(Re)Visiting Belgium

We arrived in Belgium last Thursday, sixteen years, almost to the day, from the time I moved here with the family for me to work here for a year.  It’s an odd little country, I’ll concede to that. It’s famous for beer, chocolate, comic strips (with fascist overtones), Art Nouveau architecture, and waffles.  A famous Belgian meal is mussels and fries (which are served with mayonnaise), or moules and fritte, as they are called locally, and the symbol of Brussels, the capital, is a little boy who is peeing.

Grand-Place et Hôtel de Ville – Grote Markt en stadhuis – Grand-Place and City Hall

And yet, this was my home for a year and, arriving here, I immediately felt more comfortable.  Brussels has, in the opinion of many, the most beautiful town square in Europe in its Grand Place, and it is breathtaking in its beauty. Many folks just drop in to Brussels, see a few sights and leave and yet, there are so many more beautiful places in Brussels and around Belgium that are worth a visit. The country lacks the multiple showstopper attractions of other European venues, including Vienna, Florence, Paris, Prague, London, Berlin, and others. But we regard this as a plus since it results in a reduced number of tour groups.

We booked an Airbnb near the center, a block off the Grand Place, a decision I would regret on our second night when the partying on our street went on all night – we were there on a holiday weekend, and that was probably part of the problem. On the other hand, the center is convenient to several excellent restaurants and provides easy access to the Gare Central (Central Train station) for day trips and the local transportation system.   

Our days in Belgium were a wonderful mix of low-key sightseeing, delicious meals, and relaxation.  After the brisk pace we’ve maintained over the past weeks, it was just what we needed.

Here are the highlights of our time in Belgium:

The Ghent Altarpiece. Van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece.  The work has a tumultuous history, part of which was documented in the book and movie, The Monuments Men.  It was stolen by the Nazis during WWII and eventually recovered (along with other artworks) in a salt mine in Austria. The viewing includes an audioguide to describe the work.  This was the third time I’ve seen it and this time we were treated to a lovely choral concert we heard going on in St. Bavo’s, where the artwork is exhibited.

Some call the Ghent altarpiece the most coveted artwork of all time

Left to right, St. Bavo’s in Ghent, classic Ghent gabled houses, and scene from our canal cruise

Spending a day in Ghent.  Many people flock to Bruges for a glimpse of 16th century Flanders.  For my money, Ghent has the same wonderful history and architecture but is a real place, not just a stop on the road for tourists.  Ghent is a college town, with 70,000 students, the most of any place in Belgium. In addition to the Ghent Altarpiece, we took a fun and interesting boat tour pointing out 16th century guild houses and other interesting sights.  We also enjoyed other art in St. Bavo’s, especially the pulpit in the church, a throw-the-fear-of-God-into-you sculpture of the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

The Victor Horta Home and Museum:  I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t make the effort to learn enough about Brussels while living here.  I’d heard the name Victor Horta and knew that he was an architect and that Art Nouveau had roots in the region but knew little more.  When we arrived at the Victor Horta House and Museum, we were surprised to see that we had to wait in a line to get in, but it was a short line and for good reason:  this was an actual home from the early twentieth century and too many people crowding into the house could damage it.  It turned out to be one of the most beautiful and unusual homes I’ve ever seen.  Part of Horta’s architectural style was to construct buildings designed to let in natural light.  This, plus his affinity for lovely curved lines, created very inviting and elegant spaces.

Enjoying a Belgian waffle, moules and frites, and excellent Belgian beer:  Belgian waffles are this area’s answer to cooked dough with sugar.  Unlike our waffles in the U.S., you don’t put them on a plate and pour syrup on them – the sugar is cooked into the crust, so you can buy one and walk around eating it.  The moules and frites are always great, and Belgium is world-famous for its beer for good reason!

Visiting my old neighborhood. I’m not sure it would rank as high for John, but I really enjoyed seeing what had and hadn’t changed in my old neighborhood of Woluwe-St. Pierre, a lovely older area about 15 minutes away from the center.  As it turned out, our townhouse looked the same, down to the car in front being a series-3 BMW station wagon in a dark color – exactly what I drove.  Most of the businesses I remember in our little traffic circle were unchanged as well.

Visiting the Stockel Market: The Stockel Market is an easy 10-minute bike ride from my former home in Brussels, and during the year I lived here, I went there most Saturdays. I have fond memories of buying fresh fish, beautiful fruits and vegetables, artisanal breads, and tangy olives there. My two younger kids, Mary and Chris were ten and twelve at the time. They often came along, knowing that I would buy them a waffle from one of the market vendors. John and I like to go to markets when we travel, and this one was a natural – a neighborhood market that is popular with locals.

Belgium’s comic strip culture.  The artist and storyteller Herge, author and illustrator of the famous Tintin series from the 1930s through the 1970s is from Belgium.  He is only one of the many notable comic strip artists from this little country. We made a quick visit to the Brussels Comic Strip museum (another Victor Horta building) and read up on Herge’s fascinating life which included fascist periods, marital infidelities, reliance on clairvoyants, and consultation with Jungian therapists for his dreams featuring the color white.

A tram ride down Avenue Louise and a picnic:  Every large city has its street (or mall) which is dotted with the most expensive retailers:  Tiffany & Co., Prada, Hermes – in Brussels, it’s Avenue Louise.  We took a tram ride down the Avenue and then stopped for a picnic in the gardens of the Abbaye de la Cambre.  The Abbaye dates back to the 12th century and the gardens, which are well-maintained, date back to the early 20th century.  We enjoyed a picnic of the bread, cheese, and fruit we had picked up at the Stockel Market.

A walk though the wardrobe of the Mannekin Pis.  That’s right, the little peeing boy has a wardrobe of over 600 outfits, sent from all over the world.  He even has his own official dresser.  There are so many great ones, but I favor his Elvis impersonator look.

Next, we take the train through London and on to Edinburgh – first time to Scotland for both of us. And we have now been on the road for two months!

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