On Monday I took the Eurostar from London to Brussels for the day to see my friend Staffan and to explore the Belgian capital for the first time since 2002.
Somewhere along the way Brussels became really, really interesting, a piece of the Belgian puzzle that confounds the country's linguistic divisions in fascinating ways.
I've got lots of half-baked thoughts about this phenomenon, which is obviously complex. One thing that can be said without qualification is that Brussels is truly a city of immigrants. Around one of eight residents is from elsewhere in the EU, and the Moroccan presence is striking—about four percent of the population is Moroccan, and this statistic doesn't include naturalized Belgians of Moroccan descent. Staffan and Jarmo, my Brussels guides, provided a quick demographic-cultural primer on Brussels. They explained that decades ago the Belgian government encouraged city dwellers to move out of the center of the city. This exodus opened up the city's center to streams of arriving immigrants, and has produced a city center much more diverse than those found in most European capitals. Paris and Amsterdam spring immediately to mind as counter-examples.
Three 'hoods caught my eye on my visit on Monday. I loved Matongé, with its many Congolese businesses and the charming cafés of Rue St-Boniface, including the expansive L'Ultime Atome, where we sat and had a drink and watched the rain fall. I also loved the area
around Oude Graanmarkt square, the hub of the Flemish community in Brussels. Nearby
Rue Antoine Dansaert has some very hip retail spots as well. Les Marolles was interesting for its flea market, where I almost picked up a 1940s Dutch dictionary, deciding against doing so only because it was so bulky.
One of Staffan and Jarmo's neighbors worked on the Brussels Use-It map, a diminutive fold-out map bulging with commentary. Though the map is designed for university-aged travelers, it's full of great information for budget travelers of all ages. Written by locals, it covers cheap eats, city walks, local beers, and hidden haunts, and is written in a fun, informed idiom. I especially like its "Act Like a Local" section, which includes gems like this one:
Brussels is ugly, and we love it. And if we don't love it, we live with it. So don't be surprised that we built a terrible apartment block next to an Art Nouveau jewel, or a pseudo-classical monstrosity in front of the Central Station.
Here are a few things that have been driving my attention over the last few days...
1. FXHistory. Curious about the Serbian dinar-Swiss franc exchange rate in August 2005? Check out FXHistory, an historical currency conversion table. It's the perfect tool for travel writers heading to their accountants. And for currency nerds, of which there must be a few. My only caveat: if you are paid for your labors in U.S. dollars, don't research old dollar-euro exchange tables and fantasize about the vacations you can no longer afford to take.
2. Annie Shapiro's tips on finding good, cheap food in Rome in the EuroCheapo Blog. I may be wrong, but I'm fairly sure that Annie took me to one of her favorite listed restaurants (Da Augusto in Trastevere) in 2006. It was scrummy. I'm annoyed at myself for not taking notes.
3. Brussels. I'm getting really excited to visit Brussels by Eurostar this summer. I'm especially looking forward to visiting the 'hood of Les Marolles/De Marollen—despite evidence that gentrification has been underway there for quite some time. Check the neighborhood out here, or get a more cinematic sense of it in this advertisement for Broederlijk Delen, a Flemish NGO. I was last in Brussels in 2002, and look forward to having the opportunity to explore it anew.