Brussels: funky town

Feature Brussels has an eccentric, cosmopolitan vibe that singles it out as Europe's fun capital, writes John Brunton.

Workers tend to the gardens on the Mont des Arts near the Grand-Place in Brussels on Monday, July 13, 2009. The garden is just one of the many free or cheaper places that help visitors enjoy Brussels on a budget. (AP Photo/Jim Buell)
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A fishmonger's stall hardly sounds the trendiest place to begin a visit to Brussels, but Mer du Nord is no run-of-the-mill fish shop, nor is Brussels a typical European capital. This unconventional, eccentric city was, after all, the home town and major source of inspiration of the great surrealist painter René Magritte. So I'm standing here on the pavement on a Saturday at lunchtime, in the midst of a huge crowd of fashionable movers and shakers - sleek Eurocrats, funky fashion designers, musicians, bohemian artists - all chatting away in a dozen different languages.

Everyone is packed round a zinc counter, desperately trying to catch the eye of one of the chefs who is busily grilling plump scallops and tuna á la plancha, shucking local Zeeland oysters or pouring out bowls of the most delicious fish soup I've ever tasted. Mer du Nord looks out over a towering gothic church, Sainte-Catherine, that gives its name to this ultra-hip neighbourhood, lined with fashion showrooms or gourmet restaurants. Standing next to me is Ria Gykiere, who owns Hoet, the avant-garde eyeware boutique. She tells me that shoppers are always surprised when they come here.

"In a single street," she says, "you can find every cutting-edge Belgian fashion-designer, from haute-couture names like Martin Margiella and Dries van Noten, to the outrageous designs of Walter van Beirendonck or to-die-for accessories at Nathan X or the restyled vintage outfits of Idiz Bogam. "It is a paradise for fashionistas that I can only compare with New York's Soho, 20 years ago, when it was still waiting to be discovered."

She recalls a customer from Hong Kong who told her that Brussels is the ultimate insiders' city. "The more I think of it, the more I realise this is true. Brussels has all the benefits of a cosmopolitan world city like Paris, Barcelona or London - outstanding cultural exhibitions, top concerts, stylish shopping and great food - but without most of the drawbacks," she says. "And life is nowhere near so expensive here."

Home to the European Commission, Brussels' inhabitants are used to foreigners invading their city, and are friendly and welcoming. So whether it's in one of the hundreds of cool bars, browsing the boutiques, wandering through the sprawling flea markets or dancing to frenetic techno music in a night club, you are bound to end up getting to know some locals, and they are better than any guidebook at explaining their city.

Brussels is not the kind place to spend too much time on classic sightseeing. No one should miss La Grand Place, the monumental town square that is a Unesco world heritage site, and somewhere I come back to every time with its sumptuous baroque and gothic guild houses. Right now, the city is still talking about the opening of the Magritte Museum, which has immediately become the obligatory first stop on any city tour. While the architecture and interiors are stunning, the quality of the collection is actually not outstanding, as most of the artists' greatest works are already in permanent collections of the likes of Moma in New York and Tate Modern in London. But the Magritte Museum is only one part of the neighbourhood known as the Mont des Arts, and the real surprises are hidden away in less well-known venues. While the grand Royal Museums of Fine Arts has a splendid selection of Low Countries' old masters, from Rubens and Rembrandt to Brueghel and Van Dyck, the one museum I always visit is the art-deco Palais des Beaux-Arts, known just as Bozar, one of the most audacious, eclectic and inventive museums in Europe. No matter what the current show is this is a museum that stops you in your tracks, shocks and confronts, and makes you question what modern art and culture is all about.

Bozar has a funky cafe, but I prefer to walk over to the Musical Instrument Museum. This is housed in one of the city's finest art nouveau buildings, a masterpiece by Victor Horta, the architect who formed the urban face of Brussels as Gaudi did in Barcelona. I'm not here for the antique violins and pianos though, and instead take the lift straight up to the top floor terrace cafe which has spectacular views, perfect for a traditional waffle with whipped cream.

For locals, there is one unmissable appointment late on a Saturday afternoon, Le Jazz Après Shopping, at L'Archiduc. This is not just the best bar in Brussels but the place to immediately put your finger on the pulse of Brussels life. Ring a bell on the street and the door swings open into a cool art-deco venue with a grand piano in one corner. You might find yourself sitting next to Arno, the most famous rock singer in Belgium, a high-powered investment banker, a fashion designer, a top official from the European Commission or an art gallery curator. The man who has turned L'Archiduc into a Brussels institution is Jean-Louis Hennart, persuading top musicians from across the world - America and Zaire, Turkey, Iran and England - to come to play here. "Brussels is a melting pot of the world's population," he says, "all living with and next to each-other without big problems, a place where people quickly realise that their different cultural and ethnic backgrounds are always a plus, never a problem."

As we head off for dinner, Jean-Louis is as enthusiastic about food as jazz. "The city's eclectic restaurant scene is no longer dominated by traditional French cuisine," he says. "Chefs running fashionable dining rooms are creating exciting dishes that incorporate tastes from Italy and Spain, subtle flavours from the Middle East and spicy ingredients from Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai cooking." L'Archiduc itself is surrounded by some brilliant restaurants. At Jaloa, the talented young chef Gaetan Colin creates surprising dishes such as tartare of scallops with herring caviar and sour cream, while Viva M'Boma, which may sound like an exotic African restaurant but whose name actually means vive la grand-mere, is a gourmet eatery that reinvents traditional classics such as veal liver smothered with a creamy mushroom sauce or kidneys slowly simmered in rich madeira wine.

I want to head off to the elegant Sablons square, where amid some of Europe's most exclusive antique stores are two of my favourite restaurants, Lola, a buzzing New York-style dining room serving nouveau-bistrot cuisine, and L'Idiot du Village, a cosy, romantic venue where dining here is like eating in your best friend's home. In the kitchen, Alain Gascoin creates a new menu every day, depending on the freshest products from the market, and he takes classic French cuisine to original new levels. A classic rack of lamb is complemented by a tasty barigoule of artichokes from the south of France, while tender scallops are lightly roasted with chestnuts.

But Jean-Louis is determined I should discover the brighest new star of the Brussels cooking scene, Christophe Hardiquest. You have to grab a cab to get to Bonbon, but it's well worth the effort, as this is an authentic atelier de cuisine where Hardiquest and his team invent dishes right in front of diners in their bustling open kitchen. The menu is decided by what is best at the market - maybe pigeon from the Anjou region, langoustines from Le Guilvinec, sweet breads from the Spanish Basque region - and the surprise is how the chef decides to prepare them. After dinner, Jean-Louis heads back to L'Archiduc, which stays open till four in the morning, while I hit Brussels' nightlife scene, where clubs and bars carry on till dawn. Ending up just by the Grand Place, I hop between a torrid salsa concert in the Havana Bar and the pulsating African rhythms of a Nigerian band in El Metteko, before ending up in Bonnefooi, a packed baroque lounge where glittering Venetian chandeliers mix with moody Moroccan decor and the DJ alternates between drum 'n' bass, funky Seventies and Afrobeat.

No matter what time I get back to my hotel, I always haul myself out of bed on a Sunday morning for the classic Brussels ritual - a visit to the Marché du Jeu de Balle, one of Europe's oldest and most genuine flea markets, a paradise for bargain hunters. Two parallel roads lead to the Place du Jeu de Balle, rue Haute and rue Blaes, both a goldmine of specialist showrooms stocking everything from a rare French art nouveau lamp to an obscure African tribal mask, antique lace from Bruges, delicate Dutch porcelain, retro 1960s furniture or a cool Chanel design from the Fifties. The crowds, though, are all heading for the sprawling square that hosts the Jeu de Balle market, which dates back to the Middle Ages. Open every day of the year from 6am till 2pm, come rain or shine, hundreds of traders unpack boxes and cartons onto the famous cobblestones of the sprawling square, with everything from military memorabilia to piles of old books, rare postcards to silver cutlery. You can find anything and everything here, as long as you have the patience to sift through the tons of junk and rubbish in search of a priceless hidden gem.

I'm meeting Aziza Nouri, a translator for the Flemish parliament and the European Commission. Aziza is the perfect example of Brussels cosmpopolitan population. Born here in a Moroccan immigrant family, she speaks Arablic, Flemish, French and English, and although she earns her living translating for bureaucrats, she was until recently running an art gallery and cafe too. Despite the political problems that threaten the division of Belgium into two separate Flemish and French-speaking countries, Aziza is upbeat about her home city, convinced that Brussels is a cultural exception."Unlike many capital cities, this is essentially a small town, and over a few stops on the tram you can pass through the Portuguese neighbourhood of Saint-Gilles, the Africans who have recreated Kinshasa in the Matonge quarter, Greeks around the Midi train station and the Chinese who have colonised all around the Stock Exchange. But at the end of the day we're all happy to be Bruxellois."

Walking back to the town centre, we can't resist stopping off at the landmark - though actually miniscule - Manneken Pis statue. In a typical example of the contradictions of this city, hordes of tourists are snapping away at the irreverent sculpture, but there are also crowds of locals, members of the noble society responsible for dressing the small boy in one his hundreds of different costumes, which is, of course, just another excuse to bring out a brass band and hold an impromptu party.