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Brussels, the seat of the European Union. A very diverse city. Frankly, no easy way to describe it.
First of all, there is a difference between the region of Brussels and the City of Brussels. Just as Los Angeles is usually confused between the city and the county, so too is Brussels confused. The City of Brussels by itself is only the fifth largest city in the country and contains roughly 1% of Belgium’s population, while the region contains a full 10% of the population.
While I was in the area for two weeks, I actually only explored Brussels for a couple of days. The rest of the time I was helping at a house outside the city volunteering through the website WorkAway.info, doing such chores as reinforcing a 200-year-old Tibetan trunk and cooking for the family.
When I did get to explore the city, what kept me most captivated was the food particular to the region. Specifically, Belgian beer, frites (fries), waffles and chocolate. Belgian chocolate is simply the best in the world, and is the subject of a separate post I wrote, which you can read here.
I also need to make a comment on Belgian frites (fries) that are served here. Americans know them as French fries, but don’t you dare call them that here. While both Belgium and France claim ownership of them, the legend here is that American and British soldiers in one of the world wars landed in Belgium and were served the fries. As the language that the solders heard was French, they believed they were in France and thus called them French fries. But they are far better than anything served in America, including McDonalds (disgusting) and In-and-Out.
Belgian waffles also need some clarification. True Belgian waffles are not the same “Belgian waffles” which are made in the US, as here they are made traditionally with egg-yolk or yeast leavened batter instead of baking powder. But there are actually two different types of Belgian waffles. There is the Brussels waffle, which is a simple waffle usually served with fruit, whipped cream, chocolate sauce and other toppings. On the other hand, there are Liège waffles, which Wikipedia describes as “richer, denser, sweeter and chewier.” That description couldn’t be more accurate. They have sugar or caramel cooked directly into the waffle, and thus are usually eaten plane. But WOW, are they good. I tried both and each is fantastic in its own way, but I definitely prefer the Liège variant myself.
On one of the nights of traveling through the town, I was fortunate to find the Delirium Cafe. I say fortunate, as it is actually down a rather small alleyway. But it is no little bar. It actually holds the Guinness World Record for the most number of beers available, with over 2000 brands offered in its phone book style menu. I didn’t stay for a drink myself, but the place was certainly buzzing, and not just from the spirits.
All cities have their famous statues. Brussels’ happens to be the two-foot-tall Manneken Pis, or Little Man Pee. This bronze sculpture is just shy of 400 years old and has hundreds of costumes that it is dressed up in based on a published calendar. I was fortunate enough to see him in all his naked splendor. Too bad it wasn’t the original sculpture. After the seventh time it was stolen in 1965, the original has been kept in a local museum and a replica is now on display in the city center. As a note, the Janneken Pis, the female version of the Manneken Pis, has been on display for the past few years across from the entrance of the Delirium Cafe.
I also got a chance to go through the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. For not the first time in my travels I really wished I was under 25. There are currently four exhibits in the museum. For someone over 25 they are €8 each, or €13 for all four. However, for those 25 and under they are €2 each or €3 for all. That’s just not fair! Oh well. C’est la vie. But true to my style of not spoiling too much of the attractions I see, I’ll just let you visit the museum for yourself. I will, however, say that my personal favorite was seeing Rodin’s “The Thinker,” but I can’t for the life of me find out whether it was an original or replica, as there are a couple dozen of each.
I explored several other places in the city, including the Royal Palace, the outrageously elegant Town Hall, the Brussels Stock Exchange, St. Michael’s Cathedral, etc. Just walking through the dozens of market streets was fascinating enough. One street was lined with posh Italian and other cuisine restaurants, and it was the only place I have ever been to (so far) where the chefs ran out to tantalize me with their personal, signature dishes and invite me into their restaurant. One after the other the whole length of the street did this, and my mouth was definitely watering by the end.
Brussels has really interesting demographics. I found it interesting that roughly 10% of the city is Moroccan. The center of the city is primarily French-speaking, and are proud of it. The Dutch speakers are more on the outskirts of the city (as was explained to me). In the five miles it took me to walk into the city from where I was staying, I would pass through a variety of different cultures. But as I later found out, I only scratched the surface. Brussels has an area of over 60 square miles, and thus has much to explore.
The city has a great night life, and there were many street performers, parties at bars and taverns, and other activities and attractions to visit. As with many cities I have been to, one portion of the city, including many types of shops, are only open during the day. Then around dinnertime it converts, and the other half of the shops open up. For a tourist or a traveler, it is definitely fun to get both experiences.
Overall, it was a great experience to visit the city. I realize that I should have spent more time exploring. I did however meet many new friends, have some great food and overall enjoyed myself. It is a place I would not mind visiting again, although the next time I visit Belgium I will have to check out some of the other towns I missed, such as Antwerp and Bruges. Luckily I will get to spend 3 days in Ghent before I leave Belgium, which I am definitely looking forward to. I hear that city is one of the most beautiful in Europe.