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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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African sculpture

Cultural highlight: an exhibit from the Royal Museum of Central Africa which houses the world's largest display of African art

l. Commissioned by King Leopold II, it is the world's largest display of African art. ... Brussels, A buzz at the heart of Euroland

Brussels is known as the 'grey city' of Europe, boring compared with glamorous capitals such as Paris, Rome and Madrid. That is, until you've been there.

Brussels brings to mind images of EC suits filing out of soulless, bureaucratic buildings and into expensive restaurants, of endless chocolate shops and of beers served up in a sterile atmosphere akin to Geneva.

Cultural highlight: an exhibit from the Royal Museum of Central Africa which houses the world's largest display of African art.

Asked the old parlour game question "Name five famous Belgians", I could manage only four - the cyclist Eddie Merckx, Rubens, Magritte and the tennis player Kim Clijsters (Tintin, Poirot and Jean Claude Van Damme were not allowed). The website proudly tells us that there are 259 national celebrities, but judging by the recent additions - "The Singing Nun" (Jeanine Deckers), the coach manufacturer Bernhard Van Hool and Edward de Smedt, the inventor of asphalt - they hardly seem inspiring icons.

Brussels is known as the "grey city" of Europe, boring compared with glamorous capitals such as Paris, Rome and Madrid. That is, until you've been there.

My first movements in the city read like a Monopoly game: from the station to jail, then to the bank and back to jail for the night. An unlucky roll of the dice? Far from it - the jail was the former prison that is now the newly refurbished five-star Amigo Hotel, and the former Central Bank has become the lavish Belga Queen restaurant, part of a vibrant gastronomic scene to rival Paris.

With a host of dusk-to-dawn bars and clubs for anal or other pleasures, this is also a lively city. And far from being staid, it's increasingly "progressive". Gay and lesbian bars are on the rise, same-sex weddings are legal and the government plans to legalise the personal use of cannabis. Although fewer people fly in, record numbers are travelling by Eurostar, enticed by lower prices, door-to-door travel and the offer of free onward journeys throughout Belgium.

It was a cold Sunday evening when I arrived, but the city was buzzing. Just a stone's throw from the Amigo is the elegant Grand Place. Traditional bars fill the street level of the buildings where a cross-section of Europeans crowded round fireplaces and tankards of beer. Their laughter echoed around the cobbled square that was once described by Victor Hugo as "La plus belle place du monde". Under floodlights it was easy to see why: the dazzling detail on these Renaissance guildhouses, rebuilt just four years after being reduced to rubble by the French in 1695, compares with the splendour of Venice's Piazza San Marco.

I wandered past the impressive town hall and down Rue des Bouchers (Butchers' Street). It proved more welcoming than its name suggests. The tables and awnings from competing restaurants spilled out on to the street, forcing passers-by into single file. Doormen tried to entice couples in with "Une table pour les amoureux?", or extolled their huge range of beer. In a city where there are enough restaurants to eat somewhere new every day for five years, the competition for custom is fierce. Locals turn their nose up at the tourist traps, with their neon signs and plastic billboards. Brussels, they are quick to tell you, has more Michelin-starred restaurants per head than Paris. While three-star venues such as Comme Chez Soi and Bruneau can rival the best in the French capital for quality, they also rival them in price.But you can eat reasonably, and well, at restaurants with fixed-price menus (some as little as £12 for three courses). The Au Stekerlapatte on Rue des Pretres pits you among mustachioed locals tucking into rabbit stew, Au Bain Marie on Rue Breydel offers rustic pasta dishes that will leave you change from 10 euros and Vincent on Rue des Dominicains serves arguably the best mussels in Brussels.

My taxi driver suggested it was probably the restaurant scene that persuaded the European Commission to choose Brussels as its headquarters. He took me to a favourite of the EC suits, the Belga Queen. In the imposing marble colonnaded hall, the vaulted stained-glass ceiling looks down on regimented lines of white cloth tables and an open-plan kitchen is fitted where the cashiers would once have stood. The food (I had a sumptuous Charolais sirloin steak, with braised endives and a generous helping of hand-cut fries) is prepared with French-style attention to detail and served in German-size portions. The bill was pretty huge too: a eurocrat expenses account would have come in handy.

After dining I strolled along to the Zebra Bar - one of many clubs that have sprung up around Place St Géry. A huge variety of beer is available in Brussels. Some tour buses even have Stella Artois vending machines. Delirium Bar, which opened this year, boasts 2,004 different kinds, from mainstream lagers to white beer and dark ales, and from fruit beer to the cloudy brews produced by monks.

If you are after the really bizarre, head to Le Cercueil (coffin), a bar featuring funereal music, coffin lids, velvet drapes and skull-carved tankards. I passed on the cocktails - which included "Corpse Urine" - and opted for a straight-forward ale named "Mort Subite" (instant death). I barely raised an eyebrow at a later pit-stop when I was confronted by hundreds of pigs' bladders hanging from the ceilings at the Roi d'Espagne bar.

Beyond the bars, the city rewards those with an eye for the unexpected. Where else would you find crowds swarming around a small statue of a boy urinating? Situated on the corner of Rue L'Etuve, the Mannequin-Pis is never more popular than when dressed in the national costume of visiting delegations. When I was there, a crowd of Japanese visitors squealed with delight before buying the requisite chocolate models from the nearby souvenir shop and hurrying off in search of the Mannequin's sister - the squatting Janneke-Pis.

Architecturally, the city is a mixture of the beautiful and the ugly. If coming just for the weekend, forget the European Quarter. Despite the futuristic Atomium, the curved glass buildings and new flower beds, it still feels sterile. Instead, enjoy the Victor Horta-inspired art nouveau homes, which sit next to ornate guildhouses, the Renaissance buildings interspersed with modern flats, the winding medieval alleyways leading out to glass-fronted shopping arcades. You can understand why Brussels became such a breeding ground for the Surrealist movement.

For a city with a thousand years of history, it is disappointing in its museums, but there are notable exceptions. The Museum of Fine Arts boasts an impressive range of art from the 15th century to today and dedicates a room to René Magritte. The Museum of Musical Instruments, near the imposing Palais de Justice, is also worth a look for its collection of Stradivarius violins and the panoramic views from its rooftop cafe. But the highlight is the Royal Museum of Central Africa in the suburb of Tervuren. Commissioned by King Leopold II, it is the world's largest display of African art. Such was the king's fascination with Africa that, in 1897, he shipped in 267 bewildered Congolese tribesmen to live for a year in mock villages in the Royal Park as part of a world fair display. Now tropical plants are the only living exhibits.

For shopping, local designer flair (in the form of Olivier Strelli and Antwerp 6, a Madonna favourite) can be found along Rue Antoine Dansaert while the Rue Neuve has a number of high street chains. Avenue Louise is the place for international fashion houses - and exquisite chocolatiers. Those with a smaller budget should head to the flea markets on the Place du Jeu de Balle.

There is another reason for visiting Brussels - its hugely creative cartoon and comic tradition. In any cafe, a common sight is grown men flicking through tatty comics. The three-mile comic-strip walk takes you past some 25 giant frescoes on disused buildings and metro station walls. Tintin, the Smurfs and Lucky Luke are just a few of the animated characters Belgium has brought to life. Brussels has a sense of humour - and far more colour than grey.
# Charles Starmer-Smith travelled by Eurostar (08705 186186, ) from Waterloo. It offers up to nine services a day to Brussels from £59 return. Journey time: 2hrs 15 mins. All tickets are now valid for travel to/from any Belgian station at no extra cost. The five-star Amigo Hotel (0032 25474747, has standard doubles from £106, including tax but not breakfast.

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The Tribal Arts of Africa

The Tribal Arts of Africa
Author: Jean-Baptiste Bacquart

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