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Charmed by Old Brussels

She closes her eyes and listens. It is Jacques Brel’s Madeleine, the most important Belgian singer, singing about his beloved Brussels.

Brussels is a city to fall in love with, and both she and Jacques Brel knew it. 

Her Brussels has always been unfairly considered a dark and boring Western Europe city where nothing ever happens; it’s just that place where European institutions and NATO held their headquarters. But Brussels, regardless of what most people think, is one of the most beautiful and charming places across the Atlantic. It is a modern city that has respected its roots, and that mixes tradition with innovation. And although it has been modernised as no other city in Europe, the oldest districts in the place remain today as they were four hundred years ago, when the whole of Belgium was just a part of the Spanish Empire.

The French writer Victor Hugo used to say that the Grand Place of Brussels was the most beautiful square in the world. She has to agree. It is, in fact, a unique architectural conception.

Centuries ago, this place was the economic centre of the region, but now it is a favourite spot for tourists. While the European District is the brain of Brussels, the Grand Place is its heart. It is impressive for the traveller to view such old, gothic buildings in such a good state.

The Place, with its narrow old houses, is where Belgian kings and Spanish governors used to live long ago. The Grand Place is a beautiful picture, with its flower market, the old gothic stones, and the famous cafés where people such as Alexandre Dumas or Hugo himself used to have some rest.

The cafés. She enters Le Roi d’Espagne, the best of all the cafés, and starts looking around. She is in Brussels, yes,…so she should ask for a beer. Belgian has the widest collection of beers in the world: 965. And for the traveller who seeks gastronomic pleasure, the ideal places to visit are those cafés where one can drink excellent beer or hot Belgian chocolate. Perhaps best in the Falstaff, in fashion since 1903, or La Lunette, just in front of the Opera, in the Place de la Monnaie.
Just some yards away from the Grand Place the walker can find the symbol of the town: the Manneken Pis, the legendary fountain that represents a little boy urinating eternally. The artist Jeronime Duquesnoy created this tiny statue in 1619; it represents the son of one of one of the old Majors of the city. Legend explains that the child was lost during a popular feast. His father asked the whole city to find him, and he promised that he would create a statue of his son in the posture he would be in when he should be found. The boy was found urinating in the door of an old house, and so the Major asked Mr. Duquesnoy to sculpt the Manekken Pis in that posture. Even Brel said that he was the real son of the city.

As a city of all ages, Brussels has places that are reminiscent of the splendour of the early 1900’s. The Saint Hubert Galleries are a fine example. 150 years ago, they were the first galleries ever built with boutiques, shops, restaurants and theatres. Musicians of all countries come to the galleries to play rock, classical or new age music. She thinks, besides Amsterdam, Brussels is probably one the most open-minded cities in the continent. And it may be because a huge part of its population is diplomats, spies, journalists or just travellers searching for their treasure. It is no joke to say that more than a quarter of the inhabitants of the capital is not Belgian.

While Brel’s songs sound and sound again, she decides to keep on walking through the old streets of the city. Very near from the Saint Hubert Galleries she faces the Theâtre Royal de la Monnaie, better known as the Opera. And not far away from there, the Stock Exchange building, another architectonic wonder, and the Sablon district, the rich part of the old city, where there is a permanent market of ancient objects.

Brussels was designed surrounded by several huge boulevards, and the best system to go through them is the tube and the tram, an urban railway that maintains the same face decades ago. Brussel’s trams are as lovely as Vienna’s or Amsterdam’s. The trams are old trains, very slow, quite uncomfortable, but always the best way to travel across the quarters of the city. Maybe the most beautiful tram trip is the one that goes from the Stock Exchange building, crosses the old suburbs of the city and arrives in the Atomium monument.

The Atomium was created in the 1950´s for the Brussels Universal Exposition, and inaugurated a new way of looking toward the future.

Brussels has two faces: the old one and the modern one. And in the middle of those conceptions it has placed the biggest atom in the world, a sight that is really worth the trip.

On the one hand, Brussels can be seen as the traditional, old and charming city, but on the other one she can see the new town, the European district, the one that host the ultramodern Northern Station and the European Parliament building.

Next, the tram takes her to the fashion street, the huge Louise Avenue, where the most important firms have put their boutiques, and where a good part of the capital’s night life stirs. While Brussels can often become a sad place, she knows Louise Avenue, with the light of its restaurants and its pubs, will keep on blighting until very late in the night.

Nowadays it is the favourite place for students and young people to live in and go out at night, and it has become a symbol in the process of modernisation of the city.

For tourists, all of Belgium is a museum. And for many, Brussels is the perfect town to get lost inside. Their streets seem to have no end. One just walks and enjoys the sights of the charming art galleries, the old bookshops, or the bistrots, probably the best place to discover the gastronomy of the city. After one century, these typical restaurants remain the meeting point for artists, politics, writers, spies and those who want to find out why Brussels has not lost its old charm. Once inside them, it is worth it to taste the traditional chips (frites) the Waterzooi, the traditional food of the Belgian coast.

The soul of all the districts is known as Marolles. If Brussels has a Montmatre, it must be Marolles; it is as important for the city as Notting Hill is for London. And then she gets to the Ilôt Sacré. The best place for eating the typical plate of meules et frites or the Waterzooi is the area known as the Ilôt Sacré, where the owners of the restaurants offer people passing by the door every kind of seafood and even show them – in the middle of the street – how it must be prepared. But Brussel’s gastronomy – there are more than 1500 high-class restaurants in the city – could never be completed without the well-known Belgian chocolate. There are lots of luxury shops where the traveller can buy every imaginable kind of chocolate: Godiva, Cote d´Or, Neuhaus, or Leonidas, even the cheaper brands among traditional chocolate shops.

She keeps on walking. To discover Brussels, no hurry is needed. Brussels should be walked, should be observed, and should be breathed. Is the atmosphere of the city, so theatrical and technological at the same time, that makes it so attractive. She, a Brussels citizen, knows how magic her city can be. She knows how beautiful the traditional districts of the centre of the town are, and how magnificent the European buildings around the Rond Point Schumman can be, so near to le Parq du Cinquantenaire. She can see how modern her city has become, and how intelligent Belgians have been for having found the harmony between the old and the new. And they also know how important they have become for the rest of Europe. They want to profit from their dynamism, modernism, and by keeping their minds open. It is, by all means, one of the most attractive cities in old Europe. It is an elegant city of good food, good spirits, beautiful squares and avenues to promenade, and a city with no prejudices at all. Each one visits Brussels for a different reason. Josep Plà, the Spanish writer, used to say that he visited it for its women, “the most beautiful women on earth”, so similar to those blonde angels painted by Memling or Rubens. Others go because of their business, because of politics, tourism, love or hate. But everyone, or almost everyone, has something to find in this opera set called Brussels.

Brussels is terribly dangerous because it is addictive. And once it has been known, it is difficult to escape from its atmosphere, always so special and always so charming.

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