City life: Brussels

No longer the transient ghosts of old, Brussels' army of young Eurocrats are increasingly putting down roots in the Belgian capital, transforming it into a vibrant, creative city rich with the cultural flavours of their home countries

By John Malathronas
Published 3 Apr 2019, 18:23 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 14:48 BST

The first one — robust and flavourful — was born in Congo's Virunga National Park; the second — smoky and fruity like a Zante currant — is sourced from the Dominican Republic. The beans for the third — astringent yet aromatic — were harvested in the Peruvian jungle.

I'm in Brussels, eating chocolate, but the tourist cliches end there. I've not been tempted by the patisserie porn lining confectioners' windows in the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, and I'm not gorging on waffles in the Grande Place. Instead, I'm in the leafy-but-sleepy Brussels suburb of Uccle, a place rarely frequented by tourists — in the same way that few London visitors venture to, say, Ealing.

I'm at Mike & Becky, a bean-to-bar cafe whose owner, Bjorn from Düsseldorf, is effectively taking coals to Newcastle by churning his own chocolate in Brussels. I'm sampling an assortment of the dark variety, but when presented with a fourth type, my taste buds struggle to detect any subtle notes — other than, well, chocolate. It's like I've hit a chocolate wall. Bjorn isn't surprised. "You can distinguish, at most, three, because chocolate tastes so overwhelming," he explains.

Originally lured from Germany to Brussels for a temporary role in the European Parliament, at the press department of the Green Party, Bjorn stayed on after the job ended. "I wanted to be my own boss, and after noticing that there were only two places in the whole town you could have hot chocolate — at Laurent Gerbaud, on Rue Ravenstein, and Frederic Blondeel, on Quai aux Briques — I decided to open this chocolate cafe," he says.

Bjorn imports, roasts and winnows the beans himself, as well as grinds the nibs into a powder for chocolate — all without adding the lecithin emulsifiers, palm oil, vanillin (synthetic vanilla) and sugar that most commercial producers throw in. "A year in, the response has been positive so far," Bjorn says. "Everyone likes chocolate, after all."

In many ways, Brussels is a victim of its location — squeezed, as it is, between two of the world's most popular and charismatic travel destinations: Paris and Amsterdam. At best, it's often overlooked; at worst, unfairly labelled as the humdrum HQ of the European Union. But the city doesn't seem to care what others think. On Place Sainte-Catherine, the food trucks are out on a Saturday afternoon, offering not just moules et frites but also oysters and Champagne. At Noordzee – Mer du Nord, a fishmonger-cum-seafood cafe in a corner of the square, people queue for fried prawns, salmon or tuna. At ABC Poissonnerie, a similar establishment, opposite — the choice ranges from frites with croquettes de crevettes (prawn croquettes) for €10 (£9) to the 'Armageddon', a mixed platter of Texan proportions for €70 (£62). Nearby, gourmet deli Le Comptoir de Tom displays charcuterie boards that would be the envy of a German table, while Champigros sells all kinds of Belgian mushrooms; their scents classified with descriptions ranging from 'fruity' to 'potato-ish' and 'cadaverous'. I'm starting to see why my vintage edition of the hallowed Blue Guide says: 'In Brussels, it's rare to be served a bad meal and even rarer to be served an insufficient quantity.'

The following day, I find myself lunching at Piola Libri, an Italian bookshop, cafe and wine bar. Located a few blocks behind the Berlaymont (the headquarters of European Commission), it's the brainchild of Jacopo Panizza, from Bologna, who's made it his mission to bring his native culture to Brussels' large expat Italian community. "I want a small, cosy place where you can sit down, have a cappuccino, read a book, have a sip of wine or listen to music," he tells me, as I tuck into handmade ricotta ravioli and melanzane alla parmigiana (aubergine and Parmesan bake), accompanied by a glass of Pinot Grigio. Jacopo explains that, after-hours, Piola serves as a space for live appearances, talks, book signings, even live music shows. Famous Italian artists, little known outside the country, have graced the bookshop. They include singer-songwriter Francesco Guccini, whose folk guitar stylings earned him a reputation as the Italian Bob Dylan in the 1970s. "We've even had an appearance by Rita Levi-Montalcini, a Nobel prize winner in medicine," he adds, gleefully.

Jacopo opened this small corner of Italy in Brussels a decade ago and hasn't looked back; his weekly wine tastings are now so popular that participation is by subscription only. Like Bjorn, the German chocolatier, Jacopo served an internship at the EU — working as a translator and ghostwriter for political bigwigs — before opting to remain in Brussels and start his own business. For decades, Eurocrats tended to live separate lives from the locals, but a growing number are choosing to put down roots, share the city's way of life and contribute to the local culture, changing the shape and feel of Brussels.

City of permanent transition

One of those bureaucrats who integrated is Monica Westerén, from the Finnish town of Turku. We meet at her apartment in the upscale residential area of Wuluwé. She works under the environment commissioner but has also edited The Meantime, a collection of nine short stories by young stagers (EU interns) from all over the continent.

"The authors did internships around the same time and became close friends," Monica says. "We got together every week for a project that inspired everyone: write a short story, to be published in an anthology, about characters in their 20s who come to the city for a while and then go elsewhere — but 'in the meantime' they stay in Brussels. I never thought I'd settle here. You start with 'I'm here for five months' but one things leads to another: you create a network, you get your first job, you find a partner, have a child, the child starts school, and suddenly Brussels is your home."

The Meantime's stories — all in English — are hit-and-miss, but compelling. The preface notes that Brussels, the protagonist, is a place 'where nothing is permanent — except transition. Even after years here, Brussels can remain an enigma. People's experience of it is so diverse that it's like they're talking about a whole set of different cities.'

I encounter Europe's jeunesse dorée (fashionable young crowd) hanging out in the bars that line Place du Luxembourg, next to the European Parliament. In Brasserie London, Quartier Léopold and Café Luxembourg, they quaff Stella and Jupiler and wolf down the plat du jour. Everyone standing is talking into their mobiles (why else would they not be sitting?) and everyone sitting seems to have a discussion partner with whom they're talking animatedly in English, solving Europe's problems between forkfuls.

But it's not all networking Eurocrats here; the Tuesday market on Place du Luxembourg offers an experience that's impervious to the Euro expense accounts. There are stalls selling everything from North Sea fish to Italian pasta, as well as a German bakery tent and food trucks offering authentic Cornish pasties, French cassoulet, Moroccan tagines and Singapore noodles. Opposite, MIXITY 183, a pop-up art installation inside an inflatable tent, expresses the city's pride in its diversity: there are no fewer than 183 nationalities living in Brussels.

But, then again, Brussels — standing at the crossroads of French, German and Dutch cultures — has always been cosmopolitan. This revelation comes to me the next morning during a walking tour of the city's graffiti art. Chances are you'll come across some of this simply by meandering through the centre. In 1991, Brussels started tearing advertisements down from walls and decided instead to adorn the blank spaces with city-sponsored graffiti and comic-strip art. You can now follow a trail around town to 50-odd monumental frescoes depicting homegrown comic heroes in action, from Tintin and Spirou to Lucky Luke and Asterix.

It's along the trail, around the cobbled lanes of the Marolles and Sablon neighbourhoods, I find the late-gothic church of Notre-Dame du Sablon. It's home to one of the few authenticated holy relics in Christendom, belonging to Emperor Karl I of Austria (died in 1922, beatified in 2004). In front: Egmont Palace, the austere neoclassical pile where Denmark, Ireland and Britain signed up to join the Common Market in January 1972. Next to it, a plaque informs me, a mansion once stood: the family seat of the Thurn und Taxis, aristocrats descended from Italy with a German name who made their fortune from a European postal monopoly.

A few blocks down, the traffic–congested Place Poelaert proffers one of the best views over the Old Town, a skyline dominated by the Town Hall's 315ft-tall gothic tower, topped by a statue of St Michael acting as a weathervane. It's the majestic Grand Place's oldest structure — a miracle considering how many French cannons targeted it during the bombardment of 1695. At the time, Belgium was part of the Spanish Netherlands, enjoying self-governance under the King of Spain — the Dutch speakers too Catholic to be absorbed into Protestant Holland, the French ones too independent-minded for centralising France. There are some vestiges of that Spanish era left, most famously in the name of Rue de l'Amigo, a street just south of the Grand Place. The Spanish built a prison here — named the Vrunte by the Dutch — but confused the pronunciation of 'vrunte' with 'vriend' (friend) and mistranslated it into 'amigo'. This has always been a city of cultural mixes.

Small city, big brews

The city's St Gilles district is, however, still pure Bruxellois; this is where sprouts were first cultivated, and you can't get more native than that. Like in Uccle, tourists only arrive here for some specific reason. More than likely it's Moeder Lambic, one of Brussels' best-known pubs, run by Alsace-born Jean Hummler, whose devotion to beer is absolute. "You'll find no lagers here," he proclaims. "No Jupiler, Maes or Stella — the McDonald's of beer. Only pure, unfiltered, unpasteurised stuff." Jean then asks me where I'm from. When I tell him London, he goes to a tap and starts filling a glass.

"Try this Kernel beer, straight from a brewery in Bermondsey," he says. I have a sip. It's a wonderful golden brew — I daren't use the word 'lager' — smelling of citrus.

Jean is a beer aficionado whose enthusiasm is infectious. A jovial hurricane of a man, he speaks in a staccato voice about all the new cheese shops, artisanal bakeries and microbreweries that have sprung up and changed the tastescape of Brussels. He took over Moeder Lambic in 2006 as one of the earliest proponents of craft beer and converted it into a pub with 33 taps connected to kegs kept in a basement at two different temperatures; a pub where you can buy 70 different bottled beers; a pub where you can taste a new arrival — the beer menu changes regularly — and take it away in a litre jug.

"No Coca-Cola, no Schweppes, no juices! Just beer!" Jean declaims as he pours me a Heavy Porter from the No Science brewery (sweet with a coffee aftertaste). "Plus a selection of sulphide-free wine," he adds as a coda, as if embarrassed by the admission.

When Jean hears I'm not overly fond of kriek, a type of Belgian beer made from sour cherries, he runs to a tap — an evangelist on a mission. "Try this one," he says. "Kriek from Cantillon, Brussels' oldest brewery." I drink with dread, but no; it's refreshing and sour, not like the horrible sweet concoctions available commercially.

Ask Bjorn, Jacopo or Monica — foreigners who've laid their hats in Brussels — what they think about the city and they'll all speak with Jean's passion. "Brussels has a great vibe," he tells me. "It's inexpensive, multicultural, liberal and free. It's big enough to have world-class restaurants, bars and cultural activities, but still small enough to get to know people intimately. It's not as fancy as other cities, but the quality of life is really good."

Just like the beer.


Getting there & around
A number of airlines offer flights from the UK to Brussels, including British Airways, Ryanair, Brussels Airlines and Lufthansa. Eurostar runs frequent trains between St Pancras International Station and Brussels' Gare du Midi (journey time: 2h).

A Brussels Card offers free or discounted entry to museums and attractions, plus access to all trams, buses and metro lines (24/48/72h, from €24/£21.30). Alternatively, subscribe to the Villo! bike-hire scheme with a credit card (day/week, €1.60/€7.90).

When to go
Brussels has a mild climate. Busy in July-August, it's best visited in April-May and September-October.

More info
The main visitor centre is inside the Town Hall at the Grande Place.

How to do it
Kirker Holidays offers three nights at Hotel Amigo from £558 per person (B&B based on two sharing), including Eurostar journeys, private transfers, guide notes to city restaurants and sights, plus concierge service.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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