Parliament has found an ideal home in Brussels (Brussel
in Flemish and Bruxelles in French). This inland capital city of
Belgium, bordered by The Netherlands, Germany, France and Luxembourg,
it is a multi-cultural and multi-lingual city at the very heart
of Europe. Indeed, it claims with some justification to be the Capital
Brussels was a thriving trade centre by the Middle Ages. The Bruxellois
have inherited the wisdom of ancestors who lived under Roman, Spanish,
Austrian, French, German and Dutch domination – their country
winning independence in 1830.
Today, Brussels boasts a highly skilled and an adaptable workforce.
Despite the population of Belgium numbering only 10.2 million, with
Brussels itself just some 970,000 strong, the Bruxellois have the
ability to compensate for their small numbers with skilled diplomacy,
compromise and negotiation. These striking traits are followed closely
by a highly intellectual and off-beat sense of humour, underpinned
by a strong sense of the quite bizarre. This may help explain why
the Surrealist art movement, pioneered by René Magritte,
took off in Brussels. A playful and irreverent reaction to life
is also revealed in the Belgian love affair with the comic strip,
popularised worldwide with Hergé’s boy hero, Tintin.
Language is a complex and serious issue in bilingual Brussels, as
well as being a focus of communal tensions. Some 85 per cent of
native Bruxellois speak French as their first language. Ironically,
Brussels is also capital of Flemish-speaking Flanders.
However, the fierce linguistic debate takes a lighter form, with
constant puns and word games forming a complex web. For instance,
while a top-notch restaurant is called Comme Chez Soi
(Just Like Home), a less prestigious establishment calls itself
Comme Chez Moi (Just Like My Home), with more than
a twist of irony.
The image of the city suffers abroad, due to its very diversity,
as well as the self-effacing nature of its quirky inhabitants, too
modest to blow their own trumpet. Brussels has no symbol to rival
the skyscraping Eiffel Tower, aside from the tiny but famed Manneken-Pis,
a statuette of a urinating boy.
The first visit to Brussels, uncoloured by expectations, is therefore
all the more rewarding with narrow cobbled streets opening suddenly
into the breathtaking Grand-Place, with its ornate
guild houses, impressive Town Hall and buzzing
atmosphere, a truly beautiful square.
Restaurants, bars and museums are clustered within the compact city
centre, enclosed within the petit ring, which follows the path of
the 14th-century city walls. The medieval city is clearly defined
by its narrow, labyrinthine streets, making it easy to distinguish
the later additions, such as Léopold II’s Parisian-style
boulevards – Belliard and La Loi
– today lined with embassies, banks and the grand apartments
of the bourgeoisie and close to the glitzy new EU quarter.
The working class still congregate in the Marolles
district, in the shadow of the Palais de Justice,
although this area currently on the up-and-up. New immigrant communities
are settling in the slightly rundown area around the Gare du Nord.
Neighbouring communes, St-Gilles and Ixelles,
draw an arty crowd with their ‘in’ shops and restaurants.
These are worth the trek, if only to glimpse some of Brussels’
finest Art Nouveau buildings, the style being developed by Bruxellois
Victor Horta, the son of a shoemaker.
With a pleasant temperate climate warm summers and mild winters
– and a host of sights and delights to entertain, Brussels
offers far more than just beer and chocolate. The year 2003 marked
the city’s celebration of its cultural diversity – from
its rich architecture to native hero and lyrical singer Jacques
Brel – through a series of cultural events, festivals
and restoration schemes.