Bruxelles, part II: tourism

I stayed just outside of Brussels for 5 nights with the grandmother of my good friend from high school, Celine.  On Monday, 2 August and Wednesday, 4 August we went into the Brussels to explore the city a little.  Here is a brief overview of what we did.

Monday, 2 August

In the morning, we made our way down to the Atomiom.  This huge structure, representing an iron crystal but many millions of times bigger, was built for the 1958 world exhibition in Brussels.  Today, it is a museum about the exhibition and about immigration into Belgium - kind of an unusual combination.

View from under the atomium, looking up
All around the Atomium are some of the remains of the world fair: grand avenues, and some of the pavillions of other countries.  Even today, this remains an area primarily frequented by tourists, as it is somewhat outside of Brussels.

When you go into the atomiom, you go up into the different spheres to see different exhibits.  The top sphere offers a great view over the surrounding area and Brussels.

After a couple of hours of looking around, we decided to head into Brussels proper.  We took the metro into Bruxelles Centre, and headed for the Grand' Place:

One side of the Grand' Place

The Grand' Place is the center of Brussels.  The incredibly ornate buildings that line the huge open square were once (or perhaps in some cases, still are?) home to the major guilds of the city.  You can tell the guilds with their headquarters on the Grand' Place must have been fairly well-off, given how rich all the façades are!  The combined effect of all the magnificent buildings is definitely impressive.

Around the edge of the Grand' Place are plenty of little shops and restaurants geared toward tourists.  We spent a few hours wandering around and looking for a public phone (digression: there are plenty of public phones in France and Switzerland.  Why, then, do they not exist in Belgium???).  Finally we stopped in a restaurant for a very late lunch, where I had a crème d'asperges soup and waterzooï (see the previous entry for my discussion of this dish.)

After lunch, we set out to find the Mannekin Pis, the jaunty fountain of a peeing boy that is a must-see on anyone's visit to Brussels.  According to a sign by the Mannekin Pis, he has over 800 outfits; but when we saw him, he was nekkid:

Mannekin Pis

It would have been much more fun if he had been in his kilt, or lederhosen, African warlord garb, or any of the outfits that go with him, but oh well! 

Just like you can buy tiny models of the Eiffel tower all over Paris, you could get mini Mannekin Pis models in all the tourist shops in Brussels.

The well-known pâtisserie Dandoy has a shop right near the Mannekin Pis, and I stopped in to buy a packet of Speculoos, the crisp spicy cookies that are their specialty.  Afterwards, Celine and I returned home to chez Bonne Maman for a delicious dinner of cailles (quails) served in a rich, smooth tomatoey sauce with small potatoes, which was délicieux.  For dessert, Bonne Maman had bought a tarte au sucre, or sugar pie - one of her favorites and a local specialty.  The pie had a crust on the bottom only, and it was a little sweet and more bready than a standard French flaky pastry crust.  The filling was a pale creamy color, had a soft, light texture, and was very sweet, a little like the caramelized filling around pecans in a pecan pie.

Wednesday, 4 August

On Wednesday, after craquelin (sweet, brioche-like bread with small pieces of sugar baked inside) and pâtisseries, Celine and I headed into Brussels with her aunt Véronique, her cousins Antoine and Elise, and Antoine's girlfriend, Marine.  This time, we headed to the Palais Royal and museum district.  The Palais Royal has not been the residence of the royal family for at least the last century, if not longer, though some official business is conducted there at times.  It is open to the public daily for a short tour of some of the sumptuous rooms.
Palais Royal, Brussels
For the most part, the tour was fairly standard for a Palace: magnificent chandeliers, statues in marble and porphyry, portraits of family members, parquet floors... Very richly decorated.  They wouldn't let you bring in a camera, so I have no photos.  At the end of the tour, however, there were some unusual exhibits about the human conception of nature, with various artifacts from different peoples around the world, and contemporary works, and taxidermied animals.  Finally, the last room highlighted displays from a local children's science museum with different interactive activities about heatbeats and centripetal force and rocket construction.  It was a strange juxtapostion with the rich austerity of the rooms in the Palais.  I think I heard someone say these exhibits were due to Belgium holding the current seat of the EU Presidency.

After the Palais Royal, we headed over the the Magritte museum.  Magritte was a Belgian surrealist, active from about 1920 until around 1965 when he died.  It is a relatively new museum, and the collection is displayed in very dark rooms with lots of little quotes and items to help reconstruct what inspired Magritte.  Surrealism isn't my favorite genre, but they did have a large and nice collection of his works which presented an interesting exhibit.

Outside the museum, they have mirrors set up that reflect the sky, whatever else happens to pass by, and a typically Magritte form - a clever display to reflect his oeuvre:

Mirrors outside Musée Magritte
After the Magritte museum, we all headed towards the Grand' Place, a few minutes' walk away, to grab some lunch.  There is a street just off of the Grand' Place filled with Greek food, and we went there for pittas.  I had a pitta falafel, but they had a wide variety to choose from.  After lunch, Celine's family decided to go back home, but Celine and I went back up to visit the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts.  Since it was the afternoon of the first Wednesday of the month, admission was free!  The same building holds both their "ancien" (middle ages to 19th century) and "modèrne" (19th and 20th centuries) collections.  After a morning of surrealism, we opted to start with the ancien.  They had a nice collection of primarily Flemish works (not surprising): Bruegels (Elder and Younger), Hans Memling, Roger van der Weyden, Hieronymous Bosch... many beautiful works, though a little repetitive.  A highlight for me was David's Death of Marat.  After an hour or two, we decided to try out the modern section too, but hélas!  The museum closed at 5 pm.  All we saw was a few Marcel Broodthaers works, including a casserole of mussel shells and a mussel shell covered canvas.  But as we were in Belgium, did we really need to see any other modern works?

Coming soon: Bruges, city of canals and tourists.

A bientôt,