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