I flew from Washington DC on a Thursday afternoon, one of the cheapest times that I've found to take a long overseas flight. My family was there to see me off, and I would be missing them greatly over the next three weeks of solo travel. I had booked with Iceland Air, which forces a transfer in Reyjavik but often yields one of the least expensive fares. I've found their service to be excellent on the occasions that I've flown with them, and we would be stopping in Iceland for two days on our return trip at the end of this grand excursion. After doing my best to sleep on the overnight flight, and after changing planes in Iceland, I arrived in Brussels around noon on the first day of July. Brussels might seem like an odd place to pick for a first stop, but it fit well into my itinerary from a geographical perspective, and the city was fairly high on my list of places to see. As the unofficial hub of the European Union, Brussels is always in the news these days, and particularly so at the time of this visit. The United Kingdom had just voted to leave the EU in their referendum two weeks earlier, and there was a great deal of uncertainty about what was going to happen next. The airport at Brussels had also suffered a terrorist bombing a couple of months before my visit, which prompted some concern that I should avoid the place. I tended to feel the opposite though - if there was one place where everyone would be super alert for passenger safety, it would be at an airport that had recently been attacked.
Belgium is a bilingual country split between a French-speaking Walloon population in the south and a Germanic-speaking Flemish population in the north. This duality is reflected everywhere through the city of Brussels and elsewhere in the nation; the common sentiment is that the only thing that brings the whole country together is its football team. I arrived in downtown Brussels at the central train station, and I would be spending an awful lot of time in train stations over the next few weeks. Brussels Central was an older stately building, with the most notable feature being a monument to some of the dead who fell during the two world wars. The train from the airport put me right in the center of the city, in easy walking distance of many of the most famous attractions. I still had half of a day remaining, and I began my sightseeing immediately.
I began by walking west into the twisting and turning streets of the oldest part of Brussels. Although this wasn't a perfectly preserved medieval town like some other areas I would later visit, these pedestrian-only streets were bustling with shoppers visiting the many small stores or stopping to eat in the restaurants. There were lots of people out in the streets despite the overcast skies, and the whole place had a festive atmosphere. There was a reason for that, and for so many of the Belgian flags hanging overhead: this was a Friday afternoon, and the Belgian national football team had a match later that night in the knockout stage of Euro 2016. Spirits were running high amongst the city's sports fans, and alcohol was already flowing freely. It was a wonderful time to be exploring a new city in a country I'd never visited before.
Two quick pictures of the Royal Saint-Hubert Galleries, an expensive upsale series of shops that runs between two streets in the downtown area. This pedestrian arcade dates back to the 19th century, and retains a stately Victorian-era feel. Everything here was far out of my price range, and I moved on to the next main attraction.
One of the city's most distinctive landmarks is the Grand Place, the city square in the center of Brussels that dates back to the medieval period. The tallest building is the Hotel de Ville, or town hall, where Brussels was traditionally governed for centuries. The informational plaques here stated that the core of this Gothic building dates back to the 14th century, although much of what exists today is a more recent creation. The rest of the square consists of buildings that look to have been done in Baroque style, which makes sense because they were largely designed in the late 17th century. This square was almost completely destroyed in that period during one of the many wars between France and the Netherlands. Many of these buildings had gold trim on the side facing the central square, and there was a great deal of ornamentation between the various statues and forms of bas-relief. I wouldn't say that this quite crossed the line into becoming gaudy, but it was tending in that direction.
The ground floor of many of the buildings in the central square had been turned into fine restaurants. It was too bad that this was an overcast day; I imagine that this is a lovely place to have a meal when the sun is shining overhead. The town hall itself opened onto a small central courtyard with a flower garden and several small statues. This was the only part of the building that I was able to visit; while the Hotel de Ville does conduct tours, I hadn't shown up at the right time to take one. The Grand Place is the historic heart of the city, and it will always remain one of the top sites to see in Brussels.
This small statue is, somewhat inexplicably, also considered one of the most famous attractions. The Manneken Pis is a small statue of a naked little boy urinating into a fountain. The original version was created in the early 17th century, and it has been a popular symbol in Brussels ever since. The recent custom of the last few decades has been dressing up the statue in various different outfits, and there's even a small museum nearby specifically housing the various costumes that the statue has worn over the years. On this occasion, the Manneken Pis was sporting a light blue nautical outfit of some kind, with a life preserver in hand. I think this is one of those aspects of a foreign culture that I simply don't understand; there were all kinds of tourist shops nearby selling souvenirs of the statue, but why would I want to carry around a memento of a small child in the middle of peeing on something? Time to move on to the next destination...
After a bit of walking, I arrived at the St Michael and St Gudula cathedral, the national church of Belgium. This cathedral was built in the Gothic style and constructed over a period of many centuries in bits and pieces, with most of the current structure dating from the 13th and 15th centuries. (Side note from a historian: the 14th century was a disastrous period of plague and invasion for medieval Europe, and it's not surprising there was little construction during that time.) The building was surprisingly bright inside for a Gothic structure, with lots of light filtering in from the windows set just below the central arches. There was plenty of stained glass, of course, with the usual Biblical scenes depicted. The St Michael and St Gudula cathedral was on the restrained side, with the one exception of an excessively ornamented pulpit midway down the aisle, and I felt that it gave off a dignified air. The ancient stone columns were tempered by small bits of modern furnishings too, in the presence of the furniture and the beautiful new pipe organ. There was almost no one else present when I visited, and the atmosphere was one of quiet reflection.
For a small fee, I was able to head down into the basement and explore the remains of the previous church built on the same spot. This older Romanesque church dates back to the 10th and 11th centuries, which means that it's roughly a thousand years old. There's very little remaining of this building, but what does still exist has been excavated and put on display. The ancient stones were reminiscent of the basement of the Louvre, if anyone reading this has been there, another place where many generations of succeeding construction has left the original foundation sunk deep underground. I would have to travel elsewhere to find a surviving house of worship from this period.
From the cathedral, I headed east and walked through Brussels Park. There was relatively little to see here, and the weather was beginning to turn drizzly, as the skies that had been promising rain for the last few hours finally began to deliver. On a nice day there would likely be lots of people in the park; not so much on this occasion. At the south end of the park sat the Royal Palace of Brussels, the official home of the Belgian royal family. Yes, Belgium has a constitutional monarchy for the curious. Although there are public tours of the palace, my timing on a Friday afternoon was not when the place was open, and I was limited to taking a few pictures from the outside. This neoclassical building is not a historic structure, as it dates only to the 1930s. The gardens were quite pretty though, and I imagine the inside is lavishly furnished. It was difficult to tell with the rain sheeting down at this moment.
I circled around the Royal Palace and into the Place Royale next, a small square off to the west of the larger structure that boasts several museums and historic sites of interest. The bronze statue in the middle of the square commemorates Godefroid Van Bouillon, an 11th century Crusader knight who became the first King of Jerusalem at the end of the First Crusade. While he was born near the current location of Brussels, Van Bouillon is a strange choice to memorialize in such a prominent location, especially given the atrocities that accompanied the crusaders. The building behind the statue houses the Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg church, an 18th century building that serves as a shrine to Belgium's fallen war dead. In contrast to the size and formality of the Gothic cathedral that I had visited earlier, this church had a smaller, intimate feeling. The furniture here was stark in its simplicity, with little in the way of adornment. The Belgian flags hanging from the ceiling were a constant reminder that this house of worship was dedicated to the deceased military of the nation. Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg was completely deserted when I visited, and the emptiness helped to set the somber mood.
I walked down the Rue de la Régence next, passing by additional churches and museums. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium would have made for a good stopping place, but I was strictly limited on time and chose to continue onwards to see other sights. I was headed towards the Palace of Justice, the domed building at the end of this particular street, which I could already see from a distance was under construction. On the way I passed the Notre-Dame du Sablon church, a 15th century Gothic creation with the typical weighty style lightened by colorful stained glass windows. I popped in to take a quick look, especially of the windows surrounding the altar at the head of the church, then continued onwards. The Palace of Justice was closed when I arrived, and I'm not sure that it was open at all given the scaffolding attached everywhere. Off to the side of the building was the Belgian infantry memorial, officially the Monument a la Gloire de l'Infanterie Belge. (Apologies to Flemish speakers; I'm conversant in French but not in Flemish or German.) This is a monument to the Belgian soldiers who fought in the two world wars, and its location was well chosen, next to the Palace of Justice and on a hill overlooking the western expanse of Brussels.
With daylight beginning to run out, I picked up some dinner and and headed to the hostel where I was staying for the night. I've found that relatively few Americans tend to stay at hostels, and for young travelers in particular, I've never quite understood that. For a very inexpensive rate, I was able to stay in the middle of Brussels with a place to shower and sleep, and I didn't need much more than that. This particular place run by Hosteling International was pretty typical, shared rooms of four or six travelers with communal areas down on the ground floor. The big event on this night was the Belgian national football team's game in the knockout stage of Euro 2016. A lot of the hostel's guests gathered downstairs in the bar area to watch the game on TV and have a few drinks. Belgium was playing Wales, and everyone in Brussels was confident of victory against a non-traditional powerhouse. When Belgium scored first, the bar went wild with cheers, and the team looked destined to move on to the semifinals. Then Wales equalized before halftime, and scored twice in the second half to win 3-1, stunning the entire nation. Whoops. That wasn't supposed to happen. Football (soccer) can be like that sometimes though.
I was up early the next morning with a full day's worth of sightseeing planned. This would be my last day in Brussels, and there were many places to visit without much time to see them all. The streets of Brussels were very empty at 6:30 am on a Saturday morning, no doubt with many of the city's residents recovering from the sporting debacle that had taken place the night before. My first stop was the battlefield of Waterloo, which is located only a short distance outside of the Brussels metro area. In order to reach the battlefield, I took a train to the town of Braine L'Alleud, a suburb located roughly ten miles to the south of the city center. The route from the train station to the battlefield itself was very poorly marked, and I was actually navigating by the morning sun at one point, knowing that I needed to travel to the east to reach my destination. This was surprising; didn't they get a lot of visitors to Waterloo?
Eventually I was able to make my way to Waterloo itself. Considering that this is one of the most famous battles in world history, there's strangely little attention paid to Waterloo in the tourist materials that I read through about Brussels. The parking lot was similarly small, able to hold maybe two hundred cars at most. Compared to the Gettysburg battlefield in the United States, this was a lot less developed. I had arrived here early, before the visitor center was open for the day, and that allowed me some time to walk around the battlefield. The geographic feature that immediately stands out is the hill with the lion statue on top. This was not present during the fighting and was artificially constructed two decades later as a victory memorial of sorts. The circular building at the foot of the hill is a panorama, a circular painting of the battle created in the 19th century to give visitors an idea of what the engagement had looked like. Panoramas were quite popular before the development of television and film; there's a very similar panorama at the Gettysburg battlefield as well. The visitor center was new at the time of my visit, having been constructed in 2015 for the bicentennial of the battle. It was built sunken into the ground, as a means of avoiding a disturbance of the land. Aside from a fancy restaurant next to the panorama, that's essentially it in terms of structures. The terrain surrounding the lion monument remains open fields growing crops, much as it would have looked in 1815.
When the visitor center opened, the first exhibit that I had a chance to see was this one called "Waterloo XXL". It was a series of photographs of the big reenactment that took place during the battle's 200th anniversary a year before my visit, blown up to huge size and presented in a series of panoramas. This was a bit like a modern version of the paintings that had been done in an earlier era, and I particularly liked the image of the cavalries clashing. I can and have studied military history extensively, but it can still be difficult to envision quite what several thousand people on horseback clashing together looks like, and even these bloodless staged reenactments can help get closer to the reality of the terrible combat that took place.
In order to view the historic panorama, visitors enter from below by traveling up a spiral staircase. The panorama building itself looks to be in poor shape, and there's a careful effort being made to preserve the structure without treading on it. Visitors look out from a central platform at the surrounding painting, where the figures are depicted at near life size proportions. This is a very large painting, and while I know enough about art to state that it's no masterpiece, it does a good job of conveying the major action that took place on the battlefield. Think of this as a competent modern superhero action film: it's not winning any critical awards, but it's very much a crowd pleaser. In the era before modern communications, this would have been one of the best ways to educate the public about the battle.
The entrance to the lion monument is also accessed from below after passing through the visitor center. The stairs up to the top of the hill are very steep, and there's a bunch of warnings posted at the bottom cautioning visitors about the vertical climb. They aren't lying - my heart was pounding from exertion by the time I reached the top. The view from the summit was magnificent though, and provided by far the best vista of the battlefield. I appreciated the small tactical diagrams at the top helping to explain where all of the key actors were located; I believe there's also an audio tour that can be purchased below for more information. The truly remarkable thing is how little the battlefield has changed over the intervening two centuries. The roads are still located in exactly the same spots as they were on that fateful day; in the fourth picture above, that road running off to the left is the same road that cuts through the center of the battlefield diagram. The lion monument is located where the Dutch Prince of Orange had his battlefield headquarters (it was built during the brief period that Belgium and the Netherlands were united in the early 19th century), and this spot looks south towards where the French lines would have been located. I tried to imagine the sight of tens of thousands of French soldiers advancing across these quiet fields, and what that would have looked and sounded like.
The museum that accompanies the battlefield is also excellent, with lengthy features on the political situation leading up to the conflict and plenty of details from the Waterloo battle itself. I particularly enjoyed the many examples of period costume on the dummies in the central hall, along with lots of the muskets and sabres used as weaponry. There was also a diagram showcasing what a battalion looked like in line, square, and column formation; I plan to use that image if I end up teaching military history again. The museum has a series of different tactical maps explaining how the battle played out, with my favorite being an adorable animation of cartoon figures clashing with one another. Waterloo was a fairly simple battle from a tactical standpoint, with repeated French attacks throughout the course of the day failing to dislodge the British position before the arrival of the Prussians near the onset of evening. Simple, but very bloody and with the outcome in doubt until the very end: as Wellington said "a damned nice thing - the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life". As is so often the case, what looks obvious and the only possible outcome in hindsight was not at all the same for those who lived through it.
After finishing up with the battlefield museum, I said farewell to Waterloo and took the train back to the center of Brussels. This time I headed for a new destination, the cluster of buildings on the eastern side of the city related to the European Union. Brussels is one of the locations where the European Parliament is housed, and most of the key EU agencies are located in this complex of buildings. Officially known as the Leopold Space complex, this collecton of shining new glass structures stands out from the rest of the city. With this being a Saturday, I was unable to go on a tour of the parliamentry facilities themselves, but I was able to visit the Parliamentarium building, which is a tourist center of sorts open seven days a week. This small museum is dedicated to explaining the mission behind the EU and some of the history behind its founding. Although I'm a supporter of the European Union project, I found the Parliamentarium to be disappointing compared to what I was expecting. Perhaps it was because much of the information was provided via audio tour recordings (I hate audio tours), or perhaps it was because I was already familiar with most of what was being displayed. In any case, I didn't end up spending much time here. Admission was free in case anyone reading wants to go and see for themselves.
After leaving, I headed east through the small Leopold Park (the former king of Belgium's name was on a lot of things here), heading towards the much larger Cinquantenaire Park. That means "50th anniversary" in French, and the park was not surprisingly designed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to commemorate fifty years of Belgium's independence. The dominant feature of the park is a triumphal arch, constructed in 1905 and totally not inspired at all by the French Arc de Triomphe or the German Brandenburg Tor. The park itself was a green expanse of leafy trees and perfectly manicured grass; there were a number of people outside eating lunch at the time I was passing through. It was very windy though, and storm clouds were starting to roll in. Fortunately my next destination would be inside.
Up close, the triumphal arch was flanked by two buildings created in neoclassical style. The northern building, on the left from the direction I was approaching, housed the Royal Museum of the Army and of Military History, which was where I was heading next. The southern building housed the Royal Museum of Art and History, along with an automobile showcase museum called Autoworld. I guess the king wasn't willing to put his name on that one. The arch reflected the grandiose ambitions of King Leopold, who was behind its construction. Bronze statues and rich carvings adorn its facade, and the inscription on top reads "this monument was erected to the glorification and independence of the Belgian people." Not very humble. Nowadays, the park is a popular outdoors recreation spot, and the accompanying museums are tourist attractions.
My goal had been the military history museum, and I had good timing to arrive shortly before the storm outside unloaded its deluge. While walking through this museum, I could hear the patter of rain on the roof above, punctuated by crashes of thunder. Good stuff while walking past old cannons and the like. This turned out to be an excellent museum, and I could have spent all day inside if I'd had the time. There are extensive displays on Belgian military history dating back to long before Belgium existed as a country. Just about everything imaginable related to warfare can be found here, from weapons and regimental uniforms to vehicles and camp equipment. The collection started with medieval suits of armor and continued right up through the modern airplanes and tanks on display. I particularly liked the Great War tanks, which I'd never seen in person previously. There are precious few tanks left over from the First World War, and the blocky awkward vehicles rarely get much mention in America. The furnishings here were sparse, with most of the assorted collections seemingly dumped into big warehouses devoid of any other features. The attention to detail was exquisite, however, with meticulous notes on the smallest details in the various displays. It was clear that serious military enthusiasts had poured a great deal of their time into explaining the difference between, say, a dozen types of rifles from the 1870s. As long as the visitor can overlook the somewhat jingoistic nature of the museum (seriously, do you think that's enough Belgian flags?!) this is a fascinating place to stop and see.
By the time that I left, the weather had cleared up and sunny skies had returned again. I hopped back on the subway and traveled again, this time to the western edge of Brussels to visit Elisabeth Park. This is a long and narrow park on the other side of the city, with a large church located at its far end. Officially named the National Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Koekelberg, constructed on it started in 1905 for the 75th anniversary of Belgian independence, and was only completed in 1969 after being interrupted by both world wars. This is not a particularly old or historic church, therefore, but the basilica makes up for it by being a gigantic house of worship. Constructed of stone bricks and towering almost 300 feet above the western skyline of Brussels, it's one of the largest Catholic churches in the world. I had carefully planned my day around reaching the basilica before it closed, and just barely made it about thirty minutes before the last visitors were allowed inside.
The interior of the basilica showcased yet another architectural style. This is an Art Deco form of a cathedral, although in many ways it resembled the Romanesque style as well. The use of the unrelieved bricks gave the building a heavy, powerful feel to it, and yet there were also plenty of stained glass windows as well to provide light. On this occasion, they were catching the afternoon sunlight and giving the interior a bright feeling that contrasted with the solidity of the stone pillars. The central dome in particular was open to the skies and lit up the central portion of the basilica. Like other very large churches, there were multiple different chapels inside the building, and the one at the far end was in use at the time of my visit. I did my best to stay away from that part of the building out of respect for the congregation.
The basilica was also designed to allow visitors climb the stairs and reach first the raised interior level, and then the exterior roof. This higher vantage point provided a great view of the floor below, and more angles from which to consider the stained glass windows. There was also a model of the basilica on display to provide a better sense of what the whole structure looked like. There were only a few other visitors here, and I was able to continue my tour undisturbed.
From the second level of the basilica, an elevator takes tourists up to the roof level. At 53 meters in height, the observation deck provides sweeping panorama vistas of the city. The view looking east, between the two towers at the main entrance, was my favorite of the bunch. Park Elisabeth stretches off in that direction, and the city center can be viewed further away in the distance. Also of interest is the view to the north, where the Atomium can be seen distantly. I zoomed in to take a closer picture and capture some of its features. The Atomium was built for the 1958 World's Fair, and consists of a gigantic version of an iron crystal blown up at 165 billion times actual size. It's used today as a touristy platform for elevated views of the city; I had no desire to travel all the way out there when I was getting similar views from a much more culturally significant building here at the basilica. After looking around, I walked down many flights of stairs rather than descend through the elevator. Unfortunately there wasn't anything of interest on the walk down, only a whole bunch of bricks. Well, I guess I should have expected that.
With daylight now beginning to fade, I had one more destination in mind to visit, this one located close to my hostel. The Halle Gate sits at the southern edge of the historic city, and it's the only remaining part of the medieval wall that once surrounded Brussels. Originally built in 1381, it was refurbished in the late 19th century and now serves as a museum about the history of the building and the fortifications that used to protect the city. By the time that I arrived the museum was closed, but I was still able to take pictures of the exterior of the building. This was a sign that the tourist attractions in Brussels were beginning to shut down, and I was getting tired by this point as well from a frantic day of leaping back and forth around the city. I'm not sure I've done a good job here explaining how these sites that I had been visiting were not at all close to one another, in contrast to the previous day where I had stuck to the city center and walked from one location to another. In any case, it was time to stop for the night.
I had dinner at one of the restaurants in the pedestrian part of the city center near my hostel. It was Greek food, a lamb dish with accompanying fries and salad, very tasty. The next morning, when I was up very early to catch my train to the next city, I found myself with some extra time to kill before boarding. Because the Grand Place was so close to the train station, I walked over to take a few picture, and found to my delight that the early morning sunshine was brilliantly illuminating the deserted square. Aside from a few municipal workers cleaning up from the previous day's visitors, I had the place completely to myself. I snapped a few pictures of the square as it caught the golden sunshine, as well as the Royal Saint-Hubert Galleries devoid of pedestrians. What a wonderful way to start the morning!
And that was the first city on my stop. The first out of eighteen different destinations that I planned to visit over the next month. The next stop would be heading north, into the Netherlands to visit Delft and The Hague.