FORGET the faceless Eurocrats. The polyglot Belgian capital is as brimming with character as its beer
ITS most famous monument is a statue of a micturating boy, the mention of its name makes Europhobes apoplectic, and as a byword for bureaucratic red tape you’d be mistaken for thinking it was twee and even boring.
But in fact Brussels is anything but, with an impressive beer tradition, plenty of history, lots of art and a relaxed, cosmopolitan atmosphere, in part attributable to its polyglot citizenry.
Basing ourselves in the modern Park Inn Hotel meant we were just across the road from Midi station, the terminus for Eurostar and the bus from South Charleroi airport (where Ryanair flights land). From Midi, getting around Brussels is affordable and easy, thanks to a public bike scheme and a cheap, efficient metro, which shares some stations with the city’s trams.
Our guide, Didier, provides a potted history of the Belgian capital from the centre of the main square, Grand Place, built soon after the city was founded in the 10th century on the island of Saint Géry in the River Senne. Its Flemish name, Grote Markt – all signs are in two languages – alludes to its origins as a place of commerce.
By the time Belgium declared independence in 1830, Brussels had variously been part of the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, Austria and France. In 1695, the French destroyed most of the Grand Place, leaving only the 15th century town hall, whose tower served as a guide for the artillery. The building is covered in statues, but a carving of a figure drinking beer immediately catches our eye and sets the tone for the visit.
In more recent history, political refugees Karl Marx and Victor Hugo briefly resided in the Grand Place, before being deported for breaking the terms of their asylum. And during the war, the Belgian resistance audaciously set up its clandestine base in the square, directly opposite the German HQ.
A few doors along is the home to the city museum, which houses over 900 outfits worn by the Manneken Pis, the 2ft-bronze fountain of a peeing boy, whose image adorns everything from chocolate boxes to beer labels. The latest incarnation of the figure was erected in 1965, but the original dates back to the early 17th century. Costumes include an Elvis jump suit, a Tour De France yellow jersey and countless military uniforms.
“My favourite is the nudist,” jokes Nicholas Bruneau, the Manneken’s official dresser, shortly after swapping a Jean Paul Gaultier number for a regimental uniform commemorating the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo.
Didier explains that on special occasions the fountain squirts out beer instead of water, which is our cue to visit the Poechenellekelder (www.poechenellekelder.be) a nearby estaminet or pub decorated with puppets and crossbows. “We call this the programme,” he says, pointing at a menu with a choice of dozens of beers.
As we don’t have time to visit the local Cantillon brewery, we settle for the next best thing – a bottle of its organic gueuze, also known as Brussels champagne.
Made from malted barley, wheat and old hops, it undergoes spontaneous fermentation which relies on yeast occurring naturally in the atmosphere, instead of it being added, as it is during the typical brewing process. The different lambics are then blended, with all the sugar turning to alcohol over a three-year period.
Didier, a purist who also takes beer tours, emphasises that gueuze bottles should always have a cork and that every beer must be served in a branded glass, made specifically to bring out its best characteristics. This is manifested at the Moeder Lambic Fontainas, a popular pub where a huge shelf above the bar supports hundreds of receptacles.
Almost as numerous as the beer varieties are the different tongues which can be overheard in Brussels. As the capital of a country with three official languages (French, Flemish and German), a history of occupation, and substantial communities originating from Spain, Italy, Morocco and Belgium’s former colonies, cultural diversity lends the city a distinctly cosmopolitan feel.
The perfect place to observe the melting pot, is De Noordzee (La Mer Du Nord) a downtown fishmonger and restaurant which serves up fantastic seafood dishes to be eaten at tables al fresco. Customers’ names are shouted when their orders are ready, providing a snapshot of the diverse clientele and often necessitating different pronunciations before the food is claimed: “Marteeen!” “Mart-anne!” “Maaart-inn.”
Veronique Aelbrecht, who co-owns the business with her fishmonger husband, reveals that her customers have included the private chefs of both REM and Simple Minds.
One of the great advantages of Brussels is that it allows the tourist to experience various aspects of the city simultaneously. So chomping on a shrimp croquette can be combined with an induction into linguistic idiosyncrasies, and the city’s renowned art nouveaux heritage can be enjoyed in the mirrored splendour of the Falstaff pub (stick to the beer, the food isn’t up to much) or on a visit to the musical instrument and comic museums – both are housed in former department stores respectively built by art nouveaux stalwarts Paul Saintenoy and Victor Horta.
The comic museum features Belgian creations such as Lucky Luke, the Smurfs and Tintin, but you don’t have to go there to see such work. While the paintings by masters such as Hieronymus Bosch, or surrealist René Magritte are on show at a cluster of galleries near the Royal Palace, comic art is visible throughout the city, gracing the gable ends of some 50 buildings.
“Comic strips are a complete artistic expression,” exclaimed Tintin creator Hergé, whose lifelong struggle to have the genre placed on an equal footing with other visual arts has proved successful in the country of his birth. The museum dedicated to his life is less than an hour by train and is a must for fans of his work (depart from Midi or Central stations for Louvain-la-Neuve Université).
For more contemporary artistic offerings Recylart (www.recyclart.be) is also worth a visit. The multi-arts centre is housed in the former Kapellekerk railway station and hosts concerts, exhibitions, artist talks and an occasional chef in residence.
Moreover, in December, the Art & Design Atomium Museum is set to open next door to Brussels’ second most iconic monument, the Atomium – the 102m high attraction modelled on an iron atom, and built out of er, aluminium. It will be one more reason to visit Brussels, a city that is anything but boring.