Quirky Brussels

Quirky Brussels

Kalpana Sunder explores the playful side of the Belgian capital of Brussels, home to the comic book, art nouveau & the local mascot Mannekin Pis. Go on a tour down the city with a funny bone...

Every city has its icon: I love the fact that this city of two languages has a cheeky little boy peeing into a fountain with his image plastered all over the city from chocolates, key chains to statues. And it gets even better: the boy called Mannekin Pis has a wardrobe of over 800 tailored outfits; many presented by visiting Heads of States, and kept in a museum at the Grand Place. I even see a female counterpart called Jeanekin Pis — a squatting girl with pigtails.

My hotel, with its Art deco foyer, is built on the site of a 15th century Dominican abbey with vaulted ceilings, an elegant courtyard around a fig tree and velvet sofas with the sound of choral chants in the elevators. It’s the perfect launch pad for my next few days, as I explore the playful side of this staid city, which is the home of the European Union. Comic characters cavort on the sides of buildings and weird statues pepper the streets. After all, it is the home of the comic book and the best way to understand it is a visit to the Belgian Centre for Comic Strip Art. It’s housed in a majestic art nouveau building and filled with comic book trivia. In the foyer is a replica of the large red and white rocket, which took Tintin and Snowy to the moon!


The comic connection

Brussels is of course home to Herge, the brilliant creator of Tintin, who has influenced the whole pop art movement. A stone’s throw from the Centre is a statue of Gaston, André Franquin’s much-loved, gaffe-prone character. Huge comic frescoes of aliens, fireworks, cats, kids, spies, detectives and pirates brighten up more than 30 drab walls around the city including one of Captain Haddock and Tintin with Snowy, jumping off a fire escape. And don’t miss the cat in tight Spandex shorts on a bicycle, made by artist Alain Sechas, ordered by the City Council for the grand sum of 10,000 Euro!

If you are an architecture fiend, you will enjoy the wealth of architecture from baroque and gothic to elegant art deco and modernism. The medieval Grand Place, which Victor Hugo called the ‘most beautiful square in the world’, is where the whole of Brussels congregates — it is framed by beautiful buildings burnished with gilded facades, medieval banners, and gold filigreed rooftop sculptures. Every guild building is reminiscent of the profession that it represents: the upper storeys of the carpenter’s guild building resemble the carved legs of a table and the boatmen’s building resembles a ship’s stern. I wish I was here for the famed Carpet of Flowers, which fills the square with colours for four days in mid-August once in two years.

I visit the Gothic masterpiece, St Michael and Gudula Cathedral, with my guide Etienne Matagne. The structure is framed in a surreal fashion by modern office buildings. With fine stained glass from the 16th century, it is dedicated to the patron saints of the city and is built over the ruins of a Roman church. Four beautiful confessional boxes from the 17th century, carved in oak, and a baroque oak pulpit portraying Adam and Eve being driven out of Paradise, enliven the interiors.

King Leopold II used the fortunes he made in the Belgian Congo to transform Brussels, by building boulevards and palatial buildings with a Parisian touch. Brussels is the home of art nouveau greats Victor Horde and Paul Hankar, who designed the first art nouveau buildings in the world. On my no-time-to dither itinerary, Etienne shows me just one of the most beautiful art nouveau buildings — the Old England Building, with its wrought iron, glass and mosaic, which is today the Museum of Musical Instruments, showcasing more than 1,500 musical instruments from across the world.

At Place du Grand Sablon filled with sidewalk cafés and lined with gabled mansions, I visit the Church Notre Dame du Sablon, the flamboyant church, which paid for by the city’s Guild of Cross bow archers in the 15th Century. Motifs of boats brighten up the interiors of this church, which hark back to a legend about Beatrijs Soetkins, who heard the voice of the Virgin Mary, telling her to retrieve the miraculous statue of Madonna — which at the time was housed in Antwerp and whose boat floated upstream on its own volition. The city still celebrates Ommegang — a religious procession in celebration of this event.

Shoppers’ stop

I walk through the Galeries Royales Saint Hubert, called the ‘most luminous passage’ by the press when it opened, one of the oldest shopping malls in the world dating back to 1847, with more than 50 exclusive stores selling clothes, leather goods, chocolates and books under vaulted glass ceilings. Neuhaus, one of the oldest chocolate shops, has its flagship store here. It started life making cough sweets, marshmallows and licorice for stomach ailments. History whispers from every corner of this shopping complex.

It used to be a favourite hang-out for intellectuals and newspaper editors who felt at home here and famous authors like Victor Hugo and Alexander Dumas who used to lecture to an artistic circle... rumour has it that Victor Hugo even installed his mistress in a side avenue of the gallery!

“Brussels is greener than you think...it has 8,000 hectares of green space,” says Etienne as he takes me for a walk through Brussels Park,  with its grand avenues and buildings, fountains and bandstands. The park has an intimate connection to the city’s history — long ago it was a hunting ground for the Dukes, later the Austrian Empress turned it into a French style garden, the Belgian revolution of 1830 started here...today locals use it as a space to lunch under the lime trees as dog-walkers stroll the shady pathways.

“In the summer months it becomes a venue for outdoor festivals and children’s puppet shows,” Etienne explains. One of my last visits in the city is to a monument placed beneath the arcades of Maison de l’Étoile in the Grand Place. It is believed that if you stroke the statue of Everard’t Serclaes, especially its arm or the dog’s nose, it brings you good luck and fortune. And of course, a return visit to the city...

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