Belgium's political and commercial center buzzes with a mix of art, history, culture and cuisine.
Lovely Brussels, with its soaring spires, charming passageways and landscaped parks, had quite modest beginnings. Back in the year 580, when the Senne still flowed freely through the Belgian landscape, settlers established a small village and erected a chapel on an unassuming island within the river, surrounded by marshland. (In fact, the name Brussels, derived from Old Dutch, essentially translates to home in the marsh.) Bolstered by its proximity to other riverside cities - Brugge, Ghent and Cologne - commerce increased at a steady rate, and the marshes were gradually drained to accommodate 12th-century urban sprawl.
Later, during the 1300s, walls went up around the city. By the late 1800s, these structures had been largely dismantled and replaced with roads and avenues. The old part of the city, laid out as a well-defined pentagon, is now marked by a ring road, and very little of the original wall remains. The most notable surviving memento is one of the original seven colossal city gates, the magnificent Porte de Hal (Halle Gate), located on Boulevard du Midi.
An 1830 performance of Auber's La Muette de Portici at the Théatre Royal de la Monnaie opera house (www.lamonnaie.be) is historically credited for kicking off the Belgian revolution. This event resulted in the eventual formation of the Kingdom of Belgium, the naming of Leopold I as the new monarch, and the separation of the largely French-speaking Catholic population in the south from the rule of the Dutch King William in the north. A few years later, during a conference in London, Europe's major players officially recognized the country's independence. Today, French and Dutch are the official languages, and public signs are usually presented in both.
Headquarters for NATO and recognized as the center of the European Union, Belgium's capital city is situated within the Brussels-Capital Region (one of three federated regions within the country) and divided into 19 politically separate municipalities. The flourishing urban center offers an exhilarating mix of art, history, culture and cuisine. The birthplace of actress Audrey Hepburn, Brussels also lays claim to Agatha Christie's brilliant and fussy detective, Hercule Poirot, who began his illustrious, albeit fictional, career as a member of the city's police force - and who grew famously impatient with anyone who dared to mistake him for a Frenchman.
Brussels has decreed 2009 as the official year of the comic strip. The Belgian Comic Strip Center (20 Rue des Sables, www.comicscenter.net/en/home) features permanent and special exhibits celebrating all things related to the art of the comic strip. Space is dedicated to the creation by artist Hergé of beloved comic book hero Tintin, the Belgian newspaper boy-reporter who, with his faithful canine sidekick, Snowy, solves mysteries and embarks on numerous adventures.
The Musée Magritte Museum (3 Rue de la Régence, tel 32 2 508 32 11, www.musee-magritte-museum.be), opened in June, pays tribute to the droll mind of surrealist artist René Magritte. In addition to paintings and other works, the collection includes photographs, texts and interviews housed on five separately themed floors.
Brussels is quite serious - and equally sophisticated - about its cuisine. The most important thing to know about Belgian waffles (gauffres to the locals) is that they come in two versions: the Brussels and the Liege. In pâtisseries and cafés throughout Brussels, you'll find rectangular waffles with a honey-brown exterior and plenty of deep nooks and crannies to hold strawberries, confectioner's sugar or your favorite toppings. The Liege style - denser, crisper and sweeter - is offered by street vendors. Themed culinary tours of the city can be arranged through Vizit (tel 32 9 233 76 89,www.vizit.be).
Other local options include moules frites (mussels with fries) and luscious, handmade chocolates (look for labels from chocolatiers Wittamer, Leonidas, Neuhaus and Mary). There are many excellent beers, including Lambic, a Brussels-brewed style produced from local yeasts.
One popular type of Lambic beer is kriek, fermented with sour cherries. There's no scarcity of pubs and cafés - the real challenge is to decide which establishment has the terrace with the best view for watching the bustle of Brussels while you sip.
INFO TO GO
Brussels is served by Brussels Airport (BRU). Rentals and taxis are available at the airport, but since traffic moves uncomfortably fast and parking is at a premium, the better option is the train shuttle (abut $4) departing for the city center every 20 minutes. Visit www.visitflanders.us or www.visitbelgium.com.