Travel: Belgium - Cross-canal hopping

Brussels has a secret. Alongside its canal, galleries, clubs, bars and restaurants are sprouting up. By Clare Thomson
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The Independent Culture
Panic grips people who move to Brussels: they can't find any water, bar the torrents that fall from the sky and the spurt produced by Manneken Pis, the statue of a little boy peeing.

Adding insult to injury, the city's only river, a miserable trickle known as the Senne, was buried in 1866 because of cholera outbreaks and is only visible in a few hidden corners of the city.

But in the poorer districts to the west, where the well-heeled fear to tread, lies one of the oldest canals in Europe. Duchess Marie of Burgundy gave consent for a waterway in 1477, but it took an Emperor, Charles V, to get the project off the ground.

The Willebroeck Canal, which was based on designs by Leonardo da Vinci, was started in 1550 - not a moment too soon for the disgruntled city burghers. Weary of the Senne, which frequently overflowed or dried up, merchants who relied on the river were exasperated by the need to pay taxes to Mechelen, north of Brussels, through which the river flowed.

When the canal was opened in 1561, festivities went on without interruption for three wild days. Some people called it the eighth wonder of the world, and the public transport connection with Antwerp, introduced in 1565, lasted for 250 years until the coming of the railway.

In the 1830s, the combination of the railway - one of the first to be constructed on the continent - and the new Canal de Charleroi, which extended the waterway south into Wallonia, created an urban revolution in western Brussels. Workers from outside the capital flocked to the flourishing industries of the "Manchester neighbourhood", which centred on the commune of Molenbeek.

The working-class, immigrant area has always been a melting pot. Locals bear the playful nickname "Zinneke", an epithet drawn from an anti-flooding channel of the Senne and meaning "mongrel".

The mongrels of Molenbeek may have disgusted respectable society ("The rich never liked getting their feet wet," shrugs one disdainful native), but the wealthy were not blind to the importance of the city's rat-infested waterways. They simply didn't want to admit they were there.

So the well-off settled on the higher ground in eastern Brussels (now home to the EU's institutions) and enjoyed their elegant boulevards and flourishing parks, leaving the proles to work the waterways. King Leopold II even had a special avenue built so that he didn't have to pass through Molenbeek on his way to the Royal Palace in Laeken.

Today, all that's left of the hope and dynamism that once characterised western Brussels is the odd street name - Rue de Prosperite or Rue de l'Avenir - and some decaying social housing projects from the turn of the century. The only signs of commerce on the run-down Rues Birmingham and Liverpool are a couple of Arabic bakeries and small repair shops.

Or so it seems at first glance. In fact, the neighbourhood is enjoying something of a renaissance as its buildings are reclaimed for cultural use.

A red-brick sugar refinery on Rue Manchester is set to reopen as a contemporary arts and dance centre; within the warehouses of Boulevard Barthelemy is a cluster of 15 art galleries; and Quai de Mariemont is home to the Fool Moon, the city's finest jazz, funk and hip-hop venue.

The authorities are, at last, getting more involved. Thanks to new political will and a more dynamic port authority, the port of Brussels - third-biggest in the country after Antwerp and Zeebrugge - is thriving. Determined to extend its international contacts, it recently agreed to twin with the Tunisian port of Sfax.

There's even a celebration of the canal on 8 May, with boat tours, firework displays, water sports demonstrations and free bike hire.

"But it's still hard to get people to go west," moans Guido Vanderhulst of crusading social history group La Fonderie, which has been organising boat tours along the canals of Brussels since 1989.

"No one associates Brussels with water." To prod tourists and residents into action, the Brussels authorities have constructed a new promenade area, scattered with bars and restaurants, at the boats' departure point on the Bassin Beco, opposite the Quai des Peniches. If you take a tour, you get to see the proud but dishevelled remnants of old industries - breweries, mills, foundry towers and warehouses - alongside somewhat more modern enterprises, such as oil refineries.

Heading north to Laeken, the small pavilion on the left bank is the Royal Station, built for the exclusive use of Leopold II and used only five or so times.

In sharp contrast to this monarchic extravagance, the opposite bank is home to the remains of a pioneering 19th-century co-operative steelworks, created by a socialist blacksmith during exile from France. The central building housed 72 families, a dining hall, laundry, school and even a medical centre. Further south, the Petit Chateau, now a temporary refuge for asylum-seekers, used to be the headquarters of the civil guard, who kept watch over social unrest in the industrial area.

The incontestable highlight of the tour, however, is the former customs house, Tour & Taxis, a massive brick and wrought-iron structure through which goods were transferred to the rail network.

Despite vociferous protests from heritage activists, it faces the ignominious prospect of becoming an American-style rock stadium - a typical fate in a city that has always sacrificed the past for short-term gain.

If the boat trip fails to satisfy your curiosity, other Fonderie tours include a stroll around the Quai de Briques, near Place Saint-Catherine. The slightly forlorn pool in the middle is all that's left of the old port which, along with several docks, was filled in after a cholera outbreak.

There is nothing left of the magnificent glass-and-steel-covered fish market either, though the seafood restaurants that fringe the former quay provide some consolation. Heading west to the canal, there are umpteen examples of early 20th-century housing projects, with elegant apartments over ground-floor shopfronts.

If you don't mind being stared at by locals, the best way to wind up your watery trip is with a beer in Au Laboureur, a down-at-heel pub on the edge of touristy Brussels. Or, if you're feeling particularly indulgent, splash out on a meal at Le Cheval Marin (The Sea Horse), a restaurant in baroque surroundings that has watched the rise and demise of Brussels' inner-city port since the 17th century.

Fact File


Contact the Tourist Office for Brussels and Ardennes (0171-867 0311) for more information about canal tours.


The 36th Festival Musica Antiqua runs from 24 July to 7 August 1999. For a programme and bookings call 00 32 50 44 86 86. David Laszlo paid pounds 284 for return travel on Eurostar and five nights B&B accommodation through VFB (01242 240336). Brouwerij Straffe Hendrik is at Walplein 26, 8000 Brugg (00 32 50 33 26 97). Bike Tours cost BF450 (pounds 7.50) per person from The Back Road Bike Co (00 32 50 34 30 45).

For further information contact Tourism Flanders Brussels on 0171-458 0044