Chris Carter escapes the Brexit drama at the Hotel Metropole, Brussels.
Brussels is a busy place these days, but away from the high political drama of Brexit, a grand old lady sits quietly on the Place de Brouckère – the Hotel Metropole. The square is unlike the Grand-Place a few minutes walk away, where the tourist crowds gather to gawk at the grand old buildings.
It’s quieter here. From the tables and chairs outside the hotel’s opulent cocktail bar you can sit and watch the people scurry past on their way to somewhere else. It was in this bar, they say, that in 1949 Gustave Tops invented the Black Russian in honour of the visiting US ambassador to Luxembourg – a Belgian barman with a dry sense of humour, given the chill in the air from the then-commencing Cold War.
In fact, the Metropole is really more a bar with a hotel than the other way around. In 1890, the beer-brewing Wielemans brothers opened Le Café Metropole to sell their beers. Business was so brisk that they decided to buy the bank next door and turn it into a hotel. You can see the trappings of a proud 19th-century bank in the dimly lit reception hall dressed up in the Empire style of warm wood, bronze and stained-glass windows. Far from being somewhere to rest your aching head after an afternoon spent in the cafe, the Metropole became a byword for modern luxury – electricity, lifts and central heating.
In the decades that followed, the greatest minds of the 20th century checked in at the polished teak counter. Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Henri Poincaré attended the first Solvay Physics Board here in 1911, when the pink marble was still new and shining.
After that the two world wars made their rude intrusion. Yet time enough was still found to build an Art Nouveau cinema in 1932. One mustn’t let beastliness get in the way of culture, you know.
Then, in 1957, more cocktails were raised to toast the Brussels World’s Fair, set for the following year. And still the men of power arrived in the marble lobby – Charles de Gaulle, American presidents Herbert Hoover and Dwight D Eisenhower, and the West German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. Since then, the hotel, bar and restaurant have all undergone renovations and new openings.
But despite the reapplication of make-up on this grande dame, the cracks inevitably show. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. And that’s not to say the great and good no longer flock here, they do – mostly stars of the French screen, as a wall of framed comment cards left by celebrities proudly attests.
But it was one card written by a famous British actor that, for me, summed it up best: “I have very much enjoyed again – living at the Metropole, even though the walls are made of paper and I can hear my neighbours snore at night. The M is a charming hotel full of eccentricities – breakfast delicious – thank you”. Rupert Everett, I could not have put it better myself.
From €111 a night, metropolehotel.com
A Roman alternative
“St Regis has redefined old-fashioned notions of grande-dame hotels by bringing light, modernism, and artful details to its recently renovated European flagship property,” says Laurie Kahle for Forbes. Le Grand Hotel opened in Rome in 1894 and it has retained its “opulence and illustrious heritage”.
Interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon has “conceived an au courant vision for a second golden age”, “taking inspiration from the Eternal City’s captivating light play”. Public spaces, guest rooms and suites are decorated with “palettes of cream paired with either powder blue or shades of terracotta evoking the city’s ancient structures”.
The Empire, Regency and Louis XV styles are all influences, “enhanced with Rubelli fabrics, collectible curios, and hand-engraved mirrors”.