Saturday, April 19, 2014

Day 10: Briefly in Brussels

Ten days ago this morning I was frantically working; trying to get everything critical taken care of before going away.  By the end of the day last Wednesday, I had worked something like 33 hours since Monday morning (more if I count Sunday).  Not bad hours for a Bay Street banker, but from my European-inspired perspective….not exactly my long-term objective.  On the topic of work, I was up this morning almost as early as I get up for work.  I had to catch the 7:25am train to Luxembourg!

Because of that jaunt to Utrecht, I cut out my time in Belgium.  Because of the Van Gogh museum and the lack of overnight trains through Brussels, I missed out on the Dutch countryside and windmills.  It’s funny how sometimes life opens doors that you thought were closed.  An early morning train out of Amsterdam allowed for a stopover in Brussels.  Conveniently enough, Sandeman’s Walking Tours has a daily tour that starts at 11am.  If Brussels is worth a day, I’ll still get the most productive part of it! Notwithstanding the excitement of getting to Brussels, I was a little heavy-lidded on the train out of Amsterdam…. There’s a windmill in the distance!  Almost too far to see the detail, there was a traditional Dutch windmill off in the countryside.  Then another.  And another.  Soon enough, there was a collection of four windmills grouped together, with modern windmills providing an artistic backdrop.  Maybe not the tour of a working windmill I had originally hoped for, but a scenic tour of the Dutch countryside through windmill country nonetheless.  Makes me want some cheese…

So concluded the Holland portion of this adventure.  Aside from a minor irritation when a slow-moving, luggage-burdened couple prevented me getting off the train at my stop in Brussels (it was a small comfort that the guy was also prevented from disembarking, leaving his confused-looking partner standing on the platform as we pulled away), getting to Brussels was smooth.  Even with the mishap, it was an easy workaround; the next stop was 5 minutes away, and another train had me back in Brussels Central within 15 minutes. (I can't help but compare that to the last time I got off at the wrong stop from a GO train...)

They say the Brussels is the most European city, and a recent analysis tagged it as #11 in the ranking of the world’s most important cities. (Thanks largely to the EU’s headquarters in Brussels.) Combine the character of Brussels with the unique aspects of Hoilland, and it was veritable culture shock when I exited the Brussels Central train station.  For the first time in several days, I felt utterly bewildered! (To add to my confusion, Brussels does not seem to have the same widespread Wifi to which I had grown accustomed in Holland, and my phone took a long time to connect to the data network. I had no idea where I was going to find my tour.)
Thankfully, Brussels isn’t really that big.  A few simple directions from a friendly hotel concierge, and I was standing in Brussels’ central square.  I was staring at some of the most fantastic-looking buildings I have ever seen:

In Brussels, as in Amsterdam, Sandeman’s Free Walking Tours seems the most convenient way to see the best of the city in limited time.  This time our guide was a Scot.  Still not a local, but at least he has a cool accent!  Seriously, I don’t know how the Brussels tour could possibly have been better.  Fraser’s passion for Brussels, politics, and the EU (Fraser went to school to be a lawyer, so this link to politics has a foundation) showcased the city exceptionally well.

More than perhaps anywhere else in Belgium, Brussels is where Flemish and French culture meet…and clash.  Over three-hundred years ago, the French claimed this former Dutch-speaking city as their own. The cultural divide is still evident in the duplicate names of streets and landmarks.  Whereas the French name for the central square is Grand Place, highlighting the grandeur of the area, the Dutch name is Grote Markt, a reflection of the market square that predated the French cultural invasion.  This cultural invasion by the French was reinforced by a military one, and the buildings around the square largely reflect the conquerors.  The Grote Markt was originally framed by the houses of merchants who owed their wealth to the markets.  These homes were destroyed during the 17th century by the invading French (or French-speaking Belgians, perhaps) and these “modern” buildings were built in their place.  The Baker’s and Brewers Guilds were among the most prominent; the Brewers Guild stands alone as the only remaining guildhall still owned by the original association.

In addition to international governance and cultural diversity, Brussels is also known for something else (aside from chocolate):

Until 1990, cigarettes and alcohol were advertised on the sides of buildings in Brussels.  When the city decided to clean those off and present a more wholesome image, they were left with ugly brick walls.  So, in homage to Belgium’s passion for comics, the city engaged the Comic Book Association to produce murals of some of the iconic Belgian comic characters.  Another mural depicts a well-known Belgian comic character (who is not well-known to me, and so I have forgotten the name) strolling with his friend.  In 1991, this image caused some uproar as it was unclear whether the male comic “star” was strolling with a male or female companion.  Subsequently, the painting was actually adjusted to make the companion more feminine.  

Um…kind of.

All this in a country which has an openly gay Prime Minister! (By the way, this mural is up in the gay district.)

No trip to Brussels is complete without a visit to Manneken Pis.

Yep….that fountain is a statue of a peeing baby.  Fanciful theories abound about the source of this absurdity.  Fraser assured us that it’s not because he’s a bad tour guide that he doesn’t know the truth about why there is a peeing baby at this corner.  No-one does. There has been a statue of a peeing baby there for several hundred years; originally a stone carving, and subsequently upgraded to metal.  (Bronze, maybe?) This one is fairly new, as the statue has been stolen several times.  Once it was even stolen by French soldiers, and King Louis XIV returned it to Brussels with apologies.  To compensate for the insult of the theft, the King knighted the baby and proclaimed him a member of an elite order; rumour has it that French soldiers had to salute the baby as they passed. While he couldn’t inform us why it was there, Fraser did explain how this fountain became a meeting place for people to sell their pee.  You see, when you are really poor; when you have nothing, you still have urine.  There was a time when there was a use for urine (and I’m not referring to bottling it and selling it as American beer).  Urine is a source of ammonia, which is used in the tanning industry.  Next time you sink into a leather sofa, think about that!  Fraser didn’t mention this, but urine was also key in the production of explosives until scientists found a cheap way to chemically synthesize nitrogen.  I don’t know that Brussels was prominent in the development of TNT, but it was a European who brought it to market…

This is something I would have expected in Amsterdam more than Brussels:

The Brussels Cathedral (like Brussels park, locals drop the “Brussels” and refer to “the Cathedral” and “the park”…because when you’re in Brussels, it seems rather self-evident) looks an awful lot like Notre Dame in Paris from the front.

The construction of both churches started around the same time (around the years 1200-1300), hence the similar Gothic look.  Whereas Notre Dame was finished about a hundred years after it was begun, Brussels Cathedral took over seven hundred years to complete.  The difference?  Parisian Catholics had money.  As a result of this slow progression, Brussels Cathedral is a mix of architecture – Gothic in the front, and Baroque in the back. (See the rounded arches and fewer straight lines in the back, as compared to the severe angles, broken arches, and flying buttresses in the front portion.  Who would have thought my university course on French art and architecture would prove useful?)

While we were standing at the back of the cathedral, poor Fraser the guide, nearly got in a fight defending the tour group.  Some foolish driver roared past us, taking a blind corner at high speed.  We were a big tour group, and so were – admittedly – spilling off the sidewalk onto the street; Fraser was on the shoulder of this quiet, nearly deserted road.  When the driver zoomed by, Fraser turned in shock and shouted something at the car….I didn’t catch it, but I think it was less than flattering.  The driver stopped and stepped out of his car:  “Qu’est-ce que to m’a dis?”  Still upset, Fraser told the driver to slow down and be careful.  The driver repeated: “What did you say to me….at first?” Fraser had regained composure by this time and urged the man to slow down and continue on his way, but enjoy his day. He put a conciliatory hand on the man’s arm.  “Don’t touch me” the driver warned. He made a note of Fraser’s name, threatened that he would be calling the tour company and complaining, and left.  Fraser was profusely apologetic to us that the event happened, and that it had escalated so.  Then he turned to a couple of us nearby – “It wasn’t just me; he was driving really fast.  Wasn’t he?”  Yes he was.  Then Fraser chuckled, almost to himself.  “It doesn’t matter.  If he emails a complaint, it goes to the boss, and that’s me.” J Nevertheless, I made a note to write a positive review of Fraser’s tour on Trip Advisor, just in case there’s a need for positive reviews to balance any complaints.

Brussels was born as an independent country in the early eighteen hundreds.   Having witnessed the abuses of power in the neighbouring countries, the smart Belgians insisted upon a constitutional monarchy. (Why they felt the need for a monarchy at all is beyond me, but kings were more or less in vogue at the time.)  Having decided on a constitution and a parliament, they then had to decide on a king….had to be of royal blood, of course!  The Flemish Belgians wouldn’t stand for a French King.  The French Belgians wouldn’t stand for a Dutch King.  The third option was to cater to the German minority in the south-east of the country.  A German noble was elevated to the post of Belgium’s first king – only after he had signed a vow to adhere to the constitution and to defend Belgium’s independence against all external powers. This latter principle was tested a hundred years later when the Germans decided the fastest route to Paris was through Belgium in World War One. Then and ever since, Belgian nationality has proudly carried the idea of “Brave Little Belgium”.

I’ve always been fascinated by the European Union, and Fraser’s tour of Brussels has whet my appetite to know more about this. Belgium’s prominence in the EU is partly a product of its small-state status (small states always prefer power-sharing and consensus over American unilateralism), and partly a product of sheer pragmatism (Germany wouldn’t want France to host the headquarters, and France wouldn’t want Germany to host, but they could both tolerate a small and less-powerful country playing host).  Belgium has taken on the role with pride.

After the tour, I had a few minutes to spare before my train to Luxembourg…time for fries with mayonnaise and a waffle!  Oh, those tasty Belgian fries!  That’s right – not French fries.  The Belgians are proud of their fries, and the way they do it differently than the French.  In fact, according to Fraser, Belgian fries were the original.  When the Allies stormed Normandy and pushed right through to Belgium, they thought they were still in France.  (The people spoke French…) The Belgian fries were mixed up as French fries thereafter.  The waffle was pretty damn tasty, too – and it was from a vendor in the train station!

Luxembourg train station is a little less impressive than Amsterdam or Rotterdam (or even Brussels Central station, which is in itself pretty basic).  Surprising, given that Fraser had warned that Luxembourg is exceptionally expensive! The area around Luxembourg is nothing special, either.  I was struggling with an internal debate as to whether Luxembourg was the right destination…until the peaked towers in the old city came into view.  It looked promising!  

I can’t really pretend that I did much sightseeing this evening.  I trudged almost 4km from the train station to my hotel with forty pounds of luggage…getting lost only once.  My phone battery was dying, and I couldn’t pick up the data network. I saw some beautiful views, but limited the time to take photos so that I could get to my hotel and put down my bags.  What I did notice, however, was evidence that spring is well underway in Luxembourg; much more than in Toronto.
A very friendly Luxembourger saw me peering at a map at a bus station, and helped me figure out where to go.  Finally, a very appealing view:

The kindest, friendliest woman at the reception upgraded my room, gave me a late checkout for tomorrow, and mapped out my day of sightseeing – the royal treatment. Third country today, and Europe continues to amaze.  I’m exhausted.  Good night!

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