August 17, 2012 / 9:08 AM / 7 years ago

Travel postcard: a surrealist weekend in Brussels

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Floating men in bowler hats don’t dot the sky in Brussels, but the city is full of references to surrealist painters and poets such as Rene Magritte and Paul Delvaux, who lived and worked here.

Gardeners design a giant flower carpet to form a floral decoration at Brussels' Grand Place August 14, 2012. The design requires about 700,000 flowers to create, according to event organisers. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

The Belgian capital is full of galleries and museums with surrealist works and, heading off the tourist track, you can see surrealist art in the streets and visit bars where Magritte and his contemporaries drank.


6 p.m. - Whether you get a train from Brussels’ Zaventem airport, a Eurostar from London, or a bus from the low-cost airport in Charleroi, south of Brussels, you’ll probably arrive at Gare du Midi station.

If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to reserve the Magritte room at Hotel Le Dixseptieme and spend the weekend surrounded by the artist’s prints. The best way to get there is jump onto a northbound train and travel one stop to Gare Centrale.

6:10 p.m. - You’re now in the heart of Brussels’ former Latin Quarter, where Magritte and his clique had studios and galleries.

Step out of the station onto road Cantersteen and head right until you come to a semi-circle-shaped pedestrianized area at the foot of Brussels’ Mont des Arts — a monumental staircase and park originally conceived by King Leopold II to improve the area for the city’s 1910 hosting of the World Fair.

Hotel Le Dixseptieme is one block down Rue de la Madeleine, one of the streets that radiates from the semi-circle.

7 p.m. - A fine place to have dinner on your first night is La Roue D’Or, a surrealist-themed restaurant just off Brussels’ spectacular Grand Place. Bowler-hatted men peek at guests from behind the bar.

From the hotel, head back up Rue de la Madeleine until you get to the junction with Rue Duquesnoy. Turn right, and then right again down Rue de Marche au Fromage. Carry on into the pedestrianized area and the restaurant is left, at 26 Rue des Chapeliers.


9:30 a.m. - The best place to start your journey is out in the down-at-heel northwest suburbs of the city, where Magritte’s one-bedroom flat has been turned into the Musee Rene Magritte. It’s not to be confused with the Musee Magritte, the Magritte museum, the new gallery that you will visit towards the end of your journey.

The museum is a fair trek, so it’s a good idea to head off early. The easiest route is to go back to Gare Centrale and get an overland train to Gare du Midi. From there, the 51 tram heading for Heysel will take you to the stop Woeste.

Take Rue Leopold I, the road to the right just after the tram stop. The museum is second left on Rue Esseghem, but be careful, the modest terraced house, number 135, is easy to miss.

Magritte lived in the ground floor flat of this small suburban house a stone’s throw from a gas works and a Coca-Cola plant from his late 20s until he became famous in his 50s.

Despite the glass-ceilinged studio in the garden, he painted most of his works in the small dining room so he could be close to his wife Georgette as he worked.

Look carefully, and you’ll recognize elements from his paintings - the staircase which leads nowhere in “La lecture defendue”, the broken bowed-top window in “La clef de champs”, and the mantelpiece which has a steam train coming out of it in “La duree poignardee”.

11:30 a.m. - Jump back onto the number 51 tram and head back into the city.

12:10 p.m. - Get off at Porte de Ninove. It’s a convenient place from which to make your way back into the city, and it will also take you past Luca Patella’s Magritte Fountain. Look from a distance, and you should see Magritte’s profile demarcated by the contours on the stem of the fountain.

12:30 p.m. - Head straight up Rue des Fabriques and follow it as it becomes Rue des Chartreux and you’ll find the splendidly restored art nouveau brasserie Greenwich.

Magritte would head down here every week with the surrealist crowd in Brussels to play chess. The hushed silence of the chess games has given way to a lively bistro nowadays, making this a great setting for lunch.

1:30 p.m. - Once you’ve eaten, turn left and then right down Rue Auguste Orts. Straight ahead of you is the Bourse underground station.

Head down the escalator and above you is Belgian surrealist Pol Bury’s 1976 stainless steel sculpture “Moving Ceiling”. Look right and on the upper wall of the mezzanine is a 1978 painting of trams by Paul Delvaux, another surrealist painter.

2 p.m. - Return to street level and head down the side of Brussels bourse and turn left at the end of the street. Walk for a couple of minutes through the cobbled streets of Brussels’ old center, much of which dates back to the 15th Century, to Rue Gretry and then turn right.

Carry straight on until you get to the 19th century arcade Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. The Museum of Letters and Manuscripts is on the left inside the gallery.

Here you’ll find a section on Magritte and the surrealists, including a letter from Magritte to his friend the Belgian poet Andre Bosmans where he describes director Alfred Hitchcock, who had released “Psycho” earlier that year, as “un imbecile de grand talent” (an idiot with a lot of talent).

There’s also a letter by Andre Breton, the French founder of the surrealist movement, in which he complains about France’s Prince of Poets prize being awarded to rival Jean Cocteau. You can also see a manuscript by Spain’s Salvador Dali.

3 p.m. - It’s time for refreshments, and luckily one of the old surrealist drinking dens is just a few streets away.

Head back down Rue des Bouchers and take the second right down Rue de la Fourche. When you get to the end, turn right on Rue de Marche aux Herbes, and hidden at the end of a small alleyway on the right is L’Imaige de Nostre Dame. You’ll spot it from the sign screwed into the brickwork above the alley entrance.

This was a watering hole owned by Geert Van Bruaene, a surrealist poet and art dealer, who went on to set up the main surrealist bar which you will visit later.

You can order a coffee, or the bar sells Malheur (literally ‘misfortune’), a beer similar to those the surrealists would once have drunk here. Beware, though, that like many of Belgian “sipping beers” this is 10 percent alcohol, so drinking more than two might jeopardize the rest of your tour.

The owner might be willing to recount a few tales about the nights the surrealists spent there if you buy him a beer.

4 p.m. - It’s a good idea to drop by the Magritte Gallery before it closes for the weekend. It’s straight up Rue du Marche aux Herbes as it turns into Rue Infante Isabelle and then Mont des Arts. At the end, take a right and the gallery is on the left-hand side.

It stocks lithographs of many of Magritte’s signature works such as “La Traihison des Images” (the one with the pipe saying “this is not a pipe”) and replicas of statues. They sell for 200 to 1,000 euros ($250-$1,300).

5:30 p.m. - It’s time to go to Magritte and the surrealists’ favorite bar and restaurant. Head down the sweeping Mont des Arts stairway back onto Cantersteen, and then turn left. Follow Cantersteen past the royal library until you get to Rue des Alexiens. Turn right and in a moment you will find yourself on Place de Dinant.

5:50 p.m. - Before you head in to La Fleur en Papier Doree, take a moment to look around the square. You’ll find declarations written by Van Bruaene etched into the paving stones, such as “Le ciel au ciel et la terre a la terre” (the sky in the sky and the earth on the earth).

6:30 p.m. - The bar sits on the western corner of the square. Inside, almost every inch of the wall is decorated with photographs, paintings and declarations such as “Tout homme a droit a 24 heures de liberte par jour” (every man has the right to 24 hours of freedom per day).

On the back wall, Magritte looks down at you from a blown-up photograph of the Belgian surrealists assembled outside the bar.

This is a great place to have dinner, the bar sells traditional Brussels stoemp, a mashed potato-based meal, and bloempanch, a typical Brussels dish with sausage and a caramelized piece of apple.

It’s worth hanging around here for a beer or a glass of wine after your meal and you’ll soon get talking to the Brussels-based writers and painters who still frequent the place.


10 a.m. - Magritte had to wait until his 50s for fame, and when he finally achieved international recognition, he moved with Georgette to the affluent and leafy suburbs of Schaerbeek, where he lived out the last 12 years of his life until his death in 1967.

Head up to central station and the cemetery is a 40 minute ride on the 63 bus. You might want to stop off on the way to see Magritte’s last house.

11 a.m. - Get off at Leopold III and walk along Boulevard General Wahis for 10 minutes. Turn right when you get to Rue des Pensees, and Rue des Mimosas is the first on the left.

Magritte’s house is the semi-detached one with the white fence on the left-hand side, number 97.

The surrealists were fiercely anti-establishment and Magritte himself was at one time a member of the Belgian Communist party.

The house remains unmarked, perhaps because it represents a final capitulation by Magritte to bourgeois values at odds with the myth of him as a revolutionary.

While none of his major paintings feature any elements of the house, it may have helped inspire his L’Empire des lumieres series, in which he painted isolated country houses sitting in darkness underneath a contrasting bright sky.

11:30 a.m. - Head back to the bus stop and continue to the Brussels Cemetery stop. To get to Schaerbeek cemetery, head up Rue de Zaventem along the back of Brussels Cemetery, and then turn right onto Avenue Jules Bordet. The entrance to the cemetery is about 7 minutes away on the right-hand side.

Magritte and Georgette are buried in plot 16-2, near the squat buildings of the adjoining NATO complex. The sound of low-flying passenger jets overhead on their approach to Brussels airport provides a fittingly incongruous resting place for the father of Belgian surrealism.

1 p.m. - It’s time to head back into Brussels and visit the Magritte Museum. Get back onto the 63 bus at Brussels Cemetery and return to Gare Central.

1:45 p.m. - Walk up Mont des Arts and turn right onto Coudenburg. On the right-hand corner of Place Royale is the Magritte Museum, the world’s biggest Magritte collection, which opened in 2009.

2 p.m. - You might as well carry on round the square to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium to have lunch in the cafeteria there before heading up the three flights of stairs to the start of the exhibition.

3 p.m. - The museum has some 200 works by Magritte, primarily donated by Georgette and Irene Hamoir, a novelist and the only woman in the Belgian surrealist movement.

Start at the top of the exhibition and work your way down in an anticlockwise spiral. Sadly La Trahison des Images, one of Magritte’s most famous painting, is missing from the collection, and is on display instead in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

As you work your way round, look out for L’Homme du large, one of his first surrealist paintings, L’usage de la parole where he first began to disassociate objects from the words that denote them, and the enigmatic L’Empire des lumieres series.

5:30 p.m. - Wander back to Gare Centrale and walk down Rue de Loxum and onto Rue de L’Ecuyer until you reach Boulevard Anspach, a main street. Turn left and then turn left again just before the Bourse. Here you’ll find Le Cirio, an art nouveau brasserie which used to be a favorite of the surrealists.

It was here that Magritte first met poet Louis Scutenaire in 1926, Irene Hamoir’s husband and a leading figure in the Belgian surrealist movement.

To help you picture the scene, why not order the bar’s specialty, a half and half - half champagne and half wine. You could stay on and order dinner here, and sit for a while among the ghosts of the surrealists. ($1 = 0.7889 euros)

Reporting By Ben Deighton

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