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Brussels: Where surrealism makes the most sense

How beer bars, the spirit of Magritte and the people of Brussels mingle in the wake of terror.
CATEGORIES: Beer   Travel  


Photo by Joe Stange

[This is the second of two posts exploring Brussels’ beer scene in the wake of March 2016 terror attacks. Read the first post here.]

Brussels is the surrealist city par excellence. René Magritte—he of the pipe that is not a pipe, he of the apple for a face, he of the floating bowler hats—was not born in Brussels; he was born in Hainaut, about 30 miles southwest. But Magritte didn’t paint his first surrealist work until he had lived in Brussels for a few years, designing wallpaper.

So we could say that Magritte was from Belgium, and that would be true. But we could also say that Brussels produced Magritte, the painter. Nowhere else could have done it.

That was the Brussels of the 1920s, between the world wars that unfairly chose Belgium as a central battleground. That was the same Brussels hit by suicide bombs on March 22 … but it was also a different Brussels. That’s how it works. New things arrive, and only rarely do they last long enough to become institutions. Institutions last, and only rarely do they fade away. But some do. Then some come back.

I’m talking about beer and pubs, I think, but I’m feeling abstract. Obtuse. Absurd. In the spirit of surrealism I string together some observations, and you can interpret what you will.

● It might be that the city’s surrealist heart rate spikes—or its fantastic DNA is more manifest—after something dramatic happens. Today there are large, green military trucks parked outside underground stations, and beret-wearing wielders of large assault rifles, nodding and occasionally smiling at passers-by while the smells of fresh waffles and frites waft up the escalators. In front of the Bourse, a carpet of flowers, candles and notes runs nearly the length of a city block. Sprinkled among these moving expressions of sadness and solidarity are stranger things, like political rants against the “money-system,” and a black banner that asks, “THIS IS OUR DREAM?”

● Just across from the memorial at the Bourse is an old, brown café called Les Brasseurs—the “Brewers.” It’s under new ownership, enjoying new life. Its menu features more than 50 beers, including cask-drawn lambic, these days served from a bag-in-a-box. Back in Magritte’s day, it would have been common to find cask lambic in hundreds of cafes. That practice nearly disappeared in Brussels in the late 20th century, but—you might have heard—lambic is making a modest comeback. At the Brasseurs, you can enjoy a 25 centileter glass of soft, flat, sourish Boon lambic, aged for about two years, for €2.80 (about $3.20). Or you can order a one-liter jug of it and share with friends for a mere €10.

● Magritte himself used to hang out at the Fleur en Papier Doré, a cafe up the hill from Manneken Pis, near remnants of the ancient city walls. There you can drink a 25 centileter glass of draught lambic from Oud Beersel for €3.90, or Girardin Kriekenlambic—the stuff steeped in cherries, juicy and ruby-colored—for €3.70. The walls feature loads of beautiful bric-a-brac and some odd scribblings. My favorite: “Nul ne m’est étranger comme moi-même.” No one is as foreign to me as myself.

● Among the first cafes to re-popularize draught lambic in Brussels (though it’s still far from commonplace) was Moeder Lambic, starting about 10 years ago. Coincidentally, that’s about the time my wife and I started living in Brussels. Our adopted “local”—a 20-minute walk away—was Moeder Lambic in Saint-Gilles, now called Moeder Lambic Original to differentiate it from the newer one downtown. Back then, there were a half-dozen taps and about 300 bottled beers on a phonebook-sized menu. A fair amount of our Belgian beer education happened there on the sidewalk, or inside the cozy interior on those heavy benches of polished timber. Often we’d push our son there in his stroller to have a quick one or two while he napped. Moeder Lambic Original just reopened after a major renovation. It now has 33 shiny taps, more space for those timber tables, higher ceilings and brighter lights. Many of the beers—excellent and unusual as they tend to be—cost €4 to €5 or more for a 25 centileter glass. The comics are still there in the windowsills, and the locals appear to like the place well enough. It was packed. I liked it too, but I also think it’s lost something of its old soul, its old character. But that’s what we say about anything of sentimental value once it changes.

● There is another new beer bar in Saint-Gilles, a couple of blocks from Moeder Lambic, called Dynamo. There are no bottled beers, only 18 taps mostly poured into 25 centileter glasses, and prices are comparable to Moeder Lambic’s. When I was there, 10 of the beers were Belgian—names like Bastogne, De Ranke, Tilquin; seven were British—Beavertown, Brew by Numbers, Siren; and one was American—Brooklyn Brown Ale. Very good beers, yes. But the bar was all shiny fonts, unadorned walls, minimalist decor apart from the stylish tap list. Cool, I guess, but also lacking in warmth. Maybe I don’t like the style, or maybe character takes take time to grow like moss, or maybe both.

● Just down the hill is a old, divey brown bar called the Brumaire, run by a friendly couple and with about 30 bottled beers that include—improbably—Chimay Triple, Saison Dupont and Zinnebir. They might cost €3 or less. Most people drink pils, though, at about €2 per glass. I mention the place in case you want to find a more locally grounded experience in a warmer ambience while still drinking an excellent beer.

● Random: Did you know that the country’s most popular politician is an obese health minister? This strikes me as very Belgian and totally endearing. Her name is Maggie De Block, and I mention her because—who knows?—she could be prime minister one day.

● Speaking of the government: Only five years ago, Belgium went 353 days without one—that is, without a ruling coalition in charge. There was nobody at the wheel. Life continued, as it does.

● One friend told me that the night after the attacks, the cafes he visited were full. It was as if people had to get out and drink and talk about it. Another friend said that yes, life continued, as it does, but also that he felt a bit guilty about it. He and I were drinking Zinnebir, XX Bitter and Guldenberg at the Verschueren, a gorgeous Art Deco cafe in lower Saint-Gilles. Its many quirks include a striped line on the ceiling, the last remnant of a line that once divided the cafe in half, thereby creating a magical invisible force field that separated smoking from non-smoking. Just outside, the underground station was shut down for security reasons. But the cafe was full. There were young people and old people. There were even a few parents, watching over strollers.

● A few writers, like media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, have tried to explain terrorism as a virus—consider the way that violent radicalism of various types appears to spread like a contagion via the Internet or other media. There is a logic to this, but also a lack of accountability. Still, a virus is one way to explain how an enclave within Brussels could become a haven for murderous maniacs.

● Enclaves, by the way, don’t fit the narrative that Brussels has written for itself. The real symbol of Brussels is not that sculpture of a tinkling toddler (Manneken Pis), it’s the one of a micturating mutt just a few blocks northwest of the Bourse—the Zinneke Pis. “Zinneke” is the nickname for the people of Brussels, who liken themselves to the mongrels that prowled the smelly, urban banks of the river Senne—which is now bricked over by Boulevard Anspach, the street that can take you to that memorial at the Bourse, or to the Brasseurs, or to Moeder Lambic Fontainas. Mongrels are of mixed descent, by definition. Wave after wave of immigrants came to Brussels—Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Congolese, Turkish—but always they mixed (in public life, if not always in blood). They mixed, until they didn’t.

● Less than a week after the attacks, the popular Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival continued as planned, despite misgivings. The top winner was “I Am a Hero,” a Japanese film based on a manga. The manga itself is about a lowly assistant manga artist, who must survive and find companionship when a virus starts turning people into—what else?—murderous maniacs.


Joe Stange is the author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers and co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. Follow him on Twitter @Thirsty_Pilgrim.

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