Belgium was the last Western European country I needed to visit, and considering the proximity to the UK, I can’t understand why it took me SO long to get there! My Great Grandfather immigrated from Brussels, Belgium to Canada, and part of me was secretly hoping that I might be able to qualify for some sort of ancestry visa, but that dream was never realized.
My 26th birthday was in early January and I was given return tickets to Brussels on the Eurostar as a present. The train, departing from London Kings Cross St Pancras, takes just over 2 hours each way and drops you off at Brussels-Midi station on the edge of town. It’s a quick 15 minute walk into the city centre.
A lot of my friends have visited Belgium before, and all advised not to waste time in Brussels as there wasn’t much to see and it’s, ‘boring.’ Going into my weekend, I had a preconceived notion of what my trip would be like. Wanting to give Brussels a fair chance, I pushed those thoughts away and allowed the teeny Belqiue to work its magic.
Our first night in Brussels was spent exploring around the capital. The Grand Place (Grote Markt in Dutch), is a UNESCO listed site and probably the most striking and opulent town square I’ve seen in all of Europe. The buildings and their golden finishes are an architectural pearl, which people from all over the world come to marvel at. I’d recommend going to view it at night when it’s all lit up (and far less tourists), and then again in the light of the day to get the full experience.
Something I wasn’t prepared for in Brussels was the amount of elaborate and beautiful street art and quirky statues everywhere. Belgium is known for, and loves comic books, so much so that they made an entire museum about it. Walking around the city you see full sides of buildings covered in Tin Tin artwork and other famous cartoons. It adds a lot of character to the city and shows you a side of the capital that is definitely not boring.
When my grandmother visited Belgium back in the day, she always told me this story about this little statue of a boy with his willy out taking a leak. She thought it was so hilarious and bought a wine opener where the corkscrew is his little pee pee. The Manneken Pis has always been an urban legend to me and something I always knew I needed to see with my own eyes! When we stumbled upon it, completely by accident, it was during one of his famous costume parties! There is a real group called the Order of Friends of Manneken Pis, which is made up of around 30 people who parade through the city to the statue, all wearing clothing you might expect to see in a jousting duel, and gather around the tiny dude to celebrate him. They stand around and have a very official ceremony, equipped with an officiator who has an award-worthy beard, people with shields and official family crests, kegs of beer and signs. The whole celebration is to dress him, because he’s basically a streaker. He has his own personal seamstress whose only job is to make him new outfits every few weeks for these costume celebration – he has over 970 bespoke costumes – what a life!
Day 2 in Brussels was spent on the Sandeman New Europe free walking tour. I’ve done this tour in almost every city its offered from Europe to the Middle East, but I have to say, this one was the most informative, educational and pensive ones I’ve gone to. Our guide was a compassionate guy from Ireland who told the story of Belgium with regards to recent terrorist attacks, the age of Brexit and how the EU is responding, and a light history of Belgium, its’ battlefields and the lasting terror that King Leopold left across Africa (if you don’t know who he is, or how he destroyed the lives of millions of people from the Congo, I urge you to read up on him).
Normally, tour guides who are working for a tip, avoid the taboo and political subjects to not offend anyone and ensure they cash in. Our Guide (I completely forget his name and I feel horrible!!), approached the subject very objectively and laid the facts out for us to form our own opinion; it was an eye opening few hours. If you go to Brussels, take this tour and look for the Irish guy!
To cap off our final night in the city, we went to Delirium Café – a pub with more than 3,000 beers available!!! They had a massive book they referred to as, The Bible, which listed all the nectar available, grouped together by country. I was disappointed to see the only Canadian beer they had was the piss of Canada (Molson), but I was happy to see they had some nonetheless. I had a coconut beer that was made with coconut milk and served in a coconut shell! It was easily the best beer I’ve ever tasted, and didn’t have a lot of fizz it in meaning I could drink it all night long!! (This was also a Godsend because I was getting SO bloated from all the carbs I was consuming).
We woke up late the next day with a headache the size of Europe, and the only way to cure it was to eat Belgium chocolate. We hunted for the BEST chocolate available and settled on Elisabeth Chocolate on the high street, it was exactly what was needed. We started to make our way back to the train station, only to get there and have missed the train. Luckily, the kind folks at Eurostar let us get on the next train to London for free! The downside, it was in two hours. That gave us plenty of time to eat our chocolate.
I would without hesitation recommend Brussels for a weekend away; had we had more time we would have gone to explore UNESCO listed Brugge as well – nicknamed the Venice of the North. I’ll save that for another trip.