The Anatomy of a Tourist Trap

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Brussels, Belgium – April 2013

It’s not hard to find the Mannekin Pis, the famous symbol of Brussels. Just head towards the perpetual crowd by the side of the road. I’ve read that the Mannekin Pis frequently tops the list of most overrated tourist traps and roadside attractions in Europe. In Europe, the roads are cobblestone and the tourist traps are hundreds of years old. This lends a seriousness to the experience that’s different from that of my childhood in America’s upper Midwest. Every year on our trips to northern Michigan, I’d stare out the window of our orange wood-paneled station wagon as it passed billboards announcing Mystery Spot, where water runs uphill; Call of the Wild Museum which shows heart-pounding  depictions of wildlife; and most intriguing, Sea Shell City (try saying that one quickly) which has a 500 pound man- killing clam. I can still hear my grandmother’s voice, what do you want to stop at that tourist trap for? The tone of her voice implied that no answer would ever be convincing, so my brothers and sisters and I remained silent.

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The Mannekin Pis is the size of an overfed rodent. His expression is probably meant to be mischievous, but to me it looks like one of profound relief. People come and go from the crowd, so that it never totally disperses. Obedient smiles of wonder light up their faces. A man frowns in concentration as he lines his expensive camera up for a shot. I’m the only person who’s giggling.

Tourist traps can be great fun if you realize that the joke is on you. I learned this when my brother Billy and I visited Sea Shell City as adults. It was nothing more than a shop that sold shells and other detritus of the sea, including the Crucifix Fish, a small fish skeleton that’s naturally shaped like a crucifix. Reinforcement from nature for those who need it. Each box came with a picture of Jesus and a prayer. The man-killing clam sat on a shelf and had a light bulb screwed into it. We almost got kicked out for laughing so loudly. However, we knew that Sea Shell City was a tourist trap. On a road trip to Tombstone, Arizona, an ancient local man told us that no visit to Tombstone was complete without a visit to the Hist-O-Rama. Billy and I sat amongst other tourists in a darkened theater and watched a beige mound decorated with houses, cowboys, and indians as it lit up with blinking lights and spun around on a turntable. Vincent Price’s sinister voice narrated the history of Tombstone to the accompaniment of recorded gunshots and screams. At one point the turntable got stuck for a few seconds, and then it broke free with a loud ping. The other spectators watched with rapt attention. Billy and I exchanged glances and bit our lips to keep from laughing out loud. At ourselves.

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I linger at this small crossroads and marvel. The waffle and chocolate shops have at least one weenie wagging effigy gracing their doorways or windows. Talk about an appetite killer. I take it all in with a huge smile. It’s kitsch overload like I haven’t seen in years. I’ve been to other so-called tourist traps in Europe – the Eiffel Tower, the Coliseum, Monmartre. However, if you take away the tacky souvenirs and the mobs of tourists, they are genuinely impressive.

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Kiddie corner from the statue is the Mannekin Pis pub. The neon sign includes a small silhouette of the statue. Sadly, it’s barely discernible in the daylight. I imagine that the draft beer dispensers are interesting. I peer inside, but a scowling bartender discourages me from venturing in further.

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On my last day in Brussels, I make one last lap around the old city and circle back to the Mannekin Pis. It’s a sunny day and the crowd is larger and more boisterous. The statue is cloaked in red and yellow finery. People jostle each other for a closer shot. I stand back and take photos of the unsuspecting spectators.

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56 thoughts on “The Anatomy of a Tourist Trap

  1. Love this post! 🙂 It made me think – there are so many quotes by Colin Farrell’s character in the movie “In Bruges” that I attribute to Brussels, and now the “overfed rodent” just made my day! 😀
    ps: I always wonder, why there are no crowds like that at Jeanneken Pis? No gender equality in the so called heart of EU. 😀

  2. I love the juxtaposition of those naughty statues and your magnificent prose. You brought back Sea Shell City to my mind and I could picture the tourist trap in Tombstone. This essay reminded me of the ancient, animated clock in Berne. I can still see the hundred-or-so off-season tourists standing around with their cameras, waiting to see the ten-second show.
    Only to be replaced with another hundred-or-so for the next hour’s excitement.

    • Sea Shell City is a northern Michigan icon. There’s a clock in Prague that’s similar to the one in Bern. My husband and I watched the expressions on people’s faces rather than the brief show. It was funny to see the anticipation turn to bafflement and then embarrassment. We felt like we got our time’s worth.

  3. Another excellent piece. Here is an admission – in all the years I went to Brussels I never once sought out the Mannekin Pis, instead I spent much of my non-working time in here – http://www.alamortsubite.com/…..this is the place I first went with my future wife, does this make it a tourist trap 🙂 . The name of the place doesn’t bode well but it all worked out wonderfully.

    • You never sought it out, but did you happen upon it by accident? It’s so close to Grand Place, it seems like it would be difficult to avoid. I passed by that pub. I think the one that’s the tourist trap is called Delirium. Belgian beer is the best!

  4. You have to admit it though, these tourist traps will turn your curiousity on as you’d like to know what’s the fuss all about. So in any case, you will get trapped. Lol.

    • That’s so true, especially in Europe. Names such as Mannekin Pis sound so much more elegant and mysterious than the World’s Largest Ball of Twine. Unless you happen to be fascinated by twine. 😉

  5. So funny, imagine bringing home a statue of a peeing child and putting it on your mantle piece!

  6. Thank you for bringing me back to this little city. Oddly enough, I didn’t know about Monsignor Mannekin while I was there so I didn’t even see him. I did go to the exact waffle shop depicted in your photograph (I wish I could multi-task like Mannekin!).

    I spent most of my time at Chez Leon, Floris Absinthe Bar and Delerium Bar. Anyway, thanks for bringing me back. Great fun.

    • Hahaha. He does have the multi-asking mastered. The waffle shop is right next to him! He is diminutive, though. Without the crowd, one could easily pass by without noticing. Sounds like you had fun anyway. 🙂

  7. My dear friend, you always give me something to think about. I have often wondered about the attraction of tourist traps. What makes people wait in lines for hours, go into overcrowded walkways? I think it is the same psychology that is displayed when people want to see a movie on opening night. Somehow being there first is being a part of history, to say that they were at a specific point in time that was important. To tell their friends that they saw the Mona Lisa, the leaning tower of Pisa, an “over-sized rodent.” I have a friend who who went on the famous walk for freedom when Martin Luther King Jr gave his, “I have a dream” speech. I have heard my friend’s story many times, his eyes still tearing up at the memory.

    BTW, I have been in tourist traps with my camera and have one of those small Eiffel towers hanging beside my computer. It gives me a memory, of being where Ray Bradbury starts his journey across Paris with a book of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s in his hand.

    I reread your post several times, and noticed that you went back one last time. That is exactly what I do. The last thing I did before leaving Florence was to rub the snout of “il Porcellino” to ensure that one day I would return. I am still waiting.

    A wonderful post. Thank you!

    • Most tourists just go where they’re told to go, and, like you said, they can say that they were there. The guidebook says that it’s interesting and so it must be. I’m not above buying a tacky souvenir if it’s really original and obnoxious.

      Hope you get to return to Florence one day. 🙂

  8. I have to say I been to a couple of tourist traps (you mention a couple here) and they all have been in tours, but since I went with a friend who lived in Europe, he told us to do a couple of them and when the tours let us do our thing for a couple of hours we did, they also take you to crappy restaurants too. For me Belgium was fun, we got a bit drunk one night, but their waffles are amazing. That last picture is priceless one guy is even pointing out to the Mannekin Pis like is the best thing in the world, we humans follow in too many traps, but that is what life is all about I guess.

    • Ah, yes. Tours are notorious for shuttling people from one world famous attraction to another and in between are crappy restaurants. I always make an effort to avoid restaurants in the tourist areas of a city. They are terrible. The ones here in Budapest are particularly bad – rude service, watered down beer, inedible food, insultingly overpriced. However, when I happen to walk down the main tourist street, the tourists seem to just be resigned to it. Again, these places are in the guidebook so they must be good. It’s so worth it to take a little extra time and research restaurants. It’s not that difficult. There are websites that have reviews.

      Belgian waffles are indeed delicious…I’m still trying to work off the weight I gained from my trip!

  9. Really true! this Manneken Pis is overrated, I even took a day trip just to see this! hahahah… well, at least I got to see it for myself. How are you J? I am in just a very busy mode these days. Have you moved already? Please email me your addy. I’d like to send you a card.

  10. Interesting & great post, comme d’hab’, chère Mademoiselle… 🙂
    First of all: I love Belgium & its capital… 2nd of all: we always avoid tourist traps, as we do study and get informed before we go on any trip abroad… 🙂 Have a serene day and a wonderful week! My very best & good luck in all your endeavours, cheers! Mélanie

  11. I grew up in Michigan too and know all those tourist trap signs well. I’m not sure whether to be thankful my parents never stopped at them on road trips, or whether I missed some lessons about life that have nothing to do with the tourist traps. Depends on how far and inconvenient they are from the freeways, I guess!

    • Tourist traps always seem to be conveniently located near a highway off ramp or main drag. 😉 What amazes me is how most of those old northern Michigan haunts are still open!

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