After qualifying for the Indian Foreign Service my nephew was posted in Brussels as one of his first foreign postings. What was important for us was that he had been allotted a two bed-roomed furnished apartment that was located in the area known as Churchill. It was good and well connected. More importantly, to have a place to stay without shelling out foreign exchange in a foreign land and that too in Europe was something great. We made use of that opportunity to roam around a bit in and around Brussels.
Brussels is, as numerous European towns are, no-nonsense and functional. It wasn’t a great tourist destination and tourism packages would hardly even mention Brussels on their itineraries. Nonetheless, it was great to be in Brussels – close to what is known as Flanders where Indians had fought two World Wars on behalf of the British Imperialists – centenary of the First World War (1914-18) is being celebrated this year.
Brussels, like any other European town, has plenty of, shall we say, historical baggage. Some of it is pleasant and some not quite – one of which is that it is a linguistically divided country. The northern region, perhaps the biggest chunk of the country and more prosperous too, is Flemish, i.e. Dutch speaking and the rest is bi-lingual. In fact, Brussels now is multilingual with English spoken largely in diplomatic and commercial circles. But then there is no divide as we see elsewhere and all is hunky dory. Although a little complicated, yet it should be mentioned that Brussels Capital Region is located in the central portion and is part of both, the French and the Flemish communities and is separate from the Flemish and French-speaking Walloon regions in the south.
That Brussels was not interesting enough could be fathomed from my brother’s disinclination to talk about it. He was a frequent visitor to Brussels when he was heading the Trade Policy Division in the Ministry of Commerce. He had to go there every month, sometimes even twice a month but he was never euphoric about his visits. We too did not expect much but it was Europe, after all,
Ours, as usual, was a budget tour. Hence we took a cheap flight direct to Brussels with a stop at Bucharest. Many would not have heard of the Tarom Airline which Rumanian state flies. It seems, it stopped its flights to Delhi after a few years. Hence travel agencies do not make a mention of it. It was a convenient flight which one would climb into at night in Delhi and get deposited at Brussels in the morning,
Probably, because it was a cheap flight it was a kind of favoured airline for the human traffickers. We were, therefore, subjected to a grueling session at the airport and the immigration authorities were convinced of our bonafides only after they spoke to our nephew who was working in the Indian Embassy. Surprisingly they did not take into account our age which was pretty apparent from our appearance. We came to know later that illegal immigrants would frequently be apprehended at Brussels trying to get into Europe or move on to UK or the USA.
Churchill was a leafy area and it was a pleasure to walk on the sidewalks. Spring was on its onset and blooms were everywhere in public areas. The sidewalks had roadside trees (which Bhopal Municipal Corporation does not seem to believe in) around the stems of which one could see in circular beds blooms of daffodils and many other varieties of flowering shrubs. The central verge had the tram lines but also had flowers blooming. We had a stop of trams right in front of the house. Moving around was therefore convenient.
The trams would take us to the Brussels Midi station which is the largest railway station in Brussels. There are trains that connect it to Brussels North and Brussels South stations as also many European cities. It is served by international high speed trains like those of TGV, Thalys etc. Since the Brussels metros and trams have terminals in Midi one finds the whole thing very convenient for local commutes or for intercity or international travel.
As already stated, there is not much to see in Brussels but the statement is not entirely correct. There is one place that is virtually unique, and it is the Grand Place or the Grot Markt (Great Market in Dutch). It is a huge square adjudged one of the best in Europe beating the Red Square of Moscow. Like everything else in Europe it too has a history stretching back to a millennium when it was a marsh and daily markets used to be held here. Over the decades and centuries it was built, destroyed and re-built until the 19th Century it moved away from its hap hazard construction to a more organised form. The Grand Place emerged so beautiful that it eventually was made a World Heritage Site. It has the Town Hall and the Brussels Museum which once was a palace of the feudals and many other constructions in Gothic and baroque styles. Because of its touristy character it has been pedestrianised while vehicular traffic is allowed in the neighbouring streets which retain their respective names on the basis of the callings of the shopkeepers. One of the more famous and historic streets is Rue des Bucherie where you get delectable stuff to eat.
Another feature, which we did not see as we came away before it took place, is laying floral carpet on the floor of the Grand Place. Innumerable flowers are used to create a carpet of colourful flowers making the place very attractive. That, one would say, compensates Brussels for its deficiencies in regard to absence of places of tourist interest.
On one of the side streets close to the Grand Place is virtually the symbol of Brussels. It is Manneken Pis – a statue of young boy urinating into a fountain. It is more than three centuries old and has symbolized Brussels for generations. There have been attempts to steal it and there have also been attempts to dress it in various costumes. Every such attempt failed. Indicating their open-mindedness Belgian artists have since installed massive statues to outrage the sensibilities of the locals as well as tourists. Obviously, it was like taking matters too far and hence there has been resistance to this sort of extreme liberties. Some Belgians say these statues are meant to outrage the tourists whom they do not seem to like. These might be taken down soon.
There is a Notre Dam in Brussels too. It is the church of the Blessed Lady of Sablon, a Catholic Church located in the centre of the town. Built around the 15th Century it has a Gothic exterior and highly decorated interiors. We could not spend much time thereand were therefore not satisfied by our visit.
About 20 kilometres away is the war field of Waterloo where the last of the Napoleonic Wars was fought. Here the army of Napoleon was (narrowly) defeated by the English and Prussian armies. There is not much to see here except a mound known as the Lion’s Mound topped by a lion’s image. Waterloo is famous for ending the series of Napoleonic Wars as also the Napoleonic French Empire. It was another feather in the cap of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.