The more time I spend in Brussels, the more I realize it’s quite a curious place indeed. I mean, it’s hard to take yourself very seriously when you’re such a tiny country that people think Belgium is the capital of Brussels and not the other way around, and when your most important monument is a statue of a peeing boy. Here are just a few of the curiosities I’ve encountered lately:
-Brussels has museums. LOTS of museums. More museums than one person could ever visit in a lifetime. And they’re all weird. Sure, there’s the Fine Arts Museum and Natural History Museum etc. etc. boring boring, but there’s also a chocolate museum, beer museum, musical instrument museum, and about 760000 places devoted to art nouveau. But there’s also a museum of clocks. And horror art. And the confederacy. Yeah, the AMERICAN confederacy. Of the CIVIL WAR. The South will rise again…in Brussels, apparently!
-Some of the places have funny names. Like Frey Wille, which to me looks a whole lot like Free Willy. Or Rollerbeekstraas, which seems a lot like Rollerblade Street, except the downhill cobblestones would make it a very unpleasant place to actually rollerblade.
-Not only does Brussels house the famous Manneken Pis pissing-boy statue, they’ve also apparently built a female version, which I have yet to see. I must imagine that version includes a toilet, because it would be difficult otherwise.
-There are two armed guards outside the Royal Palace. It took me about five trips past the palace before I even noticed they were there, completely dwarfed by the enormous palace facade. There are only two of them for the whole place, and the entire backside remains open and vulnerable. I suppose they’re just there for ornamentation, but every time I pass by, I can’t help but laugh at these two serious men with rifles, not able to move for hours, stationed so far away from the door that if someone decided to make a run for it, they’d probably get in. And there’s no one there at all at night or on weekends. So much for security!
-There’s a guy who plays the harpsichord or something similar on various street corners. The first time I saw him, he was playing “Havah Nagilah.” Not only is that the weirdest song choice for street entertainment, but it’s apparently the ONLY song he knows, because he plays the same song on every corner, all day.
Those are just a few of the oddities, but I’m sure there will be more added to the list as I discover more about the city. This weekend, however, I left fair Brussels for Leuven, in Flemish Brabant but a mere 20-minute train ride from the city, where my new friend and personal Dutch tour guide Joost took me around all day. You may recognize the name Leuven (or Louvain) because it is where wonderful Stella Artois beer is brewed. It’s also the home of a highly regarded university, but I think the beer is more interesting.
Joost took me to the library, the university buildings, a few convents, and past streams and gardens and tiny houses with tiny windows. It reminded me of Santiago, a smaller, older, well-preserved university town. Leuven has lots of plazas, each unique and gorgeous. My favorite was the small space between the cathedral and some other buildings whose purpose Joost eloquently explained but which I cannot now remember. The highlight of that plaza was the extremely shiny golden statue of a man on the top of the cathedral, which actually moves so that the man physically strikes the bell, every quarter of an hour. I wondered if maybe he was one of those street performers who are experts at standing still. He’s not going to earn very much money, all the way up on top of the cathedral like that. Curiosities of Belgium.
Then we visited the Oude Markt (the Old Market), which is another small space which boasts “Belgium’s longest bar,” because one whole side is lined with bars and you can simply hop (or stumble) from one to the next. On this Saturday afternoon, with an unusally warm February sun shining, the plaza was full of shiny metal tables, flocks of pigeons, students, children, and people strolling, relaxing, enjoying a perfectly splendid weekend moment, no doubt with one of Belgium’s 2500 fine beers in hand. It seemed like all of the town’s 50,000 inhabitants were there to enjoy an afternoon drink.
Then we sat in another plaza in front of the ornately decorated university library with its clock tower. Another curiosity: this clock tower played no ordinary bell ring to signal the hour. No simple chimes, no single notes. No, this bell tower played “O Fortuna,” “Canon in D,” and a host of other tunes. It basically never stopped ringing. While it was amusing and enjoyable, I had to wonder who could put up with listening to that every day. The plaza was lovely, and the library was lovely, and I was in the middle of explaining something to Joost when I turned my head and was caught mid-sentence by something I’d somehow completely missed. In the middle of the plaza was an enormous sculpture. Not a statue, monument, or ode to some long-forgotten historical event. No, this was what appears to be a giant upturned sewing needle, with a gigantic bug (a beetle, I think) stuck onto the end of it. No plaque, no explanation. Just sheer audacity. Curiosities, I tell you. Curiosities.
After a little more wandering, lots of talking, and plenty of laughter and enjoyment, we were quite hungry, so we stopped into Die Lange Trappen for dinner. Joost recommended the Flemish equivalent of beef carbonnade, which was absolutely excellent, especially when served with a cold Duvel beer (“Devil” in Dutch). It’s true what they say about food here: it’s impossible to eat anything bad. Even the famous fries have been excellent. And I’m conducting “research” into the best gaufre chaud (famous hot waffle), so look for more on that later. I’m only doing this for all of you.
After lingering over dinner and letting the day settle, we stepped back out into the fresh air and Leuven night. We wandered some more through the town, especially calm for a Saturday night (though it usually boasts quite some nightlife, being a college town and all). It seemed like time moved slower there, languid, unhurried, far from the chaotic waves of Bruxellois and traffic that usually crowd the city streets. We finished the evening by listening to some classic Serge Gainsbourg and enjoying the silence and peace that are so rare in Brussels, just twenty minutes away by train.
Pictures soon, I promise!