How Do You Spell Overrated? Manneken Pis!

Can somebody explain what all the fuss is about?

Can somebody explain what all the fuss is about?

A pilgrimage to see the Manneken Pis is a requirement for anyone visiting Brussels. The small statue is only 61 cm tall (two feet if you use Imperial measurements) and probably the most photographed object in all of Belgium. Tourists flock to see it. In two trips to Brussels I have yet to figure out why.

I suppose I could have asked someone, but I didn’t really care enough to do so. I would have happily skipped seeing it this summer, but Vivian said she had never seen it, despite our daughter\s assertions that they saw it together in 2012. Since she didn’t remember it seems to me she was underwhelmed, but since we were staying only a couple of blocks away a return visit made sense.

“Just go down the street until you see all the Asians,” we were told at the front desk of our hostel. Intent on her search for this iconic statue Vivian walked right past it, ignoring the group of Asian tourists clustered at the corner. I had to call her back to take her picture with it.

So what is the attraction? Why does anyone really care about a statue of a small boy with a stream of water from his penis? (And why isn’t this in a garden somewhere is the question I would ask?) I presume there must have been some shock value when it was made, and some weird titillation that keeps the tourists coming. But it’s certainly no-where near as risqué as some of the frescoes in Pompei. The costumes in the City Museum are more interesting than the Manneken Pis itself. The statue has been dressed up on a semi-regular basis since the 17th century, and like Mattel’s Barbie doll, it has been costumed as pretty much everything over the years, from a firefighter and surgeon to a member of the Montreal Canadiens (that’s a Canadian ice hockey team. The statue has been dressed in the uniforms of a lot of sports teams), more than 900 costumes and increasing each year. And yes baseball fans, it has worn a Toronto Blue Jays uniform.

There are a number of stories told as to the origins of the idea for a peeing statue, none of which I will bother to repeat here. My guess is none of them are true, but they keep the tourists happy. And there are lots of tourists. Since the statue is on the street and there is no admission fee I doubt there are any official estimates. A conservative guess on my part says that of the 3.3 million people who visited Brussels in 2013 probably three million of them visited the Manneken Pis. The statue is used by merchants large and small in their marketing campaigns, it really is the symbol of Brussels.

In the end it really does boil down to marketing. We went to see the Manneken Pis not on its own merits, but because it is a “must see” for anyone who visits Brussels. Friends and family would think you were strange to travel all that way and not see the city’s most famous attraction. So we perpetuated the cycle.

Still, I suppose there is something to be said about a common tourist experience. In four weeks in Europe this summer we did go off the beaten track from time to time, but sometimes there is an advantage to being part of the herd. Just don’t ask me today what it is. And I still think the Manneken Pis is vastly overrated – nowhere near as impressive as the Happy Rock in Gladstone Manitoba.

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