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Charming Brussels, Belgium:
the “In” place to visit
Brussels, the Capital of the European Union, is not only a busy metropolis with charming neighborhoods, world-class shopping and hotels, cultural life, museums, architecture, but a foodie heaven plentiful of gastronomic restaurants, fabulous beers, brasseries, regional cheeses and foods, street vendors, and chocolatiers.
By Simone Zarmati Diament
Close by, spellbound camera-flashing crowds gather around the Manneken Pis, the diminutive peeing statue that oddly came to symbolize Brussels, wondering which of his 710 outfits on display at the Brussels City Museum he will wear that day. He was naked.
Who would expect such sense of humor in the Capital of Belgium and the Capital of the European Union?
This city of around 1 million inhabitants, at least 25% of which are employed in one or another related administrative position, is where the future of Europe is being debated. And yet... comic strips are everywhere: in the form of city sponsored urban graffiti or giant frescoes on house façades and covered arcades -- mall-like galleries that rival those of Milan or Genoa.
And the temple of whimsy is the Museum of Comic Strip Art, a must-see building designed by architect Victor Horta in 1906, where Hergé’s Tintin and Captain Haddock are kings among a plethora of characters that have delighted kids since the birth of the comic strip.
This is the country that gave birth to surrealist painter Magritte, mystery writer Georges Simenon, creator of the famous inspecteur Maigret, to the irreverent graphic artist Felicien Rops contemporary of Baudelaire and to Jacques Brel, the poet, songwriter and singer
Hip young people, chic women in designer’s clothes, street performers with or without their dog, tourists and business people fill the streets. As the music and songs of Jacques Brel, telling of the melancholy dark gray skies of Flanders, and the boring Belgian bourgeois life, resonate in my head, I can only recognize the skies, overcast even in summer. Brussels has changed.
It is not only a bustling cosmopolitan metropolis with charming neighborhoods, sophisticated shopping, a rich cultural life, museums, Gothic and beguiling Art Nouveau architecture, but an exciting foodie center plentiful of gastronomic restaurants, brasseries, cafés and bistros, with fabulous beers, regional cheeses and foods, street vendors, and chocolatiers.
In the heart of Europe, Brussels has a bit of every capital I’ve been to in Europe, without the hyped prices. And best of all, the city is on a human scale with everything at a walking distance, even though you can depend on good public transportation. A 4-euro all-day pass can get you almost anywhere, either by subway, tram or bus.
From the very centrally located hotel where I stayed, Le Meridien, right in front of the Central Train Station, I could walk anywhere as I discovered this city I remembered as stiff and dull.
Stumbling upon the magnificent Grand Place or Grote Markt – today a UNESCO world Heritage - I was amazed. It completely overwhelmed me to stand in the middle of this grand space that writer Victor Hugo described as “Europe's most beautiful square” which hosts the annual Ommegang Pageant, a spectacular reenactment of Emperor Charles V's entry into the city in 1549.
The jewel of the Grand’ Place, The Town Hall or l’Hotel de Ville, one of the most remarkable architectural works in Europe, is a witness to the vicissitudes of history. First built in 1421, this stunning building was destroyed by the French King Louis XIV in 1695, and then rebuilt at the start of the 18th century.
The surrounding houses, homes to different guilds of craftsmen -- brewers, bakers, butchers, tailors and ironmongers among many others -- from as early as the 13th century have unique façades of dissimilar styles sporting coats or arms or trade, statues and latticework. Once the place to find all of Brussels' food markets, the Grand’ Place is now inhabited by 21st century businesses, lively cafes and restaurants sprawling onto the plaza. The surrounding streets, named after the foods for which they were famous, such as Rue Marché aux Herbes (Herb Market St.), or Rue Chair et Pain (Meat and Bread St.) are still home to many of the city's traditional style restaurants and cafés.
I had the great fortune of watching a free opera performance of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci in the Grand’ Place at dusk while sitting in a terrace café, sipping wine and eating cheeses. With the last aria, the Town Hall 300-foot-high spires magically lit up against the night, and I strolled to one of the side streets for another treat: a hot Belgian waffle sprinkled with sugar.
History, Waffles, Mussels and Frites
In Brussels most everybody speaks English, aside from Flemish, German and French and most everybody is willing to talk about the country’s rich past, as if 16th Century Emperor Charles V who was actually born in Ghent and was said to speak "Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to his horse", or Emperor Maximilian and the Austro Hungarian Empire were around the corner.
Another testimony of the complexity of Belgium’s history is the splendid St. Michel and St. Gudule Cathedral with its remarkable 16th century stained glass windows, and its stunning organ made from 4300 pipes. It is a synthesis of several styles: Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque which reflect the various empires that parceled and ruled this small country until it became independent in the 19th century.
Other highlights: The House of Parliament, the Royal Palace and its park lined with linden trees, the museums and the Court of Justice next to which are the excavations of the underground Justice Hall and Palace of Charles V which turned up when a new parking lot was being built
In the city center one surprise follows another as you turn from one street to the next corner. The glass-and-iron-roofed Galleries St. Hubert, an art nouveau shopping arcade built in 1847 with quaint boutiques, book stores, chic cafes and chocolate stores, leads to the exuberant Rue des Bouchers: jammed with people, teaming sidewalk display mounds of fresh seafood that restaurant serve along with regional fare like the traditional mussels and frites dipped in mayonnaise like the ones we had at Chez Leon washed down with Brussels’ famous handmade beers: Geuze, Kriek or Lambic. Stands sell hot waffles sprinkled with sugar or with a huge variety of toppings to satisfy the most insatiable American tastes.
A walk to the beautiful Sablon Square leads to a square surrounded with houses from the 16th to the 19th century known for its antique dealers, decorative outlets and fine antique shops. Its many regional restaurants, wine bars, chic restaurants and cafés are local haunts where Belgians and visitors alike can feast on mussels and oyster from Zeeland, lobsters and shrimp from Ostende, skate in all its variations... and chocolate shops.
Belgium has one of the world's highest chocolate consumption rates, at an average of more than 15 pounds per person per year. With a yearly production of over 172,000 tons of chocolate, there are more than 2,000 chocolate stores, 200 of which are in Brussels. All of them are a magnet for tourists and locals alike. Connoisseurs consider Belgian chocolate the best in the world, thanks to the high percentage of cocoa, the ultra-fine grind of the cocoa beans and tiny amounts of added alcohol.
It is not uncommon to see serious, life-changing decisions being made as people hesitate between artful displays of hand made bonbons, heavenly ganaches, lush truffles or pralines at the jewel-like boutique of Wittamer’s -- the Sablon Square chocolatier, official purveyor to the Belgian royal family, where the British chocolate designer Michael Lewis-Anderson gives free rein to his imagination with exquisite chocolate creations or eccentric chocolate for wear designs (Louis Vuitton shoes, hats...) made with a variety of chocolates; or at USA distributed Marcolini and Neuhaus – the inventor of the “praline,” a chocolate cover with a creamy nutty filling –, or Galler, who specializes in the dark chocolate. At an adjacent two-stories boutique and café we sampled chocolates then at tea-time had Wittamer’s pastries with coffee, and the best hot chocolate in town.
The selection of Brussels as the capital of the European Union in 1993 marked the inclusion of international fare, trendy and cutting-edge food to traditional fare. You can still expect the hearty waterzooi of chicken stew, or have a first course of fat white asparagus from Maline in May and June with the delicious little grey shrimp from Ostende. But it takes restaurants like the Vert de Gris to combine both, drizzle them with truffle oil and make a stupendous dish.
Belga Queen, a sleek brasserie with a stunning décor set in a former hotel and bank on rue Fossé aux Loups, is designed, conceived and owned by genial restaurateur Antoine Pinto: an oyster and martini bar offers a selection of over 600 local beers, and the menu at a chic dining area under a high, vaulted, stained-glass ceiling lists fabulous dishes prepared almost exclusively with Belgian ingredients.