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Brussels: Food, Art, and the EU

Brussels, Belgium
Contains mature topics

Bustling Brussels is the capital of Belgium and headquarters of the European Union. Brussels is cosmopolitan and quirky — from its grand main square, varied cuisine, and fine art museums to its irreverent little-boy mascot.

Complete Video Script

We’re catching one of the frequent trains that zip from Bruges to Brussels in about an hour. Le Grand Place — Europe’s grandest square — is just a short walk from the train station.

Brussels got a late start. Six hundred years ago, it was just a handy place to buy a waffle on the way to Bruges. Then it was given free trade status and its economy took off. By 1830 it was the capital of an exuberant and newly independent country — Belgium — booming with the industrial age. Today, with over a million people, it’s the headquarters of NATO and the capital of the European Union.

Brussels’ Town Hall dominates the square. The fancy smaller buildings giving the square its unique character are former guildhalls with ornate gabled roofs crowned by statues. Once the home offices for the town's different professional guilds (bakers, brewers, tanners, and so on), they all date from shortly after 1695 — the year Louis XIV's troops surrounded the city, sighted their cannons on the Town Hall spire, and bombarded Brussels.

The French destroyed several thousand wooden buildings — but managed to miss the spire. As a matter of pride, Brussels businessmen rebuilt their offices better than ever — all within about seven years. Today, they look down over the square, tall, in stone, and with richly ornamented gables.

The neighboring street, Rue des Bouchers, is Brussels’ restaurant row. Brussels is famous for good eating — serving many cuisines. The city specializes in seafood. The most popular dish: Mussels in Brussels.

For some reason, every visitor has the Manneken Pis on his list. Even with low expectations, this bronze statue is smaller than you'd think. Still, this little squirt is a fun, light-hearted symbol of Brussels.

Traditionally visiting VIPs bring the Mannekin Pis a costume. A nearby museum displays hundreds of his outfits. Today he’s a Venezualian cowboy or something.

For higher art, I like Brussels two greatest art galleries: The side-by-side Ancient and Modern Art Museums.

The Ancient Art Museum, featuring Flemish and Belgian art from the 14th to the 18th centuries, is packed with a dazzling collection of masterpieces by Van der Weyden, Breughel, Bosch, and Rubens… Rubens huge canvases graced palaces and churches far and wide.

The Breughel room takes you back in time. Flemish artists like Pieter Breughel the Elder were masters of everyday detail.

In his Census at Bethlehem, Breughel gives us a bird's-eye view of a snow-covered village near Brussels. It’s full of life — kids throw snowballs and sled across the ice and men lug bushels across a frozen lake while a crowd gathers at the inn for the census. Into the scene ride a man and woman — it's the carpenter Joseph leading pregnant Mary, looking for a room. Breughel deftly synthesizes religious scenes and slice-of-life detail in a local landscape — far from the Holy Land.

Pieter Breughel’s the Elders’ son, Pieter Breughel the Younger, was a fine artist in his own right. In this painting, The Struggle between Carnival and Lent, we see a classic battle between feasting and fasting. The robust figure of Carnivale jousts with the haggard figure of Lent. Overlooking the square the tavern and the church compete as a refuge for mortal souls.

The attached Museum of Modern Art gives an easy-to-enjoy ramble through the art of the 19th and 20th centuries: from neoclassical to surrealism and beyond.

The Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte used his training in advertising to push our buttons with a collage of bizarre images. He paints real objects with camera-eye clarity but jumbles them together in new and provocative ways. People morph into animals…or chairs…and stairs lead nowhere. The surrealistic juxtaposition only short-circuits your brain when you try to make sense of it.

And some of Brussels’ top art is edible. Many tourists consider the local waffles a cultural highlight worth traveling for.

While the people of Brussels love their fun taste treats, it’s also a city of sophisticates. As the unofficial capital of Europe, the place is cosmopolitan and hosts businessmen from around the world. Though Brussels (like Belgium) is officially bilingual, most of the people here speak French first. Bone up on bonjour and s’il vous plaît.

Brussels is the political nerve center of a united Europe — only Washington DC has more lobbyists. When Europeans have a gripe…this is where they demonstrate.

And the most impressive part of the city skyline these days is the glassy headquarters of the European Parliament. Europe’s governing body now welcomes visitors.

This busy symbol of European Unity is filled with a cacophony of politicians speaking the full range of European languages. Visitors listen to a political science lesson while viewing the chambers where the members of the Euro-parliament sit. Today hundreds of parliament members representing an entire continent are hard at work shaping Europe’s future.