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Travel

Brussels the City to Come to Again
Text and photos by Piers Gladstone

The Royal Palace in Upper Town

Brussels was at best, a city low down on my list of must visit before I die places. However, after a wedding in Belgium this time last year I decided to add on two days before returning to Moscow so that I could visit a city I knew nothing about except that it was the home of the EU and has become synonymous with faceless bureaucrats and Euro MPs with generous expense accounts.

A damp and murky autumnal morning greets me as I step out onto the streets of Brussels. I head towards the Grand-Place, the central square in the Lower Town of Brussels, and the focal point for any selfrespecting tourist. The taller buildings en-route are shrouded in mist, lending the atmosphere a sense of melancholy and mystery. As I get closer to the Grand-Place, the streets get older and narrower. I pass Arcadi Café (rue des Chartreux 32) and I am drawn by its warm and cosy glow. I drink a coffee and sample one of their delicious tartes before reluctantly continuing around the corner and into the Galeries St-Hubert; three gorgeous glass-vaulted galleries that were opened as shopping arcades in 1847 and are now home to a collection of sophisticated boutiques, art galleries and chocolatiers. I stop in at one of the chocolate shops to admire the design of the shop and its display, and to breathe in the rich and seductive aroma. I ask the girl behind the counter how many manufacturers of chocolate there are in Belgium. I am not exactly sure, she tells me, but there are certainly more than 100.

The Grand-Place, surrounded by a tangle of narrow medieval alleys, is as beautiful and impressive (as well as expansive) as any other central square I have seen in the world. One whole side of the square is taken up by the Gothic beauty of the Hotel de Ville that is flanked by exquisite rows of Baroque guild houses, all with intricately carved facades towering over the cobblestones set below.

Belgiums famous waffles
delicious and messy to eat!

The square originally was a medieval market, which explains the food-orientated names of all the streets leading off of it. The architectural magnificence is almost too much to take in, so I decide to walk down one of the side streets in search of Brussels most famous sight and talisman, the Manneken Pis. What I find, surrounded by a gaggle of camera-toting Japanese tourists, is such a letdown that I laugh out loud. The bronze statue of a little child pissing is no more than 60cm tall. The Miniscule Piss would be a more appropriate name for this wee man.

I recross the Grand-Place and dive into the narrow cobble-stoned alleys, emerging onto rue des Bouchers, a winding medieval street whose every house has a restaurant on the ground floor. I walk the length of the street inspecting the menus as I go. I have a coffee while watching a waiter build a magnifi cent structure of seafood on a bed of ice that he sprays with water until it glistens enticingly, before retracing my footsteps and settling down at La Cotelette for a lunch of snails in garlic and red wine, followed by a steak and frites with a salad and a small dessert, all for the princely sum of 12.00 euro!

I decide to contrast the old world charms of Lower Town with a visit to the EU Quarter, Brussels newest district and the place that defines this city for many people, especially those who dont live here. As I get closer, so the buildings become more modern and the streets dustier and cluttered with the detritus of a large construction site. It seems that this area is still in the process of pulling down the old and building the new a fitting metaphor for the EU itself. The European Parliament building is a shiny and curvaceous 70 meter high building, and there is not a soul to be seen outside or in, except for a female statue holding a Euro symbol victoriously aloft, while at her feet several other stone people look up at her, their arms reaching upwards, almost as if they are begging to be accepted by her.

The Royal Palace in Upper Town

The only place I find any other people is the Information Center with shelves of EU propaganda pamphlets, such as Better Off In Europe, How the EU Single Currency Benefits You. I decide to leave.

The neighbouring districts of St. Gilles and Ixelles come as a blessed relief. There is life here in these bohemian and rapidly gentrifying quarters which for many years have been where the various immigrant communities of Brussels live. They are also home to some of the finest Art Nouveau buildings in Europe, which is fitting because Brussels was the birthplace of Art Nouveau architecture thanks to Victor Horta, and the house that he designed is now a wonderful museum that has been preserved in its original state (www.hortamuseum.be).

The cafés, restaurant and nightlife of St Gilles and Ixelles reflect the variety of the communities: Moroccan, Lebanese, Congolese and Vietnamese, to name but a few. I choose however to eat at a traditional wood-panelled Belgium brasserie, Volle Gas (place Fernand Cocq 21), and I am treated to a mouth-watering Kriek Lapin (rabbit cooked in cherry beer) which I wash down with a Leffe Blond  beer.

I start my next morning with a visit to the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee (The Belgium Comic Strip Center). Like many other visitors, I have come for one reason: Tintin. Brussels-born Georges Remi, aka Herge, created Tintin in 1929, and the success of his character and stories was global and continues to this day. The majority of the second floor of the center is dedicated to Tintin, with original sketches and drawings as well as fascinating display cabinets full of his research materials for such books as Tintin in Tibet. Afterwards I spend the best part of an hour buying books in the magnificent shop on the ground floor.

I have a fantastic lunch beneath the 19th century vaulted stained glass ceiling of the quietly sophisticated Belga Queen (rue Fosse aux Loups 32), before taking a walk along the 18th and 19th century avenues and grand boulevards of Upper Town, where traditionally the French-speaking upper-classes lived, and still do to some degree.

An ensemble of Upper Town architecture

I realize that each of the quarters I have visited have a distinct feel and are completely different from each other. Like in many American cities, a road or a set of tram tracks quite often marks the boundary between districts, and crossing them immediately leads one into a different environment, with a different history, community and atmosphere.

Two days in Brussels was something of a pleasant surprise. It is a complicated city and one that defies definition, probably because it has been continually re-defining itself. It is however, packed with culture and life (apart from the EU Quarter!), offers fantastic dining at reasonable prices, and while not an obvious choice for a city break, it is a city that I look forward to re-visiting and exploring in greater detail.







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