Brussels

Insider's guide to Brussels: Everything a road warrior needs to know to get the most out of this burgeoning Euro-city.


Brent Gregston
May 11, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

Europe's push toward economic union and the forces of globalization have conspired to transform the small capital of a small country into a city that wields power over the lives of 300 million people and influences global finance and trade. Brussels is not only the de facto capital of Europe, it is the headquarters for NATO and for many multinational companies. The union of Belgium and Luxembourg (they share the same currency) derives 58 percent of its gross domestic product from exports, the highest figure of any country in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Given all this, it is not surprising that Brussels has the same magnetic pull on accountants, consultants, lobbyists and lawyers as Washington, D.C.

Business travelers and foreign lobbyists don't have much time for art and architecture, but they speak volumes about this city's metamorphosis. A current exhibition of Magritte's paintings is being held in celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth -- and some visitors might find that the city he lived in now looks stranger than his pictures.

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Perhaps it is not a lack of civil pride but a sense of the surreal that allows trees to grow out of abandoned buildings in the middle of Europe's third richest city. That and a civic personality split between Dutch-speaking Flemish and French-speaking Walloons who agree on literally nothing.

Real estate developers have been the ones doing most of the juxtapositioning for the last two decades. Entire neighborhoods have been demolished and countless buildings of architectural interest have been leveled for monolithic office blocks, many occupied by the European Union bureaucracy. Among the casualties were masterpieces of modern architecture by Victor Horta and the art nouveau movement. Developers have also hit upon another method of destroying old buildings, so-called "Brusselization," allowing them to decay to the point where demolition is unavoidable.

As a result, a typical Brussels street in the city center looks bizarre: Boarded-up 19th-century shops stand next to an abandoned red-brick factory, which adjoins an '80s office block that has fins like a spaceship; sandwiched in between somewhere will be a peep show with a name like Paradoxe or Blue Chance. The boarded-up buildings sport more bilingual signs than a passerby can decipher: "Deviation WEGOMLEGGING" -- in other words, "Ceci n'est pas un building! It is a stone suspended above your head." A boarded-up building is also a readymade billboard, an economic resource the city fathers are eager to monopolize. Every derelict building bears the same warnings: "Ville de Bruxelles affichage communal reservi a l'administration STAD BRUSSEL GEMEENTELIJKE VOORBEHOUDEN AAN HET BESTUUR." In other words, the city reserves the right to plaster boarded-up windows with its own poster art. Looking up and down most downtown streets, you can see such ruins, some disemboweled, some under scaffolding. More deviations, more posters.

The biggest piece of state-sponsored poster art is Berlaymont (Metro: Schumann), the headquarters building of the European Commission. Symbol for the future of an interdependent, united Europe, it has been under a white sheet for almost seven years and will remain so for many more. It may look like a Christo masterpiece, but the plastic is an expression of asbestos-removal functionalism rather than pomo aesthetics. Until its unveiling, EU Commission officials will remain dispersed around the city in 70 buildings.

Members of the European Parliament and their 3,500 administrative staff have recently moved into a $1.2 billion silver-glass palace. Europe's press has been mocking them ever since, noting that each new office is equipped with a shower costing $12,000. A Danish member of parliament recently protested that each office has a computer, too, seeking to reassure the public that real work takes places inside. In fact, European taxpayers have been forced to endow their supranational parliamentarians with a second $1 billion silver-glass palace, recently completed in Strasbourg, where the Parliament meets for 60 sessions of the year and each member is assigned two offices, two showers and two computers (it's a big building).

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The big decisions, however, are not made by Europe's Parliament; they are made by the European Commission, which spends almost $20 billion annually on programs managed directly from Brussels, about 20 percent of the entire EU budget. The EU's own court of auditors estimates that nearly 25 percent has been wasted for three years running through fraud, mismanagement and lax oversight.

Scandals notwithstanding, Brussels's 18,000 Eurocrats will have more power at the end of next year than this one. They are entering one of the most critical times in EU history. The pace of change is accelerating as the EU launches the Euro, deregulates telecommunications, pushes ahead with monetary union and adds several new members from Eastern Europe.

Getting briefed

Anyone doing business with the EU should make it a point to stop by The European Bookshop (rue de la Loi/Wetstraat, 244, tel. 231 0435), just up the street from Berlaymont. There is a large selection of books explaining EU regulations and legislation. One of the most indispensable is "The European Public Affairs Directory," which contains names, addresses, phone numbers and often e-mail addresses of decision-makers in trade associations, special-interest groups, law firms, media, diplomacy and European Union institutions. The American Chamber of Commerce (50 Avenue des Arts, Box 5, tel. 513 6770) also publishes an excellent guide, "Doing Business in Belgium." The Chamber's monthly luncheons provide a good opportunity to get to know expat executives. If you want an introduction to the local expat scene, along with listings of current films, exhibitions, etc., buy a copy of the weekly English-language magazine the Bulletin, available at most newsstands. (Note: 32 is the international calling code for Belgium and 02 is the city code for Brussels. If you are calling Brussels from outside Belgium, you dial 011 32 2 and the number; from within Belgium but outside Brussels, you dial 02 and then the number.)

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Getting there and around

The train beats the plane (and the automobile) if you are traveling to or from a city within 400 miles of Brussels. High-speed trains are now setting the trend for business travel in Europe at a price that is dramatically lower than business-class air travel. Rail travel provides more quality time, too, with less hassle checking in and chasing taxis. Eurostar first-class compartments have wide seats, legroom and meals and drinks served at your seat. Equipped with laptop and mobile phone, a road warrior can work in peace.

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Eurostar, with services between London and Paris and Brussels, has now been linked to another service that connects Paris and Brussels to Antwerp, Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Cologne by high-speed Thalys trains. The journey time between Paris and Brussels is 1:26; Brussels-Amsterdam takes 2:40; and Brussels-Cologne,2:30, soon to be cut to 1:45.

Brussels is readily explored on foot, just don't try to stare down anyone behind a steering wheel. The Belgian word for "pedestrian" translates as "moving target." The country has the second highest casualty rate for automobile accidents in Europe, and many of the victims are people who dare to walk across a road.

If it is a question of getting to a meeting, however, go to any train station, major hotel or Eurocracy building for a taxi. There are also stands at Porte de Namur, the Bourse and De Brouckère. But once you step in, you might regret it. Brussels' taxi drivers have a habit of forgetting where they are and driving in circles to restore their memory. Cab fare might double, triple or quadruple as a result. You can ask in advance what the fare will be, or pretend to know the city like the back of your hand.

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An excellent alternative is the public transportation system. Despite the inevitable confusion created by giving every destination name in both Dutch and French, the octopus of metro, rail, bus and trams is very efficient and goes almost anywhere. A ticket, or trajet, (buy them at metro and rail stations, on trams or buses) lets you jump on and off as often as you want for one hour. Stamp the ticket using the machines at metro stations and on trams and buses. A passenger without a validated ticket is subject to a fine. Tickets are less if you buy them in batches: One costs 50BF, five cost 240BF and 10 are 330BF.

Where to stay

Because of overbuilding, supply outstrips demand for hotel rooms in Brussels most nights of the year. It is always worth negotiating for a corporate rate. On weekends and in July and August, when the Euro quarter is as quiet as a cemetery, rates fall by 50 percent. You can also save money by reserving a room through Belgian Tourist Reservations (tel. 513 7484, fax 513 9277), but they won't reserve very far in advance.

The SAS Royal (rue du Fossé-aux-Loups, tel. 219 2988, fax 219 6262) receives top honors among business travelers. Its 300 rooms are decorated in four different styles: Scandinavian, Oriental, Italian and Royal Club. It has an imposing atrium with an indoor garden, a 24-hour fitness center and a famous restaurant, the Sea Grill-Jacques le Divellec.

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The 19th-century Métropole (Place de Brouckère, tel. 217 2300, 410 rooms) has the grandest interior in the city and is popular with prima donnas (the opera house is nearby). Even if you don't stay there, have a drink in the art nouveau cafe. Slightly more intimate, Le Dixseptième (rue de la Madeleine 25, tel. 502 5744, fax 502 6424, 23 rooms) was the 17th century residence of a Spanish ambassador. Its baroque sitting room forms an oasis of peace just a few hundred feet from the Grand Place.

For those on a tight or non-existent expense account, Maison Internationale (Chausee de Wavre 205, tel. 648 9787) is a hostel where business travelers far outnumber backpackers, strategically located near the European Parliament. A single room costs BF660 including breakfast plus 125 francs for sheets. The shared bathroom and shower facilities are spotless and the breakfast is as good as in most hotels, though you have to do your own dishes afterwards. It is only a two-minute walk from a train station, the Gare du Quartier Leopold.

Sightseeing

The Grand Place is a history of Brussels in stone. Its magnificent Gothic Town Hall celebrated the grandeur of medieval Brussels when it was growing rich through trade. The renaissance guildhalls that surround it were built later by guilds of tailors, butchers, bakers, boatmen, cabinetmakers and brewers. During the day, the Grand Place is a still a marketplace -- there is a flower market every day and a bird market on Sunday. Historical pageants and jazz festivals take place here in the summer, and at Christmas, a Norwegian tree is put up with a crib of live animals. Every two years, the entire square is covered by a carpet of flowers.

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The Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) is the oldest building on the Grand Place. The tower (1449) has been restored and its pristine spire is visible from all over the city. Built to such a height that it required an extra reinforcing wall, the tower actually leans. The Brussels Tourist Information Office (tel. 513 8940) on the ground floor arranges guided tours of the interior and its collection of tapestries, sculpture and royal portraits. The Maison du Roi (King's House) is across from the Town Hall. King Charles V of Spain ordered its construction but never moved in after its completion in 1536. Don't miss the Gothic sculpture on the ground floor, including original sculptures from the Town Hall façade, and Brueghel's "Le Cortège de Noces" (The Wedding Procession) in the Painting and Altarpieces room.

Originally just another fountain, the Mannekin-Pis is a 17th century bronze statuette of a little boy pissing that became the symbol of Brussels. He is just a couple of blocks off Grand Place. You're not likely to see him naked except for his spout. He has a large wardrobe (costumes donated by visiting dignitaries) and might be dressed like Elvis, a Spanish conquistador or a Belgian naval officer.

After the Grand Place, Brussels' most famous attraction is its museums (many close an hour for lunch and on Monday). Visit the Musées des Beaux Arts (Musée d'Art Ancien and Musée d'Art Moderne) first. They are next to each other near the Place Royal. An underground passageway makes the journey between ancient and modern art a lot easier. On the way you will see masterpieces by mostly Belgian and Dutch masters, from Jan van Eyck, Bruegel and Rubens to 20th century Belgian painters like Magritte, the macabre Ensor and the mysterious Delvaux.

Victor Horta (1861-1947) was one of the fathers of art nouveau, a style that embraced painting and applied art as well as architecture. Organic forms, flowers and plants in particular, influenced his designs. He used glass and iron in his buildings, round windows and a type of fresco painting called sgraffiti. Horta's former home is now the Musée Horta (rue Américaine 25) and a department store he designed in the early 1900s makes an ideal space for a museum of Belgian comic strips (rue des Sables 20). Tours by a nonprofit conservation group, ARAU (219 3345), can get you into some Horta buildings that are not normally accessible.

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The Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire in the Parc Cinquantenaire house one of the world's largest collections of art and artifacts -- begin with the antiquity section (the most celebrated) and see if you make it to the newer rooms devoted to things like 18th century carriages and feather art of the Amazon indians. The Parc is also home to one of the world's biggest car museums, Autoworld, and an impressive military museum, Musée Royal de l'Armée et d'Histoire Militaire, with a huge aviation section.

The world's first shopping mall (circa 1846) is still going strong and well worth a visit. You have to go only about a hundred yards from the edge of the Grand Place to the Galerie Royale Saint-Hubert, which includes the Galerie de la Reine and the Galerie du Roi: three 19th-century glassed-over arcades with elegant shop windows. Neuhaus chocolatiers (arguably Belgium's best) has a sumptuous shop in the Galerie de la Reine (no. 25).

Eating

There is an intimate relationship between how you wield power and how you wield a knife and fork in Brussels. Generally speaking, the more successful the Eurocrat, the bigger the gourmand. And his or her passion is shared by businesspeople, lawyers, journalists and the man and woman on the street. Life in this city revolves around nourishment as much as work. No wonder it has an almost unequaled range of restaurants.

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Belgian specialties are many and varied. They include faisan à la Brabançonne (pheasant with braised chicory), lapin à la bière (rabbit cooked in beer), anguilles au vert (eels in herb sauce), waterzooi (chicken and vegetables in a thin cream sauce), white asparagus, and mussels cooked two dozen different ways and accompanied by "French" fries -- which actually originated in Belgium (few would dispute that the Belgians make the world's best pommes frites). They are served with mayonnaise.

If you want to impress a client, go to Comme Chez Soi (place Rouppe 23, tel. 512 2921). This is not only the best restaurant in Brussels, it is one of the best in Europe. Reserve a table well in advance (try three months) and expect to spend $250 for two, though one can sometimes get in on short notice if there are cancellations.

Most of the restaurants in the maze of streets around the Grand Place are strictly for tourists, but the alternatives are not far to seek. A Brussels institution where little has changed in its 70-odd years, the Taverne du Passage (in the shopping arcade mentioned above, Galerie de la Reine No. 30; tel. 512 3731) is near the Grand Place and serves local specialties to a clientele of businesspeople, bankers and politicos. It is understated, untrendy and not particularly expensive.

Bij den Boer and Jacques (No. 60, tel. 512 6122, and No. 44, tel. 513 2762, respectively, on the Quai aux Briques), are moderately priced bistros that specialize in seafood. They are just off the Place Sainte-Catherine, only a 10-minute walk from the Grand Place. You'll eat there elbow to elbow with Bruxellois.

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After hours, the people of Brussels retreat to the great indoors of its bars and cafes. The atmosphere can be medieval, 17th-century, fin de siècle, art deco, incredibly seedy or any combination thereof. The cafes serve most liquids imbibed by humanity (except for Budweiser): espresso, cappuccino, Coke, tea, champagne, good French wine (by glass or bottle), whisky, all sorts of strange liqueurs and the world's finest -- i.e. Belgian -- beer. Poured out in oddly shaped glasses, Belgian beers have names that evoke sin (Duvel -- "Devil", Judas, Verboden Vrucht -- "Forbidden Fruit") and its consequences (Delirium Tremens, Guillotine, Mort Subite -- "Sudden Death"). Others are just unpronounceable: Kruikenbier, Couckerlaerschen and Huyghe.

A la Mort Subite (rue Montagne aux Herbes Potagères 7) is the best place to savor Sudden Death. Not much has changed there since the 1920s. Certainly not Mort Subite, the house beer -- ask for the gueuze sur lie (the beer on tap) and you will get a glass of the stuff. Le Cirio (rue de la Bourse 18 ), near the Stock Exchange, specializes in half-en-half (a non-dairy mixture of champagne and white wine). De Ultime Hallucinatie, or Ultimate Hallucination (rue Royale 316, tel. 217 06 14, Metro Botanique), is covered with scaffolding. Inside, you will find a dream bar, full of art nouveau details -- curving wood, scrolling stems of stained glass, whiplash tendrils of iron -- and Flemish blondes. For food, choose between the elegant, expensive restaurant or the cheaper, more informal cafe. Begin or end your hallucination with an Orval, a beer brewed by Belgian monks -- one sip and you are never going to feel the same again about Miller Lite.

Waterloo

Road Warriors seeking military analogies for their corporate strategies should schedule a couple of hours for Waterloo, site of the famous battle of June 1815, in which the English general Wellington and his Prussian allies defeated Napoleon. Today, it is a wooded suburb of Brussels, popular among joggers and American expatriates (and easily reached by train from the Gare Centrale). The monument known as the Lion Mound is an ideal spot to reflect on the management strategy of modern history's most successful general. Had it not been for Napoleon's hostile takeover bid, the unhappy merger of Flanders and Wallonia might never have happened. Napoleon almost beat his multinational competition and one in four of his troops died before the rest went on strike. That takes a lot of intrinsic motivation.


Brent Gregston

Brent Gregston is a journalist based in Amsterdam. He writes about Europe for numerous publications, including American Way and Fodor's Business Travel.

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