(Editor’s note: This is Pt. 2 in a series about British expat Carole Edrich’s search for just the right place to live in Brussels. You can see Pt. 1 here.)
As I approach Boulevard Adolphe Max (Adolphe Maxlaan in Belgian Dutch) from the European Quarter my eyes feel increasingly gritty. A quick internet search shows that the hotel and environs are among the lowest in Brussels, that fine dust collects more in lower areas and that it has exceeded an environmental quality threshold. I add “altitude” to the list of things to consider when selecting my new home.
Dust aside, the immediate neighbourhood is intriguingly strange and eclectic. Small cafés and 24-hour convenience stores sit side by side with sex shops, a Waterstones and city-centre hotels. Taking Hotel Le Plaza as clock’s centre, a few blocks in the direction of midnight is Rue Neuve (Nieuwstraat in Belgian Dutch), one of Brussels’ busiest shopping streets.
Place de Brouckére (De Brouckèreplein) and its theatres, multiplex cinema and entertainment venues are at 3 p.m., the French language National Theatre at 6 p.m. and Place Charles Rogier (Karel Rogierplein or Rogier to locals) is in the direction of 10 p.m. Work calls me to the press launch of Brussels Danse at the wonderful Contredanse dance library and I get there with a slow 10-minute walk.
A little past the Place de Brouckére is Place de la Bourse (Beursplein). It is a bustling area and the Stock Exchange building that gives the square its name reminds me of the one in London which brings on Bregrets. Like all losses, pangs of Brexit-related feelings, whilst slowly diminishing in frequency, still have the power to twist my stomach in knots.
I meet Oscar at the 136-year-old Le Cirio on the square for an early evening drink and long rambling chat. He tells me that was the first place he visited on moving to Brussels, and that Le Cirio first invented the “half en half,” substituting half a glass of champagne with white wine because they couldn’t get enough champagne to satisfy the customers.
A quick online search suggests this isn’t quite the truth, and the original Half en Halfs were equal mixes of Brussels’ lambic and faro beers. I prefer his story (which also seems to be theirs) and resolve to return to people – watch and to see if it’s a good place for making new friends.
Scents of ganja and money
Nearby are coffee shops, cafés and restaurants with approachable vibes, a good mix of younger and older people of indeterminate origins along and the inevitable tourists. While this is closer to 25 minutes than the classic 15-minute city concept, this neighbourhood is somewhere I could hang.
Having researched my immediate neighbourhood, I check on the ease of reaching national and international transport. Midi Station, Brussels Central (Gare du Bruxelles-Central or Brussel-Centraal) and Brussels-North (Gare du Bruxelles-Nord or Station Brussel-Noord) are easily accessible by public transport and 30, 20 and 10 minutes by foot respectively.
Walking to Bruxelles-Nord, while safe enough, takes me past people smoking things best described as “interesting.” The smells are so strong that I wonder if lingering on the way to the station might be enough to get high.
The Art Deco architecturally styled Hotel Le Plaza with its Louise XVI interiors is an oasis of opulent calm. It’s not the warm front-desk welcome, huge bed or generous cupboard space that that make me feel most welcome, but the singularly subtle scent as I open the door to my suite. Familiar from previous visits, it speaks of quiet class and easy comfort. I decide against researching the odour’s origins in case the magic dies when I find it out.
Experience tells that an area with a gym with a comfortable atmosphere and coffee shops where people are approachable is one in which I’ll be happy. But work, changing hotels, making new friends – along with learning about and keeping on top of cultural events in this new city – all take time.
There is no time left to check the gyms in the area. I resolve to come back.
Two blocks, two completely different vibes
The ten minutes’ walk from Le Plaza to my next stay takes me into different zone entirely. Is the woman at the corner of my new stay a working girl on her beat or is she waiting for a friend? Later that evening, when fellow workers join her, one on each and every corner, there is no room for doubt.
Put that aside and the location is amazing.
Within easy reach of everywhere I could get to from Hotel Plaza, five minutes from KVS Brussels, and five minutes from the Kaaitheater too! Locals call the Royal Flemish Theatre “KVS” because Koninklijke Vlaamse Shouwburg is too much of a mouthful. Both KVS and Kaaitheater host great performances, ground-breaking work, and intriguing art from artists of international repute.
Living nearby could save me hours of travel each week.
The area around Rue de Commerçants (Koopliedenstraat, Tradespeople Street in English) is a real possibility. Local street life will keep prices affordable; pimps tend to keep strict order on their beats and my Airbnb host Jean-Paul says he has never had problems, which is reassuring.
That two areas scant blocks apart can have such different characters brings home that I’ve been casting my net too wide. Rather than looking at communes (administrative districts), I need to identify particular neighbourhoods within them.
This makes the mission to find my new home more complex, which I guess is no surprise. My Airbnb room (in a loft with central light well shared with the owners) is exquisite. It is open plan, with living areas arranged to make the most of the natural light. Comfortable furniture – carefully selected pieces of iconic twentieth-century design – complements contemporary artworks adorning walls.
Enough adroitly arranged collectibles abound to turn a design museum curator green with envy. Painstakingly amassed and arranged with impeccable taste, these things shouldn’t work together, but combined and in this context, they are an inspiring epitome of understated elegance. I realise I am presented with another metaphor for the Brussels bureaucracy and its multiple cultures.
I might not yet know where I’m settling, but I want my new home to feel like this.
About the area around Le Plaza and Rue de Commercants:
The old central Brussels’ financial and cultural hubs.
• Rue Neuve, Niewstraat (New Street) is now pedestrianised, and runs between Place de la Monnaie (Muntplien) and Place Charles Rogier.
• Place de la Monnaie takes its name from La Monnaie, the National Opera of Belgium while Rogier is a huge open square with a futuristic ultramodern edifice hosting a Starbucks concession.
Working from home in the hotel
My suite is large, light and airy with good desk space. While the chair is not office-standard it is comfortable and fits the style of the rest of the room. There is a kettle with supplies and good fast wifi. The restaurant hasn’t re-opened since lockdown, but the staff are happy to bring up food deliveries and add crockery without being asked.
My favourite local coffee bar
There are loads, but Woodpecker 47 on Rue de Marche. Their leek waffles are also wonderful.
The other nearby parks are more like small gardens.
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 disciplines.)
• working on a new documentary series on dance,
• a trustee of Unlimited (the largest funder of disabled arts in the world),
• chair 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.