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On the Culture Front: Four Days in Belgium

It was an unseasonably warm day last summer when I found myself climbing the towering steps known as "Montagne de Bueren" in the Belgian city of Liege. I had just arrived at my hotel and was feeling antsy, a little displaced and in need of some geographical cohesion.
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It was an unseasonably warm day last summer when I found myself climbing the towering steps known as "Montagne de Bueren" in the Belgian city of Liege. I had just arrived at my hotel and was feeling antsy, a little displaced and in need of some geographical cohesion. Armed with an old-fashioned map and my irrevocably broken French, I set out through the quaint winding streets that were both unassuming and idyllic. There isn't much traffic snaking through town, making it easy to daydream.

More mountain than staircase, the walk up Bueren makes for an intimidating proposition when gazing upwards at the 374 steps that climb towards the sky at an aggressive incline. Designed as a mode of transportation for soldiers, it now shares dual functions of tourist trek and the long and only way home for the residents of the quaint buildings that flank it on either side. Carved into the base and hidden behind a winding walkway is the micro-brewery Curtius. I stopped in for a beer the following day and was impressed with the taste balance of their signature beer, a blond brew that's corked just like champagne. This seems apt as it delivers a refreshing jolt not unlike a glass of bubbly. The dark, well-thought-out interior resembles the love child of a Brooklyn bar and Belgian castle. Megabrew Jupiler is the hometown beer here (think Belgian Bud Light) but with an abundance of good beer it seemed silly to try. Instead, I had an Orval at a café that night with dinner for a mere few euros.

Brussels is just a couple hours away by train, and as I found, equipped with an easy-to-navigate metro. My hotel (simply and aptly named The Hotel) checked off just about everything on my checklist: free wifi, comfy bed, insane view of the city, and free Trappist beer. I didn't know that last one even existed until I checked in and found a room for guests stocked with a never-ending supply of Chimay and little sandwiches that I made into meals. It quickly became my go to stop on my way in from a museum binge. There are so many that I got a Brussels Card, which provides unlimited access to all of them and set the pace for my next frenzied 48 hours. The Hotel is just a short stroll from many of them, including one devoted solely to musical instruments. My favorite was the bebop room, which contained a "colossus" Sonny Rollins saxophone that shined pristinely.

Just a short stroll away is Bozar, a massive arts center that combines a cinema and live performing venues with an extensive modern and contemporary art museum. I only had a couple of hours but managed to squeeze in three exhibits. My favorite was "Michael Borremans: As Sweet As It Gets." This major exhibition of the Belgian painter filled cavernous rooms with over a hundred of his works that walk an exhilarating line between realism and surrealism with a melancholic pulse throughout. Time evaporated for a second as I gazed into the carefully painted eyes of Borremans' vulnerable subjects that seemed to be created with 19th century formality while illustrating the plight of the modern man.

The Magritte Museum is a part of a conglomerate of modern structures that's as slick as it is expansive. The collection stretches across three floors, each marking a period in the pioneering surrealist's life, and traces his impressionist influences through to the emergence of his voice. The distortions in his work aren't arbitrary but a deliberate bridge to his own reality.

I caught a further glimpse of this in his house on the outskirts of the city. It took a couple trams, a lost-in-translation conversation with a very sweet pharmacist followed by a mad dash for another tram, but the journey was completely worth it. Marked only by a small wooden shadow of the artist with the words "MUSEUM RENE MAGRITTE" painted in muted gold, I passed by it the first time and had to circle back. Walking inside, it feels as though the artist has just left for a supply run and is expected back soon.

The intimate four-room ground floor apartment where Magritte lived for more than two decades (1930-1954) is elegantly but sparely appointed. French doors separate the bedroom from the living room, which looks like a cozy salon with an upright piano and black marble table with white and gold chairs. The bedroom and office contain more wood furniture and the kitchen looks out onto a small but lush garden. It's evident that he was quite comfortable here and he's quoted as saying, "I can stay at home as the world offers me ideas." It's an odd feeling reading that thousands of miles from home but one that stays with me as I write this from my desk in Manhattan.