Architectural excellence, artistic flair and a wealth of cultural treasures conspire to make Brussels one of the most appealing cities in Europe for discerning travellers, and there’s no better base from which to explore it than Rocco Forte’s Hotel Amigo. Joe Mortimer spends a long weekend acquainting himself with the Belgian capital from the comfort of its most gracious pied-à-terre: the Armand Blaton Suite.
Throughout the ages, the flags of various European empires have flown over the Belgian capital, imposing their laws from faraway lands. It is somewhat ironic then that Brussels is now the de facto capital of the European Union and the seat of the European Parliament. In some ways it’s a city that seems as though it was always destined for greatness, with a collection of magnificent buildings that exude a sense of pomp and ceremony; and a rich artistic and cultural heritage that lends credibility to its latter-day role as arbiter of an entire continent.
From the Art Nouveau townhouses of Belgian architect Victor Horta and Art Deco boltholes like the legendary jazz club L’Archiduc, to neoclassical confections such as the Royal Palace and the gothic masterpiece that is the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall), Brussels is a vision of architectural wonders. Many of them are huddled shoulder to shoulder at La Grande-Place, a cobbled market square surrounded by some of the most spectacular buildings in Europe: elaborate guildhalls dripping in gold, resplendent ducal palaces and the aforementioned Town Hall with its soaring spire, all of which were deservedly inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1998.
If these buildings represent the grand ambitions of the city’s wealthiest inhabitants and architects, then art takes on a less ostentatious but equally important role in Bruxelloise life. René Magritte is the best-known of the city’s surrealist artists, with two museums dedicated to his life and work, but it is Brussels’ comic book artists that are perhaps the most well-known around the world, including the two most famous: Georges Prosper Remi (Hergé) who created The Adventures of Tin Tin in 1929, and Pierre Culliford (Peyo) who gave birth to The Smurfs in 1958 – a year that holds special significance in Brussels.
A HOTEL FOR ALL SEASONS
Every city has handful of key dates in its timeline that had a major impact on its future trajectory. For Brussels, one of the most important was 1958, the year it hosted the Brussels World Fair, Expo ’58 – an event that saw massive investment and a wave of new construction sweep across the city. As well as the birth of The Smurfs, 1958 saw the completion of the new Brussels Airport, and the construction of the bizarre Atomium building – an homage to science and now a major tourist attraction at the site of the Expo.
It was good news for the Blaton family, who ran the largest construction firm in Belgium. Armand Blaton was aware of the international attention the World Fair would attract and, anticipating an influx of VIPs, set out to build a hotel that would set new standards of luxury.
Hotel Amigo was born in 1957: a magnificent building on the site of an old prison, that was instantly recognised as the most prestigious hotel in all of Brussels, with smartly uniformed bellboys attending to the lords and ladies of Europe who would emerge from limousines in front of the hotel. Situated on its namesake Rue de l’Amigo in the heart of Brussels’ historic quarter, a stone’s throw from La Grande-Place and its astonishing architectural riches, Hotel Amigo is part of the fabric of the city.
When Rocco Forte Hotels acquired the hotel in 2000, it hadn’t changed much since its 1957 opening. A major overhaul ensued under the vigilant eye of Rocco Forte Hotels’ design doyenne Olga Polizzi, sister of Sir Rocco Forte, who spent months sifting through the antique shops that line the nearby Place du Grand Sablon for vintage furnishings and artwork with which to fill the guestrooms.
The lobby and ground floor were completely remodelled to make space for BoCCini, the hotel’s glamorous Italian restaurant, which now occupies the side of the hotel along the Rue de l’Etuve, a few steps from a three-storey-high Tin Tin mural, and the city’s most famous landmark, Manneken Pis. If you find the playful statue of the little boy relieving himself underwhelming, head back to BoCCini and take a table on the outdoor terrace, and let the Italian menu created by Rocco Forte Hotels’ creative director of food, Fulvio Pierangelini, lift your spirits.
In Hotel Amigo’s lobby, ancient flagstones made of blue limestone from Hainaut in southern Belgium create a sense of gravitas and timelessness; a vast 18th century tapestry hangs from the wall, bright cushions add a pop of contemporary colour and a kaleidoscopic staircase winds up to higher floors. Off to the right, classic cocktails are poured in Bar A below a wall of signed photos of famous visitors – Bowie, Depardieu and de Niro among them – and the sound of live jazz drifts through the lobby every Friday evening.
The hotel celebrated its 60th birthday last year with further refurbishments. After a top-to-toe refresh, the 154 rooms and 19 suites radiate homely, elegant style, each one furnished in a palette of blue, red or green, which is reflected in the rich fabrics and décor, as well as the marble in the bathrooms. Prints by René Magritte and Marcel Broodthaers line the walls, and an assortment of furniture has been carefully selected for each unique room.
Chief among the guestroom offerings is the Armand Blaton Suite, a 240-sqm apartment with one glorious en-suite bedroom, a spacious living room, separate dining room and kitchen, and an outdoor terrace that’s the envy of Brussels. Upon entering the suite one feels immediately at home, or rather, at the home of some wealthy and stylish friends. The décor and furnishings are refined and timeless, the epitome of understated elegance. There’s no ostentation or pretence; the space is calm, demure and decidedly European.
Named in honour of the hotel’s founder, the suite evokes some of Armand Blaton’s own interests, with an art collection featuring several pieces from the family’s private collection, including original prints by Belgian sketch artist Goosens and landscape artist Jean Francois Roffiaen. In the living room, other works by British painter John Piper line the wall above one of two plush dove-grey sofas, while a scattering of bright cushions and flowers add a splash of colour to the muted tones. A collection of hardback design and fashion tomes are dotted throughout the living room, ideal for leafing through in front of the open fireplace in the chic Mies van der Rohe Barcelona Chair.
Light floods in through three sets of double doors leading to the flower-lined terrace, where heads of state, visiting royalty and EU bigwigs have all enjoyed al fresco breakfasts and late-night supers at the most exclusive dining table in town. A glass of Champagne in the lingering twilight, gazing out over the gothic spire of the Town Hall, is the perfect way to end the day.
When the weather is less fair, the 10-seat private dining room provides an intimate space for friends, family or colleagues to dine, but it could just as easily double as a boardroom for private meetings. Columns of shelves are lined with jade coloured pottery and elegant purple glassware, and in the corner, a silver drinks tray is ready and waiting when the time comes to toast a special occasion.
In the bedroom, a natural palette of light lemon yellows, earthy beiges and leafy greens complements the antique furnishings, which are bathed with light from the double doors leading outside to a smaller private terrace. A regal four-poster bed takes centre stage and next to it, a dressing table and two armchairs topped by cushions printed with famous works by René Magritte.
A wide corridor with generous wardrobe space leads to the master bathroom, where the vanity unit is hewn from green Carrara marble. A classic Tin Tin print looks down on green mosaic tiles of the same marble and a deep bathtub. Amenities are by Forte Organics, the company’s paraben-free organic skincare line, and Rocco Forte-branded bathrobes and slippers are on hand to offer comfort after a long day walking around the city.
Last year’s refit also saw all of the hotel’s televisions replaced and a new media system installed, which allows guests to stream content from their own devices through the TVs in the living room and bedroom, or access a built-in media library via an app called MyAway. It’s a thoughtful touch, and the only modern intrusion to this classically luxurious space.
Given its popularity with royalty and other VIPs, privacy is paramount in the Armand Blaton Suite. The sixth floor is the only one in the hotel that cannot be accessed by the swooping spiral staircase that connects the rest of the hotel, and a private lift grants access direct from the underground parking when discretion is required. Although the suite itself has just the one bedroom, it can be connected to an adjoining Deluxe Room and be closed off from the rest of the floor by a door in the corridor outside, to create a two-bedroom mega-suite; or why not bring your extended family and take the entire floor?
With its refined décor and sense of understated luxury, it’s easy to see why the Armand Blaton Suite is the abode of choice for visiting dignitaries, and why it is known within the hotel as the ‘Royal Suite’.
On a hot summer’s day when the streets of Brussels are brimming with tourists, returning to the sanctuary of this suite, with its vintage art, antique furniture and spectacular terrace, seems like the most appropriately Bruxelloise thing to do. After all, where else can you enjoy so many of Brussels’ cultural treasures in such perfectly private surroundings?
Joe Mortimer stayed in the Armand Blaton Suite at Hotel Amigo in June 2018. The nightly rate for the suite in September, October and November 2018 is EUR 6,500 including breakfast for two and one-way transportation to or from any airport or train station in Belgium.