfully decorated pralines, one suddenly is confronted by the magnificent Grand Place, one of the most famous squares in Europe. While the French call it "Grand Place", the Dutch call it "de grote Markt". Archduchess Isabella, daughter of Filip II of Spain, wrote about the square during her visit to Brussels in 1599. "Never have I seen something so beautiful and exquisite as the town square of the city where the town hall rises up into the sky. The decoration of the houses is most remarkable."

The Grand Place has a beautiful set of guild houses dominated by the town hall and King's House. Its origin dates back to the 12th century when the Grand Place was a sand bank between two brooks. Once the bank was reclaimed, it became the `lower market'. It was the commercial crossroads between Bruges (in Flanders), Cologne and France. English wool, French wines and German beer were sold in the harbour and in the market. In the 14th century, the market turned into the main commercial and administrative centre of the city and the construction of the Town Hall started. The square had then already become a political centre, where meetings were held, executions took place and dukes, kings and emperors were officially received. In the following centuries, most wooden houses were replaced with beautifully decorated stone ones, mostly owned by guilds.

Concerts and musical events are organised in the square through the year. Among the most famous events are the annual Omme gang (a historical procession in July) and the biennial flower carpet.

At the Market Place, opposite the Town Hall, stands King's House, built in neo-Gothic style, which is also the city museum. On exhibition are original statues from the Town Hall, paintings, tapestries and artefacts that are linked to the history of the city. History tells us that the building, which was a `bread hall', came to be used for administrative purposes by the Duke of Brabant. In the 15th century, it was rebuilt in the flamboyant Gothic style. The Market Place would not be what it is without the beautiful set of elaborately decorated guild houses.

One block north, east of Grand Place, is St. Hubert's gallery. Opened in 1847, this is a beautiful, covered shopping arcade. The roof is made of glass and metal. The gallery houses shops and cafes (Tavern du Passage). Of course, the famous chocolate shop Neuhaus is worth a visit. A variety of chocolates, in various shapes and sizes, beautifully packed and displayed is the trademark of this shop which was opened in 1857. This was the establishment that first launched `pralines' or filled chocolates.

The famous 'dining street'. The shops lining the narrow, cobbled alley offer a delightful range of seafood.-

The gallery is a meeting place for many people. The concept of a covered shopping gallery for the rich became so popular by the 19th century that similar galleries were constructed in Paris and other European cities.

If Brussels is famous for its chocolates, no less remarkable is the city's seafood. Off one of the arcades is Rue des Bouchers, the capital's famous `dining street': numerous small, marvellously decorated restaurants with `sitting out' arrangements in a narrow alley offer an array of seafood and Belgian beer. Waiters, mostly Italians, are busy trying to attract patrons, though it is not as if the latter need much luring. "Mussels in Brussels", as the old saying goes, is hard to resist.

A major tourist attraction is the `Manneken - Piss' near Grand Place, a statue of a small boy standing on a fountain and peeing. The boy has a wardrobe of more than 600 costumes, all preserved in King's House. He received his first costume on May 1, 1698. The Governor of the Austrian Netherlands gave it on the occasion of festivities organised by one of the guilds of Brussels. Every now and then, the Manneken receives a new dress when `folklorist' groups visit Brussels. To thank them for the gift, it offers them beer, which comes directly from a barrel attached to the statue. Among the more special costumes are an Elvis Presley outfit and a Mickey Mouse costume.

One of the city's numerous chocolate shops.-

No one knows why he is so popular. Local shopkeepers have different tales to tell. Some say a witch turned the boy into a statue when he peed against her door.

GAYS AND LESBIANS displaying placards proclaiming their stand, at a parade in Brussels in which hundreds of people, some dressed as punks, others in rich costumes (below), took part.-

Another legend says that a man had lost his little son. He found him after two days, peeing near the place where the fountain of Manneken Piss stands. As a token of gratitude, the father got the statue of a peeing boy built.

Brussels does not let you forget that Tintin is from Belgium. There are hoardings of Tintin, Captain Haddock and Snowy on the walls of buildings. Some shops have all the comics, masks, costumes, toys and posters one can ask for.

As we walked down the streets around Grand Place, loud honking and blaring music attracted our attention. When we reached the road that the sound came from, it was swarming with people fancily dressed in bright colours and caps, some as punks, others in rich costumes. There were open wagons, cars and jeeps with men and women dancing away to glory. The procession was led by people walking proudly with flags, banners and placards announcing "Love is a human right". It was a gay/lesbian parade, with hundreds of gays and lesbians all over Europe.

Ironically, it was the same day that a handful of Russian gays and lesbians were arrested while on a silent march in Moscow. In Brussels, hundreds of men and women were spread across a kilometre-long stretch, dancing and singing, while an equal number stood watching. Yet, the gathering was remarkably disciplined. As the procession moved through the streets, the participants sprinkled souvenirs endorsing their cause and distributed invitation cards to attend gay-lesbian parties.

Brussels is alluring at any time of the year. The best time to visit is between May and September, when the weather is at its best. The warmest months are July and August, when maximum temperatures hover around 22{+0} Celsius, though they can also be the wettest.

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