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September 8, 2007 3:00 am

Never mind the bureaucrats

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Go beyond the EU ghetto to discover the shambolic, sensual side of Brussels
©Dreamstime

Brussels is not Paris. This brilliant observation came to me one stormy night as I sat beside the industrial Charleroi canal with a small and enthusiastic crowd, taking in a free jazz concert on the sodden remains of the Belgian capital's summer "beach".

This is a city that revels in its lack of pretension so it was little surprise to find a cosmopolitan mix of inner-city North Africans and white eurotrash tapping their feet amid the rain-lashed debris. The city's sewerage system — overwhelmed by the storm — had turned the canal into a foaming and pungent brown stew, but the party went on.

I can't imagine that happening in Paris. While the French capital has its Paris Plage beach laid out along the well-heeled banks of the River Seine, the Brussels authorities long ago decided to bury their own River Senne in a concrete conduit somewhere underground. The city's only visible waterway is a workaday canal. Deprived of a river to provide a sense of direction, Brussels shambles off aimlessly in different directions. Of course it boasts one of Europe's most spectacular squares — the Grand' Place — but after that you are struggling to name many "must-see" tourist attractions.

The Mannekin Pis, the famous pissing boy, is a suitably offbeat statue to sum up Brussels' spirit. But the most common words used by tourists to describe the tiny chap are: "Is that it?" Then there is the Atomium, that monument to the nuclear age, miles out of the centre of town. Recently given a good polish, the aluminium balls gleam out over the city as a reminder of what the future looked like 50 years ago.

All right, there is a good fine-arts museum, a compelling but creepy Africa museum devised by King Leopold II to showcase his Congo empire and a cheerful museum to celebrate Belgium's love affair with strip cartoons, but after that . . .

All of this is worth bearing in mind when choosing your weekend destination on the new, soon-to-be-faster Eurostar link from London's St Pancras station to Paris or Brussels this autumn. But give me the choice and I would go for the Belgian capital — my home for the past five years — every time.

The lack of specific things to see is one of Brussels' biggest charms. Once you've done the Grand' Place, equip yourself with a glass of Chimay Bleue beer on a street terrace and settle back and enjoy the city's laid-back and unrefined ways.

The informality and shambolic nature of the city comes as a surprise to many who imagine the self-styled "capital of Europe" to be an anodyne place inhabited by Eurocrats and dominated by concrete and glass office blocks, a sort of political Frankfurt. Certainly Brussels can do boring just as well as Frankfurt but, thankfully, that is kept largely out of sight in the EU quarter, a ghetto whose spiritual centre is a roundabout — a drab building site known as the Rond Point Schuman. For many business travellers to Brussels, this is the part of the city they know best. And even if they manage to escape this ugly and sterile zone it is usually only for the kitsch baroque around the Grand' Place, including the neon-lit fish restaurants that haul in the tourists around rue des Bouchers.

©Dreamstime

The Mannekin Pis, the famous pissing boy, is a suitably offbeat statue to sum up Brussels' spirit

Its real glory lies elsewhere, in the crooked and shabby streets of Ixelles and St Gilles, the stunning art nouveau neighbourhoods of Schaerbeek, the central African street life of Matonge, or the hedonistic nightlife around the old fish dock at St Catherine.

For me, the best day out in Brussels is little more than an extended pub crawl, appreciating the café life that the city has raised to art form. Because this is Brussels, the authentic 19th-century bar atmosphere you encounter across the city is not some recreation of the past, but is simply the way things have always been.

The legendary La Mort Subite — situated only a short distance from the Grand' Place — is not a facsimile but a real drinking place where Bruxellois and tourists mix to sample a bewildering range of beers and gruff service from matronly staff.

And then there is the food. Brussels of course boasts some of the finest restaurants in Europe, but that is not the point. Everywhere does excellent food and you soon come to understand the city's reputation for combining French food with Germanic portions. The geography partly explains it. Brussels lies on the faultline between northern Europe and the south: the city's region is officially the only part of Belgium where both of the country's main languages — French and Dutch — are spoken. While the two language communities increasingly live separate lives, a love of good food united them.

©Dreamstime

Brussels is home to neighbourhoods containing art nouveau architecture

Roman Catholicism was another unifying factor when the country was born back in 1830 and, although no longer devout, Belgium has a Catholic sensuality and enjoyment of the good things in life often absent in the Protestant Netherlands to the north. To see what I mean, compare a meal in Dutch-speaking Antwerp (in Belgium) and the bland fare on offer across the border in Amsterdam.

It is somehow appropriate in any case that Brussels — which lays claim to serving the world's best beer, chocolate and beer — should have easy access to the confessional box to repent for these guiltiest of pleasures.

So forget the Marais and head down to the Marolles instead. Here you will find everything that is best about Brussels:a huge flea market selling everything from rare African artefacts to domestic trash. The wholecity will be there, so just pull-up a chair, order a beer and a plate of anguilles au vert (eels in green, since you ask) and soak it all up.

George Parker was the FT bureau chief in Brussels from 2002 until last month

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