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 November issue.
A stunning new street art hub has opened in an abandoned Delhaize supermarket in Ixelles. Originally built as a garage, the modernist building was converted into a supermarket in 1971. Its concrete walls are now covered with wild art by dozens of Belgian and international artists. The works include Andrea Ravo Mattoni’s giant triptych based on paintings by Flemish Masters and a series of rubbish bins sprayed with the portraits of Belgian politicians.
This new café on the sleepy Place de la Liberté borrows its name from an old Brussels word referring to a bar used by prostitutes (from the Spanish expression cabe una dulce, or here comes a sweet girl). The spacious interior has been given a Nordic makeover with exposed brick walls, big windows and hanging plants. The menu offers simple homemade food along with an interesting list of craft beers including Boon Oud Gueuze and Goose Island IPA from Chicago.
It’s hard to keep kids amused during winter, but you might manage to brighten up a gloomy day by persuading them to follow the comic strip trail. Launched in 1991, the route now features 56 comic book murals dotted around town. You can begin at Central Station where a huge Smurf ceiling fresco was unveiled earlier this year in a passage next to the Hilton Hotel. But that’s just the start of a fascinating route that helps to make Brussels the comic book capital of the world.
Not many people know about the arboretum planted just outside Brussels by King Leopold II. Located near Tervuren, it’s a quiet spot to wander through on an autumn or winter morning. Trees are planted in plots corresponding to continents, so you can begin in a forest that resembles British Columbia, discover a patch of Douglas firs from Oregon, cross a bridge into a Swedish forest and end up in an Alpine landscape. Leopold’s aim was to find out which species could survive in Belgium’s cold, wet climate. Most trees seem to be doing fine.
Named after the famous Russian dancer, Librairie Nijinsky used to sell secondhand books in a beautiful town house in the Châtelain district. No more. The owner was forced out by a rent hike. He now occupies a much smaller shop near Place Flagey. Drop in to check out his eclectic stock of books and art magazines, including a small collection of English fiction.
Learn more about your city this winter in a hidden downtown cabaret. Historian Roel Jacobs is giving a series of talks in the charming cafe-theatre Le Jardin de ma Soeur in the heart of Saint-Catherine district. Jacobs aims to shed some light on the Spanish period on 7 and 8 November, the Austrian occupation on 20 and 21 November, and Expo 58 on 5 and 6 December. Tickets cost €5.
Mamma mia, this little Italian restaurant is the real thing. The owner, Rosalba Astore, comes from the region south of Naples where they grow the best of everything. You eat what she tells you. Sometimes she has spaghetti vongole. Sometimes not. Sometimes there is lemon tart. Sometimes every last crumb has gone. It’s the most authentic Italian restaurant we know.
Brussels has several romantic cemeteries dating from the 19th century including the vast Brussels Cemetery in Evere, where you find the graves of burgomasters, politicians, academics and soldiers. Hop on bus 63 to reach this forgotten spot where you can discover the city’s past, admire beautiful tombs and breathe clean air.
Avenue du Cimetière de Bruxelles 159, Evere
PASSAGE DU NORD
The Passage du Nord used to look a bit faded and dusty, but a 16-year-long building operation has restored the shine to this covered passage built in 1882. The shop fronts have been repainted in the original style, the neoclassical statues cleaned and the lighting improved. Among the shops, you find an oyster bar, knife shop and milk bar.
This romantic little park hidden behind the Hilton Hotel is the perfect urban retreat, reached down a secret path between two houses. The park has a few benches, some rare trees and a statue of Peter Pan, along with a stylish café-restaurant located in a former orangerie. The city recently put up signs explaining the history of this ancient green space.