Sunday 15th April 2012, Tournai, Belgium
We discovered yesterday at the railway station that for some inexplicable reason we can travel to Brussels from here for a mere 5 euros each return! The journey takes an hour and with the convenience of leaving Modestine on the campsite and being carried right into the heart of the city, it seemed the easiest way of seeing Belgium’s capital.
What has Belgium given the world? After considerable thought we came up with comic strips – Tintin was created by the Belgian illustrator Hergé. There is also the painter of thought provoking surreal canvases, René Magritte. There are Belgian buns, Brussel sprouts, waffles, beer, lace and chocolates. And there are also Specaloos – those tiny plastic wrapped biscuits with a distinctive flavour that seem to accompany every overpriced coffee sold anywhere in Europe. Most European cities have something with which they are immediately identified. London has Tower Bridge, Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Rome has the Coliseum while Belgium has ... well, a tiny bronze figure known as Mannekin-Pis urinating into a fountain! It seems hard on a country that has so few things of international renown that it is obliged to exploit something of such dubious taste because that is what the tourists flock to see!The city centre seemed very quiet with hardly any traffic. Unfortunately I’m finding it increasingly difficult to walk on the cobble streets found throughout every town we’ve visited in this part of Europe. It has also been extremely cold, rainy and windy which is exhausting after several hours walking the streets. The tourist information office provided us with a map and we’ve seen most of the sights within the city centre. Brussels is not a large city and it’s easy enough to explore on your own. There were however masses of tour guides leading large groups of Americans and Japanese visitors through the streets. There were even Japanese restaurants serving sushi to compatriots from Osaka who couldn’t face chips with mayonnaise or waffles for lunch.Right near the exit from Brussels central station is the Royal National Library. It looks very impressive but being Sunday it was closed. Nearby we discovered the cathedral, the museum of Magritte, the Royal Palace with its park and the Palais de la Nation. Brussels is also important for its many Art Nouveau buildings. Making our way downhill towards the Grande Place we discovered the very attractive Royal St. Hubert Galleries built in 1847 from glass and steel. At the time they were the largest such shopping galleries in Europe. They remain today a very exclusive covered shopping arcade full of chocolateries selling exquisite boxes of chocolates to a constant stream of tourists. They are certainly seductively presented, though less seductively priced.
Eventually we found ourselves on the Grand-Place. This is the heart of Brussels, the one place all visitors converge. It is a beautiful square filled with highly decorated mediaeval buildings. Arcaded guild houses run along one side while on another is the museum of the brewers’ guild housed in its 15th century guildhall. There is also a museum of Brussels in the Maison du Roi, which with hindsight I wish we’d visited if only for some warmth and to escape the dreadful cobbles. On one side of the square stands the town hall with its stunning gothic facade. Behind there is a courtyard with a beautiful glass canopy over the entrance.
Amazingly I found I could actually walk again this morning after a night of deep sleep where even the cold temperature didn’t disturb us, snug beneath a couple of duvets. We returned once more to Brussels but today I wore my hiking boots which proved excellent protection against the cobbles. It’s still been very cold indeed but dry. We’ve not actually been into the centre of the city at all today. We took the metro out to the Europa district where we walked through the Cinquantenaire Jubelpark at the centre of which stands a massive gateway with glass-roofed wings to either side.
Originally built to commemorate Belgium’s first fifty years as a nation and to house a celebratory exhibition, the buildings now host a museum of motor vehicles and the Belgian military museum.
It was only when an official asked us in Dutch why we were not with the rest of the group and we gazed at him uncomprehendingly that we realised we shouldn’t be there! The museum was closed to the public but we’d wandered in with a special organised tour! The staff were charming to us as they frogmarched us back to the main entrance, assuring us of a far friendlier reception if we returned tomorrow when the museum would be open officially.We’d hoped to discover more about the Battle of Waterloo in the museum before we were asked to leave. The battlefield lies just a few kilometres outside of Brussels but we won’t be visiting it this time having done so many years ago with our children when Ian’s sister was living near Brussels. At the far end of the formal park we found a bust of the politician Robert Schuman who, together with Jean Monnet, was at the forefront of the original concept of a European Union.