Brussels has hidden charm

Brussels - the European capital. Centre of the European Union. Home of NATO. With that background it is no surprise that much of Brussels consists of rather soulless high-rise office buildings. But there are hidden charms to reward those who explore a bit further.

It was through the streets of uninspiring 1960s and 70s high rise buildings that we arrived in Brussels for our very first visit. We parked in an underground car park and found ourselves a hotel on the Rue Marches aux Herbes (the old herb market). Once settled in we went out for a wander and, after following a circuitous route around the centre, we we heard the sound of drums.

Following the sound we almost literally stumbled into the Grand Place, or Grote Markt as it is known in Flemish. This is a stunning and atmospheric square lined with buildings which mainly date from the late 17th century.

Grand Place
Some of the guild house buildings in the Grand Place

This time our arrival in Brussels was a little more purposeful. We flew into Brussels National airport and then took the excellent value train trip into Central Station which is very handily placed for the Grand Place and the city centre. We stayed at the Royal Windsor Hotel which is very close to the Grand Place. On this occasion it was eBookers who came up trumps with the best package.

You can and we have, spent a weekend just staying in and around the Grand Place. It is a great way to unwind to sit at outdoors at one of the bars nursing a beer just feasting your eyes, soaking in the atmosphere, any time of the day or night. What adds to the enjoyment is knowing that people have been doing likewise for more than three centuries.

Atomium
The Atomium, built in 1958 and recently refurbished

There are guild houses on three sides of the Grand Place, tall and narrow with extravagant gables covered in guilt carvings and sculptures. Man of these were for the trades guilds, but some were private houses. They were built in the late 17th century.

One of the most famous is the Maison des Brasseurs (the house of the brewers), which appropriately houses the beer museum. For beer lovers, this is worth a visit as it gives you an insight into Belgium's famous beers. There are said to be more than 450 beers in Belgium and this museum will give you an insight into the different styles. Any will do for me, although I do find the lambics sometimes a little bit vinegary for my taste.



The gold-encrusted facade of the House of the Dukes of Brabant

At the top end of the square is the House of the Dukes of Brabant. It is actually not one but several houses all with a classical facade lavishly decorated with gold leaf. Giving the house its name are the sculptures of the Dukes of Brabant along the frontage at the first floor window level.

On the north side of the Grand Place is the King's House, which is the most modern building on the square, opened from 1887. It houses the City Museum. Opposite is probably the grandest building of the lot, the Hotel de Ville or Stadhuis (town house). This magnificent Gothic building dates from the 15th Century, although it was left as just a shell after the French bombardment in 1695. There have been several renovations then and subsequently - the most recent being in 1996 when a new gold statue of St Michael topped the impressive spire.

We've talked about the beer, but where do you eat? On the Grand Place itself is t'Kelderke in the vaulted cellar of the House of the Dukes of Brabant. The door is low, so you need to remember to duck as you enter. Once in, it is a very informal restaurant, sometimes noisy with the chatter echoing off the old brick vaulted ceiling, but with bags of atmosphere.

Grand Place
The Grand Place

The serve local specialities like Moules et Frites (Mussels and fries) or Carbonnade Flammande (a Flemish beef carbonnade) all washed down with wine or beer. We tried the carbonnade with stompe which is a local vegetable and potato dish. However, three votes out of three takers would go for the frites next time.

Another traditional favourite is the In t'Spinnekopke with is a little bit more of a walk away, but still an easy evening stroll. This is an old bar dating from the 18th century, again serving local beers and food. It's well worth the walk.

But there is more to Brussels than the Grand Place. The streets round about are full of touristy shops and other shops selling the local specialities - beer, lace and chocolate!

I suppose on any trip you have to go and see the underwhelming Mannekin Pis, just to say you have seen it. You can also have a laugh at the various tacky tourist trinkets with figurines of the little boy relieving himself.

A short walk in the other direction takes you out to St Michaels an impressive cathedral that now stands, looking a little bit lost on its own.

Head a little further and you can reach the Royal Palace and the park, with the Belgian Parliament buildings. In the park see if you can find the spot where you can look at the Palais de Justice, the Palace and the parliament along three avenues.

King's House Grand Place
The Kings House in the Grand Place by night

Keep going and you will reach the impressive archway that commemorates the cinqantaire of Belgian independence. Here auto enthusiasts will find the Autoworld motor museum.

A good way to see the city is to take an open top bus from beside Central Station. As usual you will have a chance to hop on and hop off the bus and we used this to good advantage to see the Atomium. Surely one of the strangest buildings in the world, it represents a crystal of iron magnified 165 billion times.

Built for the 1958 World Fair it has been more recently refurbished and the globes have returned to their original aluminium shine. The publicity would have you believe that it is packed with interesting exhibits and a chic café. The reality is that there are a few interesting exhibits and the café offers a few snack items, coffees and a limited range of soft drinks with one or two tables.

But, don't let that put you off. The Atomium is a tremendous addition to any tour of Brussels. Just remember there are some long stairways inside those 35-metre tubes, so - although there is a lift in the centre, if you really want to get the most out of a visit you will want to be able to tackle these stairways and escalators.



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