Image: Brussels city center
Robert Wielaard  /  AP
Brussels' exquisitely preserved Grand-Place itself is a world heritage site that dazzles visitors year-round, but in the maze of narrow streets around it, the beauty of a Magritte sky framing centuries-old Flemish gables surrenders quickly to an ugliness stemming from years of planning neglect.
updated 9/17/2008 12:28:50 PM ET 2008-09-17T16:28:50

In 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels penned their Communist Manifesto — "a specter is haunting Europe, the specter of communism" — in a cabaret overlooking Brussels' spectacular Grand-Place.

Communism has come and gone and the cabaret is a now restaurant, still called The Swan. If Marx and Engels would see any specter there today, it would surely be the urban tackiness that over the years has encircled Brussels' central square.

The exquisitely preserved Grand-Place itself is a world heritage site that dazzles visitors year-round. But in the maze of narrow streets and alleys around it, the beauty of a Magritte sky framing centuries-old Flemish gables surrenders quickly to an ugliness stemming from years of planning neglect.

Walk into the Marche aux Fromages and you will find yourself in a garish "Kebab Alley" where cheeck-by-jowl Greek restaurants serve pita sandwiches under harsh neon light. Where the Mozart Hotel, inscrutably, blends Old Vienna with an over-the-top North African decor. Where plastic palms mark the Pizzeria Veneziana.

On the Rue de la Colline, chocolate shops vend brands unknown to most Belgians.

The Rue des Eperonniers boasts a graffiti-marred night shop, a tattoo parlor and the "Belgian Frit'N Toast" restaurant — a grease emporium whose yellow facade is not cheered up any by a huge, smiling bag of French fries.

"What we are seeing today is a visible decline in the quality of the historic area around the Grand-Place itself," says Christian Ceux, the Brussels city councilor for urban planning.

In a recent interview he said that the city plans to soon impose stricter design regulations on commercial activities in an area of about 1.5 square miles around the Grand-Place. A 14-page bylaw to that effect will be enacted by the end of 2008.

Advertising signs and outdoor menus will be limited in numbers and sizes. Only red and green awnings and parasols — the Brussels colors — will be allowed.

Neon signs will be banned. So will polyester window frames, mirrored glass, fancy light curtains, outside air conditioning units, fantasy flags, banners, garlands and flashing lights and texts.

Video: How’s your travel IQ? The plans include steps to encourage people to live again in the city's historic heart. "Bricked-up stairwells must be reopened so that upper floors can become apartments again," says Ceux.

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The aim is to restore dignity to centuries-old buildings that today are festooned with garish boardings, filthy awnings and brick facades ripped open to make room for ever more tables and chairs.

"The new rules will take effect gradually when existing permits expire or stores and restaurants apply for rebuilding or publicity permits," said Ceux.

"Most importantly, from now on these rules will be legally enforced."

To date, the city has had voluntary rules. That worked well on the Grand-Place itself but not the streets around it.

Slideshow: A European tour Nowhere is the decline of historic Brussels more spectacular than in the Petite Rue des Bouchers.

The narrow street links the Grand-Place to the Ilot Sacre, a warren of half a dozen streets brimming with restaurants, many of which serve nothing more challenging than paella, pizza, lasagne or spaghetti.

So dubious is the reputation of the Petite Rue des Bouchers — where labor law inspectors are regulars, outdoor shills hassle passers-by or lure them inside with chocolates — that the city refuses to advertise it in its tourist brochures.

Visitors who do their homework before going into the area will find only a handful of restaurants rise above the generally dismal quality of eateries. They include Vincent, L'Ogenblick, Aux Armes de Bruxelles and Scheltema.

"What I want to see happening," says Ceux, the city councillor for urban planning, "is that in 5 to 10 years visitors will find the streets in the heart of Brussels as clean and pleasing to the eye as the Grand-Place is today."

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