In the heart of Belgium lies shy and retiring Brussels, a destination off the beaten path for the transatlantic traveller. With four noisy neighbours who attract all the attention, Brussels remains an often overlooked European destination. London has her glorious parks, museums, and palaces, Paris its spacious boulevards, boutiques and cuisine, Amsterdam the charm and tranquillity of its waterways and Cologne, well Cologne likes to party all the time. What can attract a visitor to little Brussels?
Forget the mighty pillars of the EU and NATO which dwarf her reputation. Brussels’ beauty lies in its simplicity and Brussels is the biggest little city in Western Europe. Her petite dimensions are her natural assets.
As Europe’s elected center, Brussels’ lingua franca is English. It is the only place where the Walloon (French Speaking) and Flemish (Dutch Speaking) communities really meet. However, the politics of bi-lingual co-habitation leaves English as the neutral and natural tongue.
Brussels has few grand monuments or palaces but it does have an architecture of charm and character which is dominated by the Fin de Siècle period and the decorative styling of her favourite son, Victor Horta. Architect and designer, John Julius Norwich described him as “undoubtedly the key European Art Nouveau architect.” Walk along any street in Brussels and you will notice how each and every building is unique. Her winding cobbled streets are mapped by a patchwork of idiosyncratic facades. Grand, if narrow, bold and yet simple.
These streets are laced with curiosities. Visitors are often bemused by Brussels’ international symbol, the Manneken Pis; a statue of a small boy relieving himself. However, there are numerous other little features, of girls, dogs, policemen and bicycles littering the walkways. No one quite knows how the little Manneken became the most famous of them all (or indeed who he was) but he attracts most attention and is a curiously apt symbol of the city’s diminutive strengths and odd charm.
The absence of opulent gestures means the visual theme of Brussels is novelty. Its food though is more traditional and a product of its environs; it combines the rich palate of French cuisine and the pragmatism and generosity of Flemish values.
If you can avoid the tourist traps on the Northern side of Brussels’ Centre, the Grand Place, you can find a myriad of bijou restaurants dotted around the city offering delicious, wholesome national dishes at reasonable prices.
Stoemp is one of the favourites, a heavy blend of meat and vegetables. The city still retains its spice with an abundance of international options: Asian, North African, South American and Southern European cuisines are ably represented.
The quays of St. Catherine offer a wealth of fresh fish options. Mussels in Brussels may sound like a joke but Môules-frites (mussels and fries) served in season is another national staple. Which reminds me, let us not forget that the humble fry is not in fact a French creation but a Belgian one and her compatriots are devoted to its perfection.
Belgian fries should, of course, be accompanied by a good Belgian beer. Brussels is heaven for the beer lover. The Trappists inspired modern Belgian brewing and you can discover a colourful array of bottled delights to quench your thirst and accompany your gastronomic specialities.
The biggest problem faced by the gourmand in Brussels is how to cope with such a calorific opulence. One assumes this is why the Bruxellois are such enthusiastic dog lovers; some basic exercise is an excellent means to dispose of leftovers.
For more lasting forms of consumer satisfaction, Brussels has plenty on show. The markets and shops of the Sablon district offer a heady mix of bric-a-brac, antiques and fine art if you like to delve and explore.
Avenue Louise is Brussels’ high fashion boulevard offering the latest lines and heavy price tags of Europe’s leading labels. If simplicity is more your style, Rue Neuve will transport you back to the world of the high street.
Music spills out of every doorway in the heart of St Geri, the meeting point for Brussels nightlife. Jazz is the historical sound of Europe’s little capital.
Belgium was the birthplace to the inventor of the saxophone, Adolph Sax and to the King of Gypsy Jazz, Django Reinhardt.
Brussels celebrates its jazz roots with lively marathon weekends and a smattering of moody clubs for the connoisseur.
And goodness, let us not forget the chocolate! Home to more chocolate makers than any other city, Brussels is considered to be the chocolate centre of the world. You can find the grand houses of Godiva, Neuhaus and Leanidas alongside the independent mavericks and a chocolate museum in the city centre. My favourite chocolatier is the elegant premises of Pierre Marcolini in Sablon where they boast a mouth-watering selection of exquisite tastes from around the globe.
If you are looking for a city which is easy to navigate, offers a rich cuisine and simple delights, Brussels is the unassuming gem of mainland Europe.
All photos © www.visitbrussels.be