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Brussels' Grand Place Puts All of Life on Stage


BRUSSELS — Few memories of Europe are etched more vividly in a visitor's mind than those of its magnificent plazas and piazzas: Venice's Piazza San Marco, the Plaza Mayor of Madrid and Salamanca, Vienna's Heldenplatz, the sweep and majesty of Paris' Place de la Concorde.

Yet these and many other famed squares tend to be exquisite set pieces, reflecting in their beauty a certain uniformity of style and era.

Brussels' stunning Grand Place seems more like a sparkling Christmas tree hung with a fanciful melange of medieval, Italo-Flemish, Renaissance, Baroque, flamboyant Gothic and other architectural styles characteristic of the ancient Guild Houses that line the square.

On first walking into the Grand Place, Jean Cocteau, the French author and playwright, proclaimed it "the richest theater on earth." Some of the colorful performances against its magical backdrop are the daily flower stalls set up on the cobblestones of this medieval marketplace, perhaps a bird or flea market in one corner, other lively happenings of some sort going on year round.

Brussels has, for some reason, never really captured the imagination of many 20th-Century travelers in the same manner as other European capitals, being thought of mainly as a commercial crossroads (which it has been for a millennium) and the rather colorless administrative center for the emerging European Community. Nothing could stretch the truth more.

Visitors will enjoy walking from the Grand Place into the surrounding warren of narrow streets, with their astonishing array of quaint buildings and superb restaurants. Visit the Museum of Ancient Art, which brims with Flemmish-Belgian masters and the earthy works of Peter Breughel. Then there's Mannekin Pis, the renowned little bronze boy who has been relieving his remarkable kidneys in public for all to see since 1619.

In many ways, Breughel's down-to-earth paintings exemplify the pragmatic locals: taking everyday life with a grain of salt and an almost total lack of pretension, resigned to life's vagaries yet determined to enjoy it to the fullest.

Life for Belgians hasn't always been so easygoing. For 10 centuries the country has been a battleground for half the barbaric hordes, crowned heads and chancelleries of Europe, all bent on conquest of this peaceful and bucolic land. Napoleon finally met more than his match in the intrepid Wellington, a few minutes south of Brussels on the rolling farmlands of Waterloo, and the face of Europe was forever changed.

Brussels deserves at least two days for any serious visitor, and since Belgium is such a small country, the lovely towns of Brugge, Gent and the villages of the Ardennes Forest are little more than an hour's train ride away.

With the dollar continuing its scary dive, this town--like most of Europe's big cities--is sure to send more shock waves through your travel budget. And may we suggest late spring to late fall are best times for a visit, with the dead of winter being altogether inhospitable to man and beast.

Getting settled in: Not too long ago, Brussels was rather hotel-poor, particularly in the moderate-cost category, but things have been looking up of late. Hotel Arlequin, a short walk from the Grand Place, is a small hotel garni (breakfast only) that's a bit difficult to find but worth the effort. You enter its white marble lobby from a little shopping gallery. Bedrooms are neat and contemporary, and there's a bright breakfast room and bar, and lots of good restaurants nearby along Rue des Bouchers and Rue Dominicains.

Novotel, like all of these hotels, is also very central and convenient to shopping and sights. This one is a fairly recent addition, a stately building in 16th-Century Spanish style but modern within. Bedrooms have all the big-hotel amenities, full restaurant and bar. Novotel is also convenient to the central railway station.

Hotel Ibis, on the same square as Novotel, is a notch down in cost yet has most of the same comforts and conveniences. The Ibis chain isn't noted for the warmth of its interior, being more a modern, utilitarian operation.

Regional food and drink: Belgians claim that their food is the equal of their French neighbor, a lofty height it certainly rises to often, but menus still have a Gallic flavor and there are few if any typically Belgian dishes popular outside the country.

They also share a love of waffles ( gaufres ) and mussels ( moules ) with the Dutch, a craze for the latter approaching unbridled passion. Although they are most succulent from September through December, you'll find mussels almost anywhere year-round, usually in portions geared to trencherman appetites.

North Sea shrimp, fresh water crayfish and countless dishes of tender leeks are all staples, and the Belgian French fry rivals its namesake in glory.

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