Two of my friends and I had a hard time deciding where we wanted to meet up before they flew to Antibes with me. We talked about Lisbon, Prague, Vienna, Geneva, Copenhagen…there are just so many places we wanted to see! Eventually decided on Brussels. It didn’t take long for any of us to get there, so we didn’t have to dedicate a full day to traveling, and we found a reasonably priced place to stay in a good location.
The night we arrived we decided to eat dinner at a burger place that had been recommended to me by a local. The prices weren’t bad, and the wait wasn’t too long, and they had vegetarian options for my vegetarian friend 🙂 I ordered a portobello burger that was unfortunately much smaller than I expected, but both of my friends’ meals were decent sizes. We ordered a couple sides of fries, as well, which were absolutely delicious! If you’re ever craving french fries, Brussels is the place to be: they have at least as many fries places as they do chocolate stores (which is a lot). Due to the small size of my burger, I was still a bit hungry after finishing my meal, so I took a chance and ordered a chocolate milkshake. After one disappointing experience with a milkshake in France, I’d been wary to order another while I was in Europe, but I thought at an American-style burger restaurant, maybe their milkshakes would be like they are back home. They weren’t. Just don’t order a milkshake in Europe. There’s no ice cream, it’s all liquid-y. My chocolate milkshake was just creamy chocolate milk.
The next day we visited the Manneken Pis, a statue of a little boy peeing. Statues like this used to be all over the city, because they told the poor where they could sell their urine to leather workers. Today this is the only one left, so, as you may imagine, it’s quite the tourist attraction. There are Manneken Pis t-shirts, bottle openers, mugs, key chains…everything, basically.
As we continued down the block, we passed FOUR chocolate stores, including Godiva and Neuhaus. I think Brussels may have more chocolate stores than Seattle has coffee shops, it’s crazy! My friends and I continued on to Grand Place, Brussels’ central square. The city was busy setting up for a jazz festival (sadly it started hours after our flight would be leaving for Antibes), so there was a large stage in the center of the square. The square includes the town hall, a museum about the city’s history, a building called the Breadhouse, and guild halls.
Unfortunately most of the guild halls were covered for restoration, but we could see one that now houses a beer museum.
We went into the museum to learn a little about where we were. The best part was the miniature models of the city of Brussels in different centuries, because not only was it interesting to see how the city has developed, but it also gave me a better sense of how the city is laid out and how the different places I wanted to visit are connected.
The next day I headed out early on my own and ended up spending most of the day by myself, because unfortunately my friends and I all got mixed up about where we were supposed to meet for lunch. I’d planned on heading straight to the Musical Instruments Museum, but decided to walk there in case I came across anything else I wanted to check out. I’m SO glad I did, because I stumbled across the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts! It was in building called the Galeries Royal Saint-Hubert. I’d seen it on a postcard in our hostel and thought it looked neat, but I’d had no idea where it was or what was inside. Taking a quick peak, I saw mostly chocolate stores and other places to shop. I thought about turning around but decided to go a bit further to see if I could see the end of the Galeries, and a window of what I initially thought was a travel store caught my eye. When I went to check their hours on the door, I saw a sign that read, “Musée des lettres et des manuscrits.” The museum’s current temporary exhibition was called Around the World in 80 Letters, hence all the travel stuff I saw in the window.
I was literally freaking out while I was walking through the exhibit. The first thing I saw was a letter written by Jules Verne (to his father, describing Paris), followed by a sketchbook of Eugène Delacroix’s, and letters written by Claude Monet, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Antoine Saint-Exupéry. Later there were letters written by Ernest Hemingway, Paul Gaugin, and Jean Cocteau… I kept exclaiming (out loud) “Oooh my goodness,” and “Aaaah,” and “No way!” It was just so cool! Luckily there wasn’t anyone else looking through the exhibit with me until I was almost done.
Eugène Delacroix’s sketchbook.
A copy of On the Road that Jack Kerouac signed to a friend.
Interesting depiction of various human-like figures on a map toward the end of the exposition.
The exposition was organized by different regions people traveled to, and there was a guide the museum gave you that explained the context of each of the letters they were showing. It was only 5 francs, so I bought one on my way out. It’s neat because it has the descriptions in Dutch, French and English, so it’ll be good practice for me.
Next I went to the Bibliothèque Royale, because I saw a sign for free entrance into their “Librarium.” There were lots of old manuscripts, and a book of hours from the 13th century, and rooms of different personal libraries that have been donated to the Royal Library (including one that had a huge collection of Voltaire’s works bound in red leather with gold detailing), and a video about the future of books and libraires.
This is one of the world’s smallest books! I put my finger in the camera frame to try to give a sense of scale.
After visiting the Royal Library, I grabbed a quick lunch and then finally made it to the Musical Instruments Museum (MIM).
The outside of the MIM made me think of the Metro stops in Paris, because of its Art Nouveau style.
Everyone gets a free audio guide with their entrance ticket (only 2 francs for students!), so I was able to listen to the instruments displayed on the different floors: one for traditional music from around the world, one for western music, and one (the temporary exhibition) about Adolf Sax and the saxophone he invented. I hadn’t realized that the saxophone was considered a woodwind instrument (because despite being made almost entirely of brass, it’s a reed that produces the sound)!
I saw lots and lots of bagpipes (“cornemeuses” in French), which of course made me think of Carnegie Mellon.
This was Coleman Hawkin’s saxophone. There was also a saxophone that was more plastic than brass, which Charlie Parker preferred to play.
On my way back from the MIM, this was the view from the steps of the Bibliothèque Royale.
After the museum I headed to a chocolate place that a person I met in France recommended to me. He claimed it was the best chocolate in the world, and I was skeptical but of course willing to give it a try. In actuality, I think he may be right. I bought a couple boxes of chocolate for gifts and just one jasmine truffle for myself, and it blew my mind. Literally took one bite and went “Wow,” it was soooo yummy. For anyone who’s traveling to Belgium, the chocolatier is Frederic Blondeel, make sure you go there!
My friends and I also found the BEST record store while we were in Brussels. They had albums from every genre you can think of, and albums from artists of a variety of nationalities. When I saw the French and Belgian section I wished I knew more about the music in those areas so I could look for particular artists, but then I realized I did know one: Claude François. He and Isabelle, the wine journalist, were together for many years (up until his death). He was very successful in France; people described him to me as France’s Elvis. I bought an album of his with his most famous song, “Comme d’Habitude” (My Way in English), along with a Nat King Cole album my friend the jazz expert recommended to me. I just got my record player into my dorm today, so I can finally listen to them!