Brussels is the dashing capital of this eccentric little country, with comic book fanatics, sublime chocolates, great beer, and a boy peeing in a pool as its national symbol. Our plan is too seek out these eccentricities and also the chocolate/beer treats, but our first stop is the Grand Place.
This square is well-named, as it is by far the best of Brussels! Elegant guildhalls were rebuilt shortly after being bombed by French forces in 1695. The splendidly Gothic-style Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) survived this bombing – ironic, as this was the main French target.
Our Belgium Photo Gallery
Museum of the City of Brussels, built over the first cloth and bread markets, is known as Maison du Roi (King’s House by the French, although no king ever lived here) and Broodhuis (Bread House by the Dutch); both segments in this bilingual country are too stubborn to agree to use the others name. The museum features the city’s history and folklore.
The guildhalls are adorned with gilt statues reflecting the sun’s rays. Arbre d’Or is the only building in the square that is still owned by a guild – the Brewers. It is topped by an equestrian statue of Charles of Lorraine, who was Governor of Brussels in the 18th century.
The streets around Grand Place are named after food like “Poulet” (Chicken) and “Fromage” (Cheese), which remind us its lunchtime. We find our way to Rue des Bouchers, with its long line of close-packed eateries, where we stop for a cappuccino and croissant (chocolate, of course).
We backtrack to the Galeries St-Hubert that opened way back in 1847 – Europe’s first covered shopping arcade. We note many boutiques and watchmakers, and dazzling glassware shops. As well it is home to the Royal Theatre Galleries.
On our city walks we see evidence of the obsession with comic strips on building murals depicting comic book characters. The most well-known hero is TinTin, detective boy.
Now – for the most outlandish country symbol we have seen to date. Down the street from the Grand Place is Manneken Pis (the Peeing Boy). You can find statues of this cheeky little fellow in all sizes in souvenir shops. Putting him in various costumes also consumes locals; in one shop we find large versions of him in a Santa, an elf and a rabbit costume. And apparently the Museum of the City of Brussels has a room showing him in 750 costumes. And if this is not outré enough, we are told by locals, “don’t miss the female version!” In a dead end alley we find Jeanneke Pis, the boy’s squatting sister, for “sexual-equality” we are told…. REALLY?!
Our “Butler Busker Contest” goes without even one entry, as we find none of these entertainers on Brussels streets.
Sweets Traditional Belgian Treats
Okay – how can we resist! Waffle-shop-after-waffle-shop interspersed by chocolate-shop-after-chocolate-shop – their irresistible scents envelope us and draw us in.
The Waffle Factory is the place! Watching our waffles being made, I am surprised by the thickness of batter; more like bread dough. Browned to perfection, our still steaming waffle is heaped with banana slices and fresh strawberries – a perfect paring with the sweet buttery cakey underlay! Ohhhh, my!
Belgian Chocolates – Rick is sure there is a law, “to never leave the country without sampling this edible art form” and being law-abiding visiters….
We take our time choosing…and there are sooooo many choices – but the three winners are: Rosace – Coffee, hazel nut and praline swirl. Tourbillon 85 – The numeral is for it being 85% dark rich chocolate ganache. Crème Brûlée – Carmel vanilla cream and dark chocolate cream covered with a custard coating sprinkled with brown sugar. We savour each melt-in-our-mouth selection, with a few swigs of locally brewed Jupiler beer in between to ready our palette for the next chocolaty sensation! Our sugar high is in the stratosphere.
I waver for a few wee words about Waterloo.
If it was mid-June we would be sure to take in the massive annual battle reconstruction just south of Brussels where Napoleon “met his Waterloo” as they say – his final defeat took place on the famed Waterloo Battlefields in 1815.
Ypres in Flanders
We North Americans more readily recognize this city in the Dutch-speaking northern region of Flanders by its French name, Ypres, which is Ieper in Dutch.
Ypres was once a thriving medieval cloth town, doing a brisk trade of linens and other fabrics from the Cloth Hall (which served as a covered sale and storage place for these commodities). A town hall, guild houses, churches, and food shops lined the streets – and all the things necessary for a good life.
The German invasion of WWI reduced the entire town of Ypres to rubble. We are behooved to go and see how this city was raised like Phoenix out of the ashes and to visit its war memorials.
As we are about to board the train, I see a grey-haired lady standing alone also waiting to board. Later I notice her facing us several seats away, reading a booklet on Flanders and taking notes. We exchange smiles. Upon leaving the train I can’t resist asking what brings her to Ypres. She says, “I promised my Father who was in WWI that I would return.” It is a gift to meet Heather Webster from London England. We sit on a bench outside the train station, where she tells me more about her father, William George Barnes, with the Norfork Regiment. “He came to Ypres in 1914 with the Expeditionary Force” she says, “the 1st group that came over.” She says her father never talked much about the war, but an unusual occurrence happened 20 years ago when Heather and her husband Bill brought her father back to the Flanders area. They rented a car to travel around the country, and at one point got lost. Bill pulled the car over to the side of the road to check the map. Heather and her father got out to stretch their legs and to wander around a small cemetery that happened to be nearby. “My dad’s face turned white as he recognized the name of his friend on a stone. During a barrage of the attacking enemy, his friend was wounded and was taken under a bridge to protect him from being further hit by bullets or shrapnel. In the following chaos and troop movement my father lost track of this friend, and eventually thought he would never meet up with him again…he was overwhelmed by this by-chance circumstance to say goodbye.” Her uncanny story and her mission leave a lump in my throat.
Heather goes on to her hotel, and we move on to the “In Flanders Fields Museum” located in the reconstructed Cloth Hall. The history of the German invasion and Flanders becoming a blood-soaked killing field unfolds before us in facts, in war remnants and in the haunting faces of photos of men too young to die. From October 1914 to October 1917 the battlefield was mere kilometers from the city. Trenches had been dug to form an arc around Ypres; five bloody battles were fought here.
Soldiers killed in this small country totalled 600,000, with 550,000 in Flanders Fields. This disastrous loss of lives goes on in more than memories; from 1997 onward new industrial developments in Ypres revealed startling finds – unexploded ammunition and human remains. Since then 205 bodies from three different nationalities have been recovered.
There are now 150 military cemeteries in and around the city and many war memorials.
The Menin Gate is the largest Commonwealth War Memorial, erected in 1927; it stands on the site of an old medieval town gate. Since 1928 the “Last Post” has been sounded every evening at the stroke of eight (except during the German occupation of WWII). It is chilling to think of tens of thousands of soldiers walking through this gate on the way to the front, many never to return.
This Memorial bears the names of 54,896 soldiers who were reported missing in Ypres Salient from the start of the war until August 15, 1917. Rick scours the lists for the name “Butler” and finds a goodly number. As large and extensive as the panels are, this gate was too small to hold all the names and the 34,984 missing in action after this date are on a panel in Tyne Cot Memorial in Passchendaele.
We then walk along a wooded path to Lille Gate and the Ramparts Cemetery. The graves in this small cemetery are on a grassy knoll beside a calm body of water. Several headstones have small Canadian Flags by their base…we read the names of these men, who were all members of the engineer corps – a poignant moment.
Northeast of Ypres, near Sint Juliaan is a Memorial to Canadian soldiers. We are stymied in our plan to visit this memorial due to road construction, but are graciously supplied with this photo by Tourism Ieper (Photo (c) Stad Ieper).
Before catching our back-to-Brussels train, we stand once more in front of the Ypres Monument that was unveiled in 1926 to honour the victims, civilians and soldiers that lost their lives in WWI; and since 2010 an added plaque for the casualties of both World Wars. We leave with sombre thoughts…. and wonder how Heather’s journey is unfolding.
Tomorrow we leave by train to Luxembourg.
Our Belgium visit to Brussels and Ypres were opposite experiences; from the “out-there” atmosphere of Brussels to the peaceful town of Ypres with its war history – we are glad we came.
And – my Finance Minister Rick is in a fine mood re: our Belgium budget – he reports $202 CDN a day (for accommodations, food, travel, sites and entertainment).