When my best friend was planning her stay in Paris during mid-January, she wanted to book a quick weekend trip outside of France.
I’m normally the head schemer when it comes to planning an itinerary, but after working last fall in the United States and coming back from a New Year’s trip to Budapest, my mind was exhausted.
It originally began with her wanting to go to Cologne, Germany. Selfishly, I wasn’t too keen on the destination for my first visit to Germany. Then she suggested a random small town in Germany. I countered back by suggesting Strasbourg, France…
By the time she finally decided on Brussels, Belgium *insert sigh of relief here*, the whole trip was very last minute.
With such a short trip, it was important to spend our time wisely. Cara booked a free walking tour of downtown Brussels with Sandeman’s New Europe tours—she has done several free walking tours where she has traveled and she said it was a great way to see a city.
So we went.
We were blessed to have Maggie as a guide for the 2.5 hour walking tour. The way Maggie lived, breathed and shared her passion for Brussels was contagious—it would have taken great effort to ignore her energy as she led the group.
There’s nothing I could possibly write about Brussels to remotely match Maggie’s knowledge and expression, but I do want to share some interesting tidbits of information that she had pointed out during the tour.
Brussels, as the capital in the middle of a culturally divided country, declares French and Dutch as the capital’s official languages. That’s why public signage is in both French and Dutch.
A number of legends surround Manneken pis, but no one actually knows how the little statue came about. The people of Brussels have embraced the mystery and can live with the fact that they may never know the origins. In the meantime, they will continue to employ a full-time tailor who dresses up Manneken pis according to a schedule of holidays.
The beautifully gilded buildings in the Grand Place are a blend of baroque and gothic architecture. However, the town hall is the only original building in the square that has not been entirely rebuilt after the Bombardment of 1695 made by French troops to seize Brussels.
Real Belgian fries are prepared with “beef tallow” (blanc de boeuf or animal fat (?)), not vegetable oil. If you want to find vegan fries, make your way to the golden arches of McDonald’s.
… Actually, I don’t remember if Maggie said anything about them specifically. But make sure that you try them.
It’s a universal truth that Belgian chocolate is good. It’s also affordable (at least in Belgium). However, with that being said, the brand of chocolate you give can send a pretty clear message.
There are higher quality brands that are more traditional—Mary, the first female chocolatier—or more modern—Pierre Marcolini—that are great gifts to make a generous gesture. Then, there are other brands that are average—Neuhaus—and then there are the ones that you give to someone because you need to give them a gift, but you don’t really want to and you don’t really want to spend the money…
As a tourist, it’s highly encouraged to purchase chocolate from a real Belgian chocolatier—yes, even from the lesser Belgian chocolate brands—because buying cheap chocolates from a souvenir shop is the equivalent of supporting unethical cocoa trade. Real Belgian chocolatiers take pride in knowing where their resources come from and are taking steps to implement more ethically responsible supply chains.
Belgium and the Congolese Genocide
I didn’t know what I was expecting to learn about Brussels or Belgium on this walking tour—the architecture, the food, the people—but I was not expecting such a frank examination of the country’s history.
In short, Belgium’s history as an affluent power is rooted in the consequences of brutal colonization. The second king of Belgium who reigned during the latter half of the 19th century, Leopold II, had privately owned what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The invention of the pneumatic tire gave Leopold II the opportunity to build rubber plantations all over the land. Leopold II amassed a great fortune for his country, but unbeknownst to the general public, meeting the high demand of rubber material was done at any consequence—villages were burned and people were amputated, tortured, or killed to pressure others to work harder.
The Congo became an independent country in 1960, but Belgium still debates how to acknowledge the truth about what had happened in the years of Leopold II. It is estimated that the Congolese genocide claimed over 10 million people. To put this statistic in perspective, the Holocaust took 8 million lives.
It could have been so easy to keep the walking tour lighthearted and have visitors think that Brussels is all fluffy waffles, crispy fries, and fine chocolate.
Maggie’s dedication to guiding visitors through the reality of Brussels and Belgium is what I hope to pass to others when they ask me what cities they should visit in Europe. It is my wish that more people become more curious to find the fun, the beauty, and perhaps the brutal truths wherever they go.
Note: This is not a sponsored post, I really did enjoy this free walking tour 🙂