Olga Polizzi is in her element. "Just look around you - isn't it beautiful!" she exclaims. The director of design, who is also Sir Rocco Forte's sister, is happily surveying the handsome Flemish architecture that surrounds our sundowner spot after a hard afternoon shopping for antiques.
Having left London mid-morning on Friday, it is amazing that I've had time to be whisked around the city's chicest spots by Polizzi, and that we've still found time to sit and watch the locals strolling by.
It's October, yet on the cobbled streets of Brussels' chic Sablon district, outdoor tables are filled with relaxed, smiling people soaking up the last sunshine of Europe's Indian summer. Model-types sip fruit beers from odd-shaped brown bottles. Well-groomed women wearing clothes by local designers such as Ann Demeulemeester, Xavier Delcour and Olivier Theyskens, sip champagne from flutes. Smart elderly couples walk dogs, popping into the chic Pierre Marcolini store for one of his smart black boxes of chocolate, or into the Claire Fontaine delicatessen for bread or quiche. It's fashionable and buzzy, a characterful mix of old-style European sleekness and the eccentric quirkiness for which Belgians are known. And precisely why Olga Polizzi chooses to come here for her twice-yearly antique-buying trips.
As one of Lord Charles Forte's six children, Polizzi was brought up surrounded by beautiful objects. Meals were sometimes taken at the Waldorf, which Papa owned. Homes were filled with antiques and art. "And I have to admit, I'm a shopaholic," she says. "It's lucky my job is to find beautiful things for our hotels, because it gets it out of my system. I can buy and buy and buy, and still have another 80 rooms to fill!"
While many hotel chains are happy to fill each room with the same furnishings, art work and accessories, Sir Rocco Forte and his sister are determined to give each of his 11 hotels a very individual atmosphere. "They should feel like the country in which they are based, not like some clone," says Polizzi, with passion.
Which is why, once again, she's in Brussels. "I'd always thought that it was this boring, bureaucratic city with nothing going for it," she says. "Which is totally wrong. It has got beautiful architecture, really friendly, relaxed people and delicious food. It has more Michelin-starred restaurants per square kilometre than any other city in Europe. And it has antiques from all over the world. If you need French art-nouveau pieces, you'll find them here. Or German art. Or Italian sculpture. Or bits of old English pottery. Or African masks. There's a wonderful range, which, I have to say, makes buying much easier."
Over the past few years, Polizzi says that she has "scoured the city", walking up and down its streets, befriending antique-shop owners and trawling markets to find pieces to fit specific spaces in her brother's rapidly expanding empire. Hence her specific hit list this afternoon: a mix of art galleries, antique emporia, and linen and china shops to restock on pieces she's already bought.
The area in which she spends the most time - and not only because of its proximity to the group's Hotel Amigo - is the Sablon district. Fifteen minutes' walk from the hotel, it dates back to the 17th century when there was a need to create housing for the wealthy nobility around the English-style Notre Dame du Sablon. The hilltop square and its surrounding streets are packed with magnificent buildings, with quirky shops on the ground floor and massive apartments above. Other than Emporio Armani, most of the shops are Belgian, one-offs and characterful: a tribal-art gallery next to a wood-panelled wine shop, a pâtisserie alongside a chic, contemporary interiors shop.
On Saturdays, from 10am to 5pm, and on Sunday mornings, the area is particularly lively thanks to the antique market that springs up beneath 75 or so green-and-red striped canvas-covered stands on the Place du Grand Sablon, below the church. It is here, says Polizzi, that she finds unusual pieces for the hotels: a silver tray for a suite, pottery and glass pieces, and the pair of African masks that she has placed in the Amigo's foyer. While some of the marked prices are as high as those in London, she admits, dealers are nearly always open to haggling. And Brussels, she says, is "generally far less expensive than London - I bought a lamp around here for exactly half of what I paid in Pimlico for an identical one".
A silver platter, marked €35 (£25), I eventually knock down to €25 (£18). A doll-sized wooden mannequin comes down €20 (£14) to €60 (£43). There are stags' heads, zebra skins, china, glass, jewellery of both the costume and valuable variety. And, of course, all manner of art works, from contemporary painting to ancient sculpture. "The trick is to scan the stalls quickly for what you want," Polizzi says. "Sometimes you find treasures, other times there's nothing."
She walks the cobbled streets determinedly, sensibly clad in low-heeled pumps. The one place she always finds something, she says, is Emery & Cie. It's the brainchild of an architect, Agnes Emery, who wanted to create a space in which to celebrate the work of craftspeople making pieces using traditional techniques. The shop, covering four storeys in three tall, thin town houses, is eclectic, to say the least. Every available space is used, with objects often being displayed in room-sets. The ground floor is a maze of tiles from all over the world: Moroccan zelliges, replica Turkish izniks, tiny Italian-inspired floor tiles, traditional Fez pottery. Upstairs, there's a room full of wrought-iron four-poster beds, and a dining room to show off elaborate contemporary chandeliers. Bedrooms are hung with silk-screened wallpaper, draped in organdie, and painted with Emery's own range of paint, in vibrant green, Flemish grey, aubergine.
It's here, Polizzi says, that she found inspiration for the colours in her own hotel, Endsleigh House, a boutique establishment in Devon ("I love the way the Flemish use grey paint on woodwork: it's understated but so beautiful"). At Emery, she also found lamps and tiles embellished with fish for her Cornish hotel, Tresanton; ceramic bowls for the Amigo, and mirrors on which she hung antlers at the Balmoral in Scotland.
Getting things back to the UK is not, she says, difficult or expensive. Most shops have their own delivery service, or can recommend a company to transport purchases straight to your doorstep. The company * *she uses, Philippe Vanreck, delivers to London every Tuesday, charging about £100 for a large, wrapped piece of furniture.
That morning, she'd been shopping with her interior-designer friend Annie Waite, who has worked with Polizzi on hotels for more than a decade. She had bought a massive 1930s sink from Philippe Lange, a furniture expert and restorer on Place de la Justice. For those with Forte-sized wallets (the sink, while enormous and undamaged, was €1,000/£714), Lange has hundreds of square feet packed with 20th-century treasures, particularly by designers (predominantly Belgian) from 1900 to the Sixties. In the back of his industrial-style space, 1950s post-office shelves stand beside a pair of original Serrurier-Bovy chairs (also to be found in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris). In the window there's a perfectly restored pair of rosewood-veneer sideboards (€3,500/£2,500). And he's in the process of restoring a rosewood table, painstakingly inserting tiny pieces of ancient veneer that he has saved specifically for delicate projects such as this.
Polizzi says that he is marvellous at finding one-off pieces for specific spaces. But you have to be quick, she advises, or they go. "When I think of what I've missed out on, by pondering too long..." she sighs. "And one rarely regrets things one has bought. Just things one hasn't bought."
With that in mind, we head off to a gallery where she and Annie have spotted an extraordinary installation of about 200 doll-sized figures made of papier mâché. "Wouldn't they be fantastic in a big modern library?" she enthuses, trying the doorbell. It's closed. But there's a phone number printed on the door. "And it's Belgium, so people don't mind you ringing to see if they could come down," she says, airily.
Which, of course, the owner of Galerie d'Agata does immediately - to his benefit. The figures are not bought. "Can you imagine having to dust those every day in a hotel? It would be hell," says Polizzi, rolling her eyes. But Annie Waite spots a painting in the contemporary gallery by the German artist Henrik Wolff for €3,300 (£2,350), an abstract that looks like a grey and cream surface of water radiating concentric circles. "That would be perfect, just perfect, for the Munich restaurant, don't you think?" Polizzi enthuses. "Yes, this one we will definitely have. Definitely."
A few shops along, they spot something else among the 20th-century furnishings: a terracotta head of a creature that looks like something, Polizzi observes, created by Cocteau, and which radiates light from its eyes when a bulb is inserted. That, she decides, will make a good feature in any of the new hotels, and at €250 (£179), isn't expensive. Ditto an ivy-shaped plate. "We should have kept all our stuff from the Seventies," she sighs, picking up a piece of Poole pottery. "Now we have to pay a fortune for it."
Not all of the shops offer quite the same bargains, as we discovered at the Galerie J Visser, in an elegant, pressed-steel-ceilinged house built by the great Belgian architect Victor Horta in 1894. It contains pieces so old that (to our horror) there are still pieces of ancient mummified finger attached to two of the rings, and whose prices, the owner says, "are negotiable, depending on which museum wants them". Roman pieces whose prices, apparently, only collectors would consider, lie on shelves. Brightly painted masks hang from the walls. "African art is still very much part of Belgian life, because of the colonial links, so it's not unusual to see African art in homes and hotels here," Polizzi explains.
Next door are Tom and Sofia Desmet, who take visitors by appointment only and are expecting their English friends. This is clearly a place where one doesn't impulse-buy. My eye was caught by a row of Roman marble urns, positioned grandly on plinths. The elegant space is also temporary home to, among other beautiful pieces, a set of Louis XIV dining chairs, a gracious chaise longue, and a marble-topped, 16th-century carved chest of drawers (which, I'm discreetly informed, is priced at €9,000/£6,428). The last time Polizzi visited the couple, she says, it was at their house in the country. "That's when you realise what incredible taste the Belgians have," she says. "In their homes, they have a sense of colour, shape and design that's so crisp: a clever mix of contemporary and ancient that somehow works."
It certainly works in another shop, in which Polizzi admits she must have bought "dozens and dozens of items". It is owned by Michel Lambrecht and is thronging with design-savvy shoppers hoping to snap up one of the Belgian's recycled pieces. He sells paintings, sculptures and tribal crafts that he has discovered around the world. But the young antique dealer also buys pieces of scrap metal (balustrades or broken pieces of iron railing), rusts them and turns them into lamp-stands and light-fittings with contemporary shades. Polizzi bought "heaps", she says, for Brown's Hotel in London. But then, that's what Lambrecht is clever at - displaying pieces that would look beautiful in both a contemporary and an old-fashioned home. There are small stone sculptures that wouldn't look amiss in a minimalist apartment; cracked white platters framed on the walls in dark wooden trays; piles of misshapen plates; and lime-washed wooden chairs upholstered in rough linen. And, adorning the wall, Miro-esque paintings by a French artist called Jean-Marc Louis.
But Polizzi has bought enough for today, she sighs. She's on an early train tomorrow back to London to see her mother. She hasn't had quality time with her husband, the writer and broadcaster William Shawcross, for days. And she wants quickly to stock up on favourite Belgian products: chocolates by Marcolini and balsamic vinegar from Claire Fontaine ("where I had the best sandwich I've ever had in the world"). She also needs boxes of simple white cups from La Vaisselle au Kilo, which, as its name implies, sells crockery cheaply by the kilogram.
"Isn't that amazing value?" she grins, striding off happily towards a café, where we rest. "I bought nearly 80 heart-shaped coffee cups and saucers to use at Tresanton and Endsleigh for St Valentine's Day, and some jugs, and it wasn't even £50. Now that's what I call a bargain!"
And she's off, once again, at a typical trot, pointing out the sights en route to the hotel, from the gracious covered shops of the Galeries St-Hubert to the splendid 17th-century gabled guild houses on the Grand' Place.
I am booked on the lunchtime train the following day. Before leaving, Polizzi urges me to hit Brussels' flea market on the Place du Jeu de Balle, and the enormous warehouses of bric-a-brac along the rue des Minimes, rue Haute and rue Blaes. These are packed with everything from art nouveau to Rastafarian beads. And she tells me to check out Libeco-Lagae, the long-established linen shop that supplies vast quantities of sheets to her hotels across Europe.
I do just that - and end up almost cursing her for the amount of luggage with which Eurostar bears me back to London. I might have arrived in Brussels with a small bag, but I leave with a heavy Dutch vase, a set of scientific flasks (ideal, I decide, for single flowers), a massive china platter, six misshapen square bowls, chocolate, and, last but not least, a framed Tintin picture. They're not quite what Olga Polizzi would have chosen, but then, I don't have quite her budget. Or, indeed, 11 grand hotels to furnish.
The writer travelled on Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com). The fastest journey from London Waterloo to Brussels takes two hours 20 minutes, while trains from Ashford take two hours or less. Fares start at £59 return.
You can fly from several UK airports to the Belgian capital, with SN Brussels (0870 735 2345; www.flysn.co.uk); BMI (0871 224 0224; www.flybmi.com); British Airways (0870 950 8950; www.ba.com); and Eastern Airways (08703 669 100; www.easternairways.com), which flies from Durham Tees Valley and Southampton.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org).
Hotel Amigo, rue de l'Amigo 1-3, Brussels, Belgium (00 32 2 547 4747; www.roccofortehotels.com). Doubles from €280 (£200), room only.
Pierre Marcolini, 1 rue des Minimes (00 32 2 514 1206; www.marcolini.be)
Claire Fontaine delicatessen, 3 rue Ernest Allard (00 32 2 512 2410)
Emery & Cie, 25-29 rue de l'Hôpital (00 32 2 513 5892; www.emeryetcie.com)
Galerie J Visser, Maison Frison, 37 rue Lebeau (00 32 2 503 4942; www.gallery-visser.com)
Galerie d'Agata, 8 rue J Stevens (00 32 2 512 2506; www.dagadep.com)
Philippe Lange, 2a Place de la Justice (00 32 2 503 4618)
Tom and Sofia Desmet, 16 rue Watteau (fax: 00 32 475 376 050.
Michel Lambrecht, 18 rue Watteau (00 32 2 502 2729; www.michellambrecht.be)
La Vaisselle au Kilo, 8a rue Bodenbroek (00 32 2 513 4984; www.lavaisselleaukilo.be)
Libeco, 10 rue Bodenbroek (00 32 2 502 6302; www.libeco.com)
Daily flea market at Place du Jeu de Balle, rue Blaes, 7am-2pm
Weekend antiques market, Place du Grand Sablon, 9am-5pm Saturdays, 9am-1pm Sundays
Belgian Tourist Office: 020-7537 1132; www.belgiumtheplaceto.be