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Top 6 places to take in Brussels folklore

10:08 10/10/2014

For those who missed Folklorissimo, Brussels’ folkore festival that took place at the end of September, it’s never too late to take in some of the capital’s rich folkloric sights and sounds. Amid comic books and creepy dolls, Brussels folk traditions give a glimpse of the city’s motley past as a place of conquest and commerce for over a millennium.

1. Manneken, Jeanneke, Zinneke

Whether of man, woman or beast, no city celebrates public urination quite like Brussels does. The very symbol of the city lies in a 61cm statue of a small boy peeing. The Manneken Pis, as the 17th-century figure is known throughout the world, is explained – in perhaps the city’s greatest piece of folklore of all – either by the story that the boy peed out a fire that would have otherwise burnt the city or that he was caught peeing on the house of a witch who turned the young offender into stone.

Then there’s Manneken’s sister, Jeanneke Pis. Erected in 1987, this little girl squats merrily to relieve herself whilst partygoers file past, filling the narrow, beer-flooded alley that holds Delirium Café and Floris Bar.

Finally there’s Zinneke Pis (pictured). While the Manneken Pis may be the most famous symbol of Brussels, Zinneke Pis might be the one closest to the Brusselaars’ heart. In the Brussels dialect, Zinneke, taken from the Zinne (or Senne in French), the name of the small river that used to run through old Brussels, refers both to people from Brussels and to the stray dogs that used to roam the river banks.

Created in 1999 by sculptor Tom Frantzen and found on Rue du Vieux Marché aux Grains, Zinneke Pis celebrates the spirit of Brussels as a gathering place for strays looking for some comfort and conviviality.

2. A city of asses

There was time when the commune of Schaerbeek was filled with groves of cherry trees. The fruits of the trees were of the sour variety and used to make Brussels’ famous kriek beer.

As the cherries were too heavy for humans to carry in great quantities, donkeys were used to porter the cherries to Brussels’ main market square. The sight of cherry-carting donkeys became so associated with Schaerbeek that the town became known as the “city of donkeys”.

Signs of its asino history can still be found throughout the commune today. Donkeys are still kept in Josaphat Park, in the middle of the commune, and several of the main avenues are lined with the very same trees that earned a living for so many of the quarter’s residents.

One of the best vestiges of a donkey past is the wonderfully cosy Brussels cafe L'Âne Fou / De Zotten Ezel (The Crazy Donkey), tucked right behind the church of Saint Maria, which serves up still-local lambics and plenty of local charm.

3. Marionettes

Some find them hilarious, others just plain creepy, but you’d be hard pressed to spend any time in Brussels without running into a marionette or two. Whether it’s in the Poechenellekelder cafe across from the Manneken Pis or the International Puppet Museum in Ixelles, these stringed friends have long been a mainstay of Brussels folkloric tradition.

The most famous place for some live marionette action is the Théâtre Royal de Toone, a bar and theatre that puts on full operas using the puppets, sometimes narrating the stories in the local Brussels dialect.

Toone has been through many stages, starting in 1830 in the Marolles with puppeteer Antoine Genty, who was known as Toone I. Today the theatre lies in the city centre and is directed by puppet master Nicolas Géal, who was granted the title Toone VIII by Brussels mayor Freddy Thielemans.

4. 't Serclaes statue

Off Brussels’ flamboyant Grand Place, at the start of the small side street just to the left of the city hall, you’ll often see a small group of tourists rubbing a hand down the length of a well-worn bronze statue of a prostrate robed figure.

The statue is of Everard ‘t Sercales, who helped recover the city of Brussels for the Brabant Duchy from the invading Count of Flanders in the 14th century.

In 1355, John III of Brabant died, leaving his throne to his daughter Joanna and her husband, Wenceslaus I of Luxembourg. However, Louis II, the Count of Flanders, disputed the Brabant claim to Brussels and quickly invaded and seized the city.

October 24 marks the 658th anniversary of the night that Brabant patriot ‘t Serclaes led a group of Brabantians over Brussels’ city walls and ousted the Flemings in 1356. The event allowed Joanna and Wenceslaus to make what they called their Joyous Entry into Brussels and issue a legal charter (also called the Joyous Entry) that established a rule of law in the lowlands – delineating the various powers of the churches, towns and nobility – similar to that of the Magna Carta in Great Britain.

In return for his service, ‘t Serclaes became alderman of Brussels and a statue was erected in his honour in the 19th century. It is said that stroking the statue will bring good luck and ensure one's return to the city of Brussels.

5. Giants of the Marolles

First there were Zotte Louitje, Pitje Scramouille and Jef Fluister. Unfortunately, despite being giants of their time, over the ages their names have been all but forgotten.

These were the names of the three original giants of the Marolles, Brussels’ charming folk neighbourhood known for its vibrant daily flea market and row after row of antique shops. Since 1977, thanks largely to the efforts of the Association of Tradespersons of the Quartier Bruegel-Marolles, a revival of the neighbourhood’s giants has taken place.

The giants are exactly what they sound like: large papier-mâché dolls – all over three metres tall with the tallest towering at six metres – which are taken out for the yearly Festival of Rue Haute, celebrating the Marolles' rich history as one of Brussels’ oldest and most authentic quarters.

Today there are 12 giants, all but three of whom were built by local Marolles artisans. The matriarch is Dorotijke of Rue Haute, the first giant built in 1977 and who, together with Georges of Rue Blaes, was presented to King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola as the official nobility of the Marolles.

You’ll have to wait till next September to see the giants on parade again, but in the meantime, you could see if you can scrounge up a bottle of the Cuvée des Géants, a refreshing rosé made in honour of the Marolles’ celebrated citizens and sold at neighbourhood establishments and the Delhaize Proxi on Rue Haute in the Marolles around the time of the quarter’s September festivities.

6. Meyboom

There are several stories behind Brussels’ tradition of the planting of the Meyboom, a tree cut from the Forêt des Soignes and replanted at the corner of corner of Rue du Marais and Rue des Sables in Brussels city centre.

Some say the tradition, which dates back to 1213, celebrates Brussels’ victory in an attack by Ghent. Another legend says the planting of the Meyboom took place after a short battle between Brussels and Leuven about taxes placed on beer. Brussels won and planted a tree to declare its victory.

Regardless of its origins, every year on August 9 before 17.00, the citizens of Brussels plant a tree in a Unesco-recognised ceremony organised by the Brotherhood of Saint Lawrence on the eve of that saint’s feast day. In 2014, the city of Brussels planted the Meyboom for the 706th time.

While it’s a light-hearted event, some rivalry still exists between the ancient foes of Brussels and Leuven concerning the Meyboom. The (unofficial) rules state that Brussels must plant the Meyboom before 17.00 or the privilege of planting the tree goes to Leuven. In 1939, residents of Leuven stole the Meyboom tree, but Brussels chopped down a second tree and planted it just in the nick of time.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Written by Katy Desmond