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Understanding 'gritty' Brussels



Holed up for a week at a budget hotel near the 1,000-trains-a-day Gare de Midi (or Zuid) metro-rail station, surrounded by a matrix of roads and overpasses contemptuous of pedestrians, did not initially endear me to Brussels.

Simply getting the 100 or so metres from my Hotel de France ($62 a night, safe and adequate, with an otherwise mostly asylum-seeking clientele) across a mess of arterials to the station started me thinking the city was "gritty."

Then, a week later, waiting in a train in the station to depart, and witnessing the theft of a backpack from a visiting Asian businessman (who gamely chased the thief down the non-functioning escalators and retrieved bag with passport) didn't improve the image.

Finally, the powerful smell of urine in station nooks and crannies around central Brussels - in some sense a tribute to Belgium's superior beers - capped the description.

That said, gritty isn't necessarily bad and this messy city can be enticing.

Its Grand Place, a vast cobble square lined with flamboyant, early 18 th -century baroque guild houses (think brewers, butchers and tailors) and the immense Hotel de Ville (city hall), surviving from 1448, is one of the great urban spaces of Europe.

Whatever the weather, the square is filled with gawkers. (And on a lightly snowy winter evening, when the old-world lamps and fireplaces in the surrounding bars and restaurants are being lit for the evening, the square appears downright magical.)

Northeast of the Grand Place, beyond the neo-classical Bourse (stock exchange) and Boulevard Anspach, lies the Saint Catherine District, a former fish market of cobblestone lined with cozy neon-lit seafood restaurants and dark-hued bars.

With an ambiance of a village-like older Brussels, Ste. Catherine's architectural gems include the St. Jean Baptiste-au-Beguinage, a small Flemish baroque-style church that once served as a charitable community for single women.

Southeast of the Grand Place, in the Royal Quarter, stand Belgium's Musees d'Art Moderne and d'Art Ancien. In the former are works by modernists like Picasso and Matisse, but also the avant-garde group (Belgian, Dutch and Danish) known as Cobra, and a separate exhibit devoted to much-loved Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte. The d'Art Ancient includes works by the great Flemish Bruegel dynasty.

Just to the south is the Sablon, famed for its antique shops and open-air antique market, as well as the church known as Notre Dame de Sablon, with a towering interior of stunning 15 th and 16 th century stained-glass windows.

There is more to inner Brussels, including the admittedly touristy pedestrian-only Rue de Boucher, where one can revel in a big pot of steamy mussels, and the relatively new Belgian Comic Strip Center, devoted to masters like Herge, creator of the Tintin series.

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