Brel's Brussels

Frédéric Solvel.

08 Oct 2013, 09:10 Last Updated: 09 Oct 2014, 07:10

Brussels through the eyes of Jacques Brel, it’s a singing, a dreaming, a ‘brusseling’ Brussels… It’s a Brussels with silent films, cobblestones and top hats… In his songs like “Bruxelles” and “Madeleine,” the great Jacques makes some notable references to our capital. This article will help guide your listening…

Even if the great Jacques performed the most concerts at the Ancienne Belgique, it is the Bozar who had the honors of hosting the farewell gala in 1966. A day with Brel in Brussels takes you to all corners of the city… 

Place de Brouckère

Place de Brouckère on voyait des vitrines 
Avec des hommes des femmes en crinoline 
Place de Brouckère on voyait l´omnibus 
Avec des femmes des messieurs en gibus

At Place de Brouckère you could see the shop windows
With men and women wearing crinoline
At Place de Brouckère you could see the omnibus
With women and men in top hats

Now the place de Brouckère is a metropolitan highway, but in Brel’s time it looked quite different. The ebb and flow of the omnibuses and the city folk dressed in crinoline led an American journalist to compare it to Times Square. The Anspach fountain that once sat enthroned in the center of the square now can be found at the Blindés square at the intersection of the quai aux Briques and its homologue, the Bois à brûler. 

Tram 33

Ce soir j´attends Madeleine 
On prendra le tram trente-trois 

Tonight I wait for Madeleine
We will take the tram thirty-three

[Moulinsart - Hergé]

 During the Brel era (1960), the Tram 33 connected Boitsfort to the Henri Rey square in Anderlecht, right next to this artist’s home. The line was replaced by a bus in 1960 and disappeared definitively in 1968 in favor of today’s lines 21 and 95 from the STIB. This same tram 33 is found in the adventures of Quick & Flupke, the two mischievous Brussels characters so dear to Hergé (the author of Tintin)!

Place Sainte Catherine

Sous les lampions de la place Sainte-Justine 
Chantaient les hommes les femmes en crinoline

Under the lanterns at square Saint Justine
Sing men and women in crinoline

Even if the cobblestones are still very much there, the omnibuses never passed by… However, boats did once…

Eugene's fries

Pour manger des frites chez Eugène
Madeleine elle aime tant ça

To eat fries at Eugene’s
Madeleine, she really likes that

If today all of Brussels goes crazy for the fried potatoes at Eugene Flagey square, the ones Brel was talking about to seduce Madeleine were cooked up by a certain Eugène at the Colonial Veterans square in Anderlecht… Eugene is no longer around and has since been replaced by a shop called Chez le Grec.  

Place Sainte Justine

Sous les lampions de la place Sainte-Justine 
Chantaient les hommes les femmes en crinoline

Under the paper lanterns at square Saint Justine
Men and women would sing in crinoline

Tricky tricky… not a single Saint Justine square in Brussels… Brel was having some fun and added ironically that there wasn’t a port in Amsterdam either. Despite much effort by Brel’s daughter, France, to name a square Saint Justine, it still does not exist. She has been quoted, “Wouldn’t it be to your advantage to actually name a place this in Brussels? Tons of tourists that come to the Fondation ask us where is this Saint Justine square. They always leave disappointed when they find out the truth.”

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