Hailing from the UK but based in Brussels since 2012 , Zoë Gray, the recently appointed senior curator at WIELS, entertains the same love-hate relationship with the city that most locals will admit to. “It’s both scruffy and charming” she says, and we couldn’t agree more. Highlighting her commune of Schaerbeek’s many twists and turns, here are some of her favourite neighbourhood gems. And, from art for kids to Sunday walks, there are a few hidden ones if you look carefully.
One of the things that I really like about Brussels is the fact that it’s quite illogical, and scruffy, and sometimes the scruffiness is really charming and sometimes it just drives you insane.The metro system feels like you’re traveling in a time machine, it’s like going back into the past. I like Brussels’ small scale combined with its very international outlook. As an English person, I feel like I’ve discovered a city that is a secret in its totality because for many Brits Brussels is just synonymous with bureaucrats, and they have no idea of it’s rich cultural life. Whereas Paris is kind of obvious, I like that feeling of being in on a city-wide secret (which is admittedly now less and less a secret!). Additionally the general linguistic confusion suits my family and me quite well. You can speak everything and everyone will understand, but no one’s too precious about the language, which is refreshing after working in France.
ON LOCAL BARS AND RESTAURANTS
I like to focus on the local, so for food, there’s a new place called l’Estaminet, which is super cute and very tasty. It’s a very Brussels kind of address because it’s very hidden, if you didn’t know it was there you’d never find it – it’s basically attached to the commune’s cultural center – which is something I find defines Brussels: it’s a city that keeps its secrets close to its chest. For a bit more of a splurge, I like La Cueva de Castilla, a Spanish restaurant on Place Colignon, which like many places is short on the weekends, another Brussels specialty. But it’s really good, proper Spanish food, with excellent Rioja and good jamon. For a drink in our neighborhood I like the Zotten Ezel, which is near l’Eglise Sainte Marie. It’s one of those typical Belgian cafés, with soup, blocks of cheese, and four hundred different types of beer. It’s open at very strange times, as far as I can tell, but there’s always a nice atmosphere. Another place I really like is La taverne l’Esperance in the center of town on Rue Finistère, just off the horrible Rue Neuve shopping street. It’s a beautiful art deco bar attached to a hotel and I think it used to be a brothel. The coffee is pretty terrible, but it’s just a really good place to escape from that whole area. If I have friends coming from abroad, we always take them to Noordzee in Saint Catherine and feed them fried fish and crispy white wine. It always works.
ON THE LOCAL CONTEMPORARY ART SCENE
For art spaces, I recommend Etablissement d’en Face, on Rue Ravenstein, which is a strong artist-run space with an ambitious and experimental vision. The fact that it’s run by a group of artists who work together very closely on each project gives it a particular edge. Then there is the private but non-profit space called La Loge, where I curated a show two years ago, located in a former masonic lodge. It has this special atmosphere and very extraordinary architecture, and the program that Anne-Clare Schmitz is developing there is really exciting. She’s managed since its opening three years ago to use the architecture as a starting point for all sorts of rich discussions with artists without letting the space dominate the content. And then the newcomer, the new kid on the block, is Composite on Rue du Marché aux Porcs. They really trust the artists that they show, and give them a lot of scope to push their projects as far as possible. They’re quite ambitious, despite the fact that it’s a very small and slightly awkward space. And of course there is WIELS, which has such a dynamic program of exhibitions, and amazing architecture (a former brewery) with spaces that can change so much with each exhibition. It has an international reputation and outlook but is also very much rooted in Brussels. It has this connection with the local art scene in many ways, including through the residency program. There’s also the online platform called le Salon, edited by my new colleague Devrim Bayar, which I knew before I knew her. It has really good interviews with artists and collectors and gives a very informed but accessible insight into the art scene.
ON ART FOR KIDS
In Schaarbeek, there’s an art space for kids called ABC (Art basics for children). It’s an amazing resource for books and workshops, and it’s an incredible facility for kids to do all kinds of arts projects. It started as a collection of kids books, which is the basis of it, but instead of simply being a library it’s a space where kids can try out making woodwork, they can listen to records, or they can make films.
ON WHERE TO GET BOOKS
For books, I quite like Pêle-Mêle and the books shops in les Galeries du Roi et de la Reine (Tropismes and Librairie des Galeries). They’re the kind of places you can get lost in. But I always suffer from the dizziness of booktigo, (a word I borrowed from the artist Liam Gillick currently showing at the gallery Micheline Sczwajcer). There are just so many good books to read and never enough time.
ON SUNDAY WALKS
For a Sunday with the family, there’s the Parc Josaphat in Schaerbeek, which is kind of a must. I’ve also just discovered the park Tournay-Solvay in Watermael, which looks like the former garden of a manner house. It made me think of a mini version of le Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in Paris, but with the added plus of being attached to the Forêt de Soignes.
ON ARCHITECTURAL LANDMARKS
As for favourite landmarks or buildings, I really like the Schaerbeek town hall (aside from the bad memories of having to wait hours and hours and hours inside to fill in various administrative papers). It’s impressive the way it dominates the Place Colignon. In fact the whole neighborhood is really constructed around a few key buildings connected by dramatic vistas. From there you can look up to L’Eglise Saint Marie or you can look downhill to the Schaerbeek station. This urban planning gives the area a certain grandeur, which is at odds with the very scrappy nature of the streets in between. I like this contrast of having quite a magnificent building in an area that has seen better days.
Chaussée de Haecht 147
lestami.net La Cueva de Castilla
Place Colignon 14
cuevadecastilla.be L’âne Fou | de Zotten Ezel
19 Rue Royale Ste-Marie Noordzee
Rue Sainte Catherine 45
poissonneriemerdunord.be La tavern l’Esperance
hotel-esperance.be Etablissement d’en Face
Rue Ravensteinstraat 32
etablissementdenfaceprojects.org La Loge
Rue du Marché aux Porcs 10
Avenue Van Volxem 354
wiels.org ABC (Art Basics for Children)
Place Gaucheret 13
abc-web.be Parc Josaphat
1030 Schaerbeek Tournay-Solvay Parc
1170 Watermael-Boitsfort Town Hall Schaerbeek
Place Colignon Pêle-Mêle
Bd. Maurice Lemonnier, 55 Tropismes Libraires
tropismes.com Librairie des Galeries