Whenever I return to Brussels I am surprised by the city’s hills. It’s not that they are big, or that they are there (officially – it seems – most aren’t), but because as my familiarity and fitness develop they stop being of note, until I lose the fitness travelling and the cycle starts again. The walk from Midi Station to Aloft Brussels in Place Jean Rey (Jean Reyplein in Belgian Dutch) should by now be intuitive. But my common-sense glitches, I forget my own advice and blindly follow the app.
Somehow Google Maps takes me through unknown drab and dusty roads, literal miles out of my way, to the Jazz BXL music school in Laeken. Experience shows that it’s wrong to judge Brussels through the lens of other cities, but it’s difficult to resist. The atmosphere seems edgier; I can’t grasp the motivations of the people around me, and the declarative graffiti (mostly huge jazz musician portraits) seems more externally imposed than locally generated.
There is difference here. Maybe dissidence.
If I am not projecting, it’s the kind of place where true underground art can be found. Not the “alternative” scenes presented for tourists, but real, eclectic-but-local, we’re-creating-for-our-own-here vibes. If I am right, I can come back and find these artists. If they let me in, our collaborations could be outrageously fun.
I am dehydrated and thirsty but looming deadlines keep me walking. I reset Google Maps, look at the
static map (I should have done this back at Midi) and retrace my steps. My unplanned tour has lost valuable time. What should have been an easy stroll of 20 minutes, ends as a demanding 120 which I have used to reflect.
Tour and Taxis area
I can trace my egregiously-peripatetic march in the view from my room on the top floor of Aloft Brussels Schuman. Along the way I discover the the Tour and Taxis area by walking through it. Agency listings for apartments round there have had me wondering where it is.
Taking Place Jean Rey as midnight and a useful supermarket at 9 o’clock, there is part of Parc Leopold (Leopoldspark) between 7 o’clock and 11 o’clock, the House of European History (HEH, La Maison de l’histoire européenne or Huis van de Europese geschiedenis) at 10 o’clock, the European Committee of the Regions (Le Comité européen des régions or het Europees Comité van de Regio’s) at 11 o’clock and the famous Rue de la Loi (Wetstraat meaning Law Street) with too many official buildings to list.
Between 1 o’clock and 3 o’clock, and a couple of blocks over from my Aloft aerie are the International Press Centre, Schuman Railway Station and the Europa Building. Le Berlaymont (the European Commission is at 3 o’clock), and between 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock is the nearest edge of Park Cinqantinaire, with the Great Mosque of Brussels on one corner.
My suite has a brash loft-ish design with huge shower, plenty of storage space and a narrow but adequate desk. Noise from the second floor bar and the square means this side of the building is better for party-goers rather than those who like sleeping at night. I am too tired to worry and pass out in the huge trendy bed.
The next day, I am able to see and shoot the pro-Ukraine march from what could be the best place in town. A conversation with Jane reveals that protests are often held around Schuman because they are visible from the Berlaymont and that police clashed with anti-COVID-restriction campaginers at Cinquantenaire: “From the park, you can conveniently march down Rue de la Loi to the Federal
Parliament and the Royal Palace, which, being close to Centraal [Station] are convenient for getting
the train home.”
A good Brussellaar would not dare to be late for a Sunday dinner, which is reserved for family over friends.
The Aloft has both gym and tiny help-yourself-breakfast bar but checkout time and work constraints mean I have time to try neither. But that is fine. This area is too “eurobubbly” for me to want to live here. It’s fine to visit, but I don’t want to subject myself to its black-hole-style all-consuming influence.
I delete “Eurobubble Central” from my list and set out for The Cocoon in St Gilles, an Airbnb in a new place where I hope to recover lost time for work. I have lost three wheelie bags to Brussels pavements over the last two years, so each time I walk to a new accommodation I look with envy at the smooth tarmac’d road.
Each sidewalk, pavement, curb and section has its own unique topography. Tiling, paving, sand, cobbles and cladding can differ from one step to the next. The bewildering randomness of textures, shapes and substances would take a wheelchair user of Olympian fitness to navigate, seems to take forever to maintain and is a slippery nightmare when wet.
When first in Brussels, this apparently arbitrary array of sidewalk surfaces annoyed me. But it awakened dormant senses and became a valued part of my life. I now understand Sam Vimes’ need to feel each different local surface through the thin soles of his boots and have developed an awe at the idea that anyone – however theoretical – could hold such a mad multiplicity of surfaces as a map in his mind.
I miss the underfoot sensation in other cities and wonder which cultures would understand.
I know I’m assimilating when I recognise this as another metaphor for Brussels because this time I am not surprised that they work. Despite the hills and the wheely bag attrition and the challenging walkway surfaces I am learning to find this city wonderful.
Wonderful that the juxtaposition of super-new architectural statements, art nouveau classics and brutalist buildings look fine beside these old-world surfaces.
Wonderful that, while other cities creep closer to blandly predictable conformity, Brussels retains its unique character.
Wonderful that, at a time where such craftsmanship is dying, the workforce here maintains and builds these randomly idiosyncratic streets.
Wonderful that so many types of cobble coexist in a European capital city.
It is another metaphor for Brussels. I know I am beginning to assimilate because I am not surprised it works.
About the European Quarter of Brussels
The European Quarter 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. Depending on who you talk to it could also include the relatively-recently-consolidated Police area, too.
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
My Aloft suite has a coffee maker and minimal supplies. The long, thin desk faces Place Jean Rey with the widest part facing more wall than window, leaving a choice between working having enough space for both laptop and notebook or easily seeing the view.
Working from home from the Cocoon
While a gorgeous AirBnB its construction means a choice between privacy and natural light. The
place is otherwise comfortable with a good sized table, plenty of space and excellent wifi. Deliveroo
people know how to reach it and the closest supermarket is a stone’s throw away.
My favourite local coffee bar:
I didn’t have time to find one, but there is a coffee meetup every Saturday at The First on Place
Jourdan (Jourdanplein); a roughly 10 minute walk.
• Leopold Park, which was once a royal zoo and is more the size of a garden.
• Ciquantenaire Park with its arches, Mosque, and where social salsa is held when the weather holds
and lockdown allows.
Any of the EU museums or institutions. Start with the House of European History, which is free. I will, when I have time.
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.