“Pas au nom d’Islam” reads a makeshift sign outside the Bourse, Brussels’s palatial stock exchange. “Free Hugs”, reads a second sign. “Free Ganja”, reads a third. Since the suicide-bombings of March 22nd, which killed 32 people and injured over 300, this ornate building has become a shrine. Its steps are garlanded with flowers and candles, its pillars draped with flags from around the world. Those bombers encapsulated the very worst of Belgian multiculturalism; this ad hoc memorial shows the Belgian capital at its liberal, international best.
The attack made me feel protective towards Brussels, not just because of the violence that was perpetrated but also because of the bad press the place has had. Over the last 20 years, I’ve been there more times than I can count; it’s become the foreign city where I feel most at home.
The attraction wasn’t instant. Arriving at the main railway station, Bruxelles-Midi (or Brussel-Zuid if you’re speaking Flemish), it’s hard not to be underwhelmed. The windswept plaza outside the station, flanked by ugly skyscrapers, is bleak and dismal. Only 200 miles (and two hours by train) from London, Brussels shares the same grey skies and frequent drizzle. Its terraces are built from the same mud-brown brick. Like London, it’s been torn apart by modernist architects and town planners; busy dual-carriageways dissect its ancient alleyways; its historic townhouses are dwarfed by brutalist tower blocks. In Brussels, this destruction was so wanton and dramatic it spawned a new word, “Brusselisation”.
Yet Brussels is a dynamic place, in part because of its scruffiness. There’s still space for young, creative people; artists and musicians can afford to live in the city centre. Their homes are interspersed with galleries and studios, eccentric boutiques displaying wares that would never make it onto the shelves of international chain stores. Every morning, in the gritty district of Marolles, the cobbled Place de Jeu de Balle fills with stalls selling all sorts of treasures, from curios to antiques.
Brussels’s internationalism energises the city. Conquered and reconquered, by Spaniards, Austrians and Prussians, it’s long been a crossroads where Gallic and Teutonic cultures meet. And thanks to the Habsburgs, who ruled the city for several centuries after the Renaissance, it’s acted as a bridge between Europe and the New World. Industrialisation and colonialism turned it into a worldly city – and today this cosmopolitan nature is reflected most obviously in its cuisine. Strolling along the Avenue Stalingrad, past rows of Moroccan men sipping hot mint tea and munching fistfuls of pistachios, you could imagine yourself to be in Tangier – but for the weather. In a city with relatively few tourist traps, restaurateurs have to satisfy discerning locals, rather than rely on passing trade. Prices are low, quality is high. Even the kebab shops are first rate.
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts have an extraordinary collection of European paintings, but they are never overrun with sightseers. Bruegel and Rubens rub shoulders in the Old Masters Museum; the Fin de Siècle Museum features modern Belgians like Spilliaert and Ensor. And my particular favourite is the Magritte Museum – devoted to the Bruxellois surrealist whose paintings captured his home city’s quirky personality.
But Brussels’s greatest gallery is the city itself. A century ago, Belgium was one of Europe’s richest countries and its cultured bourgeoisie indulged their modernist tastes in their buildings and their furniture. Despite the post-war destruction, there is an abundance of baroque architecture (the Grand Place has few equals among city squares), as well as the richest array of Art Nouveau in Europe: over 1,000 listed buildings, including numerous masterworks by Victor Horta, the Belgian father of this florid movement. Every visitor has their favourite building. Mine is the Belgian Comic Strip Centre, a furniture showroom saved from demolition by Georges Remi, aka Hergé, creator of Belgium’s patron saint, Tintin (who is immortalised in mural form on numerous gable walls around the city, alongside other Belgian comic-book heroes, like Blake & Mortimer and Lucky Luke).
Scratch beneath the brutalist surface and the city’s Art Deco treasures soon appear. The once-futuristic Flagey building, formerly Belgium’s broadcast institute, is today a lively cultural centre in the attractive district of Ixelles. The Alice and David Van Buuren Museum, housed in a villa in the tranquil suburb of Uccle, is Art Deco inside and out. For those on the lookout for something more grungy, the Gare de la Chapelle, once a derelict railway station, is now a thriving cultural centre, its subway a graffiti gallery, the former station precinct a skate park. It’s not the only redundant building that has been turned into a gallery: Wiels, an old brewery, is now a modern-art gallery.
But the best way to take the pulse of Brussels is to kill time in its bars and cafés. It goes without saying that the beer takes some beating, but the laid-back atmosphere in which it is drunk adds froth to the experience. Avoid the Grand Place and instead head for the old fish market on Place Sainte Catherine. You can’t go far wrong seeking liquid solace in side streets, such as the Rue de Flandre.
When I returned to Brussels after the bombings, I expected the city to feel subdued. But while there were fewer tourists on the streets, the people to whom I spoke seemed defiant. There were Belgian flags everywhere – outside the public buildings, and in the windows of apartments. The Bruxellois know they have something worth defending: a way of life that’s a product of their eclectic past. Back outside the Bourse, someone has painted a picture of a smiling imam embracing a rabbi and a priest.
WHERE TO STAY
Le Dixseptième +32 2 517 1717; ledixseptieme.be
Concealed between two shop fronts on a busy boulevard near Grand Place and the Central Station, this discreet bolthole feels more like a private home than a hotel. Inside, it’s all antique furniture, Persian carpets and chandeliers. The marble fireplaces and oak staircase date back to the days when it was the Spanish embassy, but the decor, while beautiful, is understated. There’s no restaurant, but the brasseries of Galeries St Hubert and Place Ste Catherine are only a short walk away. Doubles from €120.
WHERE TO EAT
Comme Chez Soi +32 2 512 2921; commechezsoi.be
“Many thanks for the best dinner I’ve had in years,” wrote President Roosevelt after a visit to Brussels’s most famous restaurant. FDR is just one among many greats who’ve eaten here since the 1930s (Hergé doodled in its visitors’ book) but this Art Nouveau gem, with two Michelin stars, is still one of Belgium’s best. Set menus from €99.
Bozar Brasserie +32 2 503 0000; bozarbrasserie.be
An Art Deco landmark by Victor Horta, the Bozar is Brussels’s leading arts centre. But David Martin’s house restaurant is building a big reputation of its own. A Frenchman with Spanish roots, Martin has already won a Michelin star with La Paix, and looks set to repeat that feat here. The decor befits the architecture, and the atmosphere is unpretentious. The set lunch is great value with two courses for €29, or three for €39.
Lola +32 2 514 2460; restolola.be
In a prime location on the Place du Grand Sablon, one of Brussels’s liveliest squares, this cosy brasserie is a popular local rendezvous. The decor is contemporary but the menu is traditional: Franco-Belgian staples like scallops, steak tartare and chocolate mousse. Around €40 for three courses. Brussels’s best patisserie, Wittamer, is across the square, and Belgium’s leading chocolatier, Pierre Marcolini, is just down the road.