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Derek Blyth’s hidden secrets of Brussels

Villa Empain

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 November issue.

VILLA EMPAIN

A must visit, this Art Nouveau villa was designed in 1934 by Swiss architect Michel Polak. Originally owned by Louis Empain, son of the fabulously rich banker Edouard Empain, it was later occupied by the USSR embassy. Now owned by the Boghossian Foundation, the villa has been carefully restored by the Brussels architects MA2. Set aside an afternoon to check out the dazzling interior, swimming pool and restaurant.

 Avenue Franklin Roosevelt 67, Ixelles
+32 (0)2 627 52 30, www.villaempain.com

NOMS PEUT-ÊTRE

You may have noticed that most Brussels streets are named after men. But the feminist action group Noms Peut-Être wants to change that, one street at a time. They put up fake street signs with proposed women’s names in the hope that the local communes will take note. Their actions so far include a campaign to rename Place Poelaert after Simone Veil and to persuade the authorities to name a street after Ixelles-based writer Nell Doff.

nomspeutetre.wordpress.com

OSTERIA AGRICOLA TOSCANA

This innovative Italian restaurant opened a few years ago in a corner building once occupied by an Irish pub. It’s furnished in rustic style with wood tables, stacks of wine crates and indoor plants. The kitchen serves generous plates of Tuscan cooking made with fresh organic produce grown on small farms outside San Miniato. The menu changes with the seasons, so you might hit the place on a night when they are serving the seafood dish spaghetti allo scoglio or maybe the ancient 13th-century Tuscan chickpea flatbread cecina will feature on the menu.

Avenue Livingstone 20, European Quarter
+32 (0)2 231 64 07, www.osteriaagricolatoscana.eu 

KUSSENEERS GALLERY

Founded in Antwerp, Kusseneers Gallery moved in 2013 into a converted mustard factory in Molenbeek. Owners Paul and Suzy Kusseneers chose this gritty downtown location, rather than the trendy upper town, to present exhibitions by young experimental artists. It could be a turning point for Molenbeek if other galleries follow the Kusseneers to this old industrial neighbourhood.

Rue de Menin 10, Dansaert Quarter
+32 (0)475 65 11 09, www.kusseneerscom.webhosting.be

SONIAN

A friendly new forest café opened a few months ago in the heart of the beech woods south of Brussels. There’s a bright interior with space for children to roam around, along with a terrace under the trees. The perfect spot to end a forest hike, with a menu featuring salads and local beers.

Duboislaan 1, Hoeilaart
+32 (0)2 478 32 63, www.sonian.be

FONTAINAS PARK

Take a walk through the new Fontainas Park neighbourhood to find out how the city is moving towards a more sustainable future. Once the site of a Philips factory, the landscaped park has been turned into a relaxed green space surrounded by innovative low-energy apartment buildings by Brussels architects B612 Associates. The project includes 22 affordable apartments, 35 student rooms and a kids’ park.

Place Fontainas, Central Brussels

LA LANTERNE

The tiny L’Ermitage urban brewery has been creating interesting craft beers in a former cigarette factory in the heart of Anderlecht since 2017. Their list includes an American-style IPA called La Lanterne as well as some experimental beers. They offer tastings in their industrial-style taproom most Saturdays. You can also track down their beers in independent Brussels cafés.

Rue Lambert Crickx 28, Anderlecht
www.ermitagenanobrasserie.be

LA CHARCUTERIE

Olivier and Ana’s simple restaurant occupies a magnificent Art Deco butcher’s shop on the beautiful Avenue Paul Dejaer. They have restored the wooden façade, butcher’s chopping block and tiled walls to create a friendly and informal dining spot. You can drop in for a simple sandwich at lunchtime or order a dish in the evening from the Mediterranean-inspired menu. Specialities include Spanish gambas à la plancha, chiperons à la basquaise or simple Belgian croquettes de crevettes.

Avenue Paul Dejaer 16, Saint-Gilles
+32 (0)2 850 88 12, www.lacharcuterie.be

JARDIN VICTOR DE LAVELEYE

The name of this little Saint-Gilles park might mean nothing to you. But Victor de Lavleye is something of a local hero. A lawyer and local councillor before the Second World War, he moved to London when the German army invaded in 1940 and began working as a radio announcer for the BBC. In 1941, he called on Belgians to use the letter V as a symbol of resistance – it stood for the first letters of the words victoire in French and vrijheid in Dutch (and incidentally Victor). Victor’s V-sign became hugely popular across Europe after Winston Churchill started to use it.

Chaussée de Waterloo 187, Saint-Gilles

BRUEGEL STREET ART

Street artist Piotr Szlachta of the Farm Prod collective has created a striking mural based on Pieter Bruegel’s Landscape with the Flight into Egypt. Located down a quiet side street in the Marolles, it gives the Biblical story a modern twist by referring to the migrant crisis. Created in 2019, it forms part of a street art trail by Farm Prod and other artists to mark the 450th anniversary of Pieter Bruegel’s death.

Rue des Capucins, Marolles
www.farmprod-collective.be

By Derek Blyth

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