In Brussels and In Bruges

Last October I made a trip to visit relatives in the city of Brussels, Belgium. The recent terrorist attacks made me think more about the time I spent there and whether or not the country was worth a visit in the first place.

While I was in Brussels I had the fortune of staying at my uncle’s apartment instead of having to look for a hotel room and a hostel to stay in. The apartment was located on the edge of the city center and within a short walking distance of Brussels must see attractions. In the opening hours of my stay in Brussels I made it my first order of business was to walk down to the famous Grand Place and take in the local atmosphere and admire the architecture. The Grand Place itself was undoubtedly beautiful and no doubt historically interesting, walking from one end of the square to the other to take in the different views of the architecture was what I found most exciting. Unfortunately, like in the rest of the world globalization and gentrification made no exception for an old place like this. I saw a Starbucks Coffee in the plaza’s eastern end spitting out overpriced cups of bad coffee and stale bread to tourists such as myself. Instead of shopping at Starbucks I quenched my thirst at a hotel café instead. I ordered Belgium’s famous Leffe beer (Leffe Blonde) and was impressed by its taste and the funny looking glass it came in. I later learned that I had been stiffed when the bill came, having been charged  seven euros for the pint.

After finishing my pint I walked further west where I knew I would find Brussels famous pissing-boy fountain, or as its known by its local name the Manneken Pis. Seeing the fountain itself was a bit anticlimactic, the street around it was unkempt and covered in litter and beggars harassed me and other tourists who were taking pictures. The area around the fountain there was nothing special, just one of Brussels many chocolatiers, a gift shop and a bar on the corner. I would not normally recommend the experience to a future visitor but the short distance of the  fountain to the Grand Place makes the walk there worth it, if only to say that you’ve been there.

During my stay in Brussels I only visited one museum, that is the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History which was a great experience for a history buff like myself. The museum itself is a sprawling complex built for the World Fair of 1897. The building itself and the park around it are built with the sort of Victorian extravagance reminiscent of  parts of Barcelona, Berlin and London. The museum boasts the usual collection of tanks, guns and airplanes you’d come to expect from an military collections. However, the exhibitions on the military history of Belgium ranging from the era  of Napoleon to the end of Belgium’s colonial rule over Congo in the 1960’s were the ones I found most interesting. The exhibition on the Great War was the most impressive complete with restored tanks and airplanes, perhaps not surprising since Belgium was of strategic importance during that conflict and the entire country was all but destroyed by it. The only gripe I had with the museum was that signs in the English language were sometimes missing or only covered the pure basics whilst signs in French, Dutch and German were ubiquitous and from what I could read, a whole lot more informative.

On my second day during my visit in Belgium me and my uncle drove to Bruges, which is a small city in Belgium’s western half, about an hour or so by car from Brussels. We spent a few hours there and the town is certainly worth visiting. The city of Bruges was on a whole more relaxed and tourist friendly than the city of Brussels. The townspeople were generally more friendly to tourists and the city boasted a busy market in the central plaza despite the rain that lasted for most of my stay there. The city is dissected by old canals which are flanked by beautiful medieval houses. I saw that taking boat rides on the canals is a possibility for those who are interested. By far the most famous landmark in Bruges is the tower on-top of the city hall building. Going up to the tower is entertaining enough, on your way to the top there are several stops on a few of the floors where one can enjoy the view and read about Bruges’ history. Looking over the city from the top is spectacular enough, although the view from the windows is spoiled by thick chicken netting, presumably to ward off any would be reenactors of the In Bruges ending.

Overall, I had a good time in Belgium but I was disappointed by Brussels. Perhaps I was expecting it to be a lot more like Paris or Barcelona which is a rather unfair demand on a city filled with lawyers and bureaucrats rather than artisans and foodies.

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