Brussels boring? Visit the Marolles district

Brussels Travel Blog

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As two districts go they could hardly be more different �" even though they lie side by side in the same city.  The Sablon is one of Brussels’ smartest areas with its broad boulevards and elegant shops while in the Marolles you’re more likely to find rough and ready bars, workshops and immigrants from Spain, Portugal and North Africa sitting out by the pavement watching the world go by.
  But in this neighbourhood, the birth place of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, you’re also increasingly likely to see loft apartments, cutting edge furniture shops and hip new bars and restaurants.  Over the last few years as demand for property in centre of Brussels has increased, this working class area of the city has begun a slow but steady gentrification �" or to use a less formal but more appropriate term, given the rich foodie culture of the Capital of Europe - a croissantisation.
  The Marollen or Marollen in Flemish, lies to the south west of the Brussels city centre in the shadow on the grand Palais de Justice, around the broad thoroughfares of the Rue Haute and the Rue Blaes.  The Palais de Justice, a vast, overblown creation, was built in the middle of the nineteenth century and was, for many years, the largest building in the world.
  It’s said that during its construction, some residents of the Marolles were driven from their houses which were then razed to the ground at short notice, leaving them homeless and angry.  However, these displaced Marolliens had the last laugh when the architect responsible died young in a mental hospital - according to local legend, thanks to a curse put upon him by a local witch.
  It’s somewhere that I’m planning to do a city audio guide for in my mp3cityguides series of download walking tours of cities.
  Since the Middle Ages the district has been known as a rough, working class area and a cultural melting pot with a defiant sense of its own identity.  It has a local patois �" Marollien, unintelligible to other Brussels residents �" and a long standing suspicion of the city authorities.  Even today the streets, large and small, are buzzing with noise and energy verging on the anarchic and there is an earthy vibrancy here that you won’t find almost anywhere else in Brussels.  
  It’s a great place to spend Sundays.  There is the famous flea market, the marché aux puces, and you can spend time drinking coffee and wandering around looking at the galleries and furniture stores.  Brussels is generally quite restrained but the Marolles has a bit more edge.
  Part of the appeal is that the area is very central, but cheaper than most parts of central Brussels.  You’re just a minute or two away from the smart Sablon district and it’s not far from Brussels Midi railway station.
  The Marolles has a resident population of about 10,000, it’s estimated, around 12 per cent of whom are now young professionals.  An equal percentage of residents are students and also pensioners.  This broad mix of ages and social segmentation is part of the appeal.  But the growing number of shops, bars and new restaurants has increased interest in the area further and somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000 people will visit area every day to shop, drink and eat.
  It’s the mix of old and new, hip and traditional that characterises this latest stage of one of the oldest parts of Brussels. In the Rue Haute the contents of traditional antique shops contrast with the more eclectic mix to be found in shops such as Jacques Brol and Dune 234, run by another arrival in the area, French interior designer Muriel Bardinet.  Similarly traditional neighbourhood bistrots or ethnic restaurants with their regular patrons sit alongside Soul, a Bourgeois-Bohemian chic eatery which was set up by two Finnish sisters who moved into the Marolles and which describes itself as a “bio fusion kitchen”.
  Another aspect of the area’s charm is that it contains some of Brussels best examples of Art Nouveau architecture.  Private homes and public housing as well warehouses, shops and bars still boast the flowing lines and elegant decoration that were created during the turn of the century.  The fact that this still exists �" although some of it needs restoration �" is again thanks to the willingness of the local population to defend their quartier, this time against developers and planners during the 1960s.
  Despite the volume of indigenous inhabitants and incomers working for the European Commission and large corporations, many of those buying or renting in the Marolles work in advertising, public relations and design.  It’s becoming known as the area where people in the more trendy businesses live.

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photo by: Vlindeke