By Carol Sorgen
Been to Brussels lately? If you routinely bypass this hip, trendy city in favor of that other French-speaking city nearby (oui, I’m talking about Paris), then it’s time to re-think your next itinerary. That’s right…I said hip and trendy. Probably not the first adjectives that would have come to mind, right?
Well, Brussels is no longer the dowdy stepsister. This centrally located European hub is enjoying a Renaissance and, believe it or not, has become a lively cosmopolitan center that draws students, businesspeople, political leaders, and even artists and fashion designers from around the world.
I’ve been to Brussels several times but there’s been a noticeable change even in the two years since my last visit. New buildings are going up, old buildings are being refurbished, and everyone is in a good mood. Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more jolly lot in Europe these days.
I try to stop in Brussels as often as I can to visit Betty, a friend of my father’s since his days serving in Belgium during World War II. Neither my father nor Betty is doing much traveling abroad these days, so I’m the more-than-willing link in this 60-plus-year friendship.
On this visit I flew into Brussels for a five-day stop before going on to Paris—-you might want to consider doing the same (or in reverse) yourself. If you can’t find a round-trip flight to Paris, especially if you’re trying to use frequent flyer miles, think about flying in or out of Brussels, and then catching the 90-minute TGV (tres grand vitesse) train to or from Paris. Just make sure you give yourself enough time to visit Brussels (and some of the other nearby towns as well, including Bruges, Antwerp, and Ghent).
While I’ve always had the advantage of a built-in tour guide in Betty and her family, this time I decided to venture out on my own for a bit to focus on some of the things I’ve missed on previous visits. I arranged for a guided walking tour through the Belgian Tourist Office and the friendly, informative (and English-speaking) Lieve Ceulemans met me at my hotel. We set off on a 3-hour walk through the streets of Brussels, with Lieve pointing out not only some of the city’s history and major sights, but also taking me into areas that she thought would be of particular interest because of my writing assignments—such as the Dansaert district, a mecca for hip, young fashion and interior designers, and the Sablon, the city’s antiques center (more on this later).
What to See
Not to be missed, of course, on any—and every—visit to Brussels is the city’s focal point, the Grand Place. This lively square was once the economic and administrative center of the city; today it is filled with cafes and lined with shops (the Belgian Tourist Office also has a location here, in the Hotel de Ville, so you can pick up maps, guidebooks, etc.). There’s always something going on here, whether it’s a flower market, book fair, art festival, or simply tourists and Bruxellois alike out to enjoy an espresso or a beer as they soak in the centuries-old architecture that flanks the square.
Don’t be afraid to venture into the shops around the Grand Place; many are designed for tourists, but you don’t have to spend a lot of money for an authentic touch of Brussels. I picked a miniature Belgian lace parasol for my niece for only 6 euros.
Right off the Grand Place at 31, Rue de Beurre is the Dandoy Biscuit Factory. Your nose will lead you to this 17th century building in which five generations of Dandoys have been making traditional Belgian sweets such as speculoos, pains d’amandes, and marzipan cake since 1829. Speculoos are a specialty from the North of France and Belgium. Originally baked as a treat for St. Nicholas’ day, speculoos are thin, crunchy little cookies, flavored with spices such as cinnamon, ginger, cloves, or nutmeg. The cookie’s distinctive taste comes not just from the spices but from the use of vergeoise brune, a kind of brown sugar made from beet syrup, that is common in Belgium and has thick crystals that look and feel as if they are slightly moist. The name speculoos may come from the Latin word species, which means spice, or speculator, which means bishop (the cookies are often baked in that shape). Speculoos are often served with your coffee in Belgian and French cafes. Don’t make the same mistake I did…buy more than enough to tide you over once you get home…they’re addictive! (You can buy them in supermarkets as well but they’re not the same as the original Dandoy version.)
One of the most familiar, and beloved, sights in Brussels is the Mannekin-Pis, near the Grand Place on the corner of Rue de l’Etuve and Rue du Chene. This tiny bronze statue of a boy peeing a jet of water has become a symbol of Brussels (nobody knows exactly why!). Since the early 18th century, more than 700 costumes have been made for this cherubic figure; they’re on display at the Brussels City Museum on the Grand Place.
Also near the Grand Place is the beautiful 19th century shopping arcade, Galeries Royale de-Saint-Hubert. Fashionable shops still line the glass-ceilinged arcade and a stop at one of the cafes makes for a relaxing break, especially if the weather’s not nice enough to sit outside in the Grand Place. (Another upscale shopping area in town is the Avenue Louise.)
Brussels has no shortage of museums—from the Royal Museums of Art and History, to the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate to the Belgian Centre for Comic Strip Art (which traces over 60 years of Belgian comic strips, including the creation of the beloved figure, Tintin)—and that’s just for starters.
One of my favorites is the Musee des Instruments de Musique (Musical Instruments Museum, Rue Montagne de la Cour, www.mim.fgov.be), housed in the old Art Nouveau buildings of the Old England department stores. Music lovers will go ga-ga over the nearly 7,000 instruments (one of the largest collections in the world), both antique and contemporary. Make sure you pick up a pair of headphones when you begin your visit so you can hear what the instruments actually sound like. And for one of the best views over Brussels, stop up at the Café du Mim on the top floor.
The other two museums that are now on my “you really should go” list are the Musee Horta and the David and Alice van Buuren Museum.
In 1893, the Belgian architect Victor Horta created the now-famous Art Nouveau style, with its sensuous curves, wrought iron features such as gates and railings, and buildings decorated with mosaics, murals, and handcrafted woodwork. While Brussels has a number of Art Nouveau buildings still in existence (many located near the museum, on such streets as Rue Defacqz, Rue Faider, and Rue Paul-Emile Janson), perhaps the best example of this style is Horta’s own house, now a museum (23-25, Rue Americaine, www.hortamuseum.be). If you’re interested in art and architecture, you won’t want to miss this masterpiece, with its central stairwell, lit from above by a large, curving skylight; ironwork banisters; leaded glass door panels; and mosaic tiled dining room floor.
You can move from Art Nouveau to Art Deco by visiting the David and Alice van Buuren Museum (41, Avenue Leo Errera, www.museumvanbuuren.com). This residence, built in 1929, was the home of Dutch banker David van Buuren, and his wife, and housed their collections of 15th-20th century art, including a version of “The Fall of Icarus,” painted by Bruegel the Elder. Make time for the gardens too, which are divided into various themes, including the “Labyrinth,& and the “Garden of the Heart.”
With its emphasis on architecture and design, it’s not surprising that Brussels is one of Europe’s busiest centers for antiques. You’ll find the cit’’s best—and most expensive—shops in the area known as Sablon; on weekends in the Place du Grand-Sablon, you can meander through the flea market (don’t expect to find too many bargains though). When you’re about haggled out, stop for a pastry or piece of cake at the famous Wittamer bakery/café and, weather permitting, join the festive atmosphere on the outdoor terrace.
After your break, stop by the medieval Gothic cathedral, Notre-Dame-du-Sablon, with its soaring stained glass windows, and then cross the street and stroll through the Square du Petit-Sablon, a charming, flower (and sculpture)-filled park.
What to Eat (and Drink!)
It’s not hard to find a good meal in Brussels, and there’s just about any type of cuisine you’d like. But make sure you try some authentic Belgian dishes, including carbonnades flamandes, a beef stew cooked in—what else—Belgian beer, and usually eaten with frites (fries), mustard, and mayonnaise; Moules-mariniere (my personal favorite), mussels steamed in white wine and flavored with celery, onion, and parsley, also accompanied by a plate of frites; Waterzooi, a creamy dish of chicken, or fish, in broth; and Anguilles au Vert, eels cooked in a fresh green herb sauce.
In 1900 there were more than 3,200 breweries in Belgium; now there are just a bit more than 100 but that should hold you in good stead. The most famous brews are produced by the Trappist monasteries, but there are many other types to choose from as well, including Witbier or Biere Blanche, made from wheat to produce a “white beer” flavored with spices like coriander or orange peel; Lambic, created by maturing the fermented beer in wooden casks; Kriek, flavored with raspberries; and Lager-style, or lighter beers (you probably know the name of one–Stella Artois).
Belgians like their sweets too, from the crunchy speculoos, to the justifiably famous chocolates. You can always buy Godiva at home; instead try one of the “designer” chocolatiers such as Pierre Marcolini(1, Rue des Minimes); Mary, 73, Rue Royale); or Le Chocolatier Manon (64, Rue Tilmont), which are harder to come by in the U.S.
Where to Stay
The 281-room Radisson SAS Royal Hotel (47, Rue du Fosse aux Loups, www.radissonsas.com) is designed for business travelers, but its convenient location—-just a three-minute walk from the Grand Place and the Central Railway Station—and its many amenities including wireless Internet access, satellite TV, a fitness center, and stylishly appointed rooms and baths, make this a good choice even if you’re not in town for a meeting. The glass-enclosed Atrium is a great place to start the day with the breakfast buffet. The hotel also has a gourmet restaurant, the Sea Grill, as well as lighter fare. A nice touch —not all rooms are alike. You could be sleeping in either an Oriental, Art Deco, or Maritime decor. The staff here is gracious and accommodating—and like everyone else I met in Belgium, friendly and cheerful.
On the other side of the Grand Place from the Radisson is the Hotel Amigo (1-3, Rue de l’Amigo, www.roccofortehotels.com), a Rocco Forte Hotel that has twice been named to the “Top 20 International Resort Hideaways” list. The building that houses this luxury hotel was first mentioned in the town’s records in 1522 when the city council bought it from a wealthy merchant family in order to turn it into a prison. The Spanish rulers at the time mistook its Flemish name to mean “friend” and translated this into their language as “Amigo.” The name has stayed the same ever since! Through the centuries, the building has served many purposes, but it was turned into a hotel in 1957 and since that time has hosted such celebrities as Catherine Deneuve, Louis Armstrong, Hugh Grant, Julio Iglesias, and the Rolling Stones.
The history of Brussels and the building itself are evident throughout the hotel with displays of 18th century Flemish wall tapestries and even authentic paving stones in the lobby, which were originally used in the surrounding streets. The public spaces, including the comfortable lobby bar, and the 155 rooms and 18 suites, are designed in a style that combines both contemporary and Art Deco pieces, and the marble bathrooms are definitely not Old World! All the “mod cons” are here too, including 24-hour room service, a business center, fitness room, and a Mediterranean-style restaurant, Bocconi.
And the little gift bag of Pierre Marcolini chocolates in my room? To that, all I can say is, Milles mercis!
Before You Go
You can find a wealth of information to help you plan your trip on the website of the Belgian Tourist Office.