Brussels is a rich mix of old world grandeur and new-age cosmopolitanism. It has interesting neighbours too
On reaching the platform, after climbing the steep 226 steps, all we could see was a vast expanse of green with buildings dotting the distant landscape. It was serene and calm. Above us, the Butte de Lion, 4.45 metres high, towered, looking towards France, marking the spot where the Prince of Orange was injured in one of the most famous battles of history, Waterloo – both a place and a concept. It is a small town,about 13 km from Brussels.
Waterloo offers a picturesque view from atop the Lion Mound, as also a panorama painting of the historic battle, 110 metre in circumference. Accompanied by the sound of canon fire, we searched in vain for Napoleon in the painting, but were unsuccessful. Waterloo was the last stop of our journey on the way to the airport.
Why did I begin from the time the journey ended? Maybe because when there is barely a day to explore Brussels, recalling the city and its joys is simpler in reverse order.
Brussels is the heart of Europe. A city that embodies the future of Europe as host to the European Union, it also holds some of the most historic and breathtaking monuments of old Europe. Driving through the city, the oscillation between the new and old is frequent.
The Grand Place, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the soul of Brussels. A walk is imperative after sunset.
Beautiful buildings dating back to the 13th century surround a cobbled square 220x360 ft. Most of the buildings are erstwhile Guild houses.
The Brussels City Hall, built in the 15th century, leaps to meet the sky, reaching a height of 96 metres. Capped by a statue of Saint Michael slaying a demon, it is the most impressive structure around the square. Sit on the steps of one of the buildings and watch life flower in the square. People eat, drink, paint, recline and dream sprawled across the square. A sense of the eternal floats around. The grandeur of the buildings is surreal; however, the square pulsates with life. It is a magical place, to be enjoyed holding the hand of someone you love.
Around the square, lanes lead to food courts, shops and movie halls.
Cuisines of the world are on offer in small restaurants that spill over to the pavements. The ambience is relaxed and casual. A left turn from the City Hall down a lane leads to a small bronze sculpture of a naked boy urinating into the fountain’s basin. This is the Manniken Pis, Brussels’ icon. Designed by Jerome Duquesnoy it was installed in the early 17th century. Many legends and stories float around the sculpture, and it makes one wonder why it has achieved such an iconic stature.
Before giving in to the timelessness of the Grand Place, make a dash to the Atomium. Built in 1958, it remains in design a futuristic building even today. It is 102-metres tall, with nine steel spheres connected in a manner that replicates in a magnified form the shape of a unit cell of an iron crystal. Five of the spheres are exhibition spaces open to public. It is brightly lit up at night. A walk around the amazing structure is awe-inspiring.
During the day, if time permits, drive down to Antwerp. It is a historic and beautiful city and a hub of the world’s diamond trade. Traditionally dominated by the Jewish community, Indians are now major players. The main diamond street is small, and window-shopping is a delight for the dazzling diamonds on display.
The Diamond Museum tells the story of diamonds from when they are mined to the point they become irresistible. The Railway Station is the most beautiful building in Antwerp. Completed in 1905, it is a mesmerising stone building with a vast dome over a waiting hall, with a gilt-and-marble interior. It seems like a palace from the outside, and it is strange to discover that it is actually a train station.
On the way back from Antwerp we drove to a beautiful park called Parc Marie-Jose in Brussels. In a corner sits a tranquil statue of Mahatma Gandhi with papers spread out before him. Surrounded by trees, the installation in such a faraway place inspired a sense of pride.
That is all I could capture of Brussels on a brief visit, but it is a city that captures the heart. With French and Dutch languages locked in a supremacy battle, delectable Belgian chocolates, sumptuous Belgian fries and intricate lacework, Brussels sits on the cusp of modernity with the romance of bygone eras all meshed together in an enchanting manner.