Place du Grand Sablon, a pleasant, triangle-shaped plaza, is close to the heart of Brussels . . . and the heart of shoppers.
Surrounded by vintage town houses and charming shops, it's a favorite place for shopping, especially on weekends when residents and tourists flock to its enormously popular outdoor antiques market (open Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.).
About 100 vendors display their varied wares in colorful tentlike stalls at one end of the plaza. Merchandise ranges from antique rugs to 19th-Century landscapes or turn-of-the-century photos, and from ancient scientific instruments to vintage perfume bottles. Stock changes continually; prices are reasonable, and tactful bargaining may result in reductions.
The atmosphere in the mazelike alleys between the stalls is festive and friendly. Vendors sit at folding tables to share impromptu feasts of cafe au lait poured from thermoses and crisp, fresh croissants.
The market is not the Sablon's only shopping attraction. On Saturdays (or weekdays, when the market is closed and the area is less crowded), browsers enjoy a variety of wonderful antique shops, galleries and gift boutiques surrounding the plaza.
One of the most popular shops is Wittamer, the world-famous Belgian chocolatier at No. 6. It isn't unusual to see limousines lined up outside the shop as Brussels' chic and sophisticated diplomats and high-level bureaucrats stock up on prestige confections.
Select a sampling from two dozen types of hand-dipped, incredibly rich but not overly sweet truffles, fresh creams, pralines and marzipans, for $3 per 100 grams. The chocolates are packaged in cheerful, bright-pink paper with green ribbon.
The Sablon Shopping Gardens (No. 36, directly across Place du Grand Sablon from Wittamer) has about a dozen excellent antique shops and art galleries surrounding a delightful covered courtyard cafe. The shops offer a broad range of merchandise.
Librarie Arte has splendid art books that are, in their own right, works of art. French and English titles, covering schools from Renaissance to Post-Modern and artists from Rembrandt to Rousseau, sell for $40 to $180.
Willy de Jonge has turn-of-the-century paintings, especially land and seascapes by Edmond Verstraeten (1870-1956) and other Flemish and Dutch artists (about $4,000 to $12,000).
Arno Art Gallery's collection contains high-priced canvasses from the Flemish School, including country scenes by Joseph van Bredael (1688-1739) and marine scenes by 18th-Century artist Jean Baptiste Bouttats.
Archeologia features beautifully carved stone Hellenistic heads, as well as ancient glass ewers and vials and exquisite glass and stone beads from Iran, circa 2000 BC (about $500).
L'Atelier Contemporain's antique jewelry includes lovely 19th-Century marcasite bracelets and oval brooches ($150), as well as unusual and amusing flamingo pins of silver, onyx and marcasite.
Josefina Cardenas deals in fine objets d'art, including silver and cut-glass pitchers ($730 for a set of two) and Limoges enameled stamp boxes ($315), all from the 19th Century.
Philippe Ancart sells Oriental antiques, including an 18th-Century ottoman, etched silver sword and silver-embellished leather scabbard (about $1,000), ceremonial knives with stag horn handles from Borneo ($390) and delicate 14th-Century green bowls from Vietnam ($500).
Gallery Deileman specializes in signed bronze sculpture by French, Belgian, Italian and Polish artists, from the end of the 19th Century to the present. The collection includes works by Alberic Collin (1886-1962) (about $12,500), and a bronze deer by Raymond de Meister for $6,000.
Antica has 18th-Century French armoires ($4,000) and models, hand-carved and fitted, of ancient sailing vessels ($800), as well as some tribal artifacts.
Rue Lebeau, at the narrowest corner of the triangular place, trails off down a gentle hill to several shops and galleries.
Amaryllis (No.67) is the home of dozens of antique dolls, mostly of 19th-Century vintage, from Germany, France, Holland and Belgium, and from big porcelain princesses ($2,600 and up) to little celluloid puppets in ethnic dress ($60).
An elegantly dressed automated doll fans herself and looks into a hand mirror ($2,000). In addition, the 20-year-old shop sells antique lamps, chandeliers and mirrors.
Rosalie Pompon's (No. 65) gift items and home accessories have unusual humor. There are foot warmers featuring a pair of fake fur-lined leather slippers stitched to a pink velvet pillow ($40), clocks that look like starched washcloths ($42) or stacks of money ($57), luminescent Plexiglas fountain pens ($5), wire egg baskets shaped like chickens ($22) and designer Marianne Dock's decorative papier-mache snakes with bright colors and silly facial expressions ($52).