The European Parliament has found its ideal home in Brussels (Bruxelles in French, Brussel in Flemish). This inland capital city of Belgium, bordered by The Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg and France, is a multi-cultural and multi-lingual city at the very heart of the EU. Indeed, it claims with some justification to be the 'Capital of Europe'.


Belgium celebrated its 175th anniversary of statehood during 2005, but the history of the nation's capital goes back much further. Brussels was already a thriving trade centre by the Middle Ages. The Bruxellois have inherited the wisdom of ancestors who lived under Roman, Spanish, Austrian, French, Dutch and German domination – their country winning independence only in 1830. Today, Brussels boasts a highly skilled and adaptable workforce. Despite the population of Belgium numbering only 10.2 million, with Brussels itself just under a million-strong, the Bruxellois have the ability to compensate for their small numbers with skilled diplomacy, compromise and negotiation. These striking traits are followed closely by a highly intellectual and offbeat sense of humour, underpinned by a strong sense of the bizarre. This may help explain why the Surrealist art movement, pioneered by René Magritte, took off in Brussels. A playful and irreverent approach to life is also manifest in the Belgian love affair with the comic strip, popularised worldwide with Hergé's boy hero, Tintin.


Language is a complex and serious issue in bilingual (French and Flemish) Brussels, as well as being a focus of communal tensions, more of which surfaced in the early part of 2005. Some 85% of native Bruxellois speak French as their first language. Ironically, Brussels is also capital of Flemish-speaking Flanders. However, the fierce linguistic debate also takes a lighter form, with constant puns and word games forming a complex web. For instance, while a top-notch restaurant is called Comme Chez Soi (Just Like Home), a less prestigious establishment calls itself Comme Chez Moi (Just Like My Home), with more than a twist of irony.


Yet the image of the city suffers abroad, due to its very diversity, as well as the self-effacing nature of its quirky inhabitants, too modest to blow their own trumpet. Brussels has no symbol to rival the sky scraping Eiffel Tower, aside from the tiny but famed Manneken-Pis, a statuette of a urinating boy.


The first visit to Brussels, uncoloured by expectations, is therefore all the more rewarding. Narrow cobbled streets open suddenly into the breathtaking Grand-Place, with its ornate guild houses, impressive Town Hall and buzzing atmosphere. It would be difficult to find a more beautiful square in the whole of Europe. Bars, restaurants and museums are clustered within the compact city centre, enclosed within the petit ring, which follows the path of the 14th-century city walls.


The medieval city is clearly defined by its narrow, labyrinthine streets, making it easy to distinguish the later additions, such as Léopold II's Parisian-style boulevards (Belliard and La Loi) today lined with embassies, banks and the grand apartments of the bourgeoisie and close to the glitzy new EU quarter. The working class still congregates in the Marolles district, in the shadow of the Palais de Justice, although this area is on the up-and-up. New immigrant communities are settling in the rundown area around the Gare du Nord. Neighbouring communes, St-Gilles and Ixelles, draw an arty crowd with their 'in' shops and restaurants. These are worth the trek, if only to glimpse some of Brussels' finest Art Nouveau buildings, the style developed by Bruxellois Victor Horta, the son of a shoemaker.


With a pleasant temperate climate (warm summers and mild winters) and a host of sights and delights to entertain, Brussels offers the visitor a great deal more than just beer and chocolate (although excelling in both).

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