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Our boys at Fly.com monitor airfare like it's the stock market, waiting for prices to dip like they did last fall, when flights to Brussels, Belgium, were suddenly hundreds of dollars less than they usually are, so I booked.
Wedged between France, Germany and the Netherlands, Belgium is a multilingual country of many influences. The European Union headquarters are in Brussels, so the city pulses with politics. Often during meals I'd overhear governmental ramblings from businessmen at neighboring tables, and most TV channels were tuned to some roundtable discussion of the Eurozone.
Most guidebooks for the city start out in the Grand Place, a medieval square in Brussels' historic center. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the square is lined with guild houses and the city hall, which date as far back as the 1400s. The amount of architectural detail here is insane. I could've spent all day decoding the statues and symbols and shields carved over every inch of these buildings. It's a great place to stroll through, especially because I went around the holidays, when this whole region of Europe seems to prop up Christmas markets in any open space it can find.
It was also, however, totally mobbed. The Grand Place is one of the most-visited tourist spots in Brussels, so I went in for one afternoon, and then fanned out from there, finding that my favorite parts of this city were actually farther away.
Knowing that hotels in that central area would probably be more expensive, I chose to stay further south in an area called Ixelles. This area's streets were lined with gorgeous, huge townhouses. And for some reason many of them seemed to be for sale. It felt like I was in my own episode of House Hunters International, relocating to Brussels to, say, open my own bed & breakfast. Perhaps in the same building where Audrey Hepburn was born, which was only a few blocks from where I was staying.
It being a residential area, Ixelles is full of cozy restaurants. Belgian cuisine is so much more interesting than just the fries and beer that most people associate with the place. I had fantastic fresh fish and bright, vivid greens for almost every meal. One thing oddly lacking from menus: Brussels sprouts. Maybe they'd exported all of them? The fries were also a lot chunkier than I'd anticipated, thick wedges that still resembled a good portion of the potato they came from.
A broad boulevard called Louise cuts her way diagonally southeast, and is lined with lots of boutiques. For as big and important a city as Brussels is, though, there were surprisingly few chain stores. It was refreshing to not see typical Western companies on every corner. And I don't recall seeing any of our fast-food chains or coffee shops.
Just west of Louise, one of the must-visit sites in Brussels is the Horta Museum. Victor Horta was an architect in the late 1800s and early 1900s who was a master of Art Nouveau style. I'd always presumed myself an Art Deco guy, but the swoops and curls of Art Nouveau didn't capture me until found myself surrounded by them in this museum, Horta's former personal residence. Standard building materials have been swirled to the point of near-fluidity. The main dining room of the house has no straight lines -- everything flows into everything else, and the whole house looks like a fairy tale illustration. The museum also provides a map of other Art Nouveau sites, which clutter the neighborhood.
Further south is the affluent residential area called Uccle. The Van Buuren Museum and Garden is in this area, and is certainly worth a stop. The Van Buuren's were a wealthy couple who built this Arts-and-Crafts style house and dictated that it eventually become a museum, with an art collection that showcases some of the top artists of their time, including Kees Van Dongen and Sonia Delaunay. The best part is that you can go almost anywhere in the house. There's no velvet rope penning you into one small side of the room. You get to slip plastic baggies over your shoes and walk all over, through the dining room, music room, across the living room, up the carved wood main staircase to the private study and craft room.
Back toward the city center and a short walk from the Grand Place (almost everything was a short walk) is a square called Place du Grand Sablon. It is the anchor for a district that includes lots of high-end furniture stores and several legendary chocolate manufacturers. Everyone who talks about Belgian chocolates will mention Wittamer, a family business that's been turning out top-notch pralines for decades. Across the plaza is chocolatier Pierre Marcolini, who's only been cracking open cacao since 1995, but is already the other big name in Brussels. The best plan is to buy a small handful from each shop and sample them all, and to not promise anyone back home that you'll bring them some, because they won't last.
On weekends, Grand Sablon hosts a flea market full of stalls peddling high-quality, if tarnished, antiques and housewares. It's great for a stroll and to pick up a one-of-a-kind souvenir that is relatively more affordable than what's sold in the surrounding upscale home shops. If you're a flea market addict like myself, and can't go a day without thrifting, then head east to the Marolles district. This formerly (or still, depending on your tolerance) hardscrabble neighborhood has a daily flea market on the Place du Jeu de Balle. This is the digging kind, where you're on your hands and knees sifting through heaps of textile or rifling through crates looking for hand-knit sweaters, original paintings and the odd mid-century dining chair. The rest of the Marolles has antique stores of a slightly more ramshackle variety than in the Sablon. Here, huge, multilevel stores are stuffed with odds and ends from all eras, from carved carousel horses to panes of stained glass.
Apart from the places I mentioned above, I didn't go to many other big sites (okay I did see the statue of the peeing boy, which is just odd how popular it is). What intrigued me more about this city, and what I loved so much about it, was that it was a real city where people lived and did business with such a gorgeous and historic backdrop. It didn't feel like a big museum -- which is something people sometimes say is bad about Paris. And it didn't feel like it was only full of tourists -- which is something people sometimes say is bad about New York. It felt "just right," which I guess makes sense, considering its location -- in between cities that are much more well-known, but with its own fine culture, food and style.