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Destination: BRUSSELS, Belgium

Beautiful Brussels

Belgian capital steeped in history, culture

By GUY DEMARINO - Edmonton Sun


A horse-drawn carriage matches the elegance of the Grand' Place, Brussels' main square.

Great food. Great beer - something like 400 different kinds of it! And great chocolates.

 Great art, architecture and museums.

 Great connections to everywhere else in Europe - including a fast, three-hour Eurostar train ride under the Channel to London, and similarly fast trains to Paris and Amsterdam.

 A small, flat country, it's easy to move around in, even by bicycle. Near the medieval wonders of Ghent and Bruges, two smaller Belgian cities.

 It's a country that, as headquarters of the European Economic Community, it is really a microcosm of Europe.

 What more do you want from Belgium?

 It's a country and a capital - Brussels - that haven't always figured high on a Canadian list of European places to visit.

 But it's coming up in the tourist world. With so many Canadians travelling to Europe - 1.7 million went last year - the number of those who've seen London, Paris, Rome, and other major sights is growing. They're out for secondary sights or new discoveries, and I can certainly recommend Belgium and Brussels as an ideal gateway to Europe.

 A stay in Brussels should really begin with a stroll through the Grand' Place - the capital's beautiful main square - followed by a beer or a coffee in one of the square's open-air cafes, and a read through the city's free What's On publication in English. What's not in it you can ask about at the main tourist office, also in the Grand' Place.

 That square, the size of a football field, is one of the most beautiful in Europe. It's surrounded by buildings dating back to the 17th century, and some even earlier.

 All of them drip and bristle with ornamentation, from the town hall to 10 buildings that were once medieval guild headquarters. They stand shoulder to shoulder: the brewers by the butchers, the archers by the boatmen, each professional edifice more elaborately fronted than the next.

 On the square, which weekly houses a flower market or an antique market or a sound-and-light summer show - is also a city museum in the King's House, and a beer museum.

 After all that, you can walk about two blocks to Brussels' best-known attraction - the Manneken Pis, which I describe in my column - and decide what else to see or do.

 In the cobblestoned streets radiating from the Grand' Place are many restaurants. Check out Rue-des-Bouchers and its offshoot, Petit-Rue-des-Bouchers.

 For a bit of culture, visit the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, split into an ancient art and a modern art building. The latter, which terraces down a hill, even has a portrait of Wayne Gretzky!

 For more information, contact the Belgian Tourist Office, 780 Third Ave., Suite 1501, New York, NewYork, 10017.

 LOVE THAT LITTLE MAN

 I'm not quite sure why, but all visitors to Brussels go to take a look at Manneken Pis.

 Not doing that would be like going to New York or Paris and not look at the Statue of Liberty or the Mona Lisa.

 Like the statue, he embodies freedom. Like the painting, he smiles coyly.

 But as Manneken Pis, well, he defies decorum. He pees in public. All day, every day.

 Using one hand, Little Man Piss has been aiming to please visitors for more than 600 years at a street corner near the Grand' Place, Brussels' amazing central square.

 Sometimes the city dresses Manneken Pis in costume to commemorate a special occasion, but most of the time he answers nature's call wearing only a smile. Even a nearby Manneken Pis museum displaying all the costumes the kid wears at certain times of the year attracts more than 70,000 visitors a year.

 Visitors want to have a look because he's so famous - and so well located, steps from the Grand' Place. Most visitors find the statue smaller, weirder or cuter than the brochures promised. But, is he obscene?

 How could a lovable, curly-haired, half-metre-tall five-year-old who waters into a stone basin from his perch on a niche in the wall be obscene? He's certainly not shocking.

 He's as well-known as anything else in Belgium, and he really amuses people.

 He also encourages the imagination, no doubt stimulated by the fact no one really knows who the statue portrays, and why.

 One story is that the statue is a tribute to a child who saved Brussels by piddling to douse the fuse of an incendiary device.

 Another story is that a nobleman, ecstatic about the return of his lost son, commissioned a statue in the child's honor.

 A third story claims a street urchin relieved himself against the door of a sorcerer who, in revenge, condemned him to assume the position forever.

 City records trace Manneken Pis to 1388, but the statue you see today dates from 1619 when, after the original was destroyed, locals demanded another.

 There are rivals, but none as famous as the Manneken Pis. Not far from him is the Spitter - a man, resting on his elbows, water gushing from the mouth; and Three Virgins who spout water from their breasts.

 Farther away, in another neighborhood, a crass marketing ploy by jealous businessmen saw the erection in the 1980s of a statue of a little girl, Jeanneke Pis.

 But it never gained fame or attention.

 What about the little piddler's museum? It's at La Maison du Roi - the King's House - on the Grand' Place?

 It stores more than 600 costumes donated by governments, service clubs and trade and folklore groups worldwide. They include several suits of samurai armor, a Shriner uniform, hockey gear, and outfits mimicking Mozart and Elvis.

 The oldest was donated in 1747 by King Louis XV of France.

 Manneken Pis has been stolen and recovered seven times - the last in 1978, when students took it as a prank and got off with a warning.

 At least they were luckier than one Antoine Lucas, who yanked the statue off its pedestal in 1817 and was sentenced to 20 years at hard labor.

 But surely, you don't go all the way to Belgium to see a little piddling boy? Indeed. There's more in Brussels.

(First featured:May 18, 1997)

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