See Brussels in Jacques Brel’s

See Brussels in Jacques Brel’s footsteps

Sertan Sanderson ventures out into the thick underbelly of Belgium’s capital city in search of his idol, Jacques Brel. Equipped with a playlist to take him through the ages, he discovers the spirit of Brel alive and well and living… in Brussels

See Brussels in Jacques Brel’s

By day, I like to fill the newsroom with controversy and contention. But whenever I take my correspondent’s shoes off, my inner ‘evil twin’ takes over, and so I travel the breadth of the planet in search for meaningful, musical encounters. From the stomping the Flamenco in Andalusia to putting on my blue suede shoes for the Blues in Memphis I have been known to go to great lengths to follow my passion – and sometimes to have my passions follow me. Thus I have travelled the globe looking for ‘my song’ while serenading many false prophets along the way.

One of the things I have learned of late is that you don’t exclusively require a round-the-world ticket to seek out the next boulevard of broken dreams filled with wayward crooners staying up all night to greet the rising sun with poetic sounds of unending yearning. An off-season round-trip ticket on the Eurostar costs just £69 and will do just fine to get you out of London and straight into the heart of Brussels, where a different sound tries to manipulate the rhythm of your heart’s beating. And voila , you’re in a world apart in the home Belgian songteller Jacques Brel.

Je chanterai la chanson morose, celle du temps a je m’appelais Jacky.
I will be sing the gloomy song about the days when my name was Jacky.

– “Jackie”

Born in 1929 at the height of the years between the two world wars, Brel grew up knowing the realities of conflict very well. Shooting to worldwide fame as a chanteur, he would always come back to his Flemish roots and to his beloved Brussels in order to regather his strength and connect with a simpler time. This is what I seek out as I cross the English Channel to the flat shores of Flanders.

C’e tait au temps a  Bruxelles revait.
It was the time when Brussels was dreaming.
– “Bruxelles”

Today, our glorified, de facto European capital is still in a dream-like state in so many respects like it was a century ago. You notice it the moment you get off the train; struggling to make sense of the subterranean train hub known as Midi station you feel like you are wandering down the corridor tunnels of a nightmare conceived in mindless commercialism and poor urban planning. If you take the wrong exit out of this mundane maze, you might find yourself in Little Algeria, which makes for a different tune to whistle altogether. But we’re trying to walk in the footsteps of the chanson tradition.



So you can either follow the farandole coming from the nearest accordion or you can opt for taking a 20 minute walk on the Rue du Midi into town, and – true as a Belgian waffle – there you are amidst the glory of old Bruxelles, as it is celebrated by the city’s most famous son, Jacques Brel in song, word and deed. Along the Grand-Place you can almost feel how the very progression of time itself seems to have halted, with the picturesque, ornate buildings standing there, quietly. Quaint like those famed Belgian dentelles doilies, which tourists love to max out their credit cards on, these ancient guildhalls seem to be passively observing the modern stillness in the heart of town – like two old folks sitting on a bench in a deserted park, quietly waiting for a visitor who won’t announce his arrival.

Les vieux ne ravent plus, leurs livres s’ensommeillent, leurs pianos sont fermes.
The old folks no longer dream, their books have gone to rest, their pianos have been closed.
– “Les Vieux”


La Bourse de Bruxelles
La Bourse de Bruxelles

But you will equally find yourself noticing that something is absent in the midst of all these forlorn impressions. As much as you will inadvertently get caught up in ticking off all the tourist sights within walking reach (such as the Manekin Pis or the dramatic Bourse de Bruxelles – a stock exchange with an edifice worthy of housing a world-class ballet company), there is yet a sense of longing in this city, which words cannot do any justice. The songs the buskers bring may only start to give you an idea of what may be missing. Brussels is a town, which is not quite managing to be a city, and a city, which is not quite a town. Like the bastard love-child of Paris with a Flemish concubine, Brussels seems to have resigned itself to a notion of unrequited love. This is a flavour, which you can almost hear on the cobblestoned streets and in the echoes of so many of Brel’s compositions.

Et je te le dis, je n’irai pas plus loin. Mais je te praviens, j’irai pas a  Paris.
And I’m telling you I won’t go any further. But I warn you, I won’t go to Paris.
– “Vesoul”


European Quarter
European Quarter

However, in no way does this strange quality make our rejected Belgian metropolis a failure. Quite on the contrary, Brussels is a beaten and kicked phoenix rising from its ashes, housing and nursing the surviving ruins of a continent torn apart by war and conflict, determined to build a sense of harmony among the nations. Just go to the Schuman roundabout, barely outside the inner city circle, and admire one sterile European Union institution after the next; around here you will much rather feel like you are in a dusty diplomatic dungeon like Washington DC than the bleeding heart of Europe. But this is the façade of the new Brussels – where sleepy yesterdays had to yield to contemporary considerations. It’s not Jacques Brel’s Brussels, serenaded subversively in song somewhere between pleasure and pain.

Moi je t’offrirai des perles de pluie venues de pays a il ne pleut pas.
I will bring you pearls of rain sent from countries where it doesn’t rain.
– “Ne Ne Quitte Pas”


Parc Cinquantenaire
Parc Cinquantenaire

However, if you march through the majestic gates of the adjacent Parc Cinquantenaire, the local neighbourhood of Etterbeek will undeniably conjure up a nostalgic hint of those old-world coffeehouses and run-down gin joints, such as at the Jardin de Nicholas near the Montgomery roundabout. Odds are, Brel himself may have frequented these deliciously dilapidated locales on the a late night in search for the next bit of aching inspiration in the arms of a ‘salope‘. Only the watchful eyes of time itself may know.

Bien sar tu pris quelques amants. Il fallait bien passer le temps, il faut bien que le corps exulte.
Of course, you took a few lovers. Time had to be spent. The body has to be revelled in.
– “Chanson des Vieux Amants”


A la Mort Subite
A la Mort Subite

What is known about Brel’s habits, however, is that his favourite pub in the city of Brussels was a la mort subite (“Here’s to a sudden death!”), right by the back entrance to the famous Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, where you can procure original artisan chocolate and grimy antique books today. With a cornucopia of uniquely Belgian beers on the menu (including their own brand) and a commemorative plaque in Brel’s honour at his favourite spot, this tavern caters for those who seek an authentic experience in Brussels, and long a connection with the master himself. Though Brel has left us over 35 years ago, his erudite lyrics and lilting melodies continue to haunt Brussels to this day, as the busty tavern waitress herself will be happy to tell you. This is as close as you can get to Jacques Brel, bridging the gap between cultures and time for a moment over a pint of Belgian draft beer. If you want to even get closer to Brel, you can practically walk in his steps at Editions Jacques Brel, the city’s own exhibition entitled J’aime Les Belges (I love the Belgians) dedicated to the king of chanson. But this is a joyous journey you will have to experience for yourself.

Le rire est dans le coeur. le mot dans le regard. Le coeur est voyageur l’avenir est au hasard.
Laughter is in the heart, the word is in the eyes. The heart is a wanderer, the future is aimless.
– “Les Marquises”


Sertan Sanderson at Editions Jacques Brel
Sertan Sanderson at Editions Jacques Brel


By Sertan Sanderson, 2014