Mark Fletcher discovers, what the Belgian capital lacks in world famous postcard shots it makes up for in the rich tapestry of its indulgent cuisine and patchwork mix of old and new. Oh and chocolate and beer too!
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"Brussels always seems to be repairing itself" my fellow traveller pronounces, as we stride across the bustling grey streets of Europe’s de facto capital.
True enough, Brussels has a history of revitalisation, and there is an air of perpetual self improvement about a city that’s more melting pot than a chocolate fondue set – which there’s plenty of on display in the windows of the myriad tourist traps around Grand-Place, the impossibly wonderful centre piece of the city’s charm.
Brussels is a city of old and new, rich and poor, the sublime and the ridiculous. Just look above the clustered streets where a skyline of ageing spires and graffiti laden tower blocks is punctuated with the sparkling glass of modern skyscrapers, the rotund nodules of a gargantuan sculpture of an atom and occasionally, bizarrely, an effigy of Tintin…
The city’s attractions are best explored ‘en pied’ and within a nifty six hours from Leeds you can be checked into a hotel and wandering through the arcades and gilded shop fronts of Galeries St Hubert, Brussels’ very own Victoria Quarter.
Pinpoint in the centre of the city the galeries’ pristine marble walkways and luxury boutiques lead directly onto the main square, Grand-Place. Here tall and luxuriously ornate guild houses – many of which were rebuilt in a four year period following French bombardment in 1695 – surround the main attraction of the day: a market, vibrant flower stalls, if you’re lucky a Belgian beer festival, or simply groups of visitors and locals stood in reverent admiration of this cosy, beautiful space.
The architecture is best viewed up close, where the symbolic details often hint at past lives: a deceased bank, the meeting place of the city’s archers, the offices of merchant sailors. Spot the owl and the cock perched above the door of La Grand Cafe and you’ve found the architectural admission of a long serving all night bar.
On a grand scale Brussels is well endowed, from the picture perfect Royal Palace to the pristine art nouveau windows of Le Falstaff Brasserie, as fine a coffee shop as any. Metres away is the magnificently decorated, but simply named, Bourse, housing Brussels Stock Exchange, and that just a short walk from the soaring Cathedral of St Michael & St Gudula, inside which stained glass and a gluttonous use of gold and carved wood create a foreboding atmosphere transposed from times long gone.
But it’s at street level where Brussels really comes to life and many of its best bits are hidden gems rather than monuments of civic pride. Around one of the oldest corners in the city you’ll find the ever evolving Eglise Saint Nicolas with the distinctive lean-to townhouses that cling to its southern facade like architectural parasites. Newer beautifications shine too, the decorated walls of Rue de Marché du Chambon and surrounding streets are an endless source of finger pointing and laughter – at almost every turn building-sized murals depict comic book scenes of the surreal and the slapstick.
Brussels has a reputation as one of the food capitals of Europe, and after an afternoon of hunting the weird and wonderful wall art the myriad cafes and restaurants lining the warren of central streets are ready and waiting. Dining is a distinctly Flemish affair – posh crockery and seafood are accompanied by not only world class wine lists but beer menus that showcase a wealth of Beglium’s famous brewing tradition: thirst-quenching saisons, rich Trappist tripels, abbey ales, pilsner style lagers and vibrant fruit flavoured lambics.
Whether it’s an afternoon of gastronomic indulgence or an evening drowning in the wealth of choice, Brussels is rich in bars and night owl cafes, many showcasing decorative carpentry and opulent detailing that pays homage to the country’s liquid bread. And when not indulging there’s the museums, the monasteries, the EU, moules frites, chips and mayo,
From the cartoon emblazoned walls to the art nouveau facades of its buildings; from its ethnic diversity to Belgium’s belligerent traditions; and from its perception as the home of European homogeneity – epitomised by the glistening EU parliament buildings – to its breweries practicing the most ancient and unchanged of fermentation techniques, it is its juxtapositions, its inward looking nature and its contradictions that make Brussels every bit the modern, eclectic capital city.
Eat: The moules with melted cheese are a perfect afternoon appetizer at Vincent’s (look for the Starry Starry Night restaurant sign near Grand Place).
Drink: For a real authentic drinking experience, La Becasse serves house lambic, a beer style unique to Belgium. Throw any perceptions of beer away as you cross the threshold; the sweet nectar served in decorated sharing jugs is Belgian refreshment at its best.
Travel: The best way to arrive from Leeds in one go is on the Eurostar (via London – book in advance for best deals), or by air via Manchester.
Luxury treat: You can do much worse than the stylish and classy Dominican, where choirs of monks will sing you to sleep in a deluxe double and Galeries St Hubert are barely a five minute walk away.
Photos by Mark Fletcher
Posted on Wednesday 14th December 2011
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