For a long while I only considered Brussels as a transit city, a sort of a non-place that no one really stays in, and thus not exactly offering anything to a visitor.
My first, very brief, visit was on a post-high school tour of Europe, as my friends and I were visiting storied cities that “we should not miss” – actual destinations like Florence, Rome, Cannes, Naples. Brussels was given a whole 4 hours as we were changing trains between the must see culture and bohemia of Paris and, well, must see canals and “coffee shops” in Amsterdam. It was enough the see the Grand Place, that pissing statue, eat chocolate, take an overlong trip to the Atomium, be let down, and then rush to the train.
My belief that it was a non-place was further confirmed by many of my friends – all expats or children of expats – who lived there only to move elsewhere, with little regret that they left Brussels. I gathered it was a good place when you know people – but not having known people there (as at that point everybody I knew with the connection to Brussels had left it) there was no need to go. So, naturally, I only decided to go once a very dear friend and fellow traveller moved there unexpectedly, as I haven’t seen him for a while.
In those five days I was struck by how much I actually liked, even though it was a dreary, windy February. Its chaotic architecture – so notorious that Brusselisation became a term of dersion – immediately reminded me of home, probably unsurprisingly given that Belgrade is also somewhat of a non-destination, especially compared to regional cities like Sarajevo, Dubrovnik, Mostar and even Novi Sad, which are more evocative to a contemporary traveller. There are also historical parallels of course which can explain this: both are seats of government for complex and – for European standards – new states whose grandiose architectural symbols were built in the heady days of the late 19th early 20th century, which then took on new roles and were not very gracefully expanded post WWII . Ineterstingly, it was a Franco-Belgian architect from Brussels, Alban Chambon, who made one of the most ambitious (and thus unrealised) Belle Epoque plans for Belgrade.
The thrill for the latest fads in architecture seems to be only present in non-destination cities which suddenly grew: both embraced everything and anything from monumental Belle Epoque fantasies to Art Nouveau (which is exquisite in Brussels) to clunky modernism. It is that aesthetic permissiveness of their residents that makes both feel very laid back : you can like them, or not, they do not really care but remain lively, following their own beat. You are only passing, after all.