Brussels

On The Road Travel Essays

back to index


Brussels

Brussels started out as a tiny river settlement on the River Senne. Historians speculate that the name "Brussels" comes from this river: broeck (brook) and sele (dwelling). Since the river was quite shallow at this point, goods had to be unloaded for transportation by land, and Brussels prospered as a center of commerce. As Belgium found itself subject to one set of conquerors after another, Brussels, too, was governed alternatively by the Counts of Flanders, the Dukes of Brabant, the French, and the Spanish.

Thankfully for the city, its Burgundian and Spanish rulers devoted themselves to its adornment and enlargement. Palaces, parks, and elegant fountains went up everywhere in the city. Brussels began to look like a capital city.

When the French replaced the Spanish as rulers, the city suffered neglect. A 46-hour bombardment by Louis XIV of France destroyed the whole of the Grand'Place except the Town Hall. Under the Austrians, there was widespread disease and poverty. Things didn't improve under Napoleon, but the people of Brussels can boast that the French Emperor met his final defeat at the tiny hamlet of Waterloo, a suburb 12 miles outside Brussels.

But oppression soon returned: Holland's King William I sent a force to maintain Dutch authority over the Belgians. A four-day battle fought by the exasperated Bruxellois led to a Dutch retreat. Brussels was proclaimed the capital of the new Kingdom of the Belgians in 1830.

Brussels shared in the great industrial boom of the 19th century, bringing prosperity to its large and thriving middle class. The Bourse (stock exchange) was established in Brussels, making the city a major financial center in Europe. A new role has been recently added: Brussels is host to Europe's major economic and social organizations, making it the Washington, D.C. of the European union. A new society has been imposed on the old: trade delegates sharing the sidewalk with housewives and shopkeepers; Swedish tourists jostling through the crowds for a closer look at a Gothic church. The whole of Europe's contemporary scene converges on Brussels — an ever-changing spectacle of people and automobiles in motion.

Brussels has world-class museums and cultural facilities, great night life, unsurpassed bars and restaurants, one of Europe's greatest architectural and urban set pieces (the Grand' Place), acres of green space, a high standard of living and superb shopping possibilities. It is a truly international city with a vibrant ethnic mix where you can hear a hundred different languages as you walk down the street.

SIGHTSEEING IN BRUSSELS

Manneken-Pis  Brussels' "oldest citizen," the symbol of the city was made in 1619 by Jerome Duquesnoy. "Little Julian" stands on a plinth about 10 feet up under an alcove at the junction of the Rue de l'Etuve and the Rue du Chêne. Normally he is naked, but on anniversaries and special occasions he is dressed in one of the 500 costumes that were designed for him. Some of those costumes include a native American brave, a Samurai suit of armour, and a blue dress with the twelve yellow stars of Europe. There are many legends about the origin of this peculiar statue. One story says that the son of a wealthy Brussels merchant got lost one day in town and couldn't be found anywhere. His father promised to donate a statue of his son to the city in exactly the position the boy was found, and this was that position. Another story says that the statue commemorates the heroic action by which a little boy put out a terrible fire, "the natural way," that threatened to engulf the city. The most likely explanation for the statue is that it is a quaint road sign for the Rue de l'Etuve. L'étuve in French means steam bath. Whatever the origins of this statue, its sentimental importance for the city of Brussels is beyond doubt. When it was stolen in 1817 the thief was caught and sentenced to eleven years in prison with hard labor.

The Statue of Everard't Serclaes  This prone bonze monument is right on the corner of the square under the arcade of the house known as l'Etoile. Everard't Serclaes was a town councilor who, in 1356, led a rebellion against the Flemish occupying forces. He was captured, his tongue was cut out, then he was brought here to l'Etoile, the house of the Amman, whose job was to oversee executions, and he was assassinated. Now, for some peculiar reason, rubbing his arms and the nose of the dog at his feet is supposed to bring you everlasting luck and happiness.

Grand'Place  Grand'Place is one of the most beautiful squares in the world. Wherever you approach it from, the first sight of the whole square is breathtaking. You won't see it lit up at night, but if you are lucky you may be there in mid-August of even-numbered years, when it is covered in a wonderful carpet of flowers.

Historically, from the 13th century, this was the market place, the center of Brussels' civic administration, and the heart of the city's economic life, because the trade guilds wanted to associate themselves with the government. It was also the city's social center with bars, restaurants, prostitutes, hawkers and flaneurs, as well as being the city's showpiece, with pageants and jousts and public executions. It was, as Jean Cocteau called it, "un riche théâtre." It may have lost much of its central role within the city's life but certainly not all, and its visual impact remains fantastic.

In 1695 the entire square was destroyed by the bombs of King Louis XIV. The only edifice to survive was the Hôtel de Ville. Even so, most of the building's badly damaged facade was replaced with 19th century neo-Gothic conceit, as was the whole of the Maison du Roi opposite. Otherwise everything you see was built within four years of the bombing, between 1695 and 1699.

L'hotel de Ville  As in all the cities of Flanders and Brabant whose raison d'etre was trade and commerce, the Town Hall is the most impressive building. This one dates from the 15th century. The massive tower is 315 feet high, topped with a gilded copper statue of St. Michael, the patron saint of the city. If you choose, you can climb up the 400 steps to the top. In the 19th century, the arches, sculptures, turrets and balustrades of the façade were added in a romantic fervor to the medieval structure. The 15th-century architect is said to have thrown himself off the top of the tower because he wasn't satisfied with this extraordinary building.

Some of the houses to the left of the Hôtel de Ville as you look at it:

Le Cygne - No. 9, the old Butchers' guild. Note swan sculpture over the door. Karl Marx used to hold meetings here while writing the Communist Manifesto. Now a very expensive restaurant.

Les Brasseurs - No. 10, still the Brewers' guild. A beautiful guildhouse, the only one on the Grand' Place still owned by the Guild which built it. Now houses the Belgian Beer Museum.

Some of the buildings on the north side:

La Maison du Roi - A peculiar 19th century fantasy building, houses the Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles among whose treasures are 100 of the 500 costumes belonging to the Manneken Pis.

Le Pigeon - Nos. 26 and 27, once the Painters' Guild. Victor Hugo lived here in 1852 and wrote about it in Les Miserables.

Godiva - Nos. 21 and 22. Their chocolates aren't cheap but they are superb. Note iron pulley on the gable by which furniture was hoisted up to the upper floors.

This is the area known as the îlot sacré. It is a visual feast. The Petite Rue des Bochers especially is crammed full of wonderful-looking seafood restaurants whose displays spill out on to the road. Just off the rue des Bouchers, you might look out for the Impasse de la Fidélité where in 1985 Belgian feminists successfully lobbied for a little sister to the Manneken-Pis called the Jeanneken Pis. The Galeries St. Hubert are very stylish mid 19th-century shopping arcades with elegant boutiques, restaurants and chocolatiers.

Théâtre de la Monnaie  This is the Brussels opera house. The present building dates from 1856. On August 25, 1830, it was the extraordinary scene of the first actions of the rebellion which led to the creation of the nation of Belgium and the declaration of Brussels as its capital city. At the time, Flanders and Brabant were just provinces of the Dutch federation. The story is as follows: during Auber's opera "La Muette de Portici", the proud and nationalistic Belgian audience was inflamed by the proud, nationalistic and inflammatory aria "Amour sacré de la Patrie." It provoked a riot which soon became a rebellion and then a revolution. A week or so later the Bruxellois fought in the "Days of September" against the Dutch military garrison which withdrew defeated after four days. The Belgian provinces separated from Holland, a kingdom was established and Brussels was made the capital. On July 21, 1831, the first king of the Belgians Leopold I entered the city.

Basilique Nationale du Sacré Coeur  Begun in 1905, this church was not completed until 1970. The top of the dome is 260 feet high. It is dedicated to all those who have given their lives for their country. Ten chapels radiate from the center, representing the nine Belgian provinces and the former colony of the Belgian Congo. When the Pope came to Belgium he gave his sermon in the Parc Elisabeth in front at the foot of the church.

Parc de Bruxelles  This park was laid out in the 1780s by Austrian gardeners. It was the former hunting grounds of the Dukes of Brabant. In 1830, this was the focus of the fighting during the "Days of September." At this northern end is the Palais de la Nation, the home of the Belgian Parliament. This building dates from 1884. At the other end of the gardens is the esplanade of the Place des Palais, dominated by the Palais du Roi which faces the Palais de la Nation opposite. This is the official residence of the King of the Belgians. If he is on Belgian soil, the national flag will be flying. The curved façade was built in the late 19th century under King Leopold II.

Place Royale  This is an attractive, neo-classical square laid out during 1770s and 80s on the site of the old palace of the Dukes of Brabant. The equestrian statue is of Godfrey de Bouillon, a Belgian military hero and leader of the First Crusade. There is an impressive view straight ahead onto the Palais du Justice whose elephantine bulk dominates the entire city. Built in a thousand different styles from 1866 to 1883 by Poelaert, and in its day the largest building in Europe. It is said to have been Hitler's favorite building.

The Gardens of the Mont des Arts  This area is the great museum complex of Brussels. Immediately on the left are the world-class museums of modern and classical art. You follow the road right down past the attractive red- and white-brick medieval palace of the Hotel Ravenstein and then the Palais de Beaux Arts built by Victor Horta in the 1920s. (Incidentally, Charlotte Brönte and her sister Emily were sent to Brussels in 1842 to learn French. They stayed in a hotel where the Palais des Beaux Arts now stands.)

Cathédrale St. Michel et Ste. Gudule  This is a large, grandiose Gothic church built between the 14th century and the 17th century. It was only consecrated as Brussels' cathedral in 1962.

PRACTICAL STUFF

The weather in Brussels is rarely extreme, but often wet. Include a raincoat in your luggage. Summers are comfortably hot, not humid, but it's a good idea to take along a lightweight jacket for summer walks in the evenings or sitting at terrace cafes. The fall is mild, with leaves in the local parks turning gold and bronze at the end of October and early November. Winter can be crisp, but don't expect great snowstorms except in the south of Belgium — although some recent years have seen light snow flurries. Spring means warm, ideal sightseeing or walking weather, but have an umbrella ready. You might not need it, but the threat of rain is always there.

March  Temperature 35ºF to 54ºF
Monthly Rainfall 2"

July  Temperature 55ºF to 75ºF
Monthly Rainfall 4"

October  Temperature 46ºF to 63ºF
Monthly Rainfall 3.5"

January  Temperature 30ºF to 42ºF
Monthly Rainfall 3"

Synchronize your watches  Local time is 6 hours ahead of E.S.T. If it's 2:00pm in New York City, it's 8:00pm locally. Please note that Belgium changes to and from daylight-saving time a few weeks before the U.S., so time differences still vary in March and October.

Money, money, money  The Belgium unit of currency is the Euro. As throughout Europe, there is no better way than to use your ATM card to withdraw money in the local currency whenever you need it. You will never have a problem locating a suitable ATM machine. If you do need to change dollars (cash or traveler's checks) into Euros, try to do so at a bank. You can expect a slightly higher rate of exchange for traveler's checks and you should always keep your passport handy. Bureaux de Change tend to give a slightly worse deal. Some shops, especially tourist ones, will accept American currency or traveler's checks as payment but be advised that you will almost certainly be getting a much worse rate than you would from a bank. The same goes for hotels that are willing to change money for you, and even if they will do it, it's usually cash only, not traveler's checks. Bank opening hours are 9am to 12pm and 2pm to 6pm Tuesday through Saturday. They are often closed on Mondays. Opening hours can be more limited in smaller towns.

The joy of servitude  Restaurant checks almost always include a 16% service charge. If the service has been particularly good, it is customary to round up to the nearest Euro or 5 Euros or leave 10% on top of the service charge already included.

The mailman cometh  Mail service to and from Brussels is reliable and inexpensive (unless you are sending a parcel overseas). You can purchase postage stamps at post offices or supermarkets. Post offices are usually open from 9am-5pm Monday through Friday and 9am-12pm on Saturdays.

Please wait while we try to connect you  As usual, the golden rule is never call home from your hotel. It will cost a fortune. Public telephones are easy to find, although they can be difficult to understand. They accept Belgacom telephone cards that can be bought in at any newsagents, post office or train station.

The access code to put you through to an ATT operator from Brussels is 0800 100 10. For MCI it is 0800 10012.

Buses/Trams/Metro  Tickets for the buses/trams can be bought from the bus or tram driver or at the metro or train stations. The tickets are valid on all public transportation — buses, metro and trams. Special 24-hour unlimited trip tickets are available as well as a 10-trip ticket. These can be bought at main stations and some newspaper shops. Public transportation operates from 6am to midnight. Brussels has an excellent network of metro lines that cover 17 miles running east and west through the city. Metro entrances are clearly marked by signs bearing a white "M" on a blue background. In this city, a descent underground takes you into an art center, with excellent paintings specially commissioned from contemporary Belgian artists. Maps of the metro network are free from tourist offices, and service is continuous from 6am to midnight, with timetables displayed at each stop.

Food  Belgian food is regarded highly in Europe, believed to be second only to French cuisine. The food typical of this city consist mainly of meat, poultry and fresh seafood, shipped daily from the Ostend coast, located only 55 miles away. Moules, or mussels, are prepared in a variety of ways, traditionally served in a large copper tureen. Other favorites include lobster, shrimp croquettes and oysters, either eaten raw or grilled with breadcrumbs, bacon, herbs and cheese. Waterzooi is a fish or chicken stew and Bisque de homard is poached lobster. Steamed brussel sprouts are delicious served young and dripping in butter. Another favorite vegetable is Stoemp, potatoes mashed with a second vegetable, such as carrots or cabbage. Available all over the city are Friteries/Frieten which offer a huge serving of hand-cut, double-fried french fries with a side dip of mayonnaise. Caricoles are buttered sea snails wrapped in paper. Waffles made of sweet batter, called Gaufres, are served with powdered sugar, chocolate or syrup. For dessert, try Profiteroles, spicy speculoos cookies, chocolate cake or tarte tatin, a kind of upside-down apple cake. Don't forget to sample some famous Belgian praline chocolates.

Belgian Beer  The most well-known Belgian beer is Gueuze, a delight with its reddish-brown color and thick head of foam. Lambic beers are made using naturally-present yeast for fermentation. You can also find fruit beers, which are a Brussels specialty, including the popular version made with locally-grown cherries. Trappist beers are the most honored, dating back to the Middle Ages while blanche beers are a refreshing alternative.

Shopping  La Place du Grand Sablon offers shoppers a wide range of antiques during the weekends, while the flea market on the Marché-aux-Puces in La Place du Jeu de Balle offers everything at bargain prices each day from 7am to 2pm. Galeries Royales St-Hubert, opened in 1847, is the world's first shopping mall and where you will discover boutiques, bookstores, restaurants, cafés and a theater. Don't leave Brussels without some Belgian chocolates, Belgian lace or a copy of a local comic book.

Holidays
New Year's Day (January 1)
Easter Sunday (late March/early April)*
Easter Monday (late March/early April)*
Labor Day (May 1)
Ascension Day (late May/early June)*
Whitsunday (late May/early June)*
Whitmonday (late May/early June)*
Belgian National Day (July 21)
Assumption Day (August 15)
All Saints' Day (November 1)
Armistice Day (November 11)
Christmas Day (December 25)
* These dates will change according to the date on which Easter falls.

Did you know?  Some famous Bruxellois, natives and residents include:
Jean-Claude van Damme Former Belgian Karate champion, The Muscles from Brussels.
Herge Creator of Tintin, Snowy and Captain Haddock
Victor Horta Architect, one of the greatest exponents of Art Nouveau.
Pieter Brueghel Painter (1525-69) "Triumph of Death," "Fall of Icarus" etc.

TAKE THE FIRST STEP

BROWSE TOURS REQUEST INFO
passports educational travel logo

passports Educational Group Travel partners with teachers across the United States to provide high-quality educational travel experiences to their students. Educational tours visit destinations around the world - primarily France, Italy, England, Spain and Costa Rica - at low, guaranteed prices.


Passports, Inc., ToursOperators & Promoters, Spencer, MA

STAY CONNECTED

Educational Travel Link Icon   Facebook icon   Twitter icon   Pinterest icon   Blog icon

For updates on educational travel tips, ideas and news, subscribe to our newsletter:

CONTACT US

passports
7 Midstate Drive Suite 102
Auburn, MA 01501

1-800-332-7277
Email Us

© Copyright 1992-2018 Passports Educational Travel | All Rights Reserved | Privacy Policy