Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Brussels, part III: Sprung from the craters of the Sun King

Brussels, Belgium
The Belgian capital has its fair share of art nouveau gems and beautiful churches, but there is so much more to Brussels' buildings. The Napoleon III style St-Gilles Town Hall needed a panorama to capture its magnitude.
One of the focus points of Brussels is the Grand Place, a square dominated by the fifteenth century city hall. When Louis XIV (the Sun King) sent his army to cannon Belgium extensively in 1695 in an attempt to draw Dutch attention away from the French-occupied Namur, he levelled a third of Brussels but could not take down the city hall. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays the square hosts a flower market, but during our visit a summer concert was being set up and a large stage blocked all but space for one flower stall.
The destroyed guild halls were rebuilt around the Grand Place between 1695 and 1705, and they were more opulent than ever. There are butchers and bakers guilds, but I particularly liked this one with two cherubs hoisting golden scales. A lawyers' guild, perhaps? 
Many streets were cordoned off and painted for the summer events. We saw these blue shapes being sprayed on when I went on a search for a coat. Belgium was colder than I had anticipated, and my thin cardigan wasn't cutting it. Seeing a woman with a Primark bag, I asked her where the store was. Her English was very good and I understood her perfectly, but I found her directions amusing: "You turn left up here and then you go away." She meant go straight, of course, and I found the Primark with a huge crowd lined up outside. In Europe there are currently massive summer sales where items can be discounted as much as eighty percent, so it was an unfortunate time to shop for cold weather clothes. 
I eventually bought a chic cream leather jacket from a nearby store that had no queue at all (50% off to boot), and a camping appropriate jacket from Decathlon complete with removable hood, toasty inner fleece and waterproofing.
Trams were everywhere, their cables stretching out over the city like an enormous spider's web. It was at times terrifying because they seemed to come out of nowhere; you'd be watching for trams to the left and right but hadn't seen another tram line coming in at a diagonal.
Wanting to experience more terribly old pubs, L'Inattendu was also wood panelled, and even had an in-use ashtray in the toilets. It was very pleasant to break up long walks with a drink in a relaxing place. 
In the year 1226, construction began on the cathedral yet it took three hundred years to finish. Tall trees lead the way through a park to the facade, which reminds one of Notre Dame de Paris. 
While we found this beautiful cathedral as well as attractive churches, we did stumble across an ugly one. More modern, the angular brick belfry jutted into the sky without any class whatsoever. It was comprised solely of squares and rectangles and needed a deep cleaning. I did not want a photo of it. In this architecturally spoilt city, how is that acceptable?
Ascending white steps, we looked out over Brussels. From that distance you couldn't see the insane drivers that dotted the streets. Let me clarify by saying that most drivers were respectful and law-abiding, but some were road terrors. We turned down a street and waited for ages while a man in a truck did bizarre manoeuvrings. Eventually when we realised that he wasn't going to let through the long line of cars that had backed up, a kind stranger had to help everyone reverse out into a busy intersection to chose a different route. Immediately after that, we were again stalled when two drivers had an argument out of their windows, blocking the road from two directions. We did become somewhat exasperated, especially as the delay flung us into rush hour. 
Traipsing across from the viewpoint, we witnessed some band photography in progress (potentially for an album cover), the five members posing in front of a regal statue. I preferred their previous poses, which included a rocking horse prop that the ponytailed guy sat upon looking disinterested, but we weren't able to get a picture in time as we were pretending not to take their photo and our subtlety led to our limited success. 
The last building I will mention is a prison. The mystery here is why someone thought it would be a good idea to dress up the front as an imitation Crusader-era fortress. We saw a line of people queuing and we weren't sure if they were waiting to visit inmates or were confused tourists who saw an old looking building and decided to take a look inside.
Hearing of a wondrous friterie that has locals snaking down the street waiting to get a paper cone of goodness, we had to try it on our last evening in Brussels. What a line it was! We twiddled our thumbs and tapped our feet for a considerable amount of time and once we acquired them, they turned out to be good. Superior to oven chips, but I've certainly had on par fries from fish and chip shops in New Zealand and the wait time was fractional. The brasserie frites we had previously next to Audrey's house were much better made. But this friterie's price would have been acceptable even to a miser for the large amount you receive, and I had fun eating them with a tiny blue trident. 
I'll finish with a joke: How do you drive a Belgian mad? Put them in a round room and tell them there's a frite in the corner.