It sometimes gets short shrift in Brussels guide books, but the lively Vismet neighbhourhood is a fun mix of traditional and trendy eateries and shops. We find out more.
The outdoor ice rink and Christmas kiosks may have disappeared until the next holiday season, but Brussels’ fish district – also often referred to as Vismet, after the bustling fish market here until the 1950s - is teaming with life.
From the gourmet seafood restaurants illuminated by cheerful neon lobster signs on the Quai aux Briques and the Quai au Bois à Brûler just across the way, to the eclectic collection of shops and eateries in the surrounding streets, this is one of Brussels’ most delightful neighbourhoods.
Just ask the people who live and work here.
"It’s like a little village. Everybody knows each other and it’s very pleasant," says Christophe Wattiez, a master sommelier at Nielvins (Quai aux Briques 78), a wine retailer and wholesaler specialising mainly in French labels that has been in the area for about 18 years.
A block away at Rue de Flandres 30, jewelry designer Cécile Michiels says she decided to open a shop here last last year –called Cécile – because rents here are affordable and she happened to find the perfect space, complete with original Art Deco windows and mirrors that she renovated herself.
"This is a neighbourhood that is being revived," says Michiels, who found the shop last autumn and opened it just in time for the holiday season.
"It’s a place where people can take a pleasant stroll without leaving the city."
The Place St. Catherine is named after the 19th century Gothic church that serves as its anchor. Designed in 1854 by Joseph Poelart, who also designed the Palais de Justice, the church was almost converted into the stock market.
It stayed a church, however, and is most famous for the Black Madonna and child statue, fished out of the River Senne by Catholics in 1744 after Protestants angrily dumped it there. The church today is in a pretty sorry state, but perhaps the organ concerts held the first Saturday of every month (11:00-11:45 a.m.) give it some life.
Nearby, the so-called Black Tower is part of the old city wall dating back to the 13th century.
From there it’s a short walk to the Square des Blindes, where one of Brussels’ loveliest statues stands guard: a monument to the carrier pigeons and soldiers who gave their lives in World War I.
A bare-breasted woman stands tall with a pigeon in hand, and the statue pays tribute to those who died for their country. Sadly, some of the letters are worn off, but fortunately that does not subtract from the sentiment.
A FISH TALE
The area along the Quai aux Briques and Quai au Bois à Brûler marks the old port there the fish boats used to bring their wares into town – until the river Senne silted up in 1870.
Several years later, then-Brussels mayor Charles Buls opened a fish market here. Sadly, it was unable to compete with the numerous fish shops that had established themselves in the area by then and was ultimately torn down in 1955.
Nevertheless, the shops remain, as do numerous excellent seafood restaurants, and unofficially the neighbourhood is still known as the Marché aux Poissons, or fish market.
So where should you go for fresh fish?
For starters, follow your nose to simmering pots of escargots or fish soup at La Mer du Nord (rue Sainte Catherine 45) or ABC-Mateos (rue Sainte Catherine 46) across the street. The latter boasts fish from France, Spain, Russia and even Africa, though it’s main specialty is all ingredients for Spanish paella, with Spanish garbanzos and other groceries in the back to boot.
The best time to visit the restaurants along the Quais is spring or summer, when many have tables outside alongside the fountain.
It almost, though not quite, gives one the impression of being on a riverfront -- or at least far away from the hustle and bustle of the Grand’Place or touristy Rue des Bouchers. Don’t be surprised, though, if you sometimes see grown men wading in the water in silly clothes on bachelor-night outings!
There are also numerous places along both Quais that sell wholesale and retail fish and shellfish. Persepolis (Quai Bois a Bruler 1) specialises in Iranian and Russian caviar and saffron and other spices in larger-than-normal quantities.
As far as seafood restaurants go to you can’t get much better than François (Quai aux Briques 2), which although pricey always has extremely fresh fish, both at its restaurant and store around the corner; the valet parking service, in this often congested neighbourhood, can be a lifesaver. (Otherwise take the metro straight to the Place. St. Catherine stop).
Rugbyman I (Quai aux Briques 4) and Rugbyman II just down the street are also consistently good, while wood-paneled Bij den Boer (Quai aux Briques 60) is the most down-to-earth with meat dishes, too.
If seafood is not your thing, there are plenty of other dining options.
Check out Switch (rue de Flandre 6), a refreshingly unique restaurant that opened in late 2004. The modern, all-red eatery offers a so-called 'modular' dining experience. You select from a list of ingredients and preparation methods, and the chefs whip up something lovely in a short period of time. At EUR 28 for three courses, it’s excellent value for money.
Garuda on Place St. Catherine 4 is a cosy little candle-lit Indonesian restaurant that is also brand new to the area.
The area is also excellent for shopping, from extremely traditional stores to the very new like Cécile, mentioned above.
At her shop, Michiels sells interesting pieces that she crafts together using stones from vintage jewelry. Many of her creations are made of different components: detach a piece from a choker and voila, you’ve got a pretty brooch. Though she doesn’t advertise and most of her customers know her by word of mouth, she’s currently working on a website.
Rents here may not be as pricey as the trendy rue Antoine Dansaert nearby, but with more young professionals moving back into the city, the area is sure to become the next shopping hot spot before long.
Farther down the street is Le Paradies de l’Oiseau (Rue de Flandre 41), perhaps Brussels’ most cheerful pet store which has feathered friends from tiny finches to huge African parrots. The store, which has been around for more than 25 years, also provides a reliable room and board service for pets for just a few euros a day per cage.
De Boe (Rue de Flandre 36), which has been around since 1896, sells coffee roasted on the premises as well as tea, wine and dried fruits. Boucherie Ghysels (Rue St.-Catherine 24) and Boucherie Nouvelle (Rue St-Catherine 31) are both well known, family-owned butcher shops. Desmecht (Place St.-Catherine 10), which sold food only for children, is now a veritable palace of herbs and natural cosmetics for people of all ages. It’s still on the original 1740 site.
The area is not exactly a hotspot for night life, but Los Romanticos (Quai aux Bois au Bruler 5-7) is a spicy, fairly new salsa place open 7 days a week from 1:30 p.m. until dawn. Those not yet initiated in the art of salsa can try the beginners’ classes at 7 p.m. every Tuesday and Saturday.
Peanut photo © Renee Cordes
[Copyright Expatica 2005]
Subject: Brussels, fish market, Place St Catherine.