We spent only one day in Brussels. Not enough time to feel the pulse of a city that hosts the European Commission, Council of the European Union, and European Council, and is the most important seat of the European Parliament. But the nature of these hectic, multi city, multi country tours, is a frenetic pace at which sight seeing is accomplished.
We arrived in Brussels by train from Amsterdam on a cold Sunday morning. The check in time at our hotel was at noon. So we dropped off our baggage at the hotel and set off to see the sights.
As we walked from our hotel to the nearest railway station, I noticed dirt and grime around me. Public spaces were covered in graffiti. It was surprising because our hotel was in a pretty good part of town, near the Royal Museum of Fine Arts and the Grand Place. Moreover, I was just coming in from Amsterdam, a place where people could and did, sprawl out in public places just to enjoy the weather. Plus of course the expectation that Indians have of 'foreign' countries being so spanking clean that you can eat off the road.
A bit of reading that I have done since returning home reveals some suprising facts. A news report from 2014 notes that nearly 34% of the population in Brussels lives in poverty and that Brussels has the most imbalanced labour market in Europe. 25.7% of children grow up in families where no one works. One in three children in the Brussels-Capital Region lives in poverty. According to a Unicef report on global child poverty, 17.2% of Belgian children live below the poverty line.
Reasons for this scenario are considered to be lack of equal opportunities for immigrants. Research suggests that no other country in Europe has such poor labour market participation among migrants. A similar situation exists in the education scenario also. OECD suggests that Belgium has the highest inequality in the education system in the western world.
This might perhaps explain (although not justify) the horrific bomb blasts that took place in Brussels in March 2016. Violence and terror as a means to express anger and protest is sadly becoming the order of the day.
Moving on to more pleasant thoughts....
The husband, a rabid Tintin fan, was determined to visit the Herge Museum. In fact, it was the reason why we were visiting Brussels at all!
The Herge Museum is located in Louvain-la-Neuve on the outskirts of Brussels at 26, Rue du Labrador. It is dedicated to the life and works of Georges Remi the creator of Tintin, who wrote under the pen name Herge. The museum which opened to the public in June 2009, was designed by architect Christian de Portzamparc and cartoonist Joost Swarte. It is a three storey building containing interesting photographs from Herge's childhood, family and working life. It also has rooms dedicated to the various characters in his books - from the major ones - Tintin, Haddock and Calculus to the supporting cast like Nestor and Jolyon Wagg.
Audio guides are available in English and French and are included in the cost of your ticket. So be sure to pick them up from the counter at the reception. There are lockers where you can deposit your bags and walk around freely. The museum is very spacious and airy and not overcrowded with exhibits which makes the time you spend here very enjoyable.
If you are a die hard Tintin fan, don't forget to go to the little chamber where you can take photographs with the characters. You basically stand in front of a camera and digital screen and select montages from the various adventures. The camera juxtaposes you onto that image and you become a part of it! After this, type in your email address on the screen and the picture is emailed to you. This is a great souvenir from the trip. There is also a little cabin where the walls are covered with the cover pages of all the adventures in every language in which it was ever printed. Another great photo opportunity, all free of cost! The downside is that no other photography is permitted inside this museum. Wifi access is also limited.
A little extra information - if you're in Brussels later on this year, plan a trip to Musee Herge and take a wheel chair tour of the museum atrium. On 3 December 2016, which is the International Day for Persons with Disabilities, the museum is organising a free wheelchair tour to raise awareness of disabilities.
Back in Brussels, we walked down to the Grand Place, not far from our hotel. According to Wikipedia "The Grand Place or Grote Markt is the central square of Brussels. It is surrounded by opulent guildhalls and two larger edifices, the city's Town Hall, and the Breadhouse building containing the Museum of the City of Brussels. The square is the most important tourist destination and most memorable landmark in Brussels. It measures 68 by 110 metres (223 by 361 ft), and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site." And I must admit that this was the first time I had heard of anything called the Grand Place (said she in a small and ashamed voice).
The origin of the Grand Place dates back to the 11th century when an open air marketplace was set up on a dried up marsh near the Fort on Saint Gery Island. By the 13th century, three indoor markets were established - a meat market, a bread market and cloth market - because of which sales carried on even during bad weather. These belonged to the Duke of Brabant. By the 14th century, the area passed into the hands of the local authorities. With the building of the Brussels City Hall, the Grand Place became the seat of municipal power. In a show of one-upmanship, the Duke of Brabant built a large building right across the city hall as a symbol of ducal power. This was built on what used to be the bread and cloth market. It is now known as the Maison du roi (King's House) in French. In Dutch it continues to be known as Broodhuis or Breadhouse.
The Grand Place saw war, destruction and rebuilding over the next few centuries and continued to serve as a market till November 1959. In 1998, it was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tucked away amidst the many souvenir shops, in the by lanes of the Grand Place, is yet another object of art - Manneken Pis or simply Little Boy Pee, a 61 cm tall bronze statue of a little boy peeing into a fountain.
There are many legends and stories behind the statue. Wikipedia claims the most famous one to be of one Duke Godfrey III of Leuven, a two year old aristocrat, who led his troops in battle while hanging from a basket on a tree. He is said to have urinated on the enemy troops and defeated them. A compelling story about the Terrible Twos! The most plausible seems to be one where a wealthy merchant, visiting Brussels with his family, had his son go missing. The search party found the boy urinating in a garden. The merchant had the statue built as a sign of gratitude to the locals.
An interesting tidbit of information is that the statue is dressed in different costumes every week according to a schedule that is displayed on the railings surrounding the statue. The little boy has an impressive wardrobe and the costumes are displayed in a permanent exhibit inside the museum in the Grand Place. All the work with the costumes is done by a non profit called 'The Friends of Manneken Pis'.
With that our sight seeing around Brussels came to an end. It was a really tiring day for me, having traveled from Amsterdam and then spent a good part of the day on my feet. It was also cold with occasional rain on that day. By the end of it, I was ready for a hot bath, food and sleep.
Before I sign off on this post, try your hand at these trivia questions. Leave your guess in the comments section. And I'll provide the answers in about a week's time:
1. Musee Herge is located at 26, Rue du Labrador - what is the significance of thisaddress?
2. What is Snowy called in the French version of the adventures?
3. How are Thomson and Thompson related?
4. Name Captain Haddock's family home
5. What is the origin of the writer's name 'Herge'?