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Brussels, a city of medieval castles and palaces

By Vision Reporter

Added 21st May 2004 03:00 AM

I ALWAYS fancy staying longer or even overstaying my welcome, if that’s what it takes, to develop an intimacy with the places I visit

I ALWAYS fancy staying longer or even overstaying my welcome, if that’s what it takes, to develop an intimacy with the places I visit

By Raphael Okello

I ALWAYS fancy staying longer or even overstaying my welcome, if that’s what it takes, to develop an intimacy with the places I visit, no matter how far or how remote they may be. But my recent visit to Brussels, Europe’s capital city, was like a dream, a sweet dream from which I woke before realising that it wasn’t actually a dream, but just felt like one!

There were the rich and middle class jostling in the busy market streets and squares where beggars asked for a cent. Majestic pillars of gothic cathedrals, ancient buildings and palaces jutting in Brussels’ skyline, cars and trams criss-crossing on the same passage ways, pastry shops, terraced restaurants and cafes letting off sugary scents, chestnut trees lined on prestigious avenues leading to fountains gracefully pouring in the green city gardens and squares, then everything was gone. I was back in Uganda!

Today, a week after my travels, I reminisce about Brussels. I find my recollections quite alluring. So I close my eyes and again I take myself back to sweet cold Brussels. Her beauty is there to inspire. It is a cold and windy evening at the Market Place (Grote Markt). Temperatures are about 10 degrees centigrade. The 12 of us, who have travelled from Uganda on a familiarisation tour courtesy of SN Brussels, are shivering like weather beaten birds.

But Eric Deville, the external relations manager, SN Brussels, is gloating about how this is Belgium’s warm and sunny season! He makes me feel privileged to come from a country where the sun tries to melt your brain all year round.

The Grote Markt, a cobbled courtyard surrounded by some of Belgium’s oldest and artistic buildings constructed in the 14th and 15th centuries, is filled with curious tourists taking pictures. Their heads are constantly in an upward gaze, marvelling at the sublime medieval architectural delight. Cheerful school children eating ice cream, chocolates or sweets gather in small groups or stroll through jewellery and pastry shops, boutiques, restaurants and cafes found in the corridors leading away from the courtyard.

They joyfully play with clowns who keep teasing them. The most captivating shopping area is the Kings and Queens gallery, one of Brussels’ first shopping malls built in 1847. The corridor of this glass-dome-shaped mall takes me through stylish boutiques, amazing galleries, tasteful pastry outlets, awesome antique and jewellery shops glittering with the seductive beauty of frosty diamonds, gold and astonishing pearls. The Market Place is truly “the heart of Brussels.” I can easily understand why it is popularly referred to as the ‘World Jewel’ and the ideal place to start your tour of Brussels. The splendid square’s fashionable terraced guild houses have their respective histories artistically recounted by symbolic huge human sculptures that add to the beauty of their ancient facades. The 17th century Golden Tree, was home to Belgium’s aboriginal brewers and 13th century king’s House, never really used by the king, was for bakers and 13th century L’Etolie (the Star) is the smallest and one of the oldest houses in the Grand Place. It was the resident of the chief justice in the 14th century. There are over 40 historic buildings in the Grand Place, but it is the Town Hall, that is the most remarkable Belgian ancient monument and one of the most beautiful representations of Belgium’s Gothic architecture because it maintains its original medieval façade. It is here that every Belgian wants to wed. “Even the two sons of the King got married here,” says our guide, a mature respectable lady who eloquently spoke of Brussels, its beauty, history, people and culture, while on the Informative City Tour.

This magnificent setting is a favourite venue for many Belgium festivities like the colourful flower market held every Sunday morning. This Tuesday evening, however, it bustles with the contentment of tourists and locals carrying on gastronomic transactions in cafes, taverns, wine bars and chic restaurants below the historic buildings.

We choose to have dinner in Ilot Sacre, a very popular gastronomic district area packed with restaurants serving Belgian and international cuisine. Rabbit cooked with prunes, bread with white cheese, chicken, Seafood and many others. The choice is for the client to make although smartly dressed chefs, standing by warm terraces with impressively laid out food tables, will try to convince you in French or Dutch that their dish is the best.

We end up in a restaurant recommended by a Belgian friend and find a rowdy gang of Asian clients raucously laughing at every thing the other says! I guess I have been wrong to imagine that Asians aren’t particularly a humorous tribe. We are served with a five-course meal, but most of the dishes taste novel. For a group of about 15 people, I have been told that approximately sh1.4m is to be paid.

Now, Belgium is not particularly a cheap place, is it?
It only gets dark towards 10:00pm! The streets are relatively deserted yet the neon lights in the corridors and bright city lights give Brussels another seductive outlook. A couple is kissing by the roadside. Teenage girls sashay past a couple of boys spinning on roller-skates. I fancy a night adventure and itch to juxtapose Uganda and Belgium nights. The desire to feel the night pulse is tempting me to get my Ugandan groove down in Brussels. While the rest went to sleep, three of us board trams to a discothèque that a Ugandan DJ, on cheeyo, has told us is happening.

It’s closed. The night is freezing and empty with life. We end up in a tiny Congolese bar with nostalgic Congolese listening to music from their troubled African homeland. One of them with a disposable camera is continuously taking pictures of anyone he faces! The crowd is small, black, noisy and hyperactive. At one moment, two men get to the edge of a fight.

They are intercepted. I can barely keep my eyes open. I take a hot cup of tea to heat up. It has been a disappointing night, but I am sure Belgium’s vibrant nightlife went in hiding! Perhaps it was a wrong day or season altogether. I sleep off on the way to the hotel. But I think we just drove past Belgium’s Red Light district, where barely dressed prostitutes were seducing men from behind dimly lit glass outlets. My eyes are too heavy with sleep. I focus on my morning flight back home. On the flight back, a plane flies past white clouds gently sailing above the Swiss Alps whose jugged peaks are covered in a blanket of snow. I wish it safely lands over them for me to touch. I chuckle at the fancy and I smile when I recall my night exploits. My heart is filled with gladness knowing that if ever I want to go to Brussels, I just have to get into my mind.

The writer travelled courtesy of SN Brussels

Brussels, a city of medieval castles and palaces

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