We’ll always have Brussels -- the new romance

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Eurostar services from St Pancras station are turning the Belgian capital, home of the eternally young detective Tintin, into one of the top big city break destinations in Europe. The train takes two hours and 20 minutes, which, city centre to city centre, is faster than flying. Brussels has grand buildings, lively museums and restaurants good enough to rival Paris. And special features all of its own - high rise cartoons, sumptuous chocolates, wonderful beers, and the birthplace of Audrey Hepburn. And if you need a patriotism top-up, the battlefield of Waterloo is a short trip out of town. Picture - Brussels, home of Tin Tin, 'tec in a hurry.

Belgium’s Number One Detective

He’s everywhere, Brussels’ eternally young detective, and now a big screen star. (Director Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn opened in cinemas in October, 2011). Arriving Eurostar passengers can see him at Midi station. A massive canvas shows the tousle-haired 'tec (created by Brussels born author Georges Remi, Hergé) as a cowboy on an iron horse, chasing gangster Bobby Smiles. At Rue de l’Etuve, Tintin, the cursing Capt Haddock and Snowy take up the whole gable end of a building in another action pose. At Stokkel Metro station a 135 yard long mural features the whole team, including useless investigators Thompson and Thomson, Professor Calculus, and the others. The Centre for Comic Strip Art is architect Victor Horta’s gorgeous Art Nouveau masterpiece. Sunlight filters down onto Captain Haddock’s moon rocket in the entrance hall.

In the movie, Billy Elliot star Jamie Bell, plays Tintin. Daniel Craig plays the villain, Ivan Ivanovich Sakharine. Captain Haddock is Andy Serkis; bumbling detectives Thompson and Thomson are played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

The real Willy Wonka?

Is Pierre Marcolini the real life Willy Wonka? He is forever questing after the dreamier chocolate taste. Every year he scours Latin America, Java and Madagascar for finer cocoa beans and yummier vanillas. Back in Brussels he blends them into ever more sensuous creations. Consider the Vervaine – pure Belgian chocolate truffle suffused with vervain, orange peel and Tahiti vanilla. One new offering is a glazed chestnut with a tear of syrup in its heart. You can find Marcolini and his Brussels rivals in smart shopping malls around the world. But his flagship outlet is here, on the Place du Grand Sablon. Then try the opposition, Wittamer, Nihoul and Leonidas. Neuhaus, one of the oldest, is in Galleries St-Hubert. it was the original Mr Neuhaus who invented the hard chocolate shell to contain those exquisite fillings, and inaugurated our enduring chocolate passion.

Horta heritage

Victor Horta, the great Art Nouveau architect, was born in 1861. Brussels celebrated his 150th anniversary in 2011, turning the spotlight on his works and the importance of his heritage. There are grand townhouses, stores, country residences, the Palais des Beaux Arts, Gare Centrale (main railway station). The Horta Museum is in the private house and studio of the famous architect. Built between 1898 and 1901, the two buildings are characteristic of Art Nouveau at its peak. Most interior detail - mosaics, stained-glass windows, furniture, paintings and murals are intact.

The refurbished Museum of Natural Sciences reopened in 2007. It features Europe’s largest Dinosaur Gallery, starring Belgium’s very own iguanodons, found by miners at Bernissart in 1878, and shown here in their full magnificence. And what of the city''s architecture? Brussels’s Basilica (the world’s fifth biggest church) may not inspire the same shivers of excitement that St Peters in Rome does. But it is still worth a visit, as one of the lesser-known great buildings of Europe.

Stroll the medieval marvel.

Unlike Paris, this city does not have instantly recognised icon buildings. But few capitals on earth distilled so much pomp, pride and magnificent into a single space as Brussels did with the Grand’Place. This expansive cobbled square is ringed by noble guild houses and dominated by the Town Hall, dating from the 1400s. ‘It illustrates in an exceptional way a medieval city at the height of its prosperity,’ noted UNESCO, when it placed it on the World Heritage List. The square is one of Europe’s top settings for the Christmas market, which runs every year until January 1st. Afterwards warm up in the Galeries St Hubert, a gorgeous glass arcade built in 1847, the first in Europe. Neoclassical gods and heroes gaze down from high above cafes and chic shops.

Queen of the screen

I spotted her photograph recently, displayed quite randomly. It filled someone’s front door, that fey, fragile, enchanting vision in her famous black dress and gloves. Even from 100 yards it was unmistakably Audrey Hepburn, star of Roman Holiday and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And it all began in Brussels. As we stood outside 48 Rue Keyenveld in the Ixelles district (nearest metro, Louise-Louiza) inspecting the plaque marking her birth here on May 4th 1929, a by-standing admirer summed it up: ‘She’s everyone’s favourite, isn’t she.’ The house is still easy to miss. It is about 30 yards from Les Brassins, a traditional Belgian brasserie, and a sensible stop on a cold day. They serve 50 different beers, and Belgian classics such as stoemp (a winter stew with potatoes, carrots, onion sauce and sausages).

First of the froth

For variety, verve and invention, Brussels beats all-comers for the unofficial crown of world beer capital. Most of Belgium’s 500 beers, from 125 breweries, can be found in the city, and there is a taste to tempt the most cynical palates. The choice includes Trappist beer brewed in a few select monasteries; Lambic beer flavoured with cherries, raspberry and peach; and wheat beer tinged with coriander and orange peel. If you cannot afford the bubbly at St Pancras station on your way here, try the sparkling Gueuze, the Brussels Champagne. In the best bars these beers are served in their own special glass, shaped to enhance the flavour. It’s a mean landlord who keeps fewer than 12; some offer 60 or more. Les Brasseurs de La Grand’Place, serves three of its own brews, with traditional Belgian snacks. Three more to seek out are Amour Fou, Beer Circus, and Toone.

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