Travel: A revolution in the palace

Within the grand and gorgeous Parc Cinquantenaire in Brussels Simon Calder uncovers a corner of frivolous subversion
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Blank. That is what happens to your eyes and your mind when an Antarctic storm gets into its savage stride, blinding you with a blizzard that is as high in intensity as you are low in visibility. Terror and disorientation in equal measure combine to anaesthetise your brain.

Fortunately, this polar baring of the soul happened last weekend in a grandiose corner of that most bourgeois of cities, Brussels. An hour earlier, I had been ambling comfortably through a palace of opulent automobiles watching the last of the autumn sunshine sparkle and dissolve on the array of chrome. Later that afternoon, I found a fantastical factory, surrounded by figures fixed in plastery permanence.

And all this happened within one half of a palace that you would never suspect of such subversion.

Towards the end of the 19th century, every capital worth its civic salt was seeking to emulate Paris. Belgium was a mere half-century old in 1880, but, to celebrate, the country decided to create an expansive park and palace to the east of the old city centre. The Parc Cinquantenaire ("50th anniversary park", if you will) begins with a flourish on the high ground above the workaday city, and stretches expansively away towards a palace whose wings are mirrored around a triumphal arch. Beyond the formal stone facades, each wing was later awarded a great glass exhibition hall - like a pair of gigantic crystal Nissen huts squaring off against each other. These elegant half-cylinders are straight out of the railway age, with each towering frame gracefully bearing panes heavy with age.

The majority of this confection is now occupied by worthiness. The north palace is entirely a military affair, in the shape of the Musee Royal de l'Armee et d'Histoire Militaire. Most of the southern half houses twin museums devoted to art and history. But then you discover that some fun has sneaked in and refuses to budge. It is as though three wayward cousins of the normally respectable museum family have taken over part of the ancestral home.

When I told a Bruxelloise friend about the plan to visit Autoworld, she thought I was planning to attend a motor auction (this corner of the capital is unfamiliar even to the residents). But the collection that gleams beneath the benevolent glass is priceless - with a few exceptions. The often sorry history of the British motor industry is replayed with a 1938 Rolls-Royce Phantom leading on to a Mini (fair enough, so far), and not one, but two Sinclair C5s (ouch). But these ludicrous electric escapees from the Scalextric track are fortunately swamped by the extravagant curves of steel wrapping around fine wood.

The first car you encounter, next to the portrait of the museum's founder, Ghislain Mahy, is a superb limousine built down the road in Antwerp. Its wooden spokes show no sign of the punishment they must have taken from the cobbles that are endearingly pervasive in Brussels. The Shah of Persia's compilation is yet grander, a mix of aircraft aluminium and timber embellished with elegant Islamic images; even the front bumper is a sublime sculpture in wood.

The museum shifts moods as you move, so you suddenly find yourself surrounded by a gang of hulking black saloons from Detroit circa 1930. There is also a novelty section, where you can find a tuk-tuk straight from the streets of Bangkok (described as "un taxi Thailandais"), a 1950 Amphicar, whose bodywork is surprisingly free of rust despite its aquatic prowess, and the rear ends of two Morris Minors welded together back to back, as used in a bank advertisement.

The transport preferred by modern Belgian explorers of Antarctica is several degrees stranger. You find this out in the adjoining exhibition hall, where Le Dernier Continent has been imported lock, stock and block of ice to temperate Brussels. Amundsen relied on huskies; Scott (tragically) on Manchurian horses and, later, human endurance; these days, the well- equipped Antarctic traveller takes a kite.

A big, broad, colourful kite, mind - sufficient to make the most of those 40mph winds that breeze across the last continent on the average day. Last Antarctic summer, the expedition team could sometimes skim 200 miles a day across the ice-cap.

Your mind, and the exhibition, keeps returning to the heroism of the pioneers, though, and in particular the poignant last page of Captain Scott's journal, which appears here. He must have known the game was up when he burned his laces to make ink to scribble: "It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more... For God's sake, look after our people." His team remains the only group ever to have reached the South Pole on foot. To sample just an instant of the hell of an Antarctic white-out, a smoke generator fills a small room with a smothering, blinding blankness.

After regaining your senses, you will be forgiven for saying "I'm just going outside now. I may be some time". Turn right, and follow the stern magnificence of the palace all the way around until you find the remains of a superhuman plaster torso, his muscular physique cracked and blackened by age. He is guarding the door of the Atelier de Moulages, literally the "plaster workshop". This is a co-operative that turns out hundreds of exquisitely proportioned mouldings. Whether you are looking for a single hand or a writhing couple, you will find it here. The artisans have rummaged around Europe taking casts of great sculptures, so that replica of the Venus de Milo is as close to the real thing as you can get.

With the casual trust that you find so often in Brussels, the public may freely wander around both the ghostly galleries and the workshop proper, where all manner of arcane (and archaic) equipment is used in pursuit of static, fragile beauty. You meet the occupants, human and mineral, of this wonderful Belgian underbelly. Then, escaping the dust that seems momentarily blizzard-like, you may wander out beneath the swaths of ivy clinging to the stout red bricks, breathe deeply as you admire the full range of foliage from pale green to rusty gold, and feel mighty relieved to be within the Brussels ring road rather than the Antarctic Circle.

Simon Calder paid pounds 90 for a return flight on Virgin Express (0800 891199) from Heathrow to Brussels. There are flights to the Belgian capital from 15 UK airports. Eurostar (0345 303030) has a fare from London of pounds 89, if you book at least a week in advance and stay over a Saturday night.

All three attractions are in the south-east corner of the Parc du Cinquantenaire, two miles east of the Grand Place. The nearest metro station is Schumann.

Autoworld opens 10am-5pm daily; admission Bfr200 (pounds 3). Le Dernier Continent opens daily from 10am to 7pm, (Fridays to 10pm), until 3 January 1999; admission Bfr300 (pounds 5). The Atelier de Moulages opens Monday to Friday, 9am-noon and 1.30-3.45pm. Admission is free