Overview and History
Brussels traces its origin back more than fourteen centuries, to 580 A.D. We modern folks have derived the name from "Broekzele", which means "marshland", specifically, the marshy land on the island in the river Seine where Brussels started.
The origin of Brussels finds its root in Saint Gorik, who dedicated a chapel here after a harrowing escape through the Forest of Soignes and all its myriad terrors.
Early rulers of the area now known as Belgium included Frankish, Merovingian and Carolingian kings (hello ghost of Charlemagne).
Brussels grew in size and stature during the medieval period, boosted by its becoming the capital of Burgundy. Economic growth came with the production of luxury goods, especially fabrics. This period saw vast social iniquity and the corresponding attempts at revolution which were temporarily unsuccessful, yet nonetheless pernicious for the foreign rulers.
Brussels was annexed by marriage into the Austro-Hungarian empire at the end of the fifteenth century, and was restored as capital of the Holy Roman Empire by Charles V, who was a native. This attracted much immigration and began building the reputation of Brussels as a place of intellectual tolerance, business and international culture.
Louis XIV, that old rapscallion, saw fit to raid and destroy Brussels in the year 1695 A.D. As with everything Louis XIV did, the results were massive, grandiose and embellished to the nth degree, in this case in terms of catastrophic destruction. Brussels remained embroiled in political struggle for the next century, as the populace seethed under Austrian rule.
In 1830, inspired by the French Revolution, the people finally achieved successful revolution against Dutch emperor William I, and crowned Leopold I as the first king over the new sovereign territory of Belgium.
With this, the former city walls were demolished and a period of intensive reconstruction began with a vengeance. This culminated in the Art Nouveau movement which flourished until being cut short by German occupation in World War I. As usual, due to its central location the neutral Brussels was immersed in other people's wars.
After World War II, Belgium was formally divided into two provinces. Flanders in the south and Wallonia in the north correspond to France and the Netherlands. The country remains divided culturally, with agriculture found in the northern regions and industry in the south, as well as a Dutch/ French language symbiosis (to put it nicely).
Brussels is now the capital city of the European Union and headquarters of NATO, an organization which may or may not end up preserving life on earth for humans and other semi-violent organisms.
The Brussels Airport was awarded "best airport in Europe" in 2005. It offers all the usual modes of transportation, so take your pick from the list here and marvel at the wonders of the wheel and axle.
The trip into town from the airport takes about forty minutes by bus, and the cost ranges from two two seven euros. The trip by train only takes twenty minutes at three euros, which is approximately six minutes per euro although you can't buy distance by the minute, of course, since jumping off of moving trains tends to be illegal and dangerous.
In a taxi you will spend roughly thirty euros for the half hour ride to the city center.
The automobile accident rate in Belgium is higher than most other countries in Europe. Here in Brussels there were no driver's licenses required until the early 1960's, so watch out when you're driving!
Better yet, make use of the excellent public transportation system. After the airport trains, you can get around by metro, tram or bus, and enjoy street signs in both French and Dutch (Flemish).
The metro is sort of like the system in Berlin, you've got a basic oval running around the city and then one line bisecting it from east to west to go through the middle. Here's a metro map you can zoom in on and find all sort of neat stuff, not unlike a panorama. Except it's flat on the inside, whoa!
Single fare is 1.6EUR, a three day pass will cost 9.2EUR, or you can get a 10-ride pass for 11.2EUR. Don't forget to punch your card in the orange machine, and as usual, look around in the stations -- there may be some excellent artwork lurking about waiting for your hungry digi-eye to notice and capture for facebook portraits later.
People and Culture
Belgian wheat with lemon (you know Hoegaarden already, come on). Something about monks. Goudenband brown. Lambics of all fruited flavors... Red Rodenbach, Golden Duvel, Kriek, all served in their own special glasses specific for that beer and no other!
Try to take notes or at least pictures of these beers and glasses while you're here because you may come out fuzzy on the details of what happened between lunch, a midafternoon refresher, dinner, and then an evening toasting the suds of variegated flavors... if beers were people, this would be where you earn your anthropological masters degree. Were we talking about culture?
Things to do & Recommendations
Brussels was one of the main centers of the Art Nouveau movement and this legacy is blasting forth from its walls like a loudspeaker on the wall of a fire station. For Art Nouveau museums, you can start at the Clockarium Museum, then move on to the Center for Fine Arts, and the Museum of Musical Instruments. Remember, the saxophone was invented in Belgium.
Speaking of jazz, look for the Brussels Boogie Festival and prepare to be scared to death by how fast these guys can play.
Brussels has jazz, rock, reggae and everything else you can think of in the music world. Click here for the larger performance halls, here for Soixante dance club, or here for a list of venues where you can delve into more detail.
We will not attempt to condense the dining options of Brussels into such a small space, any more than we would locate a giant squid in a goldfish bowl and call it chicken soup.
To begin your adventure in gastronomical distress fueled by ample alcohol fizzing its way through your delighted guts, just start at the Grand Palace, one of the most beautiful town squares in Europe. Close your eyes, follow your nose and enjoy!
The above stories and rumors were written by Steve Smith. Please contact me with more information about your area, I'll add it in if I can, thanks!
Text by Steve Smith.