Brussels: An alternative city break
Thomas Breathnach takes the rue less travelled in Brussels.
Set the mood
On the decks, the DJ is spinning Mariah Carey to a dub-step beat. At the bar, a stoned New Yorker is chatting to me about his floundering blind date. On the staircase, dozens of visitors have gathered before an exhibit of illuminated TV sets.
Welkom/Bienvenue to the edgy Beursschouwburg centre (beursschouwburg.be), and another soirée on the Brussels arts scene. When it comes to perceptions of villes-en-mode, the Belgian capital may seem to have all the street cred of a Tintin mural.
Beyond the stodgy stereotypes of MEPS and moules-frites, however, I'm in the midst of uncovering Europe's latest contender for the capital of cool.
In terms of culture, many of the best things in Brussels are fortuitously, gratuit. Beursschouwburg is one of the city's leading music, theatre and arts hubs located within the city's small but potent Flemish enclave. This year sees the venue's 50th anniversary, with a year-long calendar of (mostly) free events marking the milestone. It's an eclectic spot. My visit threw up a deadpan comic sketch by visual artist Feiko Beckers, chased by a musical performance by '18+' - an electro duo my programme refers to as "audio porn". Something for everyone, indeed!
Chocolatier Laurent Gerbaud
As a chocolate capital, Oh-My-Godiva moments are blissfully bounteous along these cobbled streets. Nowadays, many Bruxellois cocoa-lovers are skipping the main chocolate houses for smaller scale outfits. On Rue Ravenstein, for example, I sample and souvenir the delights of Laurent Gerbaud (left), a young chocolatier who infuses his truffles and ganache with Chinese spices.
From artisan to the arts, I venture to Vendome; one of Brussels' main indie cinemas situated in the heart of Matongé. Here, I take in a screening of Timbuktu, a multi-lingual drama following the Jihadist insurgency in the deserts of the Maghreb - a constant pendulum between grim and magnificent (cinema-vendome.be; €8).
Could hipster hoods and vintage markets be becoming old hat? Brussels' new 'It' district is Matongé, the city's vibrant African quarter. Named after the neighbourhood of the same name in Kinshasa, it serves up a vibrant mélange of quirky, gentrified coffee shops and eateries tucked between mazes of braiding salons and exotic greengrocers.
My people-watching begins at laid-back STAM café (Rue Bouré 1) before visiting Kuumba cultural centre (kuumba.be), a welcoming bastion of banter, coffee and African art. Avez-vous faim? Try Chutes Wagenia (Rue Ernest Solvay 31) or Cap Africa (capafrica.eu) for some local ethnic eats.
A busker on the streets of Belgium
My base was Zoom (zoomhotel.be; B&B from €65pps), Brussels' newest design hotel, located between the alleys of Matongé and the high-end vitrines of the Louiza district. Polaroid exhibitions saturate the beatnik reception area, while edgy industrial rooms centre around a locally shot magnum opus. Come evening, the chilled breakfast bar turns into a craft brew beer house. Santé to that.
Looking for some insider tips, from the best reggae in town to the most underground art expos? The Brussels’ Agenda guide (agenda.be) offers the ultimate local lowdown on what’s happening in the city. See also visitbrussels.be and visitflanders.com.
Get me there
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin to Brussels up to three times daily from €98 return. On the ground, Brussels is very walkable - forking out for a transport card shouldn't be a necessity.