If countries were beautiful women, Belgium would not be Sophia Loren or Bridget Bardot. Let’s say Belgium is Heidi Klum: good stock, cosmopolitan, multi-lingual, beautiful, modern yet a woman with a complex history.
That is a general description of Belgium. It is a country the size of Maryland in which at least 3 languages are spoken that has been invaded at one point in history by all of its neighbors leaving it extremely cosmopolitan. Although ruled by a constitutional monarchy, the French- speaking and Flemish- speaking portions along with the city of Brussels provincially function separately. This will not be obvious to a traveler and unless this becomes one of your favorite cities to return to, you’ll probably never think of this again. However all of these points contribute to the complexity one experiences in all aspects of Belgian life.
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 renown antiquities, real castles, avant garde fashion and restaurants to make even the French envious. To say Belgium is Europe’s best kept secret and the key to Europe are to utter two accurate statements. But neither captures the fact that because of its history, Belgium has soul. Getting to know Brussels is the true story of “You can’t tell a book by its cover.
I arrive from Amsterdam on a Friday evening at the Central Station about sunset. The warm glow of the lights on the Grand Place are just beginning to flicker.
It is 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 would be considered an unofficial boundary of the central tourist area. Enclosed within this area you will find the Manneken Pis, the Sablon, the main tourist office — everything you will find in every tourist article about Brussels. But I am going off the grid.
On the Boulevard Anspach I find an active shopping area with a nightlife and several Asian restaurants, Thai in particular, within a block of the hotel. 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 in the area where I dine alone then turn in early.
The population of Brussels is a little more than 1 million, half that of Paris. You will hear every language imaginable because as I intimated, visitors tend to be the sort who have “been there and done that.” 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 then head in this direction turning right off Avenue Louise onto Rue Biljwu (Bailli). I arrive in a true neighborhood.
At the end of perhaps a 3 block stretch I see a beautiful church to which I am drawn. I learn this is Trinity Church and that I am in the Chatelain-Bailli neighborhood. Walking toward the church there is much to discover. But just before the church I encounter a Tea shop with many glass windows so perfect for people watching and I go in.
It’s a traditional Tea house but modern in that they serve chai. After a pleasant 45 minutes I leave for a closer look at Trinity Church. Here is a fading beauty.The architecture is beautiful. There is graffiti on some of the walls. And there is art over the entrance to the church that suggests this is a church for the people, maybe a congregation who do not 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 is all window shopping. I have missed the Wednesday afternoon market for which this area is known, but make a mental note.There are several French and Belgian restaurants with outside seating to enjoy. Oh, the antique jewelry in a little shop window made of 18 carat gold 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.
Later I head back over to Avenue Louise to take the tram to Porte Louise. From here I walk up Boulevard Waterloo to 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, there is old money in the walls. While the Place du Chatelain is close to the Porte Namur, the neighborhoods are worlds apart.
I am having an early dinner in the Matonge area at Wawa Wawa, a Cameroonian owned restaurant which is off the beaten path. 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 Wawa Wawa 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. Dinner of poulet grille with salad and plantains meets my approval. The company is good.
Travel for me must include some interaction with those that live in the city. I am a tourist but I have to get off the grid. “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.”
I head back to the Marriott hotel. I will have a glass of wine in the Marriott hotel lounge and call it a day. Tell me in the comments if this is the sort of travel you allow yourself to enjoy. And where do you feel this kind of comfort and ease.
Originally guest posted at My Itchy Travel Feet
Grand Place at night by visit belgium
Hats Window Galeries Hubert @opt/
Walking Avenue Louise- Terry Phillips Photography