When you take tram number 7 south towards Vanderkinderen from Louis Bertrand, you will pass the houses of famous Belgians, multiple reminders of World War Two, and Brussels’ (possibly Europe’s) largest urban green space.
As you speed south on the tram, on your left is the preciously named Quartier des Fleurs (“Bloomsbury” might be the closest English translation). Somewhere in this mixed-sized 1930’s development is a modest house from where René Magritte, adorned in bowler hat and raincoat, took the 54 bus to his studio. There he would have painted for 8 hours, and then traveled back on the same bus home, where he dined with his wife Georgette. This comfortable dovetailing of anarchy and bourgeois respectability feels very Belgian (I once met English bluesman George Melly and he boasted of boozy nights in the area – so maybe not too respectable after all!).
A little further along, just as the tram glides to a halt at Leopold III, is a rather grand house to your right where the young Jacques Brel lived with his parents. Bored to tears by employment in his father’s factory and alarming family get-togethers with his emotionally-charged, poetically ambitious, death-laden songs, he headed off to Paris to seek and find his fortune, so that, in fact, much of the world thinks Brel is French. Not so dissimilar from the less refined Johnny Halliday.
Next up, Place Meiser. At once both a huge roundabout and a crossroad, it has no less than three separate tram crossings. Architecturally it is a mess and you are entitled to feel a shudder of relief as the number 7 tram plunges underground for five stops.
There is not much to be seen underground of course. But, at Montgomery, you can imagine the slightly-larger-than-life statue of the eponymous Field Marshal standing three meters above you. In battle dress and iconic beret, he stares, unsmiling and clamp-jawed, in the direction of Rommel’s fatherland.
A grimmer reminder of World War Two awaits. A few stops after the tram emerges from its tunnel, on the right, there is a series of huge and apparently abandoned barracks. As old black and white photographs attest, it was from the massive steel portals of these barracks that the forces of evil herded groups of terrified Jews towards their final train journey.
Next, you will experience a series of green flashes, one as the tram trundles over the bumpy points at the top of Avenue Louise and the other which marks the beginning of the massive Bois de la Cambre/Forêt de Soignes, as you turn into Avenue Winston Churchill. Covering some 10,000 acres together the forest lays claim to be the largest urban green space in Western Europe. Mostly comprised of beech and oak trees, the forest used to stretch right to the Ardennes. Sadly, Napoleon cut down swathes of the trees to make the barges with which he invaded England. That didn’t work out so well!
As you head into the seriously up-market Avenue Winston Churchill you will see the Brasserie Georges on your left – surely Brussel’s most slavishly Parisian bistro. Comprised of red awnings, waiters in waistcoats, bow ties, and black ankle-length aprons chalked menus, and oysters for sale outside- the lot. From memory, it is not overly dear and worth a try.
As the tram trundles to its destination, serried by its own avenue of trees, you will pass an eclectic jumble of 130-year-old townhouses, smart apartment blocks, and the odd turreted chateau. Brussels – it seems to me – has often benefitted, rather than suffered, from lack of planning.
Just before the last stop at a roundabout, there is an oddity to be observed. The tramlines not only traverse the roundabout but also go around it, forming a Danish ‘ø”! This, I have heard, is to allow ongoing trams to pass through as the driver takes a well-merited break. A sort of elegant tram siding if you will.
As Calvin and Hobbes agreed, there is treasure everywhere.
This story is part two of a series on the Tram number 7. To read part one click here.
Hugh James Dow