Brussels – the very name conjures up images of post-war historic edifices, art galleries and the world famous lambic style Belgium Beer. I have heard rave reviews of Belgium, particularly of Antwerp and Brussels from my cousin brother who runs a flourishing diamond jewellery business in Belgium. In fact, today the Indian domination in the multi billion dollar diamond industry is so complete that it is considered a “Success Story” of the Indian diaspora.
So I wasted no time the moment I got to know my brother’s engagement to a cute Guajarati girl from the Patel community. I boarded the 10 hour non-stop flight from Mumbai to Brussels onboard the Brussels Airlines – a subsidiary of Lufthansa.
This trip to Brussels was very special since I had the support system of my cousin’s family. Having friends and families makes a lot of difference especially while visiting unknown foreign locales as you can then fully concentrate on exploring the destination at your own terms and at your own pace, without having to worry about the nitty-gritty of everyday life on foreign shores. And what a delight it was for me when I spotted my cousin waiting for me at the lobby, even as it was raining cats and dogs outside, as I took that long walk from the Immigration desk of Brussels airport!
Brussels isn’t just a city with a plethora of international organizations like NATO, EU etc... In fact it’s a cosmopolitan city and a bewildering array of leisure and recreational options awaits the new age traveller to this bustling city of Europe.
One amazing fact about the city’s demographic profile is that three quarters of the city’s population weren’t even born here and yet they are classified as domiciled citizens of this outstanding city. Brussels’ population consists of Dutch-speaking Begians or Brusselaars and the French-speaking ones who are popularly referred to as Bruxellois.
This one-of-its-kind city of Belgium came into prominence as a nondescript rural settlement, located on a marshy island of River Senne and resurrected itself marvellously as one of Europe’s best planned cities through a highly evolved drainage and canal system. My guide Viktor, knowledgeable to the core, informed me about the origin of the name – BRUSSELS to the Dutch word Broeksel, which literally means “Abode in the Marsh”. Today, the city’s marshy and damp surroundings finds reflection on Brussels’ Coat-of-Arms viz-a-viz the Iris flowers.
Brussels is predominantly a historic city and for most visitors visiting this outstanding city, a fair amount of their time is spent on discovering the many historic remnants and edifices that lay scattered across the cityscape and exploring them is like a veil slipping out of the head of a beautiful woman. The city came into prominence way back in 979 with the customary bag of “Holy Bones” bought by Duke Charles from a far away village and put the bag on the custody of a nondescript chapel. Later on, to add a dash of holiness, Saint Gudula’s bones too were deposited at the chapel, which meant more pilgrims thronging the chapel, more trade and commerce in terms of taxes paid. Ever since the time of Saint Gudula’s cremation and subsequent transfer of his skeletal remains to the chapel, there was no looking back for Brussels as the residents along with an astute monarchical system kept the city growing by leaps and bounds.
Thanks to their ingenuity, the Grand Place of today’s Brussels was in fact well laid out as the Market Square way back in the 11th century. Some innovation! Aint it? By the 12th century, this nondescript hamlet had evolved to a city with a population of 30,000 denizens and this period also saw the city build its first fortifications, remnants of which are still visible in the city’s road network. With the passage of time, Brussels carved a niche for itself as princely city and much of its manufacturing products like silk and intricately spun gold tapestries catered to the rich and the famous of Paris and beyond.
In the year 1555, Brussels’ iconic Coudenberg palace was the venue where Charles V relinquished his crown. What followed was an eighty year war involving the Dutch and the Spanish. Although the city remained unscathed and there was a lull of fifty years, Brussels was at war once again, this time with France viz-a-viz Louis XIV. Louis XIV ambition was to destroy Spanish Netherland and as distraction to his onslaught with the Grand Alliance, a haplessly vulnerable Brussels was his target of attack that left the city in utter ruins with churches and other historic edifices in the neighbourhood of the Grand Place completely crushed by the relentless artillery assault. It took all of a century to publicly decry Louis XIV’s attack on Brussels by one of the world’s all-time-great warrior – Napoleon who in his characteristic cavalier fashion declared – “Brussels bombardment was barbarous as it was useless”. For the next two centuries or so, Brussels would often be tossed up and plummet on the issue of Flanders, in which three neighbouring countries – Austria, France and Holland playing politics big-time.
I was told that the Brussels-Capital Region was formed in the year 1988 and happens to be an integral part of Belgium’s Federal Region – Flanders and Wallonia. Walking along the streets of the city is a mind boggling experience as Brussels is home to many international organizations like NATO, EU etc... No wonder, this outstanding city has been conferred with the title of – “European Capital of Culture”. Make it a point to visit The Royal Palace, which is where the King of Belgium is seated. A little ahead is the magnificent Royal Castle of Laeken – the royal residence of the King. Further ahead is the splendidly built Palace of the Nation where the Belgian Parliament sits. Law Street 16 is India’s version of Parliament Street, which is where the office of Prime Minister of Belgium is located. As you walk along Brussels’ tree lined avenues, the majestic edifices like the Court of Cassation, the Constitutional Court, the Court of Audit, the National Bank of Belgium , Royal Belgian Mint etc...vie for attention.
Brussels being a hub of international organizations, don’t be surprised to stumble across a journalist or an ambassador as their numbers are very high, owing primarily due to the city’s prominence as an international venue for conferences and conventions. There is a saying in the global administrative circles that in Brussels there are more journalists and ambassadors then you would find in Washington. Brussels’ art scene is truly exceptional with over eighty museums showcasing the works of some of the world’s most distinguished artists. The Royal Museum in particular is a storehouse of collections belonging to stalwarts of the stature of Bruegel, Rogeir Van Der Weyden, Anthony Van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens, Peter Paul Rubens etc....
For art aficionados, a visit to Brussels’ renowned Magritte Museum can be an awe inspiring experience as it offers the world’s most extensive collection of works belonging to Rene Magritte. Other Museumms worth visiting are the Royal Museum of Armed Forces and Military History, Museum of Art and History, Belvue museum to name just a few. Being a music freak, I was most captivated by the bewildering array of musical instruments so well preserved in the one-of-its-kind Musical Instruments Museum, showcasing as many as 8000 instruments.
When it comes to gastronomy, Brussels offers tremendous variety with its array of 1800 plus restaurants along with a bustling bar culture. Having travelled most of Europe in my two decades long stint as a Travel Writer, I can easily vouch for the fact that in terms of sheer diversity, Brussels is up there as one of Europe’s top gastronomic destinations. No wonder that the Rich & Famous just admire the city’s array of world cuisines. In fact, the Indians’ love for the brown thing – “Chocolate” happens to be one great reason why you should visit Brussels. The Belgian Chocolate is revered the world over for its distinctive taste and renowned global brands like Leonidas, Godiva and Neuhaus have their outlets in Brussels and much of Belgium. In fact, Pralines were first launched in Belgium by the renowned Belgian Chocolatier – Jean Neuhaus II way back in 1912 and today Belgium Pralines are world famous.
While doing a round of the city centre, make it a point to savour the locally produced Belgian Lambic Beer and I was told that the “Yeasts” that go in the manufacturing process are acquired from the Senne valley. The Kriek beer is the most sought after and easily available in the bars. If you are a party hopper, there can be no better place to party then in Brussels. The contemporary music scene is booming with energy and innovation, courtesy the thriving cosmopolitan population of this fascinating city. I bumped into the Matonge neighbourhood and WOW ! the African bands are doing awesome music here.
For Clubbing enthusiasts, the best place to be is the neighbourhood of Place de St-Gery and time permitting the district of Marolles. Here, in these clubbing zones, you will come across clubs that are trendy and happening along with the more laidback ones. There is a sizeable Gay community in Brussels and Gay-centric clubs too can be found in many party corners. There is also a vibrant club scene in various parts of the centre, such as Place de St-Géry, and in the Marolles district. You will in fact find clubs in all sizes all around the city, from trendy and laid back cocktail lounges to happening clubs hosting international dj's and gay orientated clubs. What’s more, the city is blessed with numerous late-opening bars, offering the choicest of tipples and the ambience is truly impressive.
Traveller’s Fact File:
Brussels is easily accessible and numerous international and domestic airlines operate routine flights to Brussels from Europe, US and key cities of Asia. For low-cost airlines, there is an exclusive airport – Charleroi Airport, located at a distance of 45 Kms. Brussels is well served by three railway stations, and the high-speed Eurostar network linking London St. Pancras to Brussels can be covered in less than 2 hours. Travelling around the city is a joy to behold as Brussels’ tram and bus network, which is operated by MIVB/STIB is absolutely world class. All-inclusive tickets too are available for the benefit of the visitors who might want to explore the suburbs.
Brussels being a hub of Europe, the city has 30,000 beds and packed with quality hotels. The concept of “Apart – Hotels” is very popular where fully furnished apartments are rented out to visitors on demand. For further information on the city of Brussels, please feel free to get in touch with: Visit Brussels