***image1***I had heard rumors of the unprecedented quality of Belgian chocolate, so when I arrived in Brussels, Belgium, chocolate topped my shopping list. I had many requests from friends to bring back a bit of this precious elixir, but I was skeptical as to whether I would really discern any difference between Belgian chocolate and the local German variety.
Being my first excursion to Brussels, I was completely taken with its elegance and grandeur and a bit overwhelmed by its size. Within the city, major roads run in a series of loops, which makes driving a challenge. However, after reaching my first destination, I was easily able to maneuver to all other points of interest by using the subway system.
Rising above the Cinquantenaire Park, I spied the Triumphal Arch, commissioned by King Leopold II in 1880 to celebrate the young country’s 50th anniversary. It is flanked on either side by the beautiful Bordiau Exposition Halls, which currently house the Museum of Art and History of Belgium on the south side and the Royal Army Museum on the north side.
Open daily and admission free, the Royal Army Museum is a treasure trove for military buffs boasting 100,000 items on display including an extensive collection of uniforms and weaponry from the two world wars. Children will enjoy the hands on experience of exploring a mock bunker from World War II. They will be thrilled to spy “The Red Baron” flying overhead in his infamous Fokker DR I tri-plane.
The outer courtyard offers an impressive collection of restored tanks from various countries and time eras, and there is a hangar that houses aircraft ranging from early flight to the present. Everyone will enjoy climbing into a U.S. fighter jet and trying their hand at the controls. The gift shop, although devoid of chocolate, offered a variety of military patches, pins and model airplane kits in every price range. My family could have easily spent an entire day exploring this one museum, but the chocolate was calling.
We crossed town to the Royal Palace, home to His Majesty King Albert II of Belgium, which is open for tours from July through September. We explored the Royal Park, which even in the dreariness of winter, takes on an ethereal beauty due to the abundance of classical white marble statues that are its permanent residents. We marveled at the trees, whose branches are purposely woven together in the style of giant grape arbors and wondered what new beauty spring would bring. Noting the lack of chocolate shops in the park, we pushed on toward the Grand-Place, or the town square.
***image2***Along the Rue Marche Aux Herbes, I found what I had been seeking. Each window I peered into featured chocolate creations beyond imagination, each more tempting than the next. Finally, I made a random choice and emerged carrying several smartly wrapped packages still savoring the “manon expresso cream” sample that the shop owner had bestowed upon me for throwing credit card and caution to the wind.
Satisfied, we continued our stroll to the Grand-Place, enjoying performances of street musicians and mimes along the way. The intricate and ornate guild buildings and the gothic town hall were illuminated and resplendent as the sun began to sink below the horizon. In awe, we crossed the square, touched the “lucky statue” of Everard’t Serclaes, a medieval hero, and headed toward the most famous tourist attraction in Brussels.
At the corner of Rue de L’Etuve and Rue du Chene we spotted him, the centuries-old little bronze boy perched on a fountain answering nature’s call. One legend has it that a small boy watered against the door of a witch, and she was so infuriated that she turned him into the statue. Whatever the reason for his existence, he is a comic delight and is often dressed in costume. His extensive wardrobe of more than 600 outfits is on display at the King’s House City Museum in the Grand-Place.
Residents fondly dub him the “Mannekin-Pis;” however, there is a chocolate shop sporting his true name, “Le Petit Julian,” directly across the street. This shop offers yet another tourist attraction – a chocolate fountain that cycles 8 kilograms of liquid chocolate per minute. It also sells chocolate miniatures of “Le Petit Julian.” Of course, I bought two!
Savoring my last bon-bon, I am planning another trip to Brussels for chocolate, but next time I’ll be sure to take the train.