Is Brussels, Belgium, on your boomer travel list? If so, you’ll be visiting a country the size of Maryland, where at least three languages are spoken, and repeated invasions from neighboring countries have resulted in a culture with an extremely cosmopolitan vibe. Today, Patricia Patton takes us off-the-beaten-path in Brussels, Belgium’s capital city.
Don’t be misled by the medieval architecture and Guild houses on the Grand Place that speak to the past. Brussels has a vibrant art and contemporary culture, world-renowned antiquities, real castles, avant-garde fashion and restaurants to make even the French envious. If I told you that Belgium is Europe’s best-kept secret and the key to Europe, I’d be speaking the truth. But neither captures the fact that because of its history, Belgium has soul. And getting to know the capital city of Brussels is the true story of “You can’t tell a book by its cover.” Join me on an off-the-beaten-path exploration of the city
I arrive from Amsterdam on a Friday evening just as the sun is setting on the Central Station. The Grand Place’s golden lights are beginning to flicker and it’s a short walk down the hill along Rue Grasmarkt to the Marriott Hotel on Boulevard Anspach, located just across the street from the Bourse (stock market). The side of the Boulevard on which the Bourse sits is considered an unofficial boundary of the central tourist area where you’ll find the Manneken Pis, the Sablon and the main tourist office—names and places that are mentioned in almost every tourist article about Brussels.
But, I’m taking you off-the-beaten-path in Brussels, so let’s get started:
On the Boulevard Anspach, within a block of the hotel, I find an active shopping area with nightlife and several Asian restaurants, Thai in particular. This is just perfect for a single traveler like me. After relaxing in the hotel’s keyed Executive lounge on the ground level, the Concierge directs me to a Thai restaurant that is close by.
Day 2 off-the-beaten-path in Brussels
The city’s population is a little more than 1 million, half that of Paris. You’ll hear every language imaginable but even though the city is international, it feels intimate and English is spoken widely.
I take a metro from Place Brouckert to Place Louise. From here, I walk up Avenue Louise away from the crowd toward Les Enfants Edourad, one of my original intended destinations. But I engage in conversation with two visitors at a stoplight who share a street I do not know. I follow their recommendation turning right off Avenue Louise onto Rue Biljwu (Bailli) to discover a true neighborhood.
At the end of perhaps a 3 block stretch I see the beautiful Trinity Church in the Chatelain-Bailli neighborhood. Just before the church, I encounter a tea shop with many glass windows so perfect for people watching that I can’t resist going inside. After a pleasant 45 minutes, I leave for a closer look at the fading beauty of Trinity Church. Although the architecture is beautiful, there’s graffiti on some of the walls. Art over the entrance to the church suggests that this is a church for the people, maybe a congregation that doesn’t have enough money for restoration.
I follow a group of people into a store where new shoes from previous seasons are being sold. My dollars are not holding up to the Euro, so it’s all window shopping for me. Unfortunately, I’ve missed the Wednesday afternoon market for which this area is know. There are several French and Belgian restaurants that offer outside seating. Oh, the antique jewelry made of 18 carat gold that sits in a little shop takes my breath away. I later learn that Place du Chatelain is also home to an excellent wine bar—Oeno tk—a destination wine lovers will want to know about.
I head back over to Avenue Louise to take the tram to Porte Louise. From here, I walk up Boulevard Waterloo toward Porte Namur gazing at the windows of the most luxurious stores in Europe. Believe me when I tell you, Brussels is no joke—there is little ostentation. But if you look closely, you will understand that there is old money in the walls.
While the Place du Chatelain is close to Porte Namur, the neighborhoods are worlds apart. I am having an early dinner in the Matonge area at Waka Waka, a Cameroonian owned restaurant which is definitely off-the-beaten-path in Brussels. Matonge is named for an area in the Congo, Belgium’s former colony. Let’s just say life in this area moves at a different pace. A soccer match is on the telly in Waka Waka and allegiances based on the guest’s country of origin are immediately obvious. While I speak basic French, I do not speak French interspersed with African dialects, so I am alone together in a friendly environment where I find myself rooting for whomever makes a goal. The dinner of poulet grille with salad and plantains meets my approval.
For me, travel must include some interaction with those who live in the city. I am a tourist but I have to get off the beaten path. “Chapeau” Brussels is what I am thinking. This is what the Belgians say to give someone a compliment. “I take my hat off to you.” I have gloriously relaxed not necessarily doing what I’d originally intended but what I wanted to do. I shall return. “Chapeau.”
Here’s a tip. Some of the best hat-makers in Europe are in Brussels.
Photo of Grand Place courtesy Visit Belgium. All other photos courtesy Patricia Patton.