Brussels: of Writers, Squares, and Cathedrals

My friend and I have just returned from our little trip. We spent four days in Belgium, two in Brussels and two in Bruges, and let me tell you that, although Brussels is not that big of a city, two days is not nearly enough time to see everything. If you ask me, I would’ve stayed five days to visit all the museums, galleries, book shops and embassies that I had planned. Another time, perhaps.

However, we did manage to see some of the most popular places of the city, and, if you look close enough, somewhere between the people, the chocolate shops and the alleys, you might see literary shadows.

Shadows of Victor Hugo

The Grand Place, for example, is the place where Victor Hugo spent the first year of his exile after the coup d’état of 1851 in France, when Napoleon III became emperor. Hugo always said he had a personal problem with Napoleon III, and what had started as an imposed exile, soon became his own way of opposing the reign of Napoleon, «the little.»

“The most beautiful square in the world”, Victor Hugo called it. They say that he also described the Grand Place as “a fantasy dreamed up by a poet, and realized by an architect.”

I don’t know if it was dreamed up by a poet or just by an architect with great taste, but boy was it beautiful. Sadly we only had gray, rainy days in Brussels, and thus I couldn’t get a more colorful picture.

Writers always have something to say, and not having someone as influential as Victor Hugo on your side, can be somewhat problematic. Especially if you’re the Emperor of France. It was in Brussels that Hugo wrote “Napoleón, le petit” and “Histoire d’un Crime”, a pamphlet and an essay (respectively) that condemned Napoleon’s actions.

Victor Hugo was a huge fan of Gothic style. He wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame with the Cathedral in the center of the narrative just to raise awareness and avoid its demolition. Well, during his exile in Brussels, he frequented the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, which reminded him of his beloved Notre Dame.

We also enjoyed walking around the cathedral, which, despite being a beauty built from 1226 to 1500, wasn’t a cathedral during Hugo’s time. So, Hugo visited a non-cathedral that reminded him of a cathedral, and that wouldn’t be one until 1962. Still, it is absolutely stunning, with all its statues, its stained-glass windows and its seventeenth century’s pulpit.

I must say, Victor Hugo had a great taste.

“It’s a good idea to have your books with you in a strange place.”

Cornelia Funke, Inkheart

A strange place such as the fountain of the Place de l’Agora, where one can appreciate Charles Buls (or Karel Buls), mayor of Brussels from 1881 to 1889. Buls protected many of the old parts of the city during the time of King Leopold II, who wanted to demolish and rebuild. Buls was also an author, and he wrote about education, arts and about his trips abroad.

A few blocks away, we found the Manneken Pis, the naked little boy who pees on a fountain in the corner of Rue de l’Étuve/Stoofstraat and Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat. The statue dates back to 1618, but the different legends that surround it are much older. The best part about this little boy is that every week he’s dressed in a different way. Sometimes he’s a sailor, sometimes a judoka (judo player), sometimes he’s the mayor.

When we arrived to see him, he was busy doing his business, dressed with paper clothes, and carrying a book. Definitely a strange place to have a book with you.

The Manneken Pis has replicas all around the world, but my favorite is the one in the movie The Money Pit, starring Tom Hanks.


The last place we went to that day was the Parlamentarium, which is the Visitors’ Center of the European Parliament. It’s located in the Rue Wiertz 60/ Wiertzstraat, 60 B-1047. Finding it took us a while, not because it was too far away or too hidden, but because our map-reading abilities aren’t fully developed yet.

This is basically an interactive museum where one can learn about what the Parliament is and does in a fun and very, very colorful way.

The visit is free of charge, the media guide can be configured in any of the 24 official languages of the European Union, and there are even tours for children. No, we didn’t book a tour for children.

We did ask for the Spanish version of the media guide, but I guess the lady at the front desk decided it would be lazy of us to listen to everything in our native tongue, because she configured it in English.

Besides explaining what the institution does, is, and how it came to be, the museum has sections that introduce an artist or an intellectual whose ideas influenced on the creation of a unified Europe. Of course there were a lot of them, but since our focus is on literature, here are some of the authors we found.

By the way, bumping into James Joyce is always fun.

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