Brussels: Politics, Architecture, Beer & Smurfs

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Blogger Erik describes his trip to Brussels over Christmas.

Gothic rock and how many guitars did Eric Clapton give away?

Brussels lies at the crossroad of the Germanic culture from the north and the Romance of the south, and the architecture is a testament to the ever-changing guardians over the centuries of war. The gothic Main Square with the Townhouse and the nearby buildings, one of them housing a Hard Rock Cafe, express the quintessence of the style. Let's call it gothic rock.


Slash's self portrait + the recognisable architecture = Gothic Rock

The self-portrait by Slash, guitarist of Guns N Roses, was hanging right above my table and nearby was a guitar bestowed by Eric Clapton. I found it quite unique. But then a few weeks later, my friend posted a photo from London's Hard Rock Cafe with another of Clapton's guitar. He must have been giving them out like street newspapers.

Incidentally, Brussels is full of free papers in multiple languages. The city has always been bilingual and then English joined as the language of the European Parliament.

A salmon baguette at the centre of the European Union

I wanted to see the European parliament and my friend joined me. On our way, we stopped for a sandwich at the central station and I bought a salmon baguette for about €3.40. But there was real salmon inside, not from a tin, but a thick fillet. At the train station in Bratislava, you can get a salmon baguette for €1.50, but it has never even seen a fish, just the remnants of fish paste. Well, you pay more in Brussels, but at least you get what you want.

It goes like this in Brussels; only the parliament visit is completely free of charge. And it was so interesting that we spent over two hours there. There were authentic photographs, recordings and documents from the history of the world.


The parlamentarium with endless things to see

Many of the most important events in European history were there, including such things as the Turkish attack on Cyprus, the Prague Spring, John Paul kissing Polish soil, Gagarin, ABBA, Russian soldiers enjoying fast food in 90's, Steve Jobs with his computer, human chains commemorating victory in WWII, families looking for the victims of the 2005 London bombing and people queuing for bread in Romania. If you spent two days there you could go for a degree in Politics or International Relations I reckon.

The most public urination friendly capital

Not far from the Main Square is one of Brussels' landmarks- Manneken Pis, the statue of the pissing boy. Although he is only two inches tall, he is hugely popular. Locals dress him up in different ways; he has collected about 300 costumes overall. Thanks to Manneken, Brussels is full of public urination.

There is everything from a Brazilian Manneken inviting you to the FIFA World Cup, to a Smurf in the same position (I'm just glad that it wasn't Smurfette). I reckon they have many followers at night, when people get drunk along the 2km long Christmas market.

A...unique landmark and type of statue

But there is another Brussels. I realised this when walking towards my airport shuttle bus across a poorer quarter with rows of kebab shops, rubbish on the street and a construction worker urinating in the middle of a building site not far from a market place. Brussels is attractive to immigrants from the former French and Dutch colonies who do not speak English, and as is so often the case, they create their own poor communities.

Good beer, good chocolate, but don't combine them!

Belgian beer is ranked amongst the best in the world. In the Middle Ages, it was brewed by the monks who kept the recipes in secret, and today there are many small, family breweries that offer tasty ales. The average shop offers about 250 beers, but reportedly, there is a special brewery shop with over 2,000 beers on offer.

Another famous food in Brussels is chocolate. It is almost an art and the pieces from the best chocolatiers are kept in special cooling boxes in the shops. I wanted to combine the two and ordered a chocolate beer. As I presumed, it did not taste nice.

Apart from beer and chocolate, the streets around the Main Square are full of cosy restaurants. They're mostly French-style brasseries with tiny tables, candles and bread & butter served on red & white checked cloth. Old chansons playing in the background completed the atmosphere of 1920's Paris, except that it was Brussels in the 21st century.

There were candles burning in the dying atmosphere of the closing Christmas Market where you can have a Jagermeister from a test-tube or waffle with ice cream in the ice cold. Everything is really delicious and this is where I learnt not to judge food only by nutritional value.

How do the Smurfs preserve their genome?

Brussels is the birthplace of several famous fairy tale and cartoon characters including the Smurfs. There is a comic strip museum in the city and I found a comic shop not far from the cathedral, which is similar to Notre Dame or Reims. The gargoyles of Notre Dame were animated into Quasimodo's companions in the modern version of the story and those in Brussels could easily lend their faces to the Smurfs.

The Brussels cathedral

Originally, there were about 100 Smurfs, each based on an adjective. Hence, Grumpy is called Grumpy. They are the archetypes of ordinary people - have you discovered yourself in a Smurf?

I was curious how they preserve their species if there are only two female Smurfs in the village, Smurfette and the small ginger one. But it is one of the things I sadly didn't find out during my trip, alongside climbing to the top of the Atomium and visiting the portrait gallery. That there are so many things to do is the privilege of visiting a big city.

Erik Redli is a university graduate from Slovakia who lived in London for much of his graduate life. Read more of his posts here.

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