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One day in Brussels
In 2008, the travel website Tripadviser announced the results of a poll that voted Brussels as the most boring city in Europe.
Now there are two things you can do when you are told your home town is the most boring city in Europe. You can move to a more interesting city, like Luxembourg perhaps. Or you can prove that Tripadviser is wrong.
I decided to prove that Tripadviser is wrong about Brussels. So I have put together a day in Brussels that will show that this city, far from being boring, is possibly the most interesting city in Europe.
Where to sleep
Three hotels have opened recently in Brussels that are anything but dull.
Oh, la, la. This used to be a seedy hotel where couples could rent a room by the hour. Not so long ago, it still had a notice on the door that said “No women of loose morals or minors”. The hotel was almost torn down, but the owner of fashionable White Hotel saved it at the last minute and brought in a French interior designer to rescue it from shabby decay. But she wanted to keep some of the erotic charm intact, so this hotel still has a slight louche atmosphere, which isn’t for everyone. But boring it is not.
24 Rue du Berger
Tel 02 510 83 40
Brussels can be a grey city, but the designers Michel Penneman and Olivier Hannaert have solved that with a bright idea. They took a dull 1970s building and redesigned the interior using the Pantone system of colour classification. So there are bold colour accents throughout the building, down to the rental bikes in the lobby. The rooms are quite small, but who is going to worry about that when there is a roof terrace with bean bags scattered around. And if you are still feeling a bit down, you can order a cocktail based on Pantone colour 12-0435.
Place Loix 1
Tel 02 541 48 98
The designer Michel Penneman has done it again, turning a former old people’s home near Avenue Louise into a nostalgic hotel filled with quirky design objects from the 1950s and 1960s. You can’t help but like the Charles and Ray Eames sofa, the psychedelic wallpaper and the friendly staff. The wine bar with its courtyard terrace adds to the charm.
Rue Dejoncker 45
Tel 02 533 99 80
One day in Brussels
Place St Géry 23
The day begins on the site of the first settlement of Brussels. It was originally an island in the River Senne (or Zenne in Dutch, the original language of Brussels). The island has vanished (though you can see the outline in the curving streets). The river has also gone, buried below ground in the 19th century. But it hasn’t vanished completely. If you enter the courtyard at 23 Place Ste Géry, you will find traces of the river running between the old brick houses. The water is no longer flowing, but you can at least see what it was like.
Halles St Géry
The brick and iron building in the middle of the square was once a market hall. Before the market was built here, this was an open cobblestoned square with an obelisk in the middle. The architect designed the market hall so that the obelisk would fit neatly inside. The vaulted basement sometimes has photography exhibitions.
Le Roi des Belges
Twenty years ago, Place St Géry was run down. Someone tried to turn the area into the Covent Garden of Brussels, but the project flopped. It looked like a lost cause. But then Frédéric Nicolay noticed that the city had extended the pavement. He opened a café called Java with tables and chairs on the street. People liked Java. It was kind of cool but not pretentious. You could go there with your grandmother. Nicolay opened another café called Mappa Mundo. And another called Le Roi des Belges. Soon the square was mobbed by young Europeans looking for the heart of Brussels.
Place St Géry mural
One of more than 35 comic book murals painted on the side walls of Brussels houses. This one was designed by the comic book artist Marc Sleen based on his character Nero. The barber shop next door keeps a stack of Nero comic books for customers to read.
Rue des Chartreux
Maybe the coolest street in Brussels, thanks to the statue of the pissing dog, the twisted street lamps and the eccentric shops, like Toit and Espace Bizarre and Wazzup.
In Brussels, everything new looks old. But some places are genuinely old, like Le Greenwich, a stately bar with wood panelling and mirrors where Magritte used to play chess.
Le Greenwich was recently renovated at a cost of five million euros by the fashionable Ghent architects Robbrecht and Daem. The chess players were moved out. The locals grumbled that it would never be the same. But it’s slowly coming back to life. You should visit the toilets, even if you don’t need to.
Rue des Chartreux 7
Hunting and Collecting
Here is a cool concept store run by two Belgians with an eye for creative clothes, books, photos and shoes.
Rue des Chartreux 17
This is the street where you find Belgian fashion designers like Annemie Verbeke and Carine Gilson.
Le Pain Quotidien
Everyone knows Pain Quotidien, but the branch on rue Dansaert is special, because it all started here back in 1990 when Alain Coumont decided to open a bakery that made sourdough bread the old-fashioned way. He picked up a round table to create the atmosphere of a village café and served coffee in ceramic bowls, like a French grandmother would do. Now you get branches of Pain Quotidien in hundreds of cities across the world, but you might still want to take a look inside this branch, because it was the first.
Rue Dansaert 16A
Maison Martin Margiela
No name. No nothing. The reclusive Antwerp designer Martin Margiela likes to keep a low profile. His Brussels store occupies an old corner building that has been painted white and decorated with cryptic letters. Buying something here is close to a religious experience. Ring the bell and wait to be admitted to the sanctuary by a staff member dressed in a white gown.
Rue de Flandre 114
Le Fabuleux Marcel de Bruxelles
We call them vests, or possibly singlets. But the French, who are much more sophisticated, refer to them as Marcels. No one is sure why. It is possibly because Marcel is a macho truck driver sort of name, or possibly because there was once a famous French boxer called Marcel. Whatever.
The Belgian designer Kaat Blommaert has created an entire line based on the Marcel. She sells her vests in a cool little shop designed by the architects B-ILD which recreates the mood of a 1950s living room.
Fabuleux Marcel has also created some cool, sexy YouTube videos to launch their collections. Each one is shot in a grainy hand-held style with romantic Italian songs playing in background. I love this one filmed in a gloomy Brussels railway station and also this video shot in a Brussels apartment. But then Fabuleux Marcel went and organised a wet T-shirt competition and some people said that was not quite so fabuleux, Marcel.
But Kaat Blommaert isn’t going to let that stop her. She recently launched a new line called Année Erotique which consists of five simple dresses named after grand old European hotels where film stars used to hang out, like the Negresco and the Dorchester. Sexy, cool and typically Belgian.
Rue du Marché aux Porcs
The Anspach Fountain
Here is a monument to the Brussels burgomaster Jules Anspach who came up with the project to cover over the River Senne and create the grand boulevards of central Brussels. The monument is dripping with details, but the loveliest feature, seldom noticed, is the figure of a young girl crouched below an arch, who represents the lost river that now flows through a tunnel.
The fish shop Nordzee, also called Mer du Nord, has a long steel counter where you can snack on fish soup or fried squid, along with a glass of chilled Spanish white wine. It can get quite crowded here, but the people that serve you are always charming, dealing with orders in French, Dutch, English or maybe even Spanish.
Rue Sainte-Catherine 45
Everyone updates their Facebook page when they go on holiday. But you are much more sophisticated, so you send hand-picked postcards. You buy them here, in a shop full of whimsical and arty cards by Belgian cartoon illustrators and photographers. You can send a card with a faded photo from Expo 58. Or one from the Ukelele Museum. Or something surreal.
Rue des Eperonniers 50
No, it’s not a joke. A brass sign next door to Plaizier confirms that this is the Musée du Slip, the Underpants Museum. It was founded some years ago by the Belgian artist Jan Bucquoy and found a final resting place in this downbeat Belgian café. Here you can see underpants worn by well-known Belgian politicians as well as French porn stars, each with a little label attached to confirm the item is authentic.
The old city wall was torn down a long time ago, but a few fragments have been left standing, like a stretch that runs a school playground and a tower that stands next to a bowling alley.
Rue des Chandeliers
You need to look hard to find street art in Brussels. But it does exist. Here is a steep old lane from the Middle Ages where street artists have created some striking images while school children have decorated the upper level with episodes from the city’s history.
Here is a cool place for a shot of espresso. Two Finnish men opened thiscoffee house in the heart of the Marolles. They make sublime espressos and lattes using Ethiopian beans that are freshly roasted in the back room.
Rue Haute 140
Frituur de la chapelle
You can’t visit Brussels without eating a portion of frites. So here is one of the best fritkots in town, with two serving hatches next to the lovely Eglise de la Chapelle where Pieter Brueghel lies buried. The customers range from local school students to smart-suited antique dealers from the Sablon.
Place de la Chapelle
It looks like you have walked into a private apartment. Don’t panic. This is the latest concept bar, decorated to look like a private apartment. You can drink a cocktail in the living room sitting on the sofa. Or you can move to the bathroom and sit with your feet in the bathtub. Or even lie down on the double bed, if that’s how you want to end the day. It’s strange but sexy. Like Brussels, really.
Rue de la Reinette 12