Last time I laid out Belgium in great generality. This time, let’s look at some specifics.
Antwerp is Belgium’s second largest city. It’s an economic center, major port, and tourist haven that’s located in the northern (i.e. Flemish) part of the country along the Scheldt river. It has a thriving metropolitan feel to it, an urban jungle mashing together modern skyscrapers and medieval castles on the same street.
The historic center of Antwerp is the Grote Markt (Main Square), an expansive cobblestone plaza flanked on the west by the city hall (a four-story building decorated with hundreds of technicolor flags), on the north by a wall of fabulously ornate (if apparently uncomfortably compressed) sixteenth-century guild-houses, and along the southeast by restaurants and shops.
At the center of the square is an epic water fountain depicting a naked dude standing on a decapitated corpse holding a severed hand spurting arterial blood (well, water), which seemed a tad grisly to me. I asked Cel (our host) about it, and he said the fountain symbolized the story of the name Antwerp. According to Cel, “Long ago there lived a giant who terrorized the people living along the River Scheldt. Eventually, a hero called Brabo fought and defeated the giant, cutting off his right hand and throwing it in the River before finally slaying him. ”
“And what,” I prodded him further, “does this have to do with the city’s name?”
“Because,” he replied with a laugh, “right before he died, the giant said, ‘Ow! That’s my hand, twerp!‘”
I suspect this story might be apocryphal.
Apocryphal or not, however, the image of a dismembered hand is the official symbol of the city of Antwerp, and you’ll find it everywhere. It’s on signs and billboards. There are miniature statues of Brabos flinging phalanges everywhere you look. The city’s own beer, De Koninck, is typically served in a glass depicting a severed hand. There are even chocolate shops that sell chocolate severed hands, some of which that have jelly “blood” inside. It’s like Hostel without the boobies.
Just south of the Grote Markt is Antwerp’s cathedral center, the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedral, or Cathedral of Our Lady, a five-hundred-year-old Romain Catholic church sporting an intricately designed, 400-foot-tall bell tower with a gold-faced clock that shines in the sunlight. It also makes a nice backdrop for a beer and a show, as the area on all sides of the cathedral is lined with bistros and pubs and traveling street musicians and other performers.
Just past the the cathedral is the Schoenmark, a sort of “foot market” consisting of winding narrow roads flanked on both sides by tightly packed homes, churches, and all manner of shops selling breads and frites and knick-knacks like Belgian lace and nudie pens. One thing I noted at these shops was that Europeans have embraced the full real number system. Buildings are typically numbered with floors starting at 0, with floor 1 being the first floor above ground, and so on. Computer scientists will love it. Similarly, sales are always advertised with negative numbers, so that rather than “60% off” you might simply see a sale price of “-60%.”
All in all, Antwerp is a fun city to wander about in.
Brugge (also called Bruges, due to the Flemish-French language thing) is another port city in Belgium, this one located along the north coast of Belgium. The coastal edge of Brugge is a beach resort town whose primary attraction is the North Sea, a stretch of beach regularly bombarded with icy gusty winds and rainy weather, which might go quite a ways to explaining why the beach routinely seems empty.
The main city of Brugge proper is located a bit more inland. It is filled with carefully preserved historic buildings, art museums, basilicas and cathedrals and crisscrossed with a number of canals, earning it the nickname as the Venice of Belgium.
Like Antwerp, the city center is its main square, and like Antwerp it consists of a massive plaza built around a heroic statue and flanked on all sides by towering buildings, guild-houses, restaurants, and shops. Especially shops. Every road that radiates out of the Grote Markt of Brugge is packed sardine-style with either bistros selling delicious (and very expensive) beer and food to stores selling everything from tacky (but very expensive) curios to exquisite (and very expensive) antiques. It’s a window shoppers paradise, and hence a dream location for the Nana and Queen Bs, who were more or less able to complete all their Christmas shopping for friends and family over the course of a single day in Brugge.
It’s worth noting that the statue in the main square is not a fountain, but just a few hundred yards southwest is the Zand Square, which features a massive circular fountain subdivided into four smaller fountains honoring Brugge — a band of fisherman (honoring Brugge’s ties to the sea), a peloton of cyclists (honoring a pair of popular local heros), a gaggle of nude woman sporting birds on their heads (representing four sister Flemish cities), and finally the mythic Mermaid of Belgium, whose myth I did not learn, but apparently involves some form of explosive lactation.
Brugge is also home to possibly the coolest public parking garage I’ve ever seen. It’s equipped with a number of electronic monitors that tell drivers exactly how many stalls are available on a particular sub-level of the garage via electronic billboards near the entrances to each. Moreover, above each stall on any given level is a small bright LED light that shine red when the stall is occupied and green when the stall is empty, which allows the wearied pre-parker to spot in a flash where the available spots are in any given row. Now that‘s some clever European engineering.
Brussels is the location of both the capital of Belgium and the capital of the European Union. As such it is the largest city in Belgium, a metropolis of about 2 million people. Oddly enough, though it sits squarely in the Flemish half of the country, Brussels is almost entirely a French-speaking community. This conflict plays out greatly in Belgian politics, but to the average tourist it is most present in the city’s signage, on which every message must appear in both Flemish and French (and in some cases, English too). Indeed, the city is only called Brussels by foreigners: the Flemish call it Brussel (sans final ‘s’), and the Francophiles call it Bruxelles. It’s like a modern day Babel.
Like Antwerp and Brugge, the center of the Brussels is is main square (or Grote Markt or Grand Place, depending on your linguistic tastes), a huge rectangular courtyard flanked on all sides by palatial museums, sardine-packed guild-houses, and outdoor bistros. More often than not the plaza is open and unobstructed, although in August, it is completely covered with a “flower tapestry” of multicolored begonias. When we visited, however, the plaza was fenced off for a sporting event. I’m not sure what it was exactly, as it mostly consisted of two teams running a squattish orange ball back and forth while the crowd, clearly buzzed from drinking ginormous glasses of beer, cheered from time to time.
In contrast to the overly ornate, thoroughly old buildings of downtown Brussels is the simple, shimmering steel and glass Atomium. Built for Belgium’s 1958 world’s fair, and heavily renovated in 2005, it represents the crystal structure of iron, but for the mathematically inclined, it’s a ginormous 3-D graph with 9 vertices forming a cube (eight corners, plus center) and 20 paths (eight connecting the center to each vertex, and twelve forming the sides of the cube itself).
In person it appears to be precariously balanced on one of the cube’s corners, with the opposite corner rising 340 feet directly above it. Each of the spherical vertices is about 60 feet in diameter, and house various moodily lit rooms permeated an awesome retro-future them, a sort of yesterday’s “world of tomorrow… today” vibe. Among the spheres there’s
- a historical exhibit on the Atomium in the lowest sphere, including a smaller model of the Atomium on display inside it
- a restaurant offering panaramic views of Brussels in the highest sphere
- an art gallery featuring pop-culture and cartoon-style works (Belgians are famous cartoonists)
- a ginormous building block room in which kids can create there own mini-metropolis and then stomp it to pieces Godzilla-style
The spheres are themselves connected by claustrophobic tubes housing escalators or stairs, and I was surprised at how disorienting it was moving through the various spheres, which in hindsight gives me a much greater appreciation of all that “local theory of graphs” stuff I learned about once upon a time in my point-set topology class.
Coincidentally enough, the day that we arrived at the Atomium was the final day of an event charmingly called the “Death Ride,” wherein one could pay 25 euros for the opportunity to climb to the very top of the Atomium (where the Belgian flag) and zip-line down to the ground from there. Seeing as how I’d probably never get the chance to do something like this ever again, the Queen B convinced me to give it a try. After paying, I was hooked up with a safety harness whose sole function seemed to be the forceful separation of my gonads from the rest of my body, and joined a group of about 10 other tourists for the trip, where a nice young lady offered to take my glasses, my camera, and my last will and testament.
The event seemed to be sponsored by some kind of military recruiter outfit, and so our “ride guides” consisted of hugely muscled dudes wearing skull tee-shirts, camo pants, and a significant volume of bad-assery. One of them, who vaguely resembled R. Lee Ermy’s drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket, eventually gathered us together and barked something incomprehensible at us, whereupon the crowd started towards the lowest sphere of the elevator. It turns out that the tubes connecting the lowest sphere to the highest sphere actually house a fast moving elevator, so we crammed into one, whereupon the drill sergeant started describing the safety features of our harness and the proper zipping technique required so as to not end up spattered on the ground some thirty stories below.
It was at this point that I really wished I understood Flemish.
When we got to the top sphere, we were instructed (via crude sign language for my benefit) to form a straight line along one of the glass walls (presumably for the amusement of the restaurant patrons already there). Since I hadn’t understood a goddam word of the safety speech, I quietly moved myself to the back of the line (i.e., the farthest from the dill sergeant) so that I’d be able to watch the process a few times and figure out what it was I needed to do. Suddenly a second drill sergeant guy appeared from the kitchen door right next to me and ushered me in, suddenly making me the first in line.
We went through the kitchen, and at the very back of it was a flimsy aluminum ladder that led up to a darkened 3-foot diameter hole in the ceiling. I made my way up the ladder and found myself in the tiny crawlspace above the roof of the kitchen but below the curved top of the sphere. Directly above me, a triangular section of this top portion had been removed, and through it I could see only blue sky and the flapping of the Belgian flag. When I pulled myself through this hole, I was hit by a blast of chilly wind signifying that I was now standing on the top of the Atomium.
I grabbed a hold of the flag pole and surveyed my surroundings:
- triangular shaped hole directly behind me… check.
- flagpole in hand to keep the wind from blowing me off… check.
- long zip-line secured to both the base of the flagpole and the ground below snapping chaotically in the wind… check.
- realization I just paid 25 bucks to throw myself off a silver ball to certain death… check
Actually, there was one other thing up there — another ride guide tethered to the flag pole holding a sack filled with what looked like little metal pulleys. Once he saw my head poke through the hole, he took one of the pulleys and attached it to the zip cord. He then motioned me to sit by the flag, and upon sitting I realized just how frictionless the top of a 60-foot wide stainless steel sphere can be. The guy snapped my safety harness to the pulley, and almost immediately I could feel the erratic tug of the zip cord as jumped around in the wind. The only thing keeping me up top was the deathgrip with the flagpole in which I was currently engage. The guy signaled that I should instead hold on to the ropes attached to the pulley, and the minute I did that he smiled and walked away, because without the flagpole anchoring me, the wind immediately yanked me away, and I began sliding down the giant sphere. I quickly accelerated down its slide until, quite suddenly, it felt as if the giant sphere had simply falling way, and then I was dangling in mid-air.
The wind spun me around, and for a few seconds I was treated to the sight of two of the Atomium’s massive spheres running away from me like spooked animals. Then the wind whipped me around again and I was sailing for a few moments more high above the glass plaza that runs northwest of the Atomium. I may have also screamed like an excited schoolgirl. Possibly.
In just a few seconds it was over. I rapidly decelerated, finally coming to rest tethered to a line just above ground level, leaving me hanging like a demented pinata. Here’s what it looked like from the ground level:
Right next door to the Atomium is something called Mini-Europe, which might be accurately described as an beautifully crafted miniature golf course, but without the miniature golf. It’s a walk-through park featuring meticulously crafted 1/25th scale models of European icons. (Well, mostly meticulously crafted, although we spotted a few oddities, such as a miniature King Kong climbing the Brugge belfry, or a pair of miniature cows fornicating in a model of Denmark).
However, hands down the most famous icon of Brussels is not of its monumental buildings, but rather a tiny, 2-foot-tall bronze statue of a little boy peeing in a fountain tucked inconspicuously into a corner in one of Brussels many street markets. In Flemish the statue is pronounced as the delightfully sounding “Manna-kuh-peace” and when written is the significantly less charming Manneken Pis, or “pissing statue.” What is it with Belgians and their body-fluid-expelling statues?
According to Mel and Cel, folks come from all over the world to see the miniature micturating man, although they were at a loss to understand why. Nevertheless, the little whizzing dude is like the Mickey Mouse of Brussels, and his weeing image can be found on everything: shirts, hats, glasses, chocolates, plates, watches, flags, you name it. They even have Manneken Pius corkscrews, with the coiled metal screw affixed to his pecker, which I suppose is designed to give the impression of a physics-defying urine stream but to me looked like a horrible case of priapism crossed with the bends. (And given either interpretation, is that really something you want to stick in your wine?)
Of course, these cities barely scratch the surface of Belgium, but they certainly give your typical tourist a great taste of Belgian culture and life.
Just watch out for all those bleeding, lactating, peeing statues, alright?