A journey from Brussels through Wallonia, across the northern foothills of the Ardennes to Reims. Our route took us via Waterloo to Charleroi, to Thuin and across the Ardennes to Reims in France, where our tour ended.
Belgium - a cliché
Land of comics, fries, waffles and chocolates?
Belgium - many people only know it as a country of comics, fries, waffles, chocolates and gruesome stories from the 90s, which fortunately were a long time ago.
If you visit Belgium, you'll see famous Bruges, Ghent at the confluence of the Scheldt and the Leie, or the multicultural metropolis of Antwerp, but few travellers stray into the brittle but beautiful Wallonia. Charleroi, Namur, Mons - many read the names on the signs of the Belgian motorways on the way to Paris, but who ever goes there?
So it made sense to make a third trip to Wallonia, after I had already visited Namur and Dinant twice, and once walked beautifully around the castle of Walzin. The castle is situated on the beautiful little river Lesse, which flows into the Meuse between Anseremme and Dinant. A worthwhile, varied route. I have visited Brussels several times, still in my student days as an architecture study trip, then in the 90s and once I organised a beer and art nouveau trip to Brussels in which 18 people took part.
Brussels was also the final stop on the cycling tour I took with my youngest son in 2016. We wanted to cycle from Den Helder in the Netherlands to Paris, but unfortunately an incessant series of low pressure systems threw a meteorological spanner in the works at Grimbergen and the tour ended at Brussels Central Station.
This tour was supposed to be a kind of compensation for what we had missed - because the Wallonia crossing was on our agenda in 2016 - this time we wanted to get as far south as possible in Wallonia in four days, but also get to know the country and its people. However, without a bike and instead of sleeping with a tent on the campsite, the idea was to stay in nice hotels with a little more luxury. We found them, slept well and always had an excellent breakfast.
The parts of the country in Belgium are very different, which is probably due to the uneven distribution of wealth. Although the mining region around Charleroi was rich and heavily industrialised in the 19th century, little of this wealth remains. High incomes are found in Flanders and Brussels, in Wallonia really only in the Belgian belt around Luxembourg. This is clearly visible in the villages and towns. While many people are probably familiar with Flanders in the countryside because of the Facebook page Ugly Belgium Houses - the psychological and cultural reasons for this should make an interesting topic for study - the south of Belgium is visibly poor and seems almost deserted - except for Belgian drivers who are always speeding. Just like many German towns on through roads in the countryside, Belgium is also showing the symptoms of a wrong development and transport policy. Large supermarkets put an end to small shops, low discounter prices ruined bakeries and other trades. No wonder you think you are travelling through a no-man's land by car. A pity, because off the main thoroughfares, numerous gems slumber their shadowy existence.
Residence in the swamp
Brussels is one of three regions in Belgium and the only one that is bilingual. The division of Belgium into two languages is the result of centuries of turmoil between powerful European royal houses and unbridled aspirations for independence. Belgium has more than 11 million inhabitants and especially in Brussels, with its 1.2 million people, one can clearly see that Belgium was a colonial power for a long time, which probably does not only concern the Congo - a cruel one, especially under Leopold II.
It is much closer to Brussels by train for various reasons - the train from Cologne to Brussels takes 1 h 52 minutes and the one-way ticket costs 33 euros, but if you book in time you can get there for only 16 euros. We went by car because our further journey by train was not as possible as we wanted. At the moment, however, you should think twice about it for two reasons. Due to road works on the motorways leading to Brussels, the journey by car currently takes 4 hours - if you leave at 6 am. In addition, Brussels is now completely closed to older cars, which is controlled by cameras and costs high fines. Since we didn't want to take any risks and wanted to see the Atomium first anyway, we parked in a Park&Ride lot near the Atomium. There was exactly one free space. Day tickets for Brussels are also available for purchase without a plastic card, they cost around 7 euros per adult, are valid for the entire Brussels network, for buses, metros and trams and are worthwhile. The Heizel station on line 6 is really only a stone's throw away from the Atomium. Line 6 is a convenient way to get around the city centre of Brussels, ideal for any start to explore the city.
What do Broxelle, Bruchsal and Bruxelles have in common? The linguistic roots go back to the word formation from bruk and sel[la], meaning place of residence in a swamp. One can imagine one's part in Europe. Charles of Lower Lorraine built a castle on an island in the little river Senne around 977, and the granting of city rights marked the beginning of the boom of today's major city. Brussels has been the seat of NATO since 1967, and the European Parliament has its headquarters in Brussels. The so-called "Brusselsisation", the destruction of historic buildings for modern high-rises or buildings of the European bureaucracy, has its own Wikipedia entry. The disruptions to the cityscape can be seen everywhere. Nevertheless, many neighbourhoods have retained their individual charm, which makes a trip here always worthwhile, even without looking at rather boring sights like a peeing child.
Sculpture and architecture
The Atomium - 102 m high
Daring - that's a term from the French Wikipedia article on the Atomium and it perfectly depicts the building and its context, in my opinion. It's 1958, just one year before the first German nuclear reactor, the so-called atomic egg at the Technical University of Munich had started operation. In Germany, despite the first world economic crisis, the so-called economic miracle is booming, the USA is setting up the first astronaut selection programme with MISS ("Man In Space Soonest"), and in Tokyo the 332.6 m high Tokyo Tower is opened to the public. The Second World War was already 13 years behind and faith in progress was unshakeable. For the first World's Fair after the war, the Atomium was built in 1958 by the architects André and Jean Polak according to designs by the Belgian civil engineer André Waterkeyn. The former Belgian national hockey player Waterkeyn designed the building as a symbol of Belgium's progress and technical competence. Formally, the building is a mixture of sculpture and architecture, showing a model of the cubic space-centred unit cell of crystals, consisting of nine atoms, standing on a corner. It is a 165-billion-fold magnification of the crystalline unit cell of iron. (Source: Wikipedia) Technically, Waterkeyn was assisted by his brothers-in-law. The spheres have a diameter of 18 metres, the tubes a diameter of 3 metres. There are escalators in them and a lift in the middle tube, around which there is quite a scandal. t the time of construction, the lift, installed by the Swiss company Schlieren, was the fastest lift in Europe, travelling at 5 m/s. The painter Roger Hebbelinck (1912 -1987) and the sculptor Ernest Salu (1909 -1987) filmed the construction of the Atomium with exclusive rights. A search on Youtube under the term Construction de l'Atomium reveals a variety of interesting insights into the construction of the Brussels landmark. Waterkeyn owned all the image rights to the Atomium, which he transferred to the Atomium Society, which still holds them today.
Few people know that a nuclear reactor with the designation AGN-211-P was built below the Atomium for the World Exhibition. This was sold to the University of Basel after the World Exhibition, where it was only decommissioned in 2015. From 2004 to 2006, the Atomium was restored, and the aluminium - which I found to have aged beautifully - was replaced by polished stainless steel.
Larger than St. Peter's Basilica
Palais de Justice de Bruxelles
Larger than St. Peter's Basilica in Paris, with 26,000 m2 of floor space (almost 4 football fields) and a height of 116 m easily surpassing the Atomium, the Brussels Palace of Justice is a gargantuan colossus of stone that towers over Brussels city centre, visible from almost everywhere.
The Justice Building is located on the largest square in Brussels, Poelart Square, named after the architect of the Palais Joseph Poelart. The building was constructed in an eclectic style and is clearly inspired by Greco-Roman stylistic elements.
The foundation stone was laid in 1866, before which 75 houses of the Marolles had to be demolished and the residents relocated to a specially built new neighbourhood in the Quartier du Chat in Uccle. (Destroying neighbourhoods has a really long tradition in Brussels).
It was not until 1833 that the Palais de Justice was inaugurated under Leopold II; neither Poelart nor Leopold I survived the construction period. At the time of its construction, the Palais de Justice in Brussels was the largest building constructed of ashlars and remained so until 1965. The expression Piranesian, after the Italian engraver, archaeologist and architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi (example image) probably clarifies the inner sequence of titanic colonnades, pilasters and entablature most clearly.
It's up and down stairs, all starting from a cathedral-like lobby 100 m high inside, which makes me gasp again and again. How tiny the people seem opposite.
Today, up to 70% of the building is empty. Many courts have left the Palais de Justice, and a renovation that began in 1984 is still going on today. The long dragging on of the renovation work even made it necessary to renovate the scaffolding in between.
From the Palais de Justice to the Grande Place
We wanted to visit 14 destinations in Brussels in one day, but all in all we only walked from the Palais de Justice to the Grande Place. I remember the area below the Palais as being a bit shabby 20 years ago, but now there are many nice owner-managed shops between Rue de Mimines and the Monts des Arts below the Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique, where you can stroll around for a while.
The neighbourhood exudes something that you don't find in many cities, atmosphere.
I would also like to mention La Boîte à Musique La Boîte à Musique on the Coudenberg, below the Old England department stores', now the Musée des Instruments de Musique. Here you can choose and listen to a huge selection of classical music in the form of CDs and LPs. Where else can you do that?
We took many breaks, and for me these are also a must when visiting a big city. We sat at Église Notre-Dame de la Chapelle and ate French fries from Friture de la Chapelle.
Later, we stopped in the shade of the trees of the Jardin du Mont des Arts and had coffee in the courtyard of the Musée Belvue, which I would particularly like to recommend as a beautiful and quiet resting place away from the hustle and bustle.
From here, you can walk to the royal Parc de Bruxelles or further down to the city centre, where our tour ended on the Grand Place with its guild and guild houses built in 1698 in the magnificent Baroque style. We strolled a bit through the arcades and passages and treated ourselves to a delicious blueberry slice in a patisserie.
From here we went back to the hotel. We chose the Scott-Hotel, freshly renovated a few years ago from the Pantone Hotel. It is well located from the Hôtel des Monnaies stop in the Saint Gilles district, where we had dinner at a small pizzeria.
A beautiful day came to an end. I have rarely enjoyed a city visit so much.In the next part, we will go over the Lion's Hill, via Charleroi to Thuin.
Belgium is more than frites, comics and chocolates. Brussels is a beautiful city where you can discover a lot. And actually relax, too.