“…Then with nothing at all, But the little we are, We’ll have conquered all time; All space, the sun, and the stars.” – Jacques Brel
Take yourself on a journey through the centre of Europe, the heart of Belgium; to Brussels – a city of no fuss, no pretense – just a mirror; a canvas to arrange the colours of your own soul.
You know, Brussels has been voted Europe’s most “boring city” on TripAdvisor. Just how?! The place is aesthetic paradise! …I think this proves that TripAdvisor is full of shite, quite frankly.
Brussels, my fellow Aesthetes, is a classy city, understated; demands to be explored; requires a Romantic heart, an independent spirit; a clear mind; doesn’t sell itself cheaply with tourist attractions, Macdonald’s, Starbucks, tacky gelaterie and gift shops on every street corner (take note Italy); it caters first to its own traditions, cuisine, artistic and cultural history, as opposed to cloned, rather more beige standards of Western tourism (basically caters more towards a sophisticated, adult market – yes, that means not so many crowds of whining brats); it has some of the most beautiful architecture I’ve ever come across on mainland Europe, or anywhere in fact – and it really is just the most exquisite place to get totally lost in, walk around and wander aimlessly, marvelling at its Gothic beauty, all the little winding streets, brimming with vintage and antique shops, traditional and rustic coffee houses, artisan bars and bistros – and I won’t even get started on the beer… well not yet.
So, without further ado, this is my staunch defense of the beauty of Belgium, a little tribute to my time spent Under Brussels Lights… in simple Words and Pictures.
There is a lot of detail to completely consume the creative mind. Perfect for me. Art is my favourite distraction; art and creation. With camera in hand, in Brussels, you paint your memories ~
After hopping off the train, without map, guidebook, tour guide or even knowledge of the city, I began simply walking (although my version of simply walking is practically sprinting – ever impatient to see everything). I would use beautiful buildings, graffiti or good-looking people as a reason to turn a corner or cross a road. Eventually, without even trying, I ended up in a very cool neighbourhood somewhere near the centre, full of little coffee houses and vintage shops. I saw this beautiful looking coffee house up ahead and walked in, because I liked the blue sign outside. Other than art, my other serious addiction is coffee… Strong, black, no sugar please.
Feeling quite satisfied that I managed to order a coffee and a bowl of soup, ask for the toilets and a pen all in French, I sat at a window seat, began jotting down ideas for poetry and song, made friends with an enormous cat, and read a little bit about Lauren Bacall in this French magazine… okay I just looked at the pictures. Who would read a single word when you have that beauty staring out of the pages?! After a while a horse and cart went by the window and I felt even more satisfied. I was alone and I couldn’t be happier (the coffee was definitely helping).
A bit later I left, went over the road to this beautiful Baroque church, and entered.
You see, I had someone to meet…
I’m very blessed to have many friends dotted throughout various parts of Europe, many of them made through my travels, so whenever I’m back on the continent I get a lot of invitations to visit different places, something I appreciate so very much and try to embrace whenever I can.
Eva and I became friends when we shared an apartment back in my Florence days with a few other friends, people from all different parts of the world. We’ve stayed in contact ever since. She’s a soul who understands the need to wander in life, explore, chase skies and embrace the diversity of the world around. Every now and then our paths cross, we meet in some country that either of us are living, and have one of those talks – which usually involves lots of tea, talk of failed romances, me trying to convince Eva to quite some job or another that I don’t think is good enough for her, Eva trying to convince me to stop flitting through my life and settle down somewhere nice for a bit, if only to take my music more seriously, and occasionally there is wine-drinking and midnight skip-raiding involved (but that usually happens only in Florence).
It was rather sensational to bump into Eva during my last sojourn in Florence, when visiting the original Pose. We all met up with our old Italian pals (la famiglia) and continued the ancient Florentine Romance I pursued for many years, and still haven’t managed to completely move-on from.
But, of course, there was one place in Brussels I really wanted to see, and as soon as we were set, we began our march to the heart of the city, a place beautiful by day, by night, all alone, or with a good old pal.
Le Grande Place is simply a Masterpiece…
I spent quite a while whirling around on the cobbled square, the cold Winter air biting at any exposed flesh. I was fascinated by all the nooks and crannies, door markings and statues. And the windows!
After we took the overground back to Eva’s place, and after a few glasses of wine, I sat, staring out of the window at the raining town outside, as Eva cooked dinner. I was so pleased to find a picture from the old days back in Florence on her wall! Beautiful memories…
Then we hit the Night in the City.
It is especially satisfying to be shown all the secret little haunts and favourite places when you go to stay with a friend – no tourist prices or dodgy shots for me – especially helpful if you love Belgian beer as much as I do…
Okay, so I don’t remember too much from that night… Belgian beer is strong!
But I did find my clothes in an interesting arrangement on the floor the next morning… well, at least I actually managed to get undressed and didn’t just pass out face down.
Of course, there’s nothing like fresh mint tea to revitalise the sins of the night before.
Or incredible architecture…
(I loved getting lost in the monotone detail of the grand city).
Or if all else fails you can always try just sitting alone in the rain to try to rehydrate your tired-out skin…
Now, one cannot come to Brussels and not marvel at all the Art Nouveau, so we made a trip to the Cauchie House. Of course.
More details to get lost in… you all know how I love my muses!
Yes, muses and musing…
Even found myself a red carpet.
I have one recommendation for Brussels (other than getting perfectly lost) – go to Taverne Cirio and get perfectly merry. I put on my very special vintage Christian Dior trench coat for the occasion (that I bought in a thrift shop for about a fiver, of course, and have since given away). I once slept on Stansted Airport floor in that mac too – but that’s a story for another time…
If you love fine dining, being served by waiters in three piece dinner suits, the beauty and opulence of yesteryear, Art Nouveau details, taking pictures of yourself in beautiful mirrors and drinking strong Belgian beers, then GO! If you don’t like these things, just go anyway and hope that your soul can be redeemed.
I chose an unassuming little bottle of beer called Trappistes Rochefort 10, which later turned out to be one of the strongest beers known to man. Considering it was early afternoon by this point, I wasn’t quite prepared for the onslaught, which reminded me somewhat of my first time in Bergamo. Put it this way, in the ensuing hours, I found a whole new meaning to the term “little delirium”.
The rain poured and so did the beer. We walked the streets, found some more bars, some wine, and I found nearly everything hilarious. At some point there was a fire, some hysterical kids on a merry go round, there were all these wonderful churches that ever wouldn’t let me into for some reason. Then there was a Christmas market and some flavoured shots that I don’t remember paying for. I managed to get quite involved with nearly every reflection in sight, thinking I hadn’t taken enough pictures of myself already just to prove I was actually there. Then we were just walking by the Royal Palace and news suddenly broke out that the Queen had just died and all these news reporters started arriving, and I was convinced I was somehow involved (first I get caught in the middle of a funeral march in Ghent and now the Queen dies and I’m first on the scene). Then we settled down into a Cameroonian restaurant where I managed to finally compose myself (I think Eva had threatened to kill me at least twice by this point), and we ate loads of food, drunk a bit more wine, and then suddenly it was past midnight already and I had no idea where the time had gone (you’ll have to ask Eva).
Well, Europe does have this habit of getting me unexpectedly drunk…
And I can’t complain. Sometimes getting drunk, letting go of all the worry and heartbreak and pressures (mostly from myself) of life, travel and my career as a… person, is entirely necessary. (Trust me!) Especially on little trips like these, especially when I get to spend time with old pals, or family, reminisce and remember everything that’s happened on my incredible journey, especially when I’m back on the continent I have lived nearly all my life, know and love so well.
You see long-term solo travel can be exhausting, sometimes very lonely, and the constant-state-of-leaving part is quite often more emotionally exhausting than I can possibly put into words. And, trust me when I say my life has been full of endings, hellos and goodbyes, so many promises of returning that somewhere, deep down, I know I may not be able to fulfill.
But life goes on, everyday, with or without you, and I for one do not want to be left behind… I find it easier leaving.
On my last morning, my little rucksack all packed and ready, reaching for my boots I found one stuffed with Christmas chocolates – for St. Nicholas Day (the filling of a boot being Belgian tradition at this time of year).
It’s these parting gifts that really help me with the journey on…
So Happy New Year fellow Aesthetes of heart and mind!
I hope your celebrations have inspired you for this new year, this other chance, this new dawn. May you ever move through life ready, to embrace the new, to leave the old in the past, in all its beauty ~ always ready for the brave new world.
Life is tough, but it is not what or where you are that defines you, but what you do with what and where you are.
Let’s get busy.
To the Stars.
Love James X