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The revival of Brussels’ most infamous tourist trap

The city’s L’Ilot Sacre (“Sacred Island”) quarter, a tiny area with just three to four streets, used to be the place to be seen in Brussels. But that was a long time ago and the subsequent years have seen this tiny area besieged by tourists and beset by an assortment of problems.

It is the most historic part of Brussels and, after years of relative stagnation, it’s set for an ambitious renaissance. Thanks to the vision and enterprise of local businessmen like Rudy Vanlancker, L’Ilot Sacre is re-inventing itself and, once again, starting to win back the hearts and minds of Bruxelloises.

It’s doing so with a range of measures, including the L’Ilot Sacre Project, a housing initiative which involves the construction of about 40 residential properties in and around rue des Bouchers. These include apartments and involves the renovation of existing buildings, some of which have fallen into decay. Importantly, the properties are partly designed for families, not just single people.

The developer says the aim is to offer “quality city living with peace and security”. All this is significant not least because it signals a key shift in emphasis for the area. As Rudy explains, the Sacred Island, once upon a time, was full of traditional tradesmen but all that changed in the 1970s with the opening of one restaurant after another. The problem is that they were not all particularly reputable, with the area fast acquiring a reputation as a tourist trap.

Anyone who’s taken a stroll in the area, bordered by Galleries St Hubert and the Grand Place, in recent years will be familiar with walking through the streets and being accosted by scores of restaurant hawkers trying to lure you into their establishment with seemingly great meal deals. Unbeknown to many, though, most of the restaurant’s offered the same, very modest, cuisine at inflated prices. Efforts by the local city bosses have tried to put an end to this, though. Just over a year ago, new laws were introduced which strictly forbid the practices of the “racoleurs” who, says Rudy, were often the cause of “tension”.

The move has generally been welcomed, including by Christophe Tony, at the restaurant Le Petit Bedon who said, “It’s been a good idea. Passers-by used to complain about being constantly hassled, but that’s all changed.” Another council initiative, enacted at the same time, has been to limit the time restaurants can place tables on their outside terrace from April to November. Such legislation may seem relatively small scale but the overall idea, as Rudy explains, has been to improve the area’s declining reputation – and help attract more people from Brussels. Other steps such as the city centre pedestrianisation, though outside the Sacred Island, have contributed to encouraging people from the city’s communes to come into Brussels, some for the first time in years.

A troubled past

L’Ilot Sacre suffered, arguably, its biggest setback with the March 2016 terrorist attacks in Brussels. The subsequent security lockdown was compounded by Donald Trump’s description of the city as a “hellhole”. Rudy, who owns two well-known restaurants (Chez Leon and Aux Armes de Bruxelles), knows all too well the impact this had. His businesses lost an estimated 80 percent of trade in the immediate aftermath. His solution was to double the budget of his commercial manager who was despatched to far flung parts of the globe to help boost trade and dispel the impression that Brussels was a place to avoid. The strategy worked, with Rudy’s two restaurants attracting some 450,000 customers. Increase from 2015, which had previously been their best-ever year.

Rue des Bouchers in L’Ilot Sacre in 1964, a few years before the street starting its transformation from residential into the restaurant street we know it as today. 

The exodus of local people, which dates back to the 70s, is a trend that Rudy believes is now firmly in reverse. The good news, he says, is that the locals are back and the reopening last September of Aux Armes de Bruxelles, in arguably one of the most historic buildings in the area, promises to further reinforce the area’s reinvention. Rudy might have been seen as taking a gamble when he bid for the then bankrupt business. His offer was deemed the most acceptable in terms of its social and architectural merits. He retained all the 33-strong workforce and pledged to respect the restaurant’s renowned architecture.

A revival

Rudy lives in Uccle but the Vanlankcer family’s connection to the Sacred Island dates back over 125 years and the 62-year-old says he will “take great pride” in restoring the area’s reputation and image. The efforts he and the local council are spearheading represents a return to the strict enforcement of the past regulations for urban protection.

According to the L’Ilot Sacre website, if one square meter of old bricks was discovered, the facade had to be rebuilt in the style of the 17th or 18th century. Only Spanish bricks were allowed. Lintels around the windows had to be made in white stone that was cut the old way, that is to say: by hand. Aux Armes de Bruxelles, the street’s most famous restaurant, can be found at number 13. Flemish singer Jean de Baets made the thoroughfare famous with his 15 stanza song “In de rue des Bouchers” in the 1920s.

Dating from 1294, rue des Bouchers was inhabited by pork butchers and sausage merchants in the Middle Ages. Today, the street still has about twelve houses dating from the 17th and 18th century, including number 30, formerly the “La Rose Noire” jazz club, where Jacques Brel had his first successes in 1953. Nearby, Rue des Dominicains commemorates Belgian monks while Rue de la Fourche, located at the heart of the Ilot Sacré, has always had a great number of cafés, restaurants and small hotels.

Fast forward to today, and, as Rudy points out, the old tradesmen, including shoe repairers, butchers and bakers, who were pushed out by the sudden influx of restaurants in the 1970s, are now returning. These include Pistolet Original (selling the traditional Belgian bread) and Georgette Café (where frites are served in an old-fashioned cone). Rudy says the objective is to make sure people use the area to live, work and sleep and not just eat there. “Brussels people fell out of love with the Sacred Island and it’s my dream to give them the desire to come back.”

Brussels minister-president Rudi Vervoort and Visit Brussels report that tourism in Brussels enjoyed a boost in 2018 – with hotel stays up 8.7% thanks to a boom in city-trippers. Visitors spent 8.5 million nights in the region’s tourist accommodation – not just hotels. The 8.7% increase is one of the biggest rises in hotel occupancy rates throughout Europe in 2018.

 By Martin Banks

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