The Comic World of Brussels

There are a lot of things to like about Belgium, the beer, the frittes, the chocolate, but the one thing that I am always surprised about when I travel out here is the comic culture. They were one of the places in the world that developed comics into what they are today, and they are proud of their contributions to this art form.

The Belgium people have created many comic titles that are enjoyed the world over, from Tin Tin, to the Smurfs, to Marsupilami. Their stories may not be the superheroes that are enjoyed by many Americans, but that should not deny the impact that these comics have had on the world. Their stories endure, and the style they employed to tell those stories should be analyzed and treasured.

The people of Brussels understood this about their national treasure. When they were looking at the blank walls of their city, they thought that the best way to beautify their city was to honor this tradition. They took the most popular of the characters that the various people in town told, and painted murals of them on those blanks walls.

It makes walking the streets of Brussels a fun adventure with every turn of the corner. You don’t know if you will see a mural or not, and if you do see one, you don’t know what character will transport you to a simpler time when stories could be told through this seemingly simple medium. There are so many of them on the wall of Brussels that you can find a map of a walking tour involving them at the local Information Center, and you can always see people making their way to discover them all.

Once you start to notice these murals, you start to notice that it goes beyond the comic culture of Belgium. There are many pictures that are painted on the sides of buildings, highlighting many different issues that are important to the people of Brussels. They are just not painted on the side of buildings, taking up the whole wall; instead, you have to look at the corners to find these great little pieces that still will make you laugh, but will also still tell a great story at the same time.

Some organizations took this spirit one step further to paint the spirit of their movement on their walls. It nice to see that this tradition came move beyond a simple idea to make the streets of the city prettier to see, but to also supply important political messages to the people of that same city.

These murals give Brussels its own distinct character that makes traveling here fun in unexpected ways. The cold winter days no longer seem daunting when you know that going from one place to another will come with it a quick trip back to your childhood. I love the way that the people of Brussels were able to take something that was completely unique to them and use it to give their city charm and character. So though I came for the frittes, chocolate and the beer, it was the murals that really captured my imagination while out in Belgium.

Westvleteren 12

The bottles have been stored behind the bar,
Waiting for the moment to pop the top.
The aroma will tell tales from afar
Of the history of the Trappist crop.
It must be poured into its holy grail;
Its crown will be a creamy head of foam.
The watering of your mouth will curtail
The last destination of the beer’s home.
It will travel to your table by tray,
Becoming the coaster’s guest of honor.
When the first sip finally comes to play,
The complexity will make you ponder.
The tradition has endured the ages
Without it ever changing its stages.

The Search for the World’s Best Beer – Brussels, Belgium

There comes a time in everybody’s life when they have to stop what they are doing and go out in search of something that in the grand scheme of things is not really important. It may cause you to travel to corners of the world that you have never been before, and you may have a hard time justifying this search to the people who you have responsibilities with. But still you should put those responsibilities aside and go out on that silly quest and in the end, discover that this silly quest was more important than you originally intended it to be.

My call to adventure actually came last April when my wife and I were looking at where we would travel to in the upcoming school year. Being in Jordan, the thought of Europe always comes up, and eventually all things on the map pointed to the land of frittes, chocolate and beer, Belgium. But then we had to ask ourselves when would be the perfect time to go, and that is when we started looking at the beginning of December as a way of celebrating an important birthday, my fiftieth. Rarely do I take time off of work to go out and do stuff for myself. I figure as a teacher that I get enough time off already, and I should be able to plan around that. But considering my birthday always falls at a busy time of the year, and I never really get to celebrate it, this was excuse enough to go out to Brussels for a long weekend and take a couple of days off in the process.

It wasn’t until the dates came closer that I found the main purpose of this trip. I was always going to go out to Brussels to drink some Trappist beers. They are some of my favorite beers in the world. But I was talking to a friend of mine who used to live in Brussels, and he told me about Westvleteren. He was telling me that this is considered to be the best beer in the world, and it is hard to come across one of the unassuming bottles with this brown nectar inside. He told me about the hidden corner, a block off the Grote Markt, where I could find the local bar that serves this beer. He even warned me about the price of 17 Euros to obtain a bottle.

It was all the incentive that I needed, and I was off to Brussels in search of this perfect beer. Of course, I could not buy one early in the morning. The bar that served it did not open until three o’clock in the afternoon. So I spent the day sightseeing and enjoying the Christmas market. I was brought back to my childhood as I enjoyed waffles and my favorite Christmas cookie, the speculoos. My mom used to make these when I was a kid, and we would always enjoy them on St. Nicholas Day. I had no idea that these were common cookies in Belgium, and was happy to find them all over the place.

Speaking of St. Nicholas Day, the city of Brussels was celebrating it as well. It was almost as if they were expecting me to come to relive my childhood. Their famous statue of a peeing child, the Manneken Pis, was dressed up as the valued saint on this day, and it made me chuckle to see him this way.

The peeing child was a common sight all over the city. It does bring a lot of people to the city in hopes of watching it pee, and to see what he will be wearing on any given day. There are apparently over 1000 different outfits that he has, and there are seems to be something special going on where he is wearing one of them. The people of Brussels have also found a way to make a joke out of him in a million ways. It goes great with the attitude of the city, and allowed for many moments of laughter as I made my way around the city.

Eventually, the sun dipped below the horizon, and the bars started to open their doors. We made our way to Au Bon Vieux Temps and laid down the 17 Euros for the best beer in the world.

Was it worth it?

In more ways than one. What was a silly little quest turned out to be a memorable trip and a birthday I will never forget. I am glad that I took those days off, and maybe I shouldn’t wait another ten years to take a little side trip like this. They are always worth the quest.