Brussels – where art and beer flow endlessly

Brussels was our first stop on our Belgium beercation. Steve visited Belgium years ago and we had been looking forward to doing Belgium together for a while now and we were so kicked to finally visit Belgium over the Christmas holidays last year.

My first impression of Brussels, just seeing what was in plain sight, was like.. Whoa, wait, why do some of the buildings look so rundown and covered with soot!? Why do the metros and the metro stations look so ancient? Why is that guy peeing in the street, that too in the centre of the town!? [And, no, I don’t refer to the infamous statue of the little boy peeing]. It took me a while to warm up to Brussels and appreciate the city for what it is. The beer (uh… beers) helped. Brussels has tons of breweries, brew-pubs, bars, beer stores — there’s just loads of good beer everywhere. In Belgium, beer is not just a drink, it is a culture.. and, it has sacred origins!

[More on our beer pilgrimage in Belgium coming soon in a separate post but here’s a peek!]

DSC_0974 (2).JPG
Best place in town to get some of the best Belgian ales on tap

There’s a lot to do in Brussels. A good place to start is definitely the city’s main square – la Grand Place (French) or de Grote Markt (Dutch). Yep, they have two names for everything including street names. And this can get confusing and you’ll wonder if it’s two different places as they are usually totally different. The city is bilingual and both French and Dutch are official languages. French though is the dominant language and you will hear it everywhere. It’s interesting to note that the city’s origins were that of Dutch and it has been more of a French speaking nation only since the 19th century (the French revolution of course).

img_5636
De Grote Markt / la Grand Place / City Centre

The Grand Place was packed with lots of people, every time we passed thru. This picture was taken at 2 AM. Well, it was Christmas time and there were tons of tourists, like us. And, through the evening, they had this light and music show happening which had the crowd flocked to it like bees. The light show was alright, a bit too bright and way too colorful for our liking. And the music, well, may be some Belgian folk music or Christmas carols or anything other than electronica might have made the whole experience (being in a historic city, watching a light show on historic buildings etc.) more relatable.

The Grand Place is surrounded by ornate guildhalls, the Stadthuis (the Town Hall), and the Broodhuis (Breadhouse or the Museum of the city of Brussels). Most of these buildings including the town hall date back to the 15th century although the Grand Place itself dates back to early 12th century. The buildings here an architectural delight with their gothic and baroque styles. The ornamental guildhalls are especially remarkable and at night, even more so with a beautiful glow. There’s always something or the other happening at the Grand Place. It seems like the bi-annual flower carpet show that takes place in the Grand Place is one of their most popular events.

img_5863-2
Some of the ornate buildings at the Grand Place
img_5859-2
The Stadthuis (the town hall)

Just a few blocks away from the Grand Place is the infamous Manneken Pis (translates to Little Man Pee), popularly known as Peeing Boy. This small bronze sculpture of the naked peeing boy is a huge deal in Brussels and is a national symbol.

img_5872-2
Brussels’ oldest citizen

He is apparently seen in a variety of outfits from Santa suits to Elvis Presley to Tibetan monks to national costumes of other countries. What amused us the most though was that for some special occasions, he would be hooked up to beer kegs and you can have a sip of Belgian’s famous brews from his truly. 😀 There are many stories around the origins of the statue – check these out here. And, the boy has a sister and a dog doing exactly what he seems to enjoy doing. We didn’t check out the Jeanneke Pis and Zinneke Pis – decided to save some of this amusement for another trip to Brussels.

Brussels as well had a Christmas Market, just a few meters away from the Grand Place – nothing nearly as beautiful and festive as the German Christmas Markets but nice nonetheless.

img_5631

They had a whole bunch of stalls selling handcrafted wares, woolen wear, Glühwein, and local Belgian food (loads of waffles and fries of course). And, surprisingly also had stalls selling other cuisines like Mediterranean, Turkish, and Asian. Definitely catering to the multi-cultural city that Brussels is. What we liked more about the Brussels and the other Belgian Christmas markets we saw were the beer stalls – we were especially thrilled to see a craft beer stall with a great collection of craft beers and some of the traditional Belgian beers.

The best way to discover Brussels is to just walk around the city. You will see sections with historic buildings and sections with high-rise offices. It’s a big city that looks so different at almost every turn in the road. AND, it has some super cool comic strip murals on a lot of its walls.  The Comic Strip Route features over 50 paintings and is such a unique, fun way to discover Brussels. Check out this link for a map of the spots to hit.

Belgium is not just known for its beer, chocolates, waffles and fries. It’s also revered around the world for being the pioneers in the world of comics. Some of the world’s most beloved comics Herge’s Tintin and Peyo’s Smurfs have hailed from this beautiful country.

Our next stop was the Comic Book Museum. The museum features a permanent exhibition on the history and the making of comics. And of course there is  separate section reserved for Belgium’s much-loved hero Tintin. Not only does the museum feature a whole bunch of Belgian comics but also comics in other languages. You can also read some of these comics in the museum’s reading room. And if you cannot read them all, there are numerous comic book stores throughout Brussels and other parts of Belgium. We bought a bunch in Brussels and a few more in Bruges (the ‘De Striep’ store in Bruges has a great collection of comics including in English).

Brussels has quite a few lovely churches but we had time to visit just the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. This gothic cathedral’s history is believed to date back to as early as the 9th century.

img_5852
Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula

We spent most of our time in Brussels just walking around, enjoying the street art and the wonderful street music, hopping from one beer bar to another, indulging in the local delicacies, and picking a few comic books along the way.

dsc_0966
These guys got the crowd grooving to their music instantly – streets in Brussels are such fun!

Brussels is lively, quirky, medieval yet hip, run-down yet rich with history …  And, most impressively, standing tall and strong despite all the tough times the city has had to endure in the recent past. In the end, I fell in love with all of its uniqueness and rich culture and will surely go back for more.

Prague – an old-world charm

Prague is this dreamy, old-ish, culturally-rich, architectural wonder of a city that you’d ache to go back to for more…

DSC_0044.JPG

We visited Prague during Easter and the city was beautifully decorated, especially the city centre or Old Town Square where they had the Easter markets. Majority of the stalls were filled with gorgeous Easter eggs (with unbelievably intricate designs) and other exceptionally handcrafted decorative items. Some stalls also sold some mouth-watering local delicacies. Traditional song and dance shows were also part of the festivities.

dsc_0098.jpg
Trdelnik – a local pastry – grilled and tossed in some cinnamon sugar
DSC_0205
The bustling Prague Old Town Square

The Old Town Square is the heart of Prague. The church you see in the background with its twin distinctive Gothic spires is the Church of Our Lady Before Týn. Prague is filled with churches and lovely, old buildings that are all adorned with some or the other piece of art.

DSC_0212 (3).JPG

You’ll see horse-drawn carriages and vintage cars lined up to take you around the city.

DSC_0036

The square is also filled with lovely restaurants serving local beer and food. Prague is known for its beer and you’ll find loads of good beer everywhere…

DSC_0051 (2)
Where are my hoppy ales!?

We craved for ales in a city known for its pils and lagers. But, like they say, ask and you shall receive.. we did some quick research and found a neat little place which was swarming with hopheads like us. The Prague Beer Museum has some really good ales and some very unique lagers. Prague made us very happy that evening. Through the Old Town, you will also find little cafes or bars playing live music – we especially enjoyed the blues scene the city had to offer. We visited Jazz Republic – a cosy live music club where the Alice Springs Blues Quartet was playing that evening. These guys put on a great show – this is one of our cherished moments from our trip.

The Square also features the renowned Astronomical Clock which is part of the Old Town Hall. Every hour, crowds gather to watch the clock in action. The four figures beside the clock represent Vanity (with the mirror), Greed (with his money bag), Death (the skeleton), and Pagan Invasion (represented by a Turk). On the hour, Death rings a bell and inverts his hourglass and the twelve apostles parade past the windows above the clock. It’s a pretty sight. Not as beautiful a parade put up by as the Munich Glockenspiel but still a good one to stop for.

IMG_3001 (2)

We spent a lot of the day just walking around the old town area exploring the hidden alleys which were filled with little treasures.

Prague pics
In a store window

DSC_0057.JPG

Another hugely famous landmark in Prague is the Charles Bridge – definitely worth a visit despite the insane crowds.

IMG_3124 (2)

If you are determined to see the full bridge in its true splendor instead of a crammed bridge with hundreds of people, you should muster the will to stay up thru the night or rise and shine in the wee hours to catch the breath-taking view at dawn. Well, laziness and sleep got the better of us and we went to see the bridge at dusk. It was packed with hundreds of visitors and locals just using the bridge to cross over from the Old Town to the Mala Strana. It was a beautiful sight nonetheless.

dsc_02371.jpg
The bridge was filled with caricature artists and folks selling junk jewellery

The views from both sides of the bridge are absolutely gorgeous! You get a wonderful view of the Prague Castle and the St. Vitus’ Cathedral which is the most popular side of the bridge while the other side presents a pretty picture of the city in the backdrop of the Vltava river.

IMG_3248
View of the Prague castle district from the Charles Bridge

The best way to experience the beauty of this charming city is to do a boat tour sipping on some delicious chilled beer.

The next day, we visited the St. Vitus Cathedral . The cathedral is in the Prague Castle area (or Pražský Hrad). It is magnificent, both on the inside and outside. The stained glass windows have wonderfully depicted scenes with a beautiful fusion of colors. The walls on the inside of the Cathedral as well showcase intricate paintings from a bygone era.

img_3062

img_3005-2

 The Prague Castle area also features the Golden Lane – a wonderful little street filled with modest, little houses that used to be inhabited by the workers at the castle – goldsmiths, blacksmiths etc. One of the houses has been converted into a little museum of sorts displaying ancient torture tools.

img_3052
The Rack – no escaping this mean machine
DSC_0491
If you can’t get them with a bullet, slice them.

One of the houses in the Golden Lane was briefly occupied by Franz Kafka, a well-known German writer born into a German-speaking Jewish family in Prague. The city views from all around the castle area are simply beautiful and it was a day well-spent and definitely worth the steep climb.

Prague pics
At the Jewish Quarter

Our next stop was the Prague Jewish Town. A visit to the Old Jewish Cemetery leaves you feeling melancholic especially when you see the graves of the little ones.

dsc_0151

The cemetery is piled with 12000 tombstones, most buried on top of one another due to the lack of space.

img_3191
The Spanish Synagogue

The Prague Jewish Quarter also has a bunch of beautiful synagogues – the notable ones are the Spanish Synagogue with a remarkable interior design and the Pinkas Synagogue which was turned into a memorial to the ~80,000 victims of the Shoah (or Holocaust). The names of all these victims are inscribed on the walls of the synagogue. The synagogue also has a permanent exhibition of pictures drawn by the children in the concentration camp. Some of these pictures will make you smile but some of these will also make you cry thinking of the shattered dreams and tortured lives of these young children.

Prague is an amazing city that is wondrously rich with history and culture – you simply cannot stop exploring all that the city has to offer. We left knowing that we will surely go back someday to soak in more of this incredible place.