There’s Always a River Somewhere

16 Oct

A few months ago, in a café off of Boulevard Anspach, I learned that in this particular part of Brussels, it is entirely possible to walk on water. No need for special shoes or a Venetian boatman for a father, I learned; all you have to do is step outside and you’ll be walking on a river. Of course when you look down all you’ll see is cobblestones, but if you nudge one of these aside and stick an upside-down periscope into the ground, you’ll see a river ambling by.

That’s right. Brussels has a river buried underneath it. Unlike most capital cities that adorn their arms of water with bridge-bracelets and other glittering accessories, Brussels decided to conceal its river beneath a long-sleeved shirt of streets. It’s completely invisible. Well, not completely. There is a particular place where you can go to see a flash of watery flesh through a tiny hole in the fabric, but other than that the river is carefully covered.

As soon as I found out that there was a river rolling on by beneath my feet, my mind immediately saw a cool, free-flowing thing with little waves that form in meringue-like peaks as it makes its merry way along. With this vision in my head it seems quite sad to have covered it up. It makes it seem as though the river was wronged somehow; that maybe it was a pretty young woman who only wanted the chance to wear what all the other girls were wearing but whose father insisted on a head-to-toe garment akin to that worn by Islamic women of a certain persuasion.

But the truth is that the Senne in the late 1800s was a stinking cesspool of disease. Something like the Buriganga river today, it was basically an open sewer running through the lower part of Brussels. Into it went various bits of garbage tossed from neighbourhood windows, waste oozing from industrial pipes, and probably the occasional dead animal, too. As if living along the banks of this coursing cauldron of contamination wasn’t hazardous enough, apparently it also used to flood quite frequently. Imagine that: you wake up one morning to see yesterday’s gunge bubbling underneath your door and swirling around the legs of your living room furniture…

Can you imagine how horrendous it must have been for the very idea of covering the entire thing up to be taken seriously? I’m still stunned that this actually happened, but I guess I’ve never had to ride a gondola through a canal of sewage, so maybe it’s not quite as absurd as it sounds. Various solutions were proposed, of course – ‘let’s dilute it’ or ‘let’s divert it’, for example – but in the end, ‘let’s put a lid on it’ was the winner. It was decided that the best solution for all concerned would be to knock away the sprawl of working-class houses on the marshy banks of the Senne, cover the river with arched concrete until it could no longer be seen or smelt, and then plonk some fancy boulevards and posh buildings on top. This began in 1867, and the central part was completed by 1871.

The covering of the Senne was so thorough that it now seems dubious there was ever a river here in the first place. If it wasn’t for this little slice of it, tucked away in a courtyard near Les Halles St-Géry

the little slice of Senne tucked away in a courtyard near Les Halles St-Géry

the only way you might discover that this city used to be a little more wet than it is now is via the official flag of the Brussels-Capital region:

This particular kind of yellow iris grows best in wet, marshy conditions, and in the past Brussels was bursting with them. I’m not sure how many of them would have sprouted along the refuse-infested waters of the Senne, but there you have it.

By now the river has been purified (enough for fish to be able to live in it, at least), but talks of opening the thing back up to the open air again are usually short-lived. It would involve demolishing large swathes of lower Brussels yet again, and by now there are far too many pretty buildings, restaurants and shops to consider that.

Maybe I’m becoming too precious about keeping Brussels the way it is, but I’m perfectly happy for the lid to be kept on the Senne. I think I’ve even come up with a way of capitalising on the underground river situation without having to knock down all the posh buildings: glass-bottomed restaurants. That way restauranteurs would legitimately be able to claim that they can offer ‘river views’ to complement your carbonade flamande. As if this secretly watery city needed any more eccentricity…

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