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Sunday, January 23, 2022

A Microcosm of Europe


With its fries, waffles, chocolates and beers, Brussels is a gastronomical delight. But probe a little and the city will surprise you with much more, says Saurabh Kumar Shahi
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | New Delhi, February 7, 2014 17:18
Tags : Paris | Rome | Milan | Brussels | Central-Centraal | Nord-Noord | Midi-Zuid |

Based on the reasons why a particular city is shortlisted by tourists for visit, destinations in Europe can be classified in three categories. The first category has cities like Paris, Rome and Milan where people come to relive history and soak in the best of art, culture and fashion. The second one has cities like Zurich, Milan and Ibiza, where the draw is its natural beauty. The third category belongs to those cities that have historically been less visited and hence offer a sense of novelty. Prague, Bucharest and Warsaw cut the bill here. And then, there is Brussels. It is hard to put Brussels in any bracket. And justifiably so.

Till a decade or so ago, Brussels was a boring backwater or Europe. Only, this backwater was not exactly a backwater and sat right in the heart of the continent. Apart from a few monuments, including a few crazy ones, the city did not have much to offer. Not anymore.

Today’s Brussels is a bustling city of a couple of million people. And with European Union, European Parliament and NATO having their base; it is truly the capital of Europe too.
As usual, let’s start with the essentials. Weather first, for it can be detrimental here. Brussels is how to put it, a wet city. If you thought that it rains a lot in London; think about it again. For an average of 165 rainy days in London per year, Brussels rains for a whooping 220 days. Which essentially means that it rains round the year. So while it brings in the inconvenience of carrying umbrellas and raincoats, it also essentially means that weather is not extreme and one can visit Brussels anytime the year.

Being in the centre of the Europe has its advantages. Brussels is easily accessible from all the corners of Europe through trains. And that makes it a valuable proposition should one wants to travel the adjoining countries too. All the popular European rail services, Eurostar, TGV, Thalys, Fyra, ICE etc offer their services to and from Brussels. Popular destinations like Amsterdam and Paris are just couple of hours or less away.
For those coming from outside Europe, Brussels Airport (BRU) or simply Brussels Nationals is the chief serving airport. There are flights from practically all over the world. Jet Airways has Brussels as its hub so Indians don’t need to take connecting flights. Jet has direct flights daily from cities across India. While it saves time and money, it also gives you much flexibility in planning your itinerary.

The airport itself is pretty utilitarian with noting to get excited or sad about. It does have free internet and other essentials that have become synonymous to most of the airports in the world. To get into the town, there are several options. But none of them is cheaper or convenient than the train. There are regular trains leaving for one of Brussels’ three city stations, namely Central-Centraal, Nord-Noord and Midi-Zuid.

You can be pardoned for being frustrated over multiple names of the same things. Well, Brussels, if you forgot, also happens to be the capital of Belgium where linguistic wars, mostly of the non-violent nature, has been waged since time immemorial. Belgium has two distinct linguistic zones that are at intellectual wars with each other. The French speaking Wallonia and Dutch speaking Flanders make it absolutely essential for the authorities to name and mark everything in three languages; English, French and Dutch. This can be frustrating at times considering more often than not, the versions are completely different from each other bearing no resemblance. But one gets used to it easily.

Getting around, like other European cities, is a breeze. There is an efficient and expansive network of Metro, Trams and Buses and one has to buy a common card or ticket to travel on them. Considering the city is not cheap, they are better options than say cabs. Brussels card gives you discount at several museums, cafes, pubs and restaurants apart from substantial discounts on transportation tickets.

Cycle enthusiasts will be happy to know that Brussels is a very bike friendly city and bikes are available a plenty on rent. There are marked corridors for bikes and apart from some localities in the north; the city is essentially flat and great for biking. 

Ok, let’s get on to what the city has to offer in terms of sightseeing. The most famous and the most ravishing of them all is Grand Place, also called Grote Markt. It is one of the squares near the old town which has the iconic city tower and a range of historical buildings including a famous church. The buildings display a range of architecture influence and are well kept. There are restaurants and cafes around where one can sit in the evening and enjoy the light & sound show. If the weather is good, you’ll also find some street artists showcasing their talent.

Unless you think that the statue of a small boy holding his prick while peeing towards you is not your idea of a monument, you’ll appreciate Manneken Pis. This statute is supposed to represent the "irreverent spirit" of the city. You can chew over it while you see how Belgians adorn the statue in a myriad of dresses and outfits. It is merely at a walking distance from the Grand Place and a worth visit.

Parc du Cinquantenaire or Jubelpark, as the name suggests, is an expansive park in the east of the city. The park is breathtaking and worth spending some time. It is surrounded in the north by the majestic Royal Military Museum, whereas the southern side is surrounded by the Cinquantenaire Art Museum and the AutoWorld Museum. The Temple of Human Passions and the Great Mosque of Brussels are in the north-western corner of the park and represent the liberal credentials of the city.

Atomium is probably the most iconic representative of the city. The structure of an atom, made of solid steal and other metals, is a great sight to look at. There are nine spheres connected with bonds. Five of them can be visited by tourists and house a museum, a restaurant and a kid’s zone. The structure went for renovation some years ago and has reclaimed its metallic gleam once again. Unlike the other attractions, this one is a bit away from the centre and needs a beet of travelling. But that is a welcome change.

Those interested in international politics and polity can also visit the European Quarters, so to speak. It houses the European Parliament, the European Commission and the European Council apart from the NATO Headquarters. The first two are open for tourists in smaller batches and are actually interesting to visit however mundane they might sound. Apart from these there are plenty of museums and galleries to admire in the city. The city has a well reputed liberal credentials and that is reflective everywhere.
Food is one of the reason people visit Brussels. Trust me. The misnomer “French Fries”, were actually born in Brussels and the city still offers the best. Unlike in other countries, fries are not relegated to a side dish here. Belgians take their fries seriously and that shows. Even an average run-of-a-mill shop will offer you a range of sauces to select from to go with it. And they will accompany almost every dish that you’ll order in a restaurant.

Like the fries, Brussels is also known for the Belgian Waffles. They are also available everywhere and are actually the cheapest thing to lay your teeth on if you are on a budget trip. They also come in a range of choices and are best I have ever had anywhere in the world.

Beer is the undeclared national drink of Belgium and that shows. Nowhere on the earth can you get so many varieties of beer under one roof. Even a neighbourhood restaurant will have a fountain for at least 10 of them if not more. And yes, it is cheaper than water here. The jury is still out as to why beer has caught the fancy of the city whose climate is practically damp, but who gives a damn.
When it comes to shopping, Brussels does offer a small range of products to be taken home as souvenirs or presents. Belgian chocolates have a reputation of their own and they stand up to that. There are hundreds of varieties available. Leonidas, Neuhaus, Wittamer and Marcolini are some of the best ones in the world. Buy a plenty as there is no limit prescribed by the customs.

Pay a visit to the Arab/Turk segment of the city near the Brussels Noord station. You can buy a range of products there on bargain. Carpets and drapes are particularly good. And when you are done with the shopping, don’t forget to buy Turkish Delights and Baklavas. Also look for the Belgian Laces. They are the best in the world and are truly couple of notches above their competitors in the other part of the world.
The city has a vibrant nightlife as well. There are practically hundreds and hundreds of discs and pubs where young bloods from all over Europe come and let loose. The city also has an iconic Red Light district. Use your discretion.

The Paleis voor Schone Kunsten or Palais des Beaux-Arts, which is simply called Bozar in the common parlance, is the Mecca of fashion and art. Those with bulky wallets can explore the best of the fashion and art in the world here. This is no Paris, but that also means that prices are not that exorbitantly high either. It is also a one stop destination for music, theatre, dramas and other performing art forms. Missing it would be a mistake.

There are plenty of hotels of all shapes and sizes for accommodation. The city also boasts of some of the best hostels in the world, which are cheap, tidy and readily available with cooperative staffs. In the last few years, the city administration has gone a long way to make the city appear on the world tourist map and the efforts are bearing fruits. Gone are the days when the only tourists were the I-mean-business looking Eurocrats. The city attracts a fair share of tourists now and it would be a mistake to miss it.

You can also use it as a base to go around other destinations in Europe. Brussels central location makes it a perfect base for such frolic.

But Brussels is much more than that. It is a microcosm of the Europe in itself and that quite something. Don’t let rain dampen your spirits. Bear it and you’ll see Brussels making it all up for you.  

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017