belgium journal: 17 posts

My Brussels

Brussels has an image problem. Its city planning suffered from an overly strong infatuation with brutalist architecture in the 60s and resulted in stupendously hideous constructions, which include some of the EU buildings. The tug of war between the regional governments–and the arcane laws–leave the city underfunded and disorganized, and construction projects can drag on for years. The bureaucracy is byzantine, and getting mundane things done, like opening a bank account or registering oneself with a commune, often turns into one of the labors of Hercules. The weather also doesn’t win bonus points. “Why on earth Brussels?” asked my mom when I told her that we were moving.

brussels-arch

My first impression of Brussels on a freezing winter day was unpromising. I emerged out into the chaotic area near the Gare Centrale and found myself in a grey tinted mash up of 19th century curvy facades and faceless cement boxes. By the time I reached the Grand Place, I had to pass through so many rings of tacky haunts selling cheap souvenirs and touristy trinkets that even the elegance of the Renaissance guild houses inside the central square seemed compromised. Eventually my husband and I made our way to Quai aux Briques, an esplanade dotted by baroque and medieval buildings. We drank hot chocolate as rain darkened the façade of Sainte Catherine church and turned the square into an Impressionist painting–and suddenly the city felt like a place where I could live.

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A Love Letter to Belgian Rain

I like Belgian rain. It sounds like a strange admission, but there you have it. Partly, it’s because I don’t like summer and heat. Another reason is that rain is an inescapable fact of life here, and my choices to deal with it are either to follow the lead of the Belgian Santa Klaus and move to Spain or to complain nonstop. The former  is infeasible, and the latter is tiresome. Instead, I begin to think of rain as something with beauty of its own.

rain

And beautiful it can be. The fine mist that often marks the beginning of Belgian winter has a pearly glow, transforming the familiar red rooftops of the city into an Impressionist etude of soft brushstrokes. It’s the kind of rain that fools you into thinking that you will be fine without an umbrella, but it drenches you in a matter of seconds. When you’re at home, with a cup of tea and a good book, this rain is romantic and serene. Turn off the email notifications, add a drop of an iris perfume like Chanel No 19 or Annick Goutal Heure Exquise–rooty, cool iris smells of rain, so it’s an ideal companion–and imagine that the world has just stood still, apart from the changing patterns of raindrops on the window.

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The Hidden Gems of Brussels

The Financial Times Weekend issue, October 31st, is devoted to Brussels, and it includes my article (p. 19-21) on my favorite places for sensory discoveries. I share advice on where to enjoy the best of Belgian chocolates, rare Chinese teas and beauty products. I also walk you through the fashion district of the city and highlight a few of its must-visit perfume spots. The issue also includes several other pieces on different aspects of Brussels, an interview with one of the best chocolatiers Pierre Marcolini and an excellent piece by Jim Brunsden with a city walk itinerary.

ft weekend

Click here to read the online version.

Of course, my list is not exhaustive, and since Brussels is a dynamic, ever-growing place, exploring its different neighborhoods and making your own discoveries is a special experience. If you’re familiar with the city and have other recommendations, please share them. Also, if there is a Brussels related topic you would like me to cover, do make a note in the comments.

The FT Weekend Magazine is available on newstands right now.

Jenever Belgian Liquor : Juniper, Rose, Lavender

Museums where you can exercise your sense of smell are few and far between. As anyone who has tried to convince a gallery to add a fragrance exposition knows, it can be a difficult undertaking. “Not enough funding” is a common excuse. One is left treating the aisles of Sephora as the august halls of perfume education. Or so it seems at first, because besides museums featuring fragrance, there are numerous venues that feature scent. For instance, any museum dedicated to wine or spirits would have a smelling bar and an explanation of aromatics. That you can later taste the stars of the exhibit only adds to the appeal.

lavender2jenever2

During my research on the lavender farm in Limburg, I discovered that Hasselt, the province’s capital, has a jenever museum. Jenever, also known as genièvre, genever or peket, is an ancestor of gin, a local spirit made out of grain and flavored with juniper and other botanicals, and it has been made in the region since the 13th century. Wine and brandy distilled from grapes have traditionally been expensive, while the surfeit of corn brought from the New World made aqua vitae distillers eager to experiment. The result was a drink described as “banishing cares and making the heart courageous.”

That this 75 proof liquor has such an effect is easy enough to believe. Jenever might have started out as medicine, but instead of using sugar to mask the rough taste of the alcohol base, pharmacists chose a much more interesting approach by flavoring it with spices, herbs and flowers. Eventually, locally grown juniper started to dominate the composition, while jenever moved from the pharmacy shelf to the cafe.

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Belgian Lavender

The Belgian province of Limburg is an expanse of green fields punctuated by neat red brick towns. Although Brussels is a much more laid-back and calm city in comparison to London, Paris or Berlin, as I stroll through the woods near Hasselt, Limburg’s capital, I feel as if I just left a bustling metropolis. It’s all serenity, stone church spires and the soft rustle of leaves in the trees lining the river. And the rich perfume of lavender.

lavender1

Although lavender is usually associated with Provence, there is a 4 hectare farm near Herkenrode in Limburg, and it’s open for the summer. “Yes, we have lavender in bloom, and it’s a genuine variety, not lavandin,” I was told by a lady at the nursery. “Please visit before we harvest it.” The following weekend my husband and I drove one hour to Limburg to see the lavender fields of Belgium.

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  • Madelyn E in Balmain Ivoire Perfume Giveaway: Oh thank you so very much for your generous giveaway ! Sweet florals : Estée Lauder – Modern Muse , White Linen , Beautiful , Sisley : Soir de Lune… April 29, 2017 at 7:29pm

  • Christine Corretti in Balmain Ivoire Perfume Giveaway: I would suggest the semi-sweet floral ‘L’Interdit’ by Guerlain and Hanae Mori’s ‘Butterfly’ (the original). Even sweeter florals: Nest’s ‘Midnight Fleur’ Jo Malone ‘Nectarine Blossom and Honey’ email contact is… April 29, 2017 at 7:22pm

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