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Impasses in Brussels reveal their secrets

Olivia Regout.

30 Jan 2014, 16:01 Last Updated: 16 Mar 2018, 14:03

Impasses in Brussels are a part of the urban landscape. They are often hidden from view and contain secrets. These dead ends help put together the history of the city and give rise to lots of legends. Let’s discover these unique cul-de-sacs that somehow manage to escape the bustle of the city.

You have walked by them 10 times without ever seeing them. The entrances are discretely located on Rue du Chêne, Rue des Bouchers, Rue du Marché aux Herbes. What if we said that Brussels includes a total of 28 impasses. Not really impressive unless you’re familiar with the facts from the past…

A bit of history

Dead ends started to pop up all over Brussels in the beginning of the 19th century with the expansion of the city. Industry was exploding, and the demand for workers was high. These workers, artisans and other free hands coming from outside the city had to be housed somewhere. Thus, the location of the impasses is traced back to where work was located. This phenomenon continued to spread until there were 375 impasses in Brussels.

Today we may find these cul-de-sacs to be quite calm and charming. However at the time, the living conditions in these areas was execrable. The working class were living in very close quarters. Often times two hundred people lived in these impasses sharing one toilet. The lucky ones had direct access to a water pump, but everyone was living in an unsanitary and dreary space.

Over the course of the century, a law was put in place to close the impasses one after the next. 

Impasse Saint-Jacques, Sablon.

Impasses that speak to Brussels’ past

The impasse names are related to the city’s past, just as are names of streets. Here are some interesting anecdotes that tell about the past – a mix of legend and history.

L’impasse aux Huîtres (Oysters)

L’impasse aux Huîtres opens up at the Rue du Marché au Charbon. Before this, it was named the Mosselgat, Flemish for “mussels hole”. Back in the day when the Senne flowed all the way to the city center, boats would unload their cargo of mussels there. Today it is a parking lot.

L’impasse de la Poupée (Doll)

Before being called the “Doll impasse”, this dead end located at 19 Rue du Marché aux Fromages (street with all the Greek restaurants) was called the Impasse du Dragon (Dragon Impasse). According to legend, this is where a dragon’s cave was located and from where he spread terror all over the earth. This is also the spot where Saint Géry defeated the dragon.

In mid-19th century, the impasse changes to the “Doll Impass” in reference to all the toy merchants that set up shop in the area.

L’Impasse de la perle d’amour (Love pearl Impasse)

The legend of the Impasse de la perle d’amour, nonexistant today, is the story of a young lace maker, Gertrude Bawers. Her father fell from a roof one day as he worked as a roof tiler. On his death bed, he tells Claude, Gertrude’s fiancé, to protect Gertrude with his life. One night, the pretty lace maker was attacked by two robbers. Claude hears her cries and comes to her help. The next day, to the couple’s surprise, they see the convent prior who brings them a big donation. This was a donation given by the two crooks as a way of apologizing for their wrongdoings of the day before. A godsend for Claude and Gertrude who would get married with a big sum of money.

Impasses that hide Brussels treasures

There a tons of hidden treasures to discover in impasses. These discrete little streets hide major Brussels monuments. Keep your eyes peeled!

The must-sees

The most famous of all the impasses is probably l’Impasse de la Fidélité (Fidelity Impasse). This is not just because of the touristy Delirium with their 3000 beers. It’s also because at the end of the impasse, we find a member of the peeing community in Brussels. Jeanneke, Manneken’s little sister, has been peeing here for almost 30 years.

To uncover an essential element of Brussels folklore, head to the confines of the impasse Sainte-Pétronille and impasse Schuddeveld which both lead to the same mythical spot: the Royal Toone Theatre. Here, the tradition of Brussels puppetry has been going strong since last century with shows 3 days a week. When the puppets need a break, have a drink here in a truly unique setting.

How about a beer in an impasse

Some of the oldest Brussels bars are found in impasses, rustic bars where true Brussels natives like to have a drink. You’ve got to observant to see the entryway to the impasse at number 11 Rue de Tabora that will lead you to “A La Bécasse”. This tavern dates back to the end of the 19th century and serves limbic, gueuze and krieks in ceramic pitchers.

L’impasse des cadeaux (Gifts impass) will lead you straight to the bar “A l’imaige Nostre Dame”, another signature Brussels spot. Not far from there, the impasse Saint-Nicolas leads to one of the oldest cafés in the city, “Au bon vieux temps”.

 

Secrets revealed

Impasses still have a lot of secrets to unleash. For instance, the impasse de la Poupée goes by the smallest house in Brussels. 2.75 meters of wall facade with 70 m² of surface area on 4 levels. 

We could say the impasse du Val des Roses is like a secret garden. It dead ends at a newly restored fresco that tricks the eye. It feels as if you are on the brink of a big green forest. It's almost as if you can step into this green scene for a break from the city.

The impasse du Borgendael houses one of the last medieval traditions in Brussels : the crossbowman of the Great Royal Saint-Georges Oath. This cul-de-sac is actually their headquarters, in a sense. These exacting shooters protected the city in medieval times and have continued the tradition today. They shoot the crossbow on a target at 6, 10 or 20 meters away. And for those who are curious about this folklore, the Grand Serment museum is open for visits on Thursdays from 8 pm to 11 pm. 

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