Channel Ports: It's not only mugs that say I love Belgium: Brussels used to be all bureaucracy and butter mountains. But behind its fading notoriety Stephen Wood found charm, elegance, anarchy and Tintin

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The Independent Travel
There is a smallish city in the south-eastern corner of the Netherlands, close to where it meets Belgium and Germany. By all accounts - and a few years ago there were many - it is a charming place, with a distinguished history and excellent street markets. Few in Britain had heard of it until Virgin Atlantic realised the catchment area made its airport ideal for a 'feeder' service for transatlantic flights and started a shuttle service from Gatwick in 1984.

Travellers with an eye for a bargain climbed aboard - and were well satisfied. One travel editor (whose name and face you can see on page 39) was particularly enthusiastic: 'To know it is to love it,' he wrote. 'The trouble is, hardly anybody knows it.'

Now, everybody knows it. Its name is Maastricht.

Maastricht is not a place any more: it walks, talks and does things. Like Madison Avenue and Fleet Street, Maastricht has become one of geography's animate objects. A few Sundays ago it went to France and split it down the middle.

Brussels, too, used to do things. It created butter mountains, glorified bureaucracy and gave asylum to Sir Leon Brittan. But although the city's tourist office continues, unwisely, to promote Brussels as 'The heart of Europe', everybody knows that the EC has had a viscera transplant: all its symbolic organs, from heart to spleen, now reside in Maastricht.

This is greatly to the advantage of Brussels, which, thanks to the Maastricht effect, is reverting to just being a place. And what a place: a historic centre that most northern European cities would die for (if they were alive enough), a street of late-night restaurants that makes Naples look sedate, an archive of 19th- and early 20th- century architecture that includes some of the greatest works of Art Nouveau and the early Modern Movement - plus Tintin and a little boy taking a leak. Brussels has everything.

What attracted me to the city was none of these things; rather, it was the medical faculty of the University of Louvain, out to the east. This collection of buildings by the Belgian architect Lucien Kroll, is a permanent monument to the 'Permanent Revolution' of 1968. The student revolt of that year never got much beyond the plan to destroy the institutions of bourgeois society, and it is hard to think of any artefacts of the period that haven't been consigned to the Oxfam shop or the back of the record collection. Except for what Kroll called his 'Soft Zone', at the centre of the Louvain faculty.

On the metro ride out from the centre of Brussels, the stations all conform to a familiar European subway style, with piped music and wipe-clean surfaces, until you reach Vandervelde. This, the last station in the tunnel, has a huge trompe-l'oeil painting on its upper walls and ceiling, allowing passengers to look up out of their hole in the ground to an idyll of fields, farms and blue skies above. But when the train actually emerges from the underground it enters a bizarre cave, with concrete tree trunks shoring up its richly-ornamented ceiling, and wild flowers growing knee-high on either side.

I was expecting this, because I'd done my Kroll homework, but it must catch a few people unawares. The metro stops in the middle of the 'soft zone'; Kroll designed its station with the help of his wife, Simone, who painted the flowers on to the glass walls. The station, a psychedelic stop on a commuter trip, lived up gloriously to expectation. But the faculty centre, just as familiar from photographs, was a terrible disappointment.

Kroll, who was chosen (by the students, of course) for the project in 1969, once said that he did not want it to be completed. What he meant, as anybody in the late Sixties would know, was that the soft zone should be organic, endlessly evolving as its community evolved, just as the buildings' interiors were flexible enough to adjust to changing needs.

He need not have worried about completion: years after he was fired (by the university authorities, of course) you still step out of the metro on to a muddy building site. But evolution has not improved his original buildings. One can still feel the idealism of the town hall, its facade beginning as a pile of rocks, flowing upwards into brickwork and then modern panelling as if successive generations had built on their forefathers' foundations; and the medical centre, which seems to have been put together by builders who didn't speak to one another, remains touchingly anarchic.

But Kroll's vision has been submerged beneath fag packets, beer cans and bureaucracy. The university authorities cleared away Kroll's landscaping, which was designed to give natural vegetation a fighting chance of reclaiming the entire site, buildings and all, and replaced it with something more orderly and municipal; the public responded, in the traditional manner, with litter. The only visible development of the buildings themselves is decay.

Before taking the metro back to town, I walked around the perimeter of the medical faculty and came across a small group of early Modern Movement houses, built in the Thirties, an era when rationalists believed that architecture could improve people. Neatly rendered, they were in ludicrously good condition, their gardens squared-off and well tended. All around the metro station were the already decaying buildings of an era 40 years younger, when idealists believed that people could improve architecture.

You can tell from a glance at the tourist office guidebook that Brussels has enough distractions to take your mind off a serious disappointment. It lists 97 museums, before moving on to 'Permanent Exhibitions and Visits'. Here is a small sample of the subjects that Brussels regards as worthy of serious study: bookbindings, brewery, fencing (the sport), historical figurines, the Forest of Soignes, cardiology, comic strips, Gueuze (a type of beer), the Belgian author Camille Lemonnier, locks and keys, railways (three museums), 'Spontaneous Art' and X-rays.

The Gueuze museum turned out to be not a museum at all; it's the last artisan brewery in Brussels. The curious beer made there is, as Michael Jackson explained in last Saturday's Weekend, naturally fermented - which is to say that rather than introduce special yeasts, the brewers just let the dust of Brussels, with its active microbes, fall into the huge tank in the loft where the soup of wheat, barley and hops is left to cool.

The Cantillon Brewery invites visitors to see the building where this ancient and rather foul process takes place because the beer also tastes rather ancient and foul. Modern palates, used to sweet and light processed beers, usually reject Gueuze, which the Cantillon admits is 'a little acid-tasting'; so rather than go the way of all the other artisan breweries in Brussels, this one decided to teach people to like Gueuze.

You can sample the benefits of this delightful education as you leave - a foaming glass of Gueuze. I didn't like to tell them, as I gingerly sipped the stuff, that there was no need to go through the long, ancient ritual to make it. You could get the same effect by mixing a bottle of light ale with half a pint of Sarson's vinegar.

The comic strip museum is hardly a museum either. To say that the Waucquez Warehouse, which houses it and was designed by Europe's leading Art Nouveau architect, Victor Horta, has been lovingly restored would be too polite - here was an unnatural passion at work. Its sweeping, ornate curves of glass and warped iron are reduced to containing endless panels of comic strips and little tableaux, displays and environments which make not very much out of not very much. This is clearly a very un-Belgian attitude, for a lack of proper respect for comic strips implies an equivalent lack of respect for a national hero.

There are times in Brussels when the place is so odd that you half expect Jeremy Beadle to pop out wearing a Belgian beard and announce that 'You've been framed]'. Like when you stare at the window display stacked with mugs bearing the slogan 'I love Belgium', or step into a shop that specialises in metal figures of a

little boy whose penis has, in a kinky way, been replaced by a corkscrew.

But the most consistently unnerving phenomenon is the devotion to Tintin. The tourist office guidebook suggests, in the section on 'Civil buildings/Sites/Monuments', a trip out to the suburbs to the Centre Culturel et Artistique d'Uccle. Why? Because it has a bronze statue of Tintin and Snowy. The book adds, presumably because such a serious subject demands it, a note on the statue's provenance: 'Previously in the Park of Wolvendael', it says.

The comic-strip museum's bookshop offers an apparently serious motivational analysis of Tintin, and a series of reproductions in which the young reporter turns up in famous paintings, most successfully Edward Hopper's The Nighthawks. I also noticed a volume entitled La Vie Sexuelle de Tintin which, to judge from the cover art, should lead the RSPCA to intercede on Snowy's behalf.

I realised later that the fixation with the boy taking a leak is even stranger. But that was after a Saturday night in Brussels - itself a strange experience for someone who had been led to believe that Belgium was boring.

It was a wet Saturday night when I set out to find somewhere to eat. This was a problem only because every inviting restaurant turned out to be a bar. Those romantic, idealised Paris brasseries that serve as every young designer's model for a new restaurant in Soho, actually exist in Brussels, but they are places to drink rather than eat. To the east of the main square, Grand' Place, is the famous one, A La Mort Subite; but the historic centre of the city is littered with high-ceilinged bars, furnished with wooden benches and chipped marble table-tops.

The obvious place to get a meal, it turned out, was the rue des Bouchers - which is Paris on the Gene Kelly model. Restaurants crowd in on the narrow street, bright lights blaze, waiters scurry. The Brussels climate is far from suitable for evening meals al fresco but the commitment of the diners to the spectacle of pleasure is such that each restaurant has to have a huge canopy outside, slung with overhead gas fires to keep the customers warm.

The queue waiting in the rain for a table at Chez Leon put me off eating at the classic rue des Bouchers restaurant. Instead, I popped around the corner to eat.

Later, as I walked back to the hotel, I happened to pass the Manneken-Pis, the statue of the little boy with a fountain where his corkscrew ought to be. A small crowd was watching as this ghastly little figure - to call it kitsch would be to glorify it - added to the dampness. The guidebook explained that the 17th-century bronze statuette embodied 'the irreverent spirit of Brussels', that it had been kidnapped by the English in 1745 and two years later by the French, and that its wardrobe contained 518 items, the first costume presented by the Elector of Bavaria in 1698. It didn't explain why anybody thought it was worth looking at.

The next day, out of a sense of duty, I went back to photograph it. A crowd of schoolchildren turned up, and immediately knelt in supplication, hooting with laughter as they prostrated themselves in front of the little bronze Allah, dressed in his sailor's outfit.

The travel company, Time Off, which specialises in short breaks to European cities, reports that it takes 10 times as many people to Paris as it does to Brussels. The Maastricht effect should change that. Now that Brussels isn't the heart of Europe any more, it can go back to being the capital of Belgium - which is bad news for boring old Paris.

Everybody knows Notre-Dame, La Coupole, and the Louvre. Who knows Poelaert's staggering Palais de Justice in Brussels, which makes Haussmann's Paris seem like a row of beach huts? Who has had a drink at the cafe Falstaff, an Art Nouveau spectacle opposite the Bourse which took 13 years to build? Who has been to the Sewer Museum at the Porte d'Anderlecht? OK, forget the University of Louvain - but you must see Victor Horta's house (1893), a paradise where even the skirting boards are beautiful enough to make you a bit weepy; and the Palais Stoclet (1905), a marble- lined mixture of mausoleum, Odeon cinema and private house which is, so Nikolaus Pevsner said, the 'magnum opus' of the great Viennese architect, Josef Hoffmann. Brussels is closer than Paris, too.

I should have bought one of those mugs: 'I love Belgium'.

Getting there British Airways and Sabena fly daily from Heathrow (return fare from pounds 115), Dan-Air from Gatwick (from pounds 104, to the end of October), Air UK on weekdays from Stansted (from pounds 115), Brymon/Sabena Monday-Friday from London City Airport (from pounds 125). The nearest cross-Channel port is Ostend, served by P&O from Dover (0304 203388): a three-day return for a car and two adults with up to three children costs from pounds 110. Time Off's short breaks to Brussels from London cost from pounds 156 for two nights (one-star hotel, restricted flights) to pounds 573 for seven nights (luxury hotel, scheduled flights); also departures from Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds/Bradford, Manchester and Newcastle.

Accommodation Brussels has as many hotels as you would expect in a capital city. Details from the tourist office, which is just off Grand' Place at 61 rue du Marche-aux-Herbes (010-322 513 0750).

Museums The Gueuze museum reopens today for the brewing season; guided tours Bfr60 ( pounds 1.20), 10am-5pm Saturdays, weekdays by appointment, 56 rue Gheude in the Anderlecht district. The Belgian Comic Strip Centre is at 20 rue des Sables; open 10am-6pm daily, 150Bfr ( pounds 3) entrance. The invaluable Brussels Guide and Map, listing all 97 museums, is available from the tourist office.

Further information Belgian Tourist Office, Premier House, Gayton Road, Harrow (081-861 3300).

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