Travel
Brussels spout

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 38, Spring 2014

Page 56

Travel
Brussels spout

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 38, Spring 2014

Page 56

Travel
Brussels spout

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 38, Spring 2014

Page 56

Travel
Brussels spout

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 38, Spring 2014

Page 56

Don't believe its dull reputation. From old masters to flea markets, there is much pleasure to be found in Brussels, says Robert Cottrell

A word of warning. Brussels has the weather that London is supposed to have, and a day without rain is a rare treat in any season. Advice on what to do in case of sunshine will follow later, but is largely theoretical.

A second word of warning. As a part-time resident of Brussels for almost three decades I have learned to prepare for the worst whenever I set foot outside the door. The incidence of strikes, eccentric opening hours, understaffing, public holidays and technological failures means that no plan will necessarily survive contact with reality. If you get to the museum and the museum is open, then it can only mean that the gallery you particularly want to visit has been closed for restoration.

But I complain too much. Let me list some of the things I love about Brussels, first among them being that this is a very easy place in which to be a foreigner. The Belgians are so busy sniping at one other across the Dutch-French language divide that they scarcely have time to notice foreigners at all; English is treated everywhere as a neutral, rather than a foreign, language.

Brussels is also, and rightly so, an unassuming city, louche and lumpy at the edges, where even the poshest of shops and hotels receives you in your third-best shoes without any of the purposeful snobbery you might expect in, say, Paris or London. There is money here, of course, but you have to look hard to see it. The rich dress correctly, drive Renaults and Peugeots, and live in the suburbs. There is no glamor at all.

If you avoid Mondays (when everything is closed), there is serious pleasure to be had in Brussels, starting with the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, a warren of buildings with a main entrance on the Rue de la Régence near the Sablons. The several collections here are branded as separate museums, though they are all reached though the same front door. The main effect is that you are charged extra to see the Magrittes and the Ensors. But the Ensors, at least, are well worth it.

The Old Masters' Museum upstairs has the Van der Weydens, the Bruegels and the Cranachs. Downstairs you will find the Magritte Museum, the contents of which can readily be inferred; and the recently opened Fin-de-Siècle Museum, which covers the period 1868-1914, not entirely happily. There is also a Museum of Modern Art; or at least, there would be, if it were not shut. And when I say "you will find" these collections downstairs, what I mean is that you will have to look for them there. The signage is not always equal to the challenge of the ground plan.

The Museum of Musical Instruments across the road is great fun when the headphone technology is working, and when it is not, there is always the building in which it is housed – a gorgeous 19th-century former department store – to admire.

For those who have children between the ages of six and 16 in tow, or an anorak in their suitcase, think of looking in on the Musée de la Bande Dessinée a few streets away, where the gift shop is at least as good as the collection. There is enough Tintin memorabilia here to satisfy most admirers; if you want yet more, there is a museum dedicated entirely to Tintin's creator, Hergé, in Louvain-la-Neuve, a half-hour train ride from Brussels.

For a lingering sense of the Brussels of the Tintin era, the place to go wandering is the old working-class district called the Marolles, which has a daily flea market (best on Fridays) at its center in the Place du Jeu de Balle. This is where Tintin buys the model ship which sets in motion The Secret of the Unicorn. The market starts early, and winds down around 2pm.

The flea market retains more than its fair share of fleas, but the nearby streets – especially the Rue Haute and Rue Blaes – have been trendified and gentrified over the past two decades with antique shops, galleries, furniture dealers and restaurants. Dune 234 at 234 Rue Haute pairs fine art with contemporary furniture; Haute Antiques at 207 Rue Haute is a gigantic depot of bric-a-brac from 40 dealers.

The older and grander antique shops and art dealers cluster around the Place du Grand Sablon up the hill (where there is an antiques market on the square on Saturdays and on Sunday mornings). The most seigneurial of the antiquaires is probably Costerman at Grand Sablon 5; and the Antiques Center at Grand Sablon 39, a bazaar of 20 or so dealers' stalls, is always worth a ferret.

I did promise a plan for a hypothetical sunny day: it centers on the Atomium, that bizarre 100-metre-tall symbol of European modernism built for the 1958 Brussels World's Fair and then left to rust for more than 40 years. To get there, take the metro to Heysel station, then it is a five-minute walk. Following a gut-and-strut renovation a decade ago, the Atomium is glittering once more, and offers a panorama stretching as far as Antwerp. I recommend packing Jonathan Coe's novel Expo 58, set at the World's Fair, for this little outing, not least because of the queue. If the weather does let you down, fear not: there is a 24-screen cinema across the road.

Robert Cottrell lived in Brussels when reporting for The Independent and the Economist. He is now Editor-in-Chief of TheBrowser.com

When in Brussels:

Where to stay

In keeping with its low-key nature, Brussels is not over-endowed with legendary hotels, but it does need somewhere to put visiting MEPs and diplomats. One of the most characterful hotels is Le Dixseptieme, (right) a 17th-century townhouse near the Grand Place that was once the residence of the Spanish Ambassador. With a magnificent – and original – oak staircase, marble fireplaces and parquet flooring, it is a change from the current trend for stripped down interiors and sharp, modern furniture. If you want that, try the excellent – but oddly named – Made in Louise which is in the haut suburb, Ixelles. This boutique hotel mixes white subway tiles with distressed pine furniture. Good service.

If arriving by Eurostar, it is hard not to be seduced by the idea of the Hotel Pullman (top) which has an entrance in Brussels Midi station itself. (One of the meeting rooms overlooks the platform for trains pulling in from St Pancras.) These stylish, mid-range rooms designed by Jean-Philippe Nuel have all one would expect from a brand new hotel (good wi-fi, espresso machines) as well as discounted rates at weekends.

Where to eat

Brussels does like its food. The generally accepted top place to eat is the two-Michelin-starred Comme Chez Soi, which lives up to its reputation, even though Pierre Wynants has handed over the kitchen to his son-in-law, Lionel Rigolet. For a traditional brasserie, try La Quincaillerie. Brussels is a place for the hidden delight, such as Les Filles. Founded by three women, this restaurant is accessed only by ringing a doorbell. Upstairs there are communal tables to which are brought a selection of starters (no choice) before diners help themselves to an invariably delicious main course (seasonal game a speciality). And all for €15 at lunch, €25 for dinner (including appetizers and cheese).

There are more authentic bars with rows of special-production local beer than you can shake a fist at. One of the most atmospheric is Le Cirio, opposite the Bourse, that has preserved its original ornate interior without looking too touristy. Then there is Pin Pon that overlooks the Jeu de Balle flea market; it is housed in an old fire station (the name refers to the noise of the siren) and has doors made from a lattice of fire hoses. This is owned by Charli who also has an excellent bakery in Rue St Catherine. (Breadmaking is taken very seriously in Brussels, the home of the original Pain Quotidien which, now that it is an international chain, is inevitably sneered at.)

Lucinda Bredin

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