Brussels: 5 Museums and a Boy

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Brussels is not such a foreign city to me anymore, but I’ve never really had one free day there to wander around all the museums and sights at leisure till last Friday.  From my friend’s flat in Namur center, I take a 3-minute walk to the train station and head back to Brussels. A one-way ticket costs 7.70 Euros.


I love taking the train around Europe because it’s a great way to see the countryside and neighboring villages. On this particular day, however, I’m reading about the international economic crisis that’s tarnishing the industry of luxury goods…


even Chanel…


but H&M appears to be the cure for recessionistas:


After about 45 minutes or so, I pop up at the final stop, Brussels Midi, where I take a tram for 1.70 Euros to the Bourse stop:


The Bourse is the stock exchange, housed inside a gorgeous, immense building that’s just around the corner from the Grand Place or Grote Markt.  I’ve talked about quite a few main squares in cities around Europe at this blog, but the one in Brussels is something that most photography can’t quite do any justice. It is just stunning, from every angle:


Here’s my lame attempt at giving you a 360 view of the square:



The Tourist Information center is in one of these gorgeous buildings, and it’s here that I buy the Brussels Card for a day (though you can get one for 48 or 72 hours) that gives me free access to most museums within 24 hours and to public transportation for 48 hours. Inside this square there are 3 museums, one of which is the Maison de Roi, which showcases the history of the city. It’s my first stop.


I sort of blaze through the first two floors, and then I arrive at the exhibit of the 200 or so costumes for the Manneken Pis.  This is a small bronze fountain statute of a little boy peeing. I know, I don’t get the mayo with fries and I definitely don’t understand the Manneken Pis either, even if there are several legends about it.  The statute is located a few hundred meters from the Grote Markt:


But after looking through all of the costumes on display, I come around to appreciating the pomp and circumstance surrounding this little statute. Dignitaries around the world have sent ornate national costumes for the boy. From the US there are Hawaiian and cowboy costumes. From Mexico the costume is complete with a pair of tooled leather shoes. My favorite is the full shogun armor from Japan, dated September 1935!  I wish the museum had been empty enough for me to sneak a photograph of some of the outfits. 


Next, I try to locate the Musee du Costume et de la Dentelle (costumes and lace museum) but I just can’t find the tiny street it’s on. I’m sure I must have walked past it 3 times and missed it completely. It’s freezing, too, and I’ve just lost one of my gloves. Instead of working myself up into a frenzy, which is what I tend to do when I have a long list of stuff I’d mapped out for myself to see, I tell myself to enjoy getting lost around the historic center:


In the Maison du Roi, I’d read about the cluster of mansions. And now, by virtue of getting lost, I come across a remnant of one of these mansions:


Did I say that it is really cold here? I think it’s minus 2 celsius today. So the next building I run across with a museum flag in front of it, I duck in to thaw. It happens to be the Musee de la Banque Nationale de Belgique.  It takes maybe 20 minutes to tour the building and read about the history of money and the bank. But there is a gorgeous church near it:


From here I walk toward the Museumplein:


If you love museums as much as I do, this is the kind of intersection you want to encounter with a day pass in hand. I’m just really bummed out that the Renee Magritte museum won’t be open to the public till this summer:


I go inside the Musee de BELvue. Not only is it just lovely to stand inside the building (it was once a luxury hotel and then royal residence) and revel in 18th century architecture, but it is also an education in Belgian history. Because the country is relatively young, there is immense photographic and video footage capturing the nation’s royalty. Whether you are a royalist or not, it is still an interesting way to peek into the lives of those who happen to be born into their pedigree.


Right around this museum is the Royal Palace and a host of other important museums that sit above and around the Mont des Arts.


I walk to my next destination, which is the Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique. I’ve been to this museum once or twice before; way down in the belly of the modern arts section there are some great surrealist paintings by Magritte and Dali. And Rene Magritte is one of my all time favorites.  Here are some other structures around here:


So it’s now past 3pm and I hustle out of the museum to head to the upscale Avenue Louise (Louizalaan) for some retail therapy. I walk past the Palais de Justice and guess what I run right into:


How convenient, haha! Unfortunately the store is tiny and the lovely, apologetic gentleman helping me told me they are just starting to get new inventory in, so if I didn’t mind I could come back in two weeks for better shopping. For now, the RTW items (what’s left of it) are still only 30% off. I walk out empty-handed. There’s no item particular to the European market for now that I could get as a souvenir. So I stroll around the avenue a bit longer but the sales back home just can’t be beat. 


Around 3.45pm I walk back down the Mont des Arts (this picture below is of the National Library I think) to go back toward the Grand Place.


I could lie and say I get fancy and try out a new street on my way back. Truth is there’s a lot of construction going on in this city so I’m detoured to one of the many side streets. This is where I run into the Jewish Museum…


where there’s a stunning photographic retrospective on the famous war photographer Robert Capa:


His photography spans five wars, from the Spanish civil war to WWII to the first Indochina war. He was killed on May 25, 1954 after stepping on a land mine in Vietnam. One of the last photos he took days right before his death was that of a group of grieving widows at a cemetery in Vietnam.  In one of the rooms there are fantastic photos he took of  his friends and peers, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway,  Gary Cooper, and Ingrid Bergman.  Such a sharp contradiction to those taken from the battlefields. I wonder if he became immune to looking at death through his lenses–especially of the very young victims of war. This next picture is of one of the eloquent narratives in the exhibit. It’s also why Robert Capa would be the second person I’d like to invite to my fantasy dinner. 


So I’m pretty pooped by now. I’ve been walking for about 7 hours straight. I finally get back to the Grand Place and succumb to the smell of the gauffre (Belgian waffle). Funnily enough, the place where I buy this treat is owned by a Vietnamese guy who comes out to chat with me a bit. I don’t suppose he gets to speak Vietnamese too often here.


It’s getting dark here by now and I don’t have any time left to find Rene Magritte’s house, which is now a museum.  So I’ve seen 5 museums and a (pissing) boy, and it sounds like a lot. But there are about 87 museums in Brussels so I’ve only scratched the surface. The rest will have to wait. For now, a seat on a train ride to my next destination awaits my tired feet:

1 Comment

  1. Catherine

    It is so lovely to read your blog Ms. L. I like Brussels a lot too! I only traveled there once. Your blog takes me back to this pretty city again. Thank you for sharing those beautiful pictures! and do Stay warm! C

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