Who could conjure up Brussels better than a surrealist? Jean Cocteau considered its Grand-Place to be the “most splendid stage in the world”. What a nice promise! Victor Hugo said of its majestic town hall, as proud as the St Michael slaying a dragon which adorns its spire, that it was a “poet’s magnificent fantasy fallen from the mind of an architect”; proof that the city also knows how to charm romantics.
Many fantasies fell from the minds of the architects of Brussels. If painful “Brusselisation” has done its work and destroyed major buildings, the city is still happily packed with architectural gems. Thanks in particular to Victor Horta and Paul Hankar, Brussels saw the plant-like curls of Art Nouveau flourish over its façades, which then spread all over Europe. The districts of Ixelles, Saint Gilles and Schaerbeek are the finest examples of this major trend. There was also a good measure of exaggeration in the minds of certain engineers, encouraged among others by Leopold II, the Builder King. As witness by the Cinquantenaire with its triumphal arch, its park and its buildings built to celebrate the jubilee of a young nation born in 1830. For a different era with different obsessions, the Atomium was constructed for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. It has become the steel symbol of the city symbolises faith in science and the future. In its shadow you’ll find a miniature version of it alongside a tiny Eiffel Tower in Mini-Europe, a park which reminds you that Brussels, though unique, is also the capital of the European Union. Though alterations are in full swing, the Parliament district is not, however, forgetting its roots and houses a magnificent Museum of Natural History.
The land of fashion, Brussels has seen the birth of great designers who can be found in the fashionable Rue Dansaert and its surrounds, as well as around Châtelain. But the city also welcomes big international and popular brands along Rue Neuve or at the Woluwé Shopping Center. Brussels might thus be summarised: chic but not snobbish, with wonders to be found under a veneer of modesty, and self-deprecation in a bag of chips. “Whilst Paris makes you Parisian and London a Londoner, Brussels does not make you a local but will allow you to be yourself. Its inhabitants cultivate a warmth which is lacking in the climate”, wrote Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt with accuracy. He must have been thinking of the welcome in the traditional taverns – the estaminets – around a gueuze beer, the fervor of the Marolles flea market, creative chefs’ restaurants, the “frenzied” matches at the King Baudouin Stadium or at Anderlecht and the numerous events which liven up the Brussels annual calendar. Whilst the city glistens under its regular December snowflakes thanks to its Christmas market, in summertime it is the Ommegang, a costumed procession, which colours the capital. Brussels is a land of concerts and also welcomes numerous festivals of renown, from Couleur Café to the Brussels Jazz Marathon. It also offers a suitable range of Nuits Blanches night-time events as well as an ode to its preferred drink during Brussels Beer Weekend. Whether Hemingway liked it or not, Brussels is undoubtedly a perennial party