Sarah Clarkson (@taikodrum) is the second of my guest bloggers. Having ticked off Milwaukee courtesy of Andy C (@capitalgull), Sarah brings a flavour of Brussels to the site. I hope you enjoy – it’s a fantastic piece. Thank you Sarah.
Having spent three years as a London-based public transport geek, I moved to Belgium in 2009 and have now spent almost three years as a Brussels-based public transport geek.
Brussels is an odd city. I often find myself telling people that it is a pretty rubbish city to visit as a tourist, but a great city to live in as a local. In terms of its public transport, the network is operated by a company called STIB in French, or MIVB in Flemish.
Which brings me nicely onto one of the most notable oddities of Brussels: it is bilingual by law. Although French is by far the majority language in Brussels (over 60% of the Brussels population), Flemish is also spoken in the city and is in fact the majority language of Belgium as a whole (about 60% of the Belgian population). This divide between the population is not just linguistic, but also cultural. Both of the linguistic communities have their own education systems, media, political parties and so on. Many a political conflict has been caused by this division, including the failure to form a government for an incredible 541 days in 2010-11 – a world record.
The tensions and sensitivities that exist between the Belgian people have meant that all public services in Brussels must be bilingual, including the transport system. Hence the not-so-catchy double name of STIB/MIVB. Confusingly for tourists, this also means that most stops on the metro, trams and buses have two names (with some exceptions, such as stations named after people).
Bilingual Brussels: bus stops and road signs must be in both French and Flemish
The STIB/MIVB network operates 6 metro lines, 15 tram lines and 51 bus routes – all of which are numbered between 1 and 98 and all of which are also assigned a colour – a nice touch in my view which London lacks. The route I completed for Ben’s blog is bus route 48, my usual bus to work.
Route 48 (assigned colour: dark green) runs from Anneessens in the city centre to Uccle Stalle/Ukkle Stalle in the very south of Brussels. I chose to do this route not only because I use a chunk of it each day on my commute, but also because it passes through a real mix of different areas of the city.
Bus route 48’
The handy real-time route map on board every bus
The starting point Anneessens can be found right in the city centre of Brussels, near some nice pub-style bars and fashionable shops. We started off our journey in true Belgian fashion with a couple of beers at Moeder Lambic – definitely go if you’re ever in Brussels, much better than the over-touristy Delirium which the guidebooks always tout.
Pre-route beers in Moeder Lambic
Once on board, the bus quickly winds out of the city centre, passing through the Marolles district. Traditionally a district where the city’s North African population lived, it has become somewhat ‘trendy’ in recent years. The centrepiece of the area is the daily flea market on Place Jeu de Balle (all packed up by the time we went past). Here you can buy everything from antique crockery to original Game Boys circa 1990.
The Marolles district: street art, a skate park and the ‘Chapelle
The 48 quickly leaves the city centre and enters the St Gilles commune (a commune – or gemeente in Flemish – is the Brussels equivalent of a London borough). This transition is marked by the imposing Porte de Hal – the only surviving original city gate from the 14th Century. After standing derelict for many years, it was restored in 2007 and now houses a rather good museum, as well as providing a panoramic view of the city from the battlements’ walkways.
The St Gilles commune (Sint Gillis in Flemish) can be best compared with Camden or Kentish Town in London (although it is actually twinned with Tower Hamlets – my fun fact for the day!). It is extremely multicultural and has a large population of both students and artists; many of who can often be found loitering in the area’s many hip café bars. This is also the first point where the route intersects with a couple of the city’s tramlines.
St Gilles: a local café bar, the Porte de Hal, tramlines towards Brussels-South station and the Barriere roundabout
After hurtling round one of the scariest roundabouts you may ever witness (the Barriere de Saint Gilles, where seven major roads meet and where the ‘give way’ policy seems to be based on the relative levels of driver aggression), the 48 crosses into the next commune it visits: Forest (or Vorst in Flemish).
Forest does not contain a forest. However, it apparently does contain one of the only parks in Brussels with naturally occurring trees (as opposed to planted ones) in a park unimaginatively called Forest Park. The commune also contains an absolutely huge Audi factory and Brussels’ biggest concert venue – Forest National. It is also where I live so this is the usually the point where I get off the bus, making the rest of the journey a novelty for all of us!
The bus suddenly starts its ascent towards the highest point in Brussels, aptly named Altitude 100 (guess how many metres above sea level it is) where a rather foreboding church is located. It then crosses over into the fourth and final commune it passes through – the rather well off Uccle (or Ukkel in Flemish).
Forest: the edge of the Forest Park and the 48 going in the other direction
Forest: Altitude Cent and the St Augustine Church
Uccle is as close as Brussels gets to South Kensington. It a leafy and calm part of the city, but still only 25 minutes by public transport to the city centre, or 20 minutes to the EU Quarter (Uccle is popular with the Eurocrat expats). It is instantly obvious you have entered the commune the minute that the 48 route enters it. The route winds through peaceful, tree-lined residential streets before terminating at the rather quiet Uccle Stalle railway station, through which passes the line connecting Brussels to Charleroi – a rather poor, post-industrial city in Wallonia (the French-speaking region of Belgium), which is now largely known only for its low-cost airport.
Uccle: leafy streets and a very quiet railway station
The total journey time on the 48 bus route was under 45 minutes – not bad for a route which starts at the heart of the city and finishes right at its southernmost edge, passing through 4 communes as it does so. In fact, the border of Brussels with Flanders (the Flemish speaking region) is a mere 15-minute walk from the route. In a highly federalised country, regional borders matter a great deal here and can be seen from the change in paving on the pavements, as well as the switch from bilingual street signs in Brussels, to Flemish-only signs in Flanders (truly a complicated country).
The Brussels-Flanders border: clearly marked by signposts and a change of paving
We finished our journey by briefly visiting Nemo 33, which is just round the corner from the end point of the 48 route. Nemo 33 is a diving centre which is home to the deepest indoor swimming pool in the world (confusingly, it is 34.5 metres deep, not 33…). The pool itself contains numerous windows looking into the centre’s café and restaurant, so it was certainly an interesting place to have our end-of-route coffee.
Nemo 33 – who potentially have a sponsorship deal with Smart car…
I hope the 48 bus route on the Brussels transport system has made for interesting reading! Although I miss London’s transport network, especially for its shorter waiting times (generally speaking of course) and for the sheer scale of it, I have developed a certain fondness for STIB/MIVB.
The Tram Experience
This positive impression of the network was further added to in recent weeks, thanks to a special event called Tram Experience. STIB/MIVB have teamed up with the organisers of Brusselicious – the city’s year-long food festival – to provide a dining experience like none other. A tram has been specially converted into a sleek restaurant, serving food designed by Michelin-starred chefs while you travel along some of the most scenic tramways in the city. As well as being a transport geek, I am also a keen foodie, so I am sure you can imagine how much I enjoyed my evening! I would certainly recommend it to anyone visiting Brussels soon, although it is proving extremely popular, so do buy tickets well in advance. And if you are visiting Brussels, please don’t hesitate to contact me on twitter (@taikodrum) for some local tips. As I said at the start, Brussels is unduly underrated by most tourists, and so I would be very happy to help out anyone who wants to share in some of the local Brussels love!
Me on the 48!