The heart of Europe

In my mind, Brussels is a montage: It is the sweetness of its chocolates, renowned and exported all over the world; it is the freedom to choose opportunities and activities; it is the sovereignty of Art Nouveau, where it was born in long-ago 1890 and it is the diplomacy of the multi-ethnic European quarter. We will visit this neighbourhood today to understand its contrasts and habits.

Let’s meet in Schuman Square, better known as Schumanplein, the hub of the European quarter, a melting pot of languages and cultures. Walking along these streets, we will be struck by a multitude of diverse languages, spoken by people of every race from around the world. We will be in the central area of Brussels but, when you think about it, it is actually much more; we are in the middle of Europe. Right in front of us we see an imposing building: the Council of the European Union.

Behind us is a park that at first glance seems endless. This is Jubelpark, or the Parc du Cinquantenaire, a “modest” city park of only 30 hectares. Inside, the first thing we notice is the horseshoe-shaped buildings. In 1880, King Leopold II ordered the construction of a vast edifice that could hold the national exhibition. The goal was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Belgian independence. The arch of triumph, also known as the Arch of the Fiftieth, was built in 1905.

If you appreciate culture, take the time to admire the treasures held at the royal Museums of Art and History.

After our tour of the park, we find ourselves near the Station Merode at Avenue des Gaulois. After just a short walk we’ll see Rue des Francs on the left, and up ahead, we catch sight of the splendid Liberty-style Cauchie House.

To call it a house doesn’t do it justice; it would be better to refer to it as a true work of art. In fact, this villa was built in perfect Art Nouveau style in 1905 by the architect Paul Cauchie; a painter and designer. The house attracts thousands of tourists, who are amazed by the world-famous facade with its allegorical “sgraffiti”.

This decorative technique involves applying layers of plaster of strongly contrasting colours on any damp surface. In this case it is a mural sgraffito, but if two layers of different-coloured coats are applied to a raw ceramic object, it is a sgraffito in ceramic. The work is created by “scratching” the coating, revealing the underlying layer to obtain effects of shapes and colours.

Now we must continue our walk in order to discover the other beauties of this area. First, let’s grab a bite to eat, so we’ll take a 20-minute walk to Place du Luxembourg, home to many small restaurants, bars, beer houses and cafeterias as far as the eye can see.

If you are curious to meet the workers of the neighbourhood, sit yourself down at a table in one of the wonderful cafes adorning the square, which dates back to the 19th century. Behind you is the imposing glass wall of the Parliament, in front of which is a sample of Europe, people of all nationalities conversing in two or three different languages. This is an impressive sight when seen first hand!

Let’s continue our journey to Rue Wiertz 60, to the distinguished Parliament. If time permits, do visit. Besides this building, you can also see the Parlamentarium, the largest visitor’s centre in Europe. This is where decisions and policies that influence our lives in a new and dynamic way are made. Among the attractions is a 360° screen with which you can see the chamber of Parliament, take an interactive virtual tour of Europe to learn more about the member states and read messages left by Members of the European Parliament on a video wall. Entrance is free and the centre provides guides in 23 languages.

To see another beautiful sight in this area, visit the nearby Place Jourdan, a small cosmopolitan world encompassing the cuisines and recipes of all of Europe. During the week, you may see business people and functionaries of the Institutions patiently getting in line at “Antoine’s”, a chip stand that attracts many residents.

In Place Jourdan there is also Etterbeek, a city market comprising of mostly food, flowers and clothing. The contrast between this local market, the cosmopolitan terraces of the European buildings and the “chip shops” in the area such as Antoine’s, is striking.

Our tour has come to an end, but the city holds so many more treasures for us. The next chapter of this splendid voyage could be just about anything.

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