Visit the Epicenter of the Art Nouveau Movement in Brussels
A little more than a hundred years ago, Art Nouveau was all the rage in Europe. Called Jugenstil in Germany, Secession in Austria or just “Modern Style”, it was all part of an international zeitgeist calling for the incorporation of natural forms into the home.
Brussels – the capital of tiny Belgium – became the unlikely epicenter of the Art Nouveau movement thanks to a building boom fueled by the colonial adventures of the country under King Leopold II. Even though the king himself didn’t like the style (he said it looked like “someone dropped spaghetti on a plate”) the new fashion quickly became all the rage. The first Art Nouveau house was built there in 1893, and there are more than 500 today still in use as homes, shops, restaurants and museums.
A visit to the city should include a stop at the Victor Horta Museum in the Saint-Gilles neighborhood. Once his home, this building on the Rue Américaine, built between 1898 and 1901, is both exemplar and mus-eum. Constructed to house both his office and residence, it looks like two buildings from the outside. On the inside, his imagination took full flight with parquet floors bordered in mosaic, chandeliers that are bouquets of glass flowers, and carved details suggesting flames, flowing water and wild yellow iris. Examples of his trademark whiplash motif are everywhere.
Horta, born in Ghent in 1861, studied architecture under Alphonse Balat, the King’s architect. His first major commission for the merchant Armand Solvay in 1894 resulted in a home embodying all the design hallmarks of the short-lived style – the arabesque, floral and animal patterns, and the feminine silhouette. The residence on Avenue Louise, now owned by the Wittamer family and used for business purposes, is open for tours only by reservation.
The easiest way to see some of the Art Nouveau in Brussels is on foot. The city has a detailed walking map outlining five itineraries and including illustrations of key buildings along each route. Pick one up for €3 (ask for the English-language version) at any tourist office or major hotel and get set to explore the Louise quarter and Ixelles Ponds, the Cinquantenaire Quarters of the Squares, Saint-Gilles and Forest, and Schaerbeek.
Brussels is a great town for walking, with an easy-to-use metro available for longer distances. In addition to the marvelous architecture, there’s great shopping and even better food.
There are wonderful restaurants seemingly around every corner in this most European of capitals. One lunchtime I wandered over to an Italian restaurant, Piazza Navarro. It was a beautiful spring day, and the outside tables opposite the Fondation Jacques Brel, beckoned. The fixed menu started with a salad of curly endive wrapped in proscuitto, topped with shaved parmesan and drizzled with pesto. After a main course of sautéed fish fillets served hot on a cold base of pasta with fresh tomato sauce, I finished up with a cup of green tea scented with vanilla.
A reservation made a couple of months ahead of time got me a seat at the coveted table in the kitchen of a Michelin three-star eatery, Comme Chez Sois. The food, of course, was magnificent but so was the setting. The white tiles on the wall were signed by luminaries who’d eaten there before me, from Yehudi Menuhin to the Rolling Stones.
A fabulous dinner at Château de la Forêt started with two amuse bouches. One was a bleu cheese froth, pureed poire William and beet aspic – all layered in a liqueur glass. The other was a tiny rectangle of olive bread topped with tuna tapenade, chopped tomato and a sprig of dill.
Then there’s the chocolate – Brussels is legendary for its handcrafted confections, and even boasts a Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate (which I have yet to visit). I do, however, manage to fit in a tasting tour of my favorite shops on each trip. According to the tourism office, Belgium produces 172,000 tons of chocolate per year with more than 2,000 chocolate shops throughout the country, so I won’t run out of options.
Le Chocolatier Manon is famed for its bonbons -- there are at least five dozen flavors for sale each day on rue du Congrès. Rhum Caramel, however, is my perennial favorite.
Wittamer (the same people who now own the Solvay House) specializes in ganaches and pralines with a shop on Place du Grand-Sablon.
New kid on the block is Pierre Marcolini, who (according to his publicity) uses only cocoa beans he has personally selected. They’re roasted, crushed and ground in his Belgian atelier before being used to make exquisite (and exquisitely expensive) choco-lates. He’s got four shops in Brussels, but I like the one on Avenue Louise (which looks more like a jewelry store than a candy shop). Just one Violette or Java Fondant is enough to satisfy my craving.
Start your planning with the Belgian Tourist Office’s website. There you can learn all about what’s happening when you plan to visit. Get there between Aug. 12 and 15, for example, and you can see the magnificent flower carpet created by the artful placement of more than 800,000 begonias on the cobbled stones of Brussels’ Grand Place.
If Art Nouveau is your passion, try to arrive before July 23. That’s when a special exhibition in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts closes. It tells the story of the style through decorative accessories -- some 400 objects that were traded or exhibited by the unrivalled collector and art dealer Siegfried Bing, whose Paris store was named L’Art Nouveau.
The French have had great success creating a sandy beach along the Seine during the summer months, so Brussels is giving it a try between July 22 and Aug. 21 along the city’s canal. Admission is free. Don’t forget the sunscreen!