Dear Smitty

Our authors write Smitty, our travel editor, about their journeys

(Dale Mackenzie Brown)
smithsonian.com

Our Travel Editor, Smitty

Although British by birth like his namesake James Smithson, Smitty is a gadabout who is at home anywhere from a palace to a rain forest. He sends our writers and photographers around the planet—he'd much rather be sending himself, of course, but someone has to stay home and mind the store. Still, Smitty likes to be kept abreast of what's going on in far-flung places, and so our authors write him letters about their journeys.

Dear Smitty:

Dale Brown Brussels used to leave me indifferent. It doesn't anymore. Headquarters now of both the European Union (EU) and NATO, it has acquired a new sophistication, a new confidence, and is delighted to be known as the political capital of Europe. Despite the glass-and-steel skyscrapers that have sprung up to accommodate the international workforce, it hasn't forfeited its Old World character. Indeed, it seems to have acquired a greater luster and a whole lot more energy than I remember it having in the fifties, when the 1958 world's fair was in full swing and I made my first visit to Belgium.

You have only to go to the Grand Place, Brussels' heart, to feel the city's vibrancy. One of the world's loveliest civic spaces, the large, cobbled, much-peopled square is ringed by tall Gothic and Baroque structures sporting ornamental facades and elaborate, gilded gables adorned with statues. Adding to its charm during the warmer months of the year is a daily flower market, which spreads a colorful living carpet on the pavement. Whenever my wife, Liet, and I come to town, we make a point of sitting at one of the square's outdoor cafés to sip one of Belgium's hundreds of different kinds of beer and take in the scene. First-time visitors might want to try the tart beer Gueuze for an authentic welcome to the city; by some fluke of chemistry, Gueuze can't be duplicated beyond Brussels.

Experience has taught Liet and me that the Grand Place is as good a spot as any to begin (or end) a casual walking tour of the compact center. Behind it is a warren of narrow streets that lead to everything from the Manneken Pis fountain (the bronze statue of a little boy urinating, long the city's symbol) to Brussel's "belly," an area that is crammed with sidewalk bistros and becomes a big, happy party at night.

Close by is one of our favorite Brussels pubs, the convivial A La Morte Subite. Go there for a drink before dinner and see why the high-ceilinged, mirrored room, with its plain, rectangular tables and amber-colored walls, has made it a beloved landmark for more than a century. And it still dispenses the sourish-tasting beer called Morte Subite which, in spite of its name, is not quite as lethal as it might sound—so have a glass.

One of our favorite restaurants is also in the vicinity—Chez Vincent, popular with the Bruxellois since it opened in 1905. We like it for the exuberance of its Belgian clientele, its robust food (steak and fries, with lots of sauce, for example) and its imposing tile murals.

Near the Grand Place as well is the chic Galeries St. Hubert, a serene, glass-roofed shopping arcade dating from 1847. As with all our other Brussels musts, we never fail to visit it, drawn by the 19th-century atmosphere and the luxuriousness of the items for sale, including gorgeous chocolates, displayed in the windows of the chocolatier, Neuhaus, in typical Belgian fashion—with all the artistry reserved in other countries for jewels.

We made a discovery on our last visit to the Galeries, a restaurant called de l'Ogenblik, which means "blink of an eye." It features excellent Belgian cooking in an old-fashioned Belgian setting, right down to the white sand, spread on the wooden floor. As we generally do when dining in Brussels, we ordered fish. In a country where the North Sea is so close, the supply reaching restaurants can always be fresh and is a real treat.

Only blocks from the Grand Place is the area where fishing boats once unloaded their catch (the canal is now filled in); as a reminder of those days, it is home to several outstanding seafood restaurants. Whenever we find ourselves in Brussels, we make a point of having a meal in one of them, but especially at La Truite d'Argent, lured by the quality of its cooking and the charm of the young couple who own it and the adjacent hotel, the Welcome, billed as Brussels' smallest. I should add that we have stayed there—that is, when we have been lucky enough to book a room. I wouldn't call it fancy, but it is warm and cozy. The downstairs breakfast room—where a grandfatherly old man brings the food to table and serves the coffee—boasts an iris-filled Art Nouveau tile mural we love.

Brussels exists on two levels, the flat area comprising the old center, and an upper city. Last time, we hiked up the Mont des Arts, a hill Leopold II cleared of ancient buildings so that the Royal Museums of Fine Arts and the library that now stand there could be built. On the way, we passed the museum devoted to musical instruments, now in its new home, a former Art Nouveau department store known as Old England, with an elegant glass-and-metal front. We had planned an afternoon in the Sablon, Brussels' antiques district, and did not have the time to go into the museum, but on our next visit to the city, most certainly will. Headsets make it possible to hear each of the ancient instruments on display being played, and the restaurant on the top floor, so we have been told, offers good food and a spectacular view of the city.

We enjoy antiquing and consider the Sablon one of the world's best places to do so. Shops along the main and side streets contain a wide range of European treasures, from fine oil paintings to exquisite stemware. When we grow foot weary, we retreat to Wittamer on the Sablon Square, considered Belgium's finest patisserie. There you make your choice from a dizzying array of temptations set out in a gleaming case, to be savored on the terrace outside (weather permitting), with a cup of steaming coffee or cocoa and a beakerful of whipped cream as the sinful accompaniment. Get to the square on a Saturday, and you will be able to attend the open-air antiques market in the shadow of the Gothic church at the end of the square. Here you will find maps and prints, old silver, musical instruments, 19th-century furniture—and perhaps even a bargain.

Not least of Brussels' excitements is the prevalence of Art Nouveau. Noted for its swirling lines and bold plasticity, it flourished during the exuberant era of the Belle Epoque, at the same time that King Leopold was attempting to impose on the city his favorite architectural style, the sedate Beaux Arts. Art Nouveau proved infinitely more popular, at least among progressives, with which the liberal Belgium of the day was filled.

Many of Brussels' drinking holes and cafés still have interiors dating from the period, including Le 19ieme Bar, in the century-old Hotel Metropole, and La Falstaff, with its stained glass Art Nouveau windows and ceiling. Comme Chez Soi, which ranks high on a list of the world's best restaurants, is famous not just for fine cooking but for the quality of its Art Nouveau decor. And if you fancy eating in a town house once visited by Leopold, you can do no better than have dinner at De Ultieme Hallucinatie, which describes itself as a "culinary and architectural dream." But be prepared: here Art Nouveau takes a geometric turn, more straight up and down in line than languidly curvaceous. Perhaps you can convince the headwaiter, as we did, to usher you upstairs to the private rooms, one of which contains a full set of white chairs by the Scots Art-Nouveau designer and architect, Charles Rennie MacIntosh.

A number of other Art Nouveau houses have become museums. Among them is the residence and studio of the great Belgian architect, Victor Horta. This amazing building and its furnishings so whetted our appetite for more Horta that we arranged to tour his masterpiece, the Solvay House, whose rich owner gave the architect carte blanche. Horta responded by designing everything from the telephone to the movable Tiffany-like glass walls for the reception and dining rooms. Upon entering the mansion from an enclosed carriageway, we ascended a flowing central staircase. Here, the woodwork around doorways leading to the rooms surges like a vine reaching out, spreading tendrils, or glides over the walls. The furniture, which the architect also created, seems bent from pliant boughs.

We were quickly becoming Horta fans and made up our minds to see still more of his work, in which the city abounds, but felt that we should seek out first some of the many monuments directly associated with Leopold, whose greenhouses I would be writing about. We made our first stop at the Royal Palace in the upper city, on the broad hill above the Grand Place. The king used it mostly for ceremonies and official business, and lived instead in the royal residence at Laeken, where today Crown Prince Phillipe and his lovely bride, Mathilde, reside. But Leopold being Leopold, he remodeled and enlarged it on a scale matching his ambitions. It stretches a block in length, its facade solemn and earthbound, in marked contrast to the airy lightness of the greenhouses.

We headed next for his Cinquantenaire Arch, which the king erected to mark the 50th anniversary of Belgium's independence from the Netherlands. More perhaps than his other monuments, it demonstrates the lengths to which he went to project national power, no matter how small his kingdom might have been. Intended as an awesome gateway to the city, the arch—spanning three roadways—rears 144 feet high at the head of Avenue de Tervuren, one of the several boulevards Leopold built as part of his plan to turn Brussels into a world capital. Atop the monument is a bronze quadriga, being ridden by the female personification of a triumphant Belgium, arms upthrust. Adding to the arch's drama are the multicolumned Royal Museums of Art and History and the Royal Museum of Army and Military History the king had erected on either side, with the 90-acre Jubilee Park forming a verdant backdrop for all three.

Some six miles away, at the opposite end of the Avenue Tervuren, we found yet another of Leopold's extravaganzas, the Royal Museum of Central Africa. Liet and I got there by tram, which took us through suburbs and a dense beech forest before depositing us at the last stop, a couple of blocks from the museum. Approaching, we beheld a domed building more magnificent than the palace we had seen earlier. The king constructed it to house his extensive collections of African artifacts and examples of the continent's abundant raw materials and flora and fauna. African Museum

The Congolese art on display ranks among the finest in the world, but we could not view the pieces without thinking of the cruelties Leopold's colonial subjects suffered in his quest for material gain. I will not forget easily the crucified black Jesus hanging on a cross in one of the cases. Nor can I get out of my mind the standing, 12-foot-tall brass effigy of Leopold in general's uniform we happened upon in a dark, curtained alcove at the end of a little-visited room. The sheer size of the figure, and the look of omnipotence on the king's face, were frightening.

Next to the statue hangs a full-length portrait of Leopold as a young man, with his famous long nose not yet counterbalanced by the long, broad beard of later life. I found it hard to believe that a fellow as weak looking as this could ever have become such a determined king, much less a monarch who would rule absolutely over a colony more than 60 times the size of Belgium--at an estimated cost of 10 million Congolese lives. Afterward, we needed a walk in the cleansing air of the garden to restore our composure. Then we could go back into Brussels, a world capital at last, but thankfully not the imperial one Leopold long dreamed of it becoming.

Regards,

Dale Mackenzie Brown

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