place: brussels, belgium

Sophie Travers eating moules (mussels)

Sophie Travers eating moules (mussels)

reason for travelling

Living in Brussels for 18months as the Project Manager, IETM (International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts) Australia Council Collaboration Project.

that art attraction

It is not for no reason that expatriate artists from around the world gravitate to Brussels. Second only to Berlin for easy living and arts stimulation, Brussels is a mecca for performing arts in particular. The healthy competition between the Flemish and Wallonian communities that share the capital leads to a disproportionate number of arts institutions, festivals and events. The fact that the arts funding system remains relatively generous at a time when large swathes of Europe are going belly-up adds to Brussels’ attractions for international artists, as do the non-discriminatory criteria for who can gain access to funding and benefits.

The geography of Brussels is one of its major strengths, as it sits an easy 90 minutes from Paris on the train, 30 minutes from Lille, two hours from London and Amsterdam and six from Berlin. The confluence of countless European networks with their headquarters in Brussels (not least IETM), creates many opportunities for artist mobility and most of the Belgian presenters are part of schemes that ensure the best international programming finds its way to Brussels sooner or later. Brussels’ laid back, slightly chaotic feel is one of the things that surprised me most and I have greatly enjoyed exploring the multicultural mix of the many neighbourhoods that make up the city. Eating and drinking in Brussels is superb and affordable too. Shame that the skies seem to be grey for ten months of the year.

for culture

Place Eugène Flagey, Brussels

Place Eugène Flagey, Brussels

Brussels is awash with impressive arts institutions and some of the big ones represent the best that Europe can offer. BOZAR, in the city centre, is a multi-faceted space with an enticing gallery offering big artists like Watteau and smaller, commissioned studio activities, often themed around EU projects such as the Francis Bacon exhibit to celebrate the current Irish Presidency of the EU. BOZAR programs contemporary, world and classical music in venues that also host theatre and dance. As is the case with most Belgian arts houses, the offer for families is extraordinary and we have relished the regular Sunday morning programming for kids as well as the themed Family Days.

Kunstenfestivaldesarts is the annual performing arts festival that unites Flemish and French speaking communities and offers cutting-edge work from around the world over two weeks in May. You can buy a pass for 150 Euros and knock yourself out.

ArsMusica is an ambitious contemporary music festival that takes over the wonderful Flagey Arts Centre in Ixelles. Flagey also has a year-round program of music, cinema and spoken word.

Museum Night Fever, Brussels

Museum Night Fever, Brussels

The Kaaitheater, Beurschouwburg, Les Brigitinnes and KVS present contemporary theatre, dance and performance, with innovative programming ideas like Kaaitheater’s Burning Ice festival of ecologically themed work or Beurs’ invitation to artists to curate a month long program of visual, screen, lecture and performance works.

Recyclart is a funky underground space that programs workshops and community events and hosts DJs and bands from around the world. Les Ateliers Claus is a subversive institution and L’Ancien Belgique manages to balance big name bands with quirky mini-festivals.

PassaPorta is an extraordinary literary organisation with an annual festival, artists in residence and regular talks from international writers—in all sorts of languages.

WIELS, Brussels

WIELS, Brussels

In the visual arts, WIELS is a large three storey space in a former brewery that hosts artists in residence as well as events such as EXISTENZ, a program of live art. Private galleries such as Villa Empain and Maison Particuliere are thrilling discoveries and the Horta Museum is a gem of art nouveau architecture, beautifully preserved. In March, the city runs Museum Night Fever, a long night of events across 23 museums and of course there is the inevitable Nuit Blanche in October when the galleries are open all night.

for refreshment

Brussels has a huge offering of bars and cafes where you can enjoy the hundreds of varieties of Belgian beer. Traditional spots, such as A La Morte Subite remain frozen in time with their tarnished mirrors, cheese-on-stick snacks and mind-boggling lists of gueuzes, lambics, trappists and, my personal favourite, fruit beers.

Modern drinking holes include the deco Belga Café on the Place Flagey in Ixelles. Day or night, this place is always buzzing and brunch on a weekend, after a visit to the produce market on the square, is another personal Brussels highlight.

The plat du jour option offered by most brasseries at lunchtime is a great option for the traveller, enabling you to sample the more upmarket eateries for a fraction of the à la carte cost. A lovely spot in the picturesque Galleries Hubert is L’Ogenblik where the 11 Euro lunch dish is usually a Flemish special such as Chicons Gratins or Stoemp.

A trip to Brussels is not complete without moules and frites and any of the many restaurants around the Place St Catherine offer a steaming pot of mussels. If you are on a budget join those standing at the bar of Noordzee, a fish-shop on the same square, whose white wine, fish soup and crispy croquettes are hugely popular, especially on a warm summer evening. Even more skint? Head to a fritkot, the ubiquitous hot chip stands and join the city-wide debate about which one reigns supreme.

other highlights

Cemetery in Ypres, Belgium

Cemetery in Ypres, Belgium

The proximity of Ghent, Bruges and Antwerp make for great day trips, especially as weekend train tickets are half price and no journey is over an hour. Those who enjoy nature can head to the Ardennes for some walking and sea lovers can head north to Oostend where a Marvin Gaye inspired headphone tour illuminates this rather forbidding resort. In Ypres the In Flanders Fields Museum commemorating World War I is shattering; the Herge Museum in Louvain-la-Neuve is fun, and of course, everyone must have their Waterloo.

links

BOZAR www.bozar.be
Kunstenfestivaldesarts www.kfda.be
ArsMusica www.arsmusica.be
Flagey Arts Centre www.flagey.be
Kaaitheater www.kaaitheater.be
Beurschouwburg www.beursschouwburg.be
Les Brigitinnes www.brigittines.be
Recyclart www.recyclart.be
Les Ateliers Claus www.lesateliersclaus.com
L’Ancien Belgique www.abconcerts.be
PassaPorta www.passaporta.be
KVS www.kvs.be
WIELS www.wiels.org
Villa Empain www.villaempain.com
Maison Particuliere www.maisonparticuliere.be
Horta Museum www.hortamuseum.be
Museum Night Fever www.museumnightfever.be
Nuit Blanche www.nuitblanchebrussels.be
A La Morte Subite www.alamortsubite.com
Belga Café www.cafebelga.be
L’Ogenblik www.ogenblik.be
Noordzee www.vishandelnoordzee.be
Marvin Gaye www.marvingaye.be
n Flanders Fields Museum www.inflandersfields.be
Herge Museum www.museeherge.com

Sophie Travers is a Scottish born performing arts producer, based in Brussels till July 2013, at which point she will return to Melbourne where she has been living for over a decade, running gallusarts.com.

1 May 2013
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