The Brontes in Brussels

I love a good excuse to travel. This trip to Belgium came about entirely due to an earlier trip – when I went to Manchester for the Bronte Society conference last year.

One of the speakers at that conference, Helen MacEwan, is the founder of the Brussels Bronte Group, and she had mentioned to me the dates of their upcoming events. Saturday April 1st was a double lecture and Sunday April 2nd was one of their guided walking tours of Brussels. What better excuse to book some flights and a couple of extra days to sightsee?

So after our lovely couple of days in Bruges, I made my way to the Universite Saint-Louis (managing to order my breakfast in French, hooray!) and listened to Helen deliver a lecture on Charlotte’s legacy in Brussels, and what the Belgians thought of it. It was a wonderful, very interesting lecture – Charlotte is not known for her kind remarks about Brussels and, in fact, said some quite nasty things about Belgium and the Belgians. And of course, she was struggling with the agony of unrequited love while staying here – Monsieur Heger, a married man, ran the Pensionnat where Emily and Charlotte were staying and was the object of Charlotte’s affections.

Both Villette and The Professor were heavily inspired by Charlotte’s experiences, and both novels are filled with thinly-veiled autobiographical detail. Charlotte and Emily lived in Brussels between 1842 and 1843. Charlotte was there for longer – Emily was far more homesick, and refused to go back after returning home for Aunt Branwell’s funeral. The girls had originally gone to Belgium to gain a proper education in French and perhaps German in order to open their own school back at Haworth. Helen has written extensively and brilliantly on the sisters’ time in Belgium and I would strongly recommend her book The Brontes in Brussels.

We broke for lunch and I ate mine (ordered in French again!) in the Botanic Gardens overlooking a pond. There were the tiniest ducklings I had ever seen, as well as tortoises, two very self-important mallards, moorhens, and even a small marsupial that might have been a water vole or a rat…I’m not actually reading a Bronte novel at the moment. I’m getting through L.M. Montgomery’s backlist and am up to Rilla of Ingleside (yes, reading it for the first time – shame!) I was thoroughly enjoying it, while still managing to get distracted by the menagerie of animal life around me.

After lunch we rejoined for a talk from Sam Jordison focusing on the Brontes in the public eye. This turned into a discussion of Haworth, and why the village made it into a series called Crap Towns that Sam has written about the worst places to live in the UK. He made a few points worth noting though – Haworth used to be such a health hazard, that it is no wonder the Brontes didn’t live longer. Now the town that killed them is cashing in on their legacy! It’s a harsh viewpoint, but an interesting one.

After the talk a large group of us went to the pub where I had a proper Belgian hot chocolate, before I met up with Sean again. We took a quick excursion to Waterstones to buy Helen’s book and then went back to Bier Circus for dinner – it was so lovely we just had to revisit. On the way home, Sean bought me a proper Belgian waffle – they are best with no toppings because the dough they are made with is so good on it’s own!!

The next morning it was the guided walk around the Bronte related places in Brussels. It started out the front of the Chapelle Royale, the Protestant Church of Brussels. Charlotte and Emily worshipped here on Sundays. It’s in the Place du Musee, which also houses the site of a former art salon that Charlotte attended. From here, we walked up to the Place Royale and the Parc de Bruxelles, both of which Charlotte would have been very familiar with, and both of which appear as disguised locations in Villette. Down the Belliard steps, just across the road from the Parc de Bruxelles, is the former site of the Pensionnat Heger. It has been completely demolished, and nothing remains, but the research by Helen and others has placed it almost exactly. A plaque was mounted in 1979 to mark the location. We finished up on Rue Villa Hermosa, one of the only streets left that would have been there in Charlotte’s time, and used to lead directly to the Pensionnat.

We had lunch in the garden of the Belvue Museum in the blazing sunshine and chatted, trying to keep ourselves from snoozing in the unseasonable warmth. Then Sean and I made two more Bronte pit stops – first, to see another, less legal plaque that was put up in honour of the Brontes about fifteen years ago and never removed, and second, to see the inside of the Cathedral of Saint Gudule. This enormous church was where a desperate Charlotte made confession on the night of September 1st, 1843, despite not being Catholic – another event that made it into the pages of Villette.

Afterwards, we had time to kill and gorgeous weather, so we drank more beers and tea, sat in the sun, ate frites and a massive meringue-and-cream confection, and eventually moseyed to the airport. Despite the holiday being busy, I really did feel rested afterwards. Perhaps it was the sun, or the beautiful scenery that did it. I would go back to Belgium in a second, regardless.

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Belgium

The plane flight to Brussels Charleroi was cramped and uncomfortable and pretty much everything one expects from an encounter with Ryanair, but it was on time! We were on a shuttle bus into the city of Brussels at about 5pm. It’s was very light outside, and we discovered quite quickly that we’d packed too many clothes for the warm, humid weather. Once we’d had a chance to dump our luggage and stretch ourselves out, we picked a restaurant and aimed for it.

Brussels is rough around the edges, like all the best cities. The touristy area in the centre is beautiful at night, and I’m excited to see it in the daytime on the weekend. The beautiful parts of the city remind me of Paris – intricately decorated frontages, frescoes and balconies, little winding cobbled streets lined with restaurants and chocolateries. There are wafflehouses and giftshops selling lace, and pubs and bars with encylopaedic beer menus.

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We went to a tiny little tucked away restaurant called Bier Circus and it was worth the half-hour uphill trek from our hotel on the edge of town near the Bruxelles-Midi station. They specialise in cooking meals with beer in the food, but my chicken and mushroom vol-au-vents were, as far as I can tell, unscathed by beer. I’m not the biggest beer fan, but I was determined to try proper Belgian beer, so asked for advice from Sean and our waiter. I ended up with lambic beer with peach juice and I loved it so much I had another lambic beer, this time with cherry juice. It didn’t taste like beer, just a slightly sour fruit juice. It wasn’t very high-alcohol either, so was easy to drink. We had frites and stoemp (mashed potatoes with leek and carrot) and Sean very much enjoyed his meatballs and the various beers he tried. The restaurant was busy, and therefore a bit slow with the service, but had really pleasant and chatty staff. I would definitely recommend!

Stuffed full of food, we went for a walk through some of the aforementioned cobbled streets and ended up at the Delirium Café. It was so busy! Even for a Wednesday night it was full of studenty-backpackery types. I was absolutely knackered at this point so we only stayed for one drink, but it would be a place worth coming with a group of mates at the start of the night.

We walked back to the hotel, stopping to buy a couple of delicious rum-ball type confections, and when we got back to the hotel, Jaws was on. A quality way to finish off the evening.

We both had a pretty awful sleep, but we soldiered on this morning and packed up, checked out, and went to the station to grab some breakfast. We ended up on the long train to Bruges. The normal route would take just over an hour, but ours was more like two hours and fifiteen minutes. It didn’t matter though – the sun was shining and the Belgian landscape is quite beautiful with its meadows and streams and farmhouses and little towns.

Bruges is obscenely beautiful. It was a short fifteen-minute walk to our hostel and we had a cup of tea and a look at a local map before heading out. We followed a recommended path toward a beguinage, a complex to house beguines – religious women who are not exactly nuns. It was peaceful, sunny, and covered in daffodils. We wandered down to the Minnewater, before heading on through the winding cobbled streets, passing the smallest bridge in Bruges, the Halve Maan Brewery, and the tiny little Stoofstraat (Bruges former ‘red-light’ alley). People ate ice creams in the sun and walked their dogs (including a nine-month-old chihuahua named Lola that I made friends with). There were canals and tiny bridges, lovely gardens and cafes, and plenty of people. We went to the 2BE bar and saw their permanent exhibition of every Belgian beer in the Beerwall (I think the current count is over 1700 beers) and had a drink before heading to Burg Square for waffles, a small sunbathe, and a quick look inside the Basilica of the Holy Blood.

We came back to the hostel for a brief rest and then headed out for dinner. Unfortunately Sean’s pub crawl was cancelled, so instead we spent a lovely night eating Flemish beefstew (me), ribs (Sean) and lots of frites and beer. We checked out a wee pub called t’ Poatersgat which is possibly most the affordable in Bruges, before heading back to the hostel to sit on the peaceful rooftop terrace. We headed inside only to get a message from Flick back in Melbourne, and we were able to Skype with her before we went to sleep!

Bruges is obviously geared toward tourists, but unlike a few other places geared toward tourists, I haven’t seen too many places trying to rip people off. The Belgians are really friendly and all speak perfect English as well as Dutch and French and probably a million other languages. They are very proud of their traditions and embrace them, with so many places selling chocolate, beer, and lace. There’s even a chocolate museum and a museum about frites (French fries) in Bruges.

The next morning we headed out on a walking tour which took us to some of the places we had seen previously, but others that were brand new, including a couple of locations from the film In Bruges and the oldest bridge in the city. It was not quite as warm as the day before, but still too hot for a jacket. The photos continued to be beautiful without me even trying. Bruges is a most photogenic city!

We stopped to buy chocolates before heading back to the hostel to collect our things, and then we trained back to Brussels. We’ve booked a hotel here for the next two nights and have just come home from a delicious ramen dinner. We had an ice cream and a drink afterward and people-watched – the city is very busy tonight! Sean has continued on to a pub crawl and I’m deciding whether to have a bath, read a book, or watch television…choices, choices!