I had last visited Brussels in 1979, my first stop on a backpacking trip through Europe with an EuroRail pass and a copy of Europe on $5 a day. I stayed in a hostel, visited the Grand Place and sadly realized that $5 per day would not allow for guided tours, chocolate samples or buying lace.
I returned this week with a more generous budget and a longer list of places to see. The first stop was still the Grand Place, the medieval main square at the center of the old city. It hasn’t changed much in 40 years, but the large number of tourists was a big shock compared to the relatively foreigner free towns I had just come from in Brittany. Despairing of getting any photos without large crowds, I returned the following morning at 6:30AM to take some pictures, the square empty but for a group of young Americans still partying from the night before and the street cleaners.
Brussels: The Walking Tour:
I joined a walking tour offered by Sandemans, a local “free, tip what you think it is worth” tour led by Magalia and her dog, Joseph. We started in the Grand Place, where Magalia provided a brief history of the architecture of the buildings. It had been a market square for centuries. The City Hall, still in use today, is a excellent example of 14th century Gothic style, except for the fact that it completely lacks symmetry. The entrance, topped by the 90 foot spire, is off-centre, as are other features, the result of too many architects and spontaneous innovations. The remaining buildings are all Baroque style guild halls, dating from the 18th century, reconstructed following the complete demolition of the original, wooden structures by the French king, Louis XIV, on one of his quests for more land.
Just a block away is Manneken Pis, a bronze statue which translates into exactly what it looks like, a peeing boy. Mention of it was reported as long ago as the 15th century, but it took its current location in 1618. In fact, it is a replica – the original is in the City Museum. Much beloved and considered the symbol of Brussels, the city employs a full time tailor to put different costumes on it 2-3 times a week, such as Santa Clause, Dracula and Madonna.
From architecture, Magalia turned to talk of Belgium food, specifically beer (the best), waffles, chocolates and french fries. According to her, fries were invented by the Belgians, but Americans, seeing them for the first time during WW1 with persons speaking French, incorrectly assumed they were “French fries” and the name stuck. True Flemish fries are cooked in animal fat twice, to get the outside crispy but keeping the inside soft. She recommended the Café Georgette for some of the best fries. I order a portion there later that day. They came wrapped in a paper cone and were good, but I’m not sure I would say they are the best ever.
From the Grand Place, we walked to St. Michael Cathedral, an example of early Gothic architecture, more simply decorated than middle Gothic architecture. This Cathedral was finished just 12 years after Notre Dame and bore many similarities, but no rose window.
Brussels is a mecca for Modern Art and we walked in one of the districts, but it was closed and deserted on Easter Monday. Magalia entertained us with a short history of Belgium. There is no traditional Belgium language (French, Flanders Dutch and German are the official ones), tribe or land. Rather, Belgium was occupied and fought over at various times by its neighbors the Dutch, French and Germans, along with the British, Spanish and Austrians. In 1830, in part to stop the continual warfare between the states, Belgium was proposed as a separate entity to provide a buffer zone between the warring countries, on condition that it always remain neutral. A king (from a German family) was appointed and Belgium came into being. It remained neutral until WW1. Germany sought safe passage through it to attack The Netherlands, fully expecting to receive it since Belgium was supposed to be neutral. King Phillip had other ideas and rejected the German request. Thus, Germany invaded Belgium and overran most of it in a few days. So ended Belgium neutrality, but King Phillip became a hero.
The Hollerbos Forest:
Every April, the Hollerbos forest erupts in a sea of violet bluebells. A short train ride to the Halle station, followed by a 10 minute bus ride on the 114 (Brussels transit system is fairly easy to figure out), I arrived at the gates to the forest. Stretching about 6 kilometers, it has paved paths for vehicles and pedestrians and some well marked walking dirt paths that took me into the forest proper and away from the tour groups, cyclists, dog walkers and pretty much everyone else into an enchanted garden of flowers, trees and sunlight dancing atop the blossoms. I walked about for 2 hours, mesmerized by the beauty of it all:
Chocolate Tasting Tour:
Brussels offers chocolate tours appealing to all tastes; how to make chocolate, history of chocolate and the one I settled on, a tasting tour at 5 different chocolatiers. Stefanie, a local studying law at the university, was our guide. As an aside, she told me she was doing her Masters in commercial law and that her tuition, like all Belgians, was heavily subsidized. She paid about 1000 Euros a year, although she was responsible for purchasing her own textbooks.
She promised after the tour we (me and 10 Americans) would all become chocolate connoisseurs. After a brief introduction about the cocoa bean and its components, the butter and the mass (the paste), Stefanie explained why some chocolates, like our first tasting place, Leonidac, sold its chocolate for 20 Euros a kilo but the last ones charged 80 -120 Euros per kilo. Part of it was based on where the cocoa bean came from (Central America, Central Africa, India, Vietnam were the most common), but also the quality of the other ingredients (organic was better) and most importantly, if the chocolates were hand made or machine made. The latter were far less expensive and not as tasty.
Leonidac is one of the oldest and least regarded chocolatiers. Yesterday, Magalia had explained that giving chocolates is a tradition in Belgium and the better the quality, the more respect you were showing to the recipient. If you wanted to insult someone, you gave them chocolates from Leonidac. With a similarly negative introduction, Stefanie handed us each a white chocolate, which is not chocolate at all but only the cocoa butter, and broke one in half to show us the well-defined layers of white chocolate, pralines and a coffee mousse-like center. We all bit in – it was sickly sweet and a bit gritty. Our second sample was a milk chocolate, but again quite sweet.
We moved on to Neuhaus, then to Mary, two mid-range chocolatiers where we sampled different sweets, including a champagne one. The chocolates got darker, the interiors less segregated and more of a conglomerate of flavours rather than distinct layers. We were introduced to “ruby chocolate,” which as its name suggests is a rosy pink colour. Introduced in 2017, it is the first new chocolate colour since Nestles created white chocolate. Why it is pink is a patented secret. Some speculate it comes from red cocoa powder made during processing, others claim it arises when the cocoa bean, which is naturally red, is left to dry for only a few days rather than the normal 60. Others allege genetic modification creates the ruby colour. Whatever the reason, it was tasty.
Our final two stops were at the high end (read hand made) shops of Whittaker and Frederic Blondel. At the latter, “nouveau French” chocolates were offered – dark chocolate with spices and fruit designed to provide a rolling taste explosion in your mouth. The cardamom/blackberry starts with a spicy hit of the cardamom, followed by the freshness of the blackberry and ending with the semi-sweetness of the dark chocolate. This was all getting a bit hoity-toity for me, but the chocolate was delicious and my favourite on the tour. But following 8 tastings, for the first time in my life, I’d had enough chocolate.
For anyone without the time or means to visit all of Europe but a desire to see all the iconic buildings or for those whose favourite place in England is Miniature World at Legoland outside of London, Mini-Europe is a must. A 30 minute metro/tram ride from the centre of Brussels, this park contains accurate 1:25 reproductions of many of Europe’s most famous sites. The trains move, the ships on the canals sail and the windmills turn. In the miniature bullring, a matador challenges the bull; at the Gdańsk shipyard, protestors carry signs reading “Solidarity.” The giant silver sculpture in the background is the Atomium, designed for Brussel’s World Fair in 1958.
Mini-Europe is newer. It’s theme is European unity and it focuses only on EU countries. Its exhibits are designed to display those that are significant to European and EU ideals: the Brexit vote results are displayed outside of the UK House of Parliament, the Brandenburg gate still shows the Berlin Wall and my favourite,, the Canadian memorial at Flanders Field, showing the world’s involvement in WW1.
The Africa Museum, the worst museum I have ever visited:
I finished my time in Brussels on a negative note, the Royal Museum of Central Africa. Going in, I knew it was controversial and dealt with a difficult topic- Belgium’s colonial past – but nothing prepared me for the feelings of dismay and anger from my visit there.
Some history and context is necessary. Belgium’s second king, Leopold II, wanted to join the European colonies in their quest to conquer and exploit Africa. Through savvy negotiating and with the assistance of Morgan Stanley (he of “Dr. Livingston, I presume fame”), Leopold managed to become king of the Congo Free State in 1885. Fortunately for Leopold, the Congo Free State had an abundance of rubber trees, a highly desirable commodity at the time. Unfortunately for the native Congolese, Leopold embarked on one of the worst enslavement and genocide of the local population known to man in an effort to extract as much rubber as possible. Between 1885 and 1908, when the Belgium government wrested control of the Congo from their King, between 3 and 15 million Congolese died through starvation, beatings and execution. Atrocities abounded, most prevalent was the cutting off of hands and feet when a Congolese failed to meet his or her daily rubber quota.
As a result of this exploitation, Leopold II became the richest man in Europe. He used his wealth to fund massive building projects in Belgium, including the palatial structure housing the museum. In a desire to obtain widespread acceptance for his Congo project, Leopold II hosted the Universal Exhibition in 1897 to showcase the potential of the Congo Free State, complete with an authentic Congolese village populated by a few hundred Congolese imported specifically for the Exhibition. In order to make the Exhibition a success, Leopold II ordered his minions to acquire as much African art and artifacts as possible and transported them to Brussels.
For a century, the Palace of the Colonies/Africa Museum exhibited these materials, with the underlying theme of “how Belgium brought civilization to the Congo.” Finally, in 2013, the museum closed for an extensive renovation designed to bring the collection into the 21st century, de-emphasizing Belgium’s “civilizing “ influence and reconstituting the collection to emphasize African life and art. Five years and 66 million Euros later, it reopened proclaiming its vision to be of a decolonized and contemporary vision of Africa. In my view, it failed in every aspect.
The first room in the Museum displayed statutes of Africans in various poses which were generally derogatory. The introduction explained, almost red-faced, the source of the entire collection and how the statues were part of an outdated and negative European view of Africa and its colonization that the current museum rejected. The current focus of the museum was to educate people about central Africa and explain its traditions, history, topography, animals and resources, curated with the assistance of various African communities.
We were introduced, through artifacts, videos and written explanations in 4 languages, what life had been like in the mid 17-19th century in Africa – birth, initiation (education), religion, rituals and death. This continued through a few rooms, before we came to the animals. In one room were stuffed crocodiles, off to the side and easily missed was a room displaying information about colonialism and Belgium’s part in it
It was a complete whitewash. King Leopold’s horror show was buried under a general discussion about the causes of colonialism – the slave trade and desire for ivory. Only a single board focused on King Leopold in the Congo, with a half dozen photos showing some of the cruelty, a video discussing the genocide, and an explanation that atrocities were committed with the rather banal observation that some estimated millions died but no-one really knew but what was known was there were more deaths in some areas of the Congo than others.
That was it! No attempt to explain or apologize or to analyze the long term effect. The next room was filled with taxidermy animals, an elephant, a giraffe, a hippopotamus. Other rooms identified central Africa’s natural resources and current economic successes. Aside from some history about the differences between Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, the museum steered clear from any mention of politics or conflict. I don’t recall any mention of the Rwanda genocide.
The whole museum was disappointing. Given the money spent and the consultation with the affected communities, I expected an open and honest analysis of Belgium’s role in the Congo, perhaps some expression of regret. Instead, I left with the sense that Belgium and the museum were too ashamed about its past exploits to address them. For me, that is sad. I left Brussels more than a little disappointed with the Belgians that all the chocolates, waffles and silly peeing statues couldn’t diminish.