From time to time I enjoy writing about my travels as well as documenting them through photography. This first travel diary covers my return to Brussels 20 years after my first ill-fated visit.
20 Years ago in Brussels
Brussels and I have history. We just don’t get along. I first visited the Belgian capital as a wide eyed eighteen year old backpacker in the late nineties. Myself and my friend since school, Danny had just spent five enjoyable days wandering around the endlessly elegant and historic streets and squares of Paris and were on our way to Brussels for a night before continuing on to Amsterdam.
To say that Brussels was a shock to the system after the beauty of Paris is something of an understatement. As we passed through the traffic choked approach roads on the edge of the city, I asked Danny what he thought of the place. “It’s a fucking kip” was his reply. Maybe that’s a bit harsh but after Paris, Brussels seemed, well let’s say underwhelming. Gone were the broad chic Haussman designed boulevards and majestic monuments of the city of light; in its place were endless streets clogged with traffic and lined with buildings that looked like they were designed by people with a grudge against humanity.
Despite our first impressions, I was determined to give the place a chance. This was the capital of Europe after all! We checked into our hostel after what seemed like an eternity trudging through streets lined by unimaginative concrete and glass office blocks. After dumping our bags in our room, we headed back out with the intention of visiting the 102 metre high Atomiom, a giant atom structure built for the 1958 World’s Fair.
Our first encounter with a local did little to warm our hearts to Brussels. Our plan was to take the metro to the Atomium only a few stops away from the hostel. While waiting on the platform, we were approached by a young man who can’t have been more than about fifteen years old. He asked me for 200 Belgian Francs which was no more than a few Euro today. I simply ignored him at first. He didn’t appreciate this and then threatened to pull a knife on me and cut my throat. My French wasn’t great back then but I knew the word for knife, “couteau” and his throat slitting gesture left little doubt as to the nature of his threat. Now, he may well have been bluffing but I wasn’t prepared to hang around and find out. I threw a 200 France note at him and said “Let’s get the fuck out of here”. We did.
This unpleasant encounter had the effect of further souring our first impressions of Brussels. We were now in no mood to go sightseeing and headed to the nearest “Quick” fast food place, ate our burgers in silence and headed back to the bar in the hostel. We consoled ourselves in knowledge that beer was one thing the Belgians did well.
We ended up having an enjoyable evening as we worked our way through the wide selection of beers available in the little basement bar. We spent the rest of the night playing pool with a Japanese Pilot and an Egyptian who’d lost all his luggage. He didn’t seem too bothered by this imposition though and spent the evening joining us in our efforts to sample every beer in the place. I don’t think we succeeded but we certainly gave it our best shot.
The following morning, we trudged bleary eyed and hung-over to the bus station and swore never to return to Brussels.
Twenty Years Later
Twenty years later, I arrive in to work on a typical Monday morning. My supervisor looks excited. “Hey Barry. Good news. We’re sending you abroad for a conference”. Nice one. I’d never travelled for work before and it would be agreeable to have a change of scenery for a few days. “Where is the conference?” I asked hoping it would be somewhere exciting and warm like Seville or Rome. I could already see myself sitting on the terrace of a cafe on a sunny piazza sipping a glass of local wine as I watched the world go by. “Brussels” came the reply. My heart sank. Oh, God. Not Brussels, anywhere but fucking Brussels.
After a few hours of reflection, I decided that maybe this was my chance to make peace with Brussels. There was bound to be some charming places in the city. There simply had to be. I was going to make it my business to go and find them. I was determined to have a positive experience this time. This was the country of great chocolate, waffles, Tin Tin and chips with mayonnaise after all.
I’d actually been back to Brussels with my wife since that ill-fated first visit. That said, we were only passing through on my way to the much more pleasant and attractive city of Bruges about an hour from Brussels by train. I sulked throughout the short time we spent there, muttering dark commentaries under my breath. It was just as grim as I remembered it about eight years previously. The train station was cavernous, dark and seedy and surrounded by featureless concrete high rise buildings. It was night time in fairness which didn’t do anything to improve the surroundings or atmosphere. I was glad when our train pulled away from the platform. Bruges by comparison was simply delightful, so much so that I had planned to return there for a few days after my stay in Brussels.
The Belgians Don’t Really Like Each Other
Here’s the thing about the Belgians: they don’t like each other that much. The Flemish speakers in the north of the country and the French speaking Walloons are not always on the best of terms. On my return train journey from Bruges with my wife, we fell into conversation with a Flemish man who spent the whole trip complaining about how lazy and unproductive the French speaking Walloons were. He hadn’t a good word to say about his fellow countrymen. He told me how the Flemish were better at business, produced better artists and were better army chiefs. Ironically, the whole conversation took place in French!
This linguistic division has led to a very complex system of governance. There are actually six different governments in Belgium based on the various regional and linguistic divisions! There are even some German speakers in the East of the country. The mutual distrust and tension between the Flemings and Walloons led to Belgium going 589 days without a government after the 2010 elections! The fractured results (with no party gaining more than 20% of the vote) led to nearly two years of tense and ill-tempered negotiations before an uneasy coalition was cobbled together. The idea of Belgium splitting into two separate countries was seriously discussed in some circles.
Since then, Northern Ireland has beaten that record. At the time of writing, they’ve gone over 600 days without a government! The people there don’t like each other much either.
Hell is Brussels Airport
Brussels Airport is a strange place. Arriving is fine as you don’t have to spend any significant time there. Departure is another story altogether. Once you get past all the niceties of baggage check in and security, there are no restaurants, cafés or bars on the other side. All there is, is a few stands selling measly sandwiches that have the texture and flavour of bicycle tire. How does a city famous for its excellent food and world class beer not have a single restaurant or bar in its airport departure zone? On our return from Bruges Mrs O’C and I didn’t realise this and spent half an hour wandering the terminal looking for sustenance. All we found were the aforementioned rubber sandwiches. Lesson learned. This time I would make sure to stock up on snacks.
The departure area at Brussels International consists of a single long, very long corridor consisting of row after row of departure gates. We’re talking several hundred metres long. The thing is, they don’t announce which gate your plane is at until the last possible minute. This means you have hover somewhere in the middle chewing on your bicycle tire waiting for your gate to be announced. Then you have to sprint to your gate which is inevitably right at the very end, down two flights of stairs and involves crossing a small river and solving a series of riddles. The sight of an out of shape Irishman throwing small children out of his way as he runs like a demented llama must have kept my fellow passengers entertained and slightly scared.
Arrival in Brussels — Dampened Optimism
On this occasion, I arrived at Brussels airport in an optimistic mood, ready to give the city another chance. I’d done some research before the trip and had picked out a few locations that looked encouraging; the Parc du Cinquantenaire and Grand Place both looked impressive. In fact, the Grand Place looked as beautiful as any city square I’d seen elsewhere in Europe. I’d only have half a day or so to have a wander in the city so I wanted to make the most of my time.
My optimism was dampened slightly by the short train ride to the EU quarter where I would be staying. It was a sombre grey morning with a fine drizzle hanging in the air. The train passed through grim, colourless suburbs full of towers that looked like they came from the Soviet Union. So far, I’d seen little to justify my earlier optimism.
The EU quarter wasn’t much better. I emerged from the metro to a jungle of concrete and glass. I was expecting this so I wasn’t too put off. What I didn’t expect was to see the head of the European Central Bank walking towards me as I stepped off the escalator. Jean-Claude Trichet wasn’t exactly popular in Ireland at the time due to the EU enforced austerity measures being implemented at the time after the 2008 financial crisis. It crossed my mind briefly that I could stick out my foot and send him flying head first down the escalator. I’d be a national hero back home! The armed guards in front of every building made me reconsider my act of national revenge.
Brussels Airport and the EU Quarter had been subject to devastating terrorist attacks the previous year and security was tight and very visible. Every doorway was patrolled by heavily armed soldiers from the Belgian Defence Forces.. It lent an air of tension and menace to the whole place and did little to improve my impression of Brussels. If anything, the obvious presence of these guards, however necessary made you feel slightly less safe and on edge.
One of the bombs had gone off in the metro station just outside my hotel. I headed there now, crossing the vast Robert Schumann roundabout on the way. The monumentally ugly European Commission building stood on one side of the roundabout. Personally, I think the architect should be put in stocks outside and made look at his creation for the rest of his life.
My First Positive Experience in Brussels
My arrival at the hotel brought with it my first positive experience of my time in the Belgian capital. My flight had left at 6 am meaning a very early start to the day three hours previously. I was exhausted and just wanted to have quick nap. My room wouldn’t be ready for several hours yet though, or so I thought. My plan was to store my baggage and take a quick nap on a couch in the lobby. When the very affable gentleman who checked me in informed me that my room was in fact ready right away, I almost jumped over the desk to hug him. I seriously considered asking him to be my son’s godfather. Ok, so Brussels was beginning to grow on me.
Not only was my room ready but it slightly bigger than my apartment back in Dublin. It was huge. The crowning glory came when I discovered that the bathroom came with its very own hotel issue rubber duck. How many hotels provide a rubber duck to liven up your bath time! What a time to be alive! I flopped onto the bed and fell into a deep and satisfying slumber.
Parc du Cinquantenaire
I emerged somewhat refreshed just after midday and decided to eat lunch at the hotel before heading out to get reacquainted with Brussels. The steak I had was excellent, don’t get me wrong but that cow better have been a particularly famous or talented bovine given the price I paid. I set out with my appetite sated and my wallet several dozen Euros lighter.
I was staying on Rue de la Loi, a long straight artery leading from the EU Quarter to the Grand Place several kilometres away in the centre of the city. My plan was to start at the Parc du Cinquantenaire and its imposing triple arched monument and to walk the length of Rue de la Loi to the area around the Grand Place. I’d never made it to any of these places on my last ill-fated visit. I was once again optimistic that I’d have a more positive experience this time around.
On my way to the Parc du Cinquantenaire, I happened upon the memorial erected in memory of those killed during the previous year’s terrorist attacks in the city. I’ve seen plenty of these kinds of memorials before but nothing quite prepared me for this. The sculpture appeared to made from pieces of twisted metal taken from the scene of the attack at Brussels Airport. There were even bullet holes clearly visible.
I have to admit to being quite taken aback. If the designer’s intention was to shock, it certainly worked. I’m not sure it’s entirely appropriate for a memorial though. I can’t imagine that the families of the victims would take much comfort from it as a way of remembering their loved ones. It just seemed too raw and stark to me. The layer of colourful flowers covering the piece did little to soften the chilling effect.
On entering the Parc du Cinquantenaire, there is a small and unassuming bust of Jean Monnet, the man for whom the idea of a new European community based on mutual cooperation and peace was his brainchild. He gazes down towards the mini metropolis of glass, steel and concrete buildings that house the plethora of European Union institutions today.
I wonder what he’d make of it all? His simple idea had led to the creation of the world’s biggest and most complex super-national organisation sixty years later. I’d like to think he’d be pleased at the six decades of relative peace between the union’s members in that time. I bet he would have hired better architects though.
The park itself is small but pleasant. Dozens of Bruxellois are jogging, pushing buggies and walking their dogs along the tree lined paths. A huge group of teenagers lounge on the grass by an ornate fountain. One of them shows off to his friends by swinging a large and rather lethal looking sword around his head. I decide to keep my distance. How he got his hands on such a weapon is beyond me. His friends seemed suitably impressed though, if not a little nervous. Maybe I’m overreacting. Perhaps this is what Belgians use to butter their waffles or some other such banal task.
The park is dominated by a colossal monument erected to celebrate Belgian Revolution of 1830. The Cinquantenaire Gate consists of a stone triple triumphal arch with column lined wings on either side housing the military and art and history museums. The whole edifice forms a giant u-shape. The Cinquantenaire Monument is a grand and imposing structure. There are more museums on the far side including one dedicated to vintage cars.
The u-shape forms a broad esplanade in front of the arch. Unfortunately, this space is taken up by a giant car park! Why Brussels? Why? Here you have one of the most aesthetically pleasing buildings in the city and it’s surrounded by hundreds of cars parked right up against both sides as I discovered to my dismay as I passed through the central arch to the other side.
Surely, this space would be a wonderful location for a few cafés and fountains where people could sip coffee and discuss new ways to annoy the Flemings/Walloons surrounded by one of the most impressive buildings in the city.
Another slightly odd feature of the area is that a busy six lane motorway runs under the gate. Not only this, but part of this tunnel is exposed for all to see (and hear) right in the centre of the park. There are plans however to cover the Belliard Tunnel in the future. I hope the city authorities remove the car parks and create some kind of public space while they’re at it. A place for locals to store their medieval weaponry wouldn’t go amiss either.
On the bright side, there was a small van selling mouth-watering Belgian waffles drowning in melted chocolate on the other side of the gate. In the interest of making peace with Brussels, I bought one. It was good decision. If there are two things the Belgians do well, it’s waffles and chocolate. Disappointingly however, the man selling the waffle didn’t use a sword to spread the chocolate.
As I wiped the last crumbs and chocolate from my satisfied face, I headed back through the gate under a giant black, red and yellow Belgian flag and began the long walk towards the Grand Place. At least I’d burn off some of the calories I’d just consumed.
Rue de la Loi and the Palace of the Nation
Rue de la Loi
The first part of my walk along Rue de la Loi was relatively uninspiring as I passed block after block of similarly monotonous and plain office blocks. The good news is that the street gets infinitely more interesting and charming the closer you get to the Grand Place.
The first building of note I passed was the eighteenth century Palace of the Nation which houses the national parliament. That is when there is actually a government! Now this was more like it. The Palace of the Nation is an elegant neoclassical building designed by a French architect named Gilles-Barnabé Guimard. It opened its doors originally as a courthouse in 1783. To me, it marked the point where Brussels begins to look much more inviting and attractive as a city.
Not only is the building itself quite beautiful; it sits opposite a fine enclosed public park full of playgrounds, trees, fountains and benches to simple while away some time on and watch the locals go about their day. The stately white Royal Theatre sits in the corner of the park adding an air of grandeur to the space. Things were definitely looking up.
Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert
I continued on now towards the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. This nineteenth century complex of covered shopping streets was high on my ‘must visit’ list before the trip. I’ve visited similar galleries in London and Paris in particular. I find them to be so stylish and ornate not to mention practical. It could be pouring rain all day and you can stroll along the various stores and even have a café out on the terrace all the while staying completely dry. I’d love to see some of these in my own frequently rain soaked city of Dublin.
The Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert did not disappoint. There are three sections: King’s Gallery, Queen’s Gallery and Prince’s Gallery. Each one is lined by tasteful and rather expensive shops as well as a number of restaurants and cafés with cosy terraces that spill out onto the pedestrian only street. Each section is completely covered by an arched glass-paned roof with a delicate cast-iron framework. The glass cover keeps you shielded from the elements while allowing natural light to flood into the street below.
The whole scene looks wonderfully grand and genteel. It has the effect of transporting one back to the nineteenth century. I feel like I should be wearing a top hat while sporting a magnificent handlebar moustache and monocle as I stroll along with my carved wooden cane. I don’t know how such a look would be perceived back in Dublin. Although with all the hipsters around now, I might get away with it.
Rue du Marché and Around
The area around the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert consists of a warren of narrow old streets lined with inviting and snug cafes and restaurants. This was the Brussels I was hoping to discover. I spent a pleasant half hour simply wandering the cobbled streets admiring the pretty old buildings including the immense Gothic Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. The Cathedral is worth a visit if only to see the spectacular 17th century Baroque carved pulpit. It wouldn’t look out of place on stage at a Lady Gaga concert such is its over the top grandeur.
There are also plenty of tourist shops as you would expect. I found one that sold every type of European Union souvenir you could think of. I didn’t realise there was such a demand for these items. You could buy EU teddy bears, pen knives and toothbrushes. I briefly considered buying a EU branded pregnancy testing kit but in the end settled for a Jean-Claude Junker plushie and set of European Commission bath salts.
What’s in a Fricadelle?
Having satisfied my need for EU related merchandise, it was time to eat. This being Belgium, I went to a small street food stall and bought delicious portion of chips with mayonnaise. I also decided to try a very Belgian delicacy called a “fricadelle“. I’d first heard of this sausage like snack in the hugely popular French film “Bienvenue chez les Ch’Tis” set in the far north of France where the eating habits are quite similar to those inneighbouring Belgium.
The tradition is that the locals won’t tell you what’s actually in a fricadelle. Maybe that’s for the best to be honest. I only managed to eat half of mine. It wasn’t particularly bad but not particularly delicious either. It was actually quite bland, to be honest. It tasted how I imagine a deep fried sawdust sausage would taste. I think it’s more meant as a vehicle for whatever sauce you put on it. The chips and mayonnaise however were delightful.
Manneken Pis — Not as Impressive as the Real Thing
Having dutifully sampled the local street food, I made my way to the Jardin du Mont des Arts via the iconic Manneken Pis statue. This small brass statue of small boy relieving himself is one of the best known symbols of Brussels. It’s not that I wasn’t impressed by the statue; it’s just that I already had my own little boy who peed a lot back home. The statue just couldn’t compete with the real thing. It couldn’t even poop or vomit or do all the other fun things toddlers do like smearing jam into the carpet or flushing things down the toilet.
Jardin du Mont des Arts — The Best View in Brussels
There is a raised area at the end of the Jardin du Mont des Arts that offers one of the best views of Brussels in the city. I headed here with my camera gear to take a few shots as night descended on the Belgian capital. The view from the Mont des Arts is impressive. The small rectangular park below leads to a neat row of handsome gabled buildings at the far end. Beyond this is a sea of rooftops with the ornate spire of Brussels Town Hall rising above the city from the Grand Place in the distance.
As I look out over the city, I am reminded of an odd feature of Brussels that occurred to me on my first visit twenty years previously. Something struck me as odd for my first few hours there and I couldn’t quite figure it out. It was Danny who eventually pointed it out. Brussels has no river! How weird is that? Every city is built on a river. Paris has the Seine, Dublin has the Liffey and London has the Thames. Brussels has nothing. Well, that’s not quite true. There is a small river in Brussels, the Senne. This river became so polluted however that city authorities covered it over at the end of the nineteenth century.
Despite this lack of an urban waterway, I spent an hour taking photographs and simply relaxing and enjoying the view as I watched daytime turn to night time over Brussels. Once night had fallen, I headed down towards my final destination: the Grand Place itself.
The Grand Place — One of the Most Beautiful Squares in Europe
I entered the square from one of the narrow side streets I’d wandered around earlier in the day. I emerged on to what must be one of the most spectacular city squares in Europe. Any thoughts that Brussels did not contain any attractive architecture were dispelled in an instant. The opulent medieval town hall dominates the square on one side. Its spire rises 96 metres above the rest of the square which is bordered by equally extravagant guildhalls. Dozens of busy cafés and restaurants spill out into the square and the air is filled with the enticing aromas of a variety of European and North African cuisines.
I simply sat on a step at the far end of the square and tried to take it all in. The whole area was teeming with locals and tourists sitting out on terraces enjoying their food and drink surrounded by some of the finest architecture in Europe. None of them seemed to be eating fricadelle however. There was a relaxed cosmopolitan vibe. I was glad I had given Brussels a second chance.
A Second Positive Experience
I was beginning to feel quite tired at this point and I headed back towards my hotel in a taxi driven by a chatty Moroccan gentleman. I awoke the following morning with the intention of heading out for some early morning photography at the Cinquantenaire Monument. To my horror, I realised I’d left my tripod in the taxi. I was so engrossed in listening to my driver’s tales of life in Belgium that I had forgotten my most important piece of equipment, after the camera itself of course.
I went down to reception to check if anything had been left in. The same friendly receptionist who had checked me in early the day before informed me that the driver had been in touch and had left his number. After a quick phone call, I arranged to meet the driver and pick up my tripod. There were now two people I was indebted to in Brussels. My disposition towards the city was definitely becoming more positive.
Back to the Cinquantenaire Monument
Later that evening, after the conference I returned to the Parc du Cinquantenaire and had a productive half hour of photography before heading to Place du Luxembourg in front of the European Parliament building. This little square is quite the revelation situated as it is amongst the glass uninspired dull office blocks of the EU Quarter. The whole area was full of EU employees unwinding after a day’s work making sure bananas are straight and that cottage cheese had in fact been made in a cottage, I assume.
Beautiful Beer on Place du Luxembourg
Place du Luxembourg is bordered with several convivial pubs serving some of the finest beers not only in Belgium but in the world. I settled into one such establishment on the corner and spent a happy evening sampling some local brews in the interest of cultural discovery of course.
I sat there in a contented state reflecting on my second visit to the city; I had found some beautiful architecture, pleasant streets, eaten interesting food and met some friendly and helpful people. Sure it has its faults but every city does. It was safe to say that I had made my peace with Brussels.
The airport still sucks though.