Belgium’s Capital Of Culture

Tuesday, April 9, 2013
Travel Writer

The group at the next table is chattering away in something that sounds like German, but maybe it’s not. Swiss-Deutsch?

No, it’s Flemish, though the signs all around Brussels are in French. On the other side is a delegation of Latvian diplomats, all blond and dressed in suits.

The waiter brings falafel. She is green-eyed and beautiful and it turns out she’s Moroccan, like many of the city’s newer residents. One thing everyone has in common: They’re all drinking beer.

More than most cities, the Belgian capital is teeming with hybrids and contrasts — it’s a multilingual, multiethnic burg with a lively, quirky energy. Brussels compensates for the ever-present gray gloom with a lavish smorgasbord of Art Nouveau buildings; entire neighborhoods can feel like outdoor museums of architecture. The people walking around are notably stylish, too, a reflection of Belgium’s outsized fashion scene and its arty vibe.

Brussels is the seat of the European Union, which conjures up the image of a small army of gray-faced bureaucrats earnestly mulling austerity. But you can spend a week here and never notice the government — something I can’t imagine in Washington.

Brussels, after all, is the city of Jacques Brel, René Magritte and Django Reinhardt. Over a weekend here, you can take a walking tour of the corners that inspired the sexy crooner, see Magritte’s pipe in the yellow house he painted over and over, and hear the heirs of the great Gypsy guitarist in a raucous annual festival that’s the toast of Europe.

The city center is noisy, bustling and ornate, with a vividness that is striking amid such antiquity. Lace is everywhere: delicate tablecloths are piled at the historic markets, while curlicues adorn the spires off the majestic, 12th-century Grand Place, Brussels’ central square. Those for whom chocolate is more of a priority than lace are not disappointed; elegant chocolatiers dot the periphery of this fairytale setting, along with outdoor cafés, antique markets and small, distinctive museums.

Waves of migration have wrought demographic changes in central Brussels, with more recent arrivals taking the place of Jewish residents, who have largely moved out to the suburbs. But the circa-1878 Great Synagogue remains a central-city landmark that has withstood war and the Holocaust. The proud, massive edifice is still in use alongside newer temples. Halfway between the Grand Place and the chic shopping neighborhood of Saint Gilles, the synagogue is a source of pride for the city’s 20,000-strong Jewish community.

Indeed, the Belgian capital boasts numerous Jewish institutions and a rich Jewish cultural life — which is particularly in evidence amid this season’s exhibitions and festivals.

Among the most-talked-about events this spring is an unusual and compelling show at the Jewish Museum of Belgium, which displays historical exhibits in a lovely 19th-century townhouse. “La Maison des vivants” (The House of the Living) focuses on the concept and rituals of death in Judaism. The local angle is a spotlight on German restoration efforts at Jewish cemeteries in France, Belgium and Luxembourg.

Brussels is also the setting for what may be the largest festival of Balkan music in all of Europe. The Balkan Trafik Festival has plenty of local inspiration to draw from: the region has always had a large Roma population, of which Django Reinhardt was the most famous representative, giving Gypsy jazz a foothold far west of its Balkan stronghold. A Jewish musical community with roots in both Iberia and Eastern Europe ensures that soulful, minor-key tunes are part of the local DNA.

The festival takes place in late April, with more than 170 artists from as far afield as New York, Turkey and Hungary working a variety of genres: rock, folklore, jazz. Alongside headliners like Goran Bregovic of Serbia — the undisputed Elvis Presley of Balkan music — are groups like Klezmik Zirkus, a nouveau-klezmer group from Liège, and Tcha Limberger, a Belgian Gypsy with a Hungarian trio. Balkan Trafik opens with a series of music documentaries and closes with Balkan Film Day, celebrating the latest features from the up-and-coming film region.

Most of Balkan Trafik takes place at the Centre for Fine Arts, a lavish palace that stands out even in a city of lavish palaces. This spring, the venue is also hosting a seminal retrospective of Watteau, the early-18th-century painter known for his lush, romantic scenes. Curator William Christie complements the exhibition with an eight-concert series featuring composers of Watteau’s era.

That happens to be the era when much of central Brussels was built, or rebuilt, as was often the case. But despite all that has changed in the centuries since, I imagine the Belgian contemporaries of Bruegel or Van Dyck sitting around much like their modern-day counterparts: beer stein in hand, oblivious to the gray sky overhead, enjoying the passing scene.  

editor@jewishweek.org

Dancers at the Balkan Trafik Festival, perhaps Europe’s largest festival of Balkan music. Photo courtesy Balkan Trafik Festival

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