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.

Silly picture on the way to Brussels

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.

National Library of Belgium with statue of King Albert I, Brussels

Place de L’Albertine, Brussels
Museum of music, Brussels

Church of St. Jacques on the Coudenburg, Brussels

Royal Palace, Brussels

Palace gardens and the Palais de la Nation, Brussels
Cathedral, Brussels
Royal St. Hubert Galleries, Brussels

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.

Grand-Place, Brussels
Town Hall on the Grand-Place, Brussels

Canopy in the courtyard of the Town Hall, Grand-Place, Brussels

Hotel of the Ducs de Brabant, Grand-Place, Brussels

Guild houses, Grand-Place, Brussels

Maison du Roi, Brussels

Brewers House, Grand-Place, Brussels

Charles Buis monument, Grand-Place, Brussels
Belgium is a relatively recent nation – and who knows how long it will last – so we were intrigued to discover a plaque stating that the first two Belgian flags were produced in a building just off the Grand-Place in 1830.

Commemorating the first Belgian flag made in 1830, Brussels
Inevitably we were drawn through the streets by the crowds seeking out the little mannekin-pis. It is quite a surprise to discover just how tiny he is standing cold and naked pouring water endlessly into the fountain. Just how many gallons has he micturated over the years he’s been standing there? And just how many Japanese tourists have returned home, their cameras loaded with photos of themselves standing beside him? Apparently he has a special wardrobe and on certain days of the year he can be seen sprinkling through a hole in his airman’s, soldier’s, businessman’s or Elvis Presley Outfit!

Mannekin-Pis fountain, Brussels
Mannekin-Pis, Brussels
Of course the surrounding shops were filled with tacky souvenirs. How about a nice Belgian lace doily of a little manikin, almost certainly produced in China? Or, even more useful, a statuette with a corkscrew instead of a spout?

Mannekin-Pis souvenirs, Brussels

Brussel Sprout, Brussels
Brussel Spout, Brussels
Restaurants were all rather expensive and families and young people were making do with waffles as they walked the icy streets in the chill wind and rain. They looked exciting piled high with strawberries, kiwi fruits, whipped cream and chocolate sauce but we needed to sit down for a while. Our friends Geneviève and Marie-Françoise from Caen were in Brussels a few weeks ago and had recommended a restaurant on the Grand-Place. Such a place was really for a special occasion however and, lovely as it looked, we made do with a coffee and roll somewhere more modest.We continued our walk to take in the Bourse and the very modern offices of the city council. Brussels is well served by its metro and we considered taking it out to the European Parliament and the Atomium. However, by now I could hardly walk at all and it’s a two kilometre walk back from the station once we get back to Tournai so we decided it must wait for a future visit. While we waited for the train home Ian tried out an apricot waffle and I dozed beside him. Climbing up the steep steps from the platform into the train a little later was all but impossible so much had my joints stiffened while I slept!

Bourse, Brussels

Offices of the city council, Brussels
Delightful statue, Brussels
When we left England we were accompanied by a small chocolate rabbit made in Cornwall and marketed as Kernow Bunny - Kernow being Cornish for Cornwall. He was destined as an Easter gift for a child in Caen but hid himself away in a dark corner of Modestine until today when he finally emerged and complained he was lonely and needed a friend. We suggested eating him but relented and returned home this evening with a chocolate mannekin pis of similar stature. They’ve disappeared together back into Kernow Bunny’s burrow where they intend to survive uneaten at least until we reach Copenhagen where they hope to be joined by a chocolate mermaid!

Kernow Bunny meets Mannekin-Pis
Monday 16th April 2012, Tournai, Belgium
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.

Cinquantenaire Jubelpark and monument to Belgian independence, Brussels

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.

Military museum, Cinquantenaire Jubelpark, Brussels
We were delighted to find the latter open free of charge and wandered off to explore the history of various Belgian battles and to admire the splendid collection of military aircraft suspended in the main hanger.

Aircraft gallery in the military museum, Cinquantenaire Jubelpark, Brussels

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.

Robert Schuman, Cinquantenaire Jubelpark, Brussels
Soon we found ourselves strolling through pleasant squares and gardens, and around a lake. It was an affluent residential area of large older properties with several delightful Art Nouveau buildings.

Birth of a nation monument, Brussels

Art Nouveau house, Square Ambiorix, Brussels
Art Nouveau house, Avenue Palmerston, Brussels
Van Eetvelde house, designed by Horta in 1895, Brussels

Square Maria-Louisa, Brussels
A short walk brought us to an area of high-rise glass buildings providing offices and residential accommodation for those working for the EU. The area is still very much one of work in progress with cranes and heavy building equipment congesting many of the streets. Meanwhile the buildings form wind tunnels through which icy draughts whistle. It was far colder there than out in the open parks.

Chausee d'Etterbeek, Brussels
European Union Regional Committee, Brussels
Eventually we reached the heart of the European Community area - towering glass buildings with the various flags of Europe blowing in the stiff breeze. We have already visited the EU sites at Strassbourg and Luxembourg, both of which, unlike Brussels, stand well away from residential areas, set in parkland. It is possible though to see inside more of the buildings here. The visitor centre provided us with as many free posters, leaflets and children’s colouring books as we could ever wish for, explaining in some 20 different languages what the Union achieves in terms of its history and formation, politics, monetary union, agricultural and fisheries policy, free trade agreements, employment, education, freedom and democracy etc etc etc.

European Parliament, Brussels

European Parliament, Brussels
European Parliament, Brussels
A huge new exhibition area, known as the Parlamentarium, opened recently as a sort of museum and interpretation centre. With so many member states and languages it is obviously a massive undertaking to provide an interpretation centre equally comprehensible to all. It has been achieved – if that’s the right word – by handing out electronic devices similar to I-phones tuned to your appropriate language. By swiping the device across a barcode, feedback on the exhibit appears on your hand-held screen in your local language. Personally I hated it. I wanted to look at the exhibits. I could have read an electronic screen with more comfort back home in Exeter. And the information provided was so brief it felt more like Tweeting. We were though, by far the oldest visitors there. Younger people seemed content to accept the odd snippet of information and move on. In fact, the thing we learned most about is how the gadgets worked! The concept is clever but much of the information it provides is banal and boring. Perhaps the most interesting gallery was one of iconic photographs from around the world taken since the formation of the EU. However, these were presented with no explanatory text at all.

Parlamentarium building, Brussels
Quote of the day - a visitor speaking to an official EU guide: “Oh, it’s all about the European Union. I thought it was the United Nations.” The very best bit of today’s EU experience for us was a mug of excellent Fair Trade coffee and a muffin enjoyed in comfortable armchairs with a free copy of today’s Times to browse through before braving the cold outside to seek out the metro station for the final experience of the day.Right across the far side of the city, near to the Heysel Football Stadium and the Centenary Exhibition Centre, stands the Atomium. It’s a massive structure in stainless steel. Large hollow balls are linked by tubes through which run lifts and escalators to carry visitors around. There were queues waiting to go up and we had a train to catch so we didn’t do more than photograph it and explore the entrance hall for further information. It was built back in the 1950s for an international exhibition when it would have been very futuristic.

Atomium, Brussels
Heysel Football stadium, Brussels
Centenary exhibition building, Brussels
Realising we’d not get back to the central station before our train left we cut diagonally across the city on the metro to Brussels South, the first stop on the route back to Tournai, and managed to be waiting on the platform seconds before our train came through! We returned to Modestine in a far fitter state than yesterday. Tomorrow we really must move on!