Martin has lived in many places, from Colombia to Uganda. Uruguayan by birth, of Italian nationality and French education, but Portuguese at heart, Brussels seemed the ideal place for his fulfillment. Martin works for an NGO and enjoys good food, particularly indian, as well as wine and travelling.
When I first arrived in Brussels, frantically looking for a flat without knowing much of the city, I had selected a few neighborhoods that I thought could make good homes: Ixelles, Forest or St Gilles. Brussels “intramuros” felt, well, like many old towns feel, a bit run down, organised around tourist attraction and shops, when the sun goes down a bit empty. Not quite a neighborhood feel at first glance. My selected “communes” were all convenient in public transport, had recommendations from acquaintances and a seemingly strong cultural life. It would be hard to choose it seemed…
Forest turned out to be a bit too “residential” for a fresh start in a new city, and while some parts of Ixelles stroke me as good fun – particularly the Matongé area as well as Place Flagey – it did not quite win my heart over. I remember vividly my arrival in St Gilles. A rainy day, I got down from the Horta station and made my way down to the Barrière de St Gilles. It seemed extremely chaotic. Because it is: a roundabout which is not one, so the priority to the right applies, meaning countless cars having to stop wherever they are in the “roundabout” for the incoming traffic which just races into the Barrière. Add to this the endless diversity of driving styles from St Gilles’ multicultural community and it is guaranteed mayhem. Oh, and there are trams as well.
I barely saw the beautiful statue of the “water bearer” (la porteuse d’eau). But I somehow felt a neighborhood full of history (I would later learn it turned 800 years in 2016!) and with a diversity of peoples I had rarely seen. St Gilles is not really dominated by any nationality group. While very Portuguese, there is also a strong presence of other Mediterraneans: Spanish, Italian, Moroccan; but also Eastern Europeans, South Americans and of course some Belgians.
You can see this simply by looking at the corner shops and businesses which cater to every taste. In a 100 meter radius of my flat, there is: one Spanish bar (which serves free tapas!), one Portuguese bar, 2 grocery stores (selling fresh produce), a Portuguese store, a halal and a Hungarian butcher.
Needless to say that by the time I arrived to visit the apartment I was already won over…and that was before discovering how practical it is to live in St Gilles: 15 minutes away from the Gare du Midi, you are also close to many trams and metros that allow you to go to most places in Brussels in under 30 minutes.
St Gilles truly has something for everyone. Its diversity is incredible. Wandering through St Gilles, you will marvel at the beautiful art déco buildings (the Horta museum, for instance) and streets that border Ixelles and Forest and the astonishing Hotel de Ville (which seems fitter for a large city than a small “commune”). As you go down toward the Gare du Midi, the architecture will become less glamorous, with so-called “worker houses” (maisons d’ouvrier) taking over the landscape, and a manifold of businesses (including what some say is the best fishmonger in town) catering to a variety of tastes and needs.
St Gilles is first and foremost a neighborhood with character that allows for all the colors in its social fabric to shine bright. It is now my home and I cannot imagine living elsewhere in Brussels. Where else could I buy vegetables from a Moroccan grocer, go to the market to get delicious crèmes brûlées or pasteis de nata, buy quality wines, lebanese bread, organic produce and still have time to get a beer and (free) tapas, while my bike gets a new tire?