Brussels has long been the ham – from the Ardennes, in this case – sandwiched between the artisanal breads of Amsterdam and Paris, both cities that now suffer from overtourism.
Brussels does not have that reputation. In addition, this charming city, under two hours away by high-speed train from either Amsterdam or Paris, is becomingly desirable in its own right. Its cultural heritage offers the stunning Grand Place medieval square (dating back to 1401), numerous museums and well-kept gardens, and the famous Manneken Pis (the distinctive, two-foot tall statue that was first erected in 1619). There are also bookshops and artisanal boutiques galore.
There is another strong case for staying in Brussels. It is the de facto capital of the European Union, the headquarters of both the EU and NATO — and no, you probably do not want to recommend a Parliament tour, even though it is free. But having such entities keeps hotel room rates ridiculously low, thanks to the per diems for all of those bureaucrats (taxpayer vigilance keeps these rates down). This means hotel room prices in Brussels are as little as a third of those in Paris.
Top of class, by a long way, is Sir Rocco Forte’s Hotel Amigo, where for the one night of Friday Nov. 1, 2019, its own site is quoting €224 (US$246). It’s ten minutes, by Uber or hotel Mercedes, from the rail station, and five minutes’ walk from Grand Place. For many years, in its pre-hotel days, the building was a municipal prison. And, says the hotel’s charming Danish GM, Jan Nielsen, prisoners used to brew their own beer; having found that old recipe, Nielsen has contracted with a local craft brewery to brew Beer A, only available in the 173-room luxury hotel. There are also well-publicized public beer festivals, often held in tents, in Grand Place.
Such enticing events are shared by the hotel’s five concierges in a clever “Concierge Times” leaflet, in all rooms. When I was there, the concierges were also recommending the 10th Brussels Comic Strip Festival, in honor of which the hotel’s lobby had been transformed into comic book heaven. At all times, by the way, the hotel partners with the estate of Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, better known as Hergé, 1907-1983. Two bedrooms and one suite, #421, are themed for his creation, Tintin. I stayed in the Tintin Suite, and I declare it gorgeous, for all ages. Pair whimsical cartoons and little sculptures with leather-lined drawers, personal weights, Forte Organics toiletries, and Harmon/Kardon Bluetooth —and you get the picture.
Add in an absolutely first-class Italian restaurant, and the appeal of this charming hotel becomes even more apparent. Sir Rocco and his family work, cleverly, with Fulvio Pierangelini as culinary consultant for all except, for some reason, the company’s pair of UK hotels. And frankly, I just love Fulvio Food. When the weather allows, sit out on Amigo Street and watch the passers-by. Inside, from a 180-degree window-set booth, you look across the width of the interior part of the restaurant, over a divider to a far-away wall mirror that reflects how all diners seated over there seem to love their food, too.
So, dinner. Bites of focaccia with olive oil and baby tomatoes. Served on Richard Ginori china, tuna tartare in chunks with big bits of avocado and creamy stracciatella, from the inside of burrata. Boira IGT 2017 Cantine Volpi San Giovese and, a Roman specialty said the shaven-head Rome waiter, ravioli cacio e pepe with red prawns tartare. Food for the gods … (and the breakfast includes Italian bruschetta as well as Brussels’ delights of the caliber of big chunks of dark chocolate and waffles).
Come back at Christmas and Grand Place will host, as every year, an authentic seasonal market with stalls offering many varieties of Belgian chocolate, waffles and craft beers. Over the festive season this year, for the first time, this truly memorable luxury hotel will be themed for the 1961 movie, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Its star, Audrey Hepburn, was born in Belgium in 1929, though why is not immediately apparent, as her mother was a Dutch baroness and her father was Bohemian.
There is, by the way, one element that binds all of this hotel’s high points together, and that is service. There is no one star. Everyone stands out, from the Mancunian housekeeper to the Syrian driver, both here 15 years — and, of course, that Roman waiter.