I am waiting for lunch at the Place de Luxembourg outside the European Parliament in Brussels. The chill air reeks of expensive colognes and cigarette smoke. Around me people talk about the war in all languages. You can hear the capital letters when they mention the Action Plan, and it keeps coming up. I feel like a spy in a film.
My self-defined mission is to work out where I want to live by experiencing each area from a hotel. I have been in Brussels quite a while now, but the pandemic made me lazy. It’s time to take back control.
I have three days to investigate this immediate area. The allocated time feels woefully short. While I am pleased to have resisted the lure of the warmly welcoming hotel bar, work means I am spending too much time working in my Renaissance Brussels hotel suite. I am here to explore my immediate area which takes up time too, so I can’t spend as much time in the gym as I’d like. This gym is exceptionally well equipped, with a good range of free weights, a balanced selection of machines, heated swimming pool and a good number of regular members.
Gyms and coffee shops are important indicators in my search for my home location in Brussels. To make new local friends I need welcoming cafés that serve good coffee, approachable indigents and a gym that is more than a place to maintain the body which this “World Class Fitness” gym is not.
Going from mufti to office standard in one walk
As you take the 35-minute walk to the European Quarter from Brussels South Station (Brussel Zuid and Bruxelles Midi in Dutch and French respectively) the roads become calmer and quieter. In Brussels, Google Maps tends to lead you on the longest possible walk to your destination, so plan your route in advance or ask directions from real people instead.
You will know that you are approaching the right area as the smells of dust, warmed sugar and waffles are replaced by subtle wafts of exclusive perfumes, and the dress code segues from fashion and mufti to office-standard. Technically, this area is Ixelles (Elsene in Belgian-Dutch), but it feels very different to the rest of the municipality which is more diverse, less coherent and marginally less expensive. Everyone here has a purpose. There is a tangible sense of solidarity. On the Place du Luxembourg it is shown by an alarming uniformity of dress.
Taking the Renaissance Brussels Hotel as a clock’s centre, from the directions between 5 p.m. all the way round to midnight I have found a diverse population, interesting architecture, eclectic shops, a wealth of restaurants and coffee shops, history and culture galore.
The northeastern area’s architecture – especially the back of the station with its direct line to Luxembourg – is blandly homogenous, reminiscent of Canary Wharf but without the redeeming features of the Thames and the wharf’s famous landmark tower.
To say my friend Oscar dislikes the square is an understatement. He calls it “the Bubble,” and the denizens eurocrats, and says the venues have no spirit, that it is not the “real” Brussels at all. I see it differently. Around the Place du Luxembourg (French) or Luxemburgplein (Belgian Dutch), as I look at its surrounding buildings and the statue commemorating Lancashire-born industrialist John Cockerill, I am reminded of the events that made me leave England.
I read that locals call Place du Luxembourg “Plux” and fact checked it with my local friend Jane.
She said; “They really do call it Plux. Well, I don’t think Belgians do. It’s the staff of the institutions and the journalists who call it that. Pre-pandemic they gathered there every Thursday evening and got embarrassingly hammered.”
Mike gave a more balanced perspective; “There are two parts to Brussels – the European quarter and the rest of the city. If you are working for the EU then you’ll only stay in the area around the EU. If you are long-term then try discovering the rest of the city. Remember: Brussels is not just the EU and Belgium is not just Brussels”.
The 15-Minute City is a residential urban concept in which most daily necessities can be accomplishe by either walking or cycling from residents’ homes. I won’t be constrained by the concept and am looking for easy access to transport around Brussels, to the rest of Belgium and Europe, and this area is well served. However, since more lockdowns are likely it seems sensible to look for somewhere that will provide me with both.
My food arrives. Veal escalope made to melt-in-the-mouth perfection, a pleasant leafy salad and separate bowl of overcooked congealed tagliatelle drenched in a mushroomy truffle-ish sauce. I eat. I listen to the multilingual conversations around me and realise this food is a metaphor for Brussels. A collection of unrelated overlapping textures, techniques and flavours that would anywhere else be disastrous. Amazingly, here, it works.
About the European Quarter
The European District of Brussels overlaps several municipalities. While the tourist office and official briefs would have you believe it is well defined, the boundaries are actually quite fluid. Consider it as comprising the European institutions, adjacent parks and connecting streets. Officially it is called the European Quarter in English, the Quartier Européen in French and the Europese wijk in Flemish.
Working from home in the hotel
It is pleasant enough to work in the room, the desk is a good height, the chair more comfortable than the one in my office and there is a huge window for natural light. My suite has both kettle and coffee maker and a few supplies for both. My favourite place is the far corner of the bar, where I can see what is going on, tea and coffee machines are close and the overhead lights are much better.
Gyms and Fitness
While I was happy with the gym, there are a wealth of other gym and fitness options within easy walking distance.
My favourite local coffee bar
Corica (tiny, friendly and they roast their own coffee) Rue Caroly 39, 1050 Ixelles
• Leopold Park, which was once a royal zoo
• Ciquantenaire Park with its arches, where social salsa is held when the weather holds, and lockdown allows
• Ambiorix, Marie-Louise and Marguerite Squares for their stunning Art Nouveau mansions
Blast from the past? Check out the twitter account @plux
About the author:
Carole Edrich is a person of many hats. Most of her hats are in Brussels, The Hague and London. Some travel much further.
• founder of DanceGRiST (a very friendly incubator for people in the movement arts and related
• working on a new documentary series on dance,
• a trustee of Unlimited (the largest funder of disabled arts in the world),
• chairwoman of What Next? East London
• and occasional Agile Scrum consultant.
Carole calls herself a recovering journalist because she can’t let great stories go.
Read more about Brussels and Belgium here in Dispatches’ archive.