Destination - Brussels

When planning a weekend break places that normally come to mind include Gozo, Taormina, Rome, London or Paris. An interesting city worth visiting, which would not be an automatic first choice, is Brussels.

Of course when one thinks of Brussels, one thinks of the capital city of the European Union, with the various EU institutions, but there is much more … this city promises more than one can imagine.

The so-called ‘Lower Town’ is the historical and commercial heart of the city, and home to the famous Grand Place. Most of the city's best historic sites, restaurants and shops are located in this bustling quarter. Its layout remains essentially medieval - a labyrinth of narrow, cobbled lanes and alleys whose names mostly reveal their original purpose as markets, as for example, the Rue du Marché aux Fromages.

The Grand Place is an outstanding example of the eclectic and highly successful building of architectural and artistic styles that characterizes the culture and society of this region. It is usually the first port of call for most visitors to Brussels and is known to be one of the most beautiful town squares in Europe. This charming market square is enclosed by a beautiful set of Guild houses and dominated by the Town Hall and the Maison du Roi. This bustling cobblestone square remains the civic centre, many centuries after its creation, offering the finest example of Belgium’s ornate 17th century architecture. The origins of the Grand-Place, however, are humble. Open-air markets took place on this site as early as the 11th century. During the early Middle Ages small wooden houses were scattered around the market. Brussels’ town hall, the Hôtel de Ville, was completed in 1459, emerging as the finest architectural masterpiece in the country, a stature it still enjoys. In the following centuries most wooden houses were replaced with beautifully decorated guild houses in a whole array of styles. Gradually the market turned into the main commercial and administrative centre of the city.

The main buildings forming the perimeter of the Grand Place include the Hôtel de Ville, with its imposing belfry, topped by a statue of St. Michael, the city’s patron saint; the group of six guild houses now housing the Cocoa and Chocolate Museum; the Maison du Roi, once the residence of the ruling Spanish monarchs, now home to the Musée de La Ville; Le Pigeon, home to Victor Hugo, the exiled French novelist; la Maison des Boulangers, a showpiece built by a wealthy and powerful group of bakers, now housing the Grand Place’s finest bar with a view of the bustling square.

Just off the Grand Place is the ‘Manneken Pis’. This very famous bronze statuette, just 60 cm high, represents a little boy tirelessly filling the basin of his fountain with his stream of water. Several attempts to steal the statue were made during the 18th century and in fact was stolen and smashed in 1817. A replica was cast the following year and returned to its original place. This is the copy we see today. It is a tradition for the statue to be dressed in a costume on special occasions, a wide array of which can be viewed at the Maison du Roi.

Another statue wrought in tradition and superstition is that of Everard t'Serclaes, a 14th-century popular Brussels hero. In 1388, when riding alone on the road from Brussels to Lennik, he was ambushed, mutilated before being transported to the Maison de l'Étoile, where he was to die. It is this episode which is commemorated by the reclining statue underneath the Étoile house. Local superstition says that caressing the statue, especially Serclaes' arm and the dog's nose, brings luck. Be that as it may, it certainly keeps the statue shiny!

The Upper Town, to the southeast, has a vastly different atmosphere. The traditional base of Brussels' French-speaking elite, it is home to wide boulevards, major museums, chic shopping areas around Sablon and Avenue Louise, and monumental buildings including the Belgian parliament. The Place du Grand Sablon, one of the most prestigious areas in Brussels, has recently become the centre of antiques shops and art galleries. The name ‘sablon’ is derived from the French ‘sable’ meaning ‘sand’ and is so-called because it was originally a sandy road along which people had access to the main city gates. The triangular shaped square is home to up-market antique dealers, fashionable restaurants, trendy bars as well as pleasant cafes. A visit to Wittamer, a well-known chocolate shop, is a must.

Dominating the square is the Notre Dame du Sablon church, one of the most beautiful gothic churches in Brussels. Its interior is simple with inter-connecting chapels but the eleven magnificent stained-glass windows, each 14m high, dominate the church. As the church is lit from the inside, they shine out at night across the street. The Place du Petit Sablon, opposite the Grand Sablon, is surrounded by a magnificent wrought-iron fence, topped by 48 small bronze statues representing the city's guilds.

The Cathedrale Sts Michel et Gudule, situated between the upper and lower town, is the national church of Belgium, and is the finest surviving example of Gothic architecture. In 1047 the Duke of Brabant, Lambert II, had the relics of St. Gudule transferred to this church. This 7th century saint is very dear to the Bruxellois and is known as the woman whose candle the devil tries to blow out and is miraculously re-ignited. The interior of the cathedral is very bare but the magnificent richly decorated glass-stained windows contribute to the gothic style and allow light to fall into the church.

A favourite during the warmer months of the year with joggers, families and civil servants from the nearby EU headquarters is the Cinquantenaire Park, with its huge lawns and several museums. The Triumphal Arch is the most eye catching monument found in the park. It was built to serve as a new entrance to the people entering from the eastern side of Brussels.

To the north of Brussels, Heysel offers attractions whose modernity contrasts with the historical city centre. The Atomium, built in 1958 for the World Fair, stands next to the Bruparck theme park. It is probably the most identifiable symbol of Brussels, as recognisable as the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It is a symbol of the atom concept, because it represents a crystal molecule of metal, magnified 165 billion times. Now a small museum, each of the nine spheres that make up the ‘atom’ are 18m in diameter and linked by escalators.

With its sites and range of theme restaurants, Bruparck is a very popular family destination. Located at the foot of the Atomium, Mini-Europe is the only park where you can have a tour around Europe in a few short hours. Reduced-scale reconstructions take you around the landscapes of the European Union, displaying buildings of social or cultural importance from the Tower of Pisa to the Maestranza bullring of Seville, accompanied by the incomparable chimes of the Big Ben which welcome you to the heart of London.

Brussels is definitely a compelling ‘get-away-from-it-all’ destination, offering a good mix of culture, history and entertainment. A weekend-break there is very definitely worth considering.