Belgium’s Artistic Side

As European countries go, Belgium is relatively small—about the size of Maryland—yet it offers some of Europe’s most interesting attractions, and not only in such well-traveled destinations as Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent, in and of themselves dynamic cities in the Flanders region. A recent cultural tour with the Belgium Tourist Office in New York, focused on new museums in Brussels, Louvin-la-Neuve and Liege, and a spectacular new railroad station in Liege designed to strengthen Belgium’s access to the rest of Europe.

brussels As the headquarters for the European Union, Brussels—part of the highly popular Flanders region—is a city of such great variety and punch that it constantly reinvents itself while respecting the art, architecture and history of several cultures spanning 600 years. This is immediately evident in the Dominican Hotel. Tucked behind the landmark La Monnaie Theater and Opera House—where Belgium struck its first blow for independence from the Netherlands in 1830—the hotel surrounds a 15th century cloister and former Dominican monastery. Redesigned, rebuilt and opened as a hotel in 2007 by the Carlton Group, it has preserved enough of its original architectural elements—sweeping archways, the old cloister hidden behind a glass wall, the courtyard—to recall its earlier incarnation, all while providing some of the most chic contemporary accommodations and public spaces in town. The 150 guestrooms and suites are arranged around the cloister; all richly decorated, many of them have loft-like ceilings and short staircases separating sleeping areas from bathrooms. Espresso coffee machines and mini-bars stocked with Belgian chocolates are two reasons why the Dominican is already one of Brussels’ most successful business hotels. A Turkish bath and Finnish sauna for weary guests are two more. A member of Design Hotels, the Dominican Hotel should appeal to any client looking for style, comfort, good service, and a convenient location.

Historic Brussels is best explored on foot, but clients can also book any number of half- or full-day bus tours that cover the highlights. From the Dominican Hotel’s central location, it is just a 10-minute walk through narrow cobbled streets to the Grand Place, the administrative center of 17th century Brussels and the city’s architectural tour de force. The square has a magical quality with its imposing Hotel de Ville set among fine 17th century guild houses, all virtually destroyed in 1695 by Louis XIV and later rebuilt by various guilds. Victor Hugo and Karl Marx both lived in the Grand Place, and Rodin spent enough time there as a political refugee to collaborate on the ornamental design for the Stock Exchange. Certainly, it should be first on any client’s sightseeing agenda.

Just north of the Grand Place are the glass-vaulted arcades of the Galeries Royales de St-Hubert, dating from 1847 and still major outposts for some of Belgium’s most upscale couturiere and chocolate. Neuhaus still occupies its original 1860 Confiserie, producing what Brussels insiders claim is Belgium’s best chocolate.

Though most of the restaurants around Galeries St-Hubert are strictly for tourists, the family-owned Chez Leon is an exception. Clients can’t go wrong with fresh moules et frites (mussels and fries) served Belgian-style slathered in mayonnaise. Then—after all, this is Belgium, where beer is a national industry—suggest bar-hopping between Delirium—boasting 1,000 different beers in a setting dominated with painted pink elephants on the ceiling—and A la Morte Subite, to sample the gueuze-based house beer on tap, called, not surprisingly, “sudden death.”

There is no better family museum in all of Brussels than the splendid Museum of Musical Instruments (MIM) occupying the converted 1899 Art Nouveau “Old England” department store near the Place Royale. With more than 7,000 antique and modern instruments in its collection, the MIM is the largest museum of its kind in the world. This being Belgium, the museum has a good cafe with the added benefit of an outdoor terrace overlooking the city.

Two of Belgium’s greatest artists, the surrealist Rene Magritte and the cartoon artist Herge, finally have their own museums. Just around the corner from the MIM—in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts complex—is the new $10 million Magritte Museum opened in June 2009 and housing the world’s largest collection of works by the artist. Magritte’s entire oeuvre is exhibited on five floors arranged chronologically from top to bottom in dimly lit galleries that progress from dark to light.