“…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
Great post. As someone who has lived in Brussels for a couple of years, I cannot agree with you more. It is a great, maybe underrated city. Though I have to say that its number of “Macdonald’s, Starbucks and tacky gelateries” only reflects its size – it is not that big.
Thank you. Yes, very true. That is probably why I like it, especially considering the cultural richness.
During 1981-1983 a son and daughter were born in Brussels. I lived in Mons Belgium and thoroughly enjoyed my stay. Beautiful city, robustly quiet and alluring. Thanks for the reminder.
You’re welcome. Jx
This is wonderful James. The pictures are fabulous. I am glad you had a good time.
Thank you, Tammy. I surely did!
You were right darling. I love this, the beer the architecture the soul of the place all sounds right up my street. And that mac, the Stanstead story MUST BE TOLD. Love you eternally.
Hahaha. Yes, I must reveal that hilarious saga to the world! Thank you, R! Love ya xxx
H A P P Y NEW YEAR James! You’ve sold me on Brussels and I loved reading about your unplanned venture through the place. The architecture alone is a draw card so I’m mystified about Trip Advisor’s unflattering declaration! Who is the lady in the portrait painting with the strand of necklace and pendant? I found the photo of you in your trench coat and hat behind the shadowed picture of two men with their coats and hats, delightfully funny! You exude a Joie de Vivre with your writing, your enthusiasm and your ‘go with the flow’ attitude. No wonder we enjoy reading about your escapades. All the best for 2016 James! 🎇🍾🍸👍🏻
Happy New Year Wendy! Not sure who the lady is, but she rather caught my eye. And thank you so much! I love sharing stories – I swear too many things happen to me to not share! All the best. It’s going to be an exciting year indeed. JxX
Wonderful post. I cannot believe Brussels is considered boring. But it is rather funny you mentioned that it was on Trip Advisor as my friend and I had a discussion about Trip Advisor while in Brussels, she was for and I am not convinced!
Thank you! And, you know, sometimes I find tripadviser can be helpful, i.e. if you’re travelling long-term in a third world country or something and need a little guidance. But I do find on the whole most tripadviser recommendations to be a bit crap – it’s always the real big tourist sites that fair better, or party scenes or whatever, and I’m not so into those… I prefer to explore a place, no pre-concept or opinion, and see where fate leads me… Being shown round a new place by a local is of course the best way; easier in India or Africa to make friends everywhere you go though.
Brussels is on my bucket list and now it is confirmed…I MUST go one day before I die. Great story and pictures.
Good! Yes, you must! I hope it welcomes you with open arms as it did me. Be open to its subtle magic and you will not be let down. And thank you, Jx
Certainly ii’s a paradise of architecture and city for an artist… I have seen chronicles of Brussels before but not in your sensible way, it was like the first time I see it for real. I’d like to be there someday. Thanks, James.
Thank you, Francis! I just adored the city and felt very at home, it’s preserved something of the ways of the past so simply and so well. I’m so flattered by your comment because I found the city so visually stimulating I wasn’t sure how I’d represent it through a story at first. I hope I did it justice. Happy new year!
Happy new year, James! I hope to see it across your eyes as well.
James…I remember the movie ” If it is Tuesday it must be Belgium” so vividly through your post and loved the capture of Brussels in all its richness and of course not to forget the after effects!!!
Hey, thank you so much. You know I’ve never seen that movie! Will have to check it out now. Yes, Brussels got me totally wasted, but I didn’t do anything too bad… this time 😉 Thanks for reading. Jx
The architecture of Brussels is wonderful! I enjoyed seeing all your photos and reading of your happy times. Makes me nostalgic for my traveling days. 🙂
It really is! Thank you, Eliza. JXx
As always, I have enjoyed reading your stories. There is something so appealing and captivating about your writing. I honestly wish I could write like that. May you have a wonderful 2016, filled with whatever you are looking for. I enjoyed the French music btw, or it may be Belgian French.
Thank you Mani, I really appreciate that. When I write I tend to stop for a while and let my thoughts take over until something comes forth. I find it very meditative… and coffee helps too (black, no sugar, of course)! May YOU have an incredible 2016 on your global adventures. The music is Jacques Brel. The last song is “Ne me quitte pas” (Don’t leave me) – rather fits in with how I feel… Jx
With your help!! 😉
How wonderful it is to see this city from a completely different and beautiful perspective because my own experience of visiting it several times was always clouded by a fog of misery. I hope this year brings you many more breathtaking and magical adventures! 🙂
I’m very sorry to hear about your past experiences of Brussels, Eva, but conversely very glad to hear my interpretation has lifted you a little! Perhaps I was just lucky or a little too merry to notice the bad bits 🙂 I hope the fog clears for you soon, if it hasn’t already. Happy New Year and thank you so much Xx
No fog can linger for nine years, so its all good now. 🙂 Also I have come to a conclusion that our perception of a place greatly depends on how our soul feels and how open we are to the world (which is why I think your posts are always so uplifting). Im sure Id perceive Brussels very differently now.
V. good to hear. And I think you’re right, especially, from my perspective, where fear is concerned. Sometimes I get apprehensive about travelling alone to some place I’ve never been and get caught up in the details. But when I actually start travelling the fear just fades and I realise the world is simply not as daunting as our mind fool us into believing. So I for one am not holding back this year! Didn’t last year either and don’t regret a thing. I wish you all the best, Eva. Jx
You are so right, J! And I love your attitude. Yes, traveling alone can play tricks with your mind when you go to a new place and maybe you have some weird (and unintentional) preconceptions/ideas about what awaits you at your destination and how its gonna go, but for the most part reality turns out to be completely different in the most amazing way possible. Also I find solo trips help you understand and discover your true self. Its one of the greatest treasures life has to offer.
Couldn’t agree more! When left alone with yourself, no distractions, you have nothing but your own energy all around you. Travel set me free.
Me too. 🙂 The feeling scared the hell out of me at first, but now I wouldn’t change it for anything.
Happy new year! Recently got back from Antwerp visiting family and have to agree that Belgium is so underrated! Antwerp is such a beautiful place and we’re lucky to have family there although he never have time to visit often enough. Would rather go there than Paris anyday!!
Couldn’t agree more. I hope you can find time this new year! Although, I must say, I do have a soft spot for Paris. X
We said we’ll make more effort to get over this year. Too many people and too expensive for me in Paris, especially eating out restaurants!! Although I’m sure you’d find little places where only the locals go and pay half the price! Can’t walk so far with pushchairs though x
I understand your plight, and Paris definitely isn’t my favourite European city, in fact I prefer London – but, of course, you need to know where to go with both… You are right to stick to the smaller, lesser known cities I think. Just so much easier… And Antwerp is beautiful X
Happy New Year beautiful soul James! xx
Aww, thank you Lindsey! God bless you. Happy New Year to you too 🙂
I personally love your posts about Europe the most, probably because of the grand architecture and evidence of history all around, and all so well preserved. I like how you tell a story. Happy New Year!
I do love travelling through European cities – like you said, there’s just something about the architecture that gets my Aesthete juices flowing. Happy New Year to you!
A beautiful journey. It seems wherever you go you manage to find the beautiful things, and that precious balance between freedom and respect for your surroundings. Another celebration of life! As usual great pictures and narrative. All the best for the new year.
Thank you. You know my eye just finds beautiful things everywhere. Can’t help it! Not interested in taking pictures of crap. All the best for YOUR new year and thanks for popping by. God Bless You X
Thank you, Simon!
Another beautiful post! I love the use of the music combined with the pictures you really took me to a place! Happy new year. Looking forward to many more of your posts I hope 😉
I’m so glad, Emma! Happy New Year to you, too. I will try to be more committed to regular postings this year. JXx
Glad to hear it!