A Day in Capital of Europe – Part 1
[Brussels, Belgium, Dec 19, 2019]
Armed with Rick Steves’ Belgium guidebook, I left my hotel shortly after 8 am. It was still dark – sunrise wasn’t until 8:43 am. I stopped for a coffee at the cafe right next to my hotel and headed for the European Parliament on the east side of the city, about 25 minutes away from the city center by bus.
The European Union as you know it today is the result of more than 70 years of intentional policies towards economic cooperation among countries that were previously rivals. It all started after World War II when three nations – Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg, jointly known as Benelux – established a free-trade zone in 1948. More countries joined over time. In 1992, the 12 countries in what was then known as the European Common Market formed the European Union. 15 other countries have joined since then, and many of them have adopted the common European currency, the Euro. Today, the 27 member states include nearly all of Western Europe and most of Eastern Europe. Together, they form the seventh largest “country” with the third largest population and an economy just smaller than the US. Bulgaria became a member in 2007 but has not adopted the Euro yet.
I came here to see the European parliament, which was part of a free 30-minute self-guided tour one could take on the hour starting at 9 am. I got there early, which allowed me time to take photos as I watched employees trickle in.
Upon check-in (passports required) and an airport-style security checkpoint, I got to the atrium where I marveled at a small-scale model of the complex. Various exhibits provided further info about the EU, and all EU country flags were on display.
The next stop was the building’s lobby. A giant stainless steel statue called “Confluences” represented people coming together for a common purpose.
The final stop was the Hemicycle where the members of the European Parliament sit. They represent more than 160 political parties from all EU nations and are organized into seven different voting blocs based on political ideals rather than nationality.
I really enjoyed my visit to the EU parliament. There are other things to see here, such as the House of European History and the Parlamentarium. Both of these museums go much deeper into EU history and how it all works. I opted not to see them as I wanted to make sure I have plenty of time to walk around Brussels and see all the sites in daylight.
I headed back to the city center. My guidebook (Rick Steves’ Brussels guidebook) included two city walks – one centered around the market square on the lower side of town, and another centered around the Royal Fine Arts Museum on the upper side of town. I decided to do the lower side of town first.
The walk began at Grand Place – the market square in the center of Brussels. Most European capitals are centered around a major square, but this one lived up to its name. It was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list in 1998. For 1,000 years, this is where farmers and merchants sold their goods. The most majestic building in the square is the Town Hall – built in 1400 – with its 300-ft (91-m) tall tower.
Opposite the Town Hall is the King’s House, now home to the City Museum. It actually started out as the medieval square’s breadmarket, but later became the regional office of the Habsburg empire of Charles V, which is how it got its current name.
The other buildings flanking the square are former guild halls – home office for the town’s different professions. Today, these buildings house mostly shops and restaurants. Because I got here so early (it was just after 10 am, I think), the square was not packed at all and I loved seeing all the buildings without throngs of tourists in the square. I looked forward to seeing it lit up in the evening.
From there, the lower city walk in the guidebook continued around Grand Place. Below are some of the highlights in pictures.
The Galleries Roayales St Hubert, the oldest still-operating shopping mall in Europe. This glass-covered mall was the inspiration for all many other like it all across Europe.
Church of St. Nicholas, built in the 12th century.
The Bourse (stock exchange)
Church of Ste. Catherine
By the time I got to the Church of Ste Catherine, it I was getting hungry and I noticed the Mer du Nord/Nordzee fish bar opposite the church. It was a recommended lunch spot in my guidebook. I ordered some calamari and shrimp, which I enjoyed standing at the bar while people-watching.
My next stop were two monuments near Grand Place honoring Brussels notables.
Belgian waffles are everywhere in this city. And I needed dessert after my lunch!
I knew I was getting close to the infamous statue of a peeing baby, Manekein-Pis, when I saw this on the ground.
The statue was made in 1619 to provide drinking water for the neighborhood. The bronze statue is tiny – not even 2 ft (just over half a meter). The city commissioned the statue to show the freedom and joie de vivre (zest for life) of the Bruxellois. It has become the de-facto symbol of the city, and you can find a crowd of people looking at the statue peeing at all hours of the day.
It is common for VIPs to bring the statue an outfit, and he also gets dressed up for special occasions. There is a whole museum dedicated to his outfits just up the street from the statue.
This concluded my lower city walk. I’ll cover the upper city walk in my next post.