CHARMED EX­IS­TENCE

Neil Clark en­joys the civilised friend­li­ness and small cour­te­sies of his­toric Brus­sels

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

WHAT is it that makes the Bel­gian cap­i­tal so ir­re­sistible? First, the peo­ple. Brus­sels, along with Bel­grade and Sofia, is in the pre­mier league of Euro­pean friend­li­ness. It’s not just Bron Waugh’s leg­endary ticket in­spec­tors who seem to have a masters de­gree from the Univer­sity of Charm: ser­vice ev­ery­where is cour­te­ous, strangers are un­fail­ingly help­ful, the lo­cals ap­proach­able and kind.

Sec­ond, there’s the highly un-glob­alised look to most of the main streets and squares. Al­though Brus­sels is the base for the Euro­pean Union and NATO, it has some­how avoided the mind-numb­ing uni­for­mity that lock­ing one’s coun­try into Euro-At­lantic struc­tures usu­ally en­tails.

It has the low­est per capita num­ber of McDon­ald’s of any West­ern Euro­pean cap­i­tal city; Pizza Ex­press, Pret a Manger, Star­bucks and other ubiq­ui­tous names are con­spic­u­ous by their ab­sence. Ar­riv­ing in Brus­sels one is re­minded just how bor­ingly stan­dard­ised one’s own coun­try has be­come.

Third, linked to the sec­ond, there is the won­der­ful variety of bars and cafes. Jazz bars, themed bars, Parisian-style pave­ment cafes, smoky neigh­bour­hood dens; bars that sim­ply de­fine bo­hemian. Among my favourites is L’Archiduc, a fab­u­lous art deco es­tab­lish­ment close to place St Gery, where live jazz can be heard ev­ery Satur­day af­ter­noon for free. At Le Green­wich, just round the cor­ner in rue des Chartreux, you can watch the reg­u­lars play chess and backgam­mon un­til the early hours. The sub­limely deca­dent Goupil le Foul has sink-in so­fas and dimmed red lights and walls cov­ered with the mem­o­ra­bilia of leg­endary chan­son­nieres . The sim­ple but en­chant­ing bru­in­cafe Au Dar­ing­man in rue de Flan­dre is where the ever-cheer­ful Mar­tine serves, five nights a week, from be­hind the bar.

What makes the night life in Brus­sels such a plea­sure is not only the ex­ten­sive range of beers (more than 400), and the sen­si­ble smok­ing pol­icy (smok­ing is still al­lowed in pubs and cafes that don’t serve food), but that peo­ple live in the city cen­tre and, as a re­sult you can still, es­pe­cially in the St Catherine dis­trict, find bars filled with lo­cals.

We live in a vil­lage,’’ our arts teacher friend in Au Dar­ing­man tells us: the clien­tele tonight in­cludes a 10-year-old boy with his par­ents, an in­cred­i­bly sweet pen­sioner called Car­men who lives just across the road, a teacher of Rus­sian called Veerle and her stu­dent friend Ine, a disc jockey-cum-mar­ket seller called Philip and a for­mer film pro­ducer who used to be on the com­mit­tee for de­cid­ing which Bel­gian film was nom­i­nated for the best for­eign film cat­e­gory at the Os­cars. Com­pare that with the usual bunch you meet in your lo­cal wine bar.

Fourth, again linked to the sec­ond point: there is the in­cred­i­ble se­lec­tion of spe­cial­ist, in­di­vid­u­ally owned shops. The cosy net­work of streets be­tween La Bourse and Le Grand Place are a par­tic­u­lar de­light: choc-a-bloc with out­lets sell­ing sec­ond-hand records, lace, choco­lates, stamps, comic books, cos­tume jew­ellery, waf­fles and much more.

Fifth, there are Brus­sels’ mu­se­ums. One of my favourite ar­eas of the city is the Parc de Cin­quin­taire; walk through the gi­gan­tic tri­umphal arch com­mis­sioned by king Leopold to mark Bel­gium’s golden ju­bilee in 1880 and you will find three of Europe’s most fas­ci­nat­ing col­lec­tions: the enor­mous Musees Roy­aux d’Art and His­toire (with its su­perb se­lec­tion of ta­pes­tries), the Musee Royal de l’Armee et d’His­toire Mil­i­taire (which traces the his­tory of the Bel­gian army from its in­de­pen­dence in 1839 to the present day) and Au­toworld, a col­lec­tion of more than 100 ve­hi­cles housed in one vast air­craft hangarstyle build­ing.

Don’t miss the largest col­lec­tion of mu­si­cal in­stru­ments in the world at the Musee des In­stru­ments de Musique, housed in the stun­ning Old Eng­land build­ing.

The sixth won­der of Brus­sels is the food. Whether you’re snack­ing on pommes frites with may­on­naise bought from a Turk­ish ven­dor out­side La Bourse or go­ing for the full works in rue des Bouch­ers, qual­ity and good ser­vice are guar­an­teed. You can eat as well in Brus­sels for a frac­tion of Lon­don prices, some­thing which prob­a­bly ex­plains the hos­til­ity of broad­caster Cle­ment — ‘‘ I never could see the point of Bel­gium’’ — Freud.

You can’t go wrong any­where in Brus­sels; but three of my favourite eateries are Le Mou­ton d’Or on rue des Bouch­ers; Plat­tes­teen, a tra­di­tional cafe-restau­rant near La Bourse (which of­fers su­perb three-course lunch menus for about $20) and the in­com­pa­ra­ble Fin de Siecle on rue des Chartreux (next door to Le Green­wich), with its long wooden ta­bles, black­board menu, enor­mous por­tions (the filets de vo­laille and lapin a la kriek come highly rec­om­mended) and an iron­work spi­ral stair­case that is chal­leng­ing when sober and po­ten­tially lethal af­ter your fifth glass of Leffe Brune beer.

Last but not least, there is the ar­chi­tec­ture. The Grand Platz is rightly re­garded as the most beau­ti­ful square in Europe, but if its gothic mag­nif­i­cence is not enough, the city has a mar­vel­lous col­lec­tion of art nou­veau build­ings. One of the best is ar­chi­tect Vic­tor Horta’s house and stu­dio at rue Amer­i­caine, which is open to the pub­lic as a mu­seum.

In short, Brus­sels is a trea­sure trove, which even af­ter sev­eral vis­its throws up new de­lights. And thanks to the won­ders of mod­ern en­gi­neer­ing you can be there in less than 21/ hours by train from Lon­don for less than the re­turn fare to Manch­ester. The Spec­ta­tor

www.vis­it­bel­gium.com

Clock­wise from bot­tom left, fa­cade of the EU build­ing; a cor­ner of the Grand Platz; mu­ral by Bel­gian artist Ge­orges Remi, cre­ator of Tintin; sweet treats in a patis­serie

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