Writers in Brussels: A literary tour

In the spring of 1816 an episode of chance made British poet Lord Byron’s stay in Brussels longer than he’d first planned. “There was an accident on the road,” says Philippe Bacquet, tour guide of Arkadia ASBL. “He had to stay in Brussels for about ten days while the carriage was repaired. He found accommodation over there, on Rue Ducale #51. A plaque on the outside wall commemorates his stay.

It’s 2:15 pm and a group of people surround Mr. Bacquet at the corner of Rue Ducale and Place de Palais, a few meters away from the Royal Palace. The sky is clear, only a few of splotches of white in the distance, and the afternoon sun is blazing. It seems to touch every corner, every surface around us. A cool breeze enters our clothes like a gift. We’re about to embark on a guided tour called: Ink, pen and paper – Writers in Brussels.

Fascinated by Napoleon, Byron wanted to visit the battlefields in Waterloo where locals tried to sell him the soldiers’ uniforms’ buttons lost in the fields. He’s known to have been working at the time on the third canto of his famous narrative poem: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. After Belgium, Byron would travel to Switzerland and further on to Italy. Venice was one of his favorite spots. “He was an excellent swimmer,” says Mr. Bacquet. “Even with a foot malformation, he would swim to and fro in the waters of Venice.

The battlefield of Waterloo just south of Brussels – By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT [GFDL or CC BY 3.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons

We amble along the Royal Park, continue on Rue de la Montagne de la Cour descending until the beginning of Rue Ravenstein where we find the Ravenstein Hotel. “Over there, where you see the Bozar building, that’s where the old Pensionnat Heger stood,” says Mr. Bacquet. “Emily and Charlotte Bronte stayed there in 1842. They came to Brussels to improve their French and study other topics. Emily was 24, Charlotte 26.” While at the pensionnat, Charlotte is known to have developed feelings for one of her teachers, Constantin Heger, feelings that remained unrequited. After leaving Brussels for England, she wrote him letters but no response has ever been found. Some of the letters she sent were kept by Heger’s son, Paul, and they date from 1843-1845. Her experiences at the pensionnat, including the platonic relationship with Heger, were later portrayed in her book The Professor, which Bronte wrote in England.

Hôtel Ravenstein
Hôtel Ravenstein – By EmDee [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons

Afterwards, we stroll down Mont des Arts in the direction of the Royal Galeries. The streets are bustling with people, some of them window-shopping, others gazing at the passersby and drinking a beer under large umbrellas. Next to a fountain a young couple takes their own picture while biting on a waffle; children chase each other or ask for more ice cream; a crowd stands around a street musician playing the flute.

Inside the Galeries, Mr. Bacquet recounts how in late 1863 the French poet Charles Baudelaire arrived in Belgium. He wanted to continue publishing his works, which had been under attack in France, and give a series of lectures. Both enterprises went downhill as Baudelaire drank in excess and smoked opium. “The hotel where he stayed was right behind the Galeries. It was called Hotel du Grand Mirroir. In a small cage he kept a small bat which he fed every night. He was a bit eccentric.” During a visit to the church of Saint Loup in Namur, he suffered a stroke and the Belgian painter Felicien Rops rushed him to the hospital in Brussels. The damage was too severe, however, and he remained a paraplegic for the last years of his life.

A few meters away from the Maison du Roi or Museum of the City of Brussels, we stop in front of building number #26. “This is where Victor Hugo lived, on the second floor of this house.” After the coup in 1851 by Napoleon III, Hugo left France for Belgium with a fake passport provided by his mistress, Juliette Drouet, who lived in an apartment above the present day bookshop Tropismes. She also worked as Hugo’s secretary. Hugo used to visit Alexandre Dumas in Uccle and was known for his stinginess among the kids who looked after the horses. “A man in the early 1900’s recounted how he had met Hugo when he was a kid. ‘We used to call him the rat,’ he explained. ‘Not a single coin he would give us.‘” Hugo was a keen and precise observer of the life in Brussels, nonetheless, and this can be savored in the letters to his family (Correspondance familiale et écrits intimes) and in Choses Vues, a collection of memoirs.

Victor Hugo

The tour ends at the corner of Rue de Brasseurs and Rue de l’Etuve, where a plaque remembers the place, the Ville de Courtrai Hotel, where Paul Verlaine shot Arthur Rimbaud on the evening of July 10th, 1873. “Both had unusual personalities, unstable temperaments, but Verlaine was mercurial,” says Mr. Bacquet. Because of the incident, Verlaine spent some time in the prison just across the street, which has since then become the Hotel Amigo. After a brief re-encounter with Rimbaud in Stuttgart, Verlaine suffered a crisis of religious fervor. “He wanted to live in an abbey. He went to Chimay and asked if he could join the religious community. Nothing ever came of it, of course.” During their stay in Brussels, Verlaine gathered inspiration for his poetry collection Romances sans paroles, and Rimbaud for his Illuminations.