Brussels – nothing like a good walk (with a mad guide) to clear the head


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Europe » Belgium » Brussels-Capital Region » Brussels
August 17th 2018
Published: August 20th 2018
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Brussels town hallBrussels town hallBrussels town hall

Notice the left arches are different dimensions to the right arches and the central entrance is off centre!
I’m still seething from the events of yesterday although we both had a good night’s sleep so I guess the incident hadn’t played on my mind too much. Today we had planned to take a walking tour through the narrow and winding streets in the old town of Brussels. Our hotel is an aparthotel so whilst there is a small dining area behind the reception, at €14 per person per day for breakfast, it was much cheaper to visit the super market and stock up on provisions as our room comes fitted with a kitchenette - complete with hob, microwave, kettle and even a dishwasher. The downside is that there is no servicing of the rooms during our stay so we have to make do with the same rather small and tired looking towels in the bathroom for the next 3 days.

Just after 10am we took the short ten-minute walk to the main square in Brussels known as Groote Markt. (Or La Grande Place if French is your thang!) This is the main square of Brussels and is surrounded by some of the most elaborate gothic architecture in the country.

When Roisin and I take short breaks we always research if there is a free walking tour around the city centre/old town. These tours normally last around two to two and a half hours and are excellent in providing you with an overview, if you have a limited amount of time, of what is worth seeing. Occasionally you are treated to some hidden gems which makes the tour all the more worthwhile. As I said, the tours are completely free but the guide usually asks for a donation if you have enjoyed the tour. (Back in the day they used to be called tips and more lately gratuities!!) Roisin and I usually give €10 each but I have to claw back my lost €60 somehow so I had already made up my mind to give the guide €15 between us on this occasion (don’t blame me!! Blame the scumbags who mugged me!!) First of all, we had to find the free walking tour. The one we had selected started at 10:45. The time was 10:20 so we had plenty of time. These guides can usually be identified by their umbrella. It’s a good job it wasn’t raining or else we would have had our work cut out!! On entering Groote Markt Roisin immediately spotted an orange umbrella – Free Walking tour. Further on a red umbrella – Walk with me for free!! Then a yellow umbrella. Walking tours gratis/free. And finally, a pink umbrella – I’m free!! We couldn’t remember which one we had seen on the internet so we approached several. They all started at 11:00 so we decided to stick with the first one we spotted, the orange umbrella.

At 11:00 we were introduced to our guide, Wanda, a thirty something with a strong command of English. It was soon evident that this young lady was one chicken McNugget short of a happy meal!! She related her anecdotes with such passion and verve that on several occasions passers-by stopped to see what all the commotion was about (much to Wanda’s angst!) She would tell them that unless they intend to leave a donation then they should move along!! (or words to that effect!!)

Groot Markt translates as Grand Market and back in the day, this square used to be the centre to buy and sell foodstuffs. In fact, all the streets off the main square have bizarre names
The balcony of the town HallThe balcony of the town HallThe balcony of the town Hall

Panoramic view of the flower carpet...only €6 a pop!!
such as: Meat and Bread Street. When the market was not trading, the city used to provide entertainment for the residents. Long before football and Netflix, the main form of entertainment was public beheadings and witch burnings!!

Whilst we were listening attentively to Wanda as she was doing the actions of a witch being burned, we became aware that the square was becoming more crowded. We had been shepherded off to a shady corner of the square but the myriad of people were still trying to pass in to and out of the narrow thoroughfares that surrounded the square. The congestion was due to 70%!o(MISSING)f the square being taken up by a flower carpet. This is a biennial event of which this year’s theme is Mexico and is dedicated to Guanajuato, a Mexican region with a particularly rich floral culture and tradition. 120 volunteers have used almost a million and a half begonias to create this most colourful, symmetrical work of art. We were advised that the carpet took less than four hours to create. It was difficult to appreciate the exquisite but delicate, what some may refer to as artform, from ground level. I noticed that there were people on the veranda of the town hall taking photos. This was organised by the council and for €6 a pop you too could also use their veranda to take a photo! The queue snaked along the façade of the town hall and around the corner in to Kolenmarkt. (Coal market) I feel much better now knowing I’m not the only one who has been mugged this week end!!

Belgium, as a country, has only been around since 1831 yet all the buildings in the vicinity are much older, some dating back to the middle ages. That is because Brussels used to be its own kingdom, or a dukedom to be precise. There are currently three official languages in Belgium; Flemish (a sort of Dutch) spoken in the North, French spoken manly in the South and German spoken in some towns in the east of the country.

Wanda told us that each building surrounding the Groote Markt has a unique story to tell. One such story is the building of the magnificent town hall. Brussels was in direct competition and under immense pressure with a neighbouring city to design and build a much bigger and grander town hall. The selected architect was told that in building the structure, he would have to leave a gap to create a street where horses and coaches can pass by. The architect hadn’t accounted for this in his original plans. This threw out the design dimensions and he refused to comply.

‘It’s simple’, said the towns leaders. ‘Lose the attitude or lose your head!!’ The architect set to work straight away. The architect’s original plan was pure symmetry with a huge tower as the centre piece. However, now with leaving room to build a road, the town hall would have to become asymmetrical. If you look closely at the façade, the arches to the left of the main entrance are slightly larger dimensions than the arches to the right. The main entrance is also slightly off centre. These were all tricks in trying to create the illusion of symmetry. It didn’t work, however, as the other city won the award and the order for execution of the architect was signed anyway. The architect saved them the bother by climbing to the top of the town hall tower and jumping.

‘<em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">It was no bother, really!’, the executioner was heard to have said!!

We wandered (no pun intended) through a few narrow streets and came to, what has been voted as the second most disappointing statue in the world, Mannekin Pis. This is one of thirty-two statues in Belgium of the little boy peeing. It takes up an innocuous corner of the old town and you could easily walk past this three-foot statue mounted in a shady alcove. There are many stories surrounding the origin of this statue. A popular story states how Brussels was surrounded by enemies who pretended to retreat, but in reality, they were hiding gunpowder under the city. A little boy named Julien saw the burning fuse and quickly peed on it. Out of gratitude, the city made a statue to his likeness.

By the way, the most disappointing statue in the world is the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen. It’s not even in the city centre!!

On our walk through the busy streets of the old town, Wanda was never short on providing the group with interesting facts at every opportunity. We passed many frite stores will large queues outside.
The spire of the town hallThe spire of the town hallThe spire of the town hall

Where ever you are in Brussels old town, look up. You will get your bearings for thisimposing spire
The frite is the Belgian for French fries which were apparently invented by the Belgians and has nothing to do with France. The most popular story is that a troop of US soldiers were stationed in Europe during WWI and saw a group of French speaking Belgians frying potatoes. Due to the language, the Americans mistakenly took their comrades to be French. The recipe of this tasty snack (although in some parts of the UK, a staple diet!!) was taken back to the USA and the name French Fries was born. This is one of the greatest urban myths to come out of Belgium as the story is utter Bollocks (Wanda’s words not mine!!) The reality is much more boring. The word ‘to French’ come from the old English and means to slice sideways!! There is a queue waiting for their frites because all Belgian fries are double fried. The potatoes are fried en masse and then left to cool. The fries are then deep fried PER PORTION whilst the customer waits.

We stopped by a mural on the side of a building of one of Belgium’s greatest exports, Tin Tin. However, despite
The march of the giant polo mint!!The march of the giant polo mint!!The march of the giant polo mint!!

One of the lesser known Belgian ceremonies!!
Hergés adventures of Tin Tin spread throughout some exotic lands, the author had never actually set foot outside of Belgium. He used to visit the National museum where many artefacts had been housed from all over the Belgian colonies and beyond. He then let his imagination take over. Before you get any ideas, I can assure you that I have visited all of the places I write about and I haven’t been sitting in my attic all this time flicking through National Geographic for inspiration keeping very still when the window cleaner and milkman come knocking (do we even have milkmen any more??)

Tin Tin became so popular that when grown men bought their daily newspaper, they would skip the main news and turn straight to the cartoon strip!!

Another major export from Belgium, the Smurfs. These characters were allegedly created as propaganda for a Marxist utopian state where everything is shared even down to the single lone female!! Indeed, it is said that even Papa Smurf is modelled on Karl Marx himself. Even their sworn enemy Gargamel is said to be the epitome of capitalism with his fascination of gold!!

After two and a quarter very entertaining hours from our hostess, it was time to say goodbye. I threw the €15 in her hippy hat that she had just put on the ground and it was immediately off to visit one of her recommendations, the Royal Palace. The tour ended at Brussel’s highest vantage point which was only a few hundred metres from our next stop.

The Royal Palace is free to enter. The rooms we had access to were like every other royal palace we’d been to, full of chandeliers and gold leaf!! We were here to see a rather unusual room. It is the Hall of mirrors. It is a work of art, a fresco completed by using the wing cases of one million four hundred thousand jewel scarab beetles. This insect is not an endangered species. Well, it wasn’t but it might be now!! The fresco contains various shapes that glow in a greenish-blue light, depending on the angle from which they are viewed. Even the chandelier is encased in this unusual material. Quite stunning and worth paying the entrance fee for!!!

Now I don’t know if it is Belgians who are trying their hand at humour or indeed it is
Shoe shop sign in BrusselsShoe shop sign in BrusselsShoe shop sign in Brussels

The plot's afoot!!
an offer of buy one pair get one free and the notice has lost something in translation but on passing a shoe shop on the way to lunch we spotted the following notice in a shop window: All shoes on the floor buy one get one free!! I was tempted to take them up on their offer but thought that it maybe just a scam to get you in to their scam. The Belgians are good at scamming!!

One thing I was impressed with is their gimmicky marketing strategy. Normally, when a place has a tourist attraction it is flooded with cheap tacky souvenirs. Nothing has changed in Brussels on that front except for - What is the one thing Belgians are good at? Right, beer! So, when I came to choose mine at lunch I had to have a bottle of Mannekin Pils (do you see what they did there?) If it was me, though, I would have stuck with the original name Mannekin Pis and used the tag line: Looks like Pis, tastes like Pis. And that, my friends, is why I never made it in marketing!!!

It is well documented that
The Royal Palace, BrusselsThe Royal Palace, BrusselsThe Royal Palace, Brussels

the king does not reside here but conducts day to day business and receives state visitors
nine years ago Roisin and I drove to Belgium on a football weekend. We had planned on attending three matches, at Genk, Bruges and Anderlecht in Brussels. We arrived in Brussels early and decided to park the car near the stadium then spend the day in Brussels before returning in the evening to watch the game before heading straight off afterwards. On returning to the stadium, I thought I’d better check my car first. On turning into the road where I left it the road was empty of parked vehicles. It had been stolen. Or at least that is what I’d thought. I managed to find a policeman who spoke some English and he advised me that it had been towed away as it was parked illegally. I tried to explain that there were no signs of any restrictions. The signs were only erected at 4pm. We then spent the next several hours traipsing through the suburbs of Brussels from one police station to the next and then finally to the compound. I was now back at Anderlecht, partly to cross this stadium off my list and partly to lay some ghosts to rest (although in coming back to Brussels
More from the beetle encrusted frescoMore from the beetle encrusted frescoMore from the beetle encrusted fresco

1.4 million beetles sacrificed in the name of Art
I had inadvertently created some new ones!!)

We got to the stadium without incident. It was only a short metro ride from our hotel. Roisin was a little nervous but I reassured her that this is probably one of the safest places to be. These fans have no interest in picking your pocket. They are too busy kicking your head in if you’re wearing the wrong colours!!!

This game was top against bottom. Men against boys. On paper it should have been a goal fest for the home side. But then again, paper doesn’t win games. Determination, tactics and skill do!! Royal Excel Mouscron certainly had the determination and tactics but unfortunately lacked the skill. Come to think of it, Anderlecht were no Real Madrid!! Mouscron kept the score down to a respectable 2-0 defeat. Anderlecht are top of the Belgian league but looked pretty useless. Fortunately for them, the rest of the league are more than useless!! At the kick off, a neon sign lit up just above one of the lower stands behind a goal. It said (in English) Come on you mauves. Roisin and I both laughed but for different reasons. Roisin said ‘<em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Mauve? That’s not mauve. Their strip is definitely purple!’

I replied, ‘Yes and they have three languages of their own yet still feel the need to show the sign in English!!


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Cab be take a break here, please?!Cab be take a break here, please?!
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The Beer museum in Brussels
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Maison du Roi, Brussels

Houses the Museum of the City of Brussels


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