Belgium, a small country sandwiched between France and the Netherlands, has a unique character and a mix of French and Flemish culture. While it is small in size, it’s a highlight of many tourists – to be honest, it was not a highlight of mine because the country is overshadowed by its surrounding nations from France, the Netherlands, the UK, and Germany. I was on my way from Amsterdam to Paris, and it was until I explored Brussels as a detour of my route, I found out that I was actually wrong about Belgium.
Although my trip to Brussels brief, I had a taste of Belgium: From the “surprisingly small” Manneken pis statue to Belgian fine chocolate and waffles, French Fries (Yes! THIS worldwide dish was basically invented in Belgium), Antwerp diamonds, classical artists Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Van Eyck, Audrey Hepburn (Yes! She was born in Belgium!), the headquarters of the European Union and NATO… and now I have also learned about Tintin, and his adventures are the most valuable comic book in the world.
Now I know I would definitely want to come back for more. Brussels has a wide variety of heritage sites, parks, cinemas, and museums. Apart from Brussels, the capital city of Belgium, I have heard amazing things about the historic Bruges and modern Antwerp; Anyway, for the very first time, I walked the comic book route while I was visiting some fo the highlights in Brussels on foot.
The Comic Book Route
Yeah, Belgium plays a major role in the European comic scene and many well-known cartoonists were founded here, including Herge (The Adventures of Tintin), Peyo (The Smurfs), Franquin, Willy Vandersteen, Morris, Edgar P Jacobs, Marc Sleen (Nero), and more. These comic books have a distinct place in comic history and Belgium is still home to some of the most important European comics magazines and publishers. The city of Brussels celebrates its comic book heritage and pays tribute to various characters and authors by painting the comics on the walls all around the city center since the early 90s. Now, more and more new murals are painted and the comic book route is expanding. The paintings only made my walk through the city much more interesting and fulfilling; I admire the city’s effort to support their own comic culture and beautify the community with distinctive characters. For the complete (and long) list of artwork, you may visit the Brussels Comic Book Route website for the names and maps.
Some of the most famous comic works (Smurfs, Tintin, Nero, Spirou, or those I have seen and I loved), are:
Broussaille: Rue du Marché au Charbon (This is the very first comic strip mural in July 1991!)
Tintin: Rue de l’Etuve
Titeuf: Boulevard Emile Bockstael
Victor Sackville: Rue du Marché au Charbon
Le Scorpion: Treurenberg
Néron: Place Saint-Géry
Spirou: Rue Notre-Dame de Grâces
So, I had good coverage of a route to admire these comic murals, I filled my walk with some famous and iconic sites in between.
Grand Place – The most beautiful square in Europe
The square is not big, seriously. The place is hidden among buildings and alleys near the Bruxelles Central train station, I always failed to find it on the Google Map. Yet it is named the most beautiful square in Europe, and the most well-known and memorable landmark in Brussels. Victor Hugo called it “the loveliest square”, and Jean Cocteau called it “the rich theatre”.
The Grand Place is occupied on each side by a number of guild houses, in addition to a few private houses, like the Brussels Town Hall, King’s House, Houses of the Grand Place, the Corporation of Bakers, Greasers, Carpenters, Boatmen, and Haberdashers… and so on. Each of these buildings is extravagantly adorned with gold embellishments, intricate emboss, and large windows. It is also a great starting point since it’s so close to the train station, and a gathering point for many guided tours and experience.
Manneken Pis – Belgian’s sense of humor and independence of mind
Another symbol that is known to the world would probably be the Manneken Pis, the little pisser 😊. “Manneken” means “man” in Dutch, in fact, “een Menneke” means “little man” in a Brussels dialect; and now, “Manneken Waffles” is also the name for a popular Belgium waffler chain all over the world. The tiny bronze sculpture is merely 61cm tall, and like the Mona Lisa, the first reaction to most visitors who see the real work is “oh~ it small”. The statue embodies the Belgian’s sense of humor, and independence of mind. There are quite a few fables and legends about the origin of the statue, but I suppose the most memorable one was about “Petit Julien”, a Dutch boy who put out a lighting fuse which led to hidden gunpowder by peeing on it and saved the city from exploding at wars. The statue was stolen up to seven times, and the current “authentic” statue is safely-kept City museum of Brussels. The functioning statue that currently located on Rue du Chene is a replica.
Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula – the main cathedral of Belgium
The cathedral may not be as impressive as many other cathedrals in Europe, it is the largest in the city. The Roman Catholic church was completed in 1519 and it stood for the last 500 years. The cathedral is 114m tall and the south tower contains 49-bell carillon by the Royal Eijsbouts bell foundry. The northern and southern transepts have a stained-glass window by Jean Haeck from Antwerp made in 1537 after drawings by Bernard van Orley.
Mont des Arts – an urban complex in the center of Brussels
Behind the central train station of Brussels is the Mont des Arts – “Hill of the arts”. The modern art and historic complex is the center of Brussels, and it’s surrounded by important buildings such as the Royal Library of Belgium, the National Archives of Belgium, and the Square. The public garden in the center of the complex is the pathway that leads to the historic cluster of the old Brussels. Many historic buildings and monuments are scattered in the area.
Once I passed the Wervelend Oor, the monument, the Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg Church was the first thing I saw standing on the Brussels Place Royale. On the left of the Place Royale is the Royal Palace of Brussels and the Brussels Park. Brussels Park is the largest urban public park in the city center, and it was created early in the late 18th century. The park was beautifully designed in Neoclassical style and it’s filled with flower beds, historic statues, and fountains. The quiet environment was great for me to take a short break after walking in the city center for a day. The Royal Palace, on the other hand, started its construction around the same time with the park, but only officially completed until 1934. The palace is not the royal residence of the king’s family, it is rather like a venue of civil services, official visits, or other important events. The palace is also opened to the public while visitors may check out many of the building’s rooms.
On the right, through the Rue de la Regence, I stopped by at another important church, Eglise Notre Dame du Sablon, on my way to the end to the courthouse where I found the Monument a la Gloire de L’infanterie Belge. There I returned to the north side of the city center, in search of some good chocolate and waffles.
In Brussels, waffles are sold as a kind of street food and they are basically available everywhere around town. Personally, I love the classic Brussels waffle – the light yet chewy waffle tasted so great and comforting with melted cheese, butter, or syrup on top! For some incredible waffle experience, visit the acclaimed Maison Dandoy, which is located right next to the city Town Hall at the Grand Place.
From Godiva to Leonidas, Cote d’Or to Neuhaus, Belgium is an indulgence that even I tried to stop myself, I couldn’t say no to occasionally. It’s almost an insult if I didn’t buy any chocolates for my dear friends and families when they knew I was in Brussels! I was trying to avoid those worldwide retail brands (as they are basically available anywhere in the world… well yeah, maybe they taste better in Brussels, but I was looking for something different), and so I headed to Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, the Gallery is an upscale shoppe comprised of a line of historic buildings and an elegant glass ceiling. There you may find some nice designer stores and chocolatier, like Mary Chocolatier. But of course, Leonidas, Pierre Marcolini, and Neuhaus are there, too.
On the other end of the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, end your day of walk visiting the Nova Cinema. It is an art-house movie theatre with café bar and it’s opened in 1997. The theatre is opened supported by a non-profit organization and they featured classic cinema to the audience. It could be a special experience for those who enjoy old movies!