Europe

Treat Yourself to Brussels

written by | Posted on March 29th, 2012

Grand Place is the heart of the city.

 

When it comes to destinations, it’s no surprise that a large number of accomplished travelers have long considered Brussels a remarkable stop. After all, this great and ancient city sits in an unrivaled geographic location—smack on the crossroads of northern Europe.

Location, as realtors are fond of saying, is everything. Brussels’ site and long historic pedigree are testimonies to its modern standing as the capital of the 27 countries that make up the European Union. But don’t come here expecting to find battalions of grim-faced, gray-suited politicos carrying the fate of their respective countries in bulging briefcases as they scurry from serious meeting to even more serious seminar. For Brussels is a vibrant, valuable and memorable destination sure to underscore any European trip.

It’s served by many airlines including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines, with roundtrip fares from New York City (often as low as $900). American alone transported more than 94,000 passengers from JFK to Brussels in 2010.

Unlike other world centers, Brussels overflows with an urban flair rare in this part of Europe. It has highly rated restaurants, terrific shopping and has no lack of chic hotels. As if that weren’t enough, it has a wide-ranging reputation for self-indulgent chocolate, cutting-edge art, and strange and potent beer, all dished in generous portions amid enthralling architecture that often—especially while hanging around the area of the Grand Place—makes visitors feel like they’ve stumbled onto the set of a Medieval movie epic.

But the best part of Brussels is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. What other major city can you name that has an entire museum devoted to a comic strip? Brussels does, in a building devoted to all things Tintin (a cartoon penned by Belgian artist Georges Remi who wrote under the nom de plume Herge), a quirky character whose adventures were recently adapted by Steven Spielberg into an animated film.

Other cities have mascots, but Brussels’ endearing and superbly irreverent symbol, the Manneken Pis—a tiny bronze sculpture of a little boy urinating—has stood in the center of town since the early-1600s.

Then there is the Atonium, a 335-ft.-tall model of an iron crystal molecule—flotsam from the city’s 1958 World’s Fair today considered one of Brussels’ significant landmarks.

The city has many attributes, including an alluring center with the feel of a small town. It lacks the attitude so prevalent in Paris, a mere two hours away by train. (As a matter of fact, some wags have been heard to mutter that the best thing about Paris is its proximity to Brussels.) It’s also mercifully short of Berlin’s self-importance and the rudeness of Rome. And when it comes to party time, even The Guardian of London—a city that for years epitomized Europe’s nightlife—threw in the towel, recently declaring flat out that Brussels “now leads the way on the European party scene.”

brusselicious

Parties, landmarks and lifestyle notwithstanding, Brussels has embarked on a year-long plan to attract gourmands with a program labeled “Brusselicious” that promises to shine a brilliant gastronomical spotlight on the city.

This is a place that traditionally has shown pride in its food to the point where locals invariably point out that Brussels offers mouth-watering delights that rival anything concocted on the French side of the border, with German-sized quantities to boot. And while Brusselian food is often a mere footnote in the vast European menu, dishes emanating from its kitchens are imaginative, delightful and vast.

Organized by Visit Brussels, the festival spans nearly 12 months of adventures to sate most appetites and send gourmands into fits of ecstasy. There are chocolate samplings, beer fests, food demonstrations, gastronomical fairs and loads of events tailored exclusively for visiting food lovers.

Brusselicious shows signs of becoming an event where the toque might become the city’s symbol and forever alter the misguided impression that Brussels food is nothing but waffles, chocolate and unusual beers. An unusual treat is its cherry beer, a brew that tastes suspiciously like carbonated Vick’s Formula 44.

Liliane Opsomer, deputy director and media relations for the Tourist Office for Flanders, explains that Brusselicious’ aim is to “bring innovative and creative cuisine to the forefront by using traditional methods and local produce to create great food.”