Molenbeek-St-Jean, in the heart of Brussels, has endured its fair share of negative publicity over the last 15 months. Nevertheless, its rich industrial history and diverse cultural identity, still attracts visitors. Eager and curious to further my knowledge of the city, and learn more about the “local touch” of Molenbeek, I decided to explore the commune with a Brussels local.
My “Greeter” is Christophe Devriendt, an affable volunteer member for the last two years of Brussels Greeters, an initiative by visit.brussels which offers both visitors and residents friendly walks with locals off the beaten track.
Greeters was originally conceived as an idea by New Yorker Lynn Brooks in 1992. She was keen to offer tourists a deeper knowledge and understanding of her city similar to that of her own, the way she lives in it as a local and beyond the main tourist sights and stereotypes about her city. Her idea has since been adopted world-wide in over 100 cities via the Global Greeter Network and has been running here in Brussels for the last seven years.
The idea is for locals to share their pride and passion of their city and neighbourhood they live in. They don’t receive any training or guidance on what to say. It is purely their own independent expression of what they like and love about their city as a true “voice of the locals”.
Brussels Greeters is a great way to explore Belgium’s capital whether you are a tourist or simply a resident who would like to discover more. Those interested can book a walk for free and will subsequently be matched with one of the many of its volunteers who are willing to meet and welcome you on a tour through their neighbourhoods. You can be guaranteed they will possess a cheerful manner and offer an authentic insight into the way they live in and feel about their city.
I meet up with Christophe, who is a music journalist and former social worker, and a happy resident of Molenbeek for the last seven years. He is knowledgeable about the city and particularly his own neighbourhood patch.
As we begin the walk, Christophe was swiftly keen to dispel the notion that the commune was simply a breeding ground for radicalism or other criminal activity as some newspapers have portrayed it in the past year. “People here are friendly and I think that Molenbeek holds a lot of charm”, said Christophe who added that it was important to be open-minded when embarking on a walk through the commune. It had, he said, a lot to offer to walking tourists.
Molenbeek’s impressive Art Deco Church of Saint-Jean Baptiste
When crossing over the canal into the community, Christophe reminded me of its rich industrial past when this once rural land was urbanised into a thriving port. During the 1800s, the area around the canal in Molenbeek was a major hub of commercial activity where factories and breweries lined the streets. This economic boom meant that the commune was home to the first passenger rail journey on continental Europe which took place in 1835.
Many people from Eastern Europe, Asia and North Africa came to work around the canal which once housed the original Porte De Flandre. Molenbeek was ideally placed as the central port for the canal known as ABC – the Antwerp, Brussels and Charleroi canal. And although the Molenbeek suffered an industrial decline during the 20th century, it still remains an important and prominent commune of Brussels with many exciting projects in the pipeline.
As we walk on through the cobbled streets among the many eclectic shops and bars, I observe that Molenbeek seems to offer a window to the world at times and there are frequent reminders of an architecturally rich past. We visit the Art Deco St Jean the Baptiste church with its towering steeple and the grand Academy of Design built in the early 1930s by local architect, Joseph Diongre. These buildings still stand magnificently today to remind visitors that Molenbeek, is still a proud and deeply interesting commune in Brussels.
And as we continue the walk, Christophe highlights the vast cultural offering which exists in Molenbeek for its residents and tourists alike. The list is long and includes the new MIMA Museum of Urban Art, housed in a former brewery in the canal district of Molenbeek, the nearby revamped Tour and Taxis, the Brussels Circus School, Brussels Museum of Industry and Labour and Brasserie De la Senne, a prominent brewery in the district.
A vast cultural offering exists in Molenbeek for its residents and tourists alike. The list is long and includes the new MIMA Museum of Urban Art, housed in a former brewery in the canal district.
“There is always something interesting to see. We have probably more street art than any other commune,” said Christophe. He pointed out the many bars, cafes, restaurants and individually-owned shops selling almost every variety of food and clothing to cater for the culturally-diverse population.
Live music acts travel far and wide to play at the famous GC De Vaartkapoen, a Flemish cultural centre in the heart of the commune which welcomes people from all cultures to its doors and offers lots of other social and arts-related activities all year round.
Music and culture in fact, have long been associated with Molenbeek. Jazz artist Toots Thielmans was a resident in the commune and so too were Marka Serge Van Laeken, the singer-songwriter/ filmmaker and composer. Also painter Henri Thomas lived in Molenbeek to name but a few of those associated with the arts.
Christophe is just one of around 120 volunteer Greeters in Brussels who exchange their experiences, vision, pride and ideas about their city with their fellow walkers. Greeters come from all walks of life (excuse the pun) and their ages range from young adults to pensioners, but they all have one thing in common; a passion for their city.
Tourists and residents of the city can book a walk according to their personal interests or areas they wish to discover. The walks are also given in a choice of 14 languages. The Greeters are effectively “Ambassadors” of their neighbourhood and often have specific passions for various topics such as history, art or gastronomy so you can take your pick.
Brussels Greeters offer a personal touch completely free of charge to small groups of no more than six people where copious questions and lively conversations are actively encouraged. Now a thriving and popular concept for tourists, Greeters has also mushroomed to other parts of Belgium including Antwerp, Liège, Charleroi, Namur, Leierstreek, Hoegaareden and Mons.
Greeters and tourists can swap anecdotes and see the city from a different angle not discoverable via the guide books or tourist information points. Wheelchair users should not be discouraged either as Greeter volunteers can cater for all those with disabilities.
A walk with a Brussels Greeter is free of charge and lasts about 2-3 hours. Even donations are positively discouraged but conversation, a keen interest, a desire to venture off the beaten tourist track and a good pair of walking shoes are definitely encouraged. You can book a walk through the website at: greeters.brussels
By Kim Clayton