Brussels in words

I noticed that I am listed under contributors as a European correspondent. I think for a correspondent I have been doing very little corresponding. So I thought I should perhaps begin by setting the scene. Here are some writings and observations that I have already written about Belgium, which is where I am.

(I'm afraid it is terribly lacking in photographs, as when I tried to add in photos, I discovered that I hadn't taken any of the things I see every day. I shall endeavour to take photos and to share them some time in the future.)

To be more specific I am in Brussels. Brussels is an interesting city, it is not like the other cities of Belgium. Because it is the centre of the EU, it is very multicultural. I can often hear 3 languages being spoken at once when I'm on the city's Metro. Brussels is the only area in Belgium which is bilingual. All of the other areas have only one official language, while the country itself has 3 official languages. In Brussels, the duality between the Flemish (Dutch speaking) and Walloon (French speaking) is interesting to behold. Brussels is predominantly French speaking, although the French speakers of Brussels do not consider themselves Walloon. They are from Brussels, not Wallonia, and a smattering of Dutch words have made it into their French (and vice versa).

The architecture is a mix too, although I think Brussels has more of a French influence in its older buildings. The Walloon buildings are different to the Flemish, which is more similar to the pared back and austere buildings of Germany or the Netherlands. Wallonia, is just a bit more French, or at least that is how I see it - I will not vouch for its accuracy. Then within Brussels the architecture is a mix. There are some very ornate older buildings. Brussels' most famous architect, Victor Horta, was an art nouveau architect and there are quite a lot of art nouveau buildings sprinkled throughout the city, by Victor Horta and others, but quite a lot of these buildings were destroyed when art nouveau went out of fashion, I'm not sure exactly when most of this happened, but one of the people I work with did tell me. There is also quite a big area of the city which has been knocked over to make way for the European precinct, which is where the European Parliament and the European Commission are. This area is populated by large multistorey modernist buildings, and bureaucrats, rather than by the narrow two to four storey buildings which characterise the rest of Brussels. Perhaps I should be more specific when I say "characterise". You see, there is not really a consistent style to these buildings. They are all quite different, but there is a consistency about the scale and the height, which I feel makes them read as one. It gives the city texture. The houses are terraced. Their facades are continuous (although extremely varied), giving the streets walls, and therefore a relatively defined volume. The space does not escape between the buildings like it does in Perth. It makes me think of the text SP got us to read in fourth year complex design about cities and framing squares and spaces.

I am really enjoying being able to navigate a city by foot. Brussels is so compact, but it such a different way to understand a city... Perhaps a less complete way. The few times I've been in a car in Brussels, I have been surprised to find us on a main road I didn't know existed. The pedestrian network and public transport system operates somewhat separately to the main road network, which has quite a lot of underpasses I think.

About two weeks ago, the entire public transport system in Brussels ground to a halt for a full day when the drivers went on strike. I, in my wisdom, decided to walk to work as this was a feasible option and the weather was quite nice. It took me approximately one and a half hours. I live in what is considered an outer area of Brussels (as it is not the centre) and I work on the opposite side of the centre. It was actually a very nice walk, through the European Quarter, Parc du Cinquantenaire, past the Royal Palace and Parc de Bruxelles and through the centre of Brussels, Grand Place etc. There is just so much, so close together that it makes the city thoroughly walkable. If only the planning wasn't like that of a labyrinth, I would walk more.

One of the things I find very interesting about Brussels is its river, or rather lack thereof. I had been puzzled how a city came to be settled with no body of water - no ocean, no river and no lake - until I stumbled upon some interesting information. The River Senne, was covered over in the 1800's, I suppose about the time Haussmann was putting boulevards in Paris. Brussels did the same, only they diverted their river and put their boulevards on top of it. The Senne previously flowed through Brussels in a haphazard way, making islands. Sometimes it would flood and other times it had barely enough water to flow. The river was used like a sewer, and when the flow was low, the rubbish would just sit there and smell. This problem was amplified when much of the river's water was diverted for the canal, so in the end, I suppose they just decided to turn the river into a proper sewer. They followed what was happening in Paris and appropriated vast amounts of land from poor people, built a channel, diverted the river into it. They put a boulevard or two on top, and sold off the land facing the boulevards as prime real estate to help cover the cost. The river has since been diverted to another set of tunnels and the Premetro (underground trams) now run in the tunnel. This information also explains why those tunnels seem excessively large for a few little trams. I had also wondered about this when travelling on that tram line. I suppose it's quite interesting having a city which has erased its river, especially given most cities now have gentrified areas facing onto bodies of water and Brussels doesn't have a body of water upon which to focus its gentrification.

I have discovered that there is one place left within the Small Ring of Brussels, where the river can still be seen. I think I must pay it a visit.


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