Travelers to Europe bypass attractions of Belgium, Brussels

Updated: 2013-10-21 00:44

(China Daily)

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Xu Hairong, a friend from my home province of Sichuan, recently made her first trip to Europe with her parents. Living in the European capital for more than three years, I was eager to show my friend around the tiny but picturesque Belgium if our schedules permitted.

After Xu landed in Rome, she and her parents went on a bus tour from one city to another. Xu said they would stay for two hours in Brussels on their way from Amsterdam to Paris. Fortunately, they were allowed to leave the group of 40 tourists for a while and to be with me.

How to pack the essentials of Belgium into a two-hour visit is a tough challenge. As they arrived at lunchtime, I first treated them to a meal in the crowded seafood street in the downtown, recommending traditional Belgian beers and mussels, which many Chinese call two of the four treasures of Belgium. It takes more than one hour to chat and eat.

Walking out of the narrow seafood street, they passed along a line of chocolate shops, the "third treasure" Chinese talk about in Belgium. The fourth is diamonds, which are traded in Antwerp, a world-famous trading center for the precious gems.

With bags of chocolate, I hurriedly led them to the Grand Place, the central square in Brussels, which is just a block from the seafood street. After taking photos while cheering the towering gothic buildings lining the square, they had to leave for to see the iconic Manneken Pis, a bronze fountain statue of a little boy peeing into a basin and arguably the most visited tourist attraction in Brussels.

Xu said the statue was shorter than expected, but that didn't hamper their enthusiasm of posing for a photo in front of the statue.

After the photo session, they waved goodbye to me and hurried off to meet their fellow tourists. They had stayed only about 30 seconds at Brussels' most visited attraction.

After such a hurried meeting, I found the visit superficial. With such a hurried scheduled, it was hard to really taste the beauty of Brussels and Belgium amid their two-week, 10 European country tour.

Another friend, named Peng, recently visited Brussels. Standing in the center of Grand Place, his memory was gradually refreshed by the stunning gothic and Flemish churches. "Jing, I had been here five years ago," Peng told me suddenly. Five years ago, he joined a similar tourist group and visited Brussels on the way to Paris from Amsterdam.

But his memory of the city went almost blank after he returned to China.

Based on my three-year stay and my friends' travel experiences, I found that the values of Belgium and Brussels have been downplayed in such travel arrangements. As a tourist destination, Brussels may not match the status of Paris, London, Rome, Geneva and Berlin. But it is famous for a magnificent royal palace, themed museums and churches scattered throughout the city, and these deserve exploration.

Brussels is a double capital, because it also hosts the headquarters of the European Union. My office is close to the EU buildings, but I seldom see Chinese tourists visit the buildings of the European Commission and European Council, around Schumann Square — named after Robert Schuman, a French politician who was the founding father of the peace project in Europe.

As the integration of the European Union gathers paces, it is vital for the EU to display the importance of Schuman Square to the world. If its fame grows to equal that of Tian'anmen Square in Beijing, Red Square in Moscow and Times Square in New York, Brussels will keep Chinese tourists for more than two hours.

And don't forget that Brussels is also headquarters of North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which could be an attraction for tourists if more promotion is done.

Of course, driving out of Brussels, ancient towns such as Bruges, Namur, Dinant and the port city Antwerp also deserve high recommendation. I hope, for Chinese tourists such as Peng and Xu, their next trip to Belgium will last much longer. They won't be disappointed.