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Monday, April 23, 2007

A Box of Delights

Never visited Brussels? You've got a real treat in store.
Here's my article on the many delights of the Belgian capital from this week's Spectator.

How would you like to celebrate your fortieth birthday?, my wife asked me one morning at breakfast. How about going to our favourite city in Europe, I replied. So we did. We bought two return tickets on Eurostar and went to Brussels.

What is it that makes the Belgian capital so irresistible?

Firstly, the people. Brussels, along with Belgrade and Sofia is in the Premier league of European Friendliness. It’s not just Bron Waugh’s legendary ticket inspectors who seem to have a masters degree from the University of Charm: service everywhere is courteous, strangers are unfailingly helpful, the locals approachable and kind.

Secondly, there’s the highly un-globalised look to most of the main streets and squares. Although Brussels is the base for the EU and NATO, it has somehow avoided the mind-numbing uniformity that locking one’s country into ’Euro-Atlantic structures’ usually entails. It has the lowest per capita number of McDonalds of any Western European capital city; Pizza Express, Pret a Manger, Starbucks and other ubiquitous British high street names are conspicuous by their absence. Arriving in Brussels from clone town UK plc never fails to lift the spirits: one is reminded just how boringly standardised one’s own country has become.

Thirdly, linked to two, there is the wonderful variety of bars and cafes.
Jazz bars, themed bars, Parisian style pavement cafes, smoky neighbourhood dens; bars that simply define bohemian. Among my favourites are L’Archiduc, a fabulous Art Deco establishment close to place St Gery, where live jazz can be heard every Saturday afternoon for free; Le Greenwich, just round the corner in Rue Des Chartreux, where you can watch the regulars play chess and backgammon until the early hours; the sublimely decadent Goupil Le Foul, with its sink-in sofas and dimmed red lights and walls covered with the memorabilia of legendary chansonierres and the simple but enchanting ‘bruin café’ Au Daringman in Rue De Flandre, where the ever-cheerful owner/proprietor Martine serves, five nights a week, from behind the bar.

What makes the night life in Brussels such a pleasure is not only the extensive range of beers (over 400), and the sensible smoking policy (smoking is still allowed in pubs and cafes which don't serve food), but that people live in the city centre and as a result you can still, especially in the Ste Catherine district, find bars filled with locals. ‘We live in a village’ our arts teacher friend in Au Daringman told us: the clientele that night included a ten year old boy with his parents, an incredibly sweet pensioner called Carmen who lived just across the road, a teacher of Russian called Veerle and her student friend Ine, a disc jockey- cum-market seller called Philip and a former film producer who used to be on the committee for deciding which Belgium film was nominated for the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars. Compare that with the usual bunch you meet in your local Yates’ wine lodge.

Fourthly, again linked to point two: there is the incredible selection of specialist, individually owned shops. The cosy network of streets between La Bourse and Le Grand Place are a particular delight: choc-a-bloc with outlets selling second hand records, lace, chocolates, stamps, comic books, costume jewellery, waffles and much more beside.

Fifthly, there are Brussels’ museums. One of my favourite areas of the city is the Parc De Cinquintaire: walk through the gigantic triumphal arch commissioned by King Leopold to mark Belgium’s golden jubilee in 1880- and you will find not just one, but three of Europe’s most fascinating collections- the enormous Musees Royaux d’Art and Histoire (with its superb selection of tapestries) the Musee Royal De L’Armee et d’Histoire militaire (which traces the history of the Belgian Army from its independence in 1839 to the present day) and Autoworld, a collection of over one hundred automobiles housed in one vast aircraft-hangar style building. Don’t miss too the largest collection of musical instruments in the world in La Musee des Instruments de Musique, housed in the stunning Old England building (the view from the top floor is worth the admission fee alone).

The sixth wonder of Brussels is the food. Whether you’re snacking on pommes frites avec mayonnaise bought from a Turkish vendor outside La Bourse or going for the full works in rue Des Bouchers, quality- and good service- is guaranteed. For £10 you can eat as well in Brussels as you can for £100 in London, something which probably explains the hostility of Clement ’I never could see the point of Belgium’ Freud. You can’t go wrong anywhere in Brussels; but three of our favourite eateries are ‘Le Mouton D’Or’ on rue Des Bouchers, Plattesteen, a traditional café/restaurant near La Bourse which offers superb three course lunch-time menus for just 12 Euros; and the incomparable ’Fin De Siecle’ on rue Des Chatrueux (next door to Le Greenwich), with its long wooden tables, blackboard menu, enormous portions (the filets de volaille and lapin a la kriek come highly recommended) and an ironwork spiral staircase which is challenging when sober and potentially lethal after your fifth glass of Leffe Brune.

Last but not least, there is the architecture. The Grand Platz is rightly regarded by as the most beautiful square in Europe, but if its Gothic magnificence is not enough, the city also has a marvellous collection of art nouveau buildings. One of the best is architect Victor Horta’s own house and studio at rue Americaine, now fully open to the public as a museum.

In short, Brussels is a treasure trove, which even after several visits still throws up new delights. Now, thanks to the wonders of modern engineering you can be there in less than two and half hours by train from London for less than the return fare to Manchester. What on earth are you waiting for?

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