We spent five days in Belgium in September...our first visit to Belgium.
From doing a bit of research beforehand for a reasonably-priced centrally-located hotel in Brussels, I decided on the Brussels Welcome Hotel. We could not have been happier with the Welcome...from it we could walk to the Grand Place and many other attractions. The Sainte-Catherine Metro station is right across the street. There are a wide variety of restaurants in the neighborhood...in fact, we ate all our dinners in nearby restaurants. At least one of the Welcome's owners, Michel and Sophie, were on the property whenever we were there...and always friendly and helpful. The Welcome is a small hotel, more like a bed and breakfast. Each of its rooms is decorated in the theme of a different country. We stayed in the Bali room which was very quiet and very comfortable.
A very nice buffet breakfast is included in the price of the room...it includes hot dishes, breads, pastries, yogurt, fresh fruit, dry cereals, cheese, and much more. There is a computer for use by guests. The hotel also offers shuttle service to and from the airport and to the train stations. We took advantage of their shuttle, which is Michel's Porsche Cayenne SUV, to go to the train station when we left Brussels. The charge for the shuttle is very reasonable, possibly less than the cost of a taxi.
This is what we saw from our balcony:
And, this is what the neighborhood looks like:
Arriving at 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, after a long day and overnight of flying, we took the train from the Airport to the Gare Centrale, the central Brussels train station...of the three train stations, it is the closest to our hotel. From there we took a taxi to the hotel...we could have taken the Metro, but I don't like dragging luggage on and off European subways because there are usually long flights of stairs to navigate.
Our first delightful surprise was that the Sunday of our arrival was a special once-a-year No Car Day in Brussels. No automobiles expept for commercial and emergency vehicles were allowed to drive in the city. The Metro was free, also. Since our room was not ready for us, we headed out toward the Grand Place, Brussels' beautiful central square. Even at 9:30 in the morning, the city was alive with walkers and bicyclists everywhere...bike teams out for their Sunday rides and families of cyclists taking advantage of the No Car Day.
In the Grand Place, we bought waffles from one of the stands that were set up around the square...our first taste of one of Belgium's many culinary specialties. We had our waffles plain, with powdered sugar, not being quite ready to indulge in toppings of whipped cream, jam, fruits, chocolate and a variety of other goodies at this early hour. Waffles are popular snack food and, as you can see, they are eaten out of hand...no, Jim was not creating a faux pas!
We looked in awe at the buildings that surround the Grand Place...many dating back to the 1600s.
Little did we know when we spotted these enormous dolls in the courtyard of the Hotel de Ville, that we would see them again later as part of the celebration.
Even at 10 a.m., there were cyclists and others sitting in the square enjoying a beer. Beer is another Belgium culinary specialty. I've been told that there are over 400 different kinds of Belgian beer. It is the beers brewed at Trappist monasteries that are the best-known of Belgian beers. I waited until later in the day, after an afternoon nap, to sample my first Belgian beer.
From the Grand Place, we walked a few blocks to see the "famous" Manneken Pis, the small bronze statue of a little boy peeing. Curiously, the Manneken Pis is such an attraction that various local organizations make outfits for him and continuously dress him up...and he keeps on peeing through his clothes. At the nearby Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles in the Maison du Roi on the Grand Place, more than 650 costumes that have been donated to the Manneken Pis are on display, should you be curious enough to want to see a good part of his wardrobe.
When we first visited the Manneken Pis in the early morning, he was dressed in a red outfit. Later in the afternoon, when we found ourselves back to him again, members of the Meyboom were dressing him in a tiny version of their own uniform and were in the midst of a procession through the city with their giant puppets and a band. These are the same giant puppets that we had discovered earlier in the day.
A little bit on the Mennekin Pis: The current Mannekin Pis statue, just 24" high, dates back to 1619. There was an original that was created in 1388. There are many stories of why this little boy is so honored and cherished. They range from one about a little boy who put out a fire that was about to destroy Brussels to a story of a wealthy child who got separated from his parents and when found was peeing against a tree in a garden. Whatever the mystique, it lives on and the Manneken Pis is a major attraction to both tourists and locals.
As for the Meyboom, it is my understanding that they are an organization, dating back to the 1300s, whose main celebration is on the 9th of August, when they raise up a tree, the May Tree ("Meyboom"),the tree of joy. The celebration takes place in a part of Brussels where their ancestors once lived. The giant puppets, or dolls, come to life when the Poepedroegers, one of the Meyboom groups, parade them through the streets. There is much more to know about the Meyboom that I do not know, but we were delighted to come upon their festivities by the Manneken, where they were dressing the little boy as a member of their order.
Once the Manneken was suited up as a Poepedroeger, a nearby pub brought out a tray of beer for the Meyboom members and other dignitaries to enjoy.
No Car Day continued into the early evening. It was an all-City party and the mild sunny weather made it all the more fun.
There were cyclists everywhere and even some lucky dogs got to ride on a bicycle.
Not only was the Meyboom making a day of it, but there were people on stilts wandering around everywhere.
We discovered a dance floor set up in a park right near our hotel.
And, I couldn't resist taking a spin around the floor, albeit alone and in Blue Jeans rather than my Sunday best.
Crowds gathered on the steps of the Bourse (stock exchange).
And, we got to enjoy yet another Belgian culinary specialy, Frites, or, to us, French Fries. This Friterie was doing a booming business selling baskets of Frites. Curiously, the most popular dipping sauce for Frites in Belgium is mayonnaise, not the ketchup that most Americans choose for dipping.
Look for the end or our first day in Brussels in my next post, where we dine on more Belgian culinary specialties.