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EU Quarter

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Léopold II extended the boundaries of Brussels east of the petit ring to incorporate the grandiloquent monuments and grassy parks he had constructed. Smart residential areas followed along with a series of museums whose large collections reflected, so the king believed, Belgium's proper position amongst the leading industrial nations. Much of Léopold's grand design has survived - and provides the district's key attractions - but today it's overlaid with the uncompromising office blocks of the EU. These high-rises coalesce hereabouts to form the loosely defined EU Quarter - properly the Quartier des Institutions Européennes , home to the European Commission, whose civil servants support and advise the EU's ultimate decision-making body, the Brussels-based Council of Ministers, and various committees of the European Parliament (which sits in Strasbourg).

To enjoy a visit to this part of the city, you'll need to follow a clear itinerary, one which avoids the worst of the EU area, where the streets groan with traffic and a vast building programme has turned whole blocks into dusty construction sites. Essentially, this means dodging - as far as possible - rues de la Loi and Belliard, the two wide boulevards that serve as the area's main thoroughfares. The best place to start is in the vicinity of Parc Léopold , where, just a few minutes' stroll from the petit ring, you'll find the intriguing Musée Wiertz , exhibiting the huge and eccentric paintings of the eponymous artist, and the gleaming European Parliament building . From here, it's a ten-minute walk to Le Cinquantenaire , one of Léopold's most excessive extravagances, a triumphal arch built to celebrate the golden jubilee of Belgian independence and containing three museums, the pick of which is the wide-ranging Musées royaux d'Art et d'Histoire .

The EU in Brussels

The European Union is operated by three main institutions, each of which does most of its work in Brussels:

The European Parliament sits in Strasbourg, but meets in Brussels for around six, two-day plenary sessions per year. It's the only EU institution to meet and debate in public. During sessions, MEPs - of whom there are currently just over 600 - sit in political blocks and not in national delegations. The Parliament has a President and 14 Vice-Presidents, each of whom is elected for two and a half years by Parliament itself. The President (or a Vice-President) meets with the leaders of the political groups to plan future parliamentary business. Supporting and advising this political edifice is a complex network of committees and these are mostly based in Brussels.

The Council of Ministers consists of the heads of government of each of the member states and the President of the European Commission. They meet regularly in the much-publicized "European Summits". Most Council meetings are not, however, attended by the heads of government, but by a delegated minister. There are complex rules regarding decision-making: some subjects require only a simple majority, others need unanimous support. This political structure is underpinned by scores of committees and working parties made up of both civil servants and political appointees. These committees and working parties are based in Brussels.

The European Commission acts as the EU's executive arm and board of control, managing funds and monitoring all manner of agreements. The 20 Commissioners are political appointees, nominated by their home country, but once they're in office they are responsible to the European Parliament. The president of the Commission is elected for a three-year period of office. Over 10,000 civil servants work for the Commission, whose headquarters are in Brussels.

Explore EU Quarter

Part of the petit ring and on the métro line, place du Trône is distinguished by its double lion gates and a sooty, life-size statue of Léopold II, perched on his horse. From here, rue du Luxembourg heads east to bisect a small park whose northern half contains a modest memorial to Julien Dillens, a popular nineteenth-century sculptor responsible for the effigy of Everard 't Serclaes on the Grand-Place. Just along the street, the place du Luxembourg has had varying fortunes, but now it's on the up, with fashionable cafés moving in as its three-storey, stone-trimmed houses are refurbished. In the middle of the square is a statue of John Cockerill (1790-1840), a British entrepreneur who built a steel-making empire in southern Belgium. His pioneering efforts certainly transformed the local economy - and his company still exists today - but the loyal workers at his feet stretch the point and so does the statue's inscription - Au père des ouvriers ("To the father of the workers").

On the far side of the square, behind the tatty Gare du Quartier Léopold railway station, rises a veritable cliff-face of EU office-block glass. To behold this behemoth at close quarters, follow the signs (to rue Wiertz) through the station. Fortunately, there's a breach in the office block dead ahead, and just beyond it - through the passageway and down the steps - is the European Union Parliament building , another glass, stone and steel whopper equipped with a curved glass roof that rises to a height of 70m. Completed in 1997, the building contains a large, semicircular assembly room as well as the offices of the President of the Parliament and their General Secretariat. The structure has its admirers, but is known locally as the " caprice des dieux ". Although it depends on what's happening in the Parliament, you can usually take a free, thirty-minute audio-guided tour of the building (Mon-Thurs 10am-3pm, Fri 10am, Sat 10am, 11.30am & 2.30pm) - check opening times at the information centre in the passageway.

The wide and largely featureless lawns of the Parc du Cinquantenaire slope up towards a gargantuan triumphal arch surmounted by a huge and bombastic bronze entitled Brabant Raising the National Flag . The arch, along with the two heavyweight stone buildings it connects, comprise Le Cinquantenaire , which was placed here by Léopold II for an exhibition to mark the golden jubilee of the Belgian state in 1880. By all accounts the exhibition of all things made in Belgium and its colonies was a great success, and the park continues to host shows and trade fairs of various kinds, while the buildings themselves - which are a brief walk from Métro Merode - contain extensive collections of art and applied art, weapons and cars, displayed in three separate museums.
Tues-Fri 10am-noon & 1-5pm; alternate weekends 10am-noon & 1-5pm; free. tel 02 648 17 18. Métro: Trône .

Behind the European Parliament building at rue Vautier 62 - head right from the entrance, then swing left up the slope - the Musée Wiertz is devoted to the works of one of the city's most distinctive, if disagreeable, nineteenth-century artists. Once immensely popular - so much so that Thomas Hardy in Tess of the d'Urbervilles could write of "the staring and ghastly attitudes of a Wiertz museum" - Antoine-Joseph Wiertz (1806-65) painted religious and mythological canvases, featuring gory hells and strapping nudes, as well as fearsome scenes of human madness and suffering. The core of the museum is housed in his studio , a large, airy space that was built for him by the Belgian state on the understanding that he bequeathed his oeuvre to the nation. Pictures include The Burnt Child, The Thoughts and Visions of a Severed Head and a small but especially gruesome Suicide - not for the squeamish. There are also a number of smaller, quite elegantly painted quasi-erotic pieces featuring coy nudes, and a colossal Triumph of Christ , a melodramatic painting of which Wiertz was inordinately proud. Three adjoining rooms contain further macabre works, such as Premature Burial and (the most appalling of them all) his Hunger, Folly, Crime , in which a madwoman is pictured shortly after hacking off her child's leg and throwing it into the cooking pot. Mercifully, there is some more restrained stuff here too, including several portraits and more saucy girls in various states of undress. Wiertz eventually came to believe that he was a better painter than his artistic forebears, Rubens and Michelangelo. Judge for yourself.

Tues-Fri 10am-noon & 1-5pm; alternate weekends 10am-noon & 1-5pm; free. tel 02 648 17 18. Métro: Trône .

Behind the European Parliament building at rue Vautier 62 - head right from the entrance, then swing left up the slope - the Musée Wiertz is devoted to the works of one of the city's most distinctive, if disagreeable, nineteenth-century artists. Once immensely popular - so much so that Thomas Hardy in Tess of the d'Urbervilles could write of "the staring and ghastly attitudes of a Wiertz museum" - Antoine-Joseph Wiertz (1806-65) painted religious and mythological canvases, featuring gory hells and strapping nudes, as well as fearsome scenes of human madness and suffering. The core of the museum is housed in his studio , a large, airy space that was built for him by the Belgian state on the understanding that he bequeathed his oeuvre to the nation. Pictures include The Burnt Child, The Thoughts and Visions of a Severed Head and a small but especially gruesome Suicide - not for the squeamish. There are also a number of smaller, quite elegantly painted quasi-erotic pieces featuring coy nudes, and a colossal Triumph of Christ , a melodramatic painting of which Wiertz was inordinately proud. Three adjoining rooms contain further macabre works, such as Premature Burial and (the most appalling of them all) his Hunger, Folly, Crime , in which a madwoman is pictured shortly after hacking off her child's leg and throwing it into the cooking pot. Mercifully, there is some more restrained stuff here too, including several portraits and more saucy girls in various states of undress. Wiertz eventually came to believe that he was a better painter than his artistic forebears, Rubens and Michelangelo. Judge for yourself.

Tues-Fri 9.30am-4.45pm, Sat & Sun 10am-6pm; ?3.70. www.natural.sciences.net. Métro: Trône .

The Muséum des Sciences Naturelles , just along the street from the Musée Wiertz, at rue Vautier 29, holds the city's natural history collection. It's a large, sprawling museum divided into fifteen clearly signed areas, each of which focuses on a particular aspect of the natural world, and several of which try to be child-friendly - robotic dinosaurs and suchlike. The dinosaur section is, indeed, the most impressive, featuring iguanodons whose skeletons parade across the ground floor. Iguanodons were two-legged herbivores who grazed in herds and a whole group of them was discovered in the coal mines of Hainaut in the late nineteenth century. Other museum highlights include a first-rate collection of tropical shells, an insect room, a section comparing the Arctic and Antarctic, and a whale gallery featuring eighteen skeletons, including the enormous remains of a blue whale.

On rue Vautier, almost opposite the Musée Wiertz, a scruffy back entrance leads into the rear of Parc Léopold , a hilly, leafy enclave landscaped around a lake. The park is pleasant enough, but its open spaces were encroached upon years ago when the industrialist Ernest Solvay began constructing the educational and research facilities of a prototype science centre here. The end result is a string of big, old buildings that spreads along the park's western periphery. The most interesting is the first you'll come to, the newly refurbished Bibliothèque Solvay (no set opening times), a splendid barrel-vaulted structure with magnificent mahogany panelling. Down below the library and the other buildings, at the bottom of the slope, is the main entrance to Parc Léopold, where a set of stumpy stone gates bear the legend "Jardin royal de zoologie". Léopold wanted the park to be a zoo, but for once his plans went awry.

From the front entrance to the park, it takes a little less than ten minutes to walk east along traffic-choked rue Belliard to the Parc du Cinquantenaire

The office blocks of the EU are concentrated along and between the two wide boulevards - rues de la Loi and Belliard - which Léopold II built to connect his Parc du Cinquantenaire with the city centre. It's not an interesting area to visit as the EU remains committed to modernistic, state-of-the-art high-rises - surprising given the difficulties it has had with its best-known construction, the Centre Berlaymont , a huge office building on rue de la Loi beside Métro Schuman. When it was opened in 1967, the Berlaymont was widely praised for its ground-breaking design, but in 1991 it was abandoned for health and safety reasons - the building was riddled with asbestos and work still continues on its refurbishment.

Although EU buildings dominate this segment of the city, a small stretch of late nineteenth-century urban planning has survived, a ten-minute walk north of the Centre Berlaymont past the shops and cafés of rue Archimède. Here, two pleasant and leafy plazas - squares Ambiorix and Marie-Louise - were laid out in the 1870s on what had previously been marshland. By the end of the century, they had formed, along with the short avenue Palmerston which linked them, one of the city's most fashionable suburbs, where the residences of the bourgeoisie included several splendid examples of Art Nouveau. Nowadays, square Ambiorix is largely overshadowed by modern apartments, but you shouldn't miss the superb wrought-iron and swirling stone facade of no. 11, one of the city's most ornate Art Nouveau buildings and the one-time home of a painter by the name of Georges de Saint-Cyr. Nearby, on avenue Palmerston , the Villa Germaine, at no. 24, exhibits striking patterned tiles and multicoloured bricks and down at the foot of the street are three wonderfully subtle buildings by Victor Horta: there's the austere facade of no. 3, whose white and blue stone trimmings lead round to an exuberant side-entrance; no. 2 is a charming corner house with a delicately carved, fluted stone facade; and no. 4 has a rigorous design softened by arched lintels and mosaics.

The south side of square Marie-Louise is occupied by a series of big old houses whose stone trimmings, balconies, dormer windows and high gables jostle each other. Leading off from the square is rue du Taciturne , whose most interesting building is no. 34, a lavish structure with an elegant facade of intricate window grilles and tiny black columns. It was designed by Paul Saintenoy, who was also responsible for the Old England building.

Rue du Taciturne leads back to rue de la Loi, from where it's a couple of minutes' walk west to Métro Maalbeek

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