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Insider: A Guide to Brussels

EVERY WHICH WAFFLE DANDOY (31 Rue au Beurre, 32-2/511-0326; and 14 Rue Charles Buis, 32-2/512-6588) is Devalkeneer's destination for waffles, both the caramelized Liège version, which many find almost painfully sugary, and the fatter, breadier Brussels variety, known to Americans as Belgian.

HEAVENLY CHOCOLATE In the chocolate races that are always taking place between confectionary houses in Belgium, Devalkeneer judges 33-year-old PIERRE MARCOLINI (39 Place du Grand Sablon; 32-2/514-1206) to be the front-runner. "Pierre's ganaches, infused with everything from violet petals to allspice, are both balanced and powerful," says the chef. "Ten minutes after eating one, you can still taste the chocolate."

Where to Shop

Antwerp is the capital of Belgian fashion (design stars Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, and Dirk Bikkembergs all live and work there), but Brussels has Elvis Pompilio, our shopping guide. Stocky, perfectly bald, and with a dedicated gym-goer's body, he is that rare thing: a hat designer who looks like a wrestler. ELVIS POMPILIO (60 Rue du Midi; 32-2/511-1188), his giddy and surprisingly sprawling boutique, is the epicenter of everything hip and happening on the Brussels shop scene. Skip it and you risk being stripped of your charge cards by the shopping police. A few steps from Grand' Place, the city's nexus and main square, Pompilio's shop makes the point that hats aren't just for Hello! magazine types like Joan Collins and Yannick Noah—though both are customers. Hats are for you and me.

Not everything Pompilio designs is what it seems, and this, of course, is part of the fun. What lookslike a child's cable-knit sweater with a sewn-up mock turtleneck is actually a man's cap. The sleeves, knotted or rolled, form two earlike protuberances. Many of Pompilio's basics, such as his double-brimmed felt Diabolo, are supple and easy to take from day to night: "Just flick a brim or pop a crown."

The Brussels boutiquescape as drawn by the designer takes no pity on retail warhorses. A nice little shop where you can buy your grandmother a Belgian-lace-trimmed pouch for her tissues?You must be joking. Many of Pompilio's favorite boutiques are concentrated just north of his headquarters in downtown Brussels, a handsome district of Haussmann-style buildings where many of the city's artists, musicians, filmmakers, writers, and fashion designers make their homes and studios. Even if you never strayed from Rue Antoine Dansaert, the section's principal artery, there is enough good window-shopping to reward an entire afternoon. Stirred into the mix of fashionable boutiques are dry cleaners, florists, and food shops that give the area the feel of a real neighborhood.

FASHION FOR ALL "The first thing people want to know about shopping in Brussels is where to find all the top Belgian designers," says Pompilio, who sends them to STIJL (74 Rue Antoine Dansaert; 32-2/512-0313). You know you're in a progressive boutique when John Smedley classic sea island knits are the wild card. For the typical Stijl customer, it's not enough that a shirt be a shirt; it also has to pose a challenge, if not a fight. A woman I saw at Stijl could have used an instruction book to show her how to wear an Ann Demeulemeester asymmetric top.

Not that everything at this his-and-hers boutique is calculated to frighten the horses. On a recent breeze-through, there were inside-out jeans that looked so right and reasonable you wondered why no one had thought of it before. They were by Martin Margiela, the controversial deconstructionist who now, in addition to having his own line, is chief designer for Hermès. On the same visit, Dries Van Noten's slinky rayon slip dresses were just the thing for Harlow wanna-bes. Stijl also carries what is thought of as the new wave (i.e., the wave after Demeulemeester and company) of Belgian designers: Raf Simons, Carine Lauwers, and Tony & Sandrine.

Stijl's sister boutique, KAT EN MUIS (32 Rue Antoine Dansaert; 32-2/514-3234), is a revelation. Who knew that some of the world's most fashion-forward children's wear is made in Belgium?When buying a gift for his grandnephew, Pompilio chooses from among collections by Van Noten, Pee-eep by Zorra, Claude Hontoir, Max et Lola, and Topo.

Just up the road, STIJL UNDERWEAR (47 Rue Antoine Dansaert; 32-2/514-2731) offers the last word in bras and jockey shorts. It also has ahead-of-the-curve beachwear, including the Niagara line of maillots by native daughter Harriet Van den Bosch, and bathing suits that make men look as if they've just stepped off the winner's platform of the 1936 Berlin Olympics—providing they have the bodies.

IDIZ BOGAM (76 Rue Antoine Dansaert; 32-2/512-1032) is a clothing store that dignifies its vintage goods by merchandising them as if they were this season's Galliano couture. "The presentation of everything, whether blue jeans or evening dresses, is soigné and luxe," says Pompilio.

RINGS FOR THE FINGERS,BELLS FOR THE TOES Pompilio champions jewelry designer Christa Reniers and women's shoe designer Nathalie Rousseau partly because, like him, they are the talent behind their names, not just the smiling promotional faces.

Stylistically, Pompilio situates Reniers "somewhere between Georg Jensen and Robert Lee Morris." That means sophisticated simplicity. The solid-silver rings, pendants, and cuff links at CHRISTA RENIERS (28 Place du Vieux Marché aux Grains; 32-2/514-1773) have an organic, tactile appeal. Also in silver are Reniers-designed refrigerator magnets and sculptural ribbed pencil cups.

In Rousseau's shop, NATHALIE R (71 Rue Antoine Dansaert; 32-2/511-6017), her signature platforms are displayed on chunky wooden pegs, an invitation for customers to handle the shoes.

THE FLEA MARKET AND KIN Pompilio's Brussels apartment is furnished with seriously inexpensive finds from the daily MAROLLES FLEA MARKET on Place du Jeu de Balle. Located in a wonderfully louche quarter of mangy dogs and working-class cafés, "Marolles is at least six times cheaper than Paris's Clignancourt market," says Pompilio. Since any betrayal of your tourist status will cause vendors to up their prices, he advises out-of-towners to dress down and say as little as possible, unless they speak excellent Belgian-inflected French. As at all flea markets, there's no telling who you might run into here. Wasn't that home furnishings designer and Belgian tastemaker Isabelle de Borchgrave hauling away a caned settee the other day?(It was.)

Fifteen minutes northeast by foot, in the Sablon district, two antiques shops, DEWINDT (77 Rue Lebeau; 32-2/513-3612) and MODERN STUDIO (11 Rue de la Paille; 32-2/513-6802), go narrow and deep into the furniture and objects of Pompilio's preferred design decades, the thirties through the seventies. "At Dewindt the pieces are more rigorously chosen and better displayed—and you pay for it," he says. "Studio is less chic, and cheaper." Also in the neighborhood are GALERIES DES MINIMES (23 Rue des Minimes; 32-2/511-2825), "a great source for antique chandeliers," and L'OBJET DU DéSIR (21 Place du Grand Sablon; 32-2/512-4243), "a contemporary design shop with everything from Alessi bread baskets to Starck toothbrushes."

COMICS PLUS In Belgium, hardcover comic books are serious adult reading matter. Pompilio gets his episodic fix at DARAKAN (9 Rue du Midi; 32-2/512-2076), a shop he also relies on for the latest fashion and photography books.

TOYLAND Last on Pompilio's list, but first in his heart, is GRASSHOPPER (39—43 Rue du Marché aux Herbes; 32-2/511-9622), a toy store selling an irresistible mohair replica of a 1931 Belgian teddy bear, handmade in a limited edition of 200 ($120 each). This is another shop where Pompilio indulges his grandnephew, right?"Oh no. All my friends know I collect toys. In the days before my birthday this place is jammed!"

What to See

Françoise Aubry is curator of the Musée Horta, which is devoted to the work of Victor Horta. She is also co-editor of the most comprehensive monograph on the architect, Horta: Art Nouveau to Modernism, recently published by Harry N. Abrams. But Aubry is not one of those scholarly types who never gets out. She knows the contents of the other major museums in Brussels as exhaustively as those of her own. Here, she details her favorite works in those institutions. Aubry also singles out well-loved architectural landmarks, including her own museum, that she says any trip to Brussels must include.

ART NOT TO MISS MUSÉE D'ART ANCIEN (3 Rue de la Régence; 32-2/508-3211).Portrait de Marguerite by Fernand Khnopff: "The artist was a leading Symbolist whose chilly perfectionism shows the influence of the Viennese Secessionist movement. In 1887 he painted this portrait of his sister, his favorite model. Turned in on herself, as closed as the door she is pictured in front of, she is an inaccessible object of desire. This work says to me that Khnopff probably loved his subject a little too much."

Figure Tombale by Julien Dillens: "At the time this white marble statue of a despairing young woman was done, about 1885, sadness was traditionally expressed in a much more exteriorized, obvious way. The triumph of this work, by one of the greatest Belgian sculptors of the late nineteenth century, is that it conveys chagrin but not pathos. I was lucky enough to find a bronze cast of the head. It's what I wake up to every morning." Le Grisou by Constantin Meunier: "I call this 1887 bronze the PietÀ of the Industrial Age. It depicts a mother grieving over the body of her miner son who was killed by an explosion in a coal gallery. He has been crucified by modern civilization, but the economic prosperity that came with mining is also what allowed artists and architects of the time to flourish."

MUSÉE ROYAL D'ART ET D'HISTOIRE (10 Parc du Cinquantenaire; 32-2/741-7215). Le Sphinx Mystérieux by Charles Van der Stappen: "At the turn of the century, as a way of promoting imports from the Congo, then a Belgian colony, King Leopold II commissioned Belgian sculptors to use African materials. These works were unveiled in an 1897 exhibition. Van der Stappen, a professor at the Academy of Beaux-Arts in Brussels, showed this incredibly extravagant ivory sphinx, which also incorporates bronze, silver, and onyx. Seams in the ivory are cleverly concealed behind a cuirass, which is embellished with poppies to symbolize sleep and forgetting."

Chandelier by Henry Van de Velde: "A contemporary of Horta's who abandoned painting for the applied arts, Van de Velde believed that ornament and line should be one, an idea reflected in this six-armed, silvered bronze fixture of 1898. A lot of what was being done at that time was overloaded with decoration. This work's importance lies in its extreme purity."

MUSÉE D'ANTOINE WIERTZ (62 Rue Vautier; 32-2/648-1718). La Belle Rosine by Antoine Wiertz: "Wiertz was a painter known for his moody and violent works. This 1847 oil, in the ŒTo be or not to be' style, shows a beautiful and quite fleshy artist's model confronting a grinning skeleton. But why is it grinning?It's mocking the model for thinking that she is anything more than an object in the eyes of the painter."

MUSÉE COMMUNAL D'IXELLES (71 Rue J. Van Volsem; 32-2/511-9084). Après la Prière du Soir by Xavier Mellery: "Like the lives of the four nuns Mellery depicts after their evening prayers, this circa-1910 Symbolist drawing has very little color. Their world is silent, chaste, closed. But they enjoy the gift of serenity, of absence of desire."

HORTA HIGHLIGHTS More than any other architect, Victor Horta made Brussels the European capital of Art Nouveau. In a career spanning the years from 1885 to 1946, he designed 110 buildings and monuments. The one considered his best from a purely architectural point of view is a house, the Hotel Van Eetvelde (4 Ave. Palmerston; 32-2/237-1111; by appointment). Meanwhile, he is thought to have reached the peak of his decorative powers at the Hotel Solvay (224 Ave. Louise; 32-2/647-3733; by appointment). But it is his own turn-of-the-century house and atelier, now collectively the MUSÉE HORTA (25 Rue Américaine; 32-2/537-1692), that are most often sifted for clues to his technique and style.

"There is nothing more interesting than what an architect chooses to build for himself," says Aubry. "Before Horta, houses were envelopes designed by architects and adorned by decorators. Here, Horta was responsible for everything, and it all achieves a cohesiveness that is very characteristic of Art Nouveau."

The dining room floor is a parquet of Hungarian oak outlined in American ash and laid like a rug within a marble mosaic surround. The wood and stone are separated by a fine band of copper. "That makes four different materials in the space of ten centimeters," notes the curator, "materials that sing together." On the room's walls and ceiling he used white glazed bricks, previously seen only in kitchens and bathrooms. According to Aubry, it is Horta's combination of materials—precious and industrial, hot and cold—that makes his house such a milestone.

TWO MORE ARCHITECTURAL STARS SERRES ROYALES (Ave. du Parc Royal; 32-2/551-2020). "In the 1870's King Leopold II commissioned these sumptuous greenhouses, still in use, in the enormous Parc de Laeken, home of the royal gardens. The structures are open only two weeks a year, from late April to early May, but just seeing them from the outside is worth it."

PALAIS STOCKLET (281 Ave. de Tervuren). "Built by the Austrian architect Josef Hoffmann between 1906 and 1911, this endures as one of the most beautiful private houses in the world, an essay in geometry and refinement of detail. The white marble façade reflects light but not shadow. Each plane is like a painting."

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