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 issue.
LES PASSIONS HUMAINES
This little Greek temple in a shady corner of the Parc du Cinquantenaire was designed by Victor Horta to display an enormous sculpture by Jef Lambeau titled The Human Passions. Unveiled in 1896, the work so shocked the people of Brussels that it had to be locked away almost as soon as it opened. It is still hidden behind a wall, though you can peer through the keyhole for an illicit view. Occasional guided tours are organised by the Musée du Cinquantenaire.
Parc du Cinquantenaire, European Quarter
The Rivoli shopping centre at Bascule used to be a sad forgotten relic of the 1970s. But the gloomy arcade has been transformed into an inspiring contemporary art hub where a dozen galleries display works by emerging artists. The final renovation work ended a couple of weeks ago, so now is the time to take a look at the cool revamped interiors. Some big names in art have taken over spaces here including Xavier Hufkens and Hopstreet.
Chaussée de Waterloo 690, Ixelles
The abandoned Belle Vue Brewery next to the canal has been turned into a cool museum of street art, graphic art, music, skateboarding and tattoos. The downtown gallery ALICE joined up with local creatives to create this ambitious venue ambitiously named the Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Art, or MIMA. The permanent collection includes works by Banksy, Invader and Bonom, while the first temporary exhibition features five streets artists from Brooklyn. The museum also has a shop, restaurant and roof terrace.
Quai du Hainaut, Molenbeek
It’s easy to walk straight past the tiny Tenbosch park hidden behind the Indian embassy. But turn down the little lane and you’ll discover a romantic green space with a pond, a playground and a secret sandpit concealed behind a hedge.
Entrance next to Chaussée de Vleurgat 217, Ixelles
The Wiels contemporary art centre recently completed renovation work that has added a striking roof terrace to the former Art Deco brewery complex near the Gare du Midi. It also has a stunning café located in the old brewing hall and an art bookshop. Coming soon, an exhibition by Vincent Meessen explores Belgium’s colonial history.
Avenue Van Volxem 354, Forest
Tel 02 340 00 53, www.wiels.org
The second hand bookstore Pêle-Mêle opened a new branch in Ixelles a few years ago. It’s a huge space on two floors with a vast collection of books in several languages, along with records, DVDs and CDs. You can pick up English novels and guidebooks for a few euros, or sell off some of your old books (though the staff are quite picky about what they accept). At the back, a relaxed restaurant called Garage à Manger has a vintage caravan where kids can play and read books while their parents eat brunch.
Chaussée de Waterloo 566, Ixelles
GABRIELLE PETIT STATUE
Not many people can identify the statue on Place St Jean near the Aksum coffee house. It commemorates a young Belgian woman called Gabrielle Petit who was executed by the German army just over 100 years ago, on 1 April 1916, on charges of espionage. Like the British nurse Edith Cavell, Petit helped Allied soldiers escape over the border to the Netherlands, yet she has never received the same acclaim. Maybe that will change with the publication of a biography in English by the Belgian historian Sophie De Schaepdrijver: Gabrielle Petit: The Death and Life of a Female Spy in the First World War.
Place St Jean, Central Brussels
There’s a new place in town for Japanese ramen fans to try out. Kobuban Schuman is run by the same team as the friendly Kokuban noodle bar off Avenue Louise. The spacious new restaurant on two floors is decorated in the same sober style as the original with plentiful light and pale wood furniture. The menu features familiar dishes from the Kokuban kitchen such as gyoza and miso ramen.
Place Jean Rey, Ixelles
Earlier this year, the Brussels pastry chef Nicolas Arnaud was voted the best in Europe. You can see his team hard at work at the back of his shop in Ixelles, not far from the Horta Museum. Arnaud won the contest with a chocolate sculpture weighing 23 kilos, but he sells more modest creations in his Ixelles store including a rich chocolate cake called Le Châtelain.
Rue Americain 93, Ixelles
It’s not always easy to eat well in downtown Brussels, but Henri shows how it can be done. This busy, friendly brasserie in the heart of the Flemish quarter prepares traditional Belgian specialities such as shrimp croquettes and Ostend sole. Best to book ahead.
Rue de Flandre 113, Central Brussels
Tel 02 218 00 08, www.restohenri.be