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Special Travel Issue

A New Zing In The Brussels Zeitgeist

The City Of Old-world Charms Has Been Revitalized, Thanks To Cosmopolitan Folk Pulled In By The European Union

October 13, 2002|SUSAN SPANO | Susan Spano last wrote for the magazine on the Seychelles Islands.

A Gray cloud used to hang over Brussels. You could see it in the fall as rain and wind blew in from the North Sea, but it was there on those rare sunny days as well.

That was what I thought when I spent a weekend in the city about a decade ago, and afterward the impression persisted. Brussels was the butt of jokes. Too boring, bourgeois and buttoned-up for bons vivants, it was perennially bypassed on the grand tour. It was a place where people drank beer instead of wine and ate horsemeat pot au feu. It was an hour and a half by train and light years away from Paris.

"Small country, small people," said Leopold II, the king of Belgium from 1865 to 1909.

Old Leopold, who was wrong about many things, would stroke his beard in consternation to see today's Brussels. It was never that dull to begin with. It's still the capital of a small country tucked between France and the Netherlands, but it's also the headquarters of the European Union, the collection of 15 European countries that together boast the second-strongest economy in the world. The cloud over Brussels is lifting to reveal a city changed by corporate and political players drawn to the burgeoning EU. These well-heeled, polyglot, cosmopolitan people, who may wish they'd been assigned to posts in London or Paris, are putting some zing in the city's zeitgeist, whether they know it or not.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 10, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Architect's studio -- In "A New Zing in the Brussels Zeitgeist" (Los Angeles Times Magazine, Special Travel Issue, Oct. 13), it was incorrectly stated that architect Victor Horta's home and studio are located on Avenue Louise. His home and studio are now part of a museum on Rue Americaine.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 24, 2002 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 4 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
In "A New Zing in the Brussels Zeitgeist" (Special Travel Issue, Oct. 13), it was incorrectly stated that architect Victor Horta's home and studio are located on Avenue Louise. His home and studio are now part of a museum on Rue Americaine.

When I went back in early September to spend two weeks with my sister and brother-in-law, I could hear evidence of the transformation on the streets where almost everyone, it seems, speaks several languages. Brussels has started to spruce up its manifold shaggy parks and pay long-needed attention to its architectural masterpieces, which go well beyond such famous tourist attractions as the Grand Place. In trendy neighborhoods such as Uccle and Ixelles, distinguished old townhouses and apartment buildings with Art Nouveau flourishes are being renovated to make room for the EU crowd. And on virtually every corner, intimate new restaurants, cafes and bistros are opening with menus that make the celebrated mussels and fries seem about as inventive as meatloaf. Candles flicker, people linger and windows fog as the rooms heat up with high spirits and conversation.

Those who think of Brussels as a blank-faced "Euroghetto" with a handful of washed-up charms should get beyond the Grand Place. They should take the tram down wide, elegant, sycamore-lined Avenue Louise, visit the perfect Art Nouveau ensemble that was the home and studio of Victor Horta, the architect and designer who dotted Brussels with masterworks, and see Leopold II's grand triumphal arch in the Parc du Cinquantenaire, financed by blood money from the Belgian Congo. They should stand back and look again at Brussels, as I did.

It would, of course, be folly to ignore the city's beloved old charms. All roads lead to the Grand Place, a venerable Flemish Renaissance central square and one of Europe's great architectural set pieces, miraculously preserved despite the ravages of time and war. To stand on its cobblestones, surrounded by 16th and 17th century guildhouses, all decorated in a whirligig of gilt and stone, is to take a short course in European history and have your heart lifted.

In the Maison du Roi, a museum on the northeast side of the Grand Place, I saw a huge, lush 17th century tapestry based on a design by Peter Paul Rubens, made at a time when Brussels dominated the European textile industry; a painting of a village procession attributed to Peter Brueghel the Elder that reminded me, in its vividness, of the comic books so adored by the Bruxellois; and a collection of costumes that have garbed Manneken Pis, the city's iconic 17th century bronze statue a few blocks away of a little boy urinating gleefully.

He expresses the earthy sense of humor of the Bruxellois, who, over the years, have dressed him as Elvis, a French courtier, a Japanese daimyo and a Boy Scout. Less well known is his sister statue, erected, out of political correctness, I guess, in 1985. She is pigtailed Janneken Pis, who squats in response to the call of nature in a cul de sac several blocks northeast of the Grand Place.

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