Space, Surrealism, and Some Pee

As I wrap up my 36-ish hours in Brussels, two words come to mind to sum up my experience: food and construction.

As food is perhaps the most crucial aspect of any journey, I will be making a separate mini-post with delicious highlights & recommendations tomorrow. And in regards to construction…well, it’s everywhere. To the point where I entered a museum this afternoon and found a man shamelessly drilling the floor as I and another unfortunate couple maxed out the volume on our audio guides. There is also an absurd amount of sidewalks and roads being redone in what appears to be a Brussels-wide frenzy to repair all surfaces touched by the human foot. It’s unclear whether such activity has anything to do with an upcoming EU summit…

Inconveniences aside, I had a full day of exploring Brussels today. In an effort to save some money by eating a supermarket yogurt for breakfast, I left the apartment bright and early to visit the Atomium, a structure originally constructed for the 1958 World’s Fair (Expo 58) held in Brussels. For a reduced student fare of 8€ I got access to the entire building, including both the permanent exhibits and a temporary “Atomium Meets Surrealism” exhibit featuring my all-time favorite artist René Magritte.

The cool thing about the inside tour is that you can obtain a free audio tour with your smartphone by downloading the CloudGuide app. The first stop takes you to the 7th floor for a 360-degree panorama of Brussels as the audio guide recounts the history and the specs of the Atomium itself. You then proceed down to three floors of permanent exhibits, featuring promotional and construction materials from Expo 58 such as a small replica of the U.S. pavilion. In the process, you take multiple rides up covered escalators whose bright light displays are reminiscent of the finest space sci-fi of the 60s. The final two floors hold the temporary exhibition: a recreation of Magritte’s surrealist universe complete with 3D renditions of his most famous paintings and memorable quotes by the artist, which will remain on display until September 2018.

Because one Magritte exhibit wasn’t enough for me, I then headed to the Magritte museum (after lunch, of course), which turned out differently than what I expected. One striking feature of the whole museum is that the rooms are quite dark, which, while making it difficult to get a good photo of all the Magritte quotes adorning the walls, plunges the visitor into a still and pensive atmosphere and prompts her to linger longer before each painting. Sadly, the museum holds none of the artist’s renowned paintings like Golconda, but it contains fascinating earlier works as well as iterations of Magritte’s signature This Is Not a Pipe and The Son of Man. Cooler still, the museum displays Magritte’s handwritten correspondence, public letters he signed, and the work he created while working in advertising. Of course, I spent almost as much time in the gift shop as I did in the museum and acquired a wonderful mug for my excessive collection. TLDR; If you have any interest in surrealism and modern art, I highly recommend a visit.

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After the visit, I wondered the area searching of a mid-afternoon snack (a waffle, yes) and taking photos of the beautiful buildings. About an hour into my wanderings, I realized that I left my scarf at the museum, which forced me to retrace my steps.

Luckily the museum is located across the plaza from the Coudenberg Palace to which I decided to pay an impromptu visit. As with the Atomium, the Palace suggests that you download an audio guide directly to your smartphone, significantly reducing the entry cost. The 90-minute tour takes you underground to examine the partial restorations of the ancient palace (the entire structure was rebuilt after a 1731 fire destroyed the original 11th century palace) and the adjacent Chapel. Because I chose to visit the palace at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday, I was utterly alone in the underground maze, which was both cool and a little unnerving. I found this tour to be a definite improvement on your typical royal palace tour that leads masses of tourists single file through stuffy rooms looming with artifacts.

To finish off a long day, I paid a visit to the landmark Manneken Pis sculpture AKA “Little Man Pee.” It’s exactly what it sounds like – a bronze boy peeing in fountain form. Manneken Pis is also featured on a multitude of Belgian souvenirs, the most bizzare of which you’ll find below.

Tomorrow morning, I will be taking the train to Ghent, which is located in the eastern Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. And, as promised, I’ll be sharing my Brussels food recommendations, so stay tuned.

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