Gourmet weekends with friends, business trips with colleagues, holidays with my family - I’ve been to Brussels many times, but I’ve always longed to come here alone. So here I am in the Grand-Place, perennial tourist favorite and throbbing heart of Brussels, to study the magnificent Baroque guild houses with my well-thumbed copy of the Blue Guide. The locals revel in clipping the wings of their splendor by referring to them flippantly by their gable decorations: The House of the Fox, of the Donkey, of the Peacock. I’m taking my time comparing Gothic styles. On my right rises the Town Hall with its superb late Gothic façade and on my left the Maison de Roi, housing the Brussels City Museum, a perfect example of 19th-century neo-Gothic architecture that tries to imitate and enhance its ancestor building opposite. I call it a draw.
As I’m wending my way towards the Belgian Comic Strip Center, I emerge into the historic Place de la Monnaie whose grandiose Opera Theater played a big role in Belgian history. It was after an inspiring performance of Auber’s La muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici) in 1830 that opera goers walked out and started the protests that led to Belgian Independence. The nearby Place des Martyrs is dedicated to those patriots with a moving monument to Alexandre Dechet, the composer of the "La Brabançonne," the Belgian national anthem.
One of the side streets leads me to Hotel Metropole, a trad luxe paragon of eclecticism with a French Renaissance entrance, British colonial breakfast room, and Italianate reception. I pop in to have lunch in its Roman-style café, with its excellent value two-course daily menu. I’m following in the footsteps of the famous from Einstein and Marie Curie to Rudolf Nureyev and Paco Rabanne. I’m not a VIP, but the service is such that I’m treated like one.
A few blocks away stands the attractive art nouveau building that houses the Comic Strip Center and, as a big fan of Lucky Luke, the Smurfs, and Asterix the Gaul, I’m quite surprised. There’s a lot to see here, and I’m entertained and educated in equal measure as I skip past cartoons historical, heroic, sci-fi and expressionist, as well as Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck, while simultaneously delving in their history.
The comic strip is a relatively new form of art: the first cartoon character was “The Yellow Kid” whose adventures round the world were published in the New York Journal in 1897. Yet, soon the baton passed to France and Belgium whose graphic artists designed some of the best-loved comics in the world. Brussels is particularly proud of its son, Hergé, who presented the world with Tintin in 1929. Hergé’s detective, whose humorous adventures around the world appealed to the young as well as the young at heart, inspired dozens of comic artists in its wake, many of them unknown outside Belgium.
The comics culture is ingrained deeply in Brussels: the authorities have been commissioning graffiti artists to paint empty walls based on comics since 1991 and there are five statues based on cartoon characters dispersed around the city.
Upon my return, I lose myself in the charm of the Galeries Royales Saint Hubert, two spectacular 19th-century glass-roof arcades (The King’s and Queen’s). In the past you even had to pay to enter this, the most attractive mall in Brussels, if not the whole of Belgium. Nowadays, it’s free and I always enjoy window-shopping in front of luxury boutiques and marvel at the intricate confections of plush patisseries. No chocolates for me now, though, as it’s time for dinner and I want to taste something authentic. I end up at Les Brigittines at Place de la Chapelle, an old art nouveau post office decorated in style under chef Dirk Myny, a veritable scion of Brussels, who cares about freshness, difference, and flair. Their beef tartare with soy sauce and coriander is amazing!
Next day I pass Brussels’s most iconic statue, The Manneken Pis, at the corner of Rue du Chêne and Rue de l’Étuve. The surrounding waffle shops add some native color to this quintessential Bruxellois sight. Today, the Manneken is dressed as a digital avatar straight out of Ready Player One. Further up on the Rue du Chêne there is a whole museum dedicated to the outfits of this irreverent boy statue. Indeed, the oldest exhibit in the museum is a nobleman’s costume donated by Louis XV in 1747.
Next is the antiques market on the Place du Grande Sablon, an all-weather bazaar dressed against the rain and wind by uniform redand green-striped tents. I amble aimlessly, browsing at old maps, engravings, Bohemian crystal sets, ostrich feather hats, ethnic jewelry, Japanese woodcuts, Chinese Nonya vases, 1950s advertising posters, and, of course, first-edition Tin-Tin comics. Tin-Tin is big in Brussels, as you’d expect, with several walls graffitied with the boy detective –on Rue de l’Étuve I’ve just passed a scene from The Calculus Affair.
There is something of a comic-strip kink in the work of Magritte, that most Belgian of artists, for yes, today I’m fulfilling another wish: I’m dropping in at the Magritte museum on Rue de la Régence. I suppose there is a bit of caricature exaggeration in The Empire of Lights, my favorite painting. It depicts a house at night lit by a single street lamp, but under a daylight sky: the effect is both disconcerting, otherworldly and, well, cartoonish. Magritte must have loved it, too, as he produced more than two dozen different versions.
I leave dazzled, promising to return, for there’s no other city in the world where you’ll find people appreciating both the simple and the complex, elevating skill into high art. From the artless culinary pleasure of French fries to the sophisticated assortment of a luxury chocolate box and from the teenage humor of Tin-Tin to the tongue-in-cheek mischievousness of the Manneken Pis, there is something for everyone and more in this European capital laden with explorations.