Ten places in Brussels for a quiet read

Simon Fontaine
David Iskander 599066 Unsplash

Combining comfort and savour, there is no greater feast than a book devoured in bed. So why bother go any further? Looking for an ideal spot to read is a lost cause from the start. And yet...

And yet our imagination is nevertheless hungry and, incredibly, still has room for a surprise, that unexpected flavour that stimulates our taste buds and tickles our emotions. For the reader, a place could become the key ingredient of his narrative recipe, like a touch of salt in a pastry or the right amount of elbow grease used to beat egg whites stiff.

Let’s acknowledge that Brussels has the qualities of a literary grocery store, given the number of places propitious to the cultivation of our imagination. It was therefore necessary to make certain choices, not always simple, not always objective.

1. Verschueren

11-13 Parvis de Saint-Gilles, 1060 Saint-Gilles

Having only visited Verschueren twice and having watched several actors rehearse their text there, this bar is, so to speak, statistically interesting.

Located on the Parvis de Saint-Gilles, this historic corner, designed in 1935 by the architect Beatrix, serves as meeting place for many artists, whether regulars or occasional visitors. It is often said that at Verschueren, it is possible to meet new people, to have a chat with strangers.

Not unlike at Parade (see below), the presence of artists at Verschueren awakens a primitive mimesis which awakens our appetite for the classics: why not rediscover the mastery of Racine, the tragedy of Corneille, the humour of Molière or the affectations of Marivaux? Some will have detected their best-by-date and will prefer contemporaries; why not ask the professionals on site for advice? Don’t worry, they won’t bite you, they’re vegan.

2. La Belladone

17a rue Moris, 1060 Saint-Gilles

In a sombre, woody decor, and opposite a steampunk-like bar, La Belladone not only bears the name of a rare flower, but also whiffs of the past and of 1920s architecture.

A place that radiates the Dada spirit and that invites us to read the Surrealists. Leafing through Breton or Crevel, rereading Picabia and Cravan, discovering Marcel Lecomte while listening to André Souris, the literary networks used to take root in this type of café, among others. Let’s imagine so at least, because this hypothesis suddenly throws a spanner in the works of this literature, gifted for a lack of balance.

3. Parade – literary café

59 rue de Savoie, 1060 Saint-Gilles

‘Literary’ is a linguistic parry that gives the café its taste. This is a site of artistic sociability, where by ‘literary café’ we must understand a comforting place where artists meet, where creative ideas converge and where it is in good form to be sociable.

Note that this stimulates the imagination; once you have found a table, all you have to do is to sprinkle the simple décor and the informal atmosphere with a few words of your choice. Besides, several books attempt to make you drool, if you have not taken your own. Parade, which presents a number of works by independent publishers, is perhaps the all-purpose ingredient that is indispensable to your literary journey through Brussels.

4. La vieille Chéchette

2-6 rue du Monténégro, 1060 Saint-Gilles

La vieille Chéchette is a bit like that little spice jar that lingers at the back of your cupboard, the one you never managed to associate with a dish, too specific to be easily mixed and so strong it makes us bitter. Farewell, culinary utopias, this spice is too complex.

And then on the day of the big clean-out, it resurfaces. So we give it a second chance. That same evening, without waiting another moment; it reignites a memory that had vanished, aged by being forgotten but always desirable. It pleases us somewhat, reminds us of the palate’s indomitable finesse.

Small and cosy, La vieille Chéchette proposes a simplicity that is necessary to our social relations. Time unfolds with a comforting facility.

You just need to glimpse at the books lined up on the back wall. You can play the game and sample a book on the spot. Be ready to confront your political views with theirs. Otherwise a classic novel of your own choice will be easy to digest, unless your palate is looking for a complete utopia, inspired by the atmosphere of the place; make sure that you take book that is filled with hope.

In short, La vieille Chéchette invites you to read books you dissect in order to feed a certain optimism.

5. Pêle-Mêle

566 Chaussée de Waterloo, 1050 Ixelles

The pleasure of a random discovery increases its savours tenfold, while time and space cancel each other out. At Pêle-Mêle, you will be able to taste on the spot the fruit of your labours.

There are three Pêle-Mêle shops, two in Brussels, one in Waterloo. A ‘cultural recycling’ centre, it proposes many second-hand objects for sale, including a large collection of books. Plan some time to get lost in it, since luck never acts alone.

6. Le Vieux Saint-Josse

2 Place Saint-Josse, 1210 Saint-Josse-ten-Noode

Your long urban pilgrimage having made you thirsty, you look for a space in which to correct your lack of foresight. A friend had drawn your attention to one of the capital’s best pizzerias, on the main square of Saint-Josse. So you had planned to go there. You arrive.

The pizzeria is indeed there. Not far away, you notice a café, Le Vieux Saint-Josse. Drawn by its appearance, you decide to enter. In the half-light, you notice old beer glasses. The scent of cigarette smoke is more imaginary than real, it permeates the setting, made of half-timbered walls and red brick. Your imagination carries you away: you imagine all sorts of characters, including a man sipping a glass of whisky at the table in the back, impassively waiting for his date, who is ten minutes late.

A familiar spot on the square, this popular café attracts solitary spirits, eager to discover thrillers, built up around a phased, enigmatic and mysterious narrative. A literary heaven for adepts of thrilling novels.

7. Library of Saint-Josse

2 rue de la Limite, 1210 Saint-Josse-ten-Noode

As during a hunt, hope and vigilance sharpen your senses and awaken you to surprises. In the midst of the impressive shelves of a library, you lunge at the right moment on the title that appears before you, not by chance, but like a glaring fact, indifferent to the risks you face.

In Saint-Josse as elsewhere, you express your instincts as a reader-hunter, but in Saint-Josse as nowhere else, you will express them in the charming and welcoming inner courtyard, and will draw the conclusion of your beat sheltered from any potential urban birds of prey.

8. La Bourse

Boulevard Anspach, 1000 Bruxelles

An ingredient necessary to the purchase of all the others, the Bourse (purse) cannot be eaten, but is to be worn, proudly, preferably at the back of your jeans, ready to be drawn when you need to fill up. No Bourse, no gluttony.

Because the steps of the Bourse (stock exchange), between Boulevard Anspach and Rue de la Bourse, invite you to observe the victims of your future anecdotes. If you are hungry for short stories, the site will trigger your appetite and invite you to make up stories for them. Take with you one or other cartoon with you that is rich in humour and caricatures, it will solicit your insolent desires and stimulate your sly creativity. Or else test the digital books, in order to pass incognito in the midst of this festival of selfies.

9. Le Coq

14 rue Auguste Orts, 1000 Bruxelles

To be tender and delicious, the coq (cockerel) must of course simmer for a long time in its pot, about two hours. What to do in the meantime?

Le Coq lives not far from the Bourse. Its impressive front draws in the passer-by. You look inside. Nothing special, you think, if not for its quaintness. Then you think you see a police superintendent in the back, immersed in his sixth pre-lunch beer. You are then overcome by the desire to (re)read some good old detective stories. By a stroke of luck, you have one of Harry Dickson’s adventures on you.

Two hours later, permeated by the world of Jean Ray, the space wins you over. To be tender and delicious, the coq should simmer for a long time in its pot. Not like the cop at the back, who by now is completely plastered.

© Iris Bourdeau – Drawing made during her residence at Passa Porta in 2017.

10. Sonian Forest – Ponds of Watermael-Boistfort

If being shut up inside is not going to stimulate your imagination, then why not get out. Sitting by a pond, not only will your mind wander and open itself up to insignificant events, but it can also benefit from the fresh air to get its breath back.

Why not, in those cases, serve up a slender book full of breathing and full of vitality? Why not peruse a life story, a reflection, a state of mind? Why not focus on a work that demands more attention than another?

The ponds of Watermael-Boitsfort are one of the many places that are propitious for this type of text. If you’re looking for other green sites in the city, take a walk around Uccle or Jette, where you will discover nice parks.

© Bruxelles environnement

Simon Fontaine