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Nick Jenkins : The Opinionated Traveller

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Brussels

Brussels

Korpewelten and Waffles : 19 Nov 15:54:51

I just spent a weekend in Brussels. I went with no particular expectations. The little I know about Belgium and its culture didn't recommend Brussels as a top-ten must-see capital. Chocolate, beer, Jean Claude Van-Damm and the EU commission hardly make me break into a sweat of enthusiastic desire, well, except for the first two.

We left Waterloo on Friday evening with a predicted arrival time just before midnight in Brussels. We glided effortlessly out of London, winged across Britain and ground to a screaming halt at the entrance to the Chunnel. There we sat for two and half hours.

I passed the time in the dining car where I was introduced to Perudo, the South American game of liar's dice. It involves equal amounts of maths, logic and bravado and vast quantities of alcohol.

After we drank the bar dry, we trailed into Brussels sometime around two in the morning to find our hotel. In a scene which someone remarked "would never have happened in Britain" a string of taxis materialised as if by magic (or radio) and two hundred people evaporated in a matter of minutes.

I managed to drift downstairs the next morning, in time to catch an indescribably horrible breakfast and some coffee to kick start me for the day. We went out for a quick orientation tour of the city centre, taking in a few parks, the major cathedral and the Grand Plaz in the centre of the city. Where we found most of the rest of our party in a pub getting legless.

The parks were lovely but sterile. The Grand Plaz was ornate but cold and grey and it seemed like a soulless tourist mill. During the year they hold a flower festival there and it would be nice to see it come alive with colour. Aside from the tourists and their touts there didn't seem to much life in the city.

Near the Plaz, we went to see two of the more famous landmarks of Brussels. The Mannekin Pis and his less well known sister the Jeanneke Pis. These are the famous statues of, respectively, a little boy and a little girl urinating.

The Manneken Pis is a major tourist attraction and is surrounded by shops, signposts and a horde of picture snapping foreigners. The Jeanneke Pis on the other hand was erected by a number of local merchants in response to the popularity of the Manneken Pis and is tucked away on a side street, lonely and forgotten.

They couldn't help but draw to mind the controversy that dogged Belgium a couple of years ago. A number of respectable citizens were caught in an extended child pornography ring and althought he link is incredibly tenuous it did play on our minds somewhat.

At the Jenneken Pis we made an unexpected discovery. Tucked into the ironwork cage around the statue was a rambling note written in broken French. The gist of the note seemed to be a veiled invitation to something illicit, sexual and seriously naughty. The phrase "I dominate like Cruella de Ville from 101 Dalmations" seemed to hold particular promise.

We found a second note at the Manneken Pis, but this one seemed to be a more straightforward clue to a treasure hunt, probably left by one of the scout packs roaming the centre of the city. Our hopes of uncovering a perverted sexual tryst between two Bruxellites were dashed.

After a desultory lunch in a second rate tourist dive, we took to the road again and headed for the Cartoon Museum on Rue de Sables. The Belgians have a long history of "manga" and with celebrated national icons like Herge's Tintin, have something of a reputation for cartoonists. The museum is located in a beautiful old Noveau building and the content ranges from the banal to the outright provocative. The soft porn was generally agreed by everyone present to be the best bit.

We dawdled in the coffee shop over waffles and crepes and coffee. A Belgian cappuccino belies the countries love of indulgence and is topped with a hefty dollop of whipped cream instead of steamed milk. Rich in calories but gratifying on a cold day.

A small crowd of us declined to join the endless boozing and sought out a nearby eatery, "The Living Room", for a lengthy dinner. The food, barring desert, was good but not exceptional and the service was polite and attentive even when confronted with an audience of Anglophiles. The desert was excellent, barring the chocolate mousse which was stupendous.

The rest of the evening was spent in a comfortable bar wrestling with the meaning of life over Leffe beer and whisky. I'm not sure we came to any startling conclusions but it did seem as though there was a point to life, even if it is only beer and chocolate.

The next day demanded something different so we set out for a German exhibit at the abattoir markets. It might seem a little odd to exhibit in such a place but the Belgian's had found the perfect location for this particular exhibit.

Prof. Gunther von Hagen's "Koerpewelten" or "Bodyworld".

It was neither for the squeamish nor the faint-hearted. In fact it was so not-for-the-squeamish that anyone who is squeamish had better skip the next two or three or five paragraphs entirely. In fact I'd just stop reading now.

The "World of Corpses" consist of entirely of corpses. Row upon row of complete or partially dismembered corpses. Real corspes. Dead humans. The preserved remains of individuals who have donated their bodies to science. In a transformation known as "plastiscisation" they are permanently preserved in precise anatomical detail.

Besides the individually flayed corpses were displays of individual organs and ailments that can beset them. There was the cirrhotic liver, a brain with haemorrhages and some smoker's lungs. There was a complete vascular system, hearts, brains, kidneys and stomachs. There was a cadaver riding a horse, a pregnant woman and a man holding his own skin aloft.

Almost all of the displays were, by some standards, obscene. But they were fascinating too. It was an education. I learnt more about anatomy in the fifteen minutes than I ever had in ten years of higher education. Now, I know precisely where my liver is and what might happen to it if I don't take care of it. A text book never taught me that.

Those of you who have read my Paris travelogue might recognise the similarities between "Koerpewelten" and the Fragonard Museum. The coincidence was not accidental and some of the exhibits were direct homages of Fragonard's original work. Fragonard would be fascinated.

The rest of the afternoon was spent trawling through the Musee Horta on the other side of town. Victor Horta was born in Ghent, Belgium in 1861 and was a leading art noveau architect. His house in Brussels is preserved as a museum dedicated to his work and, while stained glass and wrought iron aren't usually to my taste, I did find the house appealing. The Musee Horta has an amiable personality that makes it feel like a home and not a museum.

So Brussels may not be filled with stunning must-see's but it should have a few experiences to tempt the weary traveller. If for nothing else you could go for the coffee and waffles... and the chocolate... and the beer...