Derek Blyth is the former editor of The Bulletin and 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 April/May issue.
GENERAL THYS STATUE
Not many people stop to look at the statue of Albert Thys at the entrance to the Cinquantenaire Park. Created by Thomas Vinçotte in 1926, it honours a Belgian army officer deeply involved in the development of Leopold II’s Congo. Hence the female figures representing Belgium and Africa, along with the winged wheel symbolising the railway line that Thys built into the heart of the Congo. Thys was the official who interviewed the young Polish writer Joseph Conrad when he arrived in Brussels looking for a job. But Conrad went to write a savage critique of Leopold’s Congo in his great novel Heart of Darkness.
Parc du Cinquantenaire, Main Gate
LEOPOLD CAFÉ PRESSE
A cool, creative place run by the people who brought us Cook & Book. Located on a busy avenue near Montgomery, it combines a café, lunchroom, bookshop and grocery store. The interior has a cluttered look with a mix of sofas, vintage chairs and bar stools. There’s also a kids’ corner with cartoon videos as well as a row of iPads hooked to the internet. Definitely a fun spot to meet a friend, but maybe not somewhere for a serious lunch.
No one seems to know anything about the 12 ostrich sculptures that stand in the Parc Léopold next to the European Parliament. Seven of them have their heads buried in the sand, while the other five are standing up. One English tabloid newspaper saw the birds as symbolising the European Union. But they got the story wrong. The birds were put up as a reminder that the park was originally a zoo, founded back in 1850 but closed in 1900. Funded by the Brussels development fund Beliris, the ostriches were designed by the Ixelles architects MSA and constructed by Concrete Styling.
This hip store recently opened in uptown Ixelles. It’s owned by the same people as Blender 01 in the Dansaert district, but there’s more space to move around in the new shop. The interior is decorated in Scandinavian style with pale wood selves and cute house plants. They stock some unusual gifts like upside down hanging planters, along with casual clothes by brands like Ontour.
Rue du Bailli 86, Ixelles +32 (0)2 534 81 97
This is a tiny café on the old fishmarket with a cosmopolitan, arty feel to it. It was created by Ilse Geyskens after she had spent some years running a coffee bar in Medellin. The interior has a Nordic look with pale wood tables, benches and tulips in vases. The coffee is possibly the best in town, made from beans imported from Colombia in big white sacks.
Quai au Bois à Brûler 27, St Catherine district +32 (0)2 217 80 91, www.cafevelvet.co
Most bookshops in Brussels are dedicated to a single language, but Antonio Parodi felt the capital of Europe needed a truly international bookstore. He has realised his idea in a vibrant corner of Ixelles close to the European Parliament. Here he sells serious fiction and non-fiction from 37 countries. The books are arranged by language, including a few titles in Luxembourgish and even Maltese. Parodi also organises debates, book readings and wine tastings.
The Flemish butcher Hendrik Dierendonck has opened a new shop in the heart of Brussels food quarter. The site – formerly occupied by Irish butcher Jack O’Shea – has a cool, modern look, with huge hams hanging from the roof. Dierendonck imports the finest cuts of meat from suppliers across Europe, including Limousin steaks and Iberian pork.
Rue Sainte Catherine 24, Central Brussels www.dierendonck.be
A tiny new Nordic café has sprung up near Place Boniface with a bright interior of white walls and pale wood tables. It has already become a favourite spot for homesick Scandinavians living in the neighbourhood. The coffee is made from beans roasted by April Coffee in Copenhagen and the homemade cinnamon buns provide perfect comfort food for a rainy afternoon in Ixelles.
Rue de la Paix 17, Ixelles +32 (0)2 502 88 85
It’s now 20 years since a group of idealistic film fans took over the derelict Studio Arenberg cinema to create a space for screening alternative films. They kept the old box office and bare brick interior, while adding a relaxed bar down in the basement. Surviving on a tiny budget, Nova puts on a programme of old and unusual films that rarely get screened anywhere else, like cult porn films, dark Dutch comedies and Indian social realism. No matter how odd the film, people will pack into Nova to watch it.
Rue d’Arenberg 3, Central Brussels +32 (0)2 511 24 77, www.nova-cinema.org
This hidden enclave of Art Deco and Modernist houses lies off Avenue Brugmann. It dates from 1929 when Belgian architects were experimenting with bold new forms of construction. Some of the houses have interesting details such as round porthole windows, jagged profiles and curved balconies. Now a forgotten corner of Uccle, the square (really an oval) harks back to a lost golden age of jazz music and ocean liners.