Journeys: Capital Venture

  • Karen Cakebread

Looming over a Brussels suburb like a magnum opus for atomic energy is the Atomium, a structure representing an atom that has been magnified 165 billion times. The Atomium was erected for the 1958 World’s Fair, when Europe, still skittish after World War II, and the rest of the world held faith that the atom could be harnessed for the good of civilization. The edifice actually depicts an iron crystal molecule, not a single atom (because the Belgian steel industry funded the project). Nevertheless, visitors enjoyed the Atomium so much that instead of demolishing it after the fair, as planned, Brussels kept it as a landmark—the city’s answer to the Eiffel Tower.

Viewable through the windows of the restaurant in the Atomium’s topmost orb is another scale model, only this one is a miniature, or rather a collection of miniatures called Mini-Europe. Here, it is possible to hit all of the continent’s obligatory attractions in a couple of hours. Big Ben, the Acropolis, Pisa’s Leaning Tower, the Berlin Wall in mid-dismantlement, and dozens more are part of the same neighborhood, all reduced to 1:25 scale. (You would have to crouch very low to walk through the Arc de Triomphe.) Vesuvius is also here, set on a miniature Bay of Naples and discharging smoke whenever someone pushes a button. Art historians selected more than 100 monuments for Mini-Europe that would represent the foundations of Europe itself: democracy, free enterprise, cultural and creative expression. The project, which opened in 1989, three decades after the Atomium, presents landmarks from each member of the European Union, of which Brussels is the capital. (Instead of a miniaturized version of a magnified atom, Brussels’ Grand Place and Antwerp’s Renaissance town hall are among Belgium’s representatives.) The outdoor display is undeniably idiosyncratic and at the same time thought-provoking, and therein lies its charm. The same can be said of Brussels itself, an unusual and therefore provocative city.

In Mini-Europe, Brussels could be represented by a full-size rendition of Manneken-Pis, because the city’s most famous landmark stands only one foot tall. Copenhagen has the Little Mermaid, and Brussels has this diminutive fountain, the name of which translates to “little man piss” and describes what the tot is doing into a stone basin. Although naked, Manneken—who is first mentioned in accounts from the 15th century and has been stolen and replaced several times since the original was erected—does not lack a wardrobe; he has roughly 750 costumes, many of them displayed in glass cases in the Brussels City Museum, where they are a more popular attraction than Wedding Procession, a masterwork by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Among the statue’s outfits are the miniature work clothes of a city sanitation worker, a Montreal Canadiens hockey uniform from 1958, a Russian cosmonaut’s space suit, and an elaborate 18th-century outfit offered as an apology by France’s Louis XV. In 1749, French soldiers stole the statue and left it outside a striptease house. King Louis punished the robbers and sent the costume in contrition.
 
The museum is housed in the King’s House, one of the spectacular Baroque buildings lining the Grand Place, which often is described as the most beautiful town square in Europe. On the streets branching from the plaza, you will find the type of historic landmarks and sidewalk cafés that typify a European city. However, just around a corner from the Grand Place is a giant comic-strip mural, another oddity that, in light of the Atomium and the city museum’s star attraction, does not seem so out of place in Brussels. About 20 comic murals decorate the city, depicting native sons Tintin, Asterix, and others. Indeed, a major museum here is devoted to the art, for Brussels, capital of the world’s largest economic and political bloc, is also Europe’s capital of comics.

The abundance of artistic talent that has been nurtured in Belgium supports the proposition that great wealth begets great art, regardless of whether you concede comics as an art form. Jan van Eyck and the Flemish Primitives flourished under the patronage of the Burgundian rulers in the 1400s. More recently, artists in Brussels thrived at the turn of the 20th century, living in a wealthy industrial city where moneyed patrons could support the avant-garde. The Art Nouveau movement and surrealism took root here in the personages of, respectively, Victor Horta and René Magritte. In 1929, the artist Hergé (born in Brussels) introduced Tintin, and as many more cartoon artists followed, the city became known for comic-strip art as well. Belgium, in fact, has the most cartoonists per capita of any country in the world.

Belgium, not unlike many marriages, represents a union between a straightforward, no-nonsense entity (the Germanic Flanders in the north) and a more emotional one (the French Wallonia in the south); Brussels is the offspring with some genes of each. Temperamentally, the French and Flemish are not a natural alignment, and friction inevitably has ensued. Consider, for instance, that the largest political party in the country is Vlaams Belang, a Flemish separatist organization headquartered in Brussels.
 
A city this accustomed to factionalism makes a certain amount of sense as the home for NATO and the EU. But accessibility had more to do with those organizations settling here; Brussels is within 200 miles of London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt, and is no more than a two-hour flight from most other European capitals. Also, besides sitting astride its own country, it straddles northern and southern Europe.

“Whim of the Gods” is the local moniker for the parliament building that serves as the EU headquarters. Although the Bruxellois say that the name refers to a cheese that shares the same shape, it also may be a commentary on how, considering the linguistic logistics, any business at all is accomplished there. In the parliament’s cavernous main chamber, glass-enclosed translators’ boxes rim the perimeter, seating many of the 1,650 linguists employed to translate the proceedings into 20 languages. Monthly sessions are conducted here, mostly to address matters of commerce. Protesters regularly show up in the city to voice their views, but they do not congregate here. Instead they gather in the old part of Brussels, on the steps of the stock exchange, the city’s protest venue.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which created the precursor of the EU, the European Economic Community (EEC). Thus Brussels is garnering attention as various anniversary celebrations throughout the year draw tourists and Eurocrats to this city, which long has been viewed, at least by those in the business of governing, as a place where you conduct business and then get out.
 
The bland, steel-and-glass EU buildings in the city’s European District may be partially responsible for this view of Brussels. In the 1960s, the city razed an entire neighborhood, including Horta’s Maison du Peuple, an Art Nouveau architectural treasure, to make room for the Eurocracy. Shortly thereafter, urban planners worldwide, when describing uncontrolled development in a historic urban area, began using the term Brusselization.
 
More image tarnishing came in 1982, when Douglas Adams published Life, the Universe and Everything, the second book in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Forced by his U.S. publisher to purge the familiar four-letter word described by his characters as the most offensive word in the galaxy, which Adams had used liberally in the book’s U.K. edition, the author replaced it with “Belgium.”
 
Brussels lately has not been at the top of many visitors’ must-see lists, but historically, it has been popular with conquerors. The country’s roster of invaders begins with Julius Caesar and the Romans, and includes the Franks 500 years later, in the fifth century. The split in the country that remains to this day, between the Dutch-speaking Flemish in the north and the French-speaking Walloons in the south, arose from that time, when the Franks also controlled much of northern France. Vikings followed, and their fiefdoms evolved into towns. By 1419, the wealthiest man in Europe and the first duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, ruled his vast holdings from Brussels. The Spanish and the Hapsburgs took their turns governing the land now known as Belgium, as did Napoléon, until the Battle of Waterloo, which was fought on a field outside Brussels.
 
Only since 1831 has Belgium been an independent nation, making it one of Europe’s youngest countries. It consists of three regions—Wallonia, Flanders, and Brussels—each with its own parliament. Brussels is a bilingual French/Dutch enclave within Flanders. It covers about 60 square miles and has about 1 million residents, though only one-tenth of them live in the city core. Brussels, a walkable city, is built on a slope and has two sections, the Upper Town and the Lower Town. The Upper Town, where the wealthy traditionally resided, is the location of the royal palace, the shopping district, and the EU quarter. The medieval Lower Town is more atmospheric and hums with commercial activity. The Grand Place, the stock exchange, and most tourists are found in the Lower Town.

 

The European district’s glass-and-steel monoliths, the comics museum, and the Mini-Europe theme park might not appeal to every visitor’s tastes, but the city’s nearly 2,000 restaurants of every ethnicity should please any palate. It has been said that Brussels has more Michelin stars per capita than Paris has. Throughout the city, stands selling Belgian waffles or moules and frites (mussels and french fries, the latter actually invented in Belgium) scent the air. At the Sunday morning outdoor antiques market in the Upper Town, a food vendor dispenses escargots and wine. In the evenings, cafés unspool sidewalk awnings despite the chilly night dampness that prevails throughout much of the year, and patrons crowd the outdoor tables under the space heaters mounted overhead. In multiple languages, they shout to be heard over glasses of local brews: Trappist beers, golden ales, abbey beers, reds, whites, old browns.

At the aptly named Delirium Café in the Lower Town, patrons choose from more than 2,000 brews (hundreds of them local), including lambic, a beer unique to the region. It has a slightly sour taste from bacteria that exist only around the river Senne, which runs under the city. The river was covered in the 19th century because it had become an open sewer. In one of his many screeds about Brussels in the 1860s, the French writer Charles Baudelaire observed that the beer was made with river water “from the big latrine, the Senne… so for centuries Brussels people have drunk their own urine.”
 
Baudelaire’s comments can be viewed as evidence of the long-standing nature of the French/Flemish animosity. For presumably, the Bruxellois never have been crazy enough to drink their own urine, just eccentric enough to outfit their Pis.

Beyond Brussels Sprouts
For a city that has figured in so many aspects of European history, Brussels has remained a surprisingly low-profile entity. An informal pre-trip survey of some European acquaintances, requesting their perceptions of the city and its denizens, produced a fuzzy picture. “Brutal drivers,” warned a Norwegian oilman. “Too rainy,” sniffed a Parisian. “They’re mad about food there,” enthused a Londoner. This last assessment, at least, proved accurate.

Choosing from 2,000 restaurants is a daunting prospect, but a Flemish eatery may offer a good place to commence an education on the local cuisine. Scheltema (www.scheltema.be), for one, has the whole package: brass and mirrors, seafood or chicken waterzooi (a creamy stew), a large selection of beer, and a fairly high, though not unpleasant, decibel level. Additional coursework could include experimenting at any of the city’s numerous African and seafood eateries. Alternatively, at the two-Michelin-star Bruneau (www.bruneau.be), you can savor a classic French experience. Chef Jean-Pierre Bruneau is renowned in Brussels and beyond, and in his menu he throws down a gauntlet. The conundrum is whether to accept the challenge that caramelized pigeon leg presents, or play it safe with the likes of ravioli with celery and truffles, one of his best-known creations. Neither choice will disappoint.

Belgian chocolate needs no introduction, and the shop of Pierre Marcolini, in the Upper Town, is among the country’s best. Taste-testing all of the famed Belgian brews might do irreversible harm to one’s waistline, but you can check a few samples off the list in the Lower Town at Delirium Café (www.deliriumcafe.be), which offers more than 2,000 different beers. A la Mort Subite (www.alamort subite.com), with only hundreds of beers instead of thousands, is worth visiting for the ambience of a classic Brussels beer hall.

The Hotel Amigo (www.roccofortehotels.com) has an unbeatable location, just a block from the Grand Place. Being in Brussels, the Amigo naturally has an unconventional backstory. The site’s original building had been a merchant’s home that was converted to a prison in 1522, when the Spanish ruled the region. The Spaniards misunderstood the jail’s Flemish name to mean “friend” and translated it to “amigo.” Today, the elegant Amigo in no way resembles that former building. Touches of humor in each room, such as surrealist and comic-strip prints, remind you that you are in Brussels.

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