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Voir et Dire: Discover Brussels heritage in your own language
An organisation that has helped people discover Brussels' rich heritage for more than 22 years is growing the number of non-French tours on offer, and will rebrand in the autumn to become more accessible to non-Francophones.
Voir et Dire, which is composed of four organisations (ARAU, Arkadia, Bruxelles Bavard and Pro Velo), has been providing architectural tours in four languages - and the number of tours not in French has doubled. But the focus is in fact wider.
Director Julien Staszewski says: "Beyond architecture, we also have tours on the history of Brussels, green spaces, gastronomy and lifestyle. You can participate on foot of course, but bicycle and coach tours are also available."
Non-architectural tours include a chocolate walk, a breweries and beers tour, a "pleasure of living in Brussels" tour, an industrial heritage trail along the canal, a bike tour and one taking in the panoramas of Brussels, among many others.
But one of the mainstays of the offer is the twice-monthly visits to five of Victor Horta's houses, who are not accessible to the public normally.
Staszewski explains that one of the goals of the organisation is to allow access to these Unesco world heritage sites to a broad public - both Belgian and foreign - but that a fine line needs to be maintained and that mass tourism is not desirable.
"We don't want to emulate a city like Barcelona where the sheer number of people participating has resulted in many degradations to the architectural heritage," he says.
In fact, even with the limited number of people allowed to participate every month, certain protections are required such as wearing plastic shoe covers.
The Bulletin joined Albert Dewalque, a retired architect who gives some of the English-language tours on a visit to the Tassel House in Ixelles.
His instructions to visitors are as follows: "Don't touch anything and try not to lean against the walls, these are hand-painted with extremely precious types of paint and designs. There are still maybe two people in Belgium with the skills needed to do them so please try not to rub your hands or your shoulders on any kind of surface."
It is easy to understand the strength of his requests in view of the very elaborate designs painted on the walls and the extremely subtle changes in the background colours on the walls as one looks from floor to ceiling.
Dewalque donates his time: "It is a labour of love. Since I'm retired I like to do these tours because I like to share my passion for Horta and for Art Nouveau."
Voir et Dire has organised a very successful month long Art Nouveau/Art Deco Biennial for the past 16 years but they have now replaced it. Staszewski explains: "The concept has evolved into a festival, the BANAD Festival. We will still have over 20 open houses per weekend all over Brussels but there will also be plenty of parallel activities such as music, exhibitions, conferences and so on."
And Voir et Dire itself is getting a makeover. In 2016 it was reorganised as an ASBL (non-profit association) and it is getting a new name to be announced this autumn which will be easier to pronounce and use by non Francophones.