Thursday, March 23rd 2017
This trip to Brussels is in celebration of Tigger’s birthday. We shall be staying for three nights, returning to London on Sunday. Our last visit to the Belgian capital was back in 2013 (see Brussels 2013) and we felt it was time we renewed our acquaintance with it.
Belgium has had a complex history within Europe (e.g. see here and here). As a result, a number of languages are spoken within its borders. The main four are Flemish (a variety of Dutch), French, German and Walloon (a romance language related to French but derived independently from Vulgar Latin). The first two are the official languages of their respective regions, Flemish-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south. For a more detailed description of the linguistic divide, see the Linguistic note in Brussels 2013.
The geopolitical situation of Brussels is a little strange. The Brussels-Capital Region to which it belongs resides entirely within Flanders and Brussels, as the nation’s capital, is therefore nominally bilingual so that Flemish and French have equal status here. In practice, though, French is the dominant tongue, spoken as their first language by something like 85% of the population. Brussels is a member of the French-speaking community but separated from it within Flanders.
Though French is the universal medium of expression in Brussels, you never for a moment think you are in France. The people, the culture and the general ‘feel’ of the place are quite different. Brussels has a character of its own. With rare exceptions, I found the people courteous, friendly and helpful. As is usual throughout Europe today, English is widely spoken as a second language but it is definitely an advantage if you speak French.
Tigger had to go to work today so we could start out only in the evening. We had tickets for the 19:34 Eurostar, calling at Lille and Brussels. We were due to reach Bruxelles Midi station at 22:38 local time (one hour ahead of UK time). The journey passed without incident and as all the baggage and passport control procedures had been completed in London, we could leave the train and walk out of the station without hindrance. Outside the station we found a queue for taxis. There were also unofficial taxi touts but we avoided these. The cab ride to the hotel took longer than I expected and was quite expensive, around €30. (A weakened pound ensured that we received only €1.02 per pound.)
We had booked a room at the Hôtel Frederiksborg in Avenue Broustin. A couple of days before our trip I looked at the hotel information and saw that they close at 23:00. Realizing that we would probably not reach them by that time, I sent them an email asking how to proceed. I never received a reply to that email and so telephoned them the day before we were to leave. They told me I should ring the doorbell and someone would let us in.
When we arrived, the hotel was locked up tight, so we went in search of the doorbell. We found it at a side entrance and gave it a long, hard press. Nothing seemed to happen and so, after a while, we pressed it again. We could see through the glass door panels into the hallway and I noticed that on the right was a metal shutter reaching down to the floor and that this was very slowly rising up. Once the shutter was open, they came and let us into the tiny reception area previously hidden behind it.
After checking in, we took the lift to the third floor where our room is. The lift is so small that we could barely fit both of us into it with our bags. Not only that, but the lift does not have a door of its own, so we had to be careful not to touch the wall as the lift went up.
The room is quite small and the bed takes up most of it. Behind me in the photograph is the small bathroom and toilet (or what the smart people call the ‘On Sweet’). Getting in and out of the shower is an art in itself. The room is very warm but there doesn’t seem to be any source of heat. We regulate the temperature by opening and closing the window!
But let us be positive: there are enough power points to keep our gadgets charged and a table or sideboard on which to put our kettle and tea cups. With that and a reasonably comfortable bed, what else do you need?
What’s in a name?
There’s no doubt that Brussels is an ancient settlement but just how ancient isn’t known for certain. Some cite a reference by the Bishop of Cambrai in 695 to a hamlet he called Brosella but others think that may in fact refer to Broxeele in Northern France.
The generally accepted etymology of the name of Brussels sees it as a combination of Dutch words broek (‘marsh’) and sele or zele (‘house’ or ‘home’). For its founders, then, it was their ‘home in the marsh’. For us, over the next few days, it will be our home in the fascinating country of Belgium.