Derek Blyth is the 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 September issue.
The cobblestone streets in Brussels are among the most beautiful in the world. After years of indifference, the city is now preserving this aspect of its heritage. The type of cobblestone varies from one neighbourhood to the next. The hard grey stones laid out on Grand Place are made from Belgian granite quarried in Wallonia. Just a few streets away, Place Saint-Jean is paved with light grey Belgian sandstone. The lovely sloping Rue des Renards in the Marolles features a warm red cobblestone mined near Jodoigne. Other streets are laid with imported sandstone cobbles from Portugal, India or China.
Grand’Place, Central Brussels
BELGA AND CO
We’ve raved in the past about Belga and Co’s two coffee spots in Ixelles where they serve coffee from their own roaster in Antwerp. Now they have planted a third branch right in the heart of the city in a 17th-century house on Grand Place. The interior has a cool Nordic living room look with potted plants, rugs and a shiny Marzocco espresso machine. During renovation work, the builders uncovered a series of seven beer-themed murals signed by M. Suët in 1956.
The Brussels water authority has launched a creative project to remind us of the lost streams that run under the city. The plan is to create walking trails that follow the city’s hidden rivers. The first, launched earlier this year, is known poetically as La Curieuse Balade du Maelbeek. Beginning at Place Flagey, it meanders between 14 information panels along the Maelbeek valley where you can learn about local history, nature and ecology.
This relaxed spot brings a taste of Buenos Aires to a former plumber’s store in Saint-Gilles. Inspired by the grocery stores of Argentina, the owners have set up a place where people can sit around drinking coffee or eating lunch. The spacious interior is decorated with wood floors, brick walls and a white tiled central bar. You can drop in for a coffee, a sandwich or a Brussels craft beer, or grab something from the shelves for supper. Maybe a tin of Portuguese sardines, or a jar of pesto, or a pack of locally-roasted Velvet coffee.
Rue de l’Hôtel des Monnaies, Saint-Gilles +32 (0)2 428 08 62
INSIDE ART NOUVEAU
Walking around in Brussels, you spot beautiful houses in various architectural styles. But you normally never get to see beyond the front door. A new website created by urban.brussels now reveals what lies inside more than 80 houses using archive photos and contemporary images. You can admire the fabulous ceilings in a house built by architect Paul Santenoy, a gorgeous staircase concealed within an Art Nouveau house near the Ixelles ponds and Symbolist frescoes that decorate a Schaerbeek school. The site also suggests walking tours based on the buildings you have viewed.
Grégoire and Maxime started up a craft brewery in 2017 in a space in Saint-Gilles originally used as an annex to the art school across the road. They called it Brouwerij Hendrix after an old family brewery, but Straffe Hendrik brewery in Bruges complained the name was too close to their own brew. Grégoire and Maxime were forced to change the name to L’Annexe and glue new labels on their first batch of 10,000 bottles. You can drop in to chat or pick up a bottle or two of their Saison de Bruxelles beer.
Graphic designers Line and Kathrin have created a stylish stationary shop in the chic Ixelles enclave known as Little Paris. They sell smart notebooks and paper by small Belgian, Portuguese and Danish brands, along with pencils, fountain pens and other essential supplies to set up your home office. They also have a small design studio next door where they print cards, invitations and anything else you might need.
Here is a new address to add to your list of cool brunch spots. Hidden away in a back street behind the Apple Store, it’s a stylishly minimalist coffee bar designed by trendy Mexico City firm Futura featuring terracotta coloured walls, mirrors and round tables. The coffee comes from Mok of Leuven while sourdough bread is supplied by Ixelles bakery Renard. The two owners, both vegan, make their own nut butters in a small workshop at the back of the café.
Now that lockdown rules have been relaxed, craft beer expert Liselot Caura has relaunched beer tours in Brussels and in her home town Ghent. Her idea is to take small groups inside craft breweries like Beer Storming and L’Hermitage to meet the brewers and learn about the Belgian art of beer. She also drops into authentic bars to sample Belgian beers, including the latest low-alcohol and zero-alcohol drinks. Check her website for dates.
The city has seen many important visitors over the centuries. They come. They stay a few days. And then they are forgotten. One of the most forgotten is Tsar Peter the Great, who travelled to Brussels 1717. He is said to have drunk from a spring in the woods near the ducal palace and fallen backwards into the water. A bust of Peter the Great was put up close to the hidden valley where he tumbled into the water. The inscription says that he ‘ennobled the fountain by drinking his wine there at three in the afternoon.’ A statue near this spot was carved by the baroque sculptor Jérôme Duquesnoy the Younger. It represents Mary Magdalene lying in a grotto reading a book. It is unclear how it came to be in this lost valley near the royal palace.