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 forest trails near Groenendael station are dotted with new signs explaining the Japanese art of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. The aim is to encourage stressed urban residents to discover the healing properties of ancient forests. Trains run to Groenendaal from Schuman and Luxembourg station so there is no need for a car. A 12-minute train ride followed by a ten-minute walk and you are deep inside ancient beech woods where UNESCO-protected areas of primeval forest have barely changed since the Ice Age. Trains are frequent during the week, but the weekend service is limited.
ECOLE DE PEINTURE
One of the strangest houses in Brussels stands in the quiet Rue du Métal in Saint-Gilles. Built in Flemish Renaissance style, the brick building is decorated with elaborate iron grilles and a massive wood door. A sign half buried in wisteria reads Ecole de Peinture. Not many people know about the art school behind that solid wood door but it is one of the only schools in the world where students are taught the traditional art of trompe l’oeil wood and marble painting. The graduates go on to decorate palaces, boutiques and private homes across Europe and America.
Rue du Métal 30, Saint-Gilles
You can wait ten years for something to happen in Brussels. But when it does, the result can be stunning. Just take a look at the newly-opened Café Flora in Saint-Gilles. The designer Lionel Jadot (who has designed several Brussels hotels including Jam) has brought an Italian vibe to the neighbourhood with his interior of yellow tables, ceiling frescos and quirky details. Dating from 1905, the café forms part of the beautiful Aegidium cinema building. The complex eventually closed down and was abandoned for many years. But now the cafe is somewhere to take your friends from out of town to show them what Brussels can do when it tries.
Parvis de Saint-Gilles 16
Founded in 1866, the forgotten cemetery on Dieweg is one of the most romantic spots in Brussels. Abandoned in 1958, its weathered stone tombs are covered in ivy and moss. Some people come here to wander among the dilapidated gothic chapels, crumbling stone angels and sad faded photographs of the dead. Others are drawn by the rare species of moss and wild flowers in this untouched urban wilderness. The Belgian illustrator Hergé, who created Tintin, was the last person buried here.
The Place Jean Rey used to be an ugly patch of wasteland used as a car park. Now it is a lively urban piazza with fountains, benches and restaurants. The lunch room and design store Living Room perfectly reflects the cool Nordic mood of the neighbourhood. You can pick up Danish notebooks, stylish vases and even furniture, while the food bar offers fresh salads with an Asian twist, good coffee and tasty cakes.
Place Jean Ray 8, European Quarter
+32 (0)2 231 11 36, livingroomdesign.eu
Four local creatives opened this plant store in the Marolles in 2015. The interior is a beautiful urban jungle dedicated to rare cacti, ancient ferns and other green curiosities to perk up an urban apartment. You can also pick up vintage furniture, terrariums and handmade macramé hangers.
Rue Haute 202, Marolles
+32 (0)2 275 39 58, brutbrussels.com
Located on a pedestrianised stretch of the Chaussée de Wavre, David Giannoni’s tiny poetry bookstore is a hothouse of radical energy. Named after a story by Edgar Allan Poe, the store is stocked with thin books of contemporary poetry that are almost impossible to find anywhere else. Maelström also organises readings, workshops and an annual poetry festival held next door in the Senghor cultural centre.
Chaussée de Wavre 364 , European Quarter
Thomas Petersen from Denmark has won the hearts of local design fans with his niche store near the Horta Museum dedicated to cool Nordic design. He sells beautiful objects like Klever lounge chairs, Enter backpacks imported from Stockholm and Danish gourmet granola.
Rue Africaine 108, Saint-Gilles
+32 (0)471 74 78 75, www.cphagen.com
Nicolas Springael runs a small photography gallery in the Marolles where he sells his own work. He specialises in atmospheric black-and-white photographs of Brussels landmarks. His modestly-priced framed photographs of city scenes would make the perfect gift for a work colleague leaving Brussels.
Rue Blaes 136, Marolles
Clara and Elias recently opened a new coffee bar on the busy Chaussée de Waterloo. A haven of zen design, the interior is decorated with whitewashed brick walls, plain wooden benches and quirky art. They have added to the charm with a couple of benches in the walled back garden and two armchairs squeezed into the tiny conservatory. It’s the perfect spot for a flat white, a cake from Cookie Tree and a free glass of water.
Chaussée de Waterloo 355