24th March 2023: Brussels {Belgium, March 2023}

I woke up stupidly early to catch a short red-eye flight that was in the end delayed by the French air controller’s strike. Crossing security at the airport was a bit of an issue – I got stuck behind a class of teens going somewhere, and kudos to the teacher for not losing it when about 50% of the kids were sent back because they had not taken out their tablets / liquids / bottles of water and so on. Once inside, I had to head towards the Schengen area transit lounges, which were considerably fuller than beyond passport control in the early morning.

I landed in Brussels [Bruxelles (French) | Brussel (Dutch)], Belgium [Belgique | België] around 9:00. At the airport arrival lounge, I was welcomed by a rocket taken out from The Adventures of Tintin, and some fake flowering trees. I found the station – I had booked all my tickets online beforehand – and after a short train ride I reached the centre of Brussels. From the train I caught a glimpse of the famous atom-like building, the Atomium. I found my way to the hotel throughout a chaos of construction, and dropped off my luggage. Then, I set off to explore the city, which is called the comic capital of Europe: up to 50 comic character murals are painted on walls around the city, to the point that there is even a route dedicated to seeing them all – the Brussels’ Comic Book Route. I had not walked 200 m from the hotel when I saw my first mural, Le Scorpion.

I headed towards the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathédrale des Saints Michel et Gudule | Kathedraal van Sint-Michiel en Sint-Goedele. The current building was erected in the 13th century in Brabantine Gothic, which is a deviation from the French Gothic style that developed in the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg). It features the use of sandstone or limestone in light colours (unfortunately, these materials are very susceptible to erosion), pointed arches, round columns with decorated “cabbage” capitals, and a very clear cruciform floor plan on churches. Unlike the Spanish cathedrals, there is no choir built in-between, so the perspective of the churches built in this style is fantastic.

The cathedral has two symmetrical front towers with tolling bells. It is accessed from the monumental staircase (built in the 18th century) on the western façade, by one of the gates under the bell towers. It does not feature a round or wheel window, but an ogival one. The nave is wide and lit from all the colourful side windows representing biblical scenes. The pulpit on the side is Baroque, carved in dark wood by the sculptor Hendrik Frans Verbrugge. A lot of the sculptures inside the cathedral are also Baroque, as the originals were destroyed by iconoclast movements (Beeldenstorm) in 1566 – this is a feature along most of the monuments I visited. Along with the Chapel Church and Our Lady of the Sablon, the cathedral is considered one of the three traditionally listed gothic churches in the city of Brussels. The organist was rehearsing, along with a cellist and a female singer, which was cool to hear as I explored. Underneath the cathedral, the archaeological site can be accessed to explore the Romanesque origins of the chapel of St. Michael.

The cathedral of Brussels

After the cathedral, my path took me through the park Parc de Bruxelles | Warandepark, featuring a pretty kiosk in metalwork and a bunch of trees striving to blossom. Along one of the axes of the park, 22 sculptures have been erected for a temporary exhibition “Le Chat déambule” Expo (9th March – 30th June 2023). They feature Le Chat, an anthropomorphic obese cat from a comic strip created by Belgian artist Philippe Geluck. Le Chat ran from 1983 to 2013, comically tackling everyday situations or presenting absurd conclusions.

An obese, anthropomorfic cat on a tutu raising a leg while a mouse uses a jack to keep the cat's leg up.

I continued walking for a bit of a long walk that led me past the Royal Palace of Brussels Palais royal de Bruxelles | Koninklijk Paleis van Brussel and the Monument to Leopold II. I went on until I reached something I felt that I could not have missed – the Museum of Natural Sciences of Belgium Muséum des sciences naturelles de Belgique | Museum voor Natuurwetenschappen van België, part of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. This was on my to-visit map long before this little trip came into plan. The museum’s Dinosaur Gallery is the largest room dedicated to dinosaurs in Europe. It holds a replica of Stan the T-rex (the original one was auctioned a while back and bought into private hands for 32 million USD), a piece of the Mont-Dieu meteorite, similar to the one which might have caused the extinction of dinosaurs, along with a bit of the boundary K-T (Cretaceous-Tertiary) or K-Pg (Cretaceous-Palaeogene) – this is a sedimentary layer of black rock with a lot of iridium that separates the “age of reptiles” and the “age of mammals” in the fossil registry.

There is also a room completely dedicated to mosasaur findings, and a lone Allosaurus fossil called Arkhane, which is considered the only discovered specimen of its species. Allosaurus was a Jurassic carnivore and this skeleton, clocking at almost 9 metres long, comes from Wyoming (US) and is 70% complete. However, this was tucked away in a completely different area of the museum. I also saw a Dunkleosteus head. This one was behind glass and I did not find the information to read if it was a cast, so maybe I found an original one?

Fossils at the Belgian Museum of Natural History: dinosaurs, mosasaurs, the Allosaurus Arkhane, and a massive fish head

The most important feature of the Dinosaur Gallery though is the collection of iguanodon fossils – the Bernissart iguanodons. Iguanodon (meaning “iguana tooth”) was the second dinosaur to receive a name. This herbivore lived from the late Jurassic to the early Cretaceous, and it is thought to have been able to on either two or four legs. In 1878, as many as 38 iguanodon fossils were found in the Bernissart coal mine. Nine are displayed in “wrong” standing positions – what was believed at the time to be correct, called the “kangaroo standing” – and nineteen can be seen partly covered in plaster just as they were found in the mine. The standing skeletons are too fragile to be dismantled now – though early palaeopathologists did the best they could, the skeletons contain a lot of pyrite, which disintegrates in contact with air, so they are extremely brittle. Thus, they are exhibited in a protective chamber as historical testimony. These fossils were the most abundant and complete ever found of the species. They unseated the previous English hegemony on iguanodon knowledge at the time, and one of them became the Iguanodon bernissartensis holotype. Today, one of the skeletons stands outside the case, posed in the modern interpretation of how iguanodon would have moved.

Collage: The iguanodons. The upper picture shows a modern interpretation of the iguanodon on four legs standing in front of the older "kangroo posed" reconstructions. On the bottom, the iguanodons as they were found in the mine.

Other exhibits in the museum include a gallery of evolution (which I saw backwards as it was full of high school kids), a mineral collection, a gallery on humans and human evolution, and a biodiversity collection. They have the preserved body of the last captive Tasmanian tiger that lived, and a small ward about the history of the museum and urban flora and fauna.

Collage. The centre is the mascot of the museum. Around it, a tasmanian tiger, a mammoth skeleton, some rocks and taxidermed animals.

I had lunch halfway through the museum visit, and then set off to the centre of the town, undoing my previous way. By now I had got a hold of the construction detours, and I reached the city centre more easily. I walked past Mont des Arts | Kunstberg next to Central Station, with a very fun clock, and eventually reached the central square Grand-Place | Grote Markt. This central square, declared Unesco Heritage site in 1998, is surrounded by monumental buildings dating from the 15th to the 19th century, forming a particularly recognisable unit: the Town Hall Hôtel de Ville | Stadhuis, a Brabantine gothic building with a spire or tower; the Maison du Roi | Broodhuis in Neogothic style; and the so-called guildhalls and private houses, traditionally built buildings, either crammed together and cutely thin, or almost palatial – including the house where Victor Hugo, the writer, used to live in the city.

Grand Place. The buildings are light coloured or grey with a lot of gold decoration

I went down one of the side streets, debating a typical Belgian waffle, but I was not brave enough to try and eat one on my own. I saw the Adventures of Tintin mural (by Belgian cartoonist Hergé) painted on a wall (art by Oreopoulos and Vandegeerde). About five minutes away from the square, one of the corners hosts the fountain known as Manneken Pis, which depicts a naked little boy urinating into the basin. The current fountain features a replica of the boy, the original (sculpted by Jérôme Duquesnoy the Elder) is in the Brussels City Museum. The one on the fountain is often dressed up, and this time round, it was characterised as a construction worker – I can understand why. One of the many legends about the design tells of a young boy who put out an explosive charge fuse by peeing on it.

Collage. Tintin and Captain Haddock climb down some stairs. Manekken Pis fountain boy dressed in yellow reflective clothing.

I walked on to find another comic mural I was extremely interested in – actually two, but the Astérix mural (by Goscinny and Uderzo) was covered by construction. After a quarter of an hour I found the Lucky Luke mural (by Belgian cartoonist Morris, painted by Oreopoulos and Vandegeerde). When I was a child, I absolutely loved the Lucky Luke animated series, and especially his white horse Jolly Jumper and dog Rantanplan, so this was a bit of a tribute visit, rather than tackling the whole comic route.

Lucky Luke mural. The Daltons have robbed a bank and Luke prepares to arrest them (again)

On my way back towards the city centre, I stopped by a number of points of interest – the Baroque church and convent Église Notre Dame aux Riches-Claires; a mural by artist Mr.Doodle called Mr. Doodle Artwork; the late 19th century market Halles Saint-Géry; the 12th century church Église Saint-Nicolas; a “parody” of the Manneken Pis depicting a dog doing the same Zinneke Pis; and the Brussels Stock Exchange Bourse de Bruxelles (under renovation).

Collage showing different buildings in Brussels, and a bronze medium-sized dog peeing on a bollard

As I was making my way back towards the Grand-Place, the weather, which had been behaving most of the day – there had been some rain while I was inside the museum – took a turn for the worse, and there was a bit of a shower. The problem was not the rain itself, but the wind that made it come sideways. I had packed my umbrella, though it was not too helpful. When rain subsided down, I continued walking, and I got to see a rainbow over the Grand-Place. Great timing!

Rainbow peering through buildings at the end of the street in Brussels

It was only round 18:00 but I decided to go back to the hotel, check in, and get some food and rest. En route, I crossed through the classy shopping gallery Galeries Royales Saint Hubert. At first I had considered grabbing a bite here, but prices made me decide on a supermarket dinner, which was all right. I ate a sandwich and lots of berries.

After checking in, and warning the hotel staff that my companion would arrive late during the night, I got some rest, warmed the room, and when it was dark, I went out to see the illumination on the cathedral Cathédrale des Saints Michel et Gudule | Kathedraal van Sint-Michiel en Sint-Goedele, the square Grand-Place | Grote Markt, the fountain Manneken Pis and the shopping centre Galeries Royales Saint Hubert.

Cathedral and Grand Place at night, illuminated in warm light

I finally returned to the hotel and fumbled a bit with the shower until I found the nice massage mode.