Brussels is such a humongous place with so many places to see, that it was impossible to see it all in one day. So, I subtitle this travelogue with the disclaimer, "This is just the first half. More to follow." When I went there in the summer of 2001, I concentrated on the east and south, and vowed to cover the north, west, and center on another trip.
My start point was the Brussel Zuid (Brussels South) train station, heading north to the pentagon-shaped downtown. The district I walked through was the ethnic zone, dominated by Middle Eastern and African shops and food stands. It seemed like each street intersection formed a traffic circle around some arcane monument. In fact, the monuments were in pretty good shape although much of the surrounding neighborhood was not kept up the same way. As I hit the pentagon, I followed it to the east.
My first significant monument was the Palais du Justice (or Palace of Justice, first photograph) located at the southeast corner of the downtown. The cars at left in the picture provide a good indicator of the size of this place. Near the palace are two large WWI monuments -- one in obelisk form and one wall monument with two sculptures of a Walloon and a Vlaanderen standing guard (the significance of which should be obvious -- there have been plenty of times when Belgium appeared headed for bisection along French-Flemish lines). The palace square also has a vista overlooking the city, although the view was not the greatest. The area around the palace was primarily government buildings, which continued to be true as I ventured further east through the so-called 'European quarter' that contained European Union agencies.
The southeast end of the city was unreal -- very posh. Following northeast from the Palais de Justice, I reached the Hotel du Grand Sablon, a large white hotel overlooking a plaza with a busy antique market. Adjacent to the square was the park shown in the second photograph which I believe to be the Parc d'Egmont, a small but magnificent park with lots of flowers and statues. Close by was the Church of St. Michel, which would have been magnificent if it weren't under heavy construction at the time. It was as well decorated and traditional as any other European church.
But when it came to churches, there was a far more magnificent one further northeast. The Eglise St. Jacques-sur-Coudenburg, shown in the third photograph, is a large and beautiful church in the east end of downtown -- and is the Royal Parish of the Diocese of the Belgian Armed Forces. The interior looked much more like a palace than a church, with a freshly-painted white interior. The artwork was extraordinary, with spectacular memorials to the war deceased, beautiful religious paintings, and exquisite white marble plaques of the Fourteen Stations of the Cross.
Given that Belgium is a firm democracy, it was easy to forget that Brussels also had a role as a seat of royalty. The Royal Palace of Belgium, fourth photograph, was a remarkable place. The palace was open to the public only during a limited time, usually the second half of summer when the royal family is on vacation. I was very fortunate to get a chance to go in. I found the internal decor to be just as fabulous as that of Buckingham Palace or Versailles despite this palace being considerably smaller. Best of all, it was free admission. The sidewalk from where I took this photograph was along a major road, and across that road was the very large Parc de Bruxelles. I went through the park to see the Belgian Parliament Building, then beyond to the Cathedral before venturing eastward, away from the downtown.
I did so because way off in the distance, I saw Cinquantenaire, Brussels' version of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate. This massive monument was perhaps a mile from the palace, but I am guessing -- it took me about thirty minutes on foot to get there. The archways are flanked by two large semi-circular colonnades. The little blue car in the right lane gives an idea of just how large this structure was. The Belgian flag hanging in the center must have been thirty feet long. Portions of the surrounding park was undergoing a major face lift when I was there, but that didn't keep visitors away as beyond the archway was the national Museum of Military History and a major exhibition hall. Taking place there at the time was an airshow exhibition, with planes from America and across Europe on display. Further beyond was an interestingly-named monument (I thought), the JFK Fountain -- a simple fountain at the end of a long descent from the archway to the residential district beyond.
I retraced my steps back to the Cathedral and followed due south to a boulevard where there were a large number of outdoor cafes. In the center of the boulevard were monuments ranging from traditional white marble depicting Princess Elizabeth II to modern aluminum non-descript thingamabobs that I tend to ignore.
After sucking down some needed beverages, I moved on to the center of downtown just as the sun was going down and I needed to leave. My final stop was the most magnificent -- Belgium's famous Grote Markt, or the Great Market. This was a massive square in the middle of downtown, surrounded by the most extraordinary structures ever built, the Grote Markt is eye candy at its sweetest. Just imagine a whole city block surrounded by buildings like the Museum of Art and Music, shown in the sixth photograph! The Grote Markt hosts the city's Tourist Information Bureau, a fact I obviously learned way too late. My recommendation for any visitor is to start there and explore. There are marked routes from the Grote Markt that take visitors to all the city's major sights.
For those who have visited Brussels before, the list of sights that I did not include in this short visit are many: the river quays and the Atomium are among them. As I said up front, Brussels was too big for the one day I had to spend there, and it left me longing for a return trip. My advice would be to devote a full weekend and be sure to take in ALL the sites!
* -- The official local spelling is the Flemish one: Brussel, without the 's'. The city is known to English speakers as Brussels, but to other continental Europeans (including the French-speaking areas of Belgium) as Bruxelles. It is amusing to watch the autobahn signs in Belgium as you change spellings every few kilometers in some parts that snake in between Flemish and French provinces.
Trip Taken 4 August 2001 -- Last Updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2001,2006 Tom Galvin