In 2016, the Natural Environment Research Council, a British governmental body, held a competition to name its new £200 million polar scientific research ship. The British public responded by voting for the joke name, Boaty McBoatface. It was an event that was greeted with juvenile hilarity, as people who should have known better thumbed their noses at authority.
In 2018, the good folk of Brussels were asked to name twenty-eight streets in the Tour and Taxis quarter, an old industrial area under redevelopment alongside the canal and close to the abandoned Gare Maritime, once the largest freight railway station in Europe. They responded in kind with a variety of quirky street names, including Ceci n’est pas une rue, or This is not a street
The name was in homage to Belgian artist René Magritte’s painting, Ceci n’est pas une pipe. It seems Belgians and Brits share a similar sense of humour. Sadly, just as the British government refused to name the ship Boaty McBoatface, the Brussels authorities turned down another street name suggestion, Rue du gentrification. It may not be funny, but it would at least be accurate.
Magritte’s former home, now a museum, is found just to the north of the newly named Ceci n’est pas une rue, which seems appropriate. We live not too far away by the canal (part of the gentrification problem, I suspect), and have been exploring local neighbourhoods since we arrived. At first it seemed a bit of a wasteland, but not unlike Brussels itself, the area hides many surprises.
One of which is the ‘off limits to plebs’ Royal Palace of Laeken, in a vast park stretching almost to the city limits. What isn’t off limits, is the Église Notre-Dame de Laeken, a massive white stone church that is where deceased royals are buried. Here you’ll find Leopold I and his son, the notorious Leopold ‘Butcher of the Congo’ II, and his daughter, Charlotte of Belgium, the former Empress of Mexico.
Not unlike the Taj Mahal, Église Notre-Dame de Laeken was constructed to consecrate the memory of a dead queen, Louise-Marie, wife of Leopold I. She died in 1850 and work began on the church shortly after. Weirdly for a church with royal connections, it wasn’t completed until 1909. Today, this historic spot feels like a well kept secret far from the tourist throngs of the Grand Place.
The nextdoor cemetery is sometimes referred to as Belgium’s Père Lachaise. While it has some magnificent tombs, including one with a cast of Rodin’s Thinker, it’s only a faint imitation of the great Parisian cemetery. Along the canal in the other direction, you come to the St. Catherine neighbourhood. Here is my favourite monument in Brussels, possibly the whole world.
The Monument au Pigeon-Soldat is exactly that, a monument to pigeons who served in the First World War. It’s a wonderful oddity, I just wonder what all those heroic pigeons of yesteryear think about their louche modern-day relatives who waddle around the park where the monument is found. This area is a lively spot full of bars and restaurants. Rich pickings for pigeons, heroic or otherwise.
The district of Schaarbeek, known as The City of Donkeys, is also nearby. The donkey nickname is explained by a plaque outside the neo-Renaissance town hall. This was a fertile agricultural area and Schaarbeek residents would daily load their donkeys to carry produce to market in Brussels. Nearby is a memorial to Alfred Verwee, Belgium’s finest painter of animals and Schaarbeek resident. He rarely painted donkeys.
Schaarbeek is also known as the “poor croissant”, reflecting the fact that it is one of the city’s most deprived areas. It gained notoriety after the terror attacks in 2016, but is now becoming gentrified. All three of these bits of town are far from being tourist hotspots, and they often feel more than a little rough around the edges. As we’re beginning to discover though, Brussels is like an onion, a town of many layers.