There are certain moments where you realise that you’re about to form a special memory – one of those pivotal points of your young life that will crystallise perfectly, and which you’ll think of for the rest of your life. Each time this peculiar sensation occurs, I’m overcome by a sudden panic – I’d better not screw this up, I think, I’m going to remember this forever. This was the feeling that struck me when Alex and I walked together into the Grand Place at the heart of Brussels to a swelling, rumbling classical score and a stunning illumination display. It left me breathless.
And the best part was, as Alex and I held each other and shivered in the dark, I didn’t screw it up – and neither did Brussels. They say you only get one chance at a first impression – for me, Brussels knocked it so far out of the park that the proverbial baseball blew up the sun and doomed humanity to a grim future of eternal darkness. It was perfect.
I later discovered that we were lucky enough to have arrived right in the middle of the Winter Festival – the Plaisirs d’Hiver – which was the justification for the lightshow that had served as our welcome to Brussels. That we happened to wander into the Grand Place at just the right time to have our proverbial socks knocked off was pure serendipity.
Belgium is a country which has the distinction of being officially bilingual – although this is divided into regions. Certain parts of the country are Flemish – and speak Dutch – whereas other regions are Belgian French, and speak French. In Brussels, people seem to generally speak both languages, as well as relatively good English and German. This was welcome news to me, because my Dutch is limited to “Do you speak English?” and the standard Please & Thank Yous. I did try to learn to apologise for being an uncultured buffoon who speaks only two languages, but there were too many throaty “ich” sounds in that phrase. Dutch is difficult.
All that said, Belgian French is not the same as French French. This was explained to me by a very friendly shop assistant in a chocolaterie; first and foremost, the difference lies in vocabulary. The Belgians have abandoned the bizarre and archaic French numbering system (in which ninety is expressed by the phrase “Four Twenty Ten”) in favour of a system which uses single word numbers. The accent is also quite different and – to my ear – is charmingly hilarious.
With regards to Brussels, I really can’t emphasise enough how beautiful the city is. Every corner is adorned with glorious buildings in a profusion of styles and sizes. Good food is everywhere – fries, waffles, chocolate and beer come pouring from every big restaurant and every tiny hole in the wall. The metro system serves the city admirably, and the outskirts quite well – although at certain stops we did have to endure an adolescence-like series of confusing changes. One could be forgiven for spending days there simply walking around the city goggling like an imbecile at the spectacle of the place – which is pretty much what we did. Except at night we also ate. Our evenings were mainly spent stuffing our faces.
There are, however, quite a few attractions to visit if you are so inclined. One of my very favourite is the Musée royal de l’Armée et d’Histoire Militaire, or Koninklijk Legermuseum or Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History (Yes, everything is labelled like this). Entry to the vast and imposing museum is completely free, despite what must be an incredible cost to maintain the immense collection of artefacts it boasts – the galleries encompass essentially all of the armed conflicts Belgium has ever known; which means everything from the first rock knives early hominids used to smite their enemies all the way up to ultra-modern fighter jets that modern humans use to… well, smite their enemies, I suppose. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s a collection that easily rivals that of the Invalides museum in Paris, and in some ways is considerably better organised.
The highlight for me was the aircraft hangar. I love military vehicles, and someone clearly telephoned King Phillipe of Belgium and informed him of this particularity, since this hanger seems to have been expressly designed to throw me into fits of boyish delight. It is enormous, and houses dozens of aircraft of every imaginable permutation, with many of the most famous models from historical conflicts – Spitfires, Hurricanes, F16s, MiGs – you name it, they’ve got it. We spent pretty much a whole day at the museum and still didn’t see everything in detail. An excuse to go back, I guess.
An attraction which left us considerably less impressed was the (in)famous Manneken Pis – which is inexplicably famous abroad as a symbol of Brussels. Innumerable tacky souvenir shops sell copies of this statue, and I cannot for the life of me fathom why – it’s a tiny statue of a child urinating into a pool. I seriously doubt whether I would draw the same crowd of anguished, shoving tourists if I decided to do the same thing as a performance art piece. Nevertheless, the horrible little gremlin is apparently a must-see. Personally, I would have preferred to see a dinosaur.
Fortunately for me, Brussels also has rather a lot of dinosaurs. Generally speaking, they are contained within the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (Muséum des sciences naturelles de Belgique/Koninklijk Belgisch Instituut voor Natuurwetenschappen). Although if Jurassic Park has taught us anything, it’s that they will eventually escape and go after Jeff Goldblum. I’m sure he can handle it.
The core exhibition of this museum is built around the 1878 discovery of over 30 extremely well-preserved Iguanodon fossiles in the Bernissart coal mine. This is an event which completely revolutionised paleontology and is justifiably accorded top billing. The original fossils have been lovingly preserved and are available on display for visitors. The dinosaur exhibits were also extremely thoughtfully labelled (in four languages, with none being especially privileged above others), including the audio and video components. The lighting was also dramatic and attention-grabbing, but faded into clear spotlighting for signs and details for maximum readability.
Future museum curators, take note – this is how it’s done.
I later learnt that this part of the museum had been recently modernised – and that several other exhibits were in the process of getting the same treatment. This was extremely welcome news, since the dinosaur exhibit was easily the best example of this sort of display that I’ve ever seen – striking a great balance between volume of information, interactivity and aesthetic appeal. By contrast, the less modern parts of the museum were also good – with a special mention for the vivarium chock-full of tarantulas – but will definitely be improved when the renovation is complete. It seems to me that this museum has a tradition of excellence, and they’re doing a great job of keeping that up. I look forward to going back when it’s done.
Alex and I also spent Christmas Day in Brussels. We planned a fairly relaxed Christmas, but we did make time to visit Brussels’ answer to the Eiffel Tower – Atomium.
Atomium is a huge sculpture which hails from the 1958 World’s Fair. It is – I am helpfully informed by a placard at its base – shaped like the like the cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. There’s not a great deal to do there besides walk around gawking at the spectacle, which is precisely what we did. We also had a very lovely walk through the woods which surround the thing – it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere. It’s quite an odd monument, really, but I liked it.
We also visited the vast (vast!) Christmas Markets in the city centre, and rode the Ferris Wheel with a peculiar young boy who strained so hard to get into our capsule that I assumed he was planning to rob us. He didn’t try, and our pockets went unpicked, so I suppose he just wanted to endure the awkwardness of a romantic big wheel ride with a couple on Christmas. We enjoyed it anyway – I’m not sure if he did.
When our last day came, I was very sad to be leaving Brussels – for me, it was what the French call a coup de cœur – something like love at first sight. I’m still a little surprised by it, but I think it might be my favourite city that I’ve visited in Europe – its breathtaking beauty, great attractions and amazing food certainly made an impression. It was the best Christmas destination I could have asked for, and I can’t wait to go back.
To see a gallery of photos pertaining to this post, click here. If photos of Brussels disgust you to your very core, you might instead enjoy this list of the world’s ugliest buildings. Next up, Amsterdam!