Monday, September 21, 2015

Touring Brussels with Fulbright Belgium

Méindeg, 21 September.

Hello from Belgium! I'm here in Brussels for my Fulbright Orientation -- a two-day crash course in living and teaching abroad. As part of our Fulbright Orientation today, we were given a brief walking tour of downtown Brussels. Since the vast majority of grantees won't be living in Brussels, this was a great opportunity to get to know the city while we were in town.

We began our tour in la Grand-Place, the historic heart of Brussels. This city square has been the center of the city since the twelfth century; in fact, the Hôtel de Ville (pictured below) was built as early as the fifteenth century!

I found it interesting that most of the square -- along with the rest of the city of Brussels -- was destroyed in the seventeenth century by Louis XIV of France. When the residents of Brussels decided to rebuild their city, they did so quickly, coherently, and with respect to the existing historical buildings. That's why, according to UNESCO, the Grand-Place is such a stunning example of a world heritage site.

In addition to the ever-impressive Grand-Place, one of the most impressive sights on our tour were the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert (or Koninklijke Sint-Hubertusgalerijen), a covered shopping arcade built in the mid-19th century. The opulence and sheer size of the galleries serves as proof of the wealth of the city of Brussels. It's stunning!

The arcade contains three beautiful galleries, appropriately named the Galerie de la Reine, the Galerie du Roi and the Galerie des Princes. Nathan, our impromptu tour guide, informed us that back in the day, people used to pay for admission just to walk through the galleries.

The Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert are also home to the flagship Neuhaus store (pictured below), which originated as an apothecary shop! It wasn't until Jean Neuhaus became more interested in the chocolate with which he was coating his medicines that Neuhaus became the chocolatier it is today. It was in this very shop that the chocolate-filled praline was invented ... and, as we learned, that the inventor's wife -- presumably tired of hand-wrapping the delicate chocolates -- invented the ballotin, the cardboard box in which they're sold!

Read more about the history of Neuhaus and check out some fabulous photos on their website.

After wandering open-mouthed through the Galeries Royales, we made our way to the Brussels Stock Exchange ... or, rather, to its former home. This ornate 19th-century building no longer houses the actual stock exchange but instead plays host to expositions and museum exhibits.

Our tour ended with a visit to the Brasserie Cantillon, one the few traditional breweries left in Brussels. It has been up and running in the neighborhood of Anderlecht since 1900. Our tour guide explained the brewery's beer-making process, which has remained basically unchanged since they opened.

If you know me, you'll know that I'm not exactly a fan of beer -- traditional, Belgian, or otherwise -- and I didn't get quite as much out of the tour as the true beer aficionados in the room. But it's always wonderful when someone gets to talk about what they love and hearing our passionate guide talk about the topic was really fascinating!

After the conclusion of our official tour, we did a little sightseeing of our own! Among our stops? The Parc du Cinquantenaire -- built in 1880 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Belgian independence.

Among the perks of having a name with a slightly unusual spelling? I will literally NEVER get tired of seeing my name written down. (Ask my mom: I texted her a picture of "Queen Elisabeth" roses just last week.) The statue -- which was unfortunately but not altogether unintentionally cut off in these photos -- depicts Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, the popular wife of King Albert of Belgium in the first half of the twentieth century. Nifty.

Unsurprisingly, we wound up back at Grand-Place to see the city square all lit up(It looks entirely different at night, so naturally you have to visit it twice! Right?) It was a LONG but adventurous day and I can't wait to tell you more tomorrow. But for now, bonne nuit from Brussels!