Frederick Boutry loves his job. “I am passionate about changing people’s views of Brussels,” he says. The chargé de mission for the gay market at Visit Brussels, Boutry smiles as he reflects on his first press trip hosting in late 2009. “Many thought Brussels would be boring when they got the invitation,” he says acknowledging that for many, his city lives in the shadow of neighbouring LGBT heavy-hitter destinations like London, Paris and Berlin. “But that is changing.”
Boutry markets the city’s gay offering and creates networks among the local LGBT industry with a modest annual budget of approximately 100,000 Euro. On his watch, Boutry has seen the local Pride festival multiply in visitors and he says La Démence, a monthly circuit party in Brussels, is an ever-increasing mix of international visitors that presently generates 45,000 room nights annually. Both are now major events on the Belgian calendar. Visit Brussels creates and distributes a mini map that locates gay-friendly cultural, dining and party destinations.
“Brussels is all about welcoming you as you are,” he says. “It’s easy going and that’s the Belgian way of living. Just look at our popularity, for example, with bears and trans.”
Evening footfall in the local gay district demonstrates the city’s hospitality to an eclectic mix as gym bunnies, leather boys, fashionistas, muscle bears, hipster students, boy-babes and the trans crowd rub shoulders.
Fred Da Soghe, president of the city’s LGBT business association, can vouch for this. To extend the welcome and service, many of the local businesses make a point of greeting customers in their native language. Da Soghe says this is the rule at his own establishment: a cruising bar named Stammbar. “Among my staff, we speak French, English, Dutch, Spanish, Polish and German,” he says.
For Da Soghe, one of the city’s strengths is the strong cartoon culture. Beloved comic characters such as Tin Tin and the Smurfs were born in Brussels and museums, statues and murals throughout the city mark this heritage.
The city’s landmark attraction resembles an atom on steroids and the Atomium shines brighter these days thanks to a nearby boost. The Plasticarium, a museum showcasing works in plastic, opened in December. The collection began decades ago now finally finds a home in the contemporary gallery. Exhibits include everyday items and works of art in brilliant primary colours.
The exhibitions are a nostalgic throwback to 1958 when Brussels hosted the world expo. It was a time of prosperity and innovation. The futuristic design adopted by nations in the modelling of their pavilions showcases their innovative mite. Many of the spaces remain untouched and resemble the set of The Jetsons.
And Brussels even manages to inject life and interest into what some might find boring. The European Union Parliament is situated in Brussels and thanks to the Parliamentarium, an interactive new gallery, the site is no longer a snoozefest for those who are dragged through the site by political hacks.
Ensuring quality of water, guaranteeing adequate income for farmers, addressing online piracy and preventing infringement of civil liberties and copyright are among the diverse mandates of the European Union which are hashed out on the floor of the EU Parliament. The main draw at the exhibit is a 360-degree theatre with surround sound that immerses visitors in the drama of political decision making in parliament.
“Debate heats up and tension mounts,” recites the narrator as orchestral music builds and scenes of hustling MEPs unfold before the spectators positioned at desks modelled circularly, resembling the EU Parliament.
Aptly named, The Hotel is the place to stay for style mavens and those looking for great city views from their bedroom. Standing tall among the city’s designer boutiques – Burberry, Bulgari, Hermes, Armani, Hermes – the property offers spectacular vistas. The Hotel also embraces its posh neighbours with display cases illuminating their designs throughout the lobby. Fashion pictorials are stacked on bookcases throughout the hotel.
“Our corridors are even made to resemble a catwalk,” says sales manager Laurent Van den Broecke.
Lush rooms are designed in an open-concept style so that even the bathrooms maximize the exceptional views. Leather seating, black and white décor and an open mini bar boost the rooms’ appeal. And, of course, the posh property has its own fragrance available for purchase. Chef Pierre Balthazar of The Restaurant at The Hotel approaches ingredients and his menu with innovation. The menu changes to feature three nations’ interpretation of the same set of ingredients regularly. This year, the three twists on several sets of basic ingredients are Belgium, Spain and Thailand.
Perusing the main square with Boutry, the animated marketer cocks his head, admiring the 360-degree landmark. “The city’s definitely worth a look,” he says.