There is an ancient wheeze which insists that a trip to Brussels is like a visit with the sister of the woman you love. This summer, at any rate, the epigram is only apt should one who is in love with Zsa Zsa find himself faced with a visit to Eva. Brussels, until the end of October, is glamorous, desirable, expensive and rather hard to get a date with. On the other hand, it is by no means unapproachable.
Those in town for the festival and seeking an international view of sport or merely a place to sit down—it doesn't matter which—will find just as much going on at Heysel Stadium as on any other stage in Brussels. The stadium, which adjoins the fairgrounds and seats 100,000 sports enthusiasts and/or bunion-nursers, will be the scene for about as diversified an athletic program as any since the invention of the decathlon. For one thing, the playoffs for the Western European Volleyball Cup and the finals of the European Football Cup will be held there in May. In June the annual Tour de France cycling race starts there, and the European Judo Championships will be decided on the Heysel mats that month, as well as the pelota championships. A basketball tournament among deaf-mutes is scheduled for August, and an international hockey tournament is on the books for the last week in September.
While Heysel Stadium might be as attractive a place as any to bandage the blisters by day, there is still the problem of where to bunk after dark. The Palace Hotel, the city's old standby and, by all the rulebooks, the city's best, still had—with the fair already well launched—a number of scattered one-night stands to offer in May and June. There is a choice of space available after July 15th. By sprucing up its interiors—new baths, a new carpet in the hall—the hotel was able successfully to petition for a rate increase. The tab is up about 28% over 1956 prices. At that, a single room with bath, breakfast and a view of the brick wall across the crowded courtyard comes to $13 a night, still a far cry from the going rates in comparable inns in Paris and London, which have no fairs going on and no announced, government-sanctioned price hikes.
A BRAND-NEW AMIGO
The Metropole, generally conceded to be the second-best hotel in town, has raised its rates slightly, but it has, like a dozen other local hotels, installed a ruling requiring patrons to take one other meal in the hotel besides breakfast. An average tariff with all the tips and taxes and breakfast included would come to $14 a day. Add to that the necessity of eating another meal on the premises, or, at least, of paying for it. No such requirement has been instituted by the Hotel Amigo, a brand-new lodging in a very old quarter just behind the Grand Place, that marvelous old square in the center of the city. The peculiarity of its name—there isn't a castanet in view—derives from a formerly famous establishment known as the Amigo jail. All 200 rooms come with bath. A simple single one, during the fair at least, comes to about $14, and a better-than-average double is just on the solvency side of $30 a day. In figuring up these daily extractions I have included the 15% tip and the 5% tax, both of which are added to the bill no matter what shrieks of outrage may ensue. A beneficent management, out of tradition, not charity, includes without further levy a simple Continental breakfast.
Those early visitors who were lodged in Motel Expo, a prefab set of stalls outside the fair where the rate is $8 a night, sang the blues like nobody since Ella Fitzgerald. I don't think it is necessary to set forth a bill of particulars about the complaints, some of which may have been rectified by now, but if it came down to it I would choose in preference a room in a private home, thousands of which are registered with a government bureau called Logexpo. In selecting private quarters, it would be prudent to stick with Logexpo, which long ago inspected the available rooms and set ceiling prices on them. With the fever of the fair on hand, some room-letters were seeking to tear up their contracts with the government and raise the ante. Court action followed by swift justice was promised.
A walkless way to the fair has been designed by an aggregation known as Baltour, which operates a fleet of Fiat station wagons, each commanded by a self-styled "lady guide" in beret and uniform. Wagon and woman await you at the airport, deliver you to the fair, to the hotel or to any place inside Belgium you name. Baltour has 50 rooms blocked at the Plaza for the duration, plus a small hotel of its own known as Residence 58. Figuring two in a car by day and two in a room by night, the price will be $33 a day each person, or $24 each if two couples join forces in one car. Once inside the fairgrounds the guide will accompany you on foot or you can take off in a Baltour-operated "pus-pus" which is a three-place low-powered motorcycle—two places for passengers, one for the driver in back.
In town I'm afraid you will have to rely on the whims of the Brussels cab drivers. The meter rate is not exceptionally expensive, but the local hacks have an international reputation for spluttering a few choice epigrams in Flemish or French if the tip doesn't measure up to an exact 15% or better. If you can put up with this sort of bienvenue, Brussels itself has a string of restaurants that must be considered notable even in view of the unusual beaneries which have set up summer shop on the fairgrounds.
L'Epaule de Mouton, a minuscule establishment on the Rue des Harengs off the Grand Place, is considered by a small but sturdy clique of indigenous eaters to be the best restaurant in Europe. However, I cannot give fewer points to its neighbor on Herring Street, called Au Filet de Boeuf, which has been at it since 1785, having enlarged in those years until today it bulges with five tables, all of them covered with lace tablecloths, lighted by lace-covered lamps and laid with Spode china and crystal glass. Cigars are proffered, along with a candle in a silver holder and a clutch of cedar tapers.
OYSTERS IN BUBBLY
The sheerest luxury dwells on the fringe of town at Le Fond' Roy, 4 Place de la Sainte Alliance, where one can dine in the semioutdoors in a flower-decked, heated pergola while watching white pigeons flit and flutter on the far side of a glass wall. Aside from the usual Ardennes ham and the assorted ways of preparing sole, there are both salmon in champagne and oysters in champagne. The bivalves are boiled in the bubbly, blanketed with whipped cream and grilled. Oysters never had it so good, not even in May, June or July.
Lace and crystal are the prime attractions in the shops. Maria Loix, 18 Place Gudule, uptown, near the Sabena headquarters, has anything from partly handmade handkerchiefs at $1, to all-handmade lace hankies for show, not blow, at $6. However, a showy blower could spend $100 on a single handkerchief—a 10-inch square, all lace. There are 10 left in stock, and no more will ever be made. The house also has on hand a rose point bridal veil at $3,200.
Crystal comes from Liége and is sold by Val St. Lambert—handmade vases at $50 and mold-made of the same quality at less than $10. If you want to stock the house with the best glasses, a set of tumblers for water, white wine, red wine and champagne comes to about $50, or $600 for a 48-piece service designed to keep 12 people well-oiled simultaneously. All Belgian shoppers come to a halt in the fading afternoon to concentrate a concerted attack on the pastry mountains. The calorie Alps, Belgium's highest mountains, are irresistible at Daskalides on the handsome Avenue Louise, a forestland of cream puffs, tarts, baklava and dumplings. There are tables in the rear looking out to a pleasant garden, where the management serves ice cream at a modest 25¢ and U.S. milk shakes at 20¢. At the soda fountain in the U.S. pavilion out at the fairgrounds they're 60¢.
AN ELEGANT HIDEAWAY
Anyone who finds himself in a state of Brussels shock after a week at the fair might indeed hide away for a convalescent week at the elegant resort of Le Zoute, on the seashore 70 miles from town. The prime hotel—some call it the best in Belgium—is La Reserve, a 64-room lodge which nestles quietly on a lagoon a block or so from the sea. There are eight tennis courts flanking the entrance to the inn, not to mention water skiing on the lake in back of the house. Every room comes equipped with such appurtenances as a phone in the bath and a safe in the wall. Figure $14.50 for a room with a balcony surveying the water skiers. Dinner at the hotel will add up to about $10 per person, and there is a casino across the street if you're still in a spending mood. In a delightful nook called the Rotisserie Breughel, however, a minuscule corner with just six tables but a vast reputation, dinner is a more respectable $4. While the Belgian seacoast is not exactly noted as a tropical strand, there are sea-bathing days in summer and many sunbathing hours nestled among the tufted dunes, far from the shadow of the Atomium.
"How high you pay depends on how low you want to get."