Saturday, April 5, 2014

Spring Break - Part 3: Brussels & Bruges

Guildhalls at the Grote Markt in Brussels
Next stop: Belgium! After meeting up with Meike, we boarded yet another train bound for Brussels, the capital not only of Belgium, but of the European Union as well.  Located only an hour and twenty-five minutes away from Paris, Brussels is located in central Belgium, more or less between the country's two main regions: Flanders and Wallonia.  To the south of Brussels is French-speaking Wallonia, and north of Brussels is Dutch-speaking Flanders (technically they speak Flemish, or "Belgian Dutch" - I always want to cough after hearing the word 'Flemish'!).  Brussels is, in fact, officially a bilingual city, but most people here speak French, and pretty much everyone speaks English as well.

A Map of Belgium
"Belgium" comes from the Latin Gallia Belgica, the name of the Roman province that once existed there.  With such ancient roots, Belgium has a rich, albeit bloody, past.  Situated between France and Germany, Belgium suffered greatly during both World Wars but today is a melting pot of culture and history. 

Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles
Upon arriving in Brussels and checking into our hostel, we headed straight to the Grote Markt/Grande Place/Main Square.  Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, visitors to the Grote Markt are instantly awed by its stunning architecture.  Surrounded by guildhalls, the Town Hall and the Breadhouse, the square is incredibly beautiful and a must-see in Brussels.     

Town Hall
Not too far from Grote Markt is the most famous boy in Brussels: Manneken-Pis!  Known as "Little Pee Man" in Marols (the Dutch dialect dating from the rule of the Habsburgs), Manneken-Pis is a rather unimpressive, 2-foot tall bronze statue of a boy peeing into a fountain.  He is one of the famous symbols of the city, however, and there are always throngs of tourists clustered around his fountain (us included!).

The one, the only: Manneken-Pis!
The original statue dates from 1619, but the current version is much newer - since he gets stolen every once in a while, the latest Manneken-Pis was "born" in 1965. (Fret not - the original has been restored and is housed in the Breadhouse for visitors to see...more on that in a minute!)  While the exact reason behind this particular fountain is unknown (there are many legends, all including a boy urinating on someone...), statues of this nature were often erected in the Low Countries by the tanners' guilds.  The statues would mark a collecting point for urine (poor people could sell theirs to the tanneries) which was used in the stinky process of tanning learn something every day!

"Manneken-Peace" street art
Manneken-Pis is so well-loved throughout Brussels that the Bruxellois have paid homage to him all over the city - one example is this street mural entitled "Manneken-Peace," although I can't really figure out why! 

A selection of all the waffles you could try! (Plus a chocolate version of Manneken-Pis, of course)
Another Belgian staple: waffles! You can't visit the country and not try their delicious waffles - all you can smell while wandering the streets is the aroma of these sweet, sugary pastries! There are apparently multiple types of Belgian waffles, including the Brussels waffle, the Liège waffle, and the stroopwafel.  While I don't pretend to be a waffle aficionado, I'm pretty sure we indulged multiple times in the Liège variety. Much to my surprise, the "Belgian waffles" we have in the US aren't anything like those prepared here: Liège waffles are made more from a type of bread dough than actual batter, and inside the dough are little mini sugar cubes which caramelize deliciously during cooking, making for a sweet treat that doesn't need any additional toppings to be enjoyed.  Never one to pass up on local cuisine, I of course sampled quite a variety during our 4 day trip! (Although I must say, the plain variety takes the cake - or waffle, as it were!)

Meike's strawberry and chocolate smothered Belgian waffle
Enjoying my waffle with two types of chocolate sauce
Stuffed full of waffles we continued on over to the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula.  Begun as a simple chapel during the 9th century, the church slowly evolved into a grandiose cathedral and was finally finished in 1519.  While the church is built in the Gothic style, it lacks the characteristic rose window above the central portal. 

The Brussels Cathedral
While the church is beautiful both inside and out, there was a pretty little park situated right in front of it that was covered with daffodils and periwinkle blue flowers. I'm not used to seeing flowers in early March - back home in Massachusetts our yard was still covered with a blanket of snow! - so it was pretty refreshing to get an early taste of spring this year (even if that means an early dose of allergies as well).

Spring has sprung in Belgium!
We were falsely led to believe that the city's art museums were open late the night we were first there - thank you outdated guidebook! In any case, on our way to discover that they were closed we got to see another part of the city which was filled with more little parks and impressive architecture, complete with the Royal Palace.

Palais Royal de Bruxelles
We started our second day in Brussels with a trip to the City History Museum, whose main highlight is a wardrobe showcasing a rotating fraction of the over 800 costumes belonging to Manneken-Pis.  For whatever reason, foreign dignitaries visiting Brussels often come bearing gifts - usually a traditional costume from their country for the statue to wear.  The statue is regularly dressed (you can view a calendar of when he'll be wearing what) and makes for a unique photo op every time you visit the city - although he happened to be going au naturel the day we were there!  He wears military and soccer uniforms, Elvis getups, Santa's red suit, outfits belonging to comic book characters, Dracula's name it, he probably has it in his closet!

Some of Manneken-Pis' costumes
The rest of the museum showed various crafts produced in the city - lots of ceramics, paintings and textiles.  Never one to resist a good pun, I snapped a picture of this vegetable - the translation of "Brussels sprout" in French is chou de Bruxelles, literally "Brussels cabbage"...hence this ceramic Brussells...please try to suppress your laughter at my cheesy joke!

Chou de Bruxelles!
Brussels is an important city on the European scale - it is the capital of the European Union, after all! Consequently, the European Parliament is here, located on the outskirts of the city, so we decided to swing by to check it out.

Flag of the European Union
We had to wait forever to get in to the European Parliament's visitors' center and after all was said and done we were actually pretty disappointed.  It's free to get in, so of course it's always packed.  We happened to be there on a day where there were multiple school groups clustered all throughout the exhibit halls which explain exactly how the European Parliament works.  I had taken European Politics to fulfill a social science requirement in college - it was boring to me then and six years later amazingly I found it equally dry! - so at least I had a bit of a background on how it all works.  It was slightly frustrating though, because all of the signs/articles/interactive displays were posted in all the official languages of the EU (somewhere around 24, I think?), making it time-consuming to sift through to find the panel(s) you can understand and nearly impossible when there are kids running around yelling and doing a scavenger hunt for information. In any case, I can now say I've been there, done that...and have no need to ever go back!

Faces of the European Union at the European Parliament building
Next stop: The Atomium!  Informally known as "The Eiffel Tower of Brussels," this bizarre building was constructed for the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels and represents an iron crystal magnified some 165 billion times. Random, I know.  You can visit five of the spheres, including the uppermost which provides a panoramic view of the city of Brussels, but it was a bit pricey so we decided to just take in the view from the outside instead.  Little did we know, we were in for a bit of free entertainment!

At The Atomium
Standing underneath the Atomium, I was looking up to take the following picture when I saw something strange on my camera's screen...

The reason I was looking up in the first place...
Wait, what's that dangling from one of the spheres? It appears to be a paramedic accompanying a litter which is being lowered down from a trap door...

Quite a ways up there!
Then the news showed up...
After a few tense minutes they finally made it to the ground
We weren't able to figure out what exactly was going on, but there was a groaning person inside the litter who was quickly whisked away in an ambulance after making the hazardous journey down to the ground. The news cameras were all over it, but try as we might we couldn't find anything online about what had gone down - more specifically, why didn't they just take the elevator back down? In any case, I'm assuming it was something pretty serious if a perilous exit through a trap door was necessary....

The city's cherry trees were in full bloom - magnifique!
As I mentioned earlier, Belgium has many famous food specialties - chocolate included!  Brussels is home to the Musée du Cacao et Chocolat, a museum explaining the rich history linking Belgium and the chocolate-making industry. (Everyone knows Godiva and Leonidas chocolates, I'm sure!)  For a small entry fee, you can visit multiple floors dedicated to the journey a cocoa bean makes on its way to becoming a delicious chocolate candy. There are different chocolate chips to sample at various parts of your visit, all made with beans of different global origins and composed of various percentages of cocoa - it was basically like a wine tasting but with chocolate! Signs at each of the tasting stations alerted you to chocolates that tasted earthy, peppery, smoky, etc. - quite the education! The tour ended in the kitchen, where a chocolatière demonstrated how to make pralinés, the famous filled chocolates invented here in Brussels by Jean Neuhaus in 1912. It was a cool museum and a yummy way to spend part of our afternoon!

Our chocolate-making demo
Hats and dresses made entirely from chocolate
Our gastronomic tour of Belgium continued with dinner - a heaping portion of moules frites!  The origin? Mussels are cheap seafood common along the Flemish coast, and fried potatoes were often eaten during the Belgian winters when there was limited fresh food available.  Put them together and you've got dish that you can find in nearly all Belgian and French restaurants - surveys have shown that in France it's second in popularity only to duck.  The mussels are steamed (and also served) in a big pot in one of a variety of sauces.  The most common choice, moules marinières, is a mixture of white wine, shallots, butter and parsley - in Belgium they added celery to that mix too.  The fries are then double-fried in animal fat, served golden and crispy with a side of creamy dijon mayonnaise to dip them in - no ketchup here! I'm a big fan of mussels, so I took full advantage of this local specialty during a couple of meals.

Moules frites and a glass of crisp vin blanc, mmm!
With two days of vacation left, Meike and I left Brussels bright and early the next morning and headed northeast up to Bruges.  Known as "The Venice of the North," Bruges is famous for its wealth of canals, bridges, and medieval architecture - very similar to Amsterdam (minus a few canals), in my opinion.  Contrary to Brussels, however, in Bruges the preferred language is Flemish/Dutch or English (not French!).  It was actually a nice break for me to go back to speaking English for two days!  

Grote Markt, Bruges
Just like Brussels, Bruges also has a main square called the Grote Markt - it's considerably larger than the one in Brussels and has a wider variety of buildings surrounding it.  The city itself isn't very large, but you can easily fill two days just wandering along all the canals, eating and checking out its many museums.

Provincial Courthouse in Bruges
The city's most famous landmark is surely the Belfry Tower (Belfort, in Flemish), and you'd really be missing out if you visited the city without climbing all the way to the top to get a bird's-eye view of your surroundings.  After a brief wait to get inside the building (only 70 people can be in the tower at any given time), a very steep and narrow staircase with 366 steps awaits!  Thankfully there are various rooms to take a break in on the way up - one which formerly contained the city's archives, one containing the music box type drum which runs the bells, and the bell room/observatory itself. 

Belfort (the famous Belfry Tower)
The earliest parts of the tower which stands today date from 1280, with the more recent parts at the very top dating from the 1820's.  Historically, the tower was used as a library for archives, a watchtower for fires, and of course its bells helped regulate daily life in the city.  Different tones were rung to announce everything from the start and end of work shifts, fire alarms, various religious, social and political events, and of course the time.  Believe it or not, the bells have rung at least every 15 minutes for the past seven and a half centuries!  

The "music box" inside the bell tower
The room with the massive drum which controls the melody of the bells was really interesting.  Gears, pulleys, levers, ropes and wires all formed a head-spinning contraption to control the 47 bells which ring in the room above.  The music box can be programmed to play different songs - on the metal drum are pegs (one column of pegs for each bell) which are arranged to lift hammers in a certain order, and thus ring the bells in song.  The song is changed every two years just to spice things up!  We happened to be in the music box room when the drum started moving and the bells began to ring - quite the noisy spectacle!

Inside the bell room, looking up into the ensemble of engineering rigged up to ring them all
We didn't get the chance to hear the bells from the upper bell room, but the video below gives you a good idea of how all the machinery works to ring the bells, quite impressive!

And of course the view from the top makes all the steps worth it!  Here's what the city looks like when you're perched 83 meters (nearly 275 feet) up off the ground...

Canals wind through the medieval buildings clustered below
The Burg, as seen from high above
In need of a little sustenance after our hike up and down the belfry, we stopped by a chocolate shop and  each bought a delicious rijstwafel (basically a giant ball of dark chocolate covered Rice Krisipies).  Re-energized, we set off to roam the canals and check out some more cultural attractions.

Just me and my rijstwafel!
Strolling around some canals
And now for an art history ramble...

Michelangelo's sculpture today known as The Bruges Madonna
Inside the small and unsuspecting church called Our Lady of Bruges sits an artistic masterpiece - after speaking with a Belgian I was told that she's as important to Bruges as the Mona Lisa is to Paris.  Sculpted out of marble by Michelangelo in 1506, the Bruges Madonna is known for being the artist's only sculpture to leave Italy during his lifetime.  

The sculpture in situ at Our Lady of Bruges 
Even though I minored in Art History, I had only recently learned of the sculpture while reading Robert Edsel's book "The Monuments Men" over the winter. (I was surprised to later find out that this book was turned into a movie and recently released back in the US - news doesn't travel so quickly over here in France!)

To make a long story short (and to prompt you to read this fascinating book to find out more), there was a special group of Allied soldiers created during World War II called the Monuments Men, charged with locating and safeguarding Europe's cultural and artistic treasures from the atrocities of war.  The Bruges Madonna had been taken by the Nazis as a spoil of war and was hidden deep inside an Austrian salt mine at Altausee - they had actually stolen it from the church by wrapping it inside a mattress and stuffing it in the back of an unassuming Red Cross truck before driving it to Austria.  Thankfully, the Monuments Men came upon a huge hoard of art inside the salt mine and recovered this particular, successfully returning it to Bruges where all can admire it today.  Anyone who is a fan of World War II era history and/or a lover of art will find Edsel's book captivating - I highly recommend it and am looking forward to seeing the movie once I return home. Here's a link to an article which gives further information if you're interested!
The Monuments Men securing the Bruges Madonna to ropes and pulleys in order to get it out of the salt mine and back to Bruges
So, being the nerdy art and history lover that I am, I was thrilled to get the chance to pop in and see this statue.  You can only view it at a distance, but it was beautiful nonetheless!

A canal with the belfry in the background
We rounded out our evening with a delicious meal at a restaurant called "Poules Moules" (Chicken & Mussels, in French) which was located on Simon Stevinplein.  Best mussels I had during our whole trip - I got them with a garlic cream sauce this time, délicieuses! 

Simon Stevinplein
We still had plenty to see on our last day in Bruges before our 3pm train left to take us back to Forbach.  We steered away from the main square to a secondary plaza just down the street called the Burg, home to the Bishop's Palace, Town Hall, Old Civil Registry, and the Basilica of the Holy Blood.  The latter is famous because of its relic: an alleged vial of Christ's blood.  Said to have been collected by Joseph of Arimathea (the guy who donated his stone tomb to Jesus), legend has it that the relic was then transferred from the Holy Land to Bruges during the Second Crusade in the 12th century.
Basiliek Van Het Heilig-Bloed, the Basilica of the Holy Blood
While it's free to get inside the church, the relic is guarded by a priest who sits behind a massive money box surrounded by posters in every imaginable language trying to guilt you in to donate money - just like in the Middle Ages, churches depend upon the faithful's donations to see relics.  There's even a parade through the city called the Procession of the Holy Blood which takes place each year on Ascension Day. For this parade, the relic is secured inside a 66-pound gold, sliver, and jewel-encrusted case and walked through the city - they take this relic pretty seriously here.  There was a long line and I didn't feel like paying money to see a crusty scab in an old glass tube, so we just checked out the church and kept moving. You can't take pictures in the basilica, so here's a pic I found online so you can see what the fuss is all about...
Tada - The Holy Blood Relic
Continuing along the canals, we happened upon a gorgeous little area of Bruges quite by accident.  Founded in 1245, the Begijnhof (béguinage, in French) is a peaceful walled community of houses used by Beguines, or nuns, who wanted to serve God without completely leaving their home community or having to live in a strict environment like a convent.  Today it's home to sisters belonging to the Order of St. Benedict, and springtime visitors who wind their way into the central courtyard are in for a treat.

A house at the Begijnhof
The Begijnhof's quad
Whitewashed buildings form a rectangle around a garden full of tall, leaning trees and absolutely peppered with daffodils! It was extremely beautiful, quiet and calm - quite a treat to stumble upon! Visitors here can also check out the tiny chapel and the Begijnhof museum, but we were content just to stroll along the paths through the radiant flowers.

Snuggle bunnies
Our wanderings brought us through various Saturday markets as well - you can find clothing, flowers, antiques, freshly-butchered meat, produce, and even live animals here.  I especially liked the market which was selling ducks, rabbits, chicks, guinea pigs and other farm animals, so cute!  We wrapped up our visit to Bruges with a delicious bratwurst sandwich from the market and a walk back to the train station - I had all I could do to stay awake on our 5-hour journey back to Forbach via Brussels and Paris (the minute I step foot inside a train, all I want to do is doze off!).  All in all, I had a great time travelling throughout Belgium: there are loads of beautiful sights and all the yummy food you could ask for!  

Meike and I in Bruges

1 comment:

  1. Looks like you guys had a really great trip! Once again lots of great info and pics. Looking forward to having you back home in 1 short month ��