You may have suffered from the stereotypical mis-perception that Belgium is not the most interesting of places, and that Brussels has nothing much going on beyond the European Parliament and museums filled with Old Flemish masters.
Well, like me, you’d be wrong. Brussels is a beautiful city. Unexpectedly chaotic, hilly and fragmented, it mixes sumptuous architecture with seedy waterfront districts; fancy chocolate emporiums and stylish shopping streets with urban decay; with a healthy dose of design and the arts. According to a Dutch friend, Belgium is ‘The Spain of the North,’ and after my three short visits here, I can say that Brussels is the city I was dreaming of when I moved to Berlin.
I’m tempted not to tell you any of this, as Brussels is the best-kept secret I know.
Brussels: Gritty, cool, curvy
Brussels is, without dispute, grittier, cooler and curvier than Berlin. It’s also full of stylish (and diverse!) people. The spectrum of dance, music, electronic media and performing arts is astounding. Whatever your taste, in ultra-creative Brussels you can find something to indulge and inspire.
My first glimpse of the city was through the windows of a Eurolines bus from Paris to Berlin, when I was intrigued by the highly decorative architecture and neighbourhoods as we passed through. When I had the opportunity to come back for a weekend visit, I jumped at the chance to explore Brussels in more depth. Luckily, my friends living there are incredible hosts with a wealth of local delights to share, and also provide metahaven of design research and architectural services!
Lost in space, in chocolate, in Chinatown
I got lost my first time in Brussels’ Centraal Station, lost in a maze of corridors trying to locate the main staircase. This led me to a strangely empty hall containing only a wide circular staircase and gleaming pillars of blue-white light, being documented by two seriously hipster looking photographers. I’m still not sure if it was a sci-fi set, art, or simply the newly renovated entrance to somewhere else.
We strolled through the winding centre of town, starting from a fantastic vantage point looking over the city, taking a lift down to street level and then meandering along to our first decadent moment at the artisan chocolate shop Pierre Marcolini. Think: incredible flavours. Next stop, downhill into the slightly seedy downtown, on my mission to find a miracle fish in Chinatown. (There is a small corner of Chinese supermarkets, and a few grocery stores, comics, Japanese design and objects, but no fortune telling fish. I’ll have to get one posted from Australia)
After that, my friend Eva shared her designer secrets with me, along fashionista heaven: Rue Antoine Dansaert. We started at Annemie Verbeke, where we could only dream of owning a black cashmere dress or electric-blue pleated skirt. The ultra-funky retro shop next door was more financially reachable: eclectic vintage stylin’ clothes, shoes, and accessories.
Brussels: Food & music
Heading back to la Grand-Place, we ate fantastically fresh and delicious Lebanese food at L’Express Quality on rue des Chapeliers, and then feasted on sweets in the chandelier-lit Turkish Teahouse on the first street to the right. The evening took us out of town, Fuzzy Electronics and Magnetics at Netwerk Centre for the Arts in Aalst, only a 30-minute drive out of town. The building is fabulous, three stories of renovated factory, with exhibition spaces on each, a concert hall and wonderful ground floor bar where the artists mingled.
The night ended at Beursschouwburg, another seriously hip hangout for the dance crowd that performs in the theatre next door and other venues. It’s a great evening of people watching. Topped off with a tiny bar further along Ortsstraat, packed with even more relaxed and interesting looking people. I could get used to this kind of lifestyle!!
Brussels: Art (and beer)
Next up is a mission to take in some of the contemporary art which flourishes in this multi-dimensional urban playground. We dropped in to Bozar Palais des Beaux-Arts for their exhibition program, also host to Brussels Electronic Music Festival and Balkan Trafik Festival. Passing the classical music concert audience on their way out, we enjoyed the imaginary cities and model architecture exhibition, and reveled in the lounges and decadent curves of the interior.
In fact, Brussels is an indelibly curvy city — the roads, the buildings all seem to mold themselves to a forgiving shape, it is nowhere near as harsh and angular as Berlin, labyrinthine as London or perpendicular as New York.
Next was a trip back downtown to CCNOA, a centre for contemporary non-objective art with a secret entrance (look for the colored sign on Blvd Barthelemylaan 5). If you get lost, it’s close to any number of seriously cool low-key bars where you can catch the taste of living culture in this quarter that is a thriving hotspot for the bohemian avant-garde to gossip and linger over drinks.
Also check out La Cellule (Ave Ducpétiaux 133a, 1060), home to Brussels’ Tango Festival, before checking out the famous Friterie de la Barriere de Saint-Gilles (a hot chips van!) – look out for the special maffia sauce (spicy mustard) and extraordinary range of Belgian beers. That night l’Abbaye du Val-Dieu was the winner, however my investigation into the ‘best’ Belgian beer is ongoing.
Day trip: Ghent
I spent a weekend in Ghent at Vooruit Art Centre, a magnificent ‘people’s palace of art’, conversing with a fascinating array of artists at The Game is Up: How to Save the World in 10 Days. The fo.am “grow your own worlds’ crew and annemie maes from Brussels were particularly inspiring. Same wit Nathalie Jerimijenko’s Environmental Health Clinic; Martin Kaltwasser and Michel de Broin taking alternative approaches to recycling energy and reconfiguring vehicles; and the wonderful hehe who are responsible for ‘Nuage Verte’, the green cloud over Helsinki and soon Paris.
It’s exciting there is still more of this fantastic metropolis to discover, I think that’s what makes Brussels so captivating, the sense of being many different cities in one. Can you tell that I am seriously charmed by Brussels?