Brussels: Introduction

  • © Anna Bella,

    © Anna Bella,


Every day a different news story emerges from Brussels and it is almost always about the European Union or Nato. Forming the backdrop to the TV presenter’s piece to camera are buildings in a universal architectural style, blending in perfectly with the formal language loved by bureaucrats and the military. But the Brussels inhabited by diplomats, association representatives, journalists and lobbyists is just one part of the city and, in actual fact, of little importance.

It’s true that the immigrés de luxe, as the Bruxellois with their typical zwanzé or ready wit call these highly-paid outsiders, go to the opera, visit museums, dine out in gourmet restaurants and shop in luxury boutiques, thereby contributing to the local economy. But in fact many of them live out of town in the leafy suburbs. Their grown-up children, on the other hand, live in the heart of the city in attic flats overlooking the canal or in studios beside fashionable squares; they frequent quirky wine bars and bistros, avant-garde galleries and alternative theatres.

Brussels is more than just cool. It’s colourful and exuberant, full of fault lines and contradictions, but it’s the quintessential 21st-century capital city, where the post-modern future is being shaped. Pioneering crossover experimentation is the driving force behind the rapidly growing creative industries. 

A melting pot of migrants and immigrants

Belgium’s capital is officially bi-lingual. The vast majority of its citizens speak French, but, many say, only between 6pm and 8am. Every day some 200,000 Flemings commute into the city. They speak Dutch, the language of non-francophone Belgium. Not heard quite so frequently but still ever-present are Arabic, Turkish and Congolese, the softer Spanish of Latin Americans or the coarser voices of eastern Europe and Japan. English will also be ever-present, but it is an English spoken with many different native and non-native accents. Over 30 percent of the city’s total population of around 1.2 million are immigrants, many of them illegal; another 20 percent are ‘new Belgians’, i.e. the children of immigrants with Belgian passports.

The appearance of the city is just as diverse. Old buildings get torn down, renovated and rebuilt, but don’t expect any uniformity. Individualism Brussels-style demands that one is different from one’s neighbour. So there’s new next to old, high-rise beside low-rise and beautiful alongside shabby. The division into Upper Town and Lower Town also causes confusion. Each half has its own centre, each half has its own quartiers and each quartier its own distinctive atmosphere.

The Upper Town is more Parisian in character, metropolitan, but with exotic pockets, such as the predominantly Congolese Matongé quarter. The more down-to-earth Lower Town extends out from both sides of the canal. Once, when it was home to many poor immigrants, the waterway served as a demarcation line. But now it is less obvious. Old factories and warehouses are mutating into art galleries, showrooms, music clubs and attic flats; dreary tenements are being transformed into chic apartments and office complexes. Pleasant walkways now run alongside the concrete walls of the canal, where yachts belonging to the rich and famous bob gently on the water.

This contrasting mix is nowadays called brassage. It’s no accident the term derives from the brewery trade. The way to tell a true Bruxellois is by what he drinks. And it won’t be a pale pils beer. As well as the local gueuze speciality, which is sipped like champagne, the beer-drinking fraternity in Brussels love the strong abbey beers. A popular aperitif is half-en-half, a mixture of sparkling wine and white wine – neither are very popular on their own. Instead champagnes and burgundies in particular are drunk in large quantities – from Brouilly to Saint-Amour.

All roads lead to the Grand Place

The magnificent Grand Place, the Hôtel de Ville – the town hall − and splendid guildhouses testify to the power and prosperity of the town and its industrious citizens. In medieval times, they amassed fortunes from luxury goods, such as gold-brocaded tapestries and the finest lace. Given their wealth-creating status and growing self-confidence, they were quickly able to wrest far-reaching freedoms from their masters.

All routes lead to the Grand Place, its name accurately reflecting its status, resplendent in the inner courtyard of the Hôtel de Ville. It is from this point that the distances to the country’s borders are measured. But even as you stand on the country’s showpiece square, there are stark contrasts just around the corner. Just a few streets away, behind the ‘world’s finest theatre’, according to the French writer Jean Cocteau, the doors of gambling dens, peep shows and sex bars are open for business.

Clearly evident at the start and end of the grands boulevards laid out in Parisian Haussmann-style is the phenomenon known as ‘Brusselisation’. This is what urban planners and sociologists throughout the world call the desecration of whole districts, a consequence of uncontrolled property speculation and corrupt politics. A mini-Manhattan emerged in the Quartier Nord. Towering above Bruxelles-Midi station, where the high-speed TGV, Thalys and Eurostar trains terminate, is a new business quarter. However, time has healed some wounds, and the Quartier Nord now looks a lot prettier. Lessons have been learned from the sins of the past and far more care is taken to ensure plans are sustainable.

Invented in Brussels: Art Nouveau

But joie de vivre and an openness to new ideas are also characteristics of the Bruxellois. Many are lured out for weekend strolls by the markets, which range from antique and flea to stalls selling local produce and organic food. They wander, gaze, handle, taste and on the way home sip an apéro or buy a delicious fruit tart to take back for tea. And as they saunter through the avenues, rues and boulevards, the city’s architectural treasures are revealed, including the countless Art Nouveau buildings. Not just patrician mansions, but schools, swimming pools, warehouses and shops are all monuments of Brussels' architectural achievement.

After all, not everyone realises that Brussels is the home of Art Nouveau. It suited the city’s temperament. This was a place where freemasons and liberals, open-minded Jews and revolutionaries-in exile entered into a symbiotic relationship. A concern for their fellow man is another characteristic typical of Brussels folk - during the German occupation between 1940 and 1944, countless Jews, political refugees and resistance fighters found refuge and safety behind the many splendid facades.

This mentality has its background in Belgium’s rather murky colonial history. The country’s capital city owes its grandeur and open spaces to the Congo. King Leopold II acquired an empire on the equator at the end of the 19th century. Desperately needing new markets and new sources for raw materials, the profits accruing from the exploitation of this giant colony were invested in an extravagant expansion of Brussels. Examples of this largesse can be seen in the Triumphal Arch in the Parc du Cinquantenaire, in the palatial Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale in Tervuren, in splendid avenues and in spacious parks, where rich and poor, young and old can relax and unwind. Now heavy traffic roars along the avenues, while the parks attract the au pair girls, who care for the children of the city’s elite, and matronly Moroccan mothers with a cluster of children in tow.

Cosmopolitan chic with a slightly ironic aloof politeness

Brussels only really starts to come alive as daylight fades. That’s when the bars and restaurants begin to fill up, catering for every taste, from the down-to-earth to huppé (fashionable), from the exotic to jeune cuisine. But true creativity is unfolding in the theatres and the jazz clubs, caf’ conc and discos, converted market halls or sugar factories, even in the renowned, 300-year-old Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie and the world-famous Art Deco concert hall in the Palais des Beaux-Arts.

The multi-cultural mix brought new dance forms and expressive circus, fusions of Moroccan folklore and techno, modern jazz and south Indian sounds; Rwandan rhythms merged with those of the Dutch Antilles, Irish folk songs and eastern European voices. And, everything that spills out on to the street motivates an army of fashion designers, film-makers, installation artists, painters, writers, photographers and advertising folk, at the same time drawing in bohemians, students and young people. This vibrant cultural scene then tempts the locals, the young Flemings and Walloons, the Poles and the Irish, the people who have nothing whatsoever to do with the EU or Nato.

Brussels is no longer a city to escape from, but increasingly a place to move to. Trendwatchers say Brussels has taken over from Berlin and Barcelona as Europe’s cultural hotspot. Visitors can also experience for themselves this cosmopolitan chic, if they adopt a typical Brussels mindset: the word is convivial, which here means someone who although phlegmatic, with a slightly ironic aloofness, is basically infinitely openminded, exudes humanity and is boundlessly curious. A little idleness, a surge of initiative, a spirit of adventure, et voilà: a capital city with so many fascinating faces. Bienvenue! Welkom!

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