BRUSSELS, BELGIUM – How did I not know this city was so fantastic?
I was the Travel Editor at the Toronto Star for five years. I’ve been to Europe a dozen times. I’d read a lot of stories about Brussels , albeit many about moules frites and Belgian waffles and Belgian beer and Belgian chocolate and Belgian comic books, which seem to be everywhere.
But somehow I didn’t realize the city was so beautiful, with so many spectacular buildings and cool streets and funky, lively neighborhoods and wonderful museums and so much more.
I only had a short time here but I found endless crowds of folks drinking beers at marvellous sidewalk cafes and found cool and trendy record shops and pleasant, leafy neighborhoods and fantastic parks and stunning architecture and gay villages and many of the sort of places you’d find in Toronto or Paris or any other cool city.
It’s a bit of a cliché place to hang out, but I kept finding myself back in the massive square called The Grand Place. I don’t think there’s another city in Europe – and probably not on the planet – with such a fabulous main square. The buildings are nothing short of magnificent, ornate stone structures with gilded bits galore and rising spires and gold animal statues and more. It’s utterly amazing.
Jim Byers photo
The Grand Place in Brussels
St. Mark’s in Venice is nice but kind of dark and overpowering. Notre Dame in Paris is wonderful but isn’t part of a massive square like this. Trafalgar Square is pretty cool but ultimately can’t compete. Any of the buildings in The Grand Place would be terrific on their own, but it’s the presence of such great buildings on all sides (okay, one is under renovation right now) with the cobblestone square in the middle with cafes and people mingling about in slack-jawed, gobsmacked amazement that makes this so special to me.
I stayed over near the church of St. Catherine, a lovely old church with a fine square out front with cafes and fountains and very cool restaurants and shops. It’s got a neighborhood feel but also attracts a fair number of tourists; just not so much the bus crowds. Which is what I really liked. Sipping a cold beer late at night and watching the lights go on around the square and the church was a real joy.
I spent two nights at the very fun Hotel Welcome , right on the square, with very helpful staff. They don’t give rooms any numbers but instead identify them by country or city or destination, such as Tahiti or Istanbul. Mine was the Kenya room and had a zebra skin on wall, old-style looking kerosene lamps (electric), mosquito netting for the bed and African masks on wall. There was a decent size bathroom, complete with a mock leopard skin toilet seat; a first for me) but the bedroom was perhaps 120 square feet. They managed to find space for a small desk and a very small closet. It would be adequate for two people with carry-on bags but I wouldn’t want to share a room here for more than a night or two.
I had a fine meal of moules frites (I couldn’t resist) at Taverne du Passage, an old-school and very handsome restaurant in the city’s beautiful, covered shopping gallery. It felt very much like Paris, with waiters in white jackets with military- like epaulets and white tablecloths and white and black tile floors and small palm trees in pots.
The gallery is beautiful and it’s said that Victor Hugo had his mistress living in an apartment at one end. I also was told he wrote Les Miserables when he was living in Brussels.
Even lovelier, and with better food in my book, was Les Brigittines. The dark wood has been polished and polished and polished again and there are beautiful lamps and art nouveau windows. They also have a back room with a huge fireplace, a dresser topped with turn-of-the-century telephones and a glass case filled with old cameras.
I was given a tasting menu for my meal, and the first dish was some bread and olives along with a local beer that tasted like a mix between beer and wine. Not bad but kinda strange.
Next up they brought me some cooked cabbage with “dry sausage” and something else. I asked the waiter what was in the dish and he said it had been cooked in beer and that they added wax.
Wax? I take a bite. I don’t taste any wax but there are small sea creatures. I’m still a bit mystified, until the waiter brings me an English menu and I read that there are “whelks” in the dish.
The main dish was fabulous; braised and oh-so-tender veal cheek cooked with cherry beer and served with roasted root vegetables. They gave me some cherry beer to drink with the meal, but I’m not much of a beer drinker so I think it was lost on me. Actually, I quite like a good beer but my palate is quite narrow; ranging from Corona in summer to maybe Creemore in winter. Still, it was fun to try.
My best meal was probably a simple lunch at a new, trendy spot called AUB SVP. It’s near The Grand Place but is definitely not on the tourist track. They have white stone walls with black steel art work, exposed concrete and politically incorrect black chef/server cutouts; kind of a restaurant version of a black jockey on the lawn of a house. There’s a young black fellow having lunch at a table near me and if he’s offended he doesn’t show it.
I had utterly fabulous chicken that roasted perfectly and served with sweet potato and roasted eggplant, topped with a dusting of hazelnuts. Plus a local Taras Boulba beer which was clean and bitter and hoppy and quite good. My dining partner said his vegetarian dish was terrific. They’re also open for breakfast and dinner.
Museums in Paris and Madrid and London and Amsterdam ad Florence get more attention, but I thought the main museum complex in Brussels was outstanding. They have several museums in one complex, including one focussing on Old Masters, a fin-de-siecle museum, a modern art museum and a museum dedicated to Belgian Rene Magritte.
The modern museum had some cool metal sculptures and a couple drawings by Eugene Dodeigne that I quite liked. The ancient art section is housed in a glorious hall with wonderful light and works from such masters as Rubens and Rembrandt. It’s a tad heavy on religious work but there also are great paintings of peasants, nudes, lush landscapes and more. There are great views of the city’s skyline and rooftops from the outside terrace at the museum café. Highly recommended!
I’m embarrassed to say (there’s a theme here) that I knew almost nothing about Rene Magritte coming into my visit. But I was delighted by the figures of men and the doves and the sky and the familiar hat. I was more intrigued by such bold, colourful paintings as The Man at the Window, which I’d never seen, and Woman on Horseback. They also play fun, home movies showing Rene and his wife, Georgette.
I also got to see the fashionable Uccles region of the city, which feels a bit like Forest Hill or The Kingsway, with stylish homes and pretty gardens and lovely shops. The Van Buuren Museum and home features sensational gardens and a beautiful interior with expensive and casual art work.
I also had time to tour the Cathedral of Sts. Michele et Gudule, a Gothic wonder where construction began in 1255. And I strolled past the famous Maneken Pis, the city’s famous statue of a little boy peeing. They dress him up in various costumes at various times, so he’s not always naked. In case, you know, you’re with your grandmother or something. Up the road you’ll find a large mural on a wall that’s quite colourful and is called Maneken Peace. I also noticed a bar that serves beer and is called Maneken Pils.
The city feels a lot like Toronto to me, with its mix of multicultural restaurants and laissez faire attitude towards things like gay marriage. I think the whole country is something like the Canada of Europe; fun and beautiful and often flashy but probably not as top of mind as bigger neighbours. So maybe that’s one reason I quite liked both Brussels as a city and Belgium as a country.
My last night in town I walked through the old city. Near my hotel I passed an Irish pub next to a French restaurant that was across from a Vietnamese soup place and a Thai restaurant. Around the corner was an Italian place called Spago and a place called Shamrock, billed as a “Smart Indian” restaurant. I also spotted a Diesel clothing shop and a fun looking store called Zadiq and Voltaire. The streets were filled with shoppers and bar goers and the sidewalk cafes were overflowing with folks having a good time on a warm Friday night.
Most definitely a city I’d love to visit again.