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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bustling Belgium Is Grand Place to Visit

Among my friends, Belgium has an image problem. Name one famous Belgian, my friends say. Brussels, apart from the chocolate and waffles, is dull, dull, dull, they moan.


I was reminded that the best thing the city had offered the world was its eponymous sprouts -- one of the more regrettable contributions to world cuisine. As for suggestions about what to see, no one seemed able to think beyond Mannekin Pis, the small bronze boy doomed to forever relieve himself. Given these rather underwhelming pre-departure tips, I set off with few expectations for the rarely praised Euro-capital.


On arrival, I immediately hastened off to change money to stock up on the chocolates and waffles. There, I experienced perhaps the highlight of my trip. Finding the four people that preceded him in line a daunting number, a gray-haired man pulled one of the soft, green armchairs that stood nearby into line with him. Using only his heels to inch forward, he continued reading his Financial Times while squeaking toward the counter. Moments later a woman joined the race with a second chair.


Brussels is a bizarre, intriguing mixture of old and new, native and imported, dilapidated and restored, local and federal. The country is divided into three regions: the Flemish North, the French-speaking Walloon South and Brussels, which is officially bilingual. In Brussels, all street signs and official announcements are written in both French and Flemish. Relations between the two main linguistic communities have long been tense, but this is less apparent in Brussels, which is so multilingual that the bilingual dispute is somewhat clouded.


Organized much like Moscow, the city has its center within a circle from which main streets emanate and around which neighborhoods of varying characters have developed. Architecturally, however, the city seems a collage of varying styles and contradictions, often described as anarchic. Pointing out the different heights and patterns crammed together in one street, an expatriate friend ascribed it to a Belgian desire to be different and to outdo neighbors with slightly taller or more extravagant homes.


Belgium's central position in Western Europe has meant it has always been a popular destination. Unfortunately, its most persistent tourists have been invading armies. Its territory fell under the control of the Austrians, Spanish, French and Dutch, even before Belgium won independence in 1830, and the city reflects these varying influences.


The center of the capital is a mixture of grand medieval buildings and stunningly ugly modern structures. The Atomium, farther out, is one such building worth seeing to decide whether you are on the monstrosity or work of genius side of the fence. Many of the buildings currently housing European Union and other official headquarters are little more than functional eyesores, although some of the buildings under construction, such as the new glass European Parliament, promise to be far more attractive.


The Grand Place, or marketplace, in the city center dates back to the 12th century and is one of Europe's most beautiful, ornate and active public squares. Stand facing the somber 15th-century Town Hall, dotted with miniature statues, and spin around on the damp cobbles for a vivid glimpse of the many other gilded buildings around.


Brussels' immodest mascot, Mannekin Pis, is a few hundred meters from the Grand Place near the Grand Cathedral of St. Michel. Built in 1619, the statue's unusual pose is the result of a careless family vow to erect a statue depicting their lost son at the exact moment he was recovered.


The small boy faces not only the humiliation of a rather distressing bladder problem but of having various embarrassing costumes foisted on him by countries and organizations worldwide. He has yet to learn not to accept gifts from strangers, and his wardrobe, consisting of more than 250 costumes, can be seen at the King's House on the Grand Place. High-class tourist fare is available nearby with various urinating souvenirs from bottle-openers to lamps. Also, close by is Mannekin's sister-statue, Jannekin-Pis, a much more recent addition.


After wandering the center and the labyrinth of small streets that begin from the market square, I continued up toward the Central Station to browse in the grandiose Royal Galleries of St. Hubert, Europe's first covered shopping arcade, opened in 1847. Gathered under glass ceilings that stretch up so high you feel as if you're strolling down a boulevard are stores to peruse (if your budget is tight) and cafes to relax in.


The coffee in Belgium is so excellent that even the most dedicated milk tippler can enjoy it black. I ordered my fifth coffee for the day, ate the complimentary chocolate that had melted slightly from the heat of my cup and, well-wired, headed up the street to find a train heading somewhere.


Traveling within Belgium is easy. The Central Station is located close to the Grand Place in the city center. With Paris, London and Amsterdam all just a few hours away by train, Brussels can be used as a hub for trips to both surrounding regions in Belgium as well as surrounding countries. Belgium itself, however, boasts a number of charming inland and coastal cities that are well worth visiting. Several promotional budget travel programs make train travel within Belgium affordable, and tickets to most destinations are reduced to half price on weekends in order to reduce crowds in the Brussels. I chose Bruges as my destination.


With more than 80 bridges and a network of canals connected to the North Sea, Bruges is justly called the "city of bridges." It was founded in the ninth century and 400 years later became a prosperous port within the confederation of trading towns that was once the Hanseatic League. A mere hour from Brussels, Bruges makes a perfect day trip.


After arriving, I followed a quiet residential street past picture-perfect windowsills blossoming with flowers and figurines toward the tower that marks the town's center. The shop-lined Steenstraat opens up onto the Market Square, dominated by the Belfry and the neo-Gothic Provincial Government Palace on two of its sides.


The 47 bells that hang and clang atop the belfry are made accessible by the 366 steps that spiral up past its carillon. Cafes opposite serve a delicious coffee to prepare the lazy climber for the climb, which turned out to be no worse than climbing up to my apartment six times, although the reward was much better. Bruges from the top is a splendid maze of canals, narrow cobblestone streets and Gothic spires.


Back in Brussels, I decided to regress a bit. Although Denmark's Legoland, where I learned to drive at age 10, will always be my favorite miniature world, Mini-Europa is also delightful. Stomp through the various shrunken highlights of European capitals. Built on a scale of 1-25, Mini-Europa contains several miniature versions of landmark structures from each European country, such as London's Big Ben, Madrid's bullfighting arena, Brussels' Grand Place and Italy's Leaning Tower of Pisa.


It is said that it rains in Belgium 200 days a year, and although many natives claim that this is an exaggeration, half of my trip was wet. I forgot my umbrella and opted for the easy tourist route of jumping from cafe to cafe for another coffee.


Back in Moscow and patting the bulge that is now my stomach, I recall my mother's oft spoken and irritating words, "Only boring people get bored," and, by the way, brussels sprouts prepared correctly really aren't that bad.


WHERE TO EAT


Belgium is most often associated with its french fries and waffles, but with the highest concentration of restaurants in the world, there is plenty of fare to chose from.


The Rue des Petite Bouchers is packed with restaurants. Closed to cars, it has charming outdoor seating and a multitude of restaurants. If you wish to sample seafood, this is the place to do it as most of the restaurants display the day's catch on ice outside. For something different and reasonably priced, Le Salon de Atlantid at Avenue Charerouy 89 by metro Louise is good for French cuisine.


The candle-lit interior is inspired by "1001 Nights." The popular Ultima Atom, off Chausse D'Ixelles, at metro Porte Namur has a great wine selection and excellent salads. The staff has an attitude, but not at the expense of good service. The Zebra Cafe on Place Saint Gery by metro San Brouckere near the Beurse is a great place to enjoy a variety of teas and coffee beverages. They also serve aesthetically pleasing pizzas, salads and sandwiches.


Although they haven't marketed their beer as successfully as the Germans, Dutch or Danes, Belgians have a long tradition of beer-making and more than 600 domestic labels to chose from. Some of the more popular include Jupiler and Maes, but also try the more obscure ones, such as strawberry-flavored beer


WHERE TO STAY


There is no dearth of hotels in Brussels, and if price is no obstacle the selection is wide.


The Belgian Hotel Association can provide you with information about lodging throughout Belgium, Tel. (322) 513-7814. Brussels has a wide variety of luxury hotels to accommodate its many visitors. The Hilton has singles/doubles starting at $270, Tel. (322) 504-1111. For mid-range lodging, IBIS in the center has singles/double for $110 plus $7 per person for breakfast, Tel. (322) 514-4040.


GETTING THERE


Sabena Belgian World Airlines flies daily to Brussels for prices starting at $256 roundtrip, tax included. Andrew's Consulting at metro Smolenskaya can arrange tickets, Tel. 956-3807. Aeroflot flies daily except Wednesdays for prices beginning at $360 with 14-day advance purchase.