The Joke Goes Like This
The joke goes something like: Name five famous Belgians – and of course no one can. It’s supposed to prove that Belgium is boring.
It’s not true – at least as far as Brussels is concerned. After spending a week there, we suspect that Belgium has just had bad PR – and that the Belgians don’t mind that at all. In fact we heard that they kind of like being overlooked so they can get on with the business of living.
Brussels: the capital of Belgium. It’s on the same latitude as Brighton on the south coast of England, just a hop, skip, and a jump across the channel – or under the Channel via Eurostar, with a route that terminates at Gare du Midi in the middle of the city.
Of course from Edinburgh where we live, it was cheaper to fly – and we had lots of Avios airmiles to our credit, which made it even cheaper.
Brussels – Isn’t That Where The European Parliament Is?
Yes, the seat or permanent home of the European Union Parliament is in Brussels, but it wasn’t fixed until quite recently in the history of the European Union.
For years there was a provisional arrangement under which the Parliament was located in Strasbourg, while the European Commission (the executive body of the EU) and the Council (the heads of state of the member countries) had their seats in Brussels.
Then in 1985 the Parliament had a second chamber built in Brussels so it would be near the Commission and the Council.
1997 Treaty Of Amsterdam
That ‘temporary’ situation was regularised by the 1997 Treaty Of Amsterdam under which Brussels became the workaday home of the Parliament under an arrangement whereby the Parliament also kept its seat in Strasbourg and would hold twelve sessions a year there.
Apparently, there is still some ill feeling between certain of the member states about the location of the Parliament in Belgium.
For Brussels it means that there is an EU quarter with new glass, steel, and concrete buildings – stretching onwards and upwards for block after block.
The Grande Place
Lined all around with such fine buildings, the Grand Place or main square in Brussels doesn’t disappoint. It is crammed to the corners with gold-leaf covered buildings. Take away the tourists and the odd sign here and there, and we could be back in the heyday of Flemish ascendance.
Belgium has only been independent since 1830, when it seceded from the Netherlands. There’s a painting in the Royal Art Museum of the moment of revolution in July 1830.
The painting shows a skirmish in the park opposite the museum when crowd in the street, protesting unfair representation in the Netherlands parliament, met with the well-to-do who were leaving the opera.
The theme of the opera performance was the overthrow of a regime, so everyone was in similar mood.
The Netherlands took the kind course of granting the Belgians’ wish to secede and the secession passed peacefully enough with a guiding hand from the French.
Historically, it was out of this mix that Belgium gained its status as a neutral country, the invasion of which by Germany was the match that lit the fuse that brought Britain into the First World War.
Musee Royaux Des Beaux-Arts
The rooms of the Musee Royaux Des Beaux-Arts (Royal Art Museum) that house modern art are closed for renovations (due to reopen next year).
The earlier art that is on show is wonderful, with several Breugels, Bosch, and at least one Rembrandt.
The outside of the building has seen better days, and the fact that it isn’t in tip-top condition may say something about how much money there is (or isn’t) floating around in the public coffers.
We did hear that a lot of money comes into Brussels because of the European Union having its institutions here. But for a capital city the state of its pavements (sidewalks) is pretty bad, with small up-tipped paving stones everywhere. (Not that we’re grumbling or grouchy or anything…)
The Comic Strip Center
The photo below is of the foyer of the Comic Strip Center, which is located in the former Waucquez Warehouse, an Art Nouveau building designed by the architect Victor Horta (1906).
Typical of Horta’s style, the structural elements are left on show rather than being hidden behind decoration. In fact, the decoration is purposely made to seem like decoration.
You can see this in the closeup in the second photo below, with the comparison between the stubby square sections of raw steel above the ‘classical Greek’ decoration that sits in ‘mid air’ partway up the columns.
Boule & Bill
A red Citroen 2CV features in the comic strip Boule & Bill. It’s the invention of the artist Jean Roba, who died in 2006 and who has a small room in the Comic Strip Center dedicated to his work.
The car in the foyer of the museum was given to Roba when he published his 1000th Boule & Bill cartoon, and it has been signed and dedicated with sketches by many popular and pioneer artists who were friends with Roba.
The staff at the museum explained all this when they kindly emailed this page from the cartoon strip to us.
A Load Of Waffles
And now to the most important part of Belgian culture, outranking even Belgian chocolate (which is world famous): Namely waffles.
You will find waffles in any small food shop, in little kiosks, and you will definitely find them in the screaming yellow vans strategically located in busy squares around the city.
Doused in chocolate, covered in cream, or just plain – take your pick.
Mmmm, mmmm, mmmm, delicious.
We took a tram ride to a meeting one evening – on #92 out to the terminus stop at Fort Jaco. When we finished our meeting, we got back on the tram and waited.
The driver came on board and before settling into his seat to begin the journey, he started to pour sand into little metal boxes at strategic points along the inside of the tram.
We asked him what he was doing and he said it was for the brakes. How interesting. How seemingly old fashioned. We guess the dribble of sand helps to make contact between the metal wheels and the metal tramlines.
Trams are a big feature in Brussels. They glide along while people dodge across the tramlines in front of them.
People have also made a speciality of deciding at the last moment that a different tram is the one for them – and they sprint to another stop to catch an approaching tram.
It was quite disconcerting the first time we saw it, with people suddenly running away from the tram stop at which we were standing.
One a more decorative note, even when the trams are nowhere is sight there is a tracery of overhead tram wires to set off the scene.
A Final Word On The Grand Place
The Grand Place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and here is a photo of one of the buildings that flank it. It is the town hall, started in 1402 and completed in 1410.
It was here that the provisional government met in 1830 to set the seal on the secession from the Netherlands and the founding of the country of Belgium.
Look out for Part II of this look at Brussels, when we will give the lowdown on the Horta House – the wonderfully intact and renovated Art Nouveau house that Victor Horta designed.