We all have our favourite city hotels, and when in Brussels it has to be the Tintin obsessed Hotel Amigo. With its exceptional location a stone’s throw from Grand’ Place (on the UNESCO World Heritage List), and directly opposite my first port of call, biscuit legend Maison Dandoy, it’s a sheer pleasure to be greeted by the Amigo’s friendly burgundy-coated doormen after a surprisingly effortless journey from London. And it’s not too shabby inside either; designed by Olga Polizzi, the eldest of Lord Forte’s five daughters (and mother of Alex, aka the Hotel Inspector), she uses warm autumnal colours to make the Amigo shiny and modern, yet assuredly comfortable.
Whilst it’s impossible to forget that you’re staying at a Rocco Forte establishment, as in the case of the hotel’s dining room, Ristorante Bocconi, which serves classic Italian cuisine, the hotel delights in cheeky references to the city’s most celebrated fictional hero – Tintin, his loyal companion Snowy, and the foul-mouthed, yet lovable, Captain Haddock, who coined the expression ‘blistering barnacles’. There is even a suite dedicated to the journalist-come-investigator, complete with original lithographs, a chest of comics to entertain all ages and a cuddly Snowy dog.
Although you’d have to be a serious fan for this to appeal (and I am), all 173 of the Amigo’s rooms feature a subtle homage to Tintin in some form or another. It’s these rather sentimental touches which offer guests character – in contrast to other international hotel groups bizarrely ignorant of, and completely disinterested in, their surroundings. For an even greater celebration of Belgian comic creations, including the Smurfs, visit the Belgian Comic Strip Center on Rue des Sables, housed in the impressive Art Nouveau building, Magasins Waucquez, designed by the legendary Belgian architect Victor Horta.
Admittedly, Brussels doesn’t boast the romance of Belgian cities like Bruges or Ghent and it has found it hard to shake off its less refined image of beer and steak frites or its more stuffy corporate side, a natural result of being a leading European economic and political centre, but it’s well worth looking out the less touristy areas for a true insight into what really makes this city tick. It’s easy to get the wrong impression if you arrive via the Gare du Midi railway station (an area notorious for bag-snatchers), and particularly during the bustling Christmas market period when the areas surrounding Grand Place are overrun with holidaymakers. Brussels is not a compact city so it can take time to appreciate its many nuances and styles, but you’ll be well rewarded if you make the effort to explore less central areas.
Unlike London, where the luxury shopping of Mayfair also signals some of the capital’s most pleasant areas for a stroll, Avenue Louise, the Brussel’s equivalent, whilst boasting pretty much every designer boutique you could ever dream of, is an experience marred by being located on a busy and extremely noisy highway. But, venture to the nearby Place du Grand Sablon, where the tree-lined square and its renowned antiques market reminds one of St Germain in Paris on a leisurely Sunday afternoon, and you start to scratch the surface of its more diverse and cosmopolitan charms, and why this city is an increasingly popular destination for a weekend away.
Other unmissable locations include the beautiful 15th century Church of Our Lady of the Sablon, the Magritte Museum dedicated to the surrealist artist, and the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert (Galerie du roi 5), an exquisite luxury shopping arcade inaugurated in 1847 by King Leopold I and a predecessor to the famed Victor-Emmanuel Gallery in Milan and The Passage in St Petersburg. Designed by the young architect Jean-Pierre Cluysenaer, who also helped to finance the project, it is divided into three galleries; the Galerie de la Reine, the Galerie du Roi and the smaller Galerie des Princes. Whilst light pours in from the glass roof, customers are kept dry when it rains.
With over 50 boutiques specialising in everything from fashion and home furnishings to fine jewellery and confectionery, plus the 750 seat Theatre du Vaudevile, the businesses housed within this trio of galleries still upholds the motto “Everything for everybody”, emblazoned on the façade of this imposing building. After purchasing a box of chocolate pralines from the original Neuhaus store (you won’t be able to resist after being offered a sample), pause for a coffee at one of the cafés and watch the world go by.
Don’t forget to reserve a table for dinner at the legendary Taverne du Passage or you’re likely to be turned away. With Art Deco interiors and classic Belgian fare, it’s a little gem. Brussels currently stands in third place behind Paris and London in terms of the number of restaurants boasting Michelin stars, but despite this gastronomic recognition, thankfully most establishments still celebrate Belgium’s national dish, moule et frites. Try them cooked in Belgian beer. When you think you’ve discovered the heart of a city, it’s good to embrace being a tourist again. Order waffles for breakfast before checking out of the Amigo.
Hotel Amigo, rue de l’Amigo 1-3, Brussels, Belgium. For more information visit the website.