Friday, March 23rd 2018
Tigger’s birthday falls during this weekend and to celebrate it we are making a short trip to Brussels. We ‘discovered’ Brussels in August 2008 when we passed through it on the way to Waterloo on a courier run for Tigger’s firm (see A trip to Waterloo). We thought it looked interesting and that we should visit it properly one day. We passed through it again on our trip to Bruges in 2011 and made our first ‘proper’ visit in 2013 (see Brussels 2013). We returned in 2017 (see Brussels 2017) and by now I had decided that Brussels was one of my favourite cities. I was therefore looking forward to this trip and I can say (spoiler alert!) that I was not disappointed.
To the monolingual British, Brussels may seem a strange place. As the capital of Belgium, it is theoretically bilingual in the nation’s two main languages, French and Flemish. Street signs and public notices are written in both languages but with 85% of the population being francophone, the French language is dominant. (For more details, see my Linguistic note in Brussels 2013.) If you speak French, you will feel quite comfortable there but if not, English is the next best language to use as it is widely spoken to a high degree of competence.
Getting to Brussels from the Angel, Islington, is easy: walk or take to bus to St Pancras International Station and board a Eurostar service that goes to Brussels direct. Our train was scheduled to leave at 8:04 and was due to reach Brussels at 11:05 local time (10:05 London time). A slight complication is that the clocks go forward this weekend. This means that we must advance our clocks one hour on arrival in Brussels, advance them another hour on Sunday morning and then push them back one hour on returning to London!
A note on the name of Brussels. In Flemish, it is written Brussel (without a final ‘s’) and in French, Bruxelles. The Flemish version is pronounced much as you would expect (click here to hear it pronounced) but there is argument over the pronunciation of the French version. Some people, mainly non-Belgians, pronounce the ‘x’ as ‘ks’, but the consensus among Francophone Belgians is that the ‘x’ is pronounced like ‘ss’ (click here to hear it pronounced).
Our passports were checked by British and French immigration officers in London prior to boarding the train so that on arrival at Bruxelles Midi station there were no formalities. We simply left the train and walked off into the town. We wandered around for a while looking for somewhere to have lunch and eventually plumped for a bistro near the station. Afterwards, we returned to the station to take a taxi to our hotel. This was the Ibis Brussels City Centre, a rather bland name for a rather bland hotel.
The room turned out to be very small with a very small ensuite containing a miniscule shower unit. As we are spending only two nights here we are not letting it bother us. The bed is comfortable and there are plenty of power points for recharging our electronic devices. After making tea and having a little rest, we set out on our first visit to the town.
A close neighbour of our hotel is the Church of Saint Catherine of Brussels. If this were an English church we would describe it as Victorian because it was built between 1854 and 1874 but such a designation does not seem appropriate for a Belgian church.
Near the hotel is this unusual monument. By Patrick Rimoux, it was unveiled in 1996 and celebrates the centenary of the cinema with special reference to the Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau, after whom the street is also named. Plateau is credited as being one of the first to produce moving images (see here).
One of the pleasures of exploring Brussels is viewing the buildings. There is a broad range of styles and it is usually not easy to categorize them according to British equivalents. Here we have four buildings in four different styles and I would be at a loss to know to what period they individually belong.
This is the Stock Exchange, built between 1868 and 1873. Highly decorated in a mixture of styles with sculptures by famous artists, including Rodin, it was meant to impress and reflect the expanding economy of the day. Its role as the centre of finance and commerce ended in 1996 and it is now used for public exhibitions.
It felt as though it was time for refreshments and across the road we spotted an establishment called Le Falstaff. Brussels is famous for its Art Nouveau buildings and Le Falstaff is one of the jewels of the collection. We went in and ordered hot chocolate which was served to us by waiters dressed in the traditional waistcoat and apron. We asked if we might take photos of the interior and permission was readily granted.
What is now a cafe-restaurant was originally built as two houses in 1886. These were bought in 1903 by a certain Madame Broekaert in order to convert them into a ‘taverne’ or cafe-restaurant. The interior decoration was done by E. Houbbion, about whom little seems known beyond the fact that he was employed by the famous Belgian architect and designer, Victor Horta.
Our next port of call was the Grand’Place (Main Square), also known in Flemish as the Grote Markt (Great Market Square). Here we find opulently designed and decorated buildings, arguably the most prestigious in Brussels. They include the Town Hall, the Museum of the City of Brussels and what is known in French as La Maison du Roi (the King’s House) and in Flemish as Het Broodhuis (the Breadhouse).
The City of Brussels Museum is built in Gothic Revival style, perhaps to match or at least blend in with the Town Hall that it faces. It was inaugurated in 1887.
The Gothic Town Hall is remarkable both for its age and the height of its belfry – 96m or 315ft. Building began in the 15th century and most of what you see from the square is of that age. There have inevitably been several episodes of additions and refurbishment mainly in the 19th century which was when the statues of the Dukes of Brabant were added to the façade. The statues we see on the Town Hall today are in fact reproductions, the originals being preserved in the King’s House Museum across the road.
This public building was completed in 1698 and is known as the House of the Dukes of Brabant, not because they ever lived there but because of their statues that grace the interior.
Here are a couple more pictures of buildings in the Grand’Place. (Identifying them is left as an exercise for the reader )
The Grand’Place is usually crowded both during the daytime and at night. There are sometimes exhibitions and markets here too, including the important Plaisirs d’Hiver et Marché de Noel (Winter Wonders and Christmas Market).
In common with other European cities (with the notable exception of London), Brussels provides horse drawn carriages to take you on a tour of the city. I have never been on such a tour and cannot vouch for the quality of the commentary delivered by the driver. If you look carefully, you can spot the canvas dung-catchers hanging beneath the horse’s hind quarters to avoid soiling the streets. I suspect that the dustbin in the foreground is provided for the purpose of emptying the dung-catchers.
This fine ‘Victorian’ shopping arcade was inaugurated in 1847 and is worth a visit, both for the beauty of the arcade itself and for the shops, theatre and cinema that it contains. It is formed of three parts collectively known as Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert or Koninklijke Sint-Hubertusgalerijen (St Hubert Royal Arcades). The first part, shown above is the Galerie de la Reine or Koninginne Galerij (Queen’s Arcade).
You pass through a pillared intersection – this no doubt has a name but I don’t know what it is – into the next part whose name you have probably guessed.
Yes, this part, as you would expect, is called the King’s Arcade. There is a further section, called Galerie du Prince or Prinsenglaerij (Prince’s Arcade), but it is quite short and we didn’t visit it.
In case you are wondering about the pronunciation of Flemish-Dutch ‘ij’ in words like galerij and Parijs, the sound usually resembles that of the ‘ay’ in the English words fray or stay (listen here), though there is some difference of opinion, some preferring to pronounce it like the ‘ie’ in lie or like the word eye. In my experience, ‘ay’ is the most common.
The Coudenberg Palace takes its name from the hill on which it was originally built. That was back in the 12th century when the Dukes of Brabant chose this location for their court. In 1731 a fire ravaged the palace and the inhabitants moved out, never to return. The site lay derelict until the 1770s when the present palace was built. It now hosts exhibitions.
Nearby stands the Royal Palace of Brussels on land that was once part of the grounds of the Coudenberg Palace. Built in the 18th century and added to in the early 20th, the Brussels Palace is the official residence of the King and Queen of Belgium… except that they don’t actually live there. (They live in the Palace of Laeken.) The Brussels Palace might be considered to be the King’s business premises as it is here that he conducts affairs of state.
We took a bus and disembarked near the Palais de Justice (Law Court). I took my first photo in this trip of a tram. As previously mentioned, we like trams and ride them for pleasure when the opportunity presents itself. Public transport in Brussels is run by the STIB, Société des Transports Intercommunaux de Bruxelles (Brussels Intercommunal Transport Company). The best way for the visitor to get about on public transport in Brussels is to buy a 24-hour pass for €7.50. You can buy as many as you like and they won’t expire because they only become ‘live’ when you use them for the first time. You do this by touching your pass on one of the electronic readers on the bus, tram or metro. The pass remains valid for 24 hours from that instant and you can make an unlimited number of journeys during that time. The trick is to validate your last one at such a time as to make it remain valid to take you to the station when you leave Brussels!
The Palais de Justice or Justitiepaleis (Law Court) was built in 1866-83. At present it is not looking its best, covered as it is in scaffolding. The renovations taking place were made necessary because at the end of the Second World War, retreating German troops had the bright idea of destroying the building by setting it alight. This caused the eye-catching cupola to collapse. Work did not start until 2003 and is still continuing. The square in which it stands, Place Poelaert, is named after the architect, Joseph Poelaert, who designed the original courthouse.
In front of the courthouse you can see the monument raised to the memory of the Belgian Infantry and their losses during the First and Second World Wars.
Nearby stands what is known as the Anglo-Belgian War Memorial. It was unveiled in 1923 and records the gratitude of the British to the Belgians for the help and support that they gave to British prisoners of war in the 1914-18 conflict.
Time was getting on and the light was beginning to fade (having been rather dull to start with). We went to a cafe, hoping for refreshments but the service was so slow that we left before anyone bothered to take our order. We conceived a plan to visit our favourite Brussels restaurant. We would be sure to get good service there. Wouldn’t we?
The restaurant resides in a district called Porte de Hal after the medieval fortified city gate that survives there.
And here it is, Le Faucon (The Falcon). We were sure to be well received and marched boldly up to the door… only to be told they had closed for the day! We made do with a nearby substitute before starting the journey back to our tiny hotel room. Thus ended our first day in Brussels.