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The real Brussels: Rue Haute and the Marolles
Stretching out more than 1.1km, Rue Haute is the longest street within Brussels’ inner ring. It’s also one of the city’s oldest – its history dates back to the Roman era. Rue Haute is in the heart of the Marolles, a district whose name is believed to have derived from the 17th-century nuns who settled in the area to be close to the city’s poor. As they were famous for being Mariam colentes (those who honour the Virgin Mary), the nuns became known as ‘Maricolles’, which was later contracted to ‘Marolles’. Despite being a poor neighbourhood, it has always been a very lively one; at one point full of bars, dance halls and cinemas. Today, most of the cinemas and old bars are gone, but in their place are numerous antique, vintage and second-hand shops, as well as a bunch of new restaurants and bars. Another vestige of the past is the Bains de Bruxelles (28 Rue du Chevreuil), probably the most impressive public swimming pool in Belgium. Built in 1949, this modernist building allows swimmers views of the city.
About two years ago, 59-year-old Michel Courbet decided to open Rocking Road, a store selling all-American clothes and accessories. “I chose this area for its atmosphere and the shoppers,” he explains. “On top of that, I was born in the Saint-Pierre Hospital, which is just across the road.” When Michel recently renovated the interior of Rocking Road, he was perfectly placed to find ‘authentic’ furniture. “I found the wooden table and the big open wardrobe at Stefantiek (63 Rue Blaes) and Le Volle Blaes (123 Rue Blaes), my two favourite shops in which to hunt for furniture,” Michel says. He even decorates his body locally: “My tattoos come from La Perla (109 Rue Haute).”
Both Rue Haute and the parallel Rue Blaes guarantee endless browsing. Some of the most popular shops are interior design store Dewolf Plus (91 Rue Haute) and La Vaisselle au Kilo (124 Rue Haute), where you can buy crockery by the kilo. For vintage frocks, head to Foxhole (6 Rue des Renards). And of course there is the worldfamous daily flea market on Place du Jeu de Balle, which is held between 7.00 and 14.00 every day.
Shopping can make you hungry, but luckily there are plenty of places to refuel. For a quick snack, Michel suggests a sandwich at Zanzibar (316 Rue Haute). “Its retro interior and convenient location have inspired me to organise a series of parties in 2012,” he says. Some of Michel’s other favourite spots include La Clef d’Or (1 Place du Jeu de Balle) for its typically Brussels atmosphere and tasty omelettes.
“If I fancy a burger, I go straight to Skievelat (18 Rue Joseph Stevens), where they serve delicious cheeseburgers,” he says. “Restobières (32 Rue des Renards) is the place to be for Belgian food, including the best shrimp croquettes I’ve ever tasted.” A few other famous eateries in the area include Villa Rosa (393 Rue Haute), renowned for its paella, and La Crêperie (35 Rue Haute) with its long list of pancakes.
You’ll never get thirsty in the Marolles either. “My favourite bars are all on Place du Jeu de Balle,” Michel says. “You can find me at Le Marseillais, La Brocante or Chaff.” For a nice cuppa, try Ethiopian coffee house Aksum (140 Rue Haute), which not only serves African beverages but also exhibits African art. For a stronger brew, dive into one of the many bars or nightclubs in the area: there are hot Latin vibes at Havana Club (4 Rue de l’Epée), pounding techno at Fuse (208 Rue Blaes) or disco beats at Bazaar Club (63 Rue des Capucins). And if all goes well, the area should see a small rock festival soon, as Michel is planning a weekend music festival to be hosted in the area’s many old bars in March or April. “And if I can really dream, I’d love to see an event with vintage hot rods on Place du Jeu de Balle,” Michel says. “How great would that be?”
Small, social housing with larger houses the closer you get to the Sablon. A two-room flat costs about €800 per month, while to buy, prices hover around €2,200 per square metre
Bus 48 (Uccle-Anneessens) passes through Rue Haute and Rue Blaes. You can also take the tram (3 or 4) or metro (2 or 6) to Porte de Hal and walk. In the opposite direction, get off buses 27 or 95 at Grand Sablon and walk down to the Marolles
Meet the neighbours
A melting pot of more than a hundred nationalities: families with their kids and old Marolliens who have lived there all their lives
In & around Rue Haute
Rocking Road (main picture)
Michel Courbet’s temple of Americana. 67 Rue Haute
Alain Fayt’s glorious beer-inspired Belgian restaurant. 32 Rue des Renards
Appointment-based tattoo shop that puts on regular art exhibitions. 109 Rue Haute
Place du Jeu de Balle
Belgium’s most famous flea market has been going for more than 90 years
Art Nouveau-inspired social housing complex just off Rue Haute
Rue des Renards
One of the city’s most atmospheric old streets
All pictures by Ottomura