The free city tour of Brussels began at 11am in Grote Markt. I was surprised that so many people showed up the day after Christmas, but we were a large enough group to be divided into two small groups of approximately 25 or so. My tour guide was Paul-Emille. He is a native to Brussels and any inaccurate information I blame on him! Actually he was an amazing tour guide.
Historically, Brussels is a crossroads city. Situated alongside the river, it was where trade from England, France, Germany and The Netherlands converged. As a result, this city has amazing food, beer and culture. The center of this trade was the Grote Markt.
One end of the Grote Markt has the city hall, across from it is the King's house and surrounding those are the former guild houses. It was and still is the economic and political center of Brussels and in turn of Belgium. Realizing the importance of this square, King Louis XIV of France tried to have it destroyed. His soldiers focused on toppling the tower of the city hall (pictured above). They managed to destroy almost every part of it EXCEPT the tower. The people of Brussels rallied and the square was rebuilt in just 5 years. The city hall is very uniquely built. The building was built by three architects in three separate styles. As a result the left half is larger than the right, the tower is not centered and the windows from left to right sides are different styles and not at the same height on the first floor. Atop the tower is St. Michael slaying the dragon. He is one of the patron saints of Brussels.
The guild houses are all denoted by a single marker that is often above the door. There is for example the 'rose' house, the 'swan' house and the 'star' house. The wall of the star house is known for the fact that Karl Marx lived there, and while in residence he wrote his communist manifesto. It is also where Everard 't Serclaes, a medieval hero, is said to have died. A statue of him is under the arcade of the house. It is said that if you rub this statue, you will not only return to Brussels, but also have a wish granted. Needless to say I made sure to touch the statue and make my wish.
Our tour guide frequently told us that although Belgium has contributed much to the world, it's often not known. He said that it is a bad joke that people say that Belgium is a city in France. It's not. In fact, Belgium is well known for many things including a good soccer team, beer, chocolate and comics. Tintin, Asterix and the Smurfs are all Belgian creations.
But the most popular thing in the city of Brussels is not any of those three, but rather a small statue, the Manneken Pis. That's right, the statue of a little peeing boy. Apparently it is the third most famous statue in the world (On a side note, I have seen the first two on the list as well -- The Statue of Liberty and The David). This statue is incredibly small. Much smaller than I might have ever expected. Not only is it small, but I was surprised to learn that there is a person who has the responsibility (job) to dress him up. In the past he has been dressed as Santa Claus, as a soccer player, wearing a condom for World Aids Day and more. Like the Mona Lisa, he was not only smaller than expected, but surrounded by throngs of tourists. Additionally, the idea of the peeing boy has been used in marketing around the city.
Belgium is known for food and in particular for four varieties:
Last night I tried some chocolate and today I had recommendations for more. Last night I tried a waffle, but today I was told by my tour guide that the absolute best waffles are to be found in the yellow trucks. I didn't have a chance to try one today, but it's certainly on my list.
On the tour I had a chance to try a Kriek beer. This is a cherry beer. The tour guide told us that it's known around town as a drink for girls but that he (and many other men) like it as well. I found it to taste a lot like a Berliner Weiße. It was a delicious introduction to Belgian beer. Later in the day, after the tour I would have a dark beer at the brewing museum. It was also good.
After the tour, Maria (another American on the tour) and I decided to head outside of the downtown area to a region known as Flagey where it was said the freshest and best Frites (fries) could be had). We ordered our Frites and had to wait while they were freshly prepared. I'm not a huge fan of fries, but these were certainly worth the wait. I had mine with Americaine sauce which was a bit like a spicy Arbiatta sauce. Delicious!
The rest of the evening passed quickly. Maria and I explored the city a bit, toured the brewers guild, visited another part of the Christmas market and enjoyed the lights of the city. Brussels is an amazing place and so full of life at this time of the year.