Brussel Antiques: An insider's guide to Europe's
greatest antique shopping city
Maison Frison by Victor Horta
found at belfasttelegraph.co.uk
24 october 2006
With 11 grand hotels to furnish, Olga Polizzi has got
shopping down to a fine art. And when it comes to antiques, only Brussels will
do. As she spends the euros, Lisa Grainger carries her bags.
Olga Polizzi is in her element. "Just look around you - isn't it
beautiful!" she exclaims. The director of design, who is also Sir Rocco
Forte's sister, is happily surveying the handsome Flemish architecture that
surrounds our sundowner spot after a hard afternoon shopping for antiques.
Having left London mid-morning on Friday, it is amazing that I've had time to
be whisked around the city's chicest spots by Polizzi, and that we've still
found time to sit and watch the locals strolling by.
It's October, yet on the cobbled streets of Brussels' chic Sablon district,
outdoor tables are filled with relaxed, smiling people soaking up the last
sunshine of Europe's Indian summer. Model-types sip fruit beers from odd-shaped
brown bottles. Well-groomed women wearing clothes by local designers such as Ann
Demeulemeester, Xavier Delcour and Olivier Theyskens, sip champagne from flutes.
Smart elderly couples walk dogs, popping into the chic Pierre Marcolini store
for one of his smart black boxes of chocolate, or into the Claire Fontaine
delicatessen for bread or quiche. It's fashionable and buzzy, a characterful mix
of old-style European sleekness and the eccentric quirkiness for which Belgians
are known. And precisely why Olga Polizzi chooses to come here for her
twice-yearly antique-buying trips.
As one of Lord Charles Forte's six children, Polizzi was brought up
surrounded by beautiful objects. Meals were sometimes taken at the Waldorf,
which Papa owned. Homes were filled with antiques and art. "And I have to
admit, I'm a shopaholic," she says. "It's lucky my job is to find
beautiful things for our hotels, because it gets it out of my system. I can buy
and buy and buy, and still have another 80 rooms to fill!"
While many hotel chains are happy to fill each room with the same
furnishings, art work and accessories, Sir Rocco Forte and his sister are
determined to give each of his 11 hotels a very individual atmosphere.
"They should feel like the country in which they are based, not like some
clone," says Polizzi, with passion.
Which is why, once again, she's in Brussels. "I'd always thought that it
was this boring, bureaucratic city with nothing going for it," she says.
"Which is totally wrong. It has got beautiful architecture, really
friendly, relaxed people and delicious food. It has more Michelin-starred
restaurants per square kilometre than any other city in Europe. And it has
antiques from all over the world. If you need French art-nouveau pieces, you'll
find them here. Or German art. Or Italian sculpture. Or bits of old English
pottery. Or African masks. There's a wonderful range, which, I have to say,
makes buying much easier."
Over the past few years, Polizzi says that she has "scoured the
city", walking up and down its streets, befriending antique-shop owners and
trawling markets to find pieces to fit specific spaces in her brother's rapidly
expanding empire. Hence her specific hit list this afternoon: a mix of art
galleries, antique emporia, and linen and china shops to restock on pieces she's
The area in which she spends the most time - and not only because of its
proximity to the group's Hotel Amigo - is the Sablon district. Fifteen minutes'
walk from the hotel, it dates back to the 17th century when there was a need to
create housing for the wealthy nobility around the English-style Notre Dame du
Sablon. The hilltop square and its surrounding streets are packed with
magnificent buildings, with quirky shops on the ground floor and massive
apartments above. Other than Emporio Armani, most of the shops are Belgian,
one-offs and characterful: a tribal-art gallery next to a wood-panelled wine
shop, a pâtisserie alongside a chic, contemporary interiors shop.
On Saturdays, from 10am to 5pm, and on Sunday mornings, the area is
particularly lively thanks to the antique market that springs up beneath 75 or
so green-and-red striped canvas-covered stands on the Place du Grand Sablon,
below the church. It is here, says Polizzi, that she finds unusual pieces for
the hotels: a silver tray for a suite, pottery and glass pieces, and the pair of
African masks that she has placed in the Amigo's foyer. While some of the marked
prices are as high as those in London, she admits, dealers are nearly always
open to haggling. And Brussels, she says, is "generally far less expensive
than London - I bought a lamp around here for exactly half of what I paid in
Pimlico for an identical one".
A silver platter, marked €35 (£25), I eventually knock down to €25 (£18).
A doll-sized wooden mannequin comes down €20 (£14) to €60 (£43). There are
stags' heads, zebra skins, china, glass, jewellery of both the costume and
valuable variety. And, of course, all manner of art works, from contemporary
painting to ancient sculpture. "The trick is to scan the stalls quickly for
what you want," Polizzi says. "Sometimes you find treasures, other
times there's nothing."
She walks the cobbled streets determinedly, sensibly clad in low-heeled
pumps. The one place she always finds something, she says, is Emery & Cie.
It's the brainchild of an architect, Agnes Emery, who wanted to create a space
in which to celebrate the work of craftspeople making pieces using traditional
techniques. The shop, covering four storeys in three tall, thin town houses, is
eclectic, to say the least. Every available space is used, with objects often
being displayed in room-sets. The ground floor is a maze of tiles from all over
the world: Moroccan zelliges, replica Turkish izniks, tiny Italian-inspired
floor tiles, traditional Fez pottery. Upstairs, there's a room full of
wrought-iron four-poster beds, and a dining room to show off elaborate
contemporary chandeliers. Bedrooms are hung with silk-screened wallpaper, draped
in organdie, and painted with Emery's own range of paint, in vibrant green,
Flemish grey, aubergine.
It's here, Polizzi says, that she found inspiration for the colours in her
own hotel, Endsleigh House, a boutique establishment in Devon ("I love the
way the Flemish use grey paint on woodwork: it's understated but so
beautiful"). At Emery, she also found lamps and tiles embellished with fish
for her Cornish hotel, Tresanton; ceramic bowls for the Amigo, and mirrors on
which she hung antlers at the Balmoral in Scotland.
Getting things back to the UK is not, she says, difficult or expensive. Most
shops have their own delivery service, or can recommend a company to transport
purchases straight to your doorstep. The company * *she uses, Philippe Vanreck,
delivers to London every Tuesday, charging about £100 for a large, wrapped
piece of furniture.
That morning, she'd been shopping with her interior-designer friend Annie
Waite, who has worked with Polizzi on hotels for more than a decade. She had
bought a massive 1930s sink from Philippe Lange, a furniture expert and restorer
on Place de la Justice. For those with Forte-sized wallets (the sink, while
enormous and undamaged, was €1,000/£714), Lange has hundreds of square feet
packed with 20th-century treasures, particularly by designers (predominantly
Belgian) from 1900 to the Sixties. In the back of his industrial-style space,
1950s post-office shelves stand beside a pair of original Serrurier-Bovy chairs
(also to be found in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris). In the window there's a
perfectly restored pair of rosewood-veneer sideboards (€3,500/£2,500). And
he's in the process of restoring a rosewood table, painstakingly inserting tiny
pieces of ancient veneer that he has saved specifically for delicate projects
such as this.
Polizzi says that he is marvellous at finding one-off pieces for specific
spaces. But you have to be quick, she advises, or they go. "When I think of
what I've missed out on, by pondering too long..." she sighs. "And one
rarely regrets things one has bought. Just things one hasn't bought."
With that in mind, we head off to a gallery where she and Annie have spotted
an extraordinary installation of about 200 doll-sized figures made of papier mâché.
"Wouldn't they be fantastic in a big modern library?" she enthuses,
trying the doorbell. It's closed. But there's a phone number printed on the
door. "And it's Belgium, so people don't mind you ringing to see if they
could come down," she says, airily.
Which, of course, the owner of Galerie d'Agata does immediately - to his
benefit. The figures are not bought. "Can you imagine having to dust those
every day in a hotel? It would be hell," says Polizzi, rolling her eyes.
But Annie Waite spots a painting in the contemporary gallery by the German
artist Henrik Wolff for €3,300 (£2,350), an abstract that looks like a grey
and cream surface of water radiating concentric circles. "That would be
perfect, just perfect, for the Munich restaurant, don't you think?" Polizzi
enthuses. "Yes, this one we will definitely have. Definitely."
A few shops along, they spot something else among the 20th-century
furnishings: a terracotta head of a creature that looks like something, Polizzi
observes, created by Cocteau, and which radiates light from its eyes when a bulb
is inserted. That, she decides, will make a good feature in any of the new
hotels, and at €250 (£179), isn't expensive. Ditto an ivy-shaped plate.
"We should have kept all our stuff from the Seventies," she sighs,
picking up a piece of Poole pottery. "Now we have to pay a fortune for
Not all of the shops offer quite the same bargains, as we discovered at the
Galerie J Visser, in an elegant, pressed-steel-ceilinged house built by the
great Belgian architect Victor Horta in 1894. It contains pieces so old that (to
our horror) there are still pieces of ancient mummified finger attached to two
of the rings, and whose prices, the owner says, "are negotiable, depending
on which museum wants them". Roman pieces whose prices, apparently, only
collectors would consider, lie on shelves. Brightly painted masks hang from the
walls. "African art is still very much part of Belgian life, because of the
colonial links, so it's not unusual to see African art in homes and hotels
here," Polizzi explains.
Next door are Tom and Sofia Desmet, who take visitors by appointment only and
are expecting their English friends. This is clearly a place where one doesn't
impulse-buy. My eye was caught by a row of Roman marble urns, positioned grandly
on plinths. The elegant space is also temporary home to, among other beautiful
pieces, a set of Louis XIV dining chairs, a gracious chaise longue, and a
marble-topped, 16th-century carved chest of drawers (which, I'm discreetly
informed, is priced at €9,000/£6,428). The last time Polizzi visited the
couple, she says, it was at their house in the country. "That's when you
realise what incredible taste the Belgians have," she says. "In their
homes, they have a sense of colour, shape and design that's so crisp: a clever
mix of contemporary and ancient that somehow works."
It certainly works in another shop, in which Polizzi admits she must have
bought "dozens and dozens of items". It is owned by Michel Lambrecht
and is thronging with design-savvy shoppers hoping to snap up one of the
Belgian's recycled pieces. He sells paintings, sculptures and tribal crafts that
he has discovered around the world. But the young antique dealer also buys
pieces of scrap metal (balustrades or broken pieces of iron railing), rusts them
and turns them into lamp-stands and light-fittings with contemporary shades.
Polizzi bought "heaps", she says, for Brown's Hotel in London. But
then, that's what Lambrecht is clever at - displaying pieces that would look
beautiful in both a contemporary and an old-fashioned home. There are small
stone sculptures that wouldn't look amiss in a minimalist apartment; cracked
white platters framed on the walls in dark wooden trays; piles of misshapen
plates; and lime-washed wooden chairs upholstered in rough linen. And, adorning
the wall, Miro-esque paintings by a French artist called Jean-Marc Louis.
But Polizzi has bought enough for today, she sighs. She's on an early train
tomorrow back to London to see her mother. She hasn't had quality time with her
husband, the writer and broadcaster William Shawcross, for days. And she wants
quickly to stock up on favourite Belgian products: chocolates by Marcolini and
balsamic vinegar from Claire Fontaine ("where I had the best sandwich I've
ever had in the world"). She also needs boxes of simple white cups from La
Vaisselle au Kilo, which, as its name implies, sells crockery cheaply by the
"Isn't that amazing value?" she grins, striding off happily towards
a café, where we rest. "I bought nearly 80 heart-shaped coffee cups and
saucers to use at Tresanton and Endsleigh for St Valentine's Day, and some jugs,
and it wasn't even £50. Now that's what I call a bargain!"
And she's off, once again, at a typical trot, pointing out the sights en
route to the hotel, from the gracious covered shops of the Galeries St-Hubert to
the splendid 17th-century gabled guild houses on the Grand' Place.
I am booked on the lunchtime train the following day. Before leaving, Polizzi
urges me to hit Brussels' flea market on the Place du Jeu de Balle, and the
enormous warehouses of bric-a-brac along the rue des Minimes, rue Haute and rue
Blaes. These are packed with everything from art nouveau to Rastafarian beads.
And she tells me to check out Libeco-Lagae, the long-established linen shop that
supplies vast quantities of sheets to her hotels across Europe.
I do just that - and end up almost cursing her for the amount of luggage with
which Eurostar bears me back to London. I might have arrived in Brussels with a
small bag, but I leave with a heavy Dutch vase, a set of scientific flasks
(ideal, I decide, for single flowers), a massive china platter, six misshapen
square bowls, chocolate, and, last but not least, a framed Tintin picture.
They're not quite what Olga Polizzi would have chosen, but then, I don't have
quite her budget. Or, indeed, 11 grand hotels to furnish.
The writer travelled on Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com).
The fastest journey from London Waterloo to Brussels takes two hours 20 minutes,
while trains from Ashford take two hours or less. Fares start at £59 return.
You can fly from several UK airports to the Belgian capital, with SN Brussels
(0870 735 2345; www.flysn.co.uk);
BMI (0871 224 0224; www.flybmi.com);
British Airways (0870 950 8950; www.ba.com);
and Eastern Airways (08703 669 100; www.easternairways.com),
which flies from Durham Tees Valley and Southampton.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset"
from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org).
Hotel Amigo, rue de l'Amigo 1-3, Brussels, Belgium (00 32 2 547 4747; www.roccofortehotels.com).
Doubles from €280 (£200), room only.
Pierre Marcolini, 1 rue des Minimes (00 32 2 514 1206; www.marcolini.be)
Claire Fontaine delicatessen, 3 rue Ernest Allard (00 32 2 512 2410)
Emery & Cie, 25-29 rue de l'Hôpital (00 32 2 513 5892; www.emeryetcie.com)
Galerie J Visser, Maison Frison, 37 rue Lebeau (00 32 2 503 4942; www.gallery-visser.com)
Galerie d'Agata, 8 rue J Stevens (00 32 2 512 2506; www.dagadep.com)
Philippe Lange, 2a Place de la Justice (00 32 2 503 4618)
Tom and Sofia Desmet, 16 rue Watteau (fax: 00 32 475 376 050.
Michel Lambrecht, 18 rue Watteau (00 32 2 502 2729; www.michellambrecht.be)
La Vaisselle au Kilo, 8a rue Bodenbroek (00 32 2 513 4984; www.lavaisselleaukilo.be)
Libeco, 10 rue Bodenbroek (00 32 2 502 6302; www.libeco.com)
Daily flea market at Place du Jeu de Balle, rue Blaes, 7am-2pm
Weekend antiques market, Place du Grand Sablon, 9am-5pm Saturdays, 9am-1pm
Belgian Tourist Office: 020-7537 1132; www.belgiumtheplaceto.be
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