Take the 7 tram from Louis Bertrand to Heysel. The 25 minute ride reveals Brussels in all its eclectic glory. Let me try to give you a feel.
You stand at the stop with your back to the 40 acre Josophat Park with its own pub, wild-flower meadows, vertical archery, bandstand, donkeys, ice-creamery and trysting places. To your left is the recently renovated, smallish, football stadium which Bob Dylan played when out of favour in the 80’s. To up the green factor the tram tracks are seeded with grass.
First stop is on a bridge which I find slightly unnerving. To the left, at the top of the hill is the elegant Eglise Saint Servais. If you are on the tram about sunset it, and the jumble of small houses about, can look positively medieval.
The tram now careers downhill overtaking mere cars on the busy Boulevard Lambermont. At the bottom you will, if you are quick, catch a glimpse of the preposterous but impressive Schaerbeek town hall, bursting with Flemish-Renaissance exuberance. Go in for a real treat. Massive paintings of forlorn peasants, vaulting ceilings, beautiful woodwork and tiling; all an uneasy mixture of faux-medievalism and municipal authority.
Across not one but two bridges. Stops on both; by now I’m a nervous wreck. If you crane to the right you might catch a glimpse of the unlovely Senne river as it emerges from underground. There it was unceremoniously put in the 1880’s as punishment for being a malodorous sewer. Ironically it now emerges by a town dump and a massive incinerator – usurpers in municipal rubbish disposal.
The river is also where the ashes of the unfortunate William Tyndale were cast after he was burnt (actually they were merciful; they strangled him first) for the heinous sin of translating the Bible into sublime English.
After crossing the canal the tram disappears underground. Weirdly the tunnel feels as if it predates the tramline by a few centuries. We then shoot uphill towards Heysel seeing off Porches and Beemers on the right; and with a thin strip of forest on the left so dense you might think yourself in the taiga. Beyond the trees lies the king’s official residence, Laeken Castle (actually a palace) discretely hidden behind a high brick wall. Napoleon and Josephine stayed there and its magnificent greenhouses, designed by none other than Horta, are briefly open to the public.
Next De Wand – a station which appears to have been designed to be underground but no one bothered to put a roof on. The authorities have encouraged enormous graffiti – some of breathtaking quality. Great fun.
Through a forgotten village square to the Heysel and its infamous stadium. There in 1985 a confrontation between Liverpool and Juventus fans turned ugly and lead to deaths and convictions for manslaughter. Many blamed the poor state of the venue. I still remember the eery mood in Brussels that night; like the army had taken over!
Then there’s the nearby Atomium – built for the 1958 World’s Fair. Brussels planned to dismantle it and give each of the nine spheres back to the nine provinces. Trouble was the provinces didn’t want them! So the city came up with a more Belgian solution – they stuck a restaurant on the top. Food ok, view spectacular.
All yours for €2.50!
By Hugh James Dow