Brussels -- the headquarters of the European Union -- both symbolizes Europe's vision of unity and is a bastion of officialdom, a breeding ground for the regulations that govern and often exasperate the rest of the Continent.
The Bruxellois have mixed feelings about their city's transformation into a power center. At first, the waves of Eurocrats brought a new cosmopolitan air to a somewhat provincial city (though once the seat of emperors), but as old neighborhoods were leveled to make way for office towers, people wondered whether Brussels (pop. 1,050,000) was losing its soul. After all, this city doesn't only mean politics and business. It inspired surrealism and Art Nouveau, worships comic strips, prides itself on handmade lace and chocolates, and serves each one of its craft beers in a unique glass.
Fortunately, not all of Brussels's individuality has been lost in this transition, and though the urban landscape has suffered from wanton development, the city's spirit survives in traditional cafes, bars, bistros, and restaurants. Whether elegantly Art Nouveau or eccentrically festooned with posters, curios, and knickknacks, such centuries-old establishments provide a convivial ambience that is peculiarly Belgian.
The city tourist organization, Visit Brussels (tel 02/513-8940; www.visitbrussels.be), has several offices around the city and their website is also excellent for forward planning. The most centrally located office is on the ground floor of the Hôtel de Ville, Grand-Place and is open daily 9am until 6pm. If you’re up in place Royale, Brussels Info Place (BIP) is open Monday through Friday 9am to 6pm, weekends 10am until 6pm.
There are additional tourist information offices at the Information Desk in the Arrivals hall at Brussels Airport (daily 6am–9pm) and in the main hall at Gare du Midi rail station (daily 9am–6pm). The office at rue Wiertz 43 is for visitors to the European Parliament and is open daily 10am to 6pm. All offices are closed on January 1 and December 25.
For English-speaking visitors, a useful publication is the weekly “Brussels Unlimited,” containing information on cultural events, shopping, and more. Its sister publication, the monthly “The Bulletin,” covers local news and current affairs; it can be found online at www.xpats.com.
As Brussels’s architectural heritage has taken a hit—by unscrupulous property developers, venal local officials, and the unstoppable steamroller of Euro-construction. The phenomenon has been dubbed “Brusselization”—the destruction of beautiful old buildings and their replacement by dreary office towers. But Brussels has been tampered with before, when its wide boulevards were created and the River Senne was covered up in 1871, and with further development by King Léopold II, who tried to transform his city into a style befitting a colonial power, with great palaces and gardens.
Brussels is divided into 19 communes (districts)—[“]Brussels” being both the name of the central commune and of the city as a whole (which comprises Belgium’s autonomous Brussels Capital Region, often called Urbizone). The city center was once ringed by fortified ramparts but is now encircled by the broad boulevards known collectively as the Petite Ceinture (Little Belt). Most of the city’s premier sightseeing sights are in this zone. Around 14 percent of the zone’s total area of 160 sq. km (63 sq. miles) is occupied by parks, woods, and forest, making Brussels one of Europe’s greenest urban centers.
You’ll hear both French and Dutch (well, Flemish) along with a babel of other tongues spoken on the streets of Brussels. The city is bilingual: Bruxelles in French and Brussel in Dutch/Flemish, and confusingly for many a map-reader, street names and places are in both languages. Grand-Place is Grote Markt in Dutch; Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie is Koninklijke Munttheater. Note: Rather than translate place names into three languages in this chapter, the French place names are utilized.
Brussels is flat in its center and western reaches, where the now-vanished River Senne once flowed . To the east, a range of low hills rises to the upper city, which is crowned by the Royal Palace and has some of the city’s most affluent residential and prestigious business and shopping districts. The Grand-Place stands at the heart of the city and is both a starting point and reference point for most visitors.
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