Brussels: The 'capital of capitals'

Contributing editor Carla Hunt spent a weekend exploring Brussels. Her report follows:

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Brussels is the capital of capitals -- of the country and the European Union -- and headquarters to NATO and more than 1,000 international companies.

For U.S. travelers, one of the most appealing of Belgium's attractions is its compactness. In a country the size of Maryland, leading attractions are a day trip away from the capital by rail or car: 30 miles to Ghent, 60 miles to Bruge, 30 miles to Antwerp, 61 miles to Leige or 39 miles to Namur, both gateways to the Ardennes region.

Square is hip

Above all, Brussels, is a city where travelers can come for the fun of it, which I did recently, spending a long weekend in and around the Grand Place, one of the grandest squares in Europe.

So often is a party in progress on the Grand Place that the square, the focus of an ongoing array of cultural events, is closed to vehicles.

Many years before the advent of high-speed rail, I took a train from Paris to Brussels -- a ride of two hours and 45 minutes right to the heart of downtown -- and arrived on the Grand Place in the old city, where I was met by hundreds of horses dressed in silk livery and carrying ladies in velvet and brocade and lords in medieval parade garb and armored headgear.

The Museum of Fine Arts houses primitive art as well as works by Flemish masters. Such a "greeting" would be a surprise to anyone who did not know that the Ommegang -- an annual procession that re-enacts the city's 1549 reception for Charles V and his court -- was in progress.

This year's processions will be held on July 3 and 5; advance reservations for seats is strongly recommended.

Last fall, I traveled from Paris to Brussels, via the more modern Thalys high-speed train -- a one hour and 25 minutes ride -- and arrived at the Hotel Amigo off the Grand Place for another annual celebration, this one staged by neighborhood elders.

A parade of oompah bands, clowns and giant dancing papier-mache heads blocked the hotel entrance as they marched down the street to honor the city's mascot, the Manneken Pis. His bronze statue shows an impudent boy relieving himself into a fountain -- an act considered symbolic of the city's irreverent spirit. On this occasion, the water was turned off and gallons of beer turned on, served free to celebrants.

Sunday mornings at the Grand Place, the vast pedestrian square is filled with flower vendors and bird sellers, with cages of twittering canaries, cooing pigeons and exotic species from around the world.

While at its best on weekends or at night when illuminated by floodlights, the Grand Place is a feast for the eyes at any time: on one side is the Hotel de Ville, or Town Hall, a medieval Gothic building with an intricately carved spire and a tapestry museum inside; to the left is the headquarters of the Brewers Guild, which houses a reproduction of a 17th century brewery.

Some Brussels residents claim that they have more fine dining establishments per square foot than any other city in Europe. As befits an ancient place of commerce, the square is enclosed by many ornate halls, historically homes to the trade guilds: the house of the haberdashers, the bakers, the coopers and cabinet makers, to name a few.

To dine is divine

Many of the guild houses have been turned into restaurants -- at No. 9 Grand Place is the elegant Maison du Cygne, providing typical Belgian dishes, a choice of beers and excellent vantage points on Brussels' pedestrian crossroads.

Just north of the Grand Place is Galeries St.-Hubert, the oldest arcade in Europe and a fashionable glass-roofed promenade of tearooms and cafes since it was built in 1847.

The Bruxellois (citizens of Brussels) are ardent window shoppers, and they have plenty to ogle in the Galeries' elegant shops. The Galeries' windows are filled with fine crystal, pewter, table linens, Belgian lace, petit-point tapestries, leather goods. Famous Belgian chocolates are for sale at Neuhaus, which has been on site since 1857.

The one activity that seems to take precedence over all others in Belgium is eating.

In the Galeries St.-Hubert, fish is the favorite dish (I recommend lobster and crayfish tails) at the bistro-style L'Ogdenblik at 1 Galerie des Princes.

Many other little restaurants that serve up the country's famous frites (potatoes) with just about everything are crowded into the city's narrow, surrounding streets.

Mussels lovers will be in seventh heaven at Aux Armes de Bruxelles, 13 Rue Bouchers; Belgian specialties and seafood are the delicious fare at Brasserie de la Roue d'Or, 26 rue des Chapeliers.

Clients visiting Brussels in the fall will be treated to pheasant, hare and wild boar from the Ardennes forests.

Man cannot live on food alone

On any weekend, take a long stroll over to the Place du Grand Sablon where the Church of Notre-Dame du Sablon and 17th century Flemish houses look down on a handsome square, packed on both Saturday and Sunday with colorful stalls of the antiques and book market.

Any day but Monday (the day to take a train for county-side excursion, when Brussels museums are closed) is the time for serious sightseeing.

On the Place Royale is the Museum of Fine Arts, with its painting collection of Flemish primitives and masterpieces by Rubens and Brueghel. The Museum of Modern Art as also here and features Belgian modernists such as Magritte, Ensor and Appel.

A short walk away is the Royal Palace, the official place of business and protocol of the king of Belgium; it is open for tours in the summer, this year from July 22 to mid-September.

Ten minutes by tram from the palace, Art Nouveau is the focus of the Horta Museum, housed in the former home and studio of the architect Victor Horta. Special touches include a metal stairway illuminated by a yellow-tinted skylight and Horta-designed furnishings.

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