Derek Blyth is the former editor of The Bulletin and author of the bestselling The 500 Hidden Secrets of Brussels. He picks out ten of his favourite hidden secrets in every issue for The Brussels Times Magazine. These are the picks in the latest summer issue.
FORET DE SOIGNES
A simple tram ride is all it takes to reach the magnificent beech forest on the southern edge of Brussels. The Forêt de Soignes, or Zoniënwoud, now forms part of the European rewilding network, which means it will be left to turn back into a natural wilderness. You can reach the forest’s edge by taking tram 94 to the Coccinelles stop and walking down the cobbled lane. You soon come to a pond called Etangs des Enfants Noyées, where meandering woodland trails lead into the primitive forest.
Tram 94, Avenue Louise
Are bookshops back? Peter De Meersman thinks so. He recently opened a second-hand bookstore on a side street in Ixelles. It’s a relaxed place with an old tiled floor, retro furniture and cool background music. He mainly stocks English-language books including some rare finds, from Dimitri Verhulst’s odd Madame Verona comes down the hill to a nostalgic 1920 photo book called Dear Old London. Of course, you can find all that on Amazon, but a bookshop has more soul.
This convivial family-run bakery in the heart of the African quarter looks a bit out of place, surrounded by shops selling hair extensions and companies shipping to Kinshasa. It was founded in 1912 when this was a prim bourgeois neighbourhood. The bourgeois families have moved out of town, but Renardy remains an elegant Parisian-style spot for coffee and croissant.
Chaussée de Wavre 111B, Ixelles Tel 02 514 30 17
NEEL DOFF PLAQUE
The Dutch presidency of the EU has alerted us to Dutch links in Brussels, but the writer Neel Doff seems to have been overlooked. Born in Amsterdam in a family of nine children, she worked as a child prostitute to support her siblings. Eventually, she moved to Brussels where she worked as an artists’ model, posing for James Ensor and Félicien Rops. In her fifties, she wrote a series of realistic novels in French based on her Amsterdam childhood. She died in 1942, leaving her Ixelles home to the obscure Belgian writer Franz Hellens.
Rue de Naples 36, Ixelles
It was one of the best noodle bars in the country until it closed in 2014. But now Yamato has reopened under new owners, looking exactly like the original. Even the sign outside is back in place. The chef works at a small gas stove producing crispy gyoza and bowls of miso ramen. No booking here, so you may have to queue outside in the rain.
Rue Francart 11, Ixelles
MOEDER LAMBIC FONTAINAS
Here is one of the best bars in the city, located on a 19th-century downtown square. The interior is modern, with bare brick walls and a blackboard listing some of the beers. They have 46 different varieties on tap here and about 300 bottled beers. Not a record number, but enough to keep serious beer drinkers coming here. They also serve plain, wholesome food, including sandwiches, cold meats and cheeses. But the beer is the main thing here, with several Brussels specialities on the menu including Cantillon and Brasserie de la Senne beers.
No one sends postcards any more, but that doesn’t deter the owners of this little art shop near Grand’Place. They has been publishing arty postcards, posters and calendars since 1977. Head in here to pick up a copy of the Cool Caravans photo book, an Atomium poster or a weird postcard showing the Invasion of the Choux de Bruxelles.
You can tell Brussels is getting serious about beer from the growing number of new craft breweries opening all over town. But where do you buy those quirky experimental beers that are being concocted to compete with big brands? Some can be found in supermarkets, but you really need to go to a specialised shop to get the interesting stuff. Malting Pot is one of the best places to head for advice on what is new. This small shop stocks beers by small Brussels breweries like Brasserie de la Senne and Brussels Beer Project, but also foreign brews imported from France, the United States and even Norway.
Rue Scarron 50, Ixelles www.maltingpot.be
One of the most creative new bars in downtown Brussels is located in the lobby of the hip Hotel St Géry. To stand out from the crowd, the owners have launched the concept of “gin & tin”. This means sitting in a bright multi-coloured interior drinking serious gin while eating sardines, octopus or olives out of a tin can. The idea, we are told, comes from a village bar in Portugal.
Place Saint-Géry 29, Central Brussels www.hotelstgery.com
Sometimes we don’t appreciate what we have in Brussels. How many cities have a film museum where, in a single evening, you could watch a silent film with live piano, a Japanese classic, a Fassbinder film from 1978, an early Stanley Kubrick and an indie documentary? Tucked away at the back of Bozar, the Cinematek is one of the world’s great film museums, with some 70,000 films on its shelves. Redesigned in 2009 by architects Robbrecht & Daem, it is one of the most appealing spots in town, with old cinema exhibits, screens showing classic film fragments and an unexpected stretch of buried city wall.
Rue Baron Horta 9, Central Brussels Tel 02 551 19 19, www.cinematek.be