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.
MAISON DU PEUPLE VIRTUAL VISIT
The landmark Maison du Peuple in Brussels was torn down in 1965 despite howls of outrage from international and Belgian architects. But a new digital project has set out to create a virtual tour of Victor Horta’s art nouveau masterpiece. The stunning 3D visit hosted on the Horta Museum website lets you wander through the building, explore the architectural details and enter the different rooms. Built in 1896-99, the Maison du Peuple was designed as a people’s palace with a grand café, library, cooperative bakery and meeting hall. It didn’t survive the 1960s, but the virtual reconstruction at least lets you discover what was lost.
Hardly anyone knows about the overgrown garden next to the Wiertz Museum. Created by 19th-century artist Antoine Wiertz, it was once a romantic retreat dotted with classical statues and artificial ruins. But it lay undiscovered for many decades until last September when the shady space was finally opened to the public. The project was the result of an agreement between Ixelles council and the European Parliament to create a “citizens garden”.
GUDULE URBAN WINERY
Thierry Lejeune recently gave up a job as a printer to produce wine in the heart of Brussels. But where are the rolling hills, the sunny vineyards? The answer is simple: Thierry imports grapes from French vineyards and turns them into wine in a warehouse near the canal. Named after local saint Gudule, the urban winery produces five different wines. Lejeune has even drawn up a list of Brussels songs to pair with his wine. His Afterwork en Terrasse wine goes nicely with Belgian band Montevideo’s Temperplane, he claims. You can taste the wines on open days at the winery or pick up a bottle in local wine shops.
Rue Dieudonné Lefèvre 37
+32 (0)495 25 67 20
GROUND UP MURAL
Most people in Brussels complain about property developers. But AG Real Estate aims to put something back into the city. The company has commissioned three giant murals by local street artists to cover the service tower of the IT Tower at the south end of Avenue Louise. The artists Kool Koor, Mino1 and Alvari designed abstract artworks on stickers that were then attached to the landmark 1971 building by a team of professional climbers.
Avenue Louise 480
Mallien Fourrures, it says on the façade. But Mallien stopped selling fur coats to rich women a long time ago. The grand 1920 shop on the Sablon square was recently turned into a vast concept store dedicated to young European designers. The exhibitors are given a temporary space to show off jewellery, fashion, art or something more exotic like taxidermy. There’s also a café on the ground floor where you can sit admiring the spectacular interior.
Place du Grand Sablon 37
+32 (0)487 68 68 77
When you think of a gift to take home from Brussels, you might go for chocolates or a local beer. But a more original idea might be a box of exclusive soap from the Savonneries Bruxelloises. Established in 1926, this soap workshop is hidden behind a grand town house in the old industrial district of Laeken. Its team of ten skilled craftsmen create limited-edition soaps using a unique blend of chemicals, oils and perfumes. The owners launched their own brand in 2010 which has found its place in the bathrooms of the Belgian royal family.
It has been abandoned for more than ten years, but the striking Roosenboom House is finally set to be renovated. The art nouveau house off Avenue Louise was built in 1900 by the architect Albert Roosenboom. One of many architects who worked nearby in Victor Horta’s studio, Roosenboom incorporated iconic art nouveau details such as curved stonework, sgraffito murals and an ornate boot scraper. The house was eventually abandoned and finally declared unsafe. Now the new owners are planning a major renovation that will bring it back to its original state.
Rue Faider 83
The Solvay Library has been reinvented several times since it was built in 1902 by philanthropist Ernest Solvay. Originally a sociology institute, it once hosted prestigious science conferences that brought Einstein and Bohr to the Belgian capital. Abandoned in the 1980s, it was restored in 1986 and became the home to a European think tank. Now it has been turned into an event venue and art gallery that stages temporary exhibitions.
Rue Belliard 137
Chez Bobbi started out as an indoor market in the little Walloon town of Ittre. Now it has opened a branch in the emerging foodie neighbourhood next to the Bourse where the kitchen staff prepare soft Asian bao buns filled with chopped meat. The new venue occupies a bright interior decorated with murals, vintage furniture and tropical plants. It is also emerging as a cultural hotspot with art exhibitions and indie concerts on the first floor.
Rue Henri Maus 25
+32 (0)2 269 72 23
With its avenues, roundabouts and enamel street signs, Ixelles Cemetery feels like a small empty town. The grandest tombs are on the main avenue, while artist and architects have their graves in less prestigious locations. Death imitating life, you might say. Buried here are Victor Horta, Constantin Meunier and Ernest Solvay, along with Marcel Broodthaers, whose grave is marked by a surrealist monument.
Chaussée de Boondael 478