After exit, I return to the lower city by way of the sloping plaza, past an exhibition on Breughel through the ages to a busy cafe where I claim the one unoccupied seat on the terrace. I must eat, though I am still a bit hungover from Bruges and don’t feel particularly hungry. I order a small falafel as a concession to healthy eating and shrinking wallet. My waiter is both friendly and forgetful, bringing me the large falafel and, perhaps noticing my consternation at the size of it, immediately offering it at the lower price. There’s something of a Mr Bean moment here, as I scan furtively for places to hide parts of the feast, which, in truth, is rather stodgy. But the terrace is full, and empty of seagulls and other scavangers, just when you need them, so I must soldier on.
Well stuffed, I roll down the hill and enter the picturesque and winding Lower Town. An irregular square below the station, Place de l’Albertine, is thronged with people, entertained or ensnared by street performers, hawkers and other importuners. To one side, a more elegant and ordered avenue of pleasure and commerce gives shelter.
Galleries St Hubert opened in 1847 and was the first shopping arcade in Europe. Victor Hugo attended lectures here. Creator of Les Miserables and the Hunchback of Notre dam, he was a Brussels resident, exiled from Louis Napoleon’s France. Another contemporary exile was Alexander Dumas who was also an habituee of the Gallerie. Designed by Jean Pierre Cleysenaar in Neo-Renaissance style, the complex comprises three galleries, soaring impressively to a high, vaulted glass roof. It remains a popular venue after a hundred and seventy years, with luxury shops, a cinema, theatre, cafes and restaurants.
My bag is a cross to bear in the heat and the crowds. This boy is cracking up, this boy needs to sit down. I hobble through thronged ancient streets to the Grand Place where the buildings are spiked like stone meringues and tinted gold to boot. The Grand Place is well named. As the civic centre of Brussels, the square dates back eight hundred years or more. Around it have grown this selection of ornate Flemish buildings, civic, commercial and private. Most date back to the 17th century. Grandest of all amongst this jewelled crown of architecture is the Hotel de Ville with its teetering spire rising to almost a hundred metres.
There are numerous bars and cafes but even more numerous people sadly, or happily for them. The secret of bars: drink early, drink often is being well observed. However, an articulated vehicle like me needs room to park. I walk on by lively hostelries with no room to spare. I find the Church of St Nicolas which honours the patron saint of merchants. I’ll bet. Shops and houses cling to its outer walls, these, more than its modern gothic facade, manage to hint at the church’s ancient origins in the twelfth century.
At the edge of this medieval labyrinth, the modern, neo-classical city emerges. The Belgian Stock Exchange, La Bourse, is an impressive Palladian palace from the 1860s. Designed by Leon Suys, the facade features an extensive frieze extolling the virtues of international trade. The French artist, Albert Carrier-Belleuse was responsible. His Brussels studio was a refuge for Auguste Rodin following the collapse of the Paris Commune in 1871, and many credit him with the section on the south wall representing Asia and Africa. However, local artist Antoine Van Rasbourgh is officially credited. Today, the building stands amidst a chaos of construction, which somewhat mute the joys of pedestrianisation.
I turn south on to Boulevard Anspach where I find O’Reilly’s Irish Bar with room to sit over a pint. Much put upon barman is commandeered by a pillock ordering eight Irish Coffees in a heatwave. More absurd still, there is only one barman. The street itself is edgy and crowded, though with that life and lust in its inhabitants to suggest the defining purpose of Brussels over centuries. There is all the mixture one would expect in the melting pot of Europe, a vibrant, if not always elegant, reflection of the sculptures on the Bourse.
Lone barman, dopey clients or no, I find my seat in the sunshine, and I force in two pints before five thirty when I must make my way back to Central Station to make my connection for the airport, and home to Dublin.