Day 56 – Brussels

Friendly / Day 56 of 64 / 04 July

Good morning Brussels! Today I left the hostel at 11am, and made my way to the historic centre of Brussels, the Grand Square [Grote Markt/Grand Place]. I had booked another tour with Sandeman’s, and it would be starting from the Square at 1.30pm. Meanwhile, I decided to try some local specialities.

The first item on the menu was Belgian fries, also known as frites. Whatever you do, do NOT call them French fries. I visited a small shop and ordered some frites with a spicy and tangy sauce. It’s exactly what you would expect from fries, no surprises there. I guess the difference between frites and typical fast food fries lies in its sauces, which can make this Belgian favourite taste incredibly rich. So rich in fact that I only managed to eat about 3/4 of the serving before I felt bloated.

After some strolling about along Brussel’s narrow streets, I finally had enough space in my stomach to try yet another Belgian speciality: waffles. This time, I popped over to a small cafe and ordered some classic waffles and a cup of coffee. It’s true when people say that you should always order plain waffles because the plain ones alone already taste that good. Accompanied by coffee, the waffles make the perfect snack.

After my morning experiments in gluttony, it was finally time to begin the tour. The tour group gathered in front of the most iconic building in the Grand Square, the Town Hall [Stadhuis/Hôtel de Ville], at around 1.30pm. After all the prerequisite introductions were done, we began our tour.

Thank you kind French aunty for this incredibly French photo angle. Love it!

The first point of interest was the Town Hall. Towering over the square, the Hall still functions as the offices of the city government till this day. Unlike most landmark buildings, however, the Town Hall is unique: it isn’t symmetrical. The left wing of the building is longer than the right wing. That’s because it was decided that the building needed to be bigger while it was under construction. Unfortunately, closing the road to the right to expand the building wasn’t an option, and since the tower was already built, it was decided that the left wing would just be built longer than the right.

That led us to our next point of interest, the Square itself. Now, you might have already noticed that most places in Belgium seem to have two names: one in Dutch and one in French, and often they can have rather different meanings. This is because Brussels is officially a bilingual city. Now, in the case of the Square, it’s Dutch name, Grote Markt, provides more insight into its historic purpose than its French name, Grand Place. Grote Markt translates as Grand Market, which makes it obvious what the Square was once famous for. As the crossroads of Western Europe, Brussels was a flourishing trading city, with goods from far and wide being traded right here in the Square. Guilds were also thriving, representing almost every type of trade that appeared in this square. In fact, the buildings surrounding the Grand Square were all formerly guildhouses.

The next stop on the tour was the Manneken Pis, probably the most recognisable icon of Brussels. The Manneken Pis is essentially a statue of a boy taking a piss, but that hasn’t stopped it from gaining worldwide fame. The statue is much beloved amongst tourists and locals alike. On our visit, the statue was dressed up with little sheep surrounding him. Cute. According to our guide, this happens quite often, with the statue being dressed up for major events or holidays. Once, on World AIDS Day, the statue was dressed up as a condom. Belgium humour. But, here’s a secret: despite all the fame it has gained, the current statue on display isn’t even the original. The original is kept in a museum, which makes you wonder: do people enjoy the statue because they think its historic, or do they just enjoy the idea of a statue of a boy peeing.

What a shame, I missed him in his full glory.

We visited many other sites along the way, such as the clumsily named Co-Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula [Collegiale Sint-Michiels en Sint-Goedele co-kathedraal/Co-Cathédrale collégiale des Ss-Michel et Gudule], and we learned some interesting facts, such as the fact that Belgium is the country with the second highest number of comic book artists in the world.

The cathedral with two saints.

When this mural was first painted years ago, people were not very happy that they couldn’t tell who was the guy and who was the girl. Even after giving her an earring and wider hips, people still weren’t satisfied. The controversy eventually made the area around the mural popular with the LGBT community, and today the area serves as Brussels’ gay district.

Beer break during our tour.

However, I think the most interesting part of the tour was making a new friend with one of the other tour participants. When we began our tour, our eccentric tour guide asked us to break the ice and say hello to the other participants around us. Not long after the tour started, my soon to be new friend, Veena, asked me where I was from. She said she had been trying to guess my nationality from earlier on in the tour: I’m assuming that because I had a slightly dark complexion, she might’ve thought I was a fellow Thai too.

Anyway, same nationality or not, we had a great time talking: about the tour, and also about our vacation plans in general. I learned that she was a field hockey official and that she was in Europe because of an international competition that she needed to officiate. She was also a member of the Royal Thai Armed Forces, serving as a physical fitness instructor there.

After the tour ended, we both decided to go on our own mini-tour of Brussels. We started walking in the direction of Brussels-South Station, where she was going to catch a train from, and along the way, we stopped at some pretty interesting places. One of those places was the amazing lookout point near the Infantry Memorial. From this lookout point, you’re able to look above the roofs of the many medium-rise buildings and catch a wonderful view of Brussels. Also, near the lookout point, there’s an elevator that brings you to the neighbourhood below. We took the elevator down, and from there, we continued making our way to Bruxelles-Midi. We parted ways at the station, but not before I agreed to let her show me around Bangkok, like a local, whenever I happened to be there. Thanks once again Veena for making my time in Brussels enjoyable and entertaining, you’ve been a great tour companion!

Some of the sights along the way.

Me and Veena with the Infantry Memorial behind us.

The view from the lookout and the elevator connecting the upper and lower districts.

A beautiful sky just before I headed to bed for the night.

– Ryan

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