Wednesday, November 04, 2015

The unexpected pleasure of Brussels

Manneken Pis
Oddly enough, when I set off on this trip at the beginning of October (man! that seems like a long time ago!), I had no intention of visiting Brussels (population ~1.8 million). I had visited the city on two previous occasions and felt I'd seen enough. I thought I would be better rewarded by spending time exploring somewhere new (to me) or prolonging a visit to Amsterdam or Paris.

But, as often happens when traveling, I had to adjust my plans. Circumstances evolved such that a rendezvous with Brother Calee (originally scheduled to occur in Luxembourg) could be more easily effected in Brussels. And so, Tuesday morning, I jumped on a train in Luxembourg City, bound for the Belgian capital. 

Le Grande Place
Where I arrived in the early afternoon. I had an address where Calee and I were to meet, so I plotted a route using the wifi connection at Brussels Midi train station, and made the 1.5 kilometer trek through the streets of the city to an apartment building in the St. Gilles region of the city.

Familiar face in a faraway place
I waited for about a half hour and then saw my brother, travel bag slung over his shoulder, making his way up the street in my direction. A welcome sight, indeed!

Le Grande Place
We got settled into a very mod apartment Calee had found through Airbnb, then set out to explore the immediate neighborhood. I always find it exhilarating to explore a new place, and this particular part of Brussels charmed with its unassuming air, its picturesque architecture, and its laid-back sidewalk cafes. We found an outside table at a Spanish restaurant and ate tapas while dusk deepened to darkness and bells from a nearby church steeple tolled out the hour.

Alley full of restaurants just off Le Grande Place
This morning we set out to see Le Grande Place, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Le Grande Place was built at the end of the 17th century, by the various guilds that operated within Brussels after the original plaza was destroyed by a French army in 1695. The plaza is surrounded by ornate, elaborate guildhouses that individually and (especially) collectively take your breath away. That is, if you're into that sort of thing.

Le Grande Place
Which I am. Just standing in the middle of Le Grande Place and viewing all the splendor around me lifted my mood. It's a spectacular place.

Calee and I also stopped by the famous Manneken Pis fountain, where the 61 centimeter bronze statue of an unnamed boy pisses into a fountain at his feet. The fountain was originally made in 1619, and no one is really sure what it signifies. There are, however, numerous myths. My favorite goes like this:

In 1142, the Duchy of Leuven was led by two-year-old Duke Godfrey III. Godfrey's troops were at that time warring with troops of the Berthouts, the lords of Grimbergen. The Leuvanite troops put the infant lord in a basket and hung the basket in a tree to encourage them. From there, the boy urinated on the troops of the Berthouts, who eventually lost the battle.

Who knows? Maybe that's where the contemptuous "piss on 'em" remark originated.

Arched entryway in Le Grande Place
After Le Grand Place, we set out for the nearby Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. I can't remember how many grand Catholic basilicas I have visited on this trip, but it doesn't matter. I never get tired of the beautiful architecture, the dazzling stained glass.

Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula
There is a temptation to question the priorities of the Church when viewing these fabulous cathedrals. Consider the resources required to build these places. Often they were built using the labor and meager means of pious believers who lived nearby in squalor and poverty.

But consider this also: in the Dark Ages, when anarchy and horror lay like a miasma over most of Europe, these cathedrals were symbols of the divine; they were visions of something beyond the bleak earthly reality. Without them, the lives of the people who built them would have been devoid of aspiration, purpose, or hope.

Stained glass in the cathedral
And, even today, in a world that is much less bleak than the one in which they were first erected, the cathedrals evoke feelings of holiness and hope; they nurture a belief in something better.

That's how I feel about it, anyway.

Sculpture in the cathedral
Stained glass in the cathedral
More stained glass
Walking around in Brussels
This has been a most rewarding visit to Brussels. More than haughty Paris, more than formal Madrid, more even then dazzling Manhattan, I feel like Brussels is a city where I could live, where I could feel at home.

Tomorrow, on to the Netherlands.

1 comment:

Simon said...

Excellent, Dade! Party on