A Blog by International Students at Leiden University

Urinating Statues and European Politicians – A Trip to Brussels

I’ve been hearing the siren call of Brussels for quite some time now. As a student of international relations and international law, the impact of events in the Belgian capital in these fields is difficult to ignore. And the jobs market tends to reflect this influence, with think-tanks, public relations agencies, NGO headquarters and all sorts of other groups clinging to the tailcoats of the juggernaut of European integration. So naturally, I’ve been keeping my eye on Brussels, and the opportunities available there. As more and more of my friends and acquaintances have made the pilgrimage to the Schuman district (where you can’t move for EU institutions, lobbyists and, at the moment, terrible road works), the lure of a job in Brussels, where the bright young things work hard and play harder, has increased exponentially.

A direct consequence of this is that I have spent a fair bit of time in Brussels this year. I made a few trips before Christmas, as part of the last stage of the recruitment process for graduate entry to the Institutions, and just recently have been back for yet more fact-finding missions and meetings. And now, I find myself again, jammed into a corner seat on the international train, assessing my latest visit. Don’t get me wrong, I like these trips. With the rail discount and the sense to book in advance, the journeys aren’t even overly expensive (I paid 44 EUR for a return from, and its cheaper still if you’re doing a day return).

The 22 EUR fare gets you a seat on the one that just rolled in from the 1970s…
The lurid pink Thalys is accessible only if you’ve recently won the lottery.

And there is the added advantage that each trip is accompanied by numerous opportunities to gorge on mitraillette, a famed Brussels meal that is by no means a delicacy, but is by all means a must-try. Unless you’re a vegetarian – it’s basically a cow in a baguette, with a couple of onions and a tonne of chips thrown in to balance the meal out a little bit. The force of the meal can be seen in the name – mitraillette means sub-machine gun! Add to that the chance to look around one of Europe’s most important cities, and the 3 hour train journey is more than worthwhile.

So, having finished the testing, and topped up my energy levels with mitraillette and Belgian hot chocolate, I head off to do a little bit of exploring. Looking at the map, I decide that for the purposes of starting some sight-seeing, X marks the spot. The X in this case? The huge headquarters of the European Commission, the Berlaymont:

The banners down the side currently read ‘Towards a stronger economic governance’ – Catchy, huh?

Surrounding the Berlaymont, avenues extend into the distance, each housing various bodies of EU governance. Around the corner is the Jubelpark, created for the 50th anniversary of Belgian independence. Exhibition rooms and galleries line the corners of the park, where the steady lunchtime stream of joggers from the nearby offices casually ignore the ‘No Jogging’ signs at each entrance. Aside from the massive Brandenburg-style arches, it’s not a particularly impressive place, with muddy paths and small threadbare patches of grass sprouting occassionally from the trodden clay, but it does provide some respite from the greyness of the district…

Wondering if I would ever find a quaint and pretty area of Brussels, I follow signs for the city centre, and the Grand Place. After a thirty minute walk, during which the office blocks got more ugly, the roadworks became more frequent, and the street signs appear, confusingly, in Dutch at one intersection and in French at the next, I stumble into what looks like the entrance to yet another shabby old arcade, where the owners of quiet, dusty coffee shops guard their territories from behind huge francophone broadsheets, scowling unpleasantly if they are disturbed, even by customers. But no, this time it’s different. The dark entrance behind me, the arcade is buzzing.

Initially quiet, this Galerie, or arcade, soon got interesting.

Shiny and colourful designer products line the windows, people pop in and out of boutiques with small highly-crafted bags containing very expensive trinkets, from bepoke jewellery to golden fountain pens. Further on, this luxury takes on a distinctly Belgian form, with exquisite chocolate creations practically spilling out of the tiny shops of the arcade. Next, Tintin makes his appearance, in the form of row upon row upon row of vintage Herge comic books. And in order to complete the troika of stereotypes, the little Manneken Pis has his own store, where reproductions of the famous peeing statute are available to buy in the form of shampoo bottles, olive oil containers, and even wine decanters!

Personally, I don’t see the appeal…

The view from the exit of the arcade confirms I’ve arrived at my destination, the Grand Place. Accessed by various narrow alleyways, the square seems to be the tourist centre of Brussels. There’s an extraordinary amount of gold leaf present on the facades of the collection of guildhalls that make up this UNESCO-listed attraction.

Gold-Gilted Guildhall on the Grand Place

At ground level, it’s effectively chocolate-fest, which might explain why in 2010 it was voted the best square in Europe, but if you can avoid the lure of the dark sweet stuff, and look up, the detail and craftsmanship of the buildings is simply stunning. Just don’t keep looking up for too long or you’ll find yourself either getting trampled by a tourist stampede, or falling headlong to the ground after tripping on the medieval (and therefore legitimately uneven) cobbles. Trust me, I’ve been there. On the ground in the Grand Place, that is!

The town hall was the only surviving structure after French bombardment in the 17th Century. Surprising, given that it was the main reason the square was attacked…

The little brush with the cobblestones aside, this has been a pretty decent visit. I’ve gorged on chocolate, frites, beef and decent coffee, and of course, enjoyed some waffels. I’ve seen a lot of Brussels (saving some areas, like the museum quarter, for the next time) from the shabby to the chic, and sampled the stagiaire (EC interns) nightlife. And as an added bonus, the trains even ran according to schedule this time!

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This entry was posted on May 5, 2012 by in Laurence, Travel.

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