I recently had the pleasure of visiting for a second time what I think is a very underrated country.
You don’t really hear much about Belgium, do you? It’s all Paris this and Amsterdam that, while Belgium sits there quietly enjoying the best of French and Dutch culture.
I was there for ‘I Have A Dream’ – a week of events organised by a group of Christian students at the University of Leuven. These events aimed to provide students an opportunity to think about the big questions of life and hear about and discuss Christianity.
We had a really good response from students there and it was great to chat with people and get to know them, and to talk about some of the deeper things in life that we don’t always get time to think about.
Leuven is a beautiful city (also criminally underrated, I think) and I loved wandering around, taking in the mix of gothic, contemporary and neoclassical architecture. St Peter’s cathedral is an imposing gothic structure on the main market square, but the stunning 15th century town hall accross the road commands your attention with dozens of carved figurines all over it.
The library was definitely another favourite building of mine and, though it took a beating in both of the world wars, it stands tall and proud on Ladeuzeplein Sqaure. Well, at least until the next war. Outside stands a huge statue of a fly impaled on a needle. Why?
Because art. That’s why.
Belgium is the land of chocolate (and Stella Artois too, but the less said about that, the better) so of course I had my fill of sweet treats, especially truffles, waffles and ice cream. Filled to the brim with coffeeshops, cafes, bars and restaurants, the standout for me had to be The Capital – a bar that boasts 2000 different varieties of beer. Yes, you read that right. With 20 beers on tap and bottled favourites at the bar, the rest are kept in their extensive cellar and sent up to the bar on an industrial elevator.
The Capital spits in the face of your local.
Some friends pointed me towards Think Twice – a vintage shop in Leuven. I will forever be in their debt. Think Twice (or T2) have sales every month to clear up space for their incoming new stock. They do this by means of incredibly generous discounts. Today everything is 30% off, tomorrow 40%, the day after 50%. This is off EVERY item in the store, from shirts and jackets to bags and shoes. After that, each item is €5, then €4, then €3 and so on, until you’re buying leather jackets and wool coats for basically pennies.
Great fashion at ridiculously low prices without the ethical implications of cheap labour, as well as the feeling of knowing you’re recycling an outfit instead of buying yet another new item and adding to the vicious cycle of clothing waste. No surprsises, I was a big fan. I went twice. On the first day I got an black denim shirt for £4. The next I hit things hard, and bought a faded red denim shirt, an embroidered cuban collar shirt, an indigo denim jacket, and a vintage sweatshirt. Unsurprisingly for a secondhand shop, each of the items were larger than what I usually wear, but I quite enjoy the slouchy 90s feel of oversized items.
I also got some time to wander around Brussels which is a half hour train ride from Leuven.
Brussels, being the bastion of culture that it is, has a famous statue called ‘Mannekin Pis’ – directly translated as ‘Little Man Piss’. It is quite literally a statue of a little boy peeing. There are many legends as to the origins of this piece of art. One of them is that sometime in the 14th century the city of Brussels was besieged by a foreign enemy. The attackers had laid explosives around the city to finish things once and for all, but a young boy happened to notice the burning fuse and urinated on it – thus saving Brussels.
Believe it or not, people come from literally all over to gaze upon the admittedly underwhelming manhood that may or may not have saved the city all those years ago. This is culture, guys. Rich, beautiful culture. Annoyingly, on the day I visited, he had been dressed in a weird old-fashioned outfit for some reason, probably a public holiday or something. This marred my experience somewhat as normally he’s a lot less prudish.
Aside from looking at urinating statues, I spent the day wandering around the beautiful buildings of Belgium’s captial like the royal shoping arcade Galleries De Hubert, beautiful neoclassical churches, the palace and the royal library.
I also visited the European Parliament – because three weeks after the UK officially began withdrawal from the European Union, I can’t imagine anything they’d want to see more than a clueless Englishman wandering around, unable to speak any of the three national languages.
It was actually quite humbling to see the frankly huge complex – I immediately felt very small, both in stature and in my contributions to world unity.
It was really interesting and thought-provoking learning about the rich history of the EU at the neighbouring Parlamentarium – basically a museum about the European Union. It was genuinely fascinating – which was a huge surprise to me, if I’m honest. My favourite part was the 360 projection room that simulated being an MEP during a vote. I don’t care how lame that makes me sound. A bittersweet visit for me, the Parlamentarium really hit home the momentous decision that the UK has made.
Politics aside, I had fantastic time in Belgium and my love for the country has only grow stronger. As has my love for waffles and beer.