Brussels has a history stretching back way beyond the 10th century, when the first written reference to it can be found. Its name likely comes from a Frankish word meaning “settlement in the marshes”, but it has come a long way since the days when it was little more than a village sitting in the swampy terrain of the Senne valley. An inauspicious start for a city that is today unofficially known as the Capital of Europe.
While it may have become the largest metropolitan area in Belgium and now plays host to the institutions of the European Union, at heart it still feels like the small town it was for centuries. Its historic centre may boast an array of gorgeous medieval buildings grouped around the Grand Place, but the monumental buildings of other European capitals are conspicuous by their absence.
What it lacks in show stopping sights, Brussels more than compensates for with a rich cultural life, great food, and a uniquely quirky personality. Which other city would adopt a trio of statues themed around urination as its most iconic images? True, Copenhagen has the Little Mermaid, but she is not urinating. In another city, this might be deemed inappropriate, but here it’s just one example of Belgium’s sense of the weird.
It’s hard to understand and even harder to explain why Brussels is synonymous with statues of peeing children and animals. The most famous is Little Julien, better known to the world as Manneken Pis, or “peeing little man”. Like the Mona Lisa, the statue’s fame far exceeds its physical size. It turns out that “peeing little man” is a literal description.
The name Manneken Pis was first recorded in the 15th century. Over the intervening centuries many legends have sprung up to explain why there’s a statue of a peeing boy on the corner of a street in central Brussels. The most convincing is that this was formerly the area where Brussels’ medieval tannery industry was located. Children would be paid for their urine which was then used to soften the leather.
Manneken Pis is only a short distance from the Grand Place and attracts a steady stream of admirers. Walk past it today and you’ll likely find a group of onlookers taking selfies in front of the peeing child. You’ll also see at least some people looking on bemused, as if trying to understand what all the fuss is about. Or trying to work out why the statue is wearing clothes.
Manneken Pis has a wardrobe of over 800 outfits and dressing up the tiny fellow has a history that stretches back – for reasons that are truly mystifying – to King Louis XV of France. The well dressed urchin is the oldest and most famous of the urinating statues, but the gender balance was finally redressed in 1987 when Brussels acquired a peeing girl, Jeanneke Pis.
She can be found squatting in an alleyway on the other side of the Grand Place close to one of Brussels’ most famous beer bars, Delirium Tremens. It attracts far fewer visitors despite being presented a little like one of the many Catholic ‘virgin statues’ you find dotted around. Completing our triumvirate of peeing statues is the very canine, Zinneke Pis, a urinating dog.
The good folk of Brussels are nicknamed Zinneke, but it originated as the name given to the stray dogs that were allowed to breed unchecked in Brussels during the 19th century. Zinneke Pis is located a stone’s throw from St. Catherine’s Church. Weirdly there is a public urinal along one wall of the church. So not only are three urinating statues major tourist attractions in the Belgium capital, you can also legally pee against a church.
Understanding Brussels may take time.
* With apologies to William Shakespeare