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Summertime at Bruxelles-les-Bains


2013-07-31 – A summer’s afternoon … dare we call it a ‘scorcher’? The weather’s good, very good – in fact, downright hot – at the entrance to Bruxelles-les-Bains on Quai des Péniches, next to the Canal. The state patrolmen (and women) on duty, including the beautiful Espérance, greet the familiar faces of the passers-by – professionals at work on the site, or frequent visitors. The chief, who has officiated for the last eight years, stresses that Bruxelles-les-Bains is getting better every year, and tells us that this time the vendors are particularly happy about the weather. The ingredients are all there: there’s been perfect weather ever since the opening in early July, and for many people the beach has become a place to get together with families, friends and colleagues.

Flourishing businesses

At the first stand, a sizeable one, there is an array several metres long of sweets of all shapes, candy strips of all colours, cone-shaped ‘cuberdons’ to suit every taste, flavoured macaroons, and even very timely chocolate-flavoured drops in black, yellow and red. Amid the enticing odour of caramelised peanuts roasted on the spot, the stand’s owner, with his radiant smile and sing-song accent, says he is delighted by the numbers of visitors.

At the open-air dance place just opposite, a DJ is belting out salsa at full blast to lure in the passers-by: you don’t really dance, but sway to the rhythm as you sip a mojito or a caipirinha, the ‘in’ aperitifs for the last few summers. There are numerous straw huts, offering a huge array of exotic foods and drinks: Brazilian rubs shoulders with Cambodian, and various African dishes divert some of the punters from the traditional Italian fare… Equally, you can find the ultra-Belgian mussels and chips. Further on, a particularly mouth-watering aroma wafts through the air: at ‘Produits de la Mer’, they’re grilling sardines, squid, prawns and other delicacies.

All along the Canal, crowds of people are sitting, eating and drinking, having a natter or putting the world to rights. There are lovers, pals and families, but Bruxelles-les-Bains is also the essential summer destination for stag and hen parties, and every weekend you can see high-spirited groups showing up whose hero or heroine, clad in fancy dress, has to meet a series of personal challenges specially devised by his or her friends. The tone is always light-hearted, and the response from the passers-by is engaged, amused and cooperative.

Row, row, row your boat

Canals mean water and boats. Some of these are permanently moored: the Pirate Bar is a café, while  the barge Fulmar 1913 is a cabaret theatre which offers artistic soirées with cocktails and refreshments throughout the year. The boss, a Frenchman, who is also very happy about the number of visitors he is receiving, reports with wry amusement on the comment made by some mates from Paris who have just popped over: they thought Bruxelles-les-Bains was far better than Paris-Plage, where they missed any planned activities other than the display of beautiful bodies in swimwear.

Other boats actually travel on the water. There are the classics such as the guided cruise on the Vivaldi for Brussels By Water: Captain Maerten has piloted this vessel on the Canal for nine years. He rubs his hands in glee at the numbers of tourists – while pointing out that the effects of the crisis can still be seen in the reluctance to splash out at aperitif time.

The Boat Club, in action for just the second year, throngs with a very different crowd of night-life-seekers. The organisational work has been entrusted to classic planners of Brusselsparties, and on board can be found the best DJs, their loyal following of clubbers and others who are discovering them. For four hours around midnight, several evenings a week, the boat cruises along the Canal, carrying 200 young people all dancing energetically – on the upper deck in fine weather – to the hypnotic beat of house, electro, funk or Latin music. When they pass through residential areas, the pilot carefully speeds up and makes sure the volume is turned down, and the dancers go down to quench their thirst in the lower lounge, where savvy barmen skilfully prevent excessive drinking.

If you’re keen to take to the water, for the first time this year Bruxelles-les-Bains features pedalos, kayaks and – more light-heartedly - two water-rollers: these are enormous, transparent, floating wheels in which you can stand up and walk…on water. You have to be patient, though: the queue is long on Sundays, the only day on which commercial barge navigation is ordinarily suspended so that the Canal can be used for pleasure boating.

And there’s more. It’s a little-known fact that the Canal is the scene of numerous nautical activities throughout the year. To introduce these to a wider public, demonstrations are organised at Bruxelles-les-Bains on set dates of rowing, yachting, motorised inflatable dinghies and even diving.

And for the sporting activities…

On the other days, the sporting activities take place on the sand: at the far end of the Bruxelles-les-Bains site, beach volleyball and beach soccer areas are occupied at times by young lads supervised by holiday or out-of-school sport organisations, and at other times by groups of friends who show up here individually to unwind. These areas are also used by a few companies, such as the nearby KBC and the Postal Service, plus the Peruvian Embassy, whose staff are in the habit of coming after work for a match. Badminton and indiaca (a game in which the racket is replaced by the hand, and the shuttlecock is larger), frisbee, pétanque and table tennis complete the range of leisure activities on offer.

Depending on the screen schedule at the open-air cinema, on some evenings the barriers and nets are put away and the deckchairs are unfolded for a free session beneath the stars.

Our walk finally brings us to the medical stand. It’s not the Red Cross, but an outpost of the Brugmann Hospital where three nurses take turns on duty. Mireille has nothing much to report: she mainly deals with minor knocks, cuts in particular. Children and old people come along after getting overheated and drinkers show up with headaches. Not much in the way of medicine is handed out: painkillers, anti-nausea tablets, anti-allergy tablets and so on.

A wild success

At the access points to the site, the kindly presence of the state patrolmen is another guarantee of safety, primarily of a preventive nature. There have been no major incidents to report since the start of the ‘season’. Most of the work therefore consists of giving warnings about pickpockets to ladies wandering around with their bags open: vigilance is essential here as it is at any event for the general public attended by 150,000 or 200,000 people. That figure will probably be exceeded at this eleventh Bruxelles-les-Bains, thanks to the superb weather. The organisers already estimate that around 12,000 people attended the opening party on Friday 5 July and 25,000 visited the site during the opening weekend of 6 and 7 July.

For most visitors, a trip to Brussels’ very own waterside resort ends with happy memories and the prospect of being able to return the next day, if the weather stays fine as it is forecast to do …