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Weekend Reflection: Secret Brussels; Has the capital suddenly become Europe’s friendliest city?

By Simon Davies

A new mood of civility is emerging across Europe. You can see it in the faces and attitude of people in Paris, Berlin and even sour-faced Switzerland. But the trend is most pronounced in Brussels, previously the butt of everyone’s jokes about bad hospitality.

There was a time, not so long ago, when people – particularly the British, Scandinavians and Germans – regarded Brussels as a sour and chaotic place. Travellers would avoid the city in droves.

Past opinion polls supported this poor image. Five years ago, Tripadviser published a poll that put Brussels as the sixth most unfriendly city in the world, surpassed only by Moscow, London, Hong Kong, Peking and Dubai. Having lived in those cities, I concur.

There was a time, not so long ago, when people – particularly the British, Scandinavians and Germans – regarded Brussels as a sour and chaotic place. Travellers would avoid the city in droves. 

This bad image was reinforced last year when Donald Trump described Brussels as a “hellhole”. When he visited earlier this year, thousands of Belgians took to the streets to denounce his views. “Get out of our hellhole”, advised one placard.

Things seem to have changed since those bad old times. These days it would be hard to find a more outgoing and friendly city. Perhaps this transformation was triggered by recent terrorist attacks. Or maybe Brussels has begun to feel more comfortable with its identity. Either way, the level of pleasantness exceeds anyone’s expectations.

I vividly recall my first few visits to Brussels in the mid 1990’s. The place was exactly how I expected it to be – dour and drab. Shopkeepers rarely smiled and people had a hangdog attitude. Apart from Grand Place, I could find nothing of interest.

This is part of the problem. Many travellers are magnetised to the most popular destinations – whether it’s Grand Place or the European Commission district. There, they are likely to find the same dismissive attitude that all major cities demonstrate in such places.

Some places”, advised one writer for The Economist, “are best visited in the abstract”.

Go have a drink at the Kitty O’Shea’s pub”, urged my diplomat friends. Kitty O’Shea’s is on Schuman, the HQ of the European Commission. The bar was busy and bland – a faked-up Irish establishment with no identity other than its branding image (this, according to various reviews, has changed somewhat).

Had I known better, I’d have journeyed a hundred metres down Rue Archimedes and found the James Joyce, who’s governor, Steve, is infinitely welcoming and helpful. But people usually just go with recommendations, so I was relegated to that famous circuit of uncaring pubs and restaurants.

The Brussels you rarely get to hear about

I’ll offer a few reflections from my friends and I about the present situation.

As I wrote in this blog here and here, earlier this year I suffered a major heart attack and prolonged coma while I was visiting Brussels. It seemed the whole city rallied around me. People I barely knew visited me and offered support. They sent cards and gifts. Afterwards, bar owners across the city sent messages that drinks were “on the house” if I recovered”.

And they did just that.

In London, where I live, I’d be lucky if anyone other than friends and colleagues noticed that I was knocked out for two months. London, like New York and Hong Kong, embraces the nonchalant philosophy that everyone has to die sometime.

In the two visits since that time, people in Brussels demonstrated the reverse. As long as I kept away from the tourist traps, total strangers would embrace us. From lock-ins to free drinks, the offer of a ride home or introductions to their friends and family, the hospitality is mind-blowing.

The terrorist attacks have most definitely given people there a new perspective. They have become more defiant and inclusive. The city and its people refuse to cancel the many public festivals that take place throughout the year. Indeed it seems even more people than ever turn out to such events.

We just grew up”, explained one friend. “Brussels found its balance”.

I suspect part of this shift can be explained by Brexit. Belgium and the UK never had the closest of relationships, but the sudden separation has given people pause for thought. “How can you leave us?” asked one new acquaintance. “We can make it work. You must find another way”.

The terrorist attacks have most definitely given people there a new perspective. They have become more defiant and inclusive. The city and its people refuse to cancel the many public festivals that take place throughout the year. Indeed it seems even more people than ever turn out to such events. It’s true that some of the police can be abrupt and hostile, but no more so than in Prague or Rome.

To experience the warmth, stray from the usual haunts. Go to Saint Gilles, the “village within the city” and just hang out there. Or journey further past Schuman to suburban Tomberg, where it seems everyone is at peace.

That’s not to say everywhere in Brussels is so inviting. I’d avoid parts of Molenbeek, the so-called “no-go” zone. While I’ve never been threatened there, it’s certainly true that the local population are rarely in the mood to make you feel at home.

I was recently talking to some of the machine-gun wielding army guys at Midi Station about all this (you can talk to the army in Brussels and they’ll happily converse). “I live in Molenbeek”, said one. “It’s not a nice area where I am. I worry for me and my family sometimes”.

The next day, as I was returning home from Midi, the same guy came running after me, guns clattering. “I’m sorry”, he explained, “I didn’t mean to say my place is bad. It’s just that I worry a lot”. Wow. That exchange would never happen in any other city.

Brussels isn’t just Molenbeek, and we should all remember that. Next time you visit, give the place a second chance. My friends have all fallen in love with Brussels. Hopefully the next opinion poll will provide a more accurate picture of the true city.