Brussels Capital of Europe
August 16, 2005
In cosmopolitan Brussels the governing bureaucracy of the 25-nation European Union is preparing the ground for further enlargement. Beyond the frenetic diplomatic scene, visitors focus on Belgium’s famous food, beer and chocolate.
When Brussels became home of the pioneering European Economic Community in 1957, Belgium took on the role of engine for the Continent’s integration. Visiting the fascinating city during this year’s overheated summer, I remembered the time when the first small offices for “Eurocrats” opened east of the inner city with the ambition to unify a historically and ideologically divided Europe. Ten years later, NATO established its headquarters in the same Quartier. The once-small Flemish city with Gothic and Renaissance monuments and Art Nouveau buildings was suddenly transformed from a sleepy national capital to the center of political decisions and diplomatic intrigue.
Today, with the charming historic center still untouched, the army of foreign bureaucrats is scattered on the periphery of a city of 1 million. Not surprisingly, housing and office shortages, crowded streets and high prices have followed.If you are on an official visit to the headquarters of the 25-nation European Union, run by a Commission and 25,000 civil servants, you will go the Quartier with buildings much like in Washington, D.C. But no unpleasant searches, gun-toting police and panicked evacuations disturb the multilingual staff here. Much of their relaxed business occurs over long lunches in one of the 2,000 restaurants of a city famous for its gastronomy.But if you are a tourist, as my wife and I were in June, you will want to avoid the office district and head to the unmissable Grand Place. Ornate guild houses line the square at the heart of the city with carved symbols of their trade in the tradition of medieval alchemy. Presided over by an exuberant Gothic City Hall, the Grand Place is still the focal point of ceremonies, markets and – what else? – restaurants that dispense Belgium’s 350 kinds of beer. It is Europe’s most classic central square.
Dozens of strange languages from around the world fill the space. Locals are divided between the French-speaking majority and a Flemish minority. Add to that the multilingual EU staff, the huge number of Turks, North African guest workers and immigrants from the former Belgian colonies. To survive, the average clerk in a Brussels store must address customers in at least three or four languages.In a small Tunisian restaurant I overheard Romanian and Bulgarian officials (speaking in French) arguing about their chances of joining the EU in a couple of years. But the buzz at the EU Commission, although working for growth, is that all new nation-candidates must wait longer due to recent negative popular votes in France and the Netherlands.As plans to enlarge the EU stalled, new financial questions came up, and the Euro, the common currency, went down. But for the next six months Britain’s Tony Blair will preside over the EU, and the “euroskeptics” may see a more optimistic leadership.The long-term success of the Brussels-based union is unquestionable. A new Continental spirit, political freedoms, economic advantages and peace among member states are all in place. But unemployment in this country, Germany and France is high. Blame usually goes to immigrants and a rapid extension of the EU to the East. The new candidates, with Turkey at the end of the line, are not very popular. The question is frequently heard, “How can an Islamic nation adjust to the Judeo-Christian heritage of the rest of Europe?”
Indeed, many officials here feel that the losses of constitutional votes last spring were due to anti-foreign attitudes. During lunch at the famous La Maison du Cygne, an old friend from Paris opines that Russia would make a better EU member than Turkey, and reminds me that Europe’s foreign-born population doubled in 30 years to 40 million. As a waiter with a Slavic accent offers a fish specialty of the restaurant overlooking the Grand Place, I hear complaints about the erosion of French national identity due to the influx of foreign workers. “If Brussels’ change of ethnic mix is any indication, our grandchildren in this Babel will have to communicate through computerized translators,” he adds. By the way, what was the English word for that fish the waiter offered us?Even as Europe moves (slowly) to full union, Brussels remains divided. The Francophone pre-eminence of the government irritates the city’s Flemish citizenry. To avoid conflict, every sign, law, decree and even the menu must be in the two official languages. If in doubt, the easy way out, including for locals, is to speak English.
Politics aside, the local food scene is universally appreciated. There are 20 Michelin-starred restaurants in the city. Some even have three stars. I have known for decades to avoid the solid phalanx on the narrow, noisy alleys around the Rue des Bouchers, but we started the week there. We found the Aux Armes de Bruxelles and the popular Scheltema perfect for the obligatory white asparagus Flamande, mussels and frites. In these cobblestone streets near the Grand Place, more than 100 restaurants serve an amazing variety of fish, meat and gourmet items from all over the world. Much of the citizenry and all of Brussels’ tourists seem to head to these tiny outdoor tables every evening. It is fun to choose from the raw food piled up on carts on street corners and watch the fast, effortless service, mostly by North African types.But for real experience we went to Comme chez Soi, which remains a symbol of the Belgians’ culinary finesse. Run now by Pierre Wynants, the restaurant, founded in 1926, is arguably Europe’s best. Having made our reservation two months ahead, we spent hours tasting from soups to complex sauces, langouste aux morilles, the canard creations and soufflés. It is a theatrical experience in an Art Nouveau setting designed by architect Victor Horta, who started the famous artistic style in Brussels. With more waiters than guests, service is remarkable in the small rooms and so is the price. It is difficult to dine at Wynants’ inn for less than 200 euro per person.There are hundreds of remarkable buildings around town with the elegant turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau’s undulating lines. This year has been designated for the style’s centennial celebration featuring exhibits in the Royal Museums of Art and History.
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In the heat of the summer we searched out some authentic Art Nouveau interiors in the cool brasserie of De Ultieme Hallucinatie where one can pick a beer from 100 countries. The rest of the time we kept cool at our favorite boutique hotel, Le Dixseptieme, also full of Art Nouveau memorabilia, set in a medieval building. Still, visits to the cool parks and Royal Palace, the Sablon area and the façade of the Palais des Nations are musts, as is the corny statue of Manneken Pis at the corner of the Amigo, an elegant, old-style hotel. The statue has long been regarded as an honored citizen of the capital. Heads of state donated some of the 250 outfits for the statue, and the wardrobe is kept in a museum for use for special dressy municipal occasions.Besides the famous antique and art markets that are among Europe’s best, the out-of-center markets for birds, flowers and even horses are fascinating. From the Ardennes and other areas farmers bring their plants, chickens, rabbits to the markets. Of course, fresh fish, shrimp and mussels from the North Sea are offered daily all over town.
For chocolate lovers, Brussels is Mecca. The country produces 175,000 tons every year, much of it sold by its 2,000 confectioners. For our supply of pralines, the hand-sculpted shells with different fillings, we started at Neuhaus, chocolatiers since the 19th century at the glass-roofed Galeries Saint-Hubert shopping arcade. Another famous house is Wittamer at the lovely Place Grand Sablon, center of antique dealers and art galleries. I talked to a couple of Asian traders at our small hotel, all munching speculoos, brown sugar biscuits in shapes of figurines. The sculpted crunchy nutmeg or cinnamon characters are favorites of the Bruxellois and tourists alike. I was told that a local psychologist asked the town’s 160 embassies about their preferred shapes in speculoos. Orientals picked fish, Africans animal forms, Europeans bought them in shapes of buildings. The Americans, he found, preferred soldiers. So did the military staff of NATO in Brussels. We took home some speculoos shaped as beer bottles.When not at their house in Aspen’s West End, travel writers Paul and Elizabeth Fabry are usually in Europe or in their New Orleans residence. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.