Hunting High and Low
Text Ilona Marx Photos Andi Zimmermann Illustration Roman Klonek
Mussels and Magritte, beer brewed by monks and handcrafted lace, chocolates, chips and EU politics – when you hear the word Brussels it results in the strangest of word associations. Although the Atomium, which has finally been relieved of its rusty layers, has been the country’s emblem since the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958 the international crowd is more interested in less technical aspects. The true trademark of Brussels is: antiques.
On the Rue Haute and the Rue Blaes, in Flemish: Hoogstraat and Blaesstraat, the antique shops are lined up like pearls on a string. Each doorway leads to a furniture or art merchant’s emporium, and often the shops have massive underground cellars with up to 2,500 m2 of space. And the term antique is also used rather loosely. As well as valuable Baroque, classicistic and art-nouveau items there are also designs from the fifties, sixties and seventies on offer. No wonder then that Catherine Deneuve and Silvio Berlusconi are just as big Brussels fans as Madonna’s stylist and the British band Coldplay. But Les Marolles, the name of the district with the probably highest density of antique stores in Europe, also has a lot more to offer – right up there at the top is its very lively multicultural atmosphere. After all, Brussels natives and immigrants from North and West Africa rub shoulders here with the EU nomads who are here for their careers. But you won’t find any immigrant ghettos in Belgium’s capital city; the neighbourhoods merge amiably.
A more explosive topic is the one of the (Belgian-speaking) Flemings and the (French-speaking) Walloons. When it comes to street names the utmost sensitivity has been used; the terms rue and straat are used parallel to one another, but there’s still always something to get upset about nevertheless. Most recently the music in the underground stations was turned off due to complaints about the low quota of Flemish pop being played. But when a glance into the archives revealed that the French simply seem to like singing more, the loudspeakers were turned on again. If that surprises you, don’t forget that Belgium has had to do without a proper government since April 2010.
The common tourist, however, isn’t really intimidated by this: at least they gave the Atomium a good polish on its 50th birthday, and, thanks to the new stainless steel replacing the old aluminium plating it is now resplendent in all its new glory. The Palais de Justice and the Finance Tower have also undergone a rejuvenation. And as far as the gastronomic and cultural aspects of Brussels are concerned, it was never at any risk of becoming jaded anyway. When it comes to bars and restaurants it’s particularly vibrant and varied around the central Place Flagey, in the Rue Lesbroussart and in the area surrounding the Église St. Boniface. The incrowd have the choice between a cool burger bar or chic French cuisine – and of course between crunchy fries and melt-in-the-mouth chocolates. And, Antwerp here or there: when it comes to fashion, Brussels can certainly hold its own: they are busy cooking up a few pretty good design legends themselves, as well as looking beyond their own borders. The proof that this tactic is working quite nicely is provided by a whole array of interesting fashion shops, concentrated mainly around St. Catherine – not a bad location, because thanks to the old historic buildings there are many wonderfully beautiful shop spaces to be had.
Photographer Andi Zimmermann and J’N’C-editor-in-chief Ilona Marx heeded Brussels’ call and had to agree that fashion-wise it certainly has plenty to offer: from star-studded Belgian design to international avantgarde down to – what else? – vintage fashion. They ducked down into the small side streets of the upper and lower city and dived into the quarters of Ixelles, Uccle and Forest. Any longer and they would’ve disappeared forever in the happy hunting grounds of antique bric-a-brac emporia.