Brussels: The best of Belgium
Written by Hans Sterkendries
Like many other Belgian towns, Brussels claims to be the ‘chocolate capital of the world’, but this is one boast that is legitimate. It was in the Saint-Hubertus Royal Gallery that, in 1912, a Swiss-born chocolate-maker named Jean Neuhaus invented the famous Belgian chocolates now known as pralines. A praline is a bite-size chocolate with a filling that can consist of cacao, marzipan, fruit, nuts, or even liqueur.
The Saint-Hubertus Gallery is the oldest covered shopping gallery in Europe. It is actually a set of three inter-connected covered shopping alleys, built in 1846, which originally housed 70 luxury boutiques and 100 private apartments. With their glass-and-metal roof and classical façade, the galleries are still amongst the most stylish of Brussels’ shopping venues. They bring together a large variety of jewellers, gift shops, home decoration stores, confectionery shops, Belgian and international fashion boutiques, and leather shops. Be sure to visit the original Neuhaus shop, as well as the Delvaux leatherwork boutique. Both are amongst the most important Belgian brands and are suppliers to the Belgian royal court.
From its outset the Saint-Hubertus Gallery was not only a shopping mall but also a meeting place for the rich and famous. In one of the upstairs apartments the brothers Lumière organised the first film projection on Belgian soil, and the gallery is now home to two theatres and a cinema. Taverne du Passage is the place where famous French writers used to gather; indeed, the chair on which you sit to enjoy a nice cup of coffee might have been the place where Charles Baudelaire, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Guillaume Apollinaire, or Paul Verlaine once sat. Also check out the restaurants in the gallery. Le Marmiton is a family-owned eatery famous for its Belgian seasonal dishes.
Next to the gallery is the rue des Bouchers (Butchers’ Street), one of Brussels’ most famous streets. It’s the centre of the Îlot Sacré, one of the few areas in Brussels where you can discover what the old city looked like. In the last 150 years the face of Brussels has changed dramatically, but the rue des Bouchers has been left virtually untouched since the 17th century. Well, apart from the fact that all the butchers’ shops have been converted to restaurants. People who know the city will advise you to stay away from these restaurants, but Aux Armes de Bruxelles (rue des Bouchers 13) is a Brussels institution you should try. In 1921 the restaurant started importing its own mussels from Holland to ensure their freshness. The mussels were served in individual cooking pots called casseroles, that were soon copied by practically all Belgian restaurants.
Now head to the Grand’ Place, the unquestionable highlight of Brussels. Considered one of the most beautiful squares in the world, it has World Heritage classification status. Most of the buildings around this square used to be guildhalls. They were rebuilt after 1695 when the French army bombed the square. The guilds then had to submit their plans to the town council, which explains the harmony in the rebuilt Grand’ Place. The square is at its best in August when covered by a huge flower carpet. In any other month be sure to visit on a Sunday morning when the weekly flower market is held. The City Hall takes up most of the south side of the square and is a fine example of Gothic architecture. On top of the tower is a statue of Saint Michel, the patron saint of Brussels, slaying a dragon. The Bread House, on the other side of the market, is home to the Brussels City Museum, dedicated to the history of the city. Two other museums can be found on Grand’ Place: at number 13 you will find the Museum of Cacao and Chocolate; and in the cellar of number 10, the former guildhall of the beer brewers, there is a Brewery Museum.
It comes as no surprise that there is a chocolate museum as well as a beer museum on the Grand’ Place. The Belgian capital is home to several types of beer, but they all derive from Lambic. “That is a distinctive type of beer that gets its taste from the fact that it ferments not once but twice,” explains Jean-Pierre Van Roy. Jean-Pierre is in charge of the Brewery Cantillon, a small family-owned business and the only remaining traditional brewery within the city limits. We catch him at his busiest time, because in winter the brewery is running at full capacity. “The second fermentation is caused spontaneously by a yeast bacteria that can only be found in the Senne valley, and that is most active in winter,” he explains. This yeast gives the beer its distinctive dry, almost cidery taste, and a slightly sour aftertaste.
Another beer derived from Lambic is Gueuze, a mixture of young and old Lambic that ferments in the bottle, whereas Faro is Lambic sweetened with brown sugar. Lambic is also used to create a series of fruit-flavoured beers such as framboise (raspberry) and pêche (peach). The most famous of these fruity beers, however, is kriek. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine that the busy suburb of Schaerbeek was once covered with sour cherry trees. In former times the pickings from these trees were used to flavour the beer.
There are hundreds of places where you can taste the beer, but Jean-Pierre Van Roy recommends Le Poechenellekelder (Eikenstraat 5), a traditional pub that hasn’t changed much in over 100 years. Especially try the gueuze with a sandwich of cottage cheese. You’re now close to the world-famous Manneken Pis, but be aware that most people end up disappointed by this strange but small fountain. Rather, head to the rue Neuve. Architecturally this street has little to offer, but it is Brussels’ most crowded shopping street. Here, all the international clothing chains are found as well as the department store Galeria Inno. Take the opportunity to taste the real Brussels waffles because several stalls in the rue Neuve sell them. The more adventurous globetrotter should try the caricoles, small sea snails that have been a Brussels delicacy for decades.
Shopping fans should also head for rue Antoine Dansaert, where Belgian designers gather: Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, and Sofie D’Hoore. For international designer labels go to the tree-lined Avenue Louise, often dubbed Brussels’ answer to the Champs Élysées. That’s where you will find luxury chains such as Gucci and Prada as well as the Belgian designer Olivier Strelli. Close to the Avenue Louise you can stroll through the Marolles. Once a working-class area, it’s now home to a large number of antique shops, especially around the rue Blaes. The most exquisite antique shops can be found at the Grand Sablon, a charming square despite the never-ending traffic congestion. This is also the centre of Brussels’ chocolate industry. Numerous chocolate manufacturers have shops around the square, such as Neuhaus, Galler, Leonidas, Godiva, Côte d’Or, and Wittamer.
Make sure you visit the two shops of Pierre Marcolini. Since becoming the world champion of patisserie in 1995, Marcolini has made himself noticed with innovative chocolates. Salted butter, ginger, Earl Grey tea, or pepper berries – nothing is too weird or too exotic for this Belgian artist, making him the perfect ambassador of Jean Neuhaus’ tradition.
What Gaudí is to Barcelona, Victor Horta is to Brussels. The Belgian architect (1861–1947) is one of the most influential figures of the international movement known as ‘Liberty Style’, Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau.
Four of his buildings are listed as World Heritage. Among them is his own house and workshop, in Saint-Gilles, which is open to the public. If you’re interested in Art Nouveau make sure you also visit the Belgian Comic Strip Center and the Museum of Musical Instruments. The latter is located in a building by Paul Saintenoy, and on the top floor you will experience one of the most impressive views over Brussels.
Although Belgium is relatively small, no other European country has such a huge tradition in comic books. Since the 1920s Brussels has been the centre of this industry, and the city pays tribute to the ‘9th art’ by covering 30 walls with frescoes. Chances are you’ve never heard of Nero or Sjaak, but other iconic comics are world famous. The best known, of course, is Tintin, whose spiritual father ‘Hergé’ (real name Georges Remi) was born in Brussels. Other well-known frescoes are dedicated to Ric Hochet, Victor Sackville, Blake and Mortimer, Lucky Luke, and Asterix.
The Brussels tourist board (www.visitbrussels.be) can provide you with directions to the comic walls. Don’t miss the statue of Gaston in the Avenue Pacheco. It’s close to the Belgian Comic Strip Center. This museum was established in an old warehouse that was designed by the famous Belgian architect Victor Horta. Throughout Brussels, several bookshops are devoted exclusively to new, second-hand, and collectors’ comic books, not to mention the numerous gadgets. Boutique Tintin, close to the Grand’ Place is dedicated solely to Hergé’s world-famous creation.