Discovering Brussels through the eyes of the locals: A walk through Molenbeek
Sunday, 18 June 2017
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.