To sum up Brussels with one anecdote: the Palace of Justice, built between 1866 and 1883 by Joseph Poelaert and the largest building constructed in the 19th century, sits opposite my hotel, covered in scaffolding and seemingly disused. The renovation of this building has been so slow that in 2013 it was discovered that the scaffolding itself was now also in need of renovation.
Four nights spent in Brussels, then, having ignored advice from literally everyone who warned me that the place is a dump; it’s such a fascinatingly awful place to be I can’t believe it’s not intentional. I imagine swarms of apparatchiks from the European parliament coming out at night to cover every surface with sleazy graffiti and dirt. They swarm across the city locking up old churches, prising up and chipping cobblestones and making sure no point of interest is near any other point of interest to maximise tedious walking. They urinate as they go, spraying entire buildings with their scent, pausing only to put up more rickety scaffolding. As the sun rises, they smooth their waxed moustaches, skitter back indoors, take one look back as the light hits and think to themselves “Yes, we have done good work here.”
I told myself the city was at least convenient for getting to other places — Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp — if it didn’t work out; turns out it wasn’t all that convenient, the hotel being a half-hour uphill trek from the train station through back alleys and broken streets that made my wheeled suitcase pinball around in fitful disgust, and a lack of research on my part left me staying in an area surrounded only by very expensive handbag shops.
My usual holidaying tactic of picking a direction and wandering that way until I see a quaint side street was foiled by a city that doesn’t have any quaint side streets. I kept finding myself drawn back to the city centre as if the Manneken Pis had an irresistible gravitational pull but really because every other direction I took I ended up somewhere where I looked to be volunteering for a mugging or a middle management business conference.
It isn’t that there aren’t any things of interest to me. I did a quick skip around the Royal Palace of Brussels then had an even quicker skip through Brussels Park. I managed to spend a few hours in the enormous Magritte Museum which has about six floors of stuff and I could probably have spent longer had I ponyed up for a guide. The Galeries Royales killed at least five minutes. I made an attempt at visiting the Parc du Cinquantenaire but was driven off by a thunderstorm that appeared so suspiciously out of nowhere it was as if I’d bumped up against the edge of the game world. I didn’t feel like I was missing much though, not from a park that also contains a car museum.
Maybe I could have done better. Certainly, every guide to Brussels I found online appeared to show a bustling, modern metropolis full of fine restaurants and posh chocolate and beer and young people enthusiastically eating salad, it’s just that the act of reaching any of these things, of traipsing through grey, faceless, unkempt streets, was so dispiriting I ended up not bothering. There’s no sense of pride to Brussels, at least not that I could see; the impression I was left with was that it just didn’t seem to care, so why should I?