Thursday, 28-05-2015. Day 281.
Chocolate, Fries, Beer ... Urination?
Our drive from Paris to Brussels was rather uneventful. After arriving, checking in to our apartment, and getting a little dinner (mussels, of course), it was time to turn in. The next day, however, was quite eventful, because we headed off to the famous Grand Place on a somewhat rainy day to meet up with an Irishman by the name of Mick for the Sandeman's Free Walking Tour of Brussels.
Mick started our tour right there in the Grand Place, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (La Grand-Place, Brussels). The central square started as an open air market late in the 11th century, and, as Brussels developed as an important center for trade in northern Europe, the marketplace evolved to fulfill the needs of the powerful guilds made up of the traders and merchants who did business in the city.
Brussels Town Hall
Of all the buildings that surround the Grand Place, the Brussels Town Hall really stands out, dominating the Grand Place with a 96-meter-tall tower topped with a giant (four meters tall) statue of Saint Michael (patron saint of Brussels) killing a devil (as he does).
The Town Hall, completed in 1455 (after more than 50 years of construction), and if you look at the Brussels Town Hall long enough, you'll see that the building isn't symmetrical. Some say it was the result of a "drunken architect," but it was built in two stages and the builders ignored the architect's plans, extending the left side further than the right. The front door is also a little off-center.
Some say that when the architect saw the finished building, he jumped off the main tower, plunging to his death on the cobblestones below. Mick assured us this was not the case.
The Town Hall was built as the headquarters of the government, and its existence didn't please the ruling duke so much. So not to be outdone, the duke built his own giant building across the square and called the the King's House. However, there's never been a king living there. For some time it was used as a banquet hall, but today it houses the Museum of the City of Brussels.
In 1695, French forces attacked Brussels, and using the statue of St. Michael on top of the Town Hall as a target, bombed the heck out of the Grand Place, destroying most of the buildings—except the town hall they were aiming at—in three days. After the French bombardment, the city's powerful guilds rebuilt the Grand Place over the next four years.
The guilds of Brussels were powerful political and commercial . And they were quite wealthy. Looking at the buildings that border the Grand Place gives you a great idea of just how much money and influence these guilds had.
The guilds were shut down in 1795 during the French occupation and over the course of the next century, the guild buildings fell into disrepair. They were restored at the end of the 19th century under the tenure of Brussels mayor Charles Buls.
In the years following the refurbishing of the former guildhalls, many of them have been re-purposed and are now home to various restaurants, shops, and hotels serving the tourists visiting the Grand Place.
One building, in particular pays homage to the purpose it had served in the past. The building where the brewers guild formerly conducted its business is still helping Belgian brewmasters as the Headquarters of the Belgian Brewers' Association. It also houses the Belgian Beer Museum.
The Swan House, once the guild house for the butchers of Brussels, is another notable building in the Grand Place. This was where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Party Manifesto. On the way out of the Grand Place, we passed the Monument of Everard t'Serclaes.
Monument of Evrard t'Serclaes
Evrard t'Serclaes is one of the heroes of Brussels, known best for driving the Flemish out of the city in 1356 and later assassinated for speaking out against tyranny. This statue of Evrard, cast in 1902 by sculptor Julien Dillens, is said to grant wishes to anyone who touches it. Additionally (as if granting wishes weren't enough) it's a common belief that if someone rubs the statue's arm, their return to Belgium is guaranteed.
The statue on display is actually a replica, though. The original, which was in a poor state ("due partly to friction," as the sign explains) has been removed for restoration. It's not clear whether the replica retains the original's magical powers (but we tried it anyway). After everyone who wanted to rubbed the statue, our group walked down the street to one of the most famous sights of Brussels—the urinating statue known as Manneken Pis.
This fountain statue of a small, urinating boy is, oddly enough, the third most popular statue in the world (just after the Statue of Liberty and Michelangelo's David) and a great source of Belgian pride.
He's been around since 1619, predating the country of Belgium (which was formed in 1830), but no one is sure what his real origin story is. Some consider him an homage to a long-ago infant duke, who was hung in a tree during a battle and urinated on the opposing forces (who subsequently lost). Another story tells of a young man who stopped an invading force from blowing up the walls of the city with explosives by urinating on the fuse. Still another tells of a boy who put out a fire by ... well, you get the idea.
When we were there, he was dressed up an outlandish outfit. As Mick explained it, he's dressed up more than 200 days a year (he actually has his own tailor), all coordinated by the non-profit group The Friends of Maneken Pis. All of his outfits (927 in total) are on display in the Brussels Museum when he's not wearing them.
Sometimes during special celebrations, beer flows forth from the little guy's loins in lieu of water and free beer is handed to all passers by. What a town!
Manneken Pis been stolen a few times over the last three centuries, most notably by the French (supposedly Louis XV intended it as a gift to his family). Naturally, this egregious act sparked great ire n the Belgian people, and they demanded his immediate return. Louis XV did return him, but in an odd turn of events, he also knighted the little fella. So now visiting French soldiers are honor bound to salute him.
From Manneken Pis, we walked through Brussels, taking in the Brussels Stock Exchange (founded on the order of Napoleon in 1801) and will be turned into Belgian Beer Temple in 2018.
During a few stops along the way Mick gave us the rundown on the history of Belgium—starting with the Roman conquest of the Belgae tribe, through the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and into the Frankish empire under Charlemagne, and continuing through rule of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (who was the same guy as Carlos II of Spain, just to keep it confusing), and up to the Belgian Revolution (which started at the Brussels Opera House, of all palces) in 1830.
And then it was time for our break. We stopped in at Scott's Bar, the unofficial Sandeman's Tour rest stop for some coffee and a beer. After the short break, Mick took us through the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert.
Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert
First built way back in 1896, this long shopping arcade known colloquially as the Umbrella of Brussels because of its 200 meter arched roof of glass, was one of the first covered arcades of its day, predating other famous shopping arcades in Milan and St. Petersburg.
These days it holds many boutique shops and restaurants for your high-end shopping pleasure. It also serves Brussels as a center of culture as the home to the famous Theatre Royal des Galeries.
Tintin, Hergé, and the Belgian Congo
Tintin, created by Belgian cartoonist Hergé (himself a controversial figure), may be a much beloved character today, but he wasn't always so nice. He was initially quite racist, cruel, and was used to push Hergé's political agenda to the youth of Belgium. In the first version of his second adventure, Tintin in the Congo (which was written to encourage a positive view of Belgian colonialism in the Congo), he fails to kill a rhino with a rifle shot. So he drills a hole in the rhino's tough hide and blows it up with dynamite. What a guy!
As long as we were on the topic of Belgium's period of colonialism in Africa, Mick took this opportunity to talk about King Leopold II, the man who claimed the Congo Free State, a really dark chapter in Belgium's past. The territory was granted to Leopold II as his personal property under the agreement that he'd work to better the lives of the inhabitants. Instead, the king used the area to make himself rich with little thought or care to the lives of the native people.
Eventually, the atrocities being committed in the Congo became publicly known and Leopold was forced to relinquish control of the region to the Belgian government where it was renamed the Belgian Congo. But Belgium benefited from this wealth in the form of public buildings (Leopold II is still known as the "Builder King").
St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral
This cathedral, dedicated to the twin patron saints of Brussels, was most likely built on the site of a former chapel to Saint Michael—which is pretty much the same story as many of the other cathedrals, churches, temples, and mosques we've visited on this trip.
We didn't venture inside the cathedral, but the exterior is notable as having elements of Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance architecture. It took that long (more than 300 years) to build.
Mont des Arts Garden (Statue of Albert I)
We were nearing the end of the tour, and we stopped at the Mont des Arts Garden (one of Leopold II building projects), one of the main sites of the 1910 Brussels International. It's on a hill and it offers great views of the Grand Place to the northwest.
There's an equestrian statue of King Albert I in the garden, and this prompted Mick to tell us a bit more about the history of Belgium, focusing on the events that led up to World War I. Kaiser Wilhelm thought he'd roll right through Belgium to attack France, but Leopold I, the king of Belgium resisted and fought back, even though the Belgian military was a fraction of the size of the German army. Because of this resistance, France and Britain had time to prepare for the attack, and, as such, World War I (which the Germans thought would last six weeks or so) dragged on for four years.
And with that, our tour was over. We walked back to Fritland (across the street from the Brussels Stock Exchange) to have some authentic Belgian fries. Then we did a little shopping where we learned about the best beer in the world. But more on that later.