The Brussels witnessed on TV - crammed with police and an edgy populace after terrorist attacks, is not the same scenic city that we encountered only a few months prior to the recent
Belgium's capital and that also of the
European Union with myriad international organisations, politicians, diplomats and civil servants is a prime target for tourist and terrorist alike, but amidst its stunning architecture, spacious squares and narrow streets, we experienced an unruffled, charming atmosphere enhanced by a seemingly endless supply of tasty
waffles dripping with strawberry syrup and whipped cream, delicious
chocolates and bountiful bottles of
beer. What's not to like about that compelling threesome!
Upon arrival, I took compulsory pictures of the
Atomium, (atom and aluminium), named by CNN as Europe's most bizarre building, constructed for the 1958 Brussels World's Fair. A museum, it stands 102 m tall with nine 18 m diameter stainless steel-clad spheres connected to form an iron crystal shape. The top sphere includes a restaurant with a panoramic view of Brussels.
Also unusual is the infamous
Manneken Pis known as "Little Julian," a popular public sculpture dating back to 1618, depicting a naked boy urinating into a fountain's basin. People delight in stealing this figure so the original is kept safe at the
Maison du Roi on the Grand Place. Several legends explain its origin but my favourite is that of a youngster awoken by a fire, able to douse it with his urine, thus preventing the king's castle from destruction. I like this version because it was our preferred technique to douse campfires at night when we camped. The statue is dressed up weekly, and its wardrobe consists of hundreds of costumes, its ubiquitous likeness used to sell everything from waffles to bottle openers to
The Grand Place or Grote Markt laden with statues and gold filigree decorations that crown rooflines is a splendid central square that
Victor Hugo once described as
"the most beautiful square in the world," surrounded by Baroque-styled, opulent guildhalls and including two larger edifices, the city's Gothic Town Hall built in the early 15th century, replete with intricate statuary and the Maison du Roi which contains the Museum of the City of Brussels. At 68 by 110 metres, the square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, filled with tourists gawking at its superb architecture with elaborate detail, students sitting on cobblestones and many tourists seated at outdoor cafés. Neighbouring streets reflect area origins named after vendors of butter, cheese, herring, coal and such.
From the square, a short walk takes us to the crown jewel of shopping arcades, the elegant
Royal Saint-Hubert Galleries, a glazed shopping arcade built in 1847, featuring high-end shops on the ground level and residences above. Many of its inviting windows featuring exquisite-looking chocolate treats, and one is mesmerized by the enticing atmosphere which features classical friezes and marble columns as soft light streams through the glass roof and luxury retailers feature stylish collections of jewelry, leather goods, and clothes.
Tree-lined streets feature a vibrant café culture, and we dutifully sampled the aforementioned waffles, chocolates and beer, enjoying the laissez faire attitude of the cafés where we could seemingly sit all day long, lazily watching fellow tourists.
There are two delicious types of waffles offered here - Brussels and Liège-styles, the former rectangular with a light, golden-brown exterior and deep divots like those we eat at home, dusted in confectioner's sugar and often served with strawberries. Liège are denser with an irregular shape, coated with caramelized sugar, and therefore crispy and crunchy. Both are served warm by myriad street vendors.
Belgium's chocolate notoriety began with the creation of the praline in 1912 by
Jean Neuhaus, founder of the iconic Neuhaus Chocolatier. Only natural products are employed, the differences in flavor created by adjusting the amounts of sugar and cocoa in the chocolate mixtures with no artificial assistance permitted.
Inhaling the sweet aroma at countless shops, we sampled hand-made
pralines along with
Marzipans derived from a paste of finely blanched, ground almonds, mixed with egg white and sugar. We also tried some tasty cookies called speculoos, slightly browned, short-crusted and crunchy, stamped with images of Saint Nicholas and part of the gingerbread family with cinnamon, brown sugar, clover, butter and other spices. Ours were dipped in chocolate. Yum!
We observed mussels, the national dish, almost on every noontime café table, fresh from the North Sea and served in a large steaming pot of savoury broth often with a side of Belgian frites and homemade mayonnaise.
For us, this was a wonderful side-trip and a gourmet's delight, one of the stops on our
AmaWaterways Tulip Cruise, exploring cities in Belgium and the Netherlands. I would hate to see others deprived of these pleasures; however, European capitals such as Brussels, Paris and even London might take a tourism hit this season with the current anxiety concerning extremists.
Museum of the City of Brussels in the Maison du Roi or King's House Brussels, photo by Mike Keenan
Besides writing for the five Niagara Postmedia newspapers, Mike has been published in every major newspaper across Canada including the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and Toronto Sun. He has been published in National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City, Seniors Review and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. With hundreds of reviews, photos and helpful votes, he has earned Trip Advisor's "Top Contributor Badge" and is considered an "Expert" in both Hotels and Restaurant reviews. Mike posts photos to Pinterest where he has a following of four thousand viewers.