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 vast primeval beech forest to the south of Brussels has remote areas where the landscape has barely changed since the Ice Age. You can wander through deep valleys carved out by glaciers and forested areas that have been left untouched for hundreds of years. Five areas of the forest were recently listed as UNESCO World Heritage because of their scientific interest. In these protected zones, fallen trees are left to decay and rare wild mushrooms are allowed to flourish. Yet these secret untouched places are barely 30 minutes from central Brussels.
LA FABRIQUE EN VILLE
The Egmont Park is one of those secret Brussels places that almost no one knows about. Go down the little lane next to Rue du Grand Cerf 12 and you find an old park hidden behind tall houses. Once the property of the Duke of Arenberg, it is dotted with statues and artificial ruins, along with a large white building that was once an orangerie. The former greenhouse has been carefully restored to create a striking café called Fabrique en Ville with a vast white interior where you can sit on a cold Brussels day. And if the weather is warm, there is a vast terrace shaded by ancient trees.
It took a little longer than they planned, but De Markten café has finally emerged from the dust sheets. Located in a grand building once owned by crystal manufacturer Val Saint Lambert, the café is a popular meeting place for Flemish artists, journalists and intellectuals who live in the neighbourhood. The new owner Joris Lens trawled local flea markets and crumbling churches to fill the space with a collection of old chairs and lamps. The menu offers good coffee, local beers and simple bar food.
Place du Vieux Marché aux Grains 5, Central Brussels Tel +32 (0)2 512 34 25, www.demarkten.be
SQUARE AMBIORIX NEIGHBOURHOOD
The romantic Square Ambiorix forms part of a 19th century urban district that is fascinating to wander around. Although it lies on the edge of the European Quarter, this neighbourhood is largely ignored by EU workers and tourists. You find stunning examples of Art Nouveau architecture from the end of the 19th century, like Gustave Strauven’s flamboyant Maison de Saint-Cyr at number 11 and Victor Horta’s revolutionary Hôtel van Eetvelde at Avenue Palmerston 4.
Square Ambiorix, 1000 Brussels
LE BERGER BY VINI DIVINI
Hidden down a quiet back street in Ixelles, this friendly Italian wine bar occupies the ground floor of Le Berger hotel. Once a rendezvous hotel, where Belgian couples would rent a room by the hour, it has become a chic urban hideaway. The interior still has a vaguely sexy 1930s feel, with intimate corners where you can meet over cocktails. The kitchen at the back produces classic Italian cooking, including generous plates of antipasti and tasty pasta dishes. It also has a walled garden where you can eat out under the stars.
Rue du Berger 24, Ixelles +32 (0)2 502 03 80, www.vini-divini.eu/berger
This wistful cemetery is filled with the grand tombs of 19th century Belgians. Former Brussels mayors and military leaders occupy prime spots on major avenues while artists and musicians are buried in the minor lanes. The Atelier Salu workshop next to the entrance produced many of the bronze figures dotted around the cemetery.
Parvis Notre-Dame, 1020 Laeken
GRANDES RANDONNÉE TRAILS
Not many people know about the network of hiking trails that run across Brussels. Known as Grandes Randonnées, or Grote Routepaden, they are marked out with red and white stripes that appear on trees and lamp-posts. You can use these signs to follow long-distance trails that run across mainland Europe, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. But they are equally useful to guide you across the city. The map bookshop Anticyclone des Açores stocks guides to the routes that run through Brussels, numbered GR12, GR 128 and GR579.
Rue du Fossé aux Loups 34, Central Brussels +32 (0)2 217 52 46, www.anticyclonedesacores.be
This little corner bar could almost be in Paris. Located on a busy corner in the Sablon quarter, it has been around for years, but its new owners have given it a stylish makeover. The interior now has a retro Left Bank look with curved benches and a beautiful Faema E61 coffee machine, while the terrace is furnished with rattan chairs and little round tables. It is just about the perfect spot to sit on a Saturday morning with a newspaper and a coffee.
Rue des Minimes 2, Sablon +32 (0)2 512 14 06, www.chezrichard.be
This rambling forgotten park on the edge of Brussels was created for a niece of the rich Brussels industrialist Ernest Solvay. Now maintained by Brussels Region, it’s a peaceful, forgotten spot to wander on the edge of the forest, with ancient trees, a walled orchard and a shady pond.
Chaussée de la Hulpe, 1170 Watermael – Boitsfort
An ancient gate leads into a tiny cobbled courtyard off the steep Rue Rollebeek. Hidden away here is an old brick building that was originally a 16th-century inn. It was recently turned into a cool cocktail bar with a cosy interior. The bare brick walls, soft jazz and log fire make this the perfect spot to take your best friend when they come to Brussels for the weekend.