Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

A Tale of Two Cities; Steve Race Visits Contrasting Belgian Cities in Search of Beer and Beauty

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

A Tale of Two Cities; Steve Race Visits Contrasting Belgian Cities in Search of Beer and Beauty

Article excerpt

IF THERE'S one thing likely to attract interest in a trip to Brussels it's the words "beer festival" on the invitation. Not just the fact that it involves beer, but also that it's in the capital of the country which brews some of the world's best.

Added to which, the festival is in the spectacular Grand Place, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It seemed just the job for an autumn weekend.

When we arrived, however, reality began to bite. There were a lot of different types of beer to sample, but there was also an awful lot of people with the same idea.

When it dawned on us that the only way to buy any meant queueing for ages to buy tokens, we came up with a much better idea. We could just go to a bar, where the brews available were almost as numerous as those at the festival, and sit in comfort watching the world go by.

So that was what we did, until we realised that we were only in the city for 36 hours, and there was still a lot to see.

You could just wander around and take in the sights, like the Royal Palace and the ornate shopping arcades. But thankfully, there's Brussels Card, which gives free, or reduced admission to hundreds of local attractions.

Being Belgium, there are chocolate and brewery museums. You can take a trip through the city's sewers, if you so wish, or you can see museums dedicated to musical instruments, comic strips, and surrealist artist Rene Magritte.

Or you can jump on the tube and go to the Atomium, the symbol of Brussels, constructed for the World Fair there in 1958, or Mini Europe - the countries of the European Union in miniature. That looks like becoming even smaller before too long.

Brussels was a terrorist target last year, when the airport was attacked by suicide bombers and 32 people were killed. Another bomb went off at Maelbeek metro station. That hit tourist numbers and has affected businesses.

We had dinner at Chez Leon in Beenhouwersstraat. A year ago it was busy all day, every day. Now, business is bad enough for them to have to close one day a week.

Increased security is noticeable, but not intrusive, with armed soldiers on patrol.

Our hotel was just a stone's throw away from the Place de Luxembourg, which houses the European parliament buildings.

Around the area there's evidence of this, particularly in the dwindling number of art nouveau houses which have been taken over by lobbyists, keen to show off their presence in the "capital of Europe".

Poor conservation regulations had led to many streets of these early 20th century buildings disappearing, to be replaced by apartment blocks for Eurocrats, but some spectacular examples still survive.

Just 40 minutes away by train from Brussels is another city, which could easily be in a different world - and century. Ghent is very much as it was hundreds of years ago, and was lucky to escape relatively unscathed in both the world wars of the last century. …

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