Brussels sprouts on the horizon

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Sleepwell hostel

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Last night I paid 18 Euros to stay in a campsite in the middle of nowhere, which makes me feel much better about paying 15 Euros tonight for a bed near the centre of Brussels. With an 0830 start and only 35km to cover I was in Brussels by midday, despite the hills of doom. I stopped at the first open internet cafe I saw, concerned that, it being Sunday, this would be my only source of information. As it turned out, the city centre was heaving, with a marathon finishing in the Grand Place and a very busy office de tourisme. I had lunch in the Grand Place, where I met another English tourist for the first time on this trip, Sati, from Oxford. It was a treat to have a conversation that wasn't principally directed by the available vocabulary, and I may have unnerved him by talking nineteen-to-the-dozen at the slightest provocation.

I found a hostel, installed myself in an eight bed dorm and chatted to Roberto, an ERASMUS student from Rome who was having trouble finding digs in Brussels. Me being British, he Italian, naturally we chatted in French. The hostel was called the ´Sleep Well´. It seems that using English words to name your hostel is a surefire way to attract English speakers, as almost everyone else I met there was English or American.

Monday morning I bought a guide to Brussels and spent at least 90minutes studying it, before concluding that there was no point trying to visit anything on a Monday in Brussels. Its shut. Everything is shut. However, the guide included a map with some themed walks that one can do under just these circumstances, so all was not lost. I chose the ´Art Nouveau´ walk, having briefly studied the movement at school and therefore feeling a pang of nostalgic enthusiasm. What I didn´t realise, however, was that to reach the starting point of this walk by foot (the bike stayed in the hostel the whole time in Brussels - I didn´t want to be worrying about it) would take 2hours. Admittedly I stopped for a while in the Parc Du Bruxelles, to listen to the free music festival that was going on. I think the band may have had something to do with punk, but the leaflet was in Flemish and I have little generic music knowledge. They were good though. The Brussels parks have fountains, grass, trees, sculptures, everything you´d expect really, but they´re much smaller than London parks.

Eventually I found a point on the route. I followed it for about a kilometer along a main road, enjoying the ambiance of traffic noise and smog. It was raining, intermittently but hard. At the end of this picturesque trek I came to the first Art Nouvea house. It was a bit unusual. Curvy. There´s a photo, if you´re interested. Beginning to lose faith in the Art Nouveau walk, I nonetheless plough on, ever hoping that the next example will be a treat. I remember finding photos on the web that looked amazing. ( scroll down a bit and you´ll see the real archetype. Also not bad photos of Brussels in general) However, on this day, it wasn´t where it should have been. If buildings aren´t going to have the grace to be where the map says they are I´m damned if I´m going to waste my time looking for them. What do you mean I´ve already admitted I can´t read maps for toffee? Go away.

Having sacked off the walking tour, I head for the EU building for the 3o´clock tour of the central european bureaucrisy. I should have known that this would not be easy. At the first building I tried, the receptionist said this was not part of the tour. At the second the armed guard asked me very politely to go back the way I came. Now. At the third the receptionist told me to fill in a form, then told me she didn´t know where the tours were. By now it was 20 past three, so I sacked off the EU and went in search of beer.

In particular I was looking for the ´Grand Place Brewery´. I can find that, I think to myself. The clue´s in the title. Except it isn´t. Nor, apparantly, is it in the address. Eventually I sack off the brewery, and console myself in the ´Music Village´ Jazz bar that I found while looking for other things. The band are warming up, and they sound pretty good. The barman allows me to drink a beer and ´profit from the ambiance´ so when I´m asked if I´m coming for the concert, I say maybe. I have something to do first. Then I remember that every other bar on this street is hanging a rainbow flag above the doorway. I pause. ´Le concert... est-ce que c´est pour... tout le monde?´ ´Oui. Bien sur´. Good.

Not far away from this street is the Mannekin-pis. A very small boy, pissing eternally into a bowl. This is the emblem and spirit of Brussels. Every year, on the national day, they dress him up in a themed costume, usually donated by another city. So far, he has accumulated a wardrobe of over 760 outfits, many of which are on dispay in the Musée de la cité de Bruxelles. It is a very strange exhibition. Rows of glass boxes, each containing a life-size replica of a 60cm tall statue of a small boy pissing, each dressed in a different outfit. From Ice-Hockey mannekin-pis to matador, Nelson Mandela, John Bull (donated by London, you´ll be pleased to know, as were 4 others) a Maharajah and an Azerbaijani. Even a cyclist, with miniature bike and flourescent jacket. The best part of the exhibition, however, is a short film of tourist reactions to the little fella. Comments such as ´is that it?´, ´that´s not it, it must be further on´, ´my husband has one just like it´ and lots of giggling and pointing. Made me smile, anyway.

Of course I went back to the Jazz concert. I could hardly not, having made it my mission, (apart from cycling to Australia) to visit a jazz club in every capital city I visit. The music and the ambiance were perfect, but I felt alone and drank too much. I left before the end, as I was nodding off in my seat.

Someone else left at the same time as me and started walking in the same direction. ´C´etait bien, non?´ I say. ´Sorry, I don´t speak French´ she says. Excellent. Neither do I. It turns out she´s Isreali and staying at the same hostel, so naturally we sit up talking politics until past 1am. This is, as you know, my idea of fun. However, I was a little sorry to sack off my plan A, which was to visit (I kid you not) the Streetlamp Museum of Brussels. Keswick´s pencil factories, Belgium´s Tour de France and Provence´s BonBons can take a running jump. We have a winner. No fewer than twenty, that´s right, twenty, different streetlights that have illuminated Brussels throughout the ages. Combined with the puppet museum that I also didn´t see and the Mannekin-Pis, I´m beginning to suspect that there is some kind of long-standing competition in the Brussels tourist office.

On Tuesday I went to the Museum of the city of Brussels, as I wanted to get a feel for history and character of the place. As well as the Mannekin-Pis exhibition, it was a pretty good whistle-stop tour of the city´s economic and political history. As I know it will fascinate you, I will now impart my new found knowledge.

First, there were cabinets for altars, then there were tapestries, almost as good those that I didn´t see in Tournai, for reasons I shall mention later, then there was silver. Porcelain came next, with examples by Elterbeek who "also produced some sculptures, fine groups in bisque". I think bisque is a kind of soup, so he must have been very talented.
There was Gothic sculpture, including "original modillians supporting the cornice of the chancel of the church of our lady of the chapel- a local variance on the elegance of the late gothic which had made its mark in Europe". This was the description of a pair of ugly little stone gremlins, hugging their disproportionately tiny knees and gurning like simpletons. There were also "original consoles of the porch´s tympanum". (small prize for guessing which of these words I made up). Then there was tin, and finally earthenware. So now you know.

Unfortunately the political stuff on the top floor for some reason didn´t have a guide printed in English, so I can´t enlighten you.

I had intended to visit the main art gallery, but it was far away and expensive, so I sacked it off. That evening, as I was heading out in search of dinner, I was joined by Annie, who I´d chatted to while using the hostel´s internet that morning. She´s American, but despite this was excellent company. Over dinner she mentioned that she played in a big band so, keen to share the love, I introduced her to the Music Village. Another thoroughly enjoyable and, more importantly, sociable evening ensued.

All good things must come to an end, however, so at 11am on Wednesday morning I put Brussels behind me.
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dynamo on

Re: Piouuuuuuu
Dresden in a fortnight could be a possibility, if trains aren't too pricey. Will check it out.

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