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A laid-back and relaxed city, John Peartree found Brussels just perfect for browsing.

BRUSSELS, the capital of Belgium, has a relaxed atmosphere and some stunning visual delights — many of which are concentrated in the city centre — so just browse around.

Belgium remains an underrated and under-visited country with its capital, Brussels, one of Europe’s largely undiscovered gems. It has a special charm all of it’s own: relaxed atmosphere, some remarkable architecture and some cafes where the food is good, the drink excellent and the bill surprisingly small.

The most spectacular sight is the Grand Place — translation into English being quite unnecessary. Originally the market place with origins traced back to the 12th century, it’s the central square in the very heart of Brussels.

In a moment of magic after the cramped side streets, the square opens up before you, the light floods in and you are surrounded by some of the world’s finest architecture.

On all four sides are buildings that have been there for centuries and the extensive use of gilt gives them a golden sparkle against their age-darkened stone. Huge tapestry flags hang from poles which jut from the buildings. The feeling is that you have just stepped back four or five centuries.

The most distinctive building is the City Hall with its elegant spire which has such intricate stone work that it resembles the work of a Brussels’ lace maker. It’s the oldest building on the square, constructed in the Gothic style during the 15th century. Directly opposite the City Hall is the “Maison du Roi” (Kings House); so called as its construction was decreed by Charles the Fifth in 1515. The majority of the rest of the buildings are the Guild houses each with their own quaint name relating to the trades of the various Guilds - “le Cheve” (the Oak), “la Balance” (the Scales), “la Brouette” (the Wheelbarrow) and many more.

The major benefactor of the Grand Place and the genius who recognised its architectural brilliance was Charles Buls, the Burgermaster of Brussels during the latter part of the 19th century.

The result of Buls’ enthusiasm is the Grand Place as we see it today. It is still used as a market place for flowers and even caged birds. During the summer months Son et Lumiere shows are held in the evenings.

Before leaving the Grand Place duck under the archway immediately to the left as you face the City Hall. There you will see the reclining bronze figure of the “Monument t'Serclaes”. Legend has it that should a young woman touch the right hand of the figure then she will marry within the year. The otherwise dark figure has a shining gold hand from the continuing caresses of aspiring brides.

A little further away but in easy walking distance is arguably, Brussels most famous, or infamous, landmark — the Mannekis Pis - the “Wee Boy” of Brussels. He is surprisingly small — approximately 24 inches high, standing on a pedestal supplying a constant stream of water to the basin beneath him.

Just what prompted the creation of the statue by Jerome Duquesnoy in 1619 has been the subject of theories and speculation over the ages.

Some have the “Wee Boy” as the Saviour of the City — putting out a potentially devastating fire by urinating on the flames.

A similar story has him extinguishing the fuse to a pile of explosives by the same method — must have had a deadly accurate aim!

The story which seems to be given the most credence is that of a wealthy Brussels resident whose small son went missing. The distraught father decreed that if the boy was discovered to be safe then he would build a statue of the boy in whatever pose he was found to be in. Apparently the boy had merely got lost whilst wandering in the woods and a search party found him — peeing against a tree.

The statue has a very special place in the hearts of the local Belgians. They regularly dress him up in colourful costumes especially tailored for the little fellow — he has a wardrobe of over 250 outfits housed in the “Maison du Roi” on the Grand Place.

The Mannekin Pis is situated in the labyrinth of alleys that surround the Grand Place. It’s a fascinating area with small art galleries, antique shops and speciality shops selling for example, Brussels lace.

It’s not regarded as being a particularly expensive area and contains a number of small taverns which are full of character.

Directly across from the Mannekin Pis is a personal favourite simply called “The Mannekin Pis”. Its semi-circular bar has a narrow trough running the length of the bar with about a dozen models of the Mannekin Pis each doing their own thing into the trough.

But that is not why it's a favourite — it’s the food. They serve superb “steak et frites” — continental European's quick meal equivalent of hamburger and fries or fish and chips.

There is no shortage, either, of late night entertainment or more risqué shows. Cafes, cafe-theatres, late night restaurants or bistros abound. Some stage transvestite shows other “burlesque” — which can mean virtually anything.

There is a variety of museums including, on the Place du Petit Sablon, one devoted to musical instruments.
For opera lovers the Theatre de la Monnaie is among the world’s leading opera houses. Further afield on the outskirts of Brussels is a strange structure known as the Atomium. From a distance it looks something of a puzzle: a bizarre collection of gleaming metal spheres and connecting tubes towering hundreds of feet into the sky.

As you get closer and line up on an approach road, a certain symmetry takes shape and it begins to look less like a mistake. In reality it's a carefully designed, mathematically correct, enormous scale model of the atomic structure of a molecule of iron — hence its name the Atomium.

Despite its modern appearance it was actually created back in 1958 for the World Industrial Fair when two of the huge 60 foot diameter balls were used as showrooms for Belgian Industrial design and the highest sphere was a restaurant.

The restaurant is still there if your fancy is for high style wining and dining with spectacular views.

For those with a taste of European history then a short walk south of Brussels is the site of one of history's pivotal battles — Waterloo.

The memorial is an enormous earth mound topped by a lion: the “butte du lion”. As you climb the steps to the top of the 150 feet high mound, spare a thought for the army of women labourers who, 250 years ago, built the mound by carrying the soil on their backs in baskets.

At the top of the mound a sense of history seems to press in on you as you gaze over rolling farm land that has changed little since those momentous days in 1815 when Napoleon was finally defeated.
The lion, symbol of power, faces south in an aggressive stance as a deterrent to any other aggressor with Napoleonic ambitions.

Before leaving Brussels return to the Grand Place — you may well feel yourself drawn back. Take time to simply relax in the outdoor cafe where the tables and chairs struggle to find a level footing on the uneven stone blocks of the square's surface.

Order a beer. Drink it slowly. Discover for yourself the relaxing appeal that is Brussels whilst surrounded by its finest monument — the Grand Place.

This is Brussels at its best.

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