Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Adventures in BeDeLux: Brussels

Mercredi, 6 novembre.

After a day exploring Bruges, it was time on Friday to get to know the city we'd been staying in: Brussels. (Or, as they actually call it in Belgium, either Bruxelles, in French, or Brussel, in Flemish.) Our first stop? Brussels' Grote Markt or Grand Place. In addition to being a UNESCO World Heritage site and the city's most visited spot, the Grand-Place was recently voted the most beautiful town square in Europe... and it's not hard to see why!

Time for just a liiiittle bit of history! (It's interesting, I promise.) The square first developed in the 11th century as an open-air market ... hence the Flemish name, Grote Markt. It was slowly surrounded by buildings, including several indoor markets that allowed both for the town's inhabitants to shop during bad weather and for the city's rulers to keep track of taxes! As the city grew, so did its main square. The indoor markets were replaced by bigger buildings and, in the 15th century, the construction of the town hall made the square the true center of the city. The building behind me in the picture below currently houses the Museum of the City of Brussels, but was actually built in the 16th century as a symbol of ducal power. In French, it's called the Maison du Roi, or King's House -- even though no king ever lived there. More interestingly, the Flemish name for the building is the Broodhuis or Bread House -- a reminder of the original indoor bread market upon which the building was constructed!


Although the square itself was breathtakingly beautiful, my favorite part of the Grand Place was actually a little chocolate shop that we found just around the corner. A friend who studied abroad in Belgium this summer had told me about it, so I was more than a little excited to discover the Elisabeth Chocolatier! Naturally, a photoshoot ensued... because when you've spent twenty years explaining to people how to spell your name, it's pretty cool to see it on the side of a building!

I had a ton of fun poking around the gorgeous little shop! Although I didn't buy any chocolates, I did invest in a little metal tin with the name of the shop on it. It's super cute and the perfect size for holding postcards.

Our next stop was one of Brussels' other most famous attractions: Manneken Pis. Direct translation? "Little Man Pee." Yes, it is a statue of a little boy peeing. No, I'm not kidding. This little guy is EVERYWHERE in Brussels -- on tshirts, on keychains, even in chocolates shaped in his likeness! (My favorite was just across the street -- a larger-than-life lime green version, draped in a Belgian flag and eating a waffle.)

I thought it was stupid. I saw it. Still stupid. I looked up the history. Even stupider. (Athough the dozens of tourists lining the street corner might disagree.) Sorry, Brussels ... find a better symbol of your city.

But hey, apart from the strange celebrity of the little boy with bladder control issues, it was hard to find parts of Brussels that we didn't like!

We used AirBNB again, this time to rent a room from a lovely couple living in heart of the European Quarter of the city. They could not have been nicer people, giving us free breakfast and offering to take us on a tour of their workplace! (Which, casually, is the European Union.) Oh, and their building -- which was completely beautitful and renovated on the inside -- looked like this...

Although we weren't staying quite in the center of Brussels, the brisk 20-minute walk to and from the apartment allowed us to see some of the beautiful sights of the city. We passed churches and embassies and got to take daily shortcuts through one of Belgium's beautiful parks! On our way to the center of town, we stumbled upon not one but two beautiful churches. And let me tell you, Belgium does churches right. I'm actually unsure about the identity of the first church, but the second is the Cathedral of Saints Michael and Gudula. (Yes, Saint Gudula. No, I'd never heard of her either.)

In addition to churches, we found a couple other miiiildly nifty buildings floating around Brussels. For example, here's the Royal Palace and the Parliament building! Fun fact: the current heir to the Belgian throne is twelve-year-old Princess Elisabeth. (I don't know why I called that a fun fact; it's just a depressing reminder that there's another Elisabeth out there who is a million times cooler than I could ever dream to be.)

A couple typical streets...

A museum and wall art devoted to Belgium's most famous cartoon detective, Tintin...

And, because I'd be lying if I said we didn't walk in at least fifty of these suckers, some of the chocolate stores...

We even walked around the European Parliament! Since it was a major holiday (November 1, or All Saints' Day), everything was closed. Still, it was super neat to see -- the ultra-modern architecture was definitely a big change from the rest of the historic city center. I loved to imagine what important people from all over Europe worked in the fancy glass offices we walked beneath.

After prowling around the European Union, we were starting to get a little hungry! Luckily, Molly's intense Google session the night before had yielded the name of "the best friterie in Brussels." (Um, yes please?) So, well-creased city maps in hand, we headed to Maison Antoine

This little food stand has been around since 1948, when it was opened by a guy named -- you guessed it -- Antoine. They haven't changed locations and, judging from the old photos on display, the stand itself hasn't changed all that much over the past 65 years. As you can tell, it's still pretty small! Three windows handle all the orders ... although you can only buy their famous frites at two of them. (No frites? No wait! See the middle window for proof.) Molly and I didn't time exactly how long we waited in line, but it was definitely close to an hour.

Fries in hand, we explored the Parc du Cinquantenaire. Check out the triumphal arch! (It reminded me more of the Brandenburg Gate than Paris' Arc du Triomphe, but to each their own.)

Don't worry: fries weren't the only thing on the menu this weekend! We kept it mega healthy on Friday, with chocolate samples and not one, not two, not three, but FOUR Belgian waffles. Granted, we split them, so it was really more like two waffles. But still. A lot of waffles were eaten.

Although America is all about our "Belgian waffles" (typically covered in strawberries, powdered sugar, and syrup), there's actually a lot of waffle diversity in Belgium. The two most popular waffles are called Gaufres de Liege and Gaufres de Bruxelles. You can check out the differences (and find a couple recipes) here, but basically as I understand it, it's a matter of texture and density. Brussels waffles, pictured on the right, are more like your typical "Belgian waffle" -- light, sometimes a little crunchy, and covered in powdered sugar (or whatever topping your little heart desires). They're delicious, of course! But the Liege waffles are just ... wow. They're a little less regularly shaped because the batter is thicker and doesn't spread out quite as much on the waffle iron. Because the batter itself contains a special kind of sugar, the waffles taste heavier and more syrupy. They can be ordered with toppings, but we found that they were also delicious enough to be eaten completely plain! They were my definite favorites.

It was hard to leave Belgium after such a short time ... and not just because of the delicious food! Although the city of Brussels is pretty tiny (we managed to see just about all of it in one day and still get back to the apartment just after dark), I could definitely have stayed much longer. The number of chocolate-toting, waffle-eating tourists was a little overwhelming at times, but the city itself felt very comfortable -- a very classy mix of old and new, of classic Belgian history and cosmopolitan international modernity. I have a feeling I'll be back here someday ... maybe working in one of those fancy glass offices at the EU! ;) But if not, we'll always have the Grand-Place...


  1. I just read this! I thought I had already read it. I'm so sorry! It was so nice to read all about Brussels! It is just beautiful! The pictures of you with the frittes and gaufres are priceless! You are gorgeous!

  2. I'm going to learn to like Belgian waffles in spite of myself. You are quite the saleslady. Loved all these locations. Would love more photos of you and the "local" people too. Do they dress like you or rather, vice versa? Love, P& B