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Brussels, Heart of Europe

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Dale M. Brown is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times Travel section

This city seems to be the capital of everything these days. Not only is it Belgium’s, but as the century turns it is also the political capital of Europe--home to the European Union (EU) and headquarters of NATO. Moreover, next year it will enjoy star billing as one of the continent’s nine “cultural capitals,” an honor that seems only appropriate for a city that boasts more than 70 museums, gorgeous buildings and some of the finest cooking in all of Europe.

One hundred years ago Brussels was ready to fulfill a different destiny. King Leopold II, who at the time quite literally owned the Belgian Congo, sought to use some of the immense fortune the African country earned him yearly to turn little Belgium into a superpower and transform Brussels into a city worthy of such elevated status. The king launched a building boom that gave the town much of its present grandeur. He laid out broad boulevards lined with chic apartments and private dwellings based on Parisian models, erected palatial civic edifices in the Greek and Roman mode, put up a giant triumphal arch and carved out spacious parks.

I’ve been to Brussels several times, but it always left me cold. On a return visit last May with my wife, Liet, however, I felt differently. Perhaps I had changed. Certainly Brussels has. It exhibits a new confidence and new sophistication. I now consider it one of Europe’s better-kept travel secrets.

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Despite a variety of glass and steel skyscrapers, the city preserves much of its turn-of-the-century inheritance, including gems of the then-revolutionary Art Nouveau movement, in which Liet and I are particularly interested. Indeed, in our explorations we found ourselves lingering in this belle epoque atmosphere.

So that we would be within easy striking distance of many of the sights, we chose a hotel in the center of town, the tiny Welcome, which has only six rooms and claims to be Brussels’ smallest hotel. The Welcome is owned by an attractive young couple, Michel and Sophie Smeesters, who seemed never too busy to find time to recommend things for us to do, write down instructions, mark routes on our map and book dinner reservations. They made us feel like guests in a home.

The Smeesterses also run the first-class restaurant next door, La Truite d’Argent, at which we ate deliciously the night of our arrival. Feasting on a thick fish soup and grilled salmon, mullet and sea bass in a watercress-based cream sauce, we felt as though we had landed in culinary heaven. As we discovered later, we were staying in a neighborhood famous for the seafood restaurants that line the adjacent fish market, where once flowed a canal (now filled in) that brought fishermen and their catch to the city.

From our hotel we could walk to the cobbled Grand Place, Brussels’ heart. I like to think of this big, happy square as Europe’s heart as well: Draw two lines diagonally across the map of Europe, from Denmark to Spain and from Greece to Scotland, and they intersect at Brussels, which partly explains why the city has become such a mover and shaker on the European scene.

The square’s location in the town center makes it a natural choice for the start of a tour--or the end of one. When we tired of sightseeing, we retreated here to sample Belgian beer at cafes along the edge and to admire the beautiful Gothic and Baroque buildings, many of them former guild houses (headquarters of medieval trade associations) with elaborate spires and gilded gables. Even if we had tried harder, we could not have sampled more than a few of the numerous brews listed on the menus. Belgium produces about 300 kinds of beer, and it’s even available at the McDonald’s here.

Not far from the Grand Place, a few short blocks behind the 15th century Hotel de Ville (Town Hall), stands perhaps Brussels’ best-known monument, the 17th century Manneken Pis fountain. The bronze statue of a little boy urinating, placed high in a scallop-shell niche, has become the enduring symbol of the city. Its drawing power among visiting foreigners, alas, has lent a crassness to the immediate neighborhood. Looking for a Manneken Pis corkscrew? You can find it here, along with a lot of other tourist junk.

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We escaped the kitschiness of the Manneken Pis neighborhood at the nearby Museum of Costume and Lace; it has an interesting display of historic clothing frilled with the lace for which Brussels is renowned. From here we walked to a museum devoted to another Belgian obsession, chocolate. Opened in 1999 on a corner of the Grand Place, the museum traces the whole chocolate-making process, from fermented bean to finished product.

In the warren of streets around the square are numerous small restaurants. On the Manneken Pis side, to the southwest, we had a good, simple lunch in the Roue d’Or: steak, thick gravy, crisp French fries (double fried in the Belgian manner), a green salad and a bottle of red wine. The restaurant is done up in amusing surrealist style with wall paintings that borrow whimsical images from Belgian artist Rene Magritte, among them a black-suited man in a bowler hat serenely flying toward the ceiling.

Adjacent to the 17th century, multi-arched Maison du Roi on the northeastern side of the Grand Place, an alley leads to a gaggle of sidewalk restaurants competing for customers with lavish still-lifes of seafood and meat arranged on mounds of crushed ice. No adjective describes the prevailing spirit quite so well as “merry,” especially at dinner time, when these places are packed.

A couple of blocks away is Brasserie Vossen, more popularly known as Morte-Subite--Sudden Death--after its beer’s name. We paused late one afternoon in its high-ceilinged, multi-mirrored interior, furnished with heavy wooden tables set in long rows between tall columns, for a taste of Death itself (slightly sourish). Morte-Subite has changed little in its almost 90 years of existence; people whose grandparents and great-grandparents came here like it just as it is.

For contrast, or dessert, in the same general area, seek out the Galeries St. Hubert, a serene, sky-lighted shopping arcade dating from 1847. There classiness continues to prevail, as evidenced by the distinctive boutiques, bookstores and cafes and the fantastic chocolate shop Neuhaus. Belgians display chocolate with a finesse reserved in other countries for jewels, setting it off with satin ribbons and silk flowers. Step inside Neuhaus--this is the original establishment, founded in 1857--and I guarantee that you will be no more able to resist the temptations that surround you than we were. We surrendered and bought some truffles--hard, bitter chocolate shells dusted with cocoa, concealing creamy chocolate centers.

In our wanderings, we realized that hilly Brussels is divided into two parts, an upper and a lower city. The Grand Place lies in the lower section. One day, Liet and I climbed a hill that leads up to the historic quarter known as the Sablon. The area is noted for its antiques shops, and its weekend antiques market is set up in the shadow of a Gothic-style church in a large square, the Place du Grand Sablon. We had fun wandering among the market’s stalls, examining everything from lighting fixtures to Victorian dining chairs. The antiques were just European enough in appearance to refresh our eyes grown jaded by too many look-alike American offerings at antiques fairs back home.

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To take advantage of the sunny day, we had cocoa--served with a dollop of whipped cream in a silver cup--at the outdoor cafe of Wittamer, which faces onto the square. Wittamer may just be the best pastry shop I’ve ever tried. In all my considerable travels, never have I seen more beautiful cakes, exquisitely decorated and mouthwateringly delicious.

As luck would have it, the following morning we happened on a flea market held only twice a year on a street near the Cinquantenaire Park in the eastern part of the city. (Brussels also has a permanent daily flea market, the Vieux Marche on the Place du Jeu de Balle.) We spotted bargains galore; Liet bought a dozen silver-plated, turn-of-the-century cake forks for $40, still nestled in their original silk-lined box.

And we could not resist another temptation: sliced, herb-scented, butter-sauteed mushrooms on toast, being dispensed as a snack by a couple doing a booming business at their food stand. We ate standing up, using the windowsill of a bank as our table, while a red-coated brass band came marching down the crowded street tooting out familiar tunes.

Cinquantenaire Park was established in 1880 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Belgium’s independence from the Netherlands. We had come to the park to have a look at Leopold II’s triumphal arch, erected in 1905, and to wander around in the Museum of Art and History. Located in one of the huge buildings that branch out from the sides of the 144-foot-high monument, the museum is devoted largely to ancient cultures but also contains an outstanding collection of European decorative arts from the Middle Ages to Art Deco.

We were in for another treat later in the day when we paid a visit to the royal park at Laeken, a half-hour tram ride from the city’s center. Laeken’s centerpiece is a palace of Leopold II (1835-1909), and we had heard from the Smeesterses that the magnificent 19th century greenhouses there were open to the public, something that happens only once a year in spring. There are 11 of them, and they spread out over six acres.

But we were unprepared for the treasures inside: avenues of multicolored geraniums on plants standing 6 feet tall; canopies of 13 different kinds of fuchsias, the flowers dangling above our heads like thousands of Chinese lanterns; an enormous room filled with pink and purple azaleas in riotous bloom. The magic continued outside. In the park, Leopold II had a Japanese pagoda and a Chinese pavilion erected as part of a grand scheme, eventually thwarted, to transform the palace grounds into a wonderland of buildings from all over the world.

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With time running short, we devoted the next two days to seeking out further examples of Art Nouveau, the exuberant architectural and decorative movement that took root in Brussels at the turn of the century. The city abounds with buildings, scattered in the older neighborhoods, that sport the style’s characteristic whiplash lines, evidenced particularly in wrought-iron railings, fencing and balconies. Indeed, in the period stretching from 1893 to the onset of World War I in 1914, at least 500 major Art Nouveau houses were built in Brussels.

Art Nouveau’s most famous practitioner in Belgium was the architect Victor Horta, and it was to his house, erected between 1898 and 1901, that we took a tram through a district rich with examples of the style. Now a museum, it sweeps upward from within, a snaking staircase at its center rising toward a skylight set with warmly tinted colored glass. A golden light pours down the stairwell, illuminating the furniture and decorations. Organic is the only way to describe the house, which grew robustly from the seed of Horta’s imagination.

Of several buildings in Brussels that Horta designed, my favorite is the Solvay House. The Belgian government thinks well enough of the building to show details of it on its 2,000-franc note, along with an engraved portrait of the architect. To limit wear and tear, the mansion is open only to small groups with advance reservations.

It took Horta from 1894 to 1903 to complete the project, and inside you see why. He designed everything, right down to the telephone. After entering, you float up a grand staircase positioned at the center of the structure to maximize light. As you climb, wood and metal appear fluid, flowing upward as banisters and railings. In places, the woodwork around doorways surges like a vine reaching out, spreading tendrils; in others, it seems to glide over the surface. But for all this delicacy of expression, the mansion has muscle. Horta was one of the first architects to use steel to frame a house and, daringly, to let the supports show, incorporating them into the decoration, rivets and all. The second story contains the sitting and dining rooms, whose furniture seems bent from pliant boughs, the chandeliers made from clusters of luminescent flowers.

But to understand something about the political radicalism that motivated Horta and other architects of Art Nouveau, you have to go downstairs to the kitchen. It is a long, white-tiled room with large windows and a big door at one end to give the servants light and air. And beyond is a spacious garden, not for the use of Mr. and Mrs. Solvay, the owners, but for that of the help. Art Nouveau in Belgium was tied up with socialism, and Horta and his client were determined to give the servants who ran the house healthy working conditions.

We had an excellent dinner that evening at a restaurant called De Ultieme Hallucinatie (The Ultimate Hallucination), billed as “a culinary and architectural dream.” The house survives as a perfect example of the so-called geometric Art Nouveau, which reminded us of the Arts and Crafts style.

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The popularity of Art Nouveau faded at about the time World War I started and Modernism emerged. So we felt we owed it to ourselves to pay a visit to one of its greatest examples, the David and Alice van Buuren Museum in the Brussels suburb of Uccle. The antithesis of Horta’s residence, the Van Buurens’ was filled with supreme examples of 1920s French furniture and other European decorative objects of the Art Deco period.

The grounds are themselves works of art, kept as though the Van Buurens were still alive. Among their attractions are an Art Deco rose garden, a contemplative “Secret Garden of the Heart” (Mrs. van Buuren’s monument to her husband’s memory) and a maze composed of 1,300 yews.

We could have gone on exploring Brussels, but we had run out of time. Over dinner that night at La Quincaillerie, a former hardware store complete with the original floor-to-ceiling wooden drawers, we looked back over our stay, delighted by what we had seen yet a bit frustrated that we had not managed to see more. Why, those 70 museums alone could keep us busy for a lifetime.

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GUIDEBOOK

Capital Ideas in Brussels

Getting there: City Bird flies nonstop from Los Angeles to Brussels; American, Delta, KLM, Lufthansa and Swissair offer connecting service involving a change of planes. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,010. Sabena, the Belgian national airline, has bargain packages that combine air fare with hotel, rental car or train; telephone (877) BELGIUM (235-4486) for information.

Where to stay: The Hotel Amigo, tel. 011-32-2-547-4747, fax 011-32-2-513-5277, is a staid Old World place located just off the Grand Place; doubles (brochure rates) from about $200, but weekend rates (and daily rates in July and August) are about $148 for a standard room. We stayed at the Welcome Hotel, 5 Rue du Peuplier, tel. 011-32-2-219-9546, fax 011-32- 2-217-1887, Internet https://www .hotelwelcome.com, which has six comfortable but unassuming rooms and personable owners; doubles run from about $65 to $100. (In general, rates at Brussels hotels are about 50% off brochure rates during July and August and on weekends.)

Where to eat: (Note: prices below are for two- to three-course dinners for two, without wine.) Comme Chez Soi, 23 Place Rouppe, local tel. 512- 3674 or 512-2921, is one of Brussels’ highest-rated restaurants, with Art Nouveau decor and serious Belgian cuisine; about $60-$140. De Ultieme Hallucinatie, 316 Rue Royale, tel. 217-0614, is in an old Art Nouveau house; Belgian cuisine; $40-$70. La Truite d’Argent, 23 Quai au Bois a Bruler, tel. 219-9546, specializes in seafood; about $55-$85. La Roue d’Or, 26 Rue des Chapeliers, tel. 514-2554, offers simple, bistro-style dishes (closed in August); about $90. La Quincaillerie, 45 Rue du Page, tel. 538-2553, has hearty Belgian cooking in an old hardware store; about $55-$100, lunch special $11.

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(Note: After we left Belgium, a food scare occurred when it was discovered that dioxin had contaminated animal feed. Some items, including eggs, chicken and poultry byproducts, were taken off the market. Since then, foods in the affected categories have undergone testing by government labs and been declared safe to eat.)

For more information: Belgian Tourist Office, Suite 1501, 780 3rd Ave., New York, NY 10017; tel. (212) 758-8130. The Brussels Tourist Information Office, near the Grand Place, offers a free list of Art Nouveau buildings.

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