Monsieur Jean comic book mural by Dupuy and Berberian in Rue des Bogards
My secret story
How it all started
The most boring city in Europe: are you sure about that?
It all started back in 2008 when I read an article that made me very unhappy. It said that Tripadvisor, the travel website used by millions, had asked its users to vote for the most boring city in Europe. The answer they gave was Brussels.
I had recently taken over as editor of The Bulletin, the city magazine of Brussels, so this was a double blow. I was living in the most boring city in Europe and editing a magazine about the most boring city in Europe.
I thought about this for a while and reached the conclusion that I must be the most boring editor in Europe.
Now there were two things I could do. I could move to a more interesting city, like Luxembourg perhaps or The Hague. Or I could declare war on Tripadviser.
I didn’t move to Luxembourg. I declared war on Tripadviser. And, since the pen is mightier that the sword, I decided to write a book. I would show them that Brussels is anything but boring.
And so I hit on the idea of the 500 hidden secrets of Brussels.
The 500 Hidden Secrets
Here was my reasoning. People think Brussels is boring because they don’t go to the right places, the out of the way places. They stick in the middle.
My book would tell them where to go, what to look at, how to enjoy Brussels. I was very excited about this.
When I told people about this book, they told me I was mad. You will never find 500 hidden secrets in Brussels, they said. Of course they did. They all use Tripadviser.
Now, I admit, there is a problem. A hidden secret is something that you don’t know about until you find it.
So you can live in Brussels for ten years and remain blissfully unaware of the hidden wonders that you pass every day.
This aim of this book is to tell you about some of them.
It’s written for people who want to know more about Brussels than they can find out in a tourist guidebook or a website.
You might already know why the Rue des Sables is also called Zandstraat. But why on earth is the same street also called Rue Schtroumph and Smurfstraat?
Or you may want to know why there is a bar whose name translates as the Bent Architect.
Or maybe you are just curious to know why the city’s parks are full of screeching green parakeets.
If you are that sort of person, this guide is for you.
So what counts as a hidden secret? I can maybe explain this best by giving you a few examples from the book.
The mad Wiertz Museum
I’ll start with the Wiertz Museum because this is one of my favourites. Here is a beautiful 19th century artist’s studio and house on a hill just behind the European Parliament. The French travel magazine GEO recently listed it as one of the most beautiful museums in the world.
You can judge for yourself. Or you could, if the gate wasn’t bolted shut. The opening hours here can reduce a tourist to tears. The museum is closed on Mondays of course. And it is closed for lunch. And it is closed every other weekend. But they don’t tell you which weekend. And even on those weekends when it is open, you must come as a group of minimum ten people.
The paintings on show inside (which of course you will probably never see) are largely devoted to despair.
One painting shows a Belgian woman so gripped by hunger that she has boiled her baby in a stewing pot. Another work shows a man blowing out his brains with a revolver.
I have spent a long time looking at that painting and I think the poor man may have been driven to despair by the maddening opening times of the Wiertz Museum.
The gentle art of buying a coffee pot
The hidden secrets of Brussels are often like that. You might be the only person around, which can sometimes be a little uncomfortable. Take Demeuldre in the Chaussée de Wavre. This was once a famous 19th century porcelain factory with a vast shop that sold beautiful dinner plates and soup tureens. The Belgian royal family would eat off plates from Demeuldre. But the factory has closed down and the shop is, I would think, struggling to survive.
They employ a lot of staff although as far as I can see I am the last customer. Sometimes in Belgium it is hard to get a member of staff to serve you. When you go into Demeuldre, you have to fight them off.
I went there to buy an espresso coffee pot recently and it was a wonderful experience. One of the women took me off to the coffee pot department and patiently explained the different models.
And when I had chosen one, she led me to the office, which was wood panelled, and she slowly wrapped the coffee pot in brown paper, and then she wrote out the receipt by hand.
I felt as if I had stepped into a novel by Flaubert.
Of course, I could have ordered the coffee pot online, and it would have been cheaper, and possibly faster, but I would have missed something.
I am not sure Tripadviser even understands that.
Because when you go to Demeuldre, you can ask to see the museum, which is on the first floor. You take a little lift and enter a vast glass-roofed workshop. Here they still employ a couple of craftsmen whose job is to repair broken plates and ornaments. And if you talk to them, they will tell you about their dying industry, and you will leave a little sadder, knowing that one day the shop will be gone, the ladies will be gone, and you will not ever again be able to buy a coffee pot wrapped in brown paper.
I like the human touch. I wouldn’t dream of ordering a book on Amazon for example. Of course it’s cheaper. And of course you can download it onto a Kindle. But you will miss the whole human dimension of the transaction. And what, after all, is the point of living, if it is not for the human dimension.
Which brings me to my favourite cake shop in Brussels, in the Rue du Bailly. Here the lady behind the counter is very stern, and asks you, when you buy a chocolate cake, how many people it is intended to serve, and what time, precisely, you intend to consume the cake.
I am always caught out, because I do not, as a rule, have a precise cake eating routine. It depends on other things. But she requires an exact timetable, because the cake must be stored on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator and removed not less than ten minutes before eating.
Get sick soon
I am pleased to say that I have adapted to the Belgian way of doing things. This is particularly important when you go to the chemist. In the beginning, when I had a sore throat, I would breeze in and ask for cough medicine. Not done. If you do, the woman behind the counter will ask you, sternly, “What sort of cough is it, precisely?”
She requires to know if it is deep or shallow, chesty or dry. You may even have to describe the precise colour of the phlegm in front of the entire shop.
I now know that a cough progresses through a number of defined stages, each with its own official medicine, which must be taken at a particular time of day, like cake.
It is rather confusing, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. If it is a choice between buying mushrooms in a supermarket, or from the mushroom man on Place Flagey, I will always opt for the mushroom man, even though I know he will give me a long lecture on how I should prepare the mushrooms for cooking, and why I must not wash them, but simply wipe them with a dampish cloth.
I go for the odd, the quirky, because that is what makes Brussels interesting. And I am slightly alarmed at how the odd and the quirky seems to be on the point of vanishing.
Hanging by a thread
Many of the hidden secrets of Brussels are hanging by a thread - none more so than the Cantillon brewery near Midi station, where the family brews Brussels Gueuze in huge vats that are open to the sky.
Here is one of the few places in the world where you can taste authentic beer brewed without sugar or additives. But it’s a dying business because the beer tastes much too sour to the modern drinker, whose taste buds have been ruined by sweet fizzy drinks.
You can only find Gueuze in a handful of bars in Brussels because there is no demand for traditional Brussels beer. And I find that quite sad, because once it has gone, the taste will be lost forever.
And perhaps one of the aims of this guide is to draw your attention to some of the things that are worth preserving, like the art of serving coffee. In my country, you have to specify what size of coffee you require, whether you want regular, which means enormous, large, which means a bucket, or giant, which takes two grown men to lift.
Here in Belgium, I can go into a café like Le Greenwich, where Magritte used to play chess, and ask simply for a coffee, and it will arrive in a cup, on a silver tray, accompanied by a little pot of cream and a small biscuit. That, to me, is the perfect coffee.
Hunting the hidden gems
So how do you find the hidden secrets of Brussels, when they are, by definition, hidden?
One of the best times of the year to set out is on the annual Open Door Day in September, where the city throws open some very unusual places.
Another great time to hunt out the hidden is during the Parcours d’Artistes in St Gilles commune, when hundreds of artists open their studios to the public. I thought this was a fantastic idea until I realised that artists generally have their studios in attics. So you have to climb three or four flights of stairs each time you visit an artist. And then you might have to squeeze through the kitchen and step over a child or two to get to the room with paintings.
The mad inventor
But climbing stairs is necessary, because Brussels attics are often where you find the most hidden of the city’s secrets. The strangest attic I have found so far is at the top of the Hotel Aubecq in Schaerbeek. This was one of the first Art Nouveau houses designed by Victor Horta. It was restored a few years ago by the comic book artist Francois Schuiten and redecorated in a striking way to create the impression that the building is still inhabited.
You enter through the kitchen and slowly climb up through the building until you reach the attic – and here you find a truly bizarre collection of mechanical contraptions created by Axel Wappendorf - an imaginary inventor from one of Schuiten’s comic books.
If attics are hidden, roofs are even more so. Here you sometimes discover secret gardens, like the one on the roof of the National Library, six floors above street level, where the resident gardener recently planted out a vegetable plot where he grows tomatoes and courgettes for the museum’s cafeteria and also raises some urban bees.
You will be realising by now that the hidden secrets of Brussels are not the easiest things to track down. But that is part of the experience.
You can stand in front of the Manneken Pis and think, So what? But if you make the effort to visit the Rue Isabelle, a cobbled lane buried below Place Royale, you will begin to understand Brussels.
To give you a little nudge in the right direction, I run informal urban walks to reveal some of the hidden secrets.
But you might prefer to go exploring on your own, in which case I have come up with an idea. It is called Brussels Roulette, and the idea is that you pick a number between 1 and 500 and then you visit that place in the guidebook.
Of course, some of the entries in the book are not places. But then you just have to try another number.
It’s a bit like the idea of a magical mystery tour. Who knows where you could end up? You might find yourself sitting by yourself in the Styx cinema. Or you might have to taste a beer that you will certainly not like the first time you sip it.
Or you could find yourself hurrying home with a cake that has to be eaten at five o’clock on the dot.
I’m hoping that, whatever you do, you will not be bored.
And if you want to share a secret with me, you know where to find me. I’m standing in the street outside the Wiertz Museum, sobbing quietly because it is closed.
Why write a book
If books are to survive in the 21st century, they are going to have to distinguish themselves from iPods and everything else. They can do that best by being objects of beauty. And I think Marc, my publisher, along with his designer and photographer, have done just that.
It is all too easy to despair. And to think that, no matter how much we love Styx or Waterstones or Demeuldre, everything will soon be done online.
It is so much more efficent.
Or so I thought until a couple of days ago, when I looked on Google Maps for the Place du Grand Sablon, and Google placed a pin bang in the middle of the railway line that carries the Eurostar into Brussels.
I have to admit there are a couple of small errors in my book, but at least I don’t send you to a spot where you will be run over by the 10.58 Eurostar to St Pancras.
Have I convinced you to buy the book?
You can order the book here although you will realise, if you have been following the argument so far, that I would prefer it if you went here or here.