Belgium, Brussels – Adji Sjadzali – 2008-2009
When going to Brussels, This is the most important thing to know:
Jacque Brel is God,
Maybe not for me, but it seems so for the people of Brussels. If you don’t know who he is you should definitely wiki or google him, better yet, find him in youtube. “Why?” I hear you ask. Because if Brussels can be symbolized by a single entity or even personified by its finest son, then you should not look beyond Jacque Brel. The more I spent my time in Brussels the more I understood that Brel was Brussels as much as Brussels was Brel.
It’s as if the city’s peak achievement is Jacque Brel and nothing distinctively Bruxellois has, nor will ever reach, Jacque Brel’s achievements. Often times I felt that the city could only look back at the glories of the past, failing to come up with something new and fresh. It doesn’t help that the city, especially in the centre, lacks the aesthetic qualities that you would expect from a multilingual international city. The sights of poorly maintained old buildings are common and signs of rejuvenation efforts are few and sporadic.
There are, however, some good news. While the city has its aesthetics and identity challenges, it is home to some of the most creative people in Europe. Where some cities are defined by their topography, architecture, or their streets, I have found that Brussels in particular is best understood by knowing its people. During your time in Brussels you will have plenty of chances to meet its people and all you need is patience. You might feel discouraged at first by signs of disorder and economic disparity in the city. But if you hold on to your dear life and get to know the city and its people a little bit more, there are precious experiences waiting for you just around the corner.
Let us now get down to the details.
Hogeschool Universiteit Brussel (HUB)
The product of a recent faculty merge, HUB at the time of my arrival was officially starting its first year as a university. As I was explained previously by those who went to Brussels for ERASMUS before me, the university’s main campus has moved from its previous location in Koningsstraat (under the name of VLEKHO) to Stormstraat. Inevitably, the merge resulted in the glitch of the administration. Luckily enough for all of us ERASMUS students, our time not knowing which classes we were registered to did not last longer than the first two weeks.
As you start your year there, do remember that they are a new institute. It should not surprise you that a lot of the lecturers are very young compared to what you would find in other well‐established universities such as our own. Most of these lecturers are full‐time academics but you might find with some of the modules made available to you that the lecturer is only a part‐time staff. If this is the case you will have to pay a particular attention to the module as from my experience these lecturers, while involved in the practice of the very lessons they teach, do not always have the ability to transfer the knowledge effectively.
It was rather interesting to know that instead of having six or seven modules each year, like I did in Exeter, I started the year with seven modules for each semester. It sounds daunting but you will be glad to know that a lot of the modules do not cover the materials as deep as you would expect. You will eventually get used to the rhythm of the timetable, dense as it seems.
Perhaps the only thing outside of the academic approach that does take time to get used to is the campus lifestyle that is very different than the one we have here in Exeter university. If in Exeter you feel as if life and all its splendour constellates around the university and its people, in HUB you will find that the campus serves mainly as classes and you should explore the city for activities instead. Exeter is a student city whereas HUB is a university in the middle of Brussels.
Generally speaking they are easy to find and are relatively cheap. Finding a cheap accommodation in the middle of the city might sound tempting but be careful! There is a curious thing about housing in Brussels where a lot of the houses close to the centre of the city are home to low‐income people. While they themselves obviously are not the source of inconvenience, the quality of the accommodation might be substandard. As a benchmark, if you find an accommodation within the area code of Bruxelles 1000 for around €300, then you should expect a standard Lafrowda room.
A lot of students chose to live just outside of the centre, coming in to the university every morning by using the metro. If I was to go to Brussels again to study, this is definitely what I would choose to do. Areas such as Schuman, Merode and Ixelles, for example, are only a few metro stops away from the university and provide accommodation that are better for the price. The university itself does offer some help with accommodation but as it were they were very limited and often times the students would have to find one themselves. A popular agency that should definitely be considered is Quartier Latin, which you can check here:
They are endorsed by all the Dutch‐speaking universities in the city and will be the connection with which the university will try to house you should you ask the university for their help. Quartier Latin owns their own accommodations around the city and they also act as an agent for landlords to find students in need of accommodation. I personally was staying in one of their accommodation located in Rue d’Anderlecht in the southern part of the pentagonal ring‐road and would not recommend this option. When I first came into my room I was surprised to see spider webs in corners, dust gathering on top of the mattress – which was dumped uncharacteristically over my bed – all of which are signs that, firstly, the previous owner didn’t take the time to clean the room properly for the next occupant, and secondly, that Quartier Latin do not care about the latter. I will, however, encourage you to contact them regarding the rooms that they advertise that are not run by them. Most landlords are nice and negotiable (regarding details of the room, not price) and some landlords will even pick you up straight from the airport/train station you arrived in. In any cases, I would urge anyone going to find accommodation in the city to first do some RESEARCH. Go there and make sure you know what your room and the location it is in are like. For most of you crossing international borders is so easy. UTILISE THAT PRIVILIGE so that you will not end up in a semi ghetto as I did.
One final option is to find an accommodation in a different city altogether. A lot of the local students come from another big city and so it is a real possibility to live in a completely different city and come everyday to Brussels. I would recommend living in Antwerp or Ghent if this option interest. Both are great cities, much nicer than Brussels in my most honest opinion and are less than an hour away by train. Antwerp and Ghent is a city that is not mentioned as often as Brussels but they are more cultural and as far as I can see there are perhaps much more interesting shops in these two cities compared to Brussels. As you can expect, accommodations in these cities are cheaper but then you also need to get yourself the monthly pass for the train.
Food & Drinks
If you like to eat, Brussels is a great city to be in. They are sensualist by tradition and it really shows in their food and drinks.
Finding decent meals throughout the day in Brussels is pretty easy. Sandwiches are staple to the diet of students and are ubiquitous, available in and around the campus. You will see that a lot of the price tags are the same to those you find in London but of course they run on a different currency.
The main artery of the city lies in Rue de Boucher and is widely known as L’Ilot‐Sacré. It is basically a cute stretch of cobbled street with its famous constellation of restaurants serving seafood as their specialty. These restaurants are catered for tourists and as such you should be ready to pay a lot. But for experience sake, you should put aside €30 for at least once during your time in Brussels. Among the many restaurants, the best one to go to is called Chez Leon and you should definitely experience the moules frites.
Small bites around the town can be interesting, too. Behind the Bourse, not far from the Grand Place, there is a small shop for frites in rue Tabora. I can vow that they have the best frites in town. If you find a better place, you should let me know! Fresh waffles are also nice especially during the winter when it is cold. As you explore the city you will become aware of the difference between the waffles of Liege and Brussels. If you are having financial difficulties, you can always get yourself a filling portion of kebabs for less than €5. When it comes to chocolates… well if there were ever going to be a chocolate nation, Brussels will definitely be the capital. I do not need to say anymore on this matter. Just try to find Pierre Marcolini in the Sablon area. I do need to warn you; pleasure does come at a price. (Go ahead and spoil yourself… every so often)
Buying food for the house is easy and there are a lot of good deals to be had. Delhaize and GB, the two main supermarkets, are obvious destinations. If you shop weekly, however, the Gare du Midi market and the market in Clémenceau are great and economic places to find produces from meats to vegetables and basic household equipments. If you decide to go to Clémenceau, make sure to follow the smell of roast chicken which will lead you the a semi trailer selling different kinds of roasted meats. They are a must!
It would be inappropriate for me to carry on and not mention the rich heritage of Belgian beers. Yet, on the other hand, the best way to discover them is by exploring yourself. The city is home to a plethora of places to chill and have a pint. DELIRIUM, located in a small cul‐de‐sac inside L’Ilot Sacré, is probably the first choice for newcomers, being the pub that famously serves in excess of 2000 different brands of beer. About five minutes away, there is a nice area called Place St. Gery and it has a lot of different kinds of bars to choose.
If you worship black gold then I’m afraid the news is not good for you, my friend. There is a general lack of knowledge when it comes to making espresso based coffees in this city and more often than not you will find yourself disappointed with the cup of coffee you’ve just ordered. It took me perhaps the first half of my stay in Brussels to finally find a decent place where coffee is served properly. My go‐to café is located not far from St. Gery and is called CAFÉ MOKA. It is really small and run by no more than two baristas at most, but the coffees there are properly treated.
Transports and Travelling
Getting around in the city is very easy and the transport network coverage is very good. The Metro system is simple as it only has a few lines. Make sure you get the limited yearly student pass at the beginning of the year as it will save you a lot of money. The university will give you more information on this when you get there.
Travelling to other cities is very easy and since the country is very small it doesn’t take to long to go to even the farthest city from Brussels. If you plan to travel within the country a lot you should buy the go‐pass ticket. It costs €50 and will take you anywhere in the country for 10 journeys.
Some cities that you have to visit include Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp, Namur, Dinant, and Leuven. You will find that the Southern part of the country is not as cute as the Northern. Ghent and Antwerp are great cities for shopping (I was told by my female friends) although both offer great cultural experience. Bruges, known as the Venice of the north, is a beautiful tourist city that is not at all pretentious and is definitely worth a visit during the warmer days. Namur and Liege are both south of Brussels and are the cradle of the Wallonia culture. There are many other historical cities not far from Brussels and they are certainly worth a visit on the weekends.
Brussels is a safe city. But just like any other cities in the world there are places that are best avoided. The areas around Gare du Nord, for example, might not be the best place to hang out and you will be able to tell from the atmosphere of the area. In the city centre pick‐pockets targeting tourists are in operation but from my experience they are very obvious and are easily prevented. If someone approaches you and invades your personal space all you have to do is pull out of the situation and walk into the crowd. It is not difficult at all to avoid these things. Of course, it is also a good idea to have another friend with you when walking at night.
Enjoy Yourselves in Brussels
There are lots of things to do in Brussels and make sure you make the most of your time. The most important thing is to regularly go out of the city centre and explore the areas outside of the ring road and get some fresh air. Brussels is the greenest capital in Europe, which means that there are a lot gardens to visit and relax in. The best one to go to is arguably the Tervuren park on the east side of the city.
During the winter when the colour green is rather shy the city try to find its best source of warmth; its people. You will find a lot of interesting festivals and market during the night where people would gather and have fun. There is no reason for you to miss this and there are always some sorts of activities regardless of your choices in life.
Get out there and enjoy the city!
Cool places to hang out at are in abundance, spread around the whole city…
Liege: Probably the world’s tallest flight of stairs