BRUSSELS

Cathy Packe takes a day trip to the capital of Europe. It's a city of unexpected treasures, including 500 kinds of beer and restaurants to rival those of Paris
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The Independent Travel
Part of the charm of Brussels is that it is really only a small provincial town which somehow masquerades as a capital city, and it's easy to get around. So having made my way from the airport to Gare Centrale, I strolled over to the Grand Place. The name of this large square seems a dull understatement of the variety of buildings which perch on the sloping cobbles. Originally built to house the craftsmen's guilds, each has a different symbol on its facade. The part I like best is the row of buildings on the left-hand side as you look down the square from the higher level; each is taller than the last, ending up with the Maison des Brasseurs, now the Brewery Museum, which has a gold horseman on the top. Another building, no 9, has a swan over the door - La Maison du Cygne, one of Brussels' most exclusive restaurants, where bookings must be made by fax several weeks in advance. There is nothing about the building that indicates it was once a bar frequented by Karl Marx.

By comparison with other European capitals, Brussels is short on must- see sights. The best-known attraction, however is the 18-inch high statue of "the city's oldest and most famous resident". The Manneken Pis, that small boy peeing, was originally cast in 1619 - why, I've never been able to fathom. It has been broken and remade several times since, and is positioned on the corner of the rue de l'Etuve and the rue du Chene, and protected from its many visitors by iron railings. Even more curious than its mere existence is the fact that it has a wardrobe of costumes donated by a variety of luminaries (beginning with King Louis XV), and housed in the City Museum. Last Friday, unfortunately, the statue was naked. Had I waited until the Saturday, he would have been all done up in the uniform of the French Foreign Legion.

Brussels is not a city whose planners have been kind to it. But some of the former glory of the place is still to be seen in the Parc de Bruxelles, a short walk uphill from the Grand Place. Set out in a formal style, the park is flanked on one side by the Parliament and on the other by the Royal Palace.

Although this is the official residence of the Belgian royal family, they prefer to spend their time in the greener suburb of Laeken and the palace is used only on state occasions. It contains a magnificent collection of Goya tapestries, but is only open to the public in August. The place Royale, next to the palace, has never seemed to be anything more than an open space where the traffic is more chaotic than usual.

From here it is a short walk up the rue de la Loi to what passes for the centre of Europe: the unprepossesing collection of buildings put up to house the bureaucrats of the European Union. It would be hard to imagine a less interesting collection of office buildings, and apart from the curiosity value in seeing where all the European bogeymen work, it was hardly worth the detour.

At this point it was time for lunch. The residents of Brussels claim that there are more (and better) restaurants here than in Paris. While that could be a matter of debate, it is certainly true that it is never difficult to find somewhere to eat. Close to the palace, and often ignored by tourists, is the district known as the Sablons, an interesting part of the city made up of two squares. I headed for the smaller one - the Petit Sablon. The restaurant I chose was at the top end, close enough to the Conservatoire to hear the students practising their violins, and next door to the Egmont palace, venue for many Yugoslav peace conferences. At more than pounds 100 for lunch for two, the Duc d'Arenberg couldn't be described as a cheap restaurant, even by Brussels standards, but it was well worth every franc for sheer novelty value. My quails' eggs and goose liver arrived in three tiny copper saucepans which would not have looked out of place in a child's tea set but with a taste which had nothing in common with nursery food. After the main course, a plate of little meringues arrived which I mistook for the dessert; I had just about finished them when a larger plate, groaning with tiny portions of lemon meringue, chocolate mousse, three fruit sorbets and more, was delivered to our table. The Belgians do not understand the meaning of a light lunch.

After a meal like this, looking at more food felt like an ordeal, but I couldn't leave the Sablons without at least glancing over towards Wittamer. In a city famous for its chocolate, this shop is at the very top end of the market - a fact richly reflected in its sumptuous window dressing. The current display is of pastel-coloured macaroons and a fantastical selection of crystallised fruits.

I set off in search of more conventional art. At the moment there is a wonderful collection of the works of the Belgian artist Paul Delvaux, a surrealist who never allowed that label to be attached to his work, at the Musee d'Art Moderne just off the Sablons on the rue de la Regence. The show begins with some street scenes reminiscent of Monet but at the same time unmistakably Belgian; and then it continues with an extensive selection of his work: trains, roses, women with bare breasts. Apart from the surprising power of some of the paintings, the delight of this exhibition is that it is not too crowded to see properly.

By this point there was no time to pop into one of Brussels' most unexpected treasures, the Musee Victor Horta, a taxi ride away on the rue Americain. This was the home of the Art Nouveau architect whose influence is especially notable in some of the city's bars. One of the best is the Hotel Metropole in place de Brouckere, where the public rooms are spectacular. This seemed like the best place to head for in order to sample one of Belgium's most under-publicised assets.

Although most people know that the country is famous for its beer, few would be aware of the huge variety: around 500 different kinds, most of which are never exported. There was just time for a quick Timmermans before heading back to the airportn

Brussels facts

There are two low-cost ways of spending a longish day in Brussels: flying on Virgin Express, or taking a Eurostar train.

Cathy Packe travelled on a special pounds 67 offer that expires today. Virgin Express (0800 891199) offers day return flights from Heathrow for pounds 80 and from Gatwick for pounds 77.

Eurostar (0345 303030) has a fare of pounds 59 if you book at least 14 days in advance. This allows a stay of just over eight hours in Belgium.

Maison du Cygne, Grande Place 9 (00 322 511 8244).

The Duc d'Arenberg restaurant, Petit Sablon 9 (00 322 511 14 75), closed Sundays.

The Musee d'Art Moderne is open from 10am to 5pm every day except Monday. The Delvaux exhibition runs until 27 July.

The Hotel Metropole, Place de Brouckere 31 (00 322 217 2300).

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