Which is fair enough; having lived there for a little over five-and-a-half-years, I can tell you that you mostly end up going back to the same attractions over and over – the Atomium, the Grand Place, Manneken Pis, the Bois de la Cambre. I’m sure that, to most, it would get repetitive.
That’s why, when I began planning this trip in January of 2016, I decided to only drag my friends there for the first night of our whirlwind tour around Europe.
Six months later, we set foot in Gare du Nord – it is a bit confusing at first, and navigating down to the Metro was harder than it should have been, but we got there, bought our tickets, got on the wrong platform, then the right one, and hopped on the tram-slash-metro to Bourse.
I have to say, this particular station smells rather strongly of pee.
But nothing could deter our enthusiasm – we were in Brussels, on the very first night of our 15-day trip around Europe, navigating on our own and enjoying our summer like the fresh-faced eighteen-year-olds that we were. (Ah, youth.)
Emerging into the sunshine, uncontrollable smiles on our faces, I noticed with glee that there was not a single car in sight; it turns out that Brussels is slowly widening a central zone that goes car-free. I can’t exaggerate how pleasant it is to visit a pedestrian city – there’s none of the noise, smell or hurriedness that comes with brushing alongside traffic. We clustered around a map and figured out how to get to the Grand Place. A Facebook acquaintance had given me a handy tip for where to get a cone of freshly-made fries just off one of the corners of Brussels’ grand, colourful square, so we headed to what looked like a fancy restaurant. It was still early and, with no one there, we were served through a window, quickly and so very, very cheaply.
Back to our spot, we basked in the sunshine and enjoyed our frites, mostly seasoned with just salt. I still wonder why they’re called French fries – did you know that there’s a debate on whether they were created by the Portuguese or the Belgian? Nothing to do with France. Perhaps it’s to do with the fact that, actually, half of Belgium speaks French. It’s one of the reasons why Brussels is such a great place for the European parliament: it’s an intrinsically cosmopolitan city, due to the duality of the country’s citizens. The region of Wallonia, in the South, speaks French, but Flanders, in the North, speaks the Dutch of its neighbours, Holland. Brussels is its own region (to retain neutrality, I imagine) and it’s a relatively international capital for such a small country (it houses roughly 160 nationalities, though London has around 270).
Done with our fries, we walk around, pointing out landmarks, street art, and chortling at the number of tourist shops selling what would otherwise be a shocking number of little statues of a naked young boy peeing. Here, however, it’s an important part of the local culture. The aptly named Manneken Pis, or little peeing boy in Dutch, is a cupid-like fountain-statue on a street corner, who has been relieving himself since the 15th century. Legend has it that, during a war outside the city walls, his father was a soldier and his mother, a nurse; he was searching for them desperately but, more than anything, needed to pee. So he went onto the city wall to look for them, trying to look past the fire and smoke, and finally couldn’t hold it in anymore, extinguishing the fire, making both sides pause to laugh and ending the war. There are many different versions of the story but I think that, above all, it is representative of the Belgian spirit. They have a fantastic sense of humour.
Finally, two of us decided to go for the incredibly decadent gaufres offered at every corner. There is every topping in the book, but if you choose nutella, you’re a heathen. Belgium’s chocolate is, in my humble opinion, the very best in the world.