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Brussels Greeters: Locals show you around city's hidden gems for free
While many tourists who come to Brussels spend their time in the tourist mecca of the old city centre, a group of enthusiastic local volunteers are endeavouring to bring visitors to see some other less-known Bruxellois highlights.
The Brussels Greeters are part of the Global Greeter Network, a group of volunteers who like to show tourists - and curious residents - around their favourite parts of the city for free.
"A greeter is a person who loves his or her city and who’ll take you to places in Brussels that you’ll not normally see,” explains Allison Oostendorp from Visit Brussels, the city's Greeters co-ordinator. "It’s like having personal contact with a local to discover the city in another way."
The International Greeters was the brainchild of Lynn Brooks, who created the concept in 1992 to ensure that visitors to her native New York got to see the city through the residents' eyes and left with a positive perspective. Since then more than 100 cities worldwide have such a programme in place.
'There is no typical day'
Coming into existence in 2010, the Brussels network has more than 100 greeters who bring tourists on tailored tours to allow them to delve into the heart of the city and sample everyday Brussels.
"There is no typical day for a greeter, who could have an idea of what to show but the visitor may have another vision or objective,” says Oostendorp. "Many discover something else or want to see something else. We tend to go with the flow and see where we end up. It isn’t a typical guided tour from A-Z."
Some of the tours can have particular themes, such as history, food, architecture and religion. Oostendorp says one of the greeters likes to bring visitors to a replica of the famous Lourdes Grotto in Jette, something most visitors probably would not know existed.
Many tourists are brought off the beaten track to the greeter's favourite parts of the city. "We try not to spend hours on the Grand Place," Oostendorp adds.
"We try to show visitors the hidden and undiscovered stories of Brussels. People who contact the greeters know they’re going to experience something different. They’re happy to discover hidden things."
Meet the greeters
The Greeters involved have their own ideas as to what are the highlights of Brussels. Katelijne has been a volunteer greeter for five years. Having previously lived abroad she likes to bring tourists to the more multicultural areas of the city: "I like to show visitors areas with lots of newcomers, like Saint-Gilles, Schaerbeek or Molenbeek. These areas are a mixture of nationalities and cultures."
Yves, a native of Brussels, had spent his earlier years in Africa. After coming back to Brussels he said that he had another vision for his city: "My goal as a greeter is to teach people how to love Brussels. I aim to help people learn and understand the city. I never plan a greet - rather I go with the flow and react to people’s questions, remarks and feelings. My intention is for them to return to Brussels because it’s a marvellous city."
Françoise has been a greeter for four years following her retirement and likes to emphasise the diversity of the city to people. She normally deals with many American tourists who may only be staying in the city for one day.
"I mainly concentrate on the centre, to highlight the diversity of the city, in its architecture from the 13th to the 20th century. You go around one corner and you see the 14th century, then you go around another and it’s from the 18th century. It’s always changing.”
Not all greeters are native to Brussels. Spanish citizen Maria has been in Brussels for seven years and got involved with the Brussels Greeters when it was starting out. Hailing from Catalunya, she says she became a "Brusseleer by adoption".
"One of my favourite aspects is that you’re not really obliged to show this and that. You can tailor your tours, but also you can improvise and change your initial route. People sometimes ask about something you haven’t thought of. One of our main goals is to diversify the network in terms of age, profile, language, nationality and interests."
She normally does tours speaking in Spanish, English and French as well as her native Catalan. She says Greeters use many other different languages, such as German, Dutch and Chinese: "This is a positive thing because it means we can receive many visitors."
Oostendorp adds that there is a large variety of Greeters who are flexible for the tourist's needs and are available seven days a week. She says that to be come a greeter, the main requirement is to simply "love Brussels and be willing to share it with guests".
To find out more about the Brussels Greeters see www.brusselsgreeters.be - to contact a greeter there is a form to be filled on the website.
"We’ll see what are your interests, what you want to see, what language you need. Then we’ll find a suitable greeter for you. Then you’ll get in touch with the greeter and organise it from there," Oostendorp says.