26.05.2015

BRUSSELS: MORE THAN EXPECTED

BRUSSELS: MORE THAN EXPECTED, Selçuk Korkmaz | 26.05.2015

I had always imagined Brussels as a city of bureaucracy: dull buildings, unhappy people rushing around, heavy traffic... This impression is not without reason: Brussels is the home of EU Commission, EU Council of Ministers, and European Parliament. Brussels is the center of the European Union (being one of the founders) and European Commission, and considered as the capital city of Europe. In addition to that, NATO is also headquartered there. Therefore, it's perfectly normal for someone who has not visited the city to imagine Brussels as a cold city of bureaucracy just like I did.

This stereotype made me ignore the city when making holiday plans for a long time. But, on my first visit, I realized that I was wrong about this beautiful place and felt sorry for not having visited before. I loved the city and its people so much that I returned. I want to go there again soon!

With a population of just over a million, Brussels is a city where the majority of people are from Wallonia although the city is in the Flemish region. The official languages are French and Dutch, but French is more dominant on the streets. You can see this bilingualism almost everywhere. Brussels owes its cosmopolitan nature to its bureaucratic structure and is a destination for immigrants not only from Europe but also from all over the world. As a result of this, the local people and public officials are fluent in English. German is also among the languages spoken.

Brussels' Grand Place (Grote Markt) is one of the most magnificent squares in Europe. Being the most attractive point in the city, the Grand Place is home to the most beautiful works of architecture including the old Town Hall building and the Royal Palace, which currently serves as a museum. With a history of around 700 years, the Grand Place is on UNESCO World Heritage List.

The first settlements in Brussels were established around the Grand Place. The Grand Place and the 2 km2 area that surrounds it consist of centuries-old buildings with beautiful architecture and very narrow streets made of stone. The place can be considered as the heart of the city and offers you the chance to go shopping, taste different local dishes, and visit the various museums.

When you enter the narrow street to the left of the old Town Hall, you'll see a sculpture of Everard t'Serclaes, a local hero who played an important role in the liberation of Belgium in the 14th century. The original sculpture was replaced with a replica because of restoration works. There are myths for tourists saying that if you touch the sculpture, it will bring luck to you and you'll come back to Brussels.

If you continue walking down the same street for a minute or two, you'll reach the famous Manneken Pis, the urinating little boy sculpture. The boy has many names. One of them is Juilanske. He has a long history, and stories about him go back to the 12th to 17th centuries. There are stories telling that the boy urinated on a live bomb and saved the city, or he was the lost child of a noble family. Which one to believe is up to you. Perhaps, they're all made up and in reality it was just a boy who was scared. Let me remind you that the sculpture is considered as one of the "most overrated touristic items of Europe."

Another good thing about Brussels is that you can explore the city on foot despite the wide transportation network. If you like walking, you can explore a large portion of the city without any means of transportation. While you're near Manneken Pis, wouldn't you like to take in a panoramic view of the city? You can walk the historical streets up to the Palace of Justice.

The Palace of Justice is by far one of the most magnificent buildings of Brussels. Unfortunately, it's been under renovation for a long time, and you can see only a part of the building. But you get a sense of the greatness at the very first glance. Being located in front of the building, the Monument of the Unknown Soldier is another object worth seeing. When you view Brussels from in front of the Palace of Justice, you'll see that almost the entire city is preserved in its originality, except for a few modern buildings.

Of course, one of the must-see buildings in Brussels is the Royal Palace. You can reach the Royal Square by taking a walk on the boulevard in front of the Palace of Justice. But, if you want to take a break, I have a very good tip for you. On the same boulevard, there is The Church of Our Lady, a 15th century Baroque building located in the Sablon.

Right across from the church, there is the Sablon Garden, a nice place for a short break. When you enter this small park, you'll suddenly begin to hear birds singing and the noise of city will disappear. The fountain in the center of the park was built in memory of Count Edgmont and Count Horne, who fought side by side during the Spanish invasion in the 16th century and were executed together in the Grand Place. The duo was sculptured shoulder to shoulder and in time people began to use the saying, “together like Edgmont and Horne.”

The park also features sculptures that depict the professions of the time in addition to sculptures of many military/political figures. The park makes you feel as if you are visiting an outdoor museum, which offers a visual feast.

Belgium managed to stay neutral until the 1900s when Europe was shaken by war. Even though they were occupied in wartime, the country actively fought only a few wars including the war of independence. I believe this was because of their desire to uphold the law. This is even reflected in the architectural structures. While the Palace of Justice was built on the highest hill of the city with an obvious influence over it, the Royal Palace looks very simple by comparison. It feels from the end of the boulevard as if the Palace of Justice's shadow is cast over the Royal Palace. It is worth noting that this is a very good example of showing the prevalence of law over the monarchy.

Brussels Park starts right in front of the Royal Palace and is one of the biggest parks of the city. The park has many nice paths, perfect for those who can't stop walking in the mornings even when on vacation. Another must-see building is the Royal Church, which is close to the central train station.

Brussels offers many places to see. One of them is Atomium. Being built for the World’s Fair (EXPO) in 1958, the monument has become a tourist attraction over the years. If you are interested in science, you must see it.

Brussels is a city of rain; there is rain in every season. In addition, the winters can be extremely cold in Belgium. They say the reason why Belgian chocolate is so beautiful is the bad weather all year long. Legend has it that they increased chocolate production in order to end the depression caused by the bad weather! This is good news for the people! During your stay in Brussels, you'll see shops selling chocolates almost everywhere. You may not find what you're looking for if you prefer gift-wrapped multi-flavored chocolates. If you want to taste real Belgian chocolate, I'd recommend the small, boutique chocolate shops all over the city. They may be more expensive, but for me the taste of their produce is priceless. I almost forgot to tell you that there is a Chocolate Museum in the street to the right of the Town Hall.

Another Belgian delicacy is of course the waffle! You may enjoy tens of different types of waffle and find the best among special waffles associated with different cities. The Brussels waffle is rectangular while the one in Liege is the regular one you can see anywhere. Their recipes have minor differences but the real difference is this: waffle dough has a near-liquid consistency in the rest of the world while the Brussels recipe is made from leavened dough. Therefore, the dough itself has a neutral taste. This means it can be consumed with chocolate as well as cheese.

Of course, chocolate and waffles are not the only sweet food. Located in the square behind the Grand Place, Galleries Royales St. Hubert is a place where you can find many cafes. You can sit in any one of them in order to enjoy a nice coffee and a great pie. The gallery houses boutique chocolate shops, toy shops, gift shops, etc. on both sides. I especially recommend Arcadi Cafe, which is located right by the entrance. You can enjoy dinner there as well.

Brussels, as mentioned, welcomes immigrants from all over the world. This also means immigration of the entire world cuisine to Brussels. You can find Asian restaurants, Greek taverns, Turkish restaurants, and Italian pizza places in Brussels. Also, you can enjoy the city's famous mussels and seafood in the streets around the Grand Place. You must try the Belgian cuisine, which mainly consists of seafood.

If you don't want to sit in a restaurant, your destination will obviously be the streets. If you want to continue exploring Brussels while you eat, then street food will come handy. You may satisfy your appetite with the world-famous Belgian fries, which you can buy from almost every corner. If you like hot spices, then you must try "samurai" sauce.

Another gourmet delight in the city is of course the legendary Brussels beers. You may find hundreds of different types of beer to taste or to take away as a gift almost everywhere in Brussels. Brewing is a very important industry in Belgium. You may find different types of ale from fruit beer to chocolate beer. Many of the beers come with their own special glass, which can also make a wonderful gift for beer lovers.

If you can't find the opportunity to see the Brewery Museum, then I'd recommend you go to Delirium Cafe to enjoy a lively evening. Located a few minutes from the Grand Place, Delirium itself looks like a brewery museum. This cafe has earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records with various in-house beers, and has become a notable tourist attraction.

Brussels offers many shopping options for those who simply can't give up shopping during their vacation. If you are looking for famous brands from around the world, you can find many shops in Louise and Waterloo boulevards near the Palace of Justice. Grand Sablon is a nearby square and together with its surrounding streets, it's like a heaven for art lovers. You can find an art gallery or a second-hand store in every building. Art galleries offer a wide portfolio from portraits to antiques. You may come across a toy from 1950s or 300-year-old dinnerware in the shops located here. Meanwhile for book lovers, there is a branch of the German Taschen Books on the same street. There is also an antiques market on the weekends in Grand Sablon.

If you are looking for more economic ways of shopping, you can explore the streets that surround the Grand Place, and visit the shops near the Stock Exchange building. The same area also houses many cafes and restaurants, which are particularly lively in the evenings. If you visit the city in the winter, then you may spend fun time at the skating rink in front of the National Theater!

If you are a comic book fan, then you'll see the famous figures created by Belgian illustrators all over the city. Tintin in particular will welcome you everywhere. You may buy something for yourself or as a gift for your loved ones. If you are a fan, then Comics Cafe at Grand Sablon would be a good choice for you!

With its historical streets, architectural wonders, museums, waffles and chocolate, beers, comic books, cozy cafes, kind people, fun night life, art and fashion galleries, second-hand stores, record stores, and toy shops, Brussels doesn't look like a city of bureaucracy. The city gives you many of the things you would want from a vacation. If you like walking, you may walk through the streets for hours and see the finest details of the city. This beautiful place is definitely worth exploring! I recommend you forget your prejudices and visit Brussels as soon as possible.

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