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BURST OUT OF THE BUBBLE :: discover the Brussels no one knows on three summer evening walks
STREET ART UNCOVERED :: the secret art that no one sees
my secret project: 15 strangers
A VISIT TO THE WIERTZ MUSEUM
A French travel magazine once listed the Wiertz Museum as one of the most beautiful muséums in the world. It's also one of the most annoying museums in the world. It is closed at weekends and also over lunch. So if you are a working person then your chances of entering the building are virtually nil.
But there is one way it can be done. The museum will open at weekends for groups of more than 15 people. So here is the plan. You simply have to let me know if you would like to visit the museum and I will hold onto your details. Once 15 strangers have signed up for a tour, the visit can be booked.
More détails here »
5 new hidden secrets
The Metropole bar on Place de Brouckère is once again one of the most stylish spots in town. Many famous people have sat in the glittering 19th century interior surrounded by marble, gilt and mirrors. It closed down a year ago for renovation work, but it reopened at the end of last month looking refreshed and a little more welcoming. Here is the perfect place to sit with a coffee on a Saturday afternoon among elderly ladies with little dogs and actors from the downtown theatres.
HONG KONG DELIGHT
Most people don’t notice this little restaurant in the heart of the Chinatown district. It may look like a simple snack bar, but it serves authentic food. Some of the dishes may be intimidating, like “fried chicken blood,” but you can also order something more familiar like fried noodles with pork. The perfect spot for a cheap bite before a film.
Jonathan Coe’s latest novel is set in 1958 Brussels during the World Fair that gave the city the astonishing Atomium. It tells the story of a bumbling civil servant from the London suburb of Tooting who is sent to Brussels to run a replica British pub. He becomes involved in Cold War intrigues involving Russian and American spies and falls for a Flemish woman who is working as a hostess at the Fair. It’s a fun novel based on some serious research in the Belgian archives.
This concrete chain hotel was transformed in 2007 into a quirky design bolthole aimed at style geeks. Each of the 287 rooms is decorated with an original fresco by a bright young artist straight out of art school. The hotel recently brought in four street artists to paint wild urban art in the lobby and staircases. You can find street art by Sarah Conti, who creates large Russian dolls with big sad eyes, and Bué the Warrior from Ghent, who paints bright cartoon figures.
BASIN & MAROT
Here is a brilliant little wine shop hidden away in an old courtyard on Rue due Page. The shop has boxes of wine stacked up to the ceiling and sometimes a few open bottles on the table for tasting. The wines sold here come from vineyards that grow their grapes without chemicals or fertilisers, so you are tasting a pure natural product. Many of the city’s acclaimed restaurants order their wine here, but the place is not at all intimidating. Some bottles are expensive, but you can pick up a mellow Le Pluriel red from the Clos des Boutes for just €8,60.
10 romantic hidden secrets for 14 February
HOW TO CELEBRATE VALENTINE’S DAY IN BRUSSELS
It may not be known as a city of love, but Brussels has a secret romantic side if you know where to look. Here is My Secret Brussels’ personal selection of romantic places to buy flowers or chocolates or dinner for two on 14 February. Plus one song to add to your playlist if it all goes wrong.
Frederic Blondeel’s chocolate shop and tea room is located in the heart of the fishmarket district. It’s a secret romantic place to sit on a cold February afternoon with a pot of tea and a little bowl of handmade chocolates flavoured with ginger or basil.
Quai aux Briques 24
Tel 02 502 21 31
The cool young people who live in the Dansaert district pick up gorgeous bouquets at this corner shop. Stop by for a bright bunch of yellow tulips or a beautiful orchid in a pale blue pot.
Rue Dansaert 127
+32 (0)2 503 40 45
This bright modern café opened in 2013 in a former Art Deco restaurant on Place Flagey. Created by the people who run the downtown bar Bonnefooi, it has kept the lovely, slightly louche interior from the days where elderly couples came here for moules-frites and a Jupiler, The mezzanine floor with window tables looking down on the square is one of the most romantic spots in town. You can also do your washing here, although possibly not the thing to do on a first date.
JOUR DE FETE
Virginie Monu has brought a fabulous party mood to a neglected part of town with her quirky new lunch restaurant. Decorated in vintage Fifties style with multicoloured walls, formica furniture and potted plants, Jour de Fête is a fun place to have lunch with a friend. Best to book a table soon because it is likely to fill up quickly on 14 February.
Boulevard Anspach 181
+32 (0)2 512 38 00
For a romantic afternoon stroll, take a look around the beautiful Art Nouveau houses in Ixelles and Saint Gilles. The Horta Museum in St Gilles can get crowded, but the striking Art Nouveau corner house built by Jules Brunfaut in 1902 for the engineer Eduard Hannon is overlooked. The interior includes a wistful smoking room with a large bay window and a beautiful fin-de-siècle fresco on the staircase. The Contretype gallery has interesting photo exhibitions in some of the rooms.
Avenue de la Jonction 1
Tel 02 538 42 20
THE RIDE LIFE
Follow the cool urban cyclists at ridelife.be who post a monthly online video report describing a bike adventure in Brussels. They take you on quiet cycle trails to unexpected spots around the city and stop off at friendly bars and restaurants along the way. What could be more romantic?
LE CERCLE DES VOYAGEURS
Possibly the most seductive café in Brussels, Le Cercle des Voyageurs is located in a historic 17th century town house. It is something of a secret place, despite being located no more than 50 steps from the Manneken Pis. The bare wood floor, worn-out armchairs and luxuriant potted plants feel like they belong to a different age.
Rue des Grands Carmes 18
Tel 02 514 39 49
BRUSSELS BRONTE SOCIETY
Pick up Charlotte Bronte’s Brussels novel Villette for a romantic read on 14 February. Or join the Brussels Bronte Society to immerse yourself in the literary atmosphere of 19th century Brussels. On 15 February, the Dutch writer and Bronte expert Eric Ruijssenaars is presenting a virtual walk around the demolished Brussels boarding school where Charlotte Bronte enrolled in 1842.
This bar is hidden in a back street near the Porte de Namur. It is decorated like a private apartment so you can drink a cocktail in the living room sitting on the sofa, or in the bathroom with your feet dangling in the bathtub, or even in the bedroom lying on the double bed. The drink prices vary during the evening like stock market shares.
Rue de la Reinette 12
Tel 02 502 74 34
So it hasn’t worked out as you hoped. Too bad, but that’s the way it goes. The Belgian-Rwandan singer Stromae expressed the feeling in a hypnotic dance single called Formidable released last year after he broke up with his girlfriend. Watch the YouTube video clip filmed as he stumbled around apparently drunk one rainy May morning at 8.30 at the Louise tram stop in Brussels.
5 reasons to love Brussels
Last night, I was at one ofthose parties where everyone was criticising Brussels. The awful traffic. The endless rain. The killer taxes. So I decided to draw up a personal list of 5 reasons we should be happy to have lived in Brussels in 2013, even if it did rain every day and the traffic congestion was officially the worst in the world.
1. Food trucks
You now see them at every street market. Bright vans selling Vietnamese street food or gourmet burgers or thin crêpes. The city could have banned them. But instead it has embraced this New York/Asian style of street eating. It makes Brussels a brighter, more fun, more friendly place to live.
2. A gay prime minister
Who would have thought that Belgium would have a gay prime minister? Ten years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine. Now we have one of the coolest leaders in the world. And no one even raises the issue. Other countries can only dream of such tolerance.
3. Bikes are everywhere
It has been slow. Too slow maybe. But Brussels is slowly turning into a city made for cycling. The Villo city bike racks have spread out from the city centre into the quiet outer communes. Bike repair shops are opening up all over town. We can even call a number and Velofixer will hop on his bright blue bike to assist a cyclist stuck with a flat tyre or broken chain.
4. The coffee is good
The city has some great new places to meet for coffee like Workshop Café on Avenue Louise and some revamped old establishments that do things the traditional way such as Le Greenwich.
The most exciting singer to emerge from the Brussels streets since Jacques Brel sang in the city's downtown cellars. Stromae embodies the city's morbid, multicultural identity perfectly. Watch him sing Formidable as 2013 comes to an end. Brussels at its most brilliant.
my secret hell
It sounded like a good idea at the time. My book on The 500 Hidden Secrets of Brussels had just been published in French so I was naturally flattered to take part in a bike tour during which I would talk about the book.
The tour was being organised by Vivacité radio station on the day before car-free day. It sounded like the perfect opportunity. I have loved car free day from the day it was launched. It turns the city into a wonderfully quiet place where people get around by every kind of transport except the car.
I was expecting that the interview would involve a gentle ride around town, with frequent stops to talk about Brussels. It turned out that they had something competely different in mind.
I arrived to find that I was going to join a peleton of serious Belgian cyclists who were about to set off on a 31 kilometre ride around Brussels. Now, I am a reasonably enthusiastic cyclist, but no one would call me the Bradley Wiggins of Brussels. My heart sank when I saw that the route involved the long climb up Boulevard du Jardin Botanique and another stiff heave up to the Parc du Cinquantenaire.
It got worse. I was given a bike that was the wrong size. Then told to put on a backpack which contained a radio transmitter and fifty heavy batteries. I was going to have to do the interview while cycling through Brussels, wearing headphones all the time so that I could follow the live broadcast.
We set off with two cool police cyclists leading the way, followed by a dozen or so cyclists, followed by the Vivacité broadcasting van. The interviewer cycled alongside me to ask various questions along the way. It was barely possible to hear the questions because of the loud French pop music that Vivacité likes to play. I was struggling to breathe on one steep hill when I was asked to explain the meaning of the Brussels dialect expression Schieven architek.
Anyone listening to Radio Vivacité at around 16.00 would have heard me say something along the lines of - C'est puff quelqu'un a qui gasp l'on ne oh thank heavens, someone is giving me a push peut pas we made it faire confiance.
You do not realise how many hills there are in Brussels until you have cycled through the city with a radio transmitter strapped to your back while trying to explain why you consider Flagey the best place in town for frites. Next time I have to do an interview, I am going to be sitting on a chair in a studio sipping a glass of wine.
The programme was presented by Adrien Joveneau who has written an excellent guide to cycle trails in Belgium titled Le Beau Vélo Ravel.
My secret street art: Rue Keyenveld 49
The latest work in the Rue Keyenveld 49 street art project went up on 19 June. The French street artist Rubbish has decorated the grey concrete wall with faces and bees made from black sticky plastic. Take a look as soon as you can because it is due to be replaced by a new work in September.
Lost street art »
My secret comic wall: The Ark
A striking new comic art mural was unveiled last April on the side wall of a house in Ixelles. Titled The Ark, it is based on the comic book fantasies of Brussels illustrator François Schuiten. The work was commissioned by the urban renewal organisation Atrium Flagey to provide a vision of the city of the future. Schuiten has already created a mural in downtown Brussels and decorated the underground tram station at Porte de Hal.
More street art in the Chaussée d'Ixelles »
My secret thoughts: the Belgians get a new king
On 21 July, Belgian National Day, the Belgians got a new monarch as Philippe I took over from Albert II as King of the Belgians. It was a relatively modest event compared to the massive fuss that surrounded the birth of a royal child in Britain the following day.
Read the full story here »
My secret art: Zinneke Expo
Brussels can be such fun sometimes. This striped car has been installed outside Gare Centrale as part of an exhibition connected in some way with the next Zinneke parade in May 2014. Some 20 artists have been commissioned to create a work near Central Station based on the theme "temptation". The Zinneke organisers held a poll in which 3,000 people voted for temptation as the theme rather than "enough".
My secret view: Parking 58
When they built Parking 58, it was a symbol of a new Brussels built for cars. Launched for the 1958 Brussels Expo, it showed Belgians the shape of things to come. No more tramping around on foot or piling into crowded trams. The car was the future.
It now looks a bit tatty. The concrete is crumbling away and the lifts are not as shiny as they once were. They now talk about tearing the whole thing down. But some people argue that it should be preserved, not least because of the unexpected view from the top deck, which is totally stunning.
The most visionary proposal is to create an urban park on the top floor where downtown residents can go to enjoy the sun. It's a brilliant suggestion that would give Brussels something similar to New York's High Line. It may never happen, so enjoy the view while it lasts.
No. 248 in The 500 Hidden Secrets of Brussels
My secret sign: Rue du Prince Royal
When the artist René Magritte was asked by a critic if he described himslf as a Surrealist, he replied: "No, I just paint what I see in Belgium." You can see his point. Here are two road signs in two different languages with two completely different messages. How is an ordinary human being supposed to survive in this city without going slowly insane?
My secret street art: Bonom
Bonom is the Banksy of Brussels. Since 2006, he has been spraying animals and dinosaur skeletons in some of the city's most inaccessible places. A giant Tyrannosaurus skeleton appeared on a wall opposite Bozar at the end of 2008. An elephant popped up overnight on a wall of the National Library in February 2009.
Like many people, I have sometimes speculated about the identity of Bonom. I imagined him as a Belgian. He is brave, like Tintin, but also melancholy, like Magritte or Brel. He knows the city will never respect his art, but he carries on regardless.
Now we know his identity. He revealed it recently in an interview with the city paper Brussel deze Week. It turns out that I was wrong. He is a French artist called Vincent Glowinski. He told the paper that he had stopped spraying drawings because the police knew his identity.
But a few days ago, a new work appeared on a high wall above Avenue Louise. It showed a naked woman masturbating. Many people thought it was Bonom's work. He said nothing.
Now a new work has appeared on the side of a block of flats near the Porte de Hal. It represents a skeletal old man who also appears to be masturbating. Bonom remains silent.
His delicate drawings sometimes last less than an hour before someone comes along with a bucket of caustic chemicals to wash it away. Yet Bonom is slowly conquering Brussels with his strange bestiary, creating an alternative history for this slate grey city filled with dull modern buildings.
My secret vote: local elections
Here in Brussels, Belgians have just gone to the polling stations to vote for new city councillors. The campaigns have been interesting to follow, with virtually every candidate promising an almost identical list of policies. They all promise us cleaner streets, safer neighbourhoods, better schools. And we, the voters, know that things will go on much the same as always once the new councillors are comfortably installed in the town halls.
The reality of life in Brussels is seen in the Rue de la Paix, where road works have dragged on interminably, destroying the livability of one of the neighourhood's most appealing streets. We have watched in dismay as the construction workers have turned a lively urban street into a scarred landscape of earth mounds, trenches and fallen signs.
Some shopkeepers have simply pulled down the shutters in despair. But there is also a fighting spirit in Brussels which means that some people find creative ways to fight back. The fashion designer Nina Meert has created a window display that takes its inspiration from the road works. So the mannequins stand in the window surrounded by planners' drawings, battered road signs and concrete drain pipes, a subtle way of mocking the administrative incompetence that is such a depressing feature of Brussels civic life.
Waiting in line in the cold school hall to cast my vote, I noticed a large Tintin mural on the wall above the polling booths. A plaque nearby explained that Hergé, the famous Belgian cartoonist, has attended this school from 1913 to 1919, while the Germany army occupied the city. It made the voting experience somehow richer.
My secret rooftop: Institute Saint Louis
Here is one of the most striking views in Brussels seen from the roof terrace of the St Louis University. I like the contrast of old and new, and the way the sloping line of the shiny glass office building to the left is almost a continuation of the roofline of the grey Brussels town house.
Photographs: Marie-France Plissart
My secret hotel: Le Berger
Oh, la la! An old Ixelles hotel where couples once rented rooms
by the hour has been tastefully renovated.
My secret secondhand shop: Les Enfants d'Edouard
Les Enfants d'Edouard has been selling women's designer clothes at sharply reduced prices in this grand town house for the past 40 years. The men's shop, a little less grand, is next door.
Avenue Louise 175 and 177