Tuesday, March 30, 2010

More Than Just Sprouts

In the British media (especially the red-top variety) Brussels is the bogeyman - any and every possible problem or affliction is blamed on this faceless, grey, Machiavellian entity that is "Brussels". And even though I'm quite a europhile and give little credence to the ridiculous, paranoid scaremongering that passes for news in the UK, I wasn't expecting much from this city that, in my mind, was little more than one big office block for eurocrats. How mistaken I was. Brussels has easily moved into my list of top cities (not that I keep such a list, but if I did then it would be there).

The Grande Place in Brussels, one of the world's great city squares.

Where to start? It's difficult as Brussels has as much diversity on offer as London, but jammed into a much smaller, and altogether more manageable, package. The jewel in the crown, and with good reason, is the historic nucleus of the Grande Place. As a guy who has been around a bit and seen a fair few places it takes something special to stun me into silence, but the Grande Place managed just that - a more perfect collection of baroqueness I don't think is possible to find anywhere else. The sheer volume of spires and crenellations and statues on display is enough to make anyone giddy. But the Grande Place is but the crowning cherry on top of the rich architectural cake that makes up the city. Even the base layer of ordinary town houses forms a harmonious whole: sober and made of brick in varying shades, from light tan to dark chocolate. But its the Art Deco and Art Nouveau gems that can be found dotted amongst them (and perhaps to extend a metaphor past its breaking point) that are the Xmas pudding raisins that add that extra special flavour. It is the Art Nouveau especially that sets Brussels apart - the creations of Victor Horta and others vie give Barcelona and Gaudi a good run for their money.

Staying with buildings (but leaving the cake metaphor aside) you can also get a glimpse into Belgium's less glorious, and often ignored, past through some of its most monumental edifices. Although as a country Belgium arrived late on the scene, having been created only in 1830, the young nation decided to quickly catch up with its European peers by grabbing a slice of the colonial pie that was very much in vogue at the time. There wasn't much left to claim so late in the day, except for a chunk of central Africa that was composed almost entirely of impenetrable rainforest along the Congo river basin. King Leopold II saw a niche and went for it, setting up his own company and taking over a swathe of land almost 80x the size of Belgium which he went on to plunder in brutal fashion and use as his own personal bottomless piggy-bank. With his ill-gotten gains he built the Fiftieth arcades, the Palace of Justice (the largest building built in the 19th century and a scary building that makes you feel guilty just by its brooding aura and overbearing size) and the African museum. Despite a greater understanding of history it's still a chapter that is very much glossed over and swept under the carpet in Belgium (the museum only recently added a small section on the brutal regime, but it is still far too little to redress the glaring imbalance).

The authoritative African Museum, built with the funds stolen from the continent during Belgium's unsavoury colonial experiment.

But Brussels is more than just empty buildings. There are colourful neighbourhoods each with its own character and personality. On arriving in the city early on a Friday afternoon I was walking through Anderlecht, an area with a high Maghrebin population, when the local mosques finished their sermons and out poured a wave of men dressed in Moroccan jellabas - I thought I was back in Marrakech. In the weekend market held in an old abattoir all the different groups from the neighbourhood jostle cheek by jowl in the chaos eager to find a good deal on fruit and veg, haberdashery, Polish salamis, fake Chinese Levis and even live chickens and budgies. On the other side of town is the African quarter of Matongé with its black beauty parlours, colourful clothes shops and cheap restaurants. Matongé is a big joke too as it sits right next to the chic EU quarter, with its ambitious, cutthroat eurocrats and bijou boutiques. And interspersed amongst all this, hidden on random buildings are huge cartoon murals betraying the Belgian love for bédés and the absurd in general.

Brussels is indeed far more than just sprouts and bureaucrats, and thankfully so. I've enjoyed my time here discovering its little nooks and crannies and am thankful to have had people to show me around and give me a little insight into life here.

The Belgians have a surprisingly irreverant sense of humour. The peeing boy (Mannekan Pis) may be a famous visitor attraction, so some people decided to create a peeing girl and peeing dog statues to complement it.

P.S. Whilst staying here in Brussels I've discovered the marvels of personalised Google Maps, and so I have now created one for people to follow my travels online. There is a permanent link on the left hand side of my blog.

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