Grand Design Brussels

Step inside fabulous old buildings and look upwards: you might see medieval beams, art nouveau friezes or a madness of baroque plasterwork.

This magnificent muddle of styles is hardly surprising. Brussels is a city of mixed identities: a former medieval trading powerhouse, the modest capital of a small nation and the bureaucratic epicentre of the European Union, the latter having brought an influx of money, international ideas and great dining. It excels in modest pursuits such as beer and lace-making, yet also has some of Europe’s most impressive art collections.While you can see centuries of architecture in many cities, Brussels is especially notable for its distinctive art nouveau design from the turn of the 19th and the early 20th century, a period when attitudes to architecture were transformed. The pomposity of the Victorian age seemed stiff and old-fashioned. The result was a new movement in an exuberant, bold new style that captured the optimism and excitement of the modern age. Art nouveau features curves rather than right angles, sensuous simplicity, wrought iron and other metalwork, pastel colours, and motifs of plants and animals.

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One of art nouveau’s great masters was Belgian architect and designer Victor Horta, and his work can be seen all over the capital. Four of his buildings are World Heritage listed. Take an appreciative view of Tassel House (considered the world’s first true art nouveau building) and Hôtel Solvay, a private residence despite its name. Then head to Horta’s own house in the southern suburbs, now

a museum dedicated to the architect. It gives a great overview of the design movement, with displays of lovely furniture and artworks in perfect harmony with the building’s gorgeous staircase, stained glass and metal arches.

Elsewhere, you’ll find many buildings by Horta’s pupil Gustave Strauven, distinctive for their yellow and blue brickwork. Small wonder that Brussels likes to claim it’s the world capital of art nouveau. Certainly, this is a city where strolling about always brings unexpected pleasures for the observant traveller. Wander where your whims lead you, and don’t forget to look up, and enjoy.

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There’s no better place to do so, of course, than Grand-Place in the centre of the old town. It’s one of the most impressive medieval cobbled squares anywhere in the world: a Gothic masterpiece of gabled houses, elaborate gilding and age-old woodwork. Sadly, the Town Hall is the only genuine medieval building left, the rest having been reconstructed in stages after a 1695 war with the French. Still, Renaissance flourishes only add to the charm, and Grand-Place seems timeless, a public space straight from a fairy-tale illustration, happily enlivened and prettified by cafés, a flower market and regular free concerts.

Grand-Place is one of several venues that host the Brussels Jazz Weekend (May 25–27 this year) with its schedule of free jazz, blues and world music. Also on this month is the Kunstenfestivaldesarts (Kunsten Festival of the Arts; May 4–26), which combines international and Belgian theatre, dance, cinema and visual arts.

No matter when you visit, head inside Grand-Place’s Town Hall for a dose of neo-Gothic excess and a useful branch of the city tourist office. It’s a magnificent medley of ornate stonework, sculptures of saints, monks and the odd cavorting devil, all topped by a whopping tower. Opposite is the Maison du Roi or King’s House, another 19th-century reimagining of medieval design. It houses the Museum of Brussels, where you can delve into the development of the city amid a clutter of tapestries, pots and paintings. All around the rest of the square stand former guild houses of tradesmen such as bakers, stonemasons and tanners. Many now house cafés with terraces, ideal for people-watching and soaking up the sun.

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Grand-Place might be Brussels’ most famous square, but it’s certainly not the only one worth a look. Place du Grand Sablon is favoured by posh locals – it has upmarket antique and shoe stores, as well as a weekend antiques market. Pop into the church for a fabulous display of 15th-century stained glass aglow in blues and reds. The adjacent Place du Petit Sablon has a wrought-iron fence decorated with nearly 50 statues celebrating the city’s former guilds.

Combine shopping and sightseeing by heading to the city’s oldest retail arcade, the Galeries Royales St-Hubert, which looks as if it was imported in its entirety from Milan.

The 1847 Italianate galleries are flooded with light from glass ceilings. As well as upmarket fashion boutiques, you’ll find outlets from some of Belgium’s top chocolate makers. Leonidas, which supplies goodies to the Belgian court, tempts with chocolate-coated marshmallows and caramelised almond sticks, while Godiva has limited-edition truffles that run to exotic flavours such as cashew and honey, lemongrass and coconut, or rum and lime.

Galeries Royales St-Hubert isn’t for the light of wallet, but it does sit in the bargain shopping area of town around Rue Neuve. Most of the upmarket shopping is elsewhere, around Porte de Namur, Boulevard de Waterloo and Avenue Louise. If you’re after something a bit more alternative,

you might want to investigate Rue Antoine Dansaert, where edgy designers operate out of small boutiques. If you are interested in finding out more about the long tradition of lace work in Belgium, before perhaps picking up some dainty examples as souvenirs, schedule in some time to tour the engaging Costume and Lace Museum, which also showcases a variety of historic fashions, including flamboyant 18th-century fripperies and bright-coloured 1960s outfits.

Back on the architecture trail, Place Royale brings you into another era. This neoclassical square was laid out in the 18th century with the typical accoutrements of the time: an equestrian statue, Greek-style pillared façades and ornamental gardens in rigid patterns. Don’t miss the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts. They cover thousands of works over the centuries, including a wonderful collection of Old Masters. One section is devoted to the renowned Belgian surrealist René Magritte, famous for his paintings of everyday objects such as bowler hats, apples and seagulls in unusual contexts.

The spirit of Magritte seems to linger in Brussels, which has recently been rediscovering its mojo. It erupts with new art spaces, inventive eye-catching public installations and quirky new cocktail bars. Shops sell African drums and Chinese cabinets and lamps made from old telephones. This city may be 1,500 years old, but it still has a spring in its step.

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From Colours May 2018

5 Senses – Taste RUE DES BOUCHERS

Near Grand-Place, this lively street and the alleyway Petite Rue des Bouchers, nicknamed ‘the stomach of Brussels’, are packed with a great choice of modestly priced, very popular restaurants that highlight the city’s ethnic variety, from French to Spanish and South American. Tuck into moules frites (mussels with French fries) if you’re after a typical Belgian meal. www.visit.brussels

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