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Brussels is a class above so many other European cities. While spots from Strasbourg to Stuttgart clutter their main squares with standard-issue Christmas markets, Brussels takes an altogether more sensible approach to Advent.
The magnificent Grand Place, the showpiece piazza in the heart of the Belgian capital, hosts a dramatic seasonal centerpiece: a life-size Christmas crib. Real sheep, more attuned perhaps to pastoral life in the meadows of Flanders, swap rural duties for the festive buzz in the Grand Place, sometimes upstaging the Holy Family as the crib’s star attraction.
All cribs give a local take on the story of the Nativity, and the Brussels variant has Mary and Joseph stopping off in pretty sybaritic accommodation – this stable veers strongly towards the upper end of the standard star rating for Eurostables.
The Electrabel experience
From 4:30 pm, as darkness closes in, the entire Grand Place is transformed into a magical space. Every evening until (and including) January 1, 2012, Les Nuits Electrabel invite visitors to see this well-known Brussels square bathed in an eerily beautiful mix of sound and light. On some Saturdays and Sundays from 8 pm, this son et lumière spectacular is augmented by fire dancers, light jugglers or contortionists.
Full marks to Brussels for its radical, mysterious, utterly provocative rejection of the commercial clutter that fills too many city squares this month. Quite what the resident sheep make of the whole affair is not clear.
Brussels does things differently
The Belgian capital has often impertinently defied prevailing tourist trends. Remember, this is a place with a surrealist agenda that boasts museums devoted to the history of plastic, sewers and street lighting. And the city always has a few temporary exhibitions on the most oddball topics, which invariably turn out to be marvelous.
Here is our topical handful of top diversions:
The Sabena story
An exhibition on the history of the now-defunct Belgian airline Sabena may sound like a dull afternoon, but the Musée du Cinquantenaire brings the remarkable Sabena story to life, recalling how this small Belgian carrier helped shape an emerging aviation market in the 1920s, in particular pioneering challenging new routes linking Europe with Africa. Le progrès venait du ciel (Progress came from the skies) runs through February 26, 2012.
Milestones in advertising
The art center in the Rue de Rouge-Clotre can always be relied upon to provoke, and they do that very well with their seasonal show that tracks the early history of chromolithography. Fabulously evocative 19tth-century chromolithographs transformed the world of print advertising, and Expo Chromos is as much an exploration of social history as a tour of a technical innovation. It runs through February 5, 2012, and is open from 2 to 4 p.m. daily, except Mondays and Fridays (and closed Dec 23 through Jan 6).
A Simenon special
The new Museum of Letters and Manuscripts (MLM) has a well-received winter exhibition on the life and work of Georges Simenon, the prolific Belgian writer most remembered for creating the fictional detective Jules Maigret. Simenon fans have until Feb 24, 2012 to see the exhibition.
Just a short walk east of MLM, the Belvue Museum hosts a hard-hitting exhibition on the lives of unaccompanied young migrants who now live in Belgium. The Past is Another Country tracks the lives of Raza, Sabo, Imad, Maryska, Ibrahim, Dinesh, Jocob and Benjamin: eight young people born in eastern Europe, Africa, Asia or the Middle East. They all traveled to Belgium alone, and are among the more than 3,000 unaccompanied children who every year arrive in Belgium.
This is an exhibition that provokes and incites, inspired by the work of journalist Catherine Vuylsteke. She has helped raise public awareness of this underclass of migrants who remain largely invisible in mainstream Belgian society. The exhibition runs at the Belvue until Jan 29, 2012.
Back to the Atomium
The Brussels Atomium is always worth a visit, and especially this winter. This technological period piece, once so futuristic, nowadays mainstreams on more retrospective fare. For devotees of the truly bizarre, a temporary exhibition starts tomorrow. It looks at the history of concrete architecture from 1958 to 1980. We just cannot wait! Only in Brussels.