Friday, August 27, 2010

The hunt for Manneken Pis

The most famous inhabitant of Brussels is a tiny, curly-haired boy, standing proud and naked above the heads of passers-by, urinating nonchalantly into a stone basin all day long. His posture is self-confident and defiant, as if daring anyone to keep him from performing this act of public indecency.

Manneken Pis ('Little Man Piss'), is a 400-year-old statue fountain at the junction of Rue de l'Étuve/Stoofstraat and Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat. He was one of my main targets when I penetrated Brussels for the first time in July 2009.

My fiancé would have preferred to avoid "ugly Brussels" completely during my first visit to Belgium, but she finally agreed to show me what she referred to as "the nice parts". I was excited about seeing the de facto capital of Europe up close for the first time, and I wanted to take some pictures of the imposing buildings and vibrant city life.

The town of Halle, our 'home base', lies southwest of Brussels proper. Ten minutes by train and you're at Brussels South, one of the capital's three main railway stations. It is the departure point for the white and yellow Eurostar, bound for London, and the maroon and silver Thalys, heading into France. A trip to Paris on the Thalys will cost you about €80.

The railroad cuts Brussels in half from south to north. A little further along this axis you’ll find the Central Station. It is home to Guapa, the best smoothie bar in the world. This is what the station looks like on a normal day:

We got off the train at the North Station, which sits comfortably between the city's central shopping district and the political/business district. We decided to see the diplomats at a later time, and so we descended into the crowded shopping streets. To a guy who is used to chain stores and streamlined franchises, it was very refreshing to see how well small businesses seem to be getting along in Belgium.

A pair of old ladies sat in a cozy little wagon at the Muntplein, selling waffles straight from the iron. I had the feeling we weren't the first to ask them for directions to the Manneken Pis, but they were more than willing to help. In endless gratitude we bought two chocolate-covered waffles. I can still taste the sticky chocolate and the even stickier waffle, its sugary dough crunching between my teeth. My mouth runs over every time I think about it. After a fair bit of walking, passing places like the Drug Opera and a shop selling 'Manneken Fries', we suddenly found ourselves in a little square full of Asians. But we were not in Chinatown. Looking over their heads, I could just barely make out a tiny bronze statue, about the size of a loaf of bread, up on the far wall. We had found it.

Never have so many owed so much to someone so tiny.

After Manneken Pis was put in place almost four hundred years ago, legends have popped up with numerous explanations to the statue's origins. These are a few of the "theories":
  • The statue is inspired by Godfrey III of Leuven, who was only an infant at the time of his succession. During a battle, his army put him in a basket and hung the basket from a tree to encourage the troops. The child urinated on the heads of the enemy army, who retreated to change their clothes, giving Godfrey’s army the upper hand and, eventually, victory.
  • In the 14th century, Brussels was besieged by an army that planned to breach the city walls with an explosive charge. A little boy put out the burning fuse with his urine, thus saving the city.
  • The perhaps most plausible story tells of a little boy who saved the city from a great fire by putting it out with his pee.
Back to 2009. As cameras flashed and excited Asian murmurs filled the little square, I lifted my own Canon EOS 350D above the crowd and got some snaps. Then we left.

London has Big Ben. Rome has the Colosseum. Paris has the Eiffel Tower. Brussels, the capital of Europe, has a tiny peeing boy. This is Belgium.


  1. Very, very, very well written! You impress me each time :) It may seem like a long post, but it's not boring at all because you filled it up with variation (the little movie at the central station) and fun facts. You're a master writer, baby :) never stop! <3 <3 <3

  2. You know how much that means to me :) <3