Photo - INTERPIXELS/Shutterstock.com
Every two years Brussels lays out a dazzling tapestry of flowers in the Grand Place. Seeing it is just one of our list of top things to do in Brussels.
See a carpet of flowers
For a few days every two years the Grand Place, which is the heart of medieval Brussels, is transformed. Hundreds of thousands of begonias, chosen for their cheery perseverance whether the weather is wet and cold or hot and sunny – as well as their incredible range of colours – are laid out in an intricate carpet. The carpet is a nod to the twin traditions of tapestry and horticulture in Belgium. In the past, the carpet has pictured 18th century French-style tapestry, geometric African-style patterns, and symbols and crests from Belgian history. What will this year’s carpet look like? All will be revealed on August 14.
The flower carpet is made up of 300 begonia flowers per square metre, up to 750,000 flowers all up. Photo - Andrjuss/Shutterstock.com
The 3 day flower carpet takes 100 gardeners 4 hours to construct. Photo - Borna_Mirahmadian/Shutterstock.com
Of course, but which waffle? The regional variations would fill a patisserie window, yet the one that wouldn’t appear is the so-called Belgian waffle. That’s an American phenomenon, introduced in the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Its creator was riffing on the classic Brussels waffle and, not trusting his American customers to understand that Brussels was the capital of Belgium, called it a Bel-Gem, which soon became Belgian. The true Brussels waffle is a different thing all together. Where the Belgian waffle is soft, dense and large, the Brussels waffle has a crisp exterior and a soft light interior. It’s also smaller, and always rectangular.
There are stands selling waffles all through central Brussels, especially around the city’s mascot, the mannekin pis. The statue of the little boy peeing that has become synonymous with Brussels is set high on a corner wall in a little alcove. He’s not much bigger than the chocolate version of himself for sale in the souvenir shops around the corner. Have a look, if only to have a giggle at the shameless marketing in the shops that surround him, but save your waffle indulgence for Mokafe in the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. This beautiful arcade with its domed glass ceiling and richly decorated interior was one of the world’s first shopping malls. Take a seat at a marble-topped table, and order your waffles, which are freshly made and served warm. Tradition has them dusted only with icing sugar, but when strawberries are in season it’s hard to resist the sweet soft berries and a cloud of whipped cream.
Belgium seems to be particularly famous for souvenirs you carry home on your hips! Waffles, beer, hot chips and chocolate. Two of the big chocolate names in Brussels, Neuhas and Godiva, both have boutiques in the Galeries Royale close to Mokafe. More fun is to explore some of the smaller artisan chocolate makers off the Grand Place. In most of these chocolatiers you can buy as few as two pralines, so there’s opportunity to find a maker who suits your palate: spiced gingerbread, salted caramel, marzipan and orange, chilli and pink peppercorn….
Pick your waffle! Photo - Raisa Kanareva/Shutterstock.com
See the Botanic Gardens
The National Botanic Garden of Belgium moved house in 1939, to the estate that was the medieval domain of Bouchot. It’s dominated by the moated Bouchot Castle, where Charlotte, sister to King Leopold II, and widow of Emperor Maximilian 1 of Mexico lived out her days. It’s easy to while away a day enjoying the history and horticulture in these expansive gardens. A third of the world’s hydrangea species grow here, as do nearly half of all the maple species, a great old collection of tree peonies, and the first double dahlia, which was bred in these gardens. The giant waterlily Victoria Amazonica first flowered on the continent in the Balat Greenhouse, one of a series of fascinating greenhouses in the gardens. There are fine walks through the park and around the lake, and there’s a great selection of Belgian beers in the café!
Old city lanterns are decorated with flowers around the Grand Place. Photo - skyfish/Shutterstock.com
Read some letters
The handsome 19th century arcade Galerie de Roi is home to an unusual and charming museum, the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts. In our over-rushed digital world, letters are a rarity, and you feel the loss when you see these fascinating notes from history. Some highlights from the collection: Casanova’s crabbed and scratchy agreement to inform on ‘moral infringers’, addressed to his inquisitors in 1780; and a poignant note from Louis XVI advising where his salary should be deposited while he is imprisoned in the Tuileries. As intriguing as the content is the form. A letter reveals glimpses of personality in handwriting, paper choice and doodle quality. Robespierre writes in a girlishly ornate script. The handwriting of the architect of The Terror seems only to be missing hearts over the iiis and a smiley face after the signature! Hemingway shows a more typically masculine style. He writes from Cuba on a typewriter whose full stop key he hits so hard the thin page seems to have been riddled with bullet holes.
A sixth thing to do in Brussels - the beautiful gardens of Mont des Arts or Kunstberg, a historic site in the centre of the city and a picture perfect example of urban renewal. Photo - Anibal Trejo/Shutterstock.com
Text: Robin Powell