BRUSSELS, Belgium — Great food, great beer. Great art. All this city really needs is a good-natured international heaping of abuse.
It seems to work everywhere else in Europe. London is assailed for its filth and traffic, Paris for its attitude, Rome for its disorganization. These and other capitals endure everything short of--no, including --bombing. And yet, having their various riches to offer--cathedrals and castles, ancient avenues and venerated gardens--each continues to draw so many millions of tourists that waiters may sneer with impunity and entirely unremarkable hotels may ask $250 nightly. In a World Tourism Organization listing of top destinations, France counted 55.7 million international arrivals in 1991; Spain, 35.3 million; Italy, 26.8 million.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 28, 1993 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 2 Column 5 Travel Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Brussels map--Due to an editing error, in some editions of last Sunday's Travel section a map of Brussels was missing a label identifying the Grand Place square.
And Belgium? Belgium runs far behind the heavy hitters, somewhere under 15 million, derided by the neighboring French for alleged unrefinement, not much discussed by anyone else. Here's Brussels, not only the capital of Belgium but the official capital of Europe, the New World hub of Old World Western civilization, a city alive with 16th-Century spires and the gracefully curving lines of art nouveau architecture. Yet who's impressed? Its burghers operate in obscurity, struggling to bind the 12 unruly nations of the European Community together, satisfying well those travelers who do find their way into town. For their trouble, Brussels and Belgium get overlooked and left out of all those jokes about hell in which the English do the cooking.
It's been 24 years since Americans chuckled at the one Eurojoke this place has gotten in on--the movie "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium"--and even that line played on this place's anonymity. All these years later, we're still casting blank glances at that portion of the map immediately north of France and west of Germany.
Hmm, we think. No leaning towers. No Oktoberfest. No philandering royals . Just a small statue of a urinating child and . . . Generic Europe.
By the millions, American travelers disdain Brussels. By the millions, it turns out, we are in error.
And so to the Grand Place.
Our visitor approaches from the main thoroughfare of downtown Brussels, Boulevard Anspach, and turns east at the Bourse, the stone-faced palace of finances. A horse-drawn carriage idles outside while a violinist saws away for spare change. Farther along, Mercedes taxis and Andean buskers jostle for position in front of the Greek bars and Chinese restaurants. A shop called Euroline vends umbrellas, watches, T-shirts, postcards, chocolates, flags, ties, cuff links, boxer shorts, perfume and all manner of trinkets, each bearing the European community logo of 12 yellow stars on a field of dark blue.
Of the roughly 1 million people who live in Brussels, as many as one in four is said to be foreign-born. Some 15,000 are bureaucratic cogs in the intricate machinery of the European Community, come from their various nations to ease trade barriers, to reconcile currencies, to simplify passport controls. Though the last year has been rocky for the movement toward European unity, the Eurocrats of Brussels are in this for the long haul, and their presence steadily pushes the city to new heights in cosmopolitanism. On the streets downtown, the Belgian national languages of French and Flemish (Dutch, basically) collide with Italian, German, English and so on.
These collisions are accompanied, quite often, by pets. Dogs in particular are welcome almost anywhere in Belgium, churches and most restaurants included. To reach the Grand Place on this day last summer, our visitor steps past a streetcorner settlement of five full-grown Saint Bernards, two or three baby carriages and a tangle of parents and companions. Just beyond them, the center of Brussels gleams and teems.
In the estimation of many old Europe hands, the Grand Place is one of the most beautiful squares on the Continent. Its central area is about the size of an American football field, and the perimeter is crowded with buildings that date to the 17th Century, some earlier. All drip and bristle with ornamentation. Town Hall (which includes an office for tourist information) sends up a 298-foot spire, topped by a 400-year-old weather vane. The 10 buildings that were once medieval guild headquarters stand shoulder to shoulder, the brewers by the butchers, the archers by the boatmen, each earthy profession more elaborately fronted than the last. The King's House, across from Town Hall, holds a city museum. There's fancy stonework, flapping flags and gold trim on all sides. Flower merchants, outdoor cafes, lace shops and artists. A chocolatier. A beer museum. Tides of tourists, workers, performers and locals wash through at all hours.