Brussels. It's not a name to conjure up an excited yearning in the heart of the typical traveller, British ones at least. Three things spring immediately to mind, when the squidgy-soft syllables of 'Bruss-els' are spoken – bureaucracy, boredom and sprouts. This is a great shame, because beneath the veneer of a city dressed up as a stuffy administrative centre for Europe, Brussels is really rather fun. It is, after all, the city whose mascot is a little boy peeing onto the heads of soldiers of a rival army. It's the city that is home to the comic strip hero Tin Tin (and in fact has a renowned comic museum to brighten up its houses of culture). And it's also the city that has bought us the diverse pleasures and sublime sourness of Belgium's lambic beers.
So put any preconceptions to one-side. For all its multi-national mix-up, bi-lingual pretensions, and pompous post-war architecture, in its heart Brussels has kept true to the spirit of the strange cultural fusion that is Belgium. So if you're coming to Belgium for something a bit deeper than a post-stag hangover, you'd do well to reconsider relegating the capital city to just a point of entry for your Belgian stay-over. Better by far to make your stay fit around Brussels.
Brussels is not just the capital of Belgium (and of the EU), its biggest city (at over 1 million citizens), and the home of a quiver of international organizations (NATO, the European Commission, the European Parliament and, of course, the European Brewery Convention), it's also the most diverse of Belgium's big cities. Although three-quarters of its population are classed as Belgian nationals, most were not born here. A third of Brusseleers call themselves Brusselaar (from Flanders) or Bruxellois (from Wallonia), but a third originally came from France and other European countries. And another third were born as far afield as the Congo or Rwanda, Morocco or Turkey.
The city lies 60 miles inland from the coastal town of Zeebrugge, sitting just north of the line that divides the Dutch-speaking province of Flanders from the French-speaking Walloons. It started as a tiny hamlet on an island in the River Senne, and literally dug its way out of the marshes surrounding the area, as it laid out drainage ditches and canals. In fact the name Brussels probably comes from the Dutch Broeksel, meaning 'home in the marsh'. Its damp beginnings are recognised today in the bright yellow iris flowers that are used on the city's coat-of-arms – and as the name for one of the newest beers of the city's Cantillon brewery – Iris, a cold-hopped well-bitttered pale ale.
But let's put that fine beer down for a moment, and rewind back to the start of Brussels' journey proper – to 979, when Duke Charles of Lower Lotharingia bought a bag of holy bones from a village to the west, Moorsel, and deposited them at Brussels' (then) tiny chapel.
Adding a little saintly aura to your local chapel (via the holy relics of Saint Gudula in this case) was, of course, a time-tested way of boosting an no-place hamlet up into the league of up-and-coming towns. Saint Gudula's bones meant more pilgrims, which meant more customers for the market, which meant growing trade – and more taxes for the Count. Brussels, lying at the crossroads of traffic between Bruges and Ghent, France and Cologne, was able to leverage up on that initial religious 'leg-up' from Saint Gudula. The market square of Nedermerct, pre-cursor of today's Grand-Place, was already marked out by the 11th century. By the 12th, Brussels had grown to a city of 30,000 people.
At this point the ruling Counts of Leuven became the Dukes of Brabant, and the city built its first defensive walls. By the end of the 14th Century it had spilled outside those, and another set of walls were built – traces of these walls can be seen in Brussels road layout, even today. Brussels became known as the Princely Capital, focussing on the production of fine goods, quality silks and gold-spun tapestries for the rich of Paris and Venice. At this time it was also home to one of the three great Flemish painters (or the 'Vlaamse Primitieven'), Rogier van der Weyden, who was more popular than the famous van Eyck brothers, in his time.
When the Burgundian Netherlands, with Brussels as its dukely court, passed onto the Hapsburg Charles V in 1506, the history of the city became snarled up with that of the Holy Roman Empire, Spain and the emerging Dutch nation. It was in Brussels' Cathedral of Saint Gudula that Charles V became King of Spain in 1515. And it was in Brussels Coudenberg Palace that Charles V gave up his crown in 1555. The city was embroiled in the war between catholic Spain and the rebellious protestant Dutch provinces (the Eighty Years War), and for a while was ruled by the Calvinist rebels. It never lost its adherence to Catholicism, however.
The war left Brussels relatively unscathed, but 50 years later, in 1695, an army from France's Sun King (Louis XIV) came a-calling – with a whole division of cannons and mortars, and thousands of shells, in tow. Louis XIV wanted a city in the Spanish Netherlands destroyed, as a diversion to his war with the Grand Alliance – and defenceless Brussels was chosen as the target. A two-day artillery onslaught started a massive fire in the centre of Brussels – which left up to five thousand houses burned to the ground – and 11 churches, several convents, and most of the buildings around the Grand-Place were flattened. A hundred years later Napoleon was said to have remarked that the Brussels Bombardment was "as barbarous as it was useless."
The next century or two would see Brussels flip-flop between Austria, France and Holland, as Flanders remained a pawn in the game of international politics being played at the time. By the 19th century, the locals had had enough. It was time for Belgium to be for the Belgians. And in 1830 Brussels was (literally) centre-stage in the Belgian revolution – kicking off the fight for independence from the Kingdom of Holland with... an opera.
A Night at the Opera
No sneering at the back. Opera was, in fact, a rather radical force for change, in the 19th century. Daniel Auber's La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici) was a case in point. First staged in Paris in 1828, it was banned in the Kingdom of Netherlands, which Belgium was then part of – especially as a performance of this opera in July 1830 sparked the French July Revolution. Somewhat foolishly, William I, increasingly unpopular in Brussels, decided to lift the ban, so the opera could be performed in his honour. On the 25th of August 1830, in the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, the opera's duet, 'Amour sacré de la patrie', (or sacred love of fatherland) so inflamed those attending that they spilled onto the streets, shouting patriotic slogans, and sparking a revolt.
The following days saw the workers of Brussels rally around the newly-created Brussels flag of independence, storming government buildings and overwhelming King William's troops. The hapless King sent an 8,000 strong army to quell the uprising, but it failed after much bloodshed over 4 days of fighting in September. His troops withdrew, a provisional government was formed, and Belgium declared independence in October. The rest is history. The Monnaie opera theatre still stands to this day, now slap bang in the middle of the European Quarter of Brussels.
So Brussels became the capital city of the new nation, and the newly-installed King, Leopold I, took his throne there. The Belgian royalty still lives in Laeken Castle in the city. Brussels was mercifully spared during the two World Wars of the 20th century. Sadly it wasn't spared the post-war building boom – on the back of Brussels' increased importance to the European Community and NATO – which ripped much that was good out of the heart of the city. But they couldn't build over it all, and plenty still remains for the visitor to catch Brussels' true soul.
Getting There & Getting About
As the capital of Belgium, Brussels is pretty easy to reach from whatever direction, whether you're coming by plane, train, or auto-mobile. The city is well served by its main international airport (imaginatively called Brussels Airport), which is 7 miles north-east of the centre of town. It has 70 international and domestic airlines connecting it to destinations across Europe and the world. Several of these fly from regional airports in the UK, including Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham, as well as Heathrow and there are also direct flights from the United States. There is also the smaller Charleroi Airport, 30 miles south, with mainly low-cost airlines on its roster, which currently connects to Edinburgh and Dublin.
Brussels has three big rail-stations, with most international visitors coming in through Brussels South, which hooks into the high-speed Eurostar network: London St. Pancras to Brussels is less than 2 hours on the Eurostar. If you'd rather dodge the 'Chunnel', and bring your car over by ferry, the road from the Channel ports to the capital is a simple drive down the main E40 motorway.
Simple enough to reach, but not so simple to get around; this is a very busy city, with up to 2 million people commuting in each day, many by car. In fact Brussels has been ranked as top of the list of car-clogged European cities. It has tried to get around this with numerous schemes for transport-sharing, including a car-sharing service from Cambio (with MIVB/STIB), Taxi Stop and the recent Zen Car electric car-sharing scheme.
Travel around the centre is, however, well-covered by a comprehensive tram and bus network operated by MIVB/STIB. The integrated tickets can be used on the good rail connections into/out to the surrounding suburbs. Shared bicycles are also a feature of the city centre, with 300 bike-stations available operated by Villo! But whether you're walking, cycling, driving or tram-riding, be prepared for plenty of company.
As a city at the centre of both European and international politics and business, Brussels is packed to the gills with hotels of all classes (with over 30,000 beds in total). There is, however, a firm emphasis on the top-end of the market, catering to needs of the well-heeled coming here for business, rather than pleasure. Because of the high demand, staying close to the city centre won't be cheap. So if cost is an issue, you may want to look further out, and travel in by tram or bus.
In addition to traditional hotels, there are many 'apart-hotels', which are well-located, well-furnished apartments rented out on a short-term basis to visitors. While geared to the travelling EU bureaucrat or businessman, they can be useful for those looking for their Brussels stay stretching out longer than a week or two. There are also some reasonably priced hotels close to Brussels Airport, and a number of budget hotels scattered around the suburbs.
For those that don't mind sharing, there are a few hostels in the centre of town, such as the Hostel Sleepwell, around the corner from Grand-Place, or Hostel Génération Europe, just across the Willebroek Canal. There are also a number of larger hostels further out, and if you want to catch a little of the great outdoors, try the 3 Fontaines, nestled in the canopies of the Soignes Forest to the south-east of Brussels.
For The Love Of Beer
As the home of the legendary lambic beers, Brussels is one city that should have much to offer to beer connoisseur. And that it does; but like many things in this perplexing city of contrasts, you may need to work a little harder to find the best. Of course there are the standard staples of Belgian beer-craft by the glassful, at the numerous cafés and tourist-slanted bars, strategically located next to the main sights in town. But to get close to the beating Brussels heart of the of Belgian beer you may need the guiding hand of a local Brusseleer. Or to pop into one of most interesting working breweries in town, the century-old Cantillon Brewery, lying close to the Station Gare du Midi/ Zuidstation in the south-west of the city.
This is a family-owned brewery that has lambic in its blood, home to a full complement of – oude gueuze's, faro's and kriek's. It also takes a very creative and imaginative approach to its beer-craft. It uses only organic wheat for its lambic source beers. And it has pioneered its own bevy of interesting fruity lambics, inspired by the sour-cherried kriek beer. Here you can try the Rosé de Gambrinus framboise (fermented with raspberries), the Fou' Foune apricot lambic (which the French apparently love) or the Vigneronne druivenlambik (a grape-based lambic) which maybe the closest a beer can get to a dry white.
On a visit here you'll also get to see the brewing of lambics up-close, including the 100-year old coppers, and the open-aired attic where the wort is left open to the breeze. It is the unique bacteria of the Senne river valley that apparently filters in to work their 'lambic magic' on the wort. The brewery also makes a Brussels 'mascot' beer in the shape of the Iris, a 100% malted and part freshly-hopped beer, emblazoned with the yellow iris flowers that symbolize this city's marshy origins.
One of the best ways to appreciate Brussels' oude gueuze is in one the increasing numbers of restaurants that specialize in cooking with these most refined of lambic's. Good examples are Restobières or In 't Spinnekopke, which offer such beer-infused classics as Carbonnades au Lambic (a beef-stew in lambic beer), or Lapin à la Gueuze.
But if your stay is short, you could do worse than catching up on the beery side to Brussels at the Museum of Belgian Brewers, conveniently located in the heart of Brussels, the Grand-Place. As well as exhibiting the history of Belgian beer, and the ever-changing tools of the trade, the Museum offers a tasting session for just 5 Euros. A much better beer-education, though, is best had in the streets around that other top tourist-attraction, the Manneken Pis. Here, you can be schooled in some fine Brussels bar culture, but without all that dust and labels. Beer in a museum is fine – but beer in a bar is better. And beer in the belly is best of all.
Food & Gastronomy
Brussels is a notoriously fabulous city for fine cuisine. After all, it has to cater to the refined tastes of Europe's top bureaucrats and its itinerant political class, who decamp to the city at every opportunity. But there's more to Brussels than swanky restaurants pandering to a wealthy clientèle. The Brusseleers have taken the best of Flemish cuisine, and successfully dressed it up with a dash of French flare (not to mention partnering it to some wonderfully diverse beers). And there are plenty of eateries, among Brussels 1800 restaurants, able to acquaint you with these gastronomic delights, without relieving your wallet entirely of its contents.
There are obvious emblematic foods to try, one that Brussels likes to claim as its own – the gaufres, authentic Belgian waffles, best served with a generous drizzling of chocolate; the chocolate pralines from renowned companies like Neuhaus, Leonidas and Godiva; or moules frites, that signature combo dish of mussels and fries. Brussels likes to put its own twist on these – for example, having your moules served à la bière: Zeeland mussels cook especially well with the local yeasty witbier/bière blanche. Good town-restaurants will also have Brussels versions of dishes like 'anguilles au vert' (wild-caught eel in a fresh-green herb sauce) or stoemp (a rich and creamy Brussels variation to puréed potatoes and root vegetables).
One to carefully watch out for, though, is 'Américain frites'. This is not, as its name might suggest, a US fast-food equivalent to the traditional Belgian frites. Rather this is a rough mix of raw minced beef and seasoning, bound together with eggs, and served with crisp Belgian fried potatoes. A nice meal, if you're expecting it; maybe an unpleasant surprise, if you're not. A great accompaniment to a beer-based lunch, in the genuine Brussels brown cafés, has to be the plattekaas. This flat white cheese is a quark – made without rennet – and is usually paired to slice of rye-bread, radishes and a Brussels lambic: making for a perfect Belgian 'ploughmans'!
Shopping & Markets
Shopping has a good pedigree in Brussels. The market square of the Grand-Place has been at the heart of Brussels for more than a thousand years. The wealth that the city's merchants made from trading is very much in evidence here, in the architectural trappings all around this UNESCO-recognised site. But while the Grand-Place remains the gravitational centre of the city for tourists, shoppers will find their sport scattered more widely through Brussels these days.
Luxury shopping has inevitably come to define parts of the capital, with the district of Sablon perhaps showing off its crème de la crème – particularly in the line of antiques and paintings. The Rue Antoine Dansaert is lined with of high-status fashion boutiques, and designer stores, great if cutting-edge couture is your thing. Another big-spend hotspot is the Galeries St Hubert, one of the world's first shopping arcades, which opened in 1847. This is entered from the Rue de la Colline, and is wonderfully decorated, with chandeliers dripping from its glass skylight roof.
All definitely worth taking a look at, even if you haven't got two Euros. to rub together. But if you like to take your shopping more 'mainstream' (read affordable), try the pedestrianised area around Rue Neuve. Here you will find the more typical malls, modern generic chain stores and plenty of bustling crowds. Of course markets remain an integral part of Brussels, and at Gare du Midi you'll find a nice antidote to the slightly anonymous City2 shopping centre.
The MarketA held here on Sunday mornings is a massive collection of stalls, laden with fresh produce (local and international) such as vegetables, fruits, cheese, charcuterie and fish – a great sensual treat. The markets of the Marolles have historically served Brussels' lower classes, and that tradition continues today, despite the area's more recent elevation up the social scale. Bargains and oddities can be had from the stalls at the flea market at the Place du Jeu de Balle, which opens there every morning.
Sightseeing & Culture
Top sight in Brussels? Forget the museums, the art galleries, the glories of the Grand-Place, or the beauty of St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral. What tops the list of Brussels attractions is a statue of a little boy, piddling in a fountain. The Manneken Pis is Brussels' 400-year old joke that just never gets old. And the Brusseleers don't seem to tire of dressing this bronze sculpture up in all manner of guises, a never-ending opportunity to literally 'take the pee'. But the question has to be asked – why?
There are many legends justifying why the city felt the need to commission Hiëronymus Duquesnoy the Elder to cast this bronze, and place it at the corner of Rue de l'Étuve/Stoofstraat and Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat. The oldest (and best) is that the title of Duke of Leuven passed, in 1142, to a certain infant, Godfrey III. His prescence on the battlefield was hoped to be inspirational, even though he wasonly two. And so it proved. The Leuvens were fighting the Berthouts, and hung Godfrey III, in a basket, in a tree above the battlefield. From this vantage the little lord decided to add his contribution, by peeing onto the heads of the enemy troops – and the Berthouts lost heart, and the battle.
Once you've satisfied your urge to see the Manneken Pis, it's only natural to look for some equally elevating examples of Brussels culture. A short walk back up the Rue de l'Étuve/Stoofstraa won't disappoint. The street opens up onto the dramatic visage of the Grand-Place, recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988. Dominating this ancient square of commerce and public spectacle is the Brussels Town Hall – one the oldest and grandest town-halls in Europe. The first wing was started in 1402, with the second wing and the 310-foot high tower completed in 1455. The early importance of the merchants to this city can be seen by the fact that this is one of the few cities in the world where the town-hall is taller than the cathedral.
Opposite the Brussels Town Hall is 'the house the duke built'. Now called the Maison du Roi (King's House), or Broodhuis (Bread-house), this was the Duke of Brabant's reposte to the Brussels merchant's growing power. The Grand-Place is also home to the gilded 15th-century fronts of the GuildHalls. What's remarkable is that the whole architectural treasure-trove of the Grand-Place was raised to the ground in the French Bombardment of 1695 – what we see now was painstakingly reconstructed by the people of Brussels over the subsequent 4 years.
There's more impressive construction to gawp, at the Royal Castle of Laeken on the north-east edge of the city, but of this is of the transparent variety. The magnificently domed Royal Greenhouses of Laeken, built in 1874, are accessible for only 2 weeks in April and May, when the flowers are in full bloom. But timing your visit to coincide with this is well worth the effort. And no tour of Brussels architectural points of note would be complete without a visit to the Atomium, a giant 340-foot high chemistry lesson rolled into a sculpture. Built for Brussels' 1958 hosting of the WorldFair, it consists of nine steel balls – representing the atoms of the iron from which it is made – which you can climb inside.
Fun maybe, but a competitor in those Brussels fun-stakes is the Belgian Museum of Comics. This Museum explores the whole history of Flemish and French-language comics in Belgium – the nation, after all, which gave us Hergé and his 'Adventures of Tintin'. The style that Hergé developed (the ligne clair or clear line) influenced a generation of comic artists. There's plenty of Tintin to see here, including sets and models, as well as other Belgian comic-book heroes, such as Spike and Suzy, Lucky Luke, Cubitus and Marsupilami. Keep an eye out, when traveling around the city, and you're likely to catch one of these characters painted out large, on one of the many wall-murals dedicated to them.
Activities & Entertainment
Brussels does very well for itself when it comes to high culture. As well as the renowned opera-house of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, there are five other major theatres in town, hosting a variety of productions – dance, ballet, plays and music concerts. If you're looking for something a little more left-field, Brussels can give you puppet theatre at the Theatre Toone, which has been running shows of poechenelles since 1830.
But the capital city isn't all about theatres and concert halls – the modern music scene is beginning to thrive here too, fed in part by the diverse cultural backgrounds of the Brusseleers. To the south of the main city centre, in the Matonge district, there are numerous new African nightspots. There is also a developing club scene in various parts of the centre, such as Place de St-Géry, and in the Marolles district. And all throughout the city, your night-life shenanigans are likely to be fuelled by a plethora of late-opening bars.
The city also has its share of festivals, one of the more unusual being that of the Meyboom – an echo of a war between Brussels and Leuven. It involves the selection, cutting down and parading of a tree – the Meyboom – to be installed in the Grand-Place on the day before St. Laurent’s Day (9 August). The parade is accompanied by poepedroegers who dress is giants, gardevils, who guard the tree, and the buumdroegers, who actually carry it. The reason for all the protection? The right to hold the parade will be lost to the town of Leuven, if the tree isn't erected by 5pm. And who knows where the men of Leuven are lurking...
B2B & Conferencing
When you step back, and remember that Brussels is the de facto capital of 500 million Europeans, it makes it a little clearer why this city has been called THE place to organize and host conferences, exhibitions, meetings and conventions of all shapes and sizes. Tally the numbers up, and Brussels has around 60,000 meetings held within its precincts each year. People come in part because it is so close to centres of power for a whole continent, in part because its centrally located both in Europe, and between the Americas and Asia, and in part because it has reception facilities rarely equalled elsewhere.
It built up an enviable infrastructure of facilities for looking after all those visitors. One of the most visible is the Brussels Exhibition Centre, lying on the northern limits of the city. With over 115,000 m2 of floor-space, across 12 exhibition halls, BEC is the biggest conference hall in Belgium, and able to deliver for conference organizers up to the grandest of scales. With over 90 major events under its belt, it has also built up an extensive organisational experience.
Further into town there are many more conference centres large and small – the Centenary Palace in the Heysel Exhibition Park (home to the Atomium), the centrally located Square-Brussels Meeting Centre, or the The International Auditorium are just a few of the many purpose-built facilities Brussels has to offer. Add to that the 50-plus hotels boasting four or more stars, and the meeting organizer is spoilt for the choice.
It makes sense, though, to get in touch with the relevant Brussels MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions, Events) offices, so they leverage their local experience in your favour. Brussels is in exceptional demand as a location for venues, so you'll need all the help you can get on the logistics, availability of venues, negotiating of discounts and special offers (from hotels and restaurants), and the booking of convention/exhibition centres.
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