Brussels – the hub of Europe

By | Category: Travel destinations
Remembering March 23rd

Remembering March 22nd

Brussels is well-known as the capital city of Europe, housing many of the continent’s institutions. As the capital city of one of the youngest countries in Europe it has a lot to offer – from a medieval town with a rooted rich heritage to a modern art city. It is a city of museums that continuously embrace new ideas and brings to life a variety of themes.

I have been to Brussels several times in the past, but it was always a very short visit or I was driving through it to go elsewhere. But, on this trip, I decided to spend more time in Brussels to learn more about different aspects of the city. I found the city calm and collected following the terrorist attacks of March 22nd.  Yes, there was greater security. There were soldiers and army units in front of the train stations and some key points in the city, but people were going after their business as usual.

cobbled lanes with bistros in Brussels

cobbled lanes with bistros in Brussels

The Avenue du Boulevard, a long and wide road, is the border between the old and new towns. Reaching the heart of the city in Grand-Place through Boulevard Adolphe Max or the shopping mall of Rue Neuve was within walking distance. I passed large boulevards and walked upon the cobbled street of the old medieval city in Rue des Bouchers which is now full of restaurants. In the 10th century, during the time when the city experienced significant growth, this alleyway was very busy with traders selling meat from their shops whilst living above their livelihood. The city expanded to become a protected, walled urban environment around the 13th century but, today, just a few parts of those walls survive along with watchtowers around the town centre.

The narrow cobbled alleyway of des Bouchers intersects by the glazed Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert which is a luxury shopping arcade consisting of fashion boutiques, accessory shops, a cinema, restaurants, cafes and chocolatiers. The arcade was built in the middle of 19th century to bring more prosperity to the city and attract affluent visitors. Here, ten short films made by the Lumière brothers were shown for the first time outside Paris in one of the shops in this arcade in 1896.

Galeries Royal St Hubert

Galeries Royales St Hubert

I left the arcade and went through Rue de la Colline to arrive from one of the seven entrances to the square in Grand-Place where an open-air museum of great architecture unfolded before my eyes. This UNESCO world heritage site, surrounded by the luxurious Guildhalls which are curved in the golden royalty impressions, is – architecturally – a work of art. The magnificent Brussels City Hall, built in 1401, also stands in the south side of this square which must be considered as one of the most beautiful plazas in Europe.

MIMA (the Millenium Iconoclast Museum of Art) is another contemporary art museum located at the site of the former brewery Belle-Vue by the canal in Brussels, opened its doors in March 2016. The museum is an exceptional setting with an international inclination that will invite the public to experience story telling through graffiti, street art, sculpture and illustration. The MIMA which offers temporary and permanent collections begin its inaugural exhibition: ‘City Lights’ Urban Art And More with four known international street artists: MOMO, Swoon, Faile, and Maya Hayuk.

I was overwhelmed with the power of the city as I passed the old building façades with their ornate and majestic styles confronting new, modern high rise buildings. One of the touching sites was watching people who were gathered on the steps of the old Stock Exchange at Place de la Bourse paying tributes and writing notes in the memory of those who lost their lives in the recent terrorist attack.

Grand Place

Grand Place

Belgium is a mix of two peoples and there are political differences between those with French and Dutch backgrounds, which goes back to the Battle of Waterloo, and consequently the creation of Belgium in 1830.

Despite all the beauty of the city, I noticed that, like in any in other capital, there were  beggars and gypsies in the streets and homeless people who were sleeping in the corner of shops in the evening and early morning. It occupied my mind and made me wonder why the city has not been able to address this or if it was avoiding the issue. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that the plight of such people in Brussels is in fact  depicted in a fascinating exhibition by American artist Andres Serrano at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts .

Although, there is a lot to see in the vibrant city of Brussels, I decided to start my tour by visiting museums. The Royal Museums of Fine Arts built in 1887 by Belgian architect Alphonse Balat is located near the Mont des Arts (Arts Hill) and very close to the Royal Palace and Brussels Park. The museum houses ancient art and artifacts from the 17th and 18th centuries. It also holds more than 20,000 objects including paintings, sculptures and drawings.

Musem of Royal Artes

the old Stock Exchange

In the basement of the building are to be found the works of Andres Serrano.  But it is not a normal basement; there are eight floors underground. I was curious to see the work of Serrano,  an important figure in contemporary art. I found his works intriguing but at the same time amusing and informative. I could see in his images the social issues and disturbing reality of modern life in relation to sex, violence, death and religion portrayed brilliantly. His portraits of the famous and unknown through his journeys in various countries and going beneath the skin of society provokes questions and reactions to his controversial ideas.

I discovered that the city was hosting another controversial exhibition which reveals present life in the Congo, a former colony of Belgium. The photographs of Sammy Baloji & Filip De Boeck, Now: City life in Congo, are currently on exhibition in the Wiels Gallery. This former brewery is now a modern industrial site of creativity and discussion based on dialogue about current affairs and events through art and architecture.

Congo 2

and one of the images from Now: City Life in Congo

The photographer Sammy Baloji, in collaboration with anthropologist Filip De Boeck, explores the urban environment in Congo by still and moving images. They reveal to their audience the current dilemma in different urban sites in disturbed living environment of Kinshasa and other regions of Congo, as a consequence of their colonial past. The images on display are extracted from a new book by the artists entitled Suturing the city: Living together in Congo’s Urban Worlds. The investigative research of the authors analyses the faded dreams of a better future, which are only displayed on billboards.

The following day, I continued my stroll around the city and found myself in the flea market in Place du Jeu de Balle. On a number of floors you will find antiques, jewelry, glasses, crystals, ceramics, rugs and other unused items. Don’t accept the first price – haggle for what you want.DSC01198Conv

I had to rush to get to Zinneke Parade as I wanted to see this biennial cultural event.  The event represents the people of Brussels and connects different neighborhoods, societies and groups to help build bridges among all communities. The parade is a carnival consisting of man-made carriages running through the streets all carrying people who are dressed in different unusual costumes. The sounds of drums and trumpets along with dancing performances raises the energy and creates momentum in the crowd.

I spent part of my last day in Brussels seeing the various buildings of European institutions in Brussels’ European District. Here buildings of the European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament all mingle to remind you that Brussels is also an important administrative hub and not just a capital city. There is a visitor centre in the European parliament to learn about the history and functions of parliament and other institutions.

Atomium

Atomium

I continued my journey to visit the Atomium. The shape of a unit cell of an iron crystal built from stainless steel in 1958, it is not only a historical monument but also a museum with exhibits in several spheres. Try taking lunch in the top sphere and you will have a wonderful panoramic view of Brussels.

Next to the Atomium is the Art & Design Atomium Museum (ADAM) in the Trade Mart complex in Heysel. The ADAM is a new venture to increase events and cultural activities around the Atomium area. The ADAM holds a permanent exhibition of Plasticarium, a unique collection of its kind in the world opened to the public for the first time. Rotating each year, parts of over 2000 plastic objects will be shown in an exhibition which aims to show the history of plastics from early days of plastics in 60s to the post-modern and the effects it has had on our lives.

Currently, the ADAM is also hosting a temporary exhibition based on the work of Ray and Charles Eames entitled –Eames & Hollywood which focuses on the behind-the-scenes photographs they took of Billy Wilder’s film sets.

I didn’t see as much as I hoped but then Brussels has the advantage of being just two hours by train from London. There is no excuse in not visiting Brussels for a day or a long weekend trip.

For more about Brussels, click here.

Images and story © Mohammed Reza Amirinia

 

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