36 hours in Brussels

In spite of being a fairly small country, Belgium has so much culture to offer that it’s easy to overindulge. Here are a few tips on how to use your time well.

When I started writing this blog, I thought I would make small culture guides to various cities I visited. It didn’t take me long to drop the idea, though. Usually, I travel at such speed that I hardly become an expert on anything. My typical trip starts early in the morning on one of the first flights out, sleeping over at a hotel for one night and then going back the next evening. This was exactly what happened last week, when I visited Brussels for the first time. I was there to write an article on Belgian contemporary dance, but since I had never been to Brussels before, I decided to take an extra day to look around. What, you’re going to Brussels? people said to me. Yes, I answered. After all, there is no better way to show sympathy towards a city that has just been bombed than to got here.

The breakfast room at the 9Hotel Central is a nice place to get some work done. Great breakfast, great wi-fi.

My hotel was the first pleasant surprise, the cosy, yet stylish 9Hotel Central, which is part of a chain of hotels in Paris, Brussels and Lisbon. The location was not particularly stunning, truth be told, in the middle of an intersection near the central train station, but you forget about that as soon as you enter the door of this narrow brick building. The hotel had everything I value the most when I travel: Large rooms. Lots of daylight. Good beds. A sufficient amount of sockets. Wi-fi that actually works. Plus good breakfast and a nice common area with large sofas and a small bar served by the receptionists.

Up the hill from the hotel, which I had come to realize was the perfect location for a speed-date with Brussels, is Kunstberg – the “art mountain”. Here it’s as if some divine hand has picked up a handfull or large, important museums institutions and thrown them all together on a hilltop. In between these buildings you will find a selection of privately owned galleries showing contemporary art, such as Jan Mot and the latest branch of Office Baroque. I chose to start with the Magritte Museum, simply because I adore his art. Having said that, this is not where you’ll find René Magritte’s most famous works – the pipe, for instance, hangs at LACMA in Los Angeles – but the museum does offer a nice presentation of Magritte’s life and thinking. The museum shop was stocked with so much creativity that I could have lived a full life furnished with Magritte merchandise.

The current exhibition featuring Daniel Sinsel at Office Baroque in Ravensteinstraat, the smallest of the gallery’s two spaces in Brussels.

By the time I had finished there, it had started to rain, so I decided to continue on dry ground through an underground corridor to the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which can best be described as Belgium’s answer to the Louvre. In other words, one of those museums where the images all start to look the same after a while. What I usually do then, is to find the smallest exhibition space in the entire building. It turned out to be six marvelous paintings by the artist and Nobel Prize winner in literature, Gao Xingjian, created especially for the so-called Bernheim-hall. The atmosphere in this lovely little room was remarkably relaxed, not least because Xingjian paintings were so fascinating to watch, painted with Indian ink on canvas which made the paintings seem light, even frail. I later discovered that the museum organizes yoga classes in this room twice a month until mid-July. Right then and there, I regretted not having brought my work out-clothes (which I never, ever do when travelling).

Gao Xingjians “The awakening of consciousness” are six monumental paintings made of Indian ink.

If there’s one thing, however, you should do in Belgium, it is to see a modern dance performance. And this is for two reasons: One is that this small country is a world leader in contemporary dance, the other is that dance transcends all language barriers. The most famous Belgian companies are Ultima Vez, Les ballets c de la b and Rosas, but this evening I went to see a performance by a guy who is neither a choreographer or dancer, but a street artist – “The Banksey of Belgium”, as they called him. So far he has used the alias Bonom, but now calls himself by his real name, Vincent Glowinski, which was what was on the program I got on my way to the studio stage at Théâtre National. Street art was highly present there too – by using a program called Human Brush the dancers painted large through their movements.

The next day I strolled over to Botanique, which was once the orangery in the city’s botanical garden. Today it is a cultural center where you can attend concerts, exhibitions and film screenings. There is also a restaurant here with a very nice terrace. My main motivation for coming here, however, was to see the walls of the rotunda, which Glowinski has painted. I learned during my the visit that this tendency to wander from one art form to another is fairly typical of this country – the Belgians are somewhat limitless in their exploration of art, it seems. As a visitor, I found that very inspiring.

For years the street artist Vincent Glowinski has painted the buildings of Brussels under the name Bonom. You can see an example of his murals at the Botanique.

From Botanique I took the tram to the Saint-Gilles, which is the best part of town to stroll around, have a meal, look at the natives. The streets here are a charming blend of the bourgeois and the bohemian, the kind of neighborhood that makes you think: Maybe I should move here? All of a sudden, you’re looking at real estate ads in the window, allowing yourself to dream. The final destination of this excursion was really the art center Wiels, one of the few venues for contemporary art in Brussels, housed in a fairly striking, industrial postmodernist building on the outskirts of Saint-Gilles. But I must confess: I never made it there. Instead I lost track of time in a bookstore in a wonderful little square just off the Eglise de la Sainte Trinite. Peinture Fraiche is the kind of place where you can loose yourself in books on art and architecture all day. In addition, they had a decent selection of magazines and a shelf devoted to art films on dvd. Sadly, this became the last stop on my trip, taking into account that it still takes twice as long as usual to get through security at the airport.

Then again: You should always have something to come back to. That small apartment in Saint-Gilles can still be mine.

4. WIELS_Building_© Kristien DaemNY
Wiels contemporary art centre in Saint-Gilles. Photo: Kristien Daem

Did I miss anything? Feel free to leave a comment.

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