Flemish with a Flourish
The Eurostar gets to Brussels in under three hours, less time than it takes to get to Paris. Brussels may not have the glamour of Paris, but the art and architecture can do for the aesthetic juices what Belgian frites do for the digestive ones.
"Boring Belgium" has had a long run as a cliche, but how could Brussels be boring when, for a start, foreigners from nearly 100 different nationalities make up a quarter of its population? It has two languages - Flemish (a form of Dutch) and French, and in some parts of the city a curious patois has developed, which even includes some Spanish.
Belgium became a nation late. The present territory was invaded and conquered by Spain in 1535, given to Austria in 1715, annexed by France in 1795 and ruled by the Dutch from 1815 until Belgium finally won its independence in 1830. Since then it has been invaded twice by Germany.
Today Brussels is the main seat of European government. NATO and the European Parliament draw in the foreign nationals, who won't reduce their waistlines in a city with a very high restaurant-per-person ratio. The Berlaymont building - the old home of the Common Market, the European Community and now the European Union - is currently covered by a rather fetching duvet while asbestos is removed.
What other visual delights are there to discover in this affluent city? Start at the centre with the Grand' Place, an elegant car-free space surrounded by the Hotel de Ville, with its delicate tower over 100 metres high, and a delightful mix of historical houses.
Nearby is the cathedral of Saint Michel et Sainte-Gudule which is surprisingly light and bright, thanks mainly to magnificent 16th-century stained-glass windows. From there it's a short walk through the simple and geometrical Parc de Bruxelles to two excellent galleries - the Musee d'Art Ancien (up to 1850 or so) and the Musee d'Art Moderne (1850 up to yesterday).
In the first you can find striking works by the city's official painter Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464). Some of his most interesting work was destroyed by Louis XV's bombardment of the city in 1695, but there are plenty left. There's also Hans Memling's famous Martyrdom of St Sebastian and Hieronymus Bosch's Crucifixion. Pieter Brueghel's wonderful evocations of life in 16th-century Flanders, and a rich selection of paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck and Frans Hals should keep you busy for most of a day.
The modern art museum is built underground, but is airy, spacious and restful - with plenty of room for each work, no matter how small. There are delightful sculptures by Rik Wouters and a small selection of witty and skilful works by Rene Magritte.
It's no distance from the art galleries to the Rue de la Regence, at the end of which looms the Palais de Justice - a huge neo-classical structure built between 1866 and 1883 which makes St Paul's Cathedral look restrained. If you feel overpowered by it you can get back to a more human scale by going to the markets in the Sablon area close by, or rest in the elegant, statue-lined Petit Sablon Park.
Brussels is also the birthplace of Tintin - the agreeable, have-a-go hero and his dog Snowy. His creator, the pseudonymed Herge (1907-1983), came from a poorish background but Tintin eventually brought him fame and fortune. There is a Tintin section is the Musee de la Bande Dessinee and some other fascinating cartoon styles, dating from the turn of the century.
The cartoon museum is housed in an Art Nouveau building by Victor Horta (1861-1947), who designed many remarkable houses in Belgium - including his own, a little way out of the city centre. In the very ordinary Rue Americaine it stands out immediately with its distinctly decorative exterior. Inside it is a magical mixture of art, craft and sheer architectural brilliance. A glass roof throws light from the top floor to the bottom of an airy stairwell. The windows and banisters swoop and curl extravagantly. There are unlikely combinations of marble, metal and glass in the halls and stairs, and there's a white tiled dining room with a floor which mixes wood and tiny mosaic tiles. Like so much in Belgium, not to be missed.
Belgian Tourist Office, tel: 0891 887799 (Premium rate)l Eurostar group bookings, tel: 0870 6000 777