That aging grand dowager of Bruxelles, the Hotel Metropole, has enormous historical significance, considering the minor capital in the tiny country it dominates.

In late July of 1903, a bunch of obscure and excruciatingly long-winded Russians took tea here as they plotted the 2nd Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, held in an abandoned grain warehouse north of the city. Before the Belgian police expelled them to London, Vladimir Lenin split the party, gave birth to the Bolsheviks, and set in motion events that would shatter the world order in the Russian Revolution of 1917.

In October, 1927, seventeen future Nobel Laureates, from Marie Curie to Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, gathered here for the Fifth Solvay Conference that shattered our understanding of the physical world. Einstein had invented quantum theory and quantum mechanics, but now tried to walk them back when Walter Heisenberg drew the obvious, if atheistic conclusion with his Uncertainty Principle that life is a random and ultimately godless series of events (and yes, I’m paraphrasing).

Einsten famously replied, “God does not play dice!”

Bohr famously replied, “Einstein! Stop telling God what to do!”

And then there was the 1949 invention here of the Black Russian cocktail by the barman Gustave Tops at the behest of the American Ambassador, Perle Mesta. Five parts vodka to two parts coffee liqueur, to render the victim equal parts drunk and neurotic.

From the day it opened its doors in 1895, all the Metropole wanted to do was sell its owners’ selection of beers. But in a tiny, neutral country with a tolerant population and an easy-going police force, it soon became known as a faintly seedy, if expensive nest of spies, provocateurs, and exiled free-thinkers. When my mother first brought me here in 1963, we sat in the café with our stale Belgian coffee and mountainous pastries and carefully examined the faces around us for telltale signs of nefarious intent.

My mother could tell a great story. I was so enthralled that, a few weeks later, my friend Johnny and I charged through the opening gates of the Russian Embassy on our bicycles and rode around the courtyard, jeering at the (presumably) KGB guards and chauffeurs who chased us out. Fortunately for me, my father thought it a hilarious escapade, but Johnny’s father, a senior NATO Colonel, grounded him for life.

That was my last direct involvement in high-stakes geopolitics. But if you should happen to go to the Metropole, I still recommend the strawberry tart with a mountain of whipped cream. There’s no telling what it will make you do.


Categories: Belgium, Europe