“I only meant to stay for six months” is a common refrain among non-Belgians here in Brussels, a city where people come for work and stay for the lifestyle in a place that has much more to offer than waffles, chocolate and Tintin. Brussels is a good city to visit, but a great place to live.
I arrived in 2002 for a six-month stint as a trainee, and am still here eight years later, working for Berwin Leighton Paisner. Our office is in the centre of the EU quarter, just by the European Parliament. Brussels is home to many EU institutions as well as other international organisations such as NATO. With 27 countries now in the EU, it is an international and polyglot environment, bustling with lawyers, officials and lobbyists. Being at the heart of the EU, seeing law and policy being developed, and being involved in that process, is one of the key things that has kept me here so long.
But Brussels was, of course, here before the EU arrived and, away from the business areas, the fact that it serves as the EU’s capital has much less of an impact. The historic centre of Brussels is beautiful and the Grand Place in particular never fails to take my breath away. But away from the tourists there are less-known areas full of cafés, restaurants, parks and beautiful streets. The city has many wonderful buildings, including some designed by Belgian art nouveau architect Victor Horta, which are now UNESCO heritage sites.
Once summer hits, the pavements are crowded with café tables and the place takes on a very continental feel. Sunglasses and people-watching are de rigeur. It is just a pity that summer can be fleeting, sandwiched between long moths of grey and drizzle. Some stereotypes are true…. But less-than-perfect weather gives you a chance to explore the other things that Brussels has to offer. The newly opened Magritte museum celebrates one of Belgium’s most famous sons, but you can also find museums on subjects ranging from cartoon art to chocolate. There are theatres, cinemas and exhibitions as well as world-class restaurants and fantastic local brasseries that give you a chance to sample one of Belgium’s more famous exports. Belgian beer is treated much as wine is elsewhere – as something to be tasted, discussed and appreciated. As well as drunk. There are about 125 breweries in Belgium, including some in Trappist monasteries, producing some 9,000 different kinds of beer. Visitors who think they can come for a weekend and try them all will have a nasty shock.
Brussels is officially a bilingual city, and street names and official signs are printed in both French and Flemish. Listening to Belgians switch from one to the other, and effortlessly into English, never fails to impress.
Belgium is pretty small, so a short drive or train journey will get you to Paris, Amsterdam, Cologne, or even back to London if you have run out of PG Tips. Heading out of Brussels into the countryside you can easily get to the Ardennes, with gently rolling hills and meandering rivers – perfect for lazy Sundays. But watch out for the cyclists! Cycling is a national passion, and weekends will see groups of brightly-attired enthusiasts zipping at high speed along Belgium’s (fortunately fairly flat) roads.
Although Brussels itself is compact enough that it can be explored on foot, I still feel as though I am getting to know it after eight years. Did I mention that I only meant to stay for six months?
Rachel Cuff is a senior associate and knowledge development lawyer in Berwin Leighton Paisner’s Brussels office.