After a generous (but expensive) hotel breakfast, the next day we spent walking around Brussels after the short hour train ride taking us to Brussels Central Station. This train station would be a dear friend over the next few days, as we bopped around. We decided to walk to our hotel which was only 10 minutes away, central to everything in town. Luckily the weather was holding for us – no rain so far.
Our hotel was called Art de Sejour, and the owner, Mario, promptly checked us in. He was hospitable and efficient, and spent time walking us through a map of the city and various recommendations, including the location of several Christmas markets. He was very helpful. It was, in fact, the first time we even learned that we could get a Belgian digital COVID certificate as foreigners, in place of our silly American paper certificate that looked oh so highly official. Upon learning we could get one of these, we were disappointed that our Bruges hotel (Hotel de Tuilerieen) had not even mentioned that we could get one.
We discovered as we traveled that the US appeared to be the only backwards country we encountered without a form of digital vaccine proof that could easily be displayed as a QR code on one’s phone. Infinitely more civilized than a small piece of paper that could so easily get wet, torn, damaged, or forged for that matter. For a country overly concerned with fraud, you’d think the vaccine cards would be more sophisticated in the US.
Fortunately, the Belgian vaccine certificate digitization process was free and available to foreigners. The bad news was that it could take up to 2 days. Mario gave us the link to fill it out, and said that other Americans that had stayed with him had received it nearly immediately. After uploading digital pictures of our vaccine card and our passport to their website and filling out a few more details, we let our applications fly and crossed our fingers. Apparently Brussels was more strict that Bruges and would not let you in to Christmas markets nor restaurants without it, and we planned to visit them while walking around Brussels. We were pleasantly surprised that our documents were accepted and digitized within the hour, and that we could put away our physical card for a while. Here is the link for all those interested.
Our room was room #2 and was ready immediately; even though we were there around 1230pm (check in for all hotels we stayed at was guaranteed by 3PM). It was spacious and well decorated, but the toilet was not in its own room like it was at our previous hotel. We appreciated the generous toiletries as well as a smart TV with the ability to hook up your Netflix account (we did in the late evening on a few occasions). Here are some pictures of the room:
We had scheduled a walking around Brussels tour at 2PM leaving from the Grand Place, since we preferred to get a lay of the land as quickly as possible so we could have the option to visit Antwerp or Gent the next day. On the way to the Grand Place, we saw the Mannekin Pis, the famed child peeing. It was decorated in an odd costume that we couldn’t quite figure out, until we put it together in the main square.
It was raining heavily and was cold, but the celebratory spirit was palpable once we arrived at Grand Place. There was a huge Christmas tree in the middle of the square, a manger display, and decorations on all the buildings – not to mention a very large group of people singing and dancing in one corner of the square. It was Albanian Independence Day and there was a huge celebration, which explains the little costume on the Mannekin Pis. Brussels was not only a cosmopolitan, international city, but also the NATO headquarters, which drew in residents from all over.
Our tour guide was hard to find because he had an unlabeled umbrella and no tourists had joined him yet. At a little after 2PM we located him after asking other, more visible guides. We appeared to be the only tourists until a few more minutes had passed and 3 other couples showed up. His name was Quentin and he was born and raised in Brussels.
The tour started in the Grand Place where we went over a lot of the same things we learned about in Bruges regarding the power of the Guilds and some of the building they commissioned. He pointed out that the main government building on the square was also not symmetrical – looking at it, the right side was longer than the left side. It was not designed this way; however, after construction began the city wanted to make it even larger and more grand, so began to expand it, realizing only after they started that they didn’t have enough space.
After the Grand Place, we went back to the Mannekin Pis statue, and Quentin confirmed he was wearing a little Albanian jacket and hat. Apparently, there are over 1,000 costumes for the statue and they are kept in the Mannekin Pis museum just next tour. Each day a new costume is placed on him, and some days (such as our final day) you can see him in his full, naked, glory. Across from the statue, we noticed the Mannekin Pis chocolate store, which had a full size replicate of the status in chocolate, complete with baby penis (which appeared to be slightly bitten off!).
The city was really proud of this little statue and took pride to keep it outfitted properly and fitting to the occasion at hand. The origin of the statue is said to be a few fold (choose your adventure):
- A king in the 17 century was very young, only 2 years old, and was said to have inspired his troops in a battlefield by hanging out in a basket placed on a tree branch up high, urinating every time the troops needed encouragement.
- “Walking” the battlefield and pissing on the enemy to help his fellow soldiers.
- Neither of the above. Urine was required for leather production (as we learned when we were in Fez, Morocco) , and peasants sold their children’s urine to make a little extra money. This is where the phrase “piss poor” came from, since it was the only thing they could sell.
I personally like explanation #1 the best.
Next stop were the galleries, an exclusive shopping and dining area for the rich, built in 18th century. Admission used to be charged to keep the riff raff out, but today it is free to all. We did notice quite a few beggars and people experiencing homelessness on the streets of Brussels, in contrast to Bruges, which again reminded us that this was a large, modern city, with large, modern city problems. We were surprised to see that many of them appeared to be Syrian or Afghan, and wondered whether Belgium’s social services, which we had imagined to be generous, did not apply to them somehow.
Quentin pointed out one of his favorite chocolate shops, Mary’s, in the galleries and also mentioned Galler, as another one in town that he liked. These were both small businesses as opposed to the bigger chains. In fact, Mary’s was founded by a woman in a time where very few women were in business (19th century), and grew a successful multi-generational business that endured through the years, and still made their chocolate in house instead of purchasing it.
For our last stop, we went to the palace, which was the royal residence of the King of Belgium. This was the highest point of the city and was nearby the train station. The king was not in residence on the day we visited, as observed by a flag not being present. Here we learned about several Belgian kings, and focused on King Leopold who ruled in the 19th century, and then King Alfred who rules during the first and second world wars. Quentin contrasted these kings by exploring the dark colonial history of Leopold, who took part in the African land grab alongside other contemporary rulers, and ended up with the Congo. Rich in natural resources, Leopold set out to extract wealth and subjugate, enslave, and murder the citizens in doing so. He murdered somewhere between 6 and 10 million Congolese people in his dark pursuit. Joseph Conrad’s book “Heart of Darkness” also followed from Leopold’s exploitation. The people and parliament did not support Leopold’s desire to colonize – modern Belgium was only founded in the 19th century and as a young nation, there were other problems that needed taking care of. When it came out later how much wealth Leopold had accumulated off the backs of the Congolese, Belgian people were deeply ashamed and eventually gave the Congo back to the Congolese. The royal family’s reputation was tarnished for a considerable time after.
Until Alfred, a nephew, came to power at the turn of the 20th century. Unlike Leopold, who was a hand’s off ruler, Alfred and his wife were both involved in the war effort (he lead the Belgian troops as the head of the military and his wife worked as a field nurse). Alfred was a brilliant military tactician as well, hearkening back to the Battle of the Golden Spurs, which we learned about in Bruges. After Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo (which we learned about here), Germany wanted to break Belgium’s neutral position and asked for passage to march through in order to attack France. Alfred said no, and instead amassed a small army, and using the knowledge of the terrain (bogs and mud), was able to hold back the Germans for more than 3 weeks, allowing England, France, and America to organize troops into the fight. Recognizing Alfred as the military strategist and tactician he was, foreign troops ceded control of their armies to him, not the other way around. Alfred and his wife played a similarly visible role during World War II, encouraging the troops and giving weekly radio broadcasts to lift moral. After his reign, the reputation of the royal family was restored. In modern day, the king descended from Alfred’s line and was well-liked, although only a figurehead.
After the tour, we walked around a bit more and tried some frites from Friteria Tabora (Quentin recommended to get the weirdest sauce possible – we weren’t sure exactly what we chose but it tasted like a combo of mustard and ketchup).
Then we went to the Galler chocolate shop and bought several bars of dark chocolate, as well as an assorted box of truffles. We ended up consuming most of our supply later on the trip, and also brought some home for Christmas presents.
We then found ourselves back in the Grand Place (main square) just in time for the opening weekend of the holiday lights celebration, which played every night starting at 5PM and ran through early January. Walking around Brussels this time a year offered festive lighting and decorations at nearly every turn (in other words, it was a great time to visit!).
On our way back to the hotel, we decided to stop at a beer place that Quentin recommended (Moeder Lambic), which happened to be only a few blocks from where we were staying. I tried another Trappist beer while Brendan ordered one of the brewery’s homebrews.
Back at our hotel a little later, we took some rest and organized dinner. We decided on a little Italian joint very close by that was highly rated on TripAdvisor – Winehouse Osteria. We both started with the pumpkin soup (which we started to notice was a thing this time of year everywhere we went) and shared some bruschetta. Followed by the black truffle pasta for Brendan and the mushroom risotto for me. We liked mine slightly better as the truffle taste can get overpowering after more than a few bites. The wine was excellent on my side, and Brendan stuck with beer since wine sadly destroys his sinuses.
Afterwards, we took a quick walk through the various Christmas markets to get a lay of the land for future nights. Similar to the ones we saw in Bruges, and in fact even less Christmassy and more just an excuse to party. That said, it was a beautiful, clear night, and a wonderful night to take a walk and work off dinner. As a cosmopolitan, capital city, Brussels was bustling and walking around at night was a lovely experience.