But taking the time — really taking the time — to explore Brussels uncovers a capital city that's chock-full of creativity and comfort; a city that's right in step with the times, yet continues to enjoy and luxuriate with its ties to the past.
We were fortunate enough to check into the Conrad Hotel a five-star lodging with all the amenities you could expect — well, at least hope for — during any European visit. And to tell the truth, living in the lap of luxury, at least for a couple of days, improves the spirit and opens your outlook on life for all there is to see.
And with so much to see, I was anxious to take advantage of it all, particularly this city's Jewish connection, starting with the fact that today there are approximately 20,000 living in this French-speaking capital.
A dozen or so synagogues here cater to everyone — from Reform to Orthodox, Ashkenazi and Sephardi. There are also four Jewish schools.
Most of the Jewish sites are located in the middle of the city. The Grande Synagogue, for example — described as a "stately Romanesque" building — was completed in 1878, and today houses several Jewish organizations, including the Belgian Jewish Museum.
Additionally, the National Monument of Jewish Martyrs of Belgium, located in the middle of a residential neighborhood, depicts a menorah made of chains. And a wall is engraved with the names of more than 23,000 Belgian Jews killed in the Holocaust.
A number of other sites in Brussels honors Jews, and the Jewish community of Brussels tries to keep the faith alive by sponsoring cultural events such as lectures, a Yiddish theater, concerts and more.
Indeed, Brussels pays homage to the Jews who lived, fought and died during an horrific time in history, and to those who decided to return to pick up the pieces. But Brussels is also a city that is alive, and looks to the future for its happiness and prosperity. The secret to enjoying this place is allowing yourself to go with the flow and becoming part of its charming everyday life.
As the capital of Flanders, of Belgium and of Europe, Brussels is a place to explore slowly, preferably walking from one unique spot to another — from leafy-green spaces to fashionable shopping areas, to little cafe-bars to trendy restaurants and romantic getaways.
The city center is divided into the Lower town, centered around the Grand-Place, and still follows a vaguely medieval form with narrow streets; and the Upper town, which is grander and more well-planned.
The Grand-Place is an absolute "must," as it draws many tourists from all over the globe, in addition to the locals, strolling happily around a square that has been described as "the most beautiful theatre in the world." This historical market square — with its impressive guild houses and the wonderful Gothic beauty of the Town Hall — is widely hailed as one of the most beautiful town squares in all of Europe. Whatever the weather, this remarkable architectural work is sure to cast a spell.
The sole architectural survivor of the square is the Town Hall, looking, they say, as it did in 1421. The Star, the smallest house on the Grand-Place, is also one of the oldest, although rebuilt after several fires. Certainly, another that stands out — for its looks, if not for its history — is Le Cygne ("The Swan"), the building where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote the "Communist Party Manifesto" in 1847.
The towns are divided by a long boulevard, and given a whole slew of grand names along its various sections, as well as eye-catching architecture that dots the thoroughfare, from classic to Art Nouveau.
And with all that is splendid in this elegant city, the museums are also standouts, such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Royal Museums of Art and History.
And then, there's the food.
Like most of Western Europe, Belgium boasts culinary surprises for the American palate, so be adventurous and be sure to try something new. Good taste will also lead you to the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate, where visitors can learn everything about the origins and the arrival of these addictive products to the continent. Mmmm, good!
For more information, log on to: www.visitbelgium.com.