The young round-faced reporter Tintin quietly tiptoes down the back stairs of a moonlit building. He follows the foul-mouthed Captain Haddock, who, as always, wears an annoyed expression. Between them, a clueless Snowy stares at me from the landing.
Unfortunately, this is a mural and my favourite childhood comic book characters will always remain frozen in this scene, instantly recognisable from The Calculus Affair. It blends seamlessly with the architecture at Brussels’ Rue de l’Etuve, and why wouldn’t it—Georges Remi (or Hergé), the Belgian creator of The Adventures of Tintin, was born in Brussels and lived here all his life. Despite the globetrotting tendencies of his protagonist, the cartoonist couldn’t help but sprinkle some of his city into his work, be it with Tintin’s house or a general streetscape.
If Hergé had not inspired the golden age of Belgian comics, we might have never seen the likes of The Adventures of Nero, Gaston and—you probably know this one—The Smurfs, which have contributed to making Brussels the ‘comics capital’. Streets more often than not have buildings with colourful murals. Tram station walls are similarly embellished. The previous day, I had spotted Nero latched to a tree at Place Saint-Géry, and gawked at Asterix, Obelix and the rest of the villagers amid a spectacular offensive against the Romans at Rue de la Buanderie. (Though by no means should one consider Asterix Belgian; it is as French as baguettes.)
I am distracted from my musings once I remember why I had stepped out of my accommodation, Hotel Amigo, in the first place: to watch a boy take a piss. I say this with utmost seriousness. Manneken Pis, a 17th-century bronze sculpture by J. Duquesnoy the Younger, a prominent Flemish architect, essentially depicts a piddler. It is not just a public fountain (no points for guessing where the water streams from), but symbolic of the spirit of the city. Brussels may have grown into a sprawling metropolis from its humble beginnings as a hamlet by the Senne River, but at some point it acquired an eclectic, even irreverent, character that you can find almost everywhere today.
Like at À la Mort Subite (‘sudden death’), a century-old pub filled with motifs that border on the macabre. Paradoxically, it has a cheery vibe and the same vibrant wooden tavern décor since 1928. Here, the choice to savour gueuze sur lie, a kind of Belgian beer that is musty and sour but refreshing, with a platter including ‘white soft cheese’, apple jam, bread and pork bits, was met with my fond reception. The fourth-generation Vossen patriarch who ran the place also insisted upon the cherry draught, which was fruity and chug-worthy.
Or at Attitude Art Gallery, barely a kilometre from my hotel, where I watched my childhood being blown to smithereens. The gallery displays the works of plenty of provocateurs—Jan Bucqouy’s sexual take on Tintin being the most prominent. Considered Brussels’ chief iconoclast, he sends the boy reporter on comic album-length sexual escapades (complete with full-frontal graphic nudity). This exercise in freedom of expression did not go well with Hergé’s widow, who filed and lost a lawsuit against Bucqouy. (A poster of a certain ‘encounter’ between Tintin and Madame Castafiore is what caused me to stop and enter the place.)
Even at Atomium, built for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, which the city considers its own Eiffel Tower—except, it is meant to depict an atomic arrangement (more specifically, an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times). Built in a newly post-WWII reality, when both fear and hope surrounded nuclear energy, it has pretty walkways with colourful flowerbeds.
Finally, at Laeken, where it is not the Royal Castle of Laeken (official residence of the Belgian king), but the Chinese pavilion and the Japanese tower, built under the reign of King Leopold II in the early 20th century, that make for the chief attractions. I walked around the area on a beautiful June afternoon, when the temperature was a breezy 24°C and the sun mild. Among the blue skies and a vacant bench, a siesta was due.
But all this being said, Brussels is not just about the zany, the comics and a leaky boy—it is a historical wonder that presents a potpourri of architectural styles; home to the Belgian chocolates, and the birthplace of ‘French’ fries and waffles; and a land of pretty museums.
I left Manneken Pis behind to do what is best done in a European city: walk. At a slight distance was Grand Place, the city’s most popular square. Cobblestone walkways give way to a massive landmark filled with buildings of erstwhile guilds (a baroque building that once housed the brewers’ guild is today home to the Museum of the Belgian Brewers) and private houses. There are restaurants and cafés everywhere, and the old Town Hall, the only building left when the French bombardment gutted the place back in the late 17th century. As we walked, my guide Sacha, who always sported a bright red jacket, pointed out the various Flemish influences in the architecture, and how the baroque style—with its emphasis on the dramatic and the sizeable—gives this Unesco World Heritage Site its grandiloquence.
If you observe Brussels’ many residential areas, you’ll find plenty of architectural styles—gothic, baroque, neoclassical and art nouveau, each prominent at a different time in the city’s history. It is the newest of these that is the most distinctive, and Victor Horta, one of Europe’s most prominent architects, made sure that was the case. Unique from other styles in how much it borrows from nature’s curves and free-flowing forms, while remaining geometrically consistent, it gives an artistic look. More often than not, the prettiest street building is a Horta.
Though splendidly designed, the nearby Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert predates Horta’s time. I walked into this elegant gallery, with its golden-hued interior, and found it to be a cross between a luxurious shopping mall and a posh European street. It has arcaded shops, multiple floors and two sections—the one further away curving to make the place seem longer than it actually is. Many prestigious brands with their flagship stores give the place a Gatsby-esque opulence. Sacha was nice enough to take me to two chocolate shops here, both the crème of Belgian chocolates (which give Swiss chocolates a run for their money, but do not tell the Swiss that)—Neuhaus, started by Jean Neuhaus who invented the Belgian praline (a soft-centre chocolate) in 1912; and Mary, an artisanal chocolatier established in 1919. At the latter, I tried the Emmanuel Caramel, which had just the right amount of sweet (Belgian chocolate is high in cocoa, but fine in texture, and balanced in sweetness and flavour) and the truffle champagne. The latter, with its rich dark-chocolate flavour coupled by the complexly flavoured champagne, turned out to be divine.
Sacha next took me to visit some museums. Not only am I a museum buff, I know Europe has some of the best. First on the cards was, characteristically, the Belgian Comic Strip Center. Bear in mind that this is a vast place covering everything from the art of cartooning, to its history, to individual works and their relevance. Built inside a Horta building, I found the Peyo Exhibition (an exhibition of The Smurfs) even more fascinating than the one on Tintin. A 3D Smurfs village is the chief attraction here and quite the visual treat.
For the first time since I had arrived in Brussels, I left the central part of the city behind to head to Schaerbeek railway station, where Train World museum is located. For a train aficionado such as I, this was a dream come true. Across multiple interactive sections I skimmed through the history of one of the oldest rail systems in the world. In subsequent rooms, I could even enter actual compartments, peep into first-class waiting rooms, and walk across a life-like platform. It had everything except an actual train journey.
My final museum for the day was housed in a dainty 18th-century establishment in Brussels’ Sablon neighbourhood and called the Museum of Erotics and Mythology. It served as a reminder that no matter how far you sway from Brussels’ irreverence, the city comes back to it with a bang. I walked into this six-year-old museum and found phalluses dotting my visual field. Sculpture sexually engages with sculpture—sometimes with backbreaking flexibility—and you realise many of these date back thousands of years, and no civilisation or era is bereft of them. It’s quite telling of humanity’s eternal fascination with sexuality. I came to a conclusion that I did not know of a city that basks in its expression of all things irreverent, eclectic and erotic as much Brussels, but that is, indeed, admirable—at least it isn’t being dishonest, something detestable in cities as much as in people.
- Starting January 2019, the only direct flight to Brussels from India (Brussels–Mumbai) will cease operations, but there are plenty of one-stops. I took an Emirates flight (approx. `35,000 one way), with a two-hour layover at Dubai.
- For local travel, go for a Brussels Card, which allows free entry to 40 museums, unlimited public transportation, and information guides and maps. It even has discounts on tourist attractions, guided tours, shopping, restaurants, bars and clubs. Starts at ¤26 per person for 24 hours. See visit.brussels.
WHERE TO STAY
- Hotel Amigo (Rue de ’Almigo street; from approx. ¤233 a night; roccoforehotels.com) is walking distance from tourist attractions such as Grand Palace, Manneken Pis, the Tintin wall and others in the main tourist hub. I camped here for four nights in a cosy Classic King Room.
- A palatial hotel in Brussels, Steigenberger Wiltcher’s (from approx. ¤181; steigenberger.com), is close to Avenue Louise.
- A good budget option is Hotel BLOOM! (from approx. ¤120; nh-hotels.com) with over 300 rooms.
WHAT TO EAT
- Although called French fries, they were invented in Belgium. Sacha told me how the French-speaking Belgians introduced ‘les frites’ to WWI American soldiers, who began calling them French fries. Brussels residents often recommend places such as Maison Antoine (maisonantoine. be) and Frit Flagey (Place Eugène Flagey, 1050 Ixelles).
- Waffles too, Sacha told me, have a centuries-old Belgian origin. He took me to Maison Dandoy (maisondandoy.com) for the original liege waffles and Brussels waffles, the best I have ever had.
- I also enjoyed a host of unforgettable meals:
- Restobieres (restobieres.eu), run by Alain Fayt and his daughters, known for its typically Belgian food, meat specialities and refreshing homebrewed beers.
- Chez Léon (chezleon.be/en), incredibly popular and home to some of the best mussels I have ever eaten for only ¤16.65.
- Gramm is a fine-dining space known for its experimental French-Japanese food. Specialising in exotic ingredients and interesting pairings, it is expensive (¤55 per person without the pairings).
- La Taverne du Passage is at Galeries Royales Saint- Hubert. The beef stew is highly recommended.
- Hotel Amigo’s Ristorante Bocconi is an Italian restaurant. The traditional lasagne is to die for.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
- Why not do a tavern trail? Brussels boasts plenty of historical taverns such as Le Becasse (1877) and Le Cirio (1886)—all walking distance from Hotel Amigo. >Delirium Café, another iconic bar offers over 2,000 beers and 500 Dutch gins. Really.
- Nos Pilifs Farm is a great place for a relaxed, offbeat experience. It hires disabled people to work in organic gardens, an organic store and animal farms (including some fine stallions).
- Street performances, especially dancers and accordion players, can pop up anywhere in Brussels, mostly along the touristy municipality of 1000 Brussels. Keep your eyes and ears peeled.
- If you haven’t had enough of museums, the Coundenberg Palace and the BELVue are both great. The former includes the underground remnants of Roman Emperor Charles V’s palace, while the latter focusses on the history of Belgium.
- Visit Laurent Gerbaud’s chocolate shop for his chocolate-making workshop on Saturday morning from 11.30am to 1pm.