Why is everybody so beastly about Brussels? Surely it can’t just be because of the pesky old EU? I realise I may be in a minority (OK, a very small minority) but the Belgian capital is actually one of my favourite cities. I’ve been there more times than I can count, and I like it more each time I go.
So why am I so fond of Brussels, the British journalists’ bête noire? I think it’s because it reminds me of the London I used to know. I was born and raised in London, and although the Big Smoke is a lot smarter now it’s become a lot more bland. Unless you’re a banker or a lawyer, living in the city centre is virtually unaffordable. Here in Brussels, you can still live in the heart of town and scratch a living doing your own thing. It feels like London in the early 80s – scruffy, a bit rundown, but full of artists and eccentrics. Junk shops, not just antique shops – flea markets, not just farmers markets. Against the odds, this unloved city has become an unlikely centre of the arts.
Another thing that’s so good about it is that it’s right on our doorstep. The Eurostar from London takes just two hours and costs as little as £29 each way. I’ve taken this train countless times, and I never tire of it. With room to stretch your legs and as much luggage as you can be bothered to carry, it’s far more civilised than flying. No annoying safety announcements, no transit buses to the terminal, no queues on arrival. That two hours on board is all your own. By the time you’ve read the papers, you’ve arrived.
No one in their right mind would call Brussels uniformly beautiful (indeed, large chunks of it are almost gobsmackingly ugly) but it has a grungy energy that prettier cities often lack. A mad mélange of French, Flemish and North African, its mongrel heritage has given it some of the best grub in Europe – everything from Arabic street food to Haute Cuisine. For fine dining, book a table at Comme Chez Soi, an exquisite Art Nouveau restaurant that’s been going strong for almost a century (Churchill and Roosevelt both ate here). For something a bit more down to earth, try Bonsoir Clara, a stylish brasserie on Rue Antoine Dansaert, one of the city’s liveliest boulevards.
Brussels has been ruled over (and fought over) by Prussians, Austrians and Spaniards, and the Spanish gave the city one of its great treasures when they brought back cocoa from the New World. It was the Belgians who hit upon the bright idea of turning this exotic drink into something solid. It was here in Brussels that they produced the first chocolate bars, and today the city boasts some of Europe’s best chocolatiers. Go to Mary, founded in 1919, supplier of chocolates to the Belgian Monarchy. It has stores all over Brussels, but the original, on the Rue Royale, remains my favourite by far.
As well as somewhere to go to stuff your face, Brussels is also a mecca of fine art. The Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts houses a sublime collection of Belgian painting, everything from Flemish Primitives to the Surrealists, from Brueghel to Delvaux. René Magritte has his own atmospheric gallery, in a grand old building around the corner. The Fin de Siècle Museum evokes the flamboyant élan of late 19th and early 20th Century Brussels, when the Belgian capital was one of the most dynamic cities in the world. Today Brussels is a lot less grandiose, despite its pivotal role in European politics. It’s an unpretentious city, with plenty of rough edges, but that’s part of its chaotic charm.
I’m usually here two or three times a year, and my latest visit was last week, for BRAFA, the world’s oldest art fair. A highlight of the Continental calendar since 1956, it’s a fair that sums up the quirky character of this untidy, creative city. The fine art on show is superb, everything from Renaissance Masters to Pop Art, but what makes BRAFA such fun is that it’s so eclectic – you can find anything from classical antiquities to original cartoons by Hergé here.
But in the end, Brussels’ greatest gallery is the city itself. Its gable walls are adorned with murals celebrating Belgium’s rich comic strip heritage – not just Tintin, but also Blake & Mortimer and Lucky Luke. Hergé lived in Brussels, and Tintinophiles will find locations from his adventures all around the city (pick up an annotated map from the tourist office). There’s a splendid Tintin mural at Stockel metro station, and two more at the Gare du Midi.
Brussels survived the Second World War relatively unscathed and its winding backstreets are littered with wonderful relics of Art Nouveau. Victor Horta was the master of the form, and his old home and studio is now an excellent museum. Another of his ornate masterpieces, an old warehouse, is now the Belgian Comic Strip Centre. The wrought iron Old England department store (Belgians have always been ardent Anglophiles) is now a museum of musical instruments. If you want to sink a beer or two (or three or four) in an Art Nouveau bar, visit the Greenwich Tavern or the Metropole Hotel.
The First World War killed off the exuberance of Art Nouveau. Between the wars, Brussels became a forum for the stark new style of Art Deco. Horta’s stunning Central Station is one of the best examples. Café Belga in Flagey (the old national broadcasting institute) is a chic Art Deco rendezvous. The leafy suburb of Ixelles is the best place to see Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Finish your architectural trek at the family home of Alice & David Van Buuren, now a museum – a modernist monument to good living and good taste.
My favourite place to stay is the Amigo, just behind the Grand Place. It’s a Rocco Forte hotel, and like all the Rocco Forte hotels I’ve stayed in, the house style is understated elegance – five star service without the fuss. The muted colour scheme creates a subdued and restful ambience. It’s one of the few hotels I’ve found where I’ve been able to sit down and write.
And I guess that, more than anything, is what I like most about Brussels – there’s so much here to write about, and talk about, both good and bad. Unlike so many smarter cities, it hasn’t been worn smooth by sightseers and reduced to clichés by the tourist trade, and I doubt it ever will be. It’s far too awkward, far too contrary, and far too interesting for that.