A shabby, chaotic, ugly mess that’s full of "sewers for cars" – French daily Libération certainly didn’t pull its punches when roasting the city of Brussels recently. According to correspondent Jean Quatremer, the Belgian capital resembles Athens, with "the same urban chaos, the same scars left by delirious real estate speculation, the same uneven sidewalks, the same dirt…the same car madness." Before fans of Greece’s largest city bridle, Libération actually thinks crisis-hit Athens beats Brussels on some counts. It noted that "the Greek capital has managed to avoid the highways that rip through Brussels, as if it had the size of New York or Los Angeles when it barely has a million inhabitants."
As you might expect, the Belgian media resents the suggestion that the capital of the EU is really just Europe’s capital of ugly. Belgian French language daily La Dernière Heure hit back with an editorial with the simple headline, "Get lost, you little bastard." Elsewhere (and in rather calmer terms), journalists for the paper have pointed out that if you choose to focus on the negative, any city can be portrayed as a dump – even Paris. According to La Dernière Heure, France’s capital can come across as the "poubelle ville du monde", or the world’s trashcan city. It too has fender-to-fender traffic, cars climbing sidewalks (which are narrower still than in Brussels) and ubiquitous litter. Entries to the city center like Porte de la Chapelle are a multi-lane mess, while even posher areas can be chaotic. Fashion hub Faubourg St Honoré is cramped and blocked by construction sites, and elegant Place Vendôme (where yet more construction is also underway) aspires to chic but only manages bling.
This little spat has seen some pretty overheated rhetoric on both sides. It’s certainly true, nonetheless, that the trip through Brussels that Quatremer asks readers to imagine – from shabby, faceless Brussels South Station along central highways to its bland, eviscerated EU quarter – brings out the city’s worst.
Many of Brussels' problems will be familiar to American urbanites. During the latter 20th century, highways and ugly development encroached on its historic core, planning favored cars over buses and bikes, and the center lost much of its population to dormitory suburbs. Other Brussels issues are specifically local: its municipal boundaries and many communes seem arbitrary, bizarre even. Made more complicated by the city’s intricate linguistic politics, repairs and public works initiatives are often slow and disjointed.
Still, if you don’t mind things a little ramshackle, the city can be a joy. A different experience altogether from exploring immaculate Paris, walking Brussels streets offers a never uniform mix of pleasure, surprise and anticlimax, as building heights seesaw and architectural periods mingle. No grand metropolis, it’s still easy, varied and often charming. Certainly, while it has some of Europe’s most beautiful architecture, Brussels can also be ugly – but then a wry appreciation that Belgium isn’t always the prettiest runs through the country’s culture, as testified to by this Jacques Brel classic about Flanders’ bleak beauty, or the cult Tumblr Ugly Belgian Houses.
So why was Libération so harsh? As is often the case, there’s a political backstory. Following tax hikes for the French wealthy after a socialist victory in France’s elections last year, Belgium has gained a few high profile tax exiles. The sight of the super-rich complaining that taxes are bleeding them dry is never edifying, and Belgium has caught some of the flak aimed at the defectors. Take your hoarded cash if you want, Libération seems to be saying, but beware that sometimes the grass on the other side of the fence is actually browner.
Top illustration by Mark Byrnes