As I exited Brussels Midi station on Thursday afternoon one of the first sights I saw was soldiers standing guard, easy to spot in their camouflage. These wouldn’t be the last military personal I would see in the Belgian capital. The sight of soldiers on the streets is meant to make us feel safe, yet their presence acts as a reminder of the constant danger and the ongoing threat that exists and reminds us that we are afraid. No city view or pleasant stroll is ever improved by the sight of armed patrols or seeing numerous imposing military vehicles roll through. Yet we all know why they are there, why they are necessary. This city has suffered.
Looking down from a top a nearby building was a happier duo – TinTin and his companion Snowy. It is said that TinTin is the most famous Belgian and it is hard to think of an obvious challenger. Whilst having a fictional character as your most famous citizen might not be something to be impressed by I suggest that maybe it should. All real people have flaws, these we overlook when elevating someone in the public conscious as an outstanding person. A fictional character doesn’t have to have flaws. TinTin is the best of us.
TinTin is certainly more impressive than one of the key sights of Brussels – the Manneken Pis. This statue of a small boy urinating, creating the fountain is smaller than I imagined and elicits the thought ‘is that it?’ If this was Rome it would be another one of the many statues and fountains the city has on it’s street corners that you just walk by, here it is something to see. Perhaps there is some strange Belgian folklore I have been unable to grasp that lends it the importance it apparently has. More impressive is the surrounding architecture with pretty facades and cobbled streets. There are many waffle outlets too. More noteworthy is the several graffiti murals artfully dotted around the area, including the ‘Manneken Peace’, all of which inject youthfulness into an otherwise old area.
Walk a little on these charming streets and you will make it to Grand Place, the large central square and UNESCO site where the town hall sits on one side, a museum of Brussels on the other, and Guildhalls complete the surroundings. Every building competes to outdo the other with size, detail, and gold. In the June sun it is the gold glint that really catches the eye.
This Article 50 Farewell Tour is intrinsically linked to the European Union, and so I visited the area where the EU buildings are. These are mostly large glass buildings running into large glass buildings – the power architecture du jour. Perhaps the glass is meant to symbolize transparency, but it’s actually quite difficult to navigate, as signs sometimes appear to contradict each other. The House of European History is not glass; Europe’s history is of throwing stones. This nonetheless physically imposing structure acts as a museum and gallery of Europeanism. If you don’t know what that is, this is where you find out. On the way in your belongings go through security and then it’s upstairs to get the tablet that will guide you around this multi-floor theatre to Europe. The tablet is given in exchange for your identity. I suggest the symbolism was not intended. The House of European History is free to visit.
The Atomium is an impressive structure of spheres that can be seen from some distance located in the Heysel area of the city. For football fans the word Heysel brings up certain memories of the tragedy that occurred at the 1985 European Cup final held in the stadium there. It is still there today, although much changed and renamed. In the same area is Mini-Europe, which is an attraction full of mini replicas of landmarks from around the EU, so arguably I’ve now already finished the tour. It is as great or as awful as you think it sounds.
Brussels is not the first place I’ve explored on my own and many more are to come. There is a certain peace that comes with solitude and the key advantage is that there are no compromises that need to be made. One particular pleasure is the ability to indulge in a long lunch. However, of course there is still much to be said for travelling with someone, for someone to chat to, someone to provide company. After all, TinTin had Snowy.