Friday, September 7, 2007

A budget traveler’s guide to surviving BRUSSELS, BELGIUM

Brussels is twice a capital city, as it is the capital of Belgium and the administrative seat of the entire European Union. So it goes without saying that the city is monumental, to say the least. Towering church spires, humongous domes, gilded façades, wide streets… even tall chocolate fountains!

Wanna visit Brussels? Get your visas ready, make room for tasty chocolate treats and embrace this beautiful and wacky city with a big “Hallo!

1. Find out. Belgium has two main languages: French and Flemish. While a large part of Belgium has the latter as first language, the former remains the preferred medium of communication in the capital. Belgians also speak good English. So, if ever you’re navigating with maps within Brussels or from Brussels to another city, be sure to get the translation of the place names in the language of your choice. And by the way, Belgium has perhaps the most efficient tourist office in Europe; you can ask for free brochures and maps to be delivered to you at home. (For more info, click on the link to the Belgian tourism office at the right-hand panel of my blog).

2. Munch. Other than chocolate, Belgium is famous for its beer, seafood and waffles. If you love beer, do enter in any of the bars within and around the Markt area to sample some of Belgium’s finest. Also within this area are numerous seafood restaurants whose specialty includes a pot of mussels (called moules) cooked in aromatic vegetables, wine and butter, and served with mayonnaise and French fries. A pot would cost around 20 euros, but if you have money to spare, the dish is worth every cent. Waffles sold in every street corner are a cheap and filling alternative for tourists on the go.

3. Blush. While most cities in Europe pride themselves with the high and mighty, Brussels is perhaps the only one that has a naked boy pissing on a fountain as the city symbol. Called the Manneken Pis, the bronze statue stands on its lofty monument just over a fountain where his “piss” all goes, in an obscure corner of the city. Les Amis de Manneken-Pis, the organization formed to look after the statue, dresses him up On special occasions. The naked boy’s more than 650 costumes are on display in the Musée de la Ville. The
official site of the Manneken Pis rightfully markets him with the catch phrase “He’s small… but he has no decency.”

4. Visit. Brussels is also a convergence of both classical and contemporary art and architecture. All life revolves around the main square called Grand Place in French or Grote Markt in Flemish, and from here you can start your classical route. Near it are the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert/Sint-Hubertusgalerij, a series of shops that sell anything from CDs to Belgian lace. You don’t necessarily have to buy anything. Just marvel at the site. The Cathédrale Sts-Michel et Gudule is about 10 minutes away from the gallery and if you’re into archaeology, you might want to visit its underground site. From here you could continue either by foot or by subway to the Palais de Justice/Justitie Paleis (Hall of Justice), the two Sablon districts, and the Palais Royal/Koninklijk Paleis (Royal Palace). The contemporary route should begin with the Atomium in Bruparck which can be reached by taking the subway toward the outskirts of the city. Then you take the subway back to the center to see the building of the European Parliament.

5. Shop. Shopping around the Markt area or even just looking around in every shop is sheer bliss. For chocolate lovers, there’s an endless array of stores that sell authentic and not-so-authentic Belgian chocolates. Some even invite onlookers to sample their tasty treats. Comic book lovers would also get the time of their lives by scouting for Tintin souvenirs. The official shop of this
comic book legend created by Georges Remi (a.k.a. Hergé) can be found on the Rue de la Colline, also within the Markt area.

Marlon’s Brussels route (1-2 days): Manneken Pis. Grote Markt (enter the city hall if it’s open). St. Hubert’s Galleries. Cathedral (enter if you’re interested in archaeology and religious art). Hall of Justice. Sablon. Royal Palace. Take the metro to Atomium. Don’t enter unless you want to see Brussels from a different perspective.

Marlon’s budget tip: If you want to give chocolates to a lot of people but are cash-strapped, why not try buying the marked-down Guylian chocolates in any store around the city center? I’m not sure if they’re authentic, but at 10 euros per three handsome boxes, the chocolates are not bad as gifts if you’re on a tight budget.

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