A Pilgrimage Through Brussels


Early in June, I was one of twenty members of the American Club (yes, Canadians and people of other nationalities are welcome to join!) who put on their most comfortable walking shoes and headed off to follow part of the Route to Compostela, otherwise known as the Way of St. James. (That’s St. James in the middle, on the façade of the Cathedral in Brussels.)

This is perhaps one of the most well-known and wondrous wanders in history. It continues to fascinate people after hundreds of years because of the many reasons people choose to take t293 St James Facadehis pilgrimage to the northwest corner of Spain.


It was one of the three most important Christian pilgrimages in the Middle Ages, along with journeys to Rome and Jerusalem. And many people still follow the route for religious reasons.

Yet, many more choose to walk the Route to Compostela for the personal challenges it presents…. for the ability to test one’s mettle on a long walk made difficult by weather conditions, physical challenges, loneliness, even by boredom.


Like the Wondrous Wanders I have been on while travelling and those I lead in Brussels, there is an element of the fixed and the flexible, the known and the unknown and the highly significant role of curiosity in changing plans or taking the road less travelled when something captures your attention.

The walk to Santiago de Compostela began in the 10th century in honour of St. James. He and his brother John were the first two disciples to join Jesus.

St. James became a martyr when he was beheaded in Jerusalem in 44 AD. He had spent many years preaching the gospel in Spain, so his followers returned his body there and built a tomb in his honour, which then became an important pilgrimage site. ‘Santiago’ translates as ‘St. James’.


People have made this journey throughout the centuries, right up to the present day. The Plague, the Protestant Reformation, wars and political unrest in Europe in the 16th century meant that numbers declined significantly, until by the 1980s only a few pilgrims arrived each year in Santiago de Compostela.

There are many different routes through Europe, depending on where a person begins their journey.


On the trail of the pilgrims


We followed the route the pilgrims most likely used as they passed through Brussels on their way to Spain, tracing their steps by following some of the 48 bronze scallop shells that are embedded in the cobbles of our fair city. They are made by an artisan in Leon, Spain, and were installed in Brussels in 2005.

A pilgrimage like the Way of St. James was one way a person could do penance for their sins by the church. Whereas a wealthy person could make a generous donation to the church, the majority of people needed to do something less costly — and often more dramatic.

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Many of those setting out from northern Europe or the British Isles took the route passing through Brussels. They entered the city via the Porte de Louvain or the Leuven gate in the city wall and made their first stop to worship at what is now the Cathedral of Saints Michael and Gudula.




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The Cathedral is where we modern pilgrims began our journey…

We walked downhill from the cathedral (on an exceptionally hot day) and made our way to the Grand-Place. This would have been an important stop for the pilgrims — remember, it was a marketplace and they needed food to sustain themselves and continue on their way. 

We carried on through the area known as the quartier St-Jacques (the St. James neighbourhood) to the church of Notre-Dame de Bonsecours, where a chapel for pilgrims stood from the 12th century until the church was built in the 17th century.


St. James and his symbols are everywhere

There is much evidence of the cult of St. James on the facade of th100 ND de Bonsecourse church. The modern day blue and yellow mosaic shell representing the Route to Compostela sits on the wall by the entrance, and the old wooden door is sculpted with the other symbols of the pilgrimage:

a hat, with a shell on the front, which protected them from sun, rain and snow

a staff to help the pilgrims walk over rough terrain, with a hook to carry things

a purse to carry the little money they had, usually worn open to symbolise generosity

a gourd to carry water, precious cargo on a long walk


At the corner of rue du Marché au Charbon near the church, pilgrims could decide on one of two different routes through the rest of Brussels: via Anderlecht, or via the Porte de Hal and south from there.

This dividing point is the only place you’ll see two scallops together in Brussels, indicating the two routes.

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The church itself is intriguing, as the nave is not a usual cross shape; it’s round, and holds another unique sight – an oak statue of Mary over the altar that was found on a garbage heap in the 14thcentury and came to be considered miraculous.

With the addition of the statue of Mary, so many people came to worship at the chapel that they needed to build a church in the 1600s.

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Wondering why the scallop shell is the symbol of the Way of St. James?

When a pilgrim arrived at the church of Santiago de Compostela, they would collect shells off the beach to prove to those back home that they’d finished the journey. A shell was also a very useful tool for scooping water and using as a bowl for food.


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Our tour guide, Yolande, reminded us of a popular item in seafood restaurants: Coquilles St-Jacques… ring a bell? ‘Coquille’ is French for shell and St. Jacques is St. James in French. Fancy scallop dishes were a tasty souvenir that the pilgrims definitely didn’t have the privilege of enjoying on their route!


A 12th century travel guide

We still had a ways to go to the end of our pilgrimage. We stopped at the church of Notre-Dame de la Chapelle in the Marolles, where there is a statue of St. James that is used in an annual Pentecost procession. 

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St. James is holding the Codex Calixtinus, a 12th century book written under Pope Callixtus II that listed the four pilgrimage routes originating in France at that time. Was this perhaps the world’s first travel guide book?

Finally, our overheated group arrived at the Porte de Hal, the final spot on our Brussels route and the gathering place for pilgrims leaving Brussels to continue south to Spain. 


The wonders of wandering in the 21st century


As we wandered, I was struck by the parallels between the Way of St. James and my modern-day Wondrous Wanders walks.

I follow an established path (for example, the route of the 13th century city wall) or one I’ve composed myself (the 10 Secrets Even the Belgians Don’t Know About Brussels). Yet, if curiosity calls to me or conditions change, I can be flexible and adapt the route.

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Most importantly, as the pilgrims did, I wander for a reason. I’m seeking hidden gems and little-known stories so that I can unveil them for you — allowing you to experience Brussels through new eyes.





In the end, no matter which era we’re from, a wander that is truly wondrous brings us a feeling of joy, of accomplishment, of sharing with others and, almost certainly, a change of perception.



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Oh, by the way, if you’re thinking of following the pilgrimage route yourself, from the stone obelisk beside the Porte de Hal to the church of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, it’s only a distance of 2,200 km!



Happy wandering!









Note: I’ve adapted this post from the version I originally wrote for the American Club of Brussels. It appeared on their web site on 29 June 2016.

If you’re interested in obtaining more information on the American Club or becoming a member (all nationalities are welcome), head over to www.americanclubbrussels.org

My Secret Weapon for Healing Brussels


I have a secret weapon that makes people smile, almost without exception; that makes people stop in the street, and that leads to wonderful warm connections that otherwise wouldn’t happen.


What is this weapon of wonder, you ask?


It’s my d429 Mint Teaog: my canine companion, my best friend, my fur ball of love, my little buddy, my mascot, Billy — otherwise known as the Wondrous Wander Pup.


Don’t roll your eyes and stop reading, please! This isn’t just a cutesie blog post about yet another puppy to compete with all the hilarious cat images on Facebook and Twitter.


Like the cats who deflected social media traffic from police anti-terrorist activities during the Brussels Lockdown in November, Billy is gifted with a purpose.


Billy is here to bring joy to those around him.

It’s taken me some time to see the pattern.

It’s not just between me and Billy. When he accompanies me on my wanders around Brussels, it’s as if we’re in a bubble of happiness that envelopes anyone near us.

I watch, transfixed, as Billy turns sad, bored or angry-looking faces into smiles a mile wide. Those smiles then turn into smiles between me and that person, and very often, into a conversation.


So what Billy’s actually doing is creating connection.


And if I had to name the one thing I think will help Brussels heal from the terrorist attacks and build relationships between cultural groups in the future, it would be connection.

Talking to each other, really listening, creating ideas for bringing tourists back to our fabulous city and living more kindly together.

This is what I mean by connecting with each other. It’s the type of interaction that’s necessary between all of us: neighbours, people on the street, the media, the politicians at every level of government across the city, the country, Europe and the world.

047 Billy Tram Polar Turq LogoI’ve been noticing wondrous little things happening with Billy

since I adopted him a year ago, but since the bombings, and over this weekend in particular, it has hit me like a blast to the heart.

On the metro Saturday afternoon, Billy sitting on my lap (he’s a curious little chap who gets bored with looking at people’s feet — wouldn’t you?).

I see the man across from me actually beaming at us. Big smiles all around.

Then, as the fellow waits to get off at his stop, he looks me in the eye, smiles again and says we look so happy he wishes he’d taken a picture of us.

Lunch with a friend — who I met because of Billy and who continues to be enamoured of him — and a friend of hers we didn’t know, followed by a walk in the park. During our afternoon coffee break, the ladies are taking turns being photographed with Billy.

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Last weekend at the Bourse (Stock Exchange), sitting on the ground at the memorial to those who were injured and died in the bombings.


We’re sitting beside Sarah and her friend from Ghent who came to pay their respects and leave a poem on the asphalt.


Billy is so relaxed in the peaceful and calm atmosphere he’s lying on his back, feet in the air. One of the TV journalists picks Billy out of the crowd and says, with a big smile on her face, ‘Look at that little dog!’. I’m not sure but he may have made it into her live report.


People stopping in the street and gesticulating madly in cars as they drive by, admiring Billy in his neon green glow-in-the-dark collar that he’s so proud of.


The man in the bus with his arm leaning on the windowsill. Billy, on my lap again, tapping the man on the arm with his paw to signal he wanted to be patted — and waiting for the man to reach over and rub his head.

PorteNoire w Marla


You need to know that this is an introverted dog who never touches strangers or lets them touch him. To be able to tell that man that he had just joined Billy’s VIP Club… now that was a truly magical moment.


He is a people magnet.

A magnet that attracts those with positive energy, who have good hearts and kindness to share. I’ve made new friends because of Billy. Not because we’re all dog lovers, but because they were drawn to him before they ever noticed me on the other end of the leash.

Wendy&Billy Logo R

So I believe that exposing people around the city to Billy (and his canine companions) is a powerful way to set an example of how we should deal with each other.


Be kind, smile, pay attention to the little things. Spread some love.

I’ve been experiencing kindness a lot since last November as I smile and exchange pleasantries with people on a regular basis (including the armed soldiers guarding our city, as they deserve respect and kindness too).


I know now that I have a secret weapon to help accelerate the healing of Brussels, and maybe even the building of cultural bridges.

I’m not naïve, it’s a small contribution, but if we all do our own little bit, imagine what monumental change we can create.

426 Billy GrafittiFrom Billy, with love.


Drinking beer in a 16th century basement…

… is a far cry from drinking beer as a teenager in the basement of my family’s home in Toronto.
And that’s precisely why I love living and wandering in Brussels!


I recently spent the evening with Marla Cimini, a travel writer from the US who jaunts all over the world to follow a great story. So  I was under a bit of pressure to show her some of Brussels hidden gems. Hidden turned out to be the theme for the evening!

Billy & Brolly


Not one to be left at home, Billy, the Wondrous Wander Pup, announced that he was coming too. So we set out in the rain to take the metro in rush hour… a bit of a challenge for a little dog afraid of being stepped on.


We were already nice and wet by the time we got to our meeting spot so what’s a little more rain? This IS Brussels after all. And Billy was wearing his glow-in-the-dark collar so we knew we’d find our way on such a gloomy evening…




After a mini-wander, from The Hotel, through Egmont Park, the Petit Sablon and Grand Sablon squares, we needed to warm up and quench our thirst. So we headed to this street, where I knew we could find both bars and good restaurants.


832 Rue AlexiensWhere did we end up sampling a Belgian beer? In a 16th century basement pub called La Porte Noire, formerly the kitchens of a convent of Alexian nuns (and now you know the origin of the street name)!



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Talk about ambiance — this place has it in spades! The vaulted brick ceilings, the slight chill in the air from being underground, the long wooden tables and benches and … the rockabilly music. Well, yes, that was a surprise, but a very pleasant one!

PorteNoire w Marla



The bartender helped us decide on beers, filled a bowl of water for Billy and then kindly took our picture… voilà, the three wet wanderers 🙂




By then we were rather hungry so we walked back up the hill to one of my favourite hidden and historic spots, L’Estrille du Vieux Bruxelles on Rue de Rollebeek, just below the Sablon.

It’s a cosy restaurant tucked behind a beautiful 16th century facade where walking through the ancient studded door swoops you back to medieval times, when it was an inn. I believe that of the several old inns still dotted around the city, L’Estrille is the oldest.

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We were warmly greeted by the lovely hostess who ran off to get Billy a bowl of water as we settled down to watch the fire burning brightly in the fireplace. Billy found a spot on the floor beside the radiator, so we all revelled in the cosiness on a damp, chilly day.


Fabulous food, warm, friendly service  and a few glasses of red wine later, we agreed our wet wander through hidden Brussels was a total success.



I might just wait until the warm weather to drink beer in the basement again, though!


A couple of notes:

Thanks to Marla Cimini for the photos of Billy and me with and without her!

Restaurant L’Estrille du Vieux Bruxelles has unfortunately closed since I wrote this post. I’m mourning their loss, but in the restaurant’s place you can check out cocktail bar Vertigo: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g188644-d11962971-Reviews-Vertigo-Brussels.html


My response to the Brussels Lockdown? Bah humbug!

The Brussels ‘lockdown’ with its maximum level security alert is thankfully over. So why am I quoting Ebenezer Scrooge?

Because, ‘tis the season and ’tis time to move on.

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 Interestingly, despite everything that’s happened recently, it wasn’t a terrorist that brought me to my knees. It was…

a bay leaf!

The other night I almost choked on a bay leaf that was hidden in my (delicious) dinner. Thankfully, my local restaurant owner has a hidden talent – he’s brilliant at the Heimlich manoeuvre! So all’s well that ends well and now I’m laughing about it.

While pondering the situation the morning after, it struck me that there was a lesson to take away from my experience. It’s important to live life and not worry about the nebulous events we can’t foresee or control. It looks like I’m far more likely to die of choking on a bay leaf than in a terrorist attack. And that’s reassuring. It means that I’m not going to focus on the things that could happen to me; I’m going to get on with living — and enjoying — my life!

Focusing on the future

I’m not being careless or naive; far from it. But, like most of the people I know in Brussels, I’m going to continue to wander wondrously around my beautiful city, a place that has been hit tremendously hard because of lost income from decreased tourism and fewer crowds in the centre of town. I’ll leave it to the authorities to deal with any potential threats.

Most Brussels residents want to focus on the future, returning to life as we knew it before security level 4 and convoys of tanks and military vehicles.

The world saw only the scary images

The international media did a great job of showing these surreal images, however they neglected to show that the majority of the city was not impacted. Most of us went on with our day-to-day tasks without interruption or, at the worst, with one or two days of changing our routine.

Which leads me to my learning about the terrorists vs. the bay leaf. The overwhelming majority of us who live in Brussels are happy to take on the role of cheerleader for our city in the coming weeks and months. We want to show the world that life goes on in full colour in Brussels.

We may be cautious but we are not afraid. We want people to know they should continue to visit our city and our country because there are wonderful places, people, and activities to enjoy.

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From virtual to real life

I’m personally taking action in two ways.

To celebrate life getting back to normal in Brussels, I’ve started a social group for the international community in Brussels, people who enjoy meeting other expats and/or love our adopted city (monthly meetings, with the inaugural one taking place this past weekend).

It’s a purely social get-together to meet some of the folks I was in touch with online during the security alert and anyone else who loves Brussels and hopes to see the city get back on its feet quickly. I deliberately chose a meeting spot in the centre of town because these are the businesses that have suffered since the security alert.

Canadian media (along with the rest of the world) followed our story

I also had the opportunity to tell my side of the story of our ‘lockdown’ experience when I was approached by media outlets in Canada looking for commentary from a Canadian ‘on the ground’ in Brussels.

I was interviewed by CBC television in Toronto and two radio stations in Calgary. Each time I reiterated that I personally was not afraid and was living my life pretty much as I would any other week. It turns out that was a rather calm message juxtaposed with the headline on-screen during my live TV interview (unbeknownst to me) that said: ‘Living in a State of Siege’, which was not at all a reflection of my situation.

Presenting the real Brussels to the world

Along with many other Brussels residents, I’m hoping to help people understand that the photos and footage they were seeing did not, and do not now, reflect the life of a significant segment of the Brussels population. As we go about our business, we’re posting pictures of everyday life in Brussels every chance we get!


Here’s my personal take on a week in Brussels with a level 4 security alert:

CBC television Toronto:



 660 News Calgary:


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PS: I’ve also got a couple of Wondrous Wanders scheduled for December (hint: save December 17th in your agenda).
Stay tuned for more details!























What the Brussels Lockdown Taught Me

I’ve understood intuitively for some time now that my role in life is to be a perception changer. I just couldn’t always express it clearly.
The subjecBilly & Me 2 on G-P Close-up Turquoise Polaroid w LOGOts I can most influence (at this point in my life) are…
  • creating an appreciation of the wonders of Brussels and Belgium — their beauty, culture and people,
  • highlighting the opportunities of expat life
  • the importance of loving caregiving for the dying — putting death back into the circle of life is a societal taboo I feel very strongly about fixing.
But the Brussels Lockdown has taken my intuition a step deeper.
I know there are hard questions to be asked about each of these subjects — and people who need to answer for a lack of action or poor decisions. Yet I also know that it’s not my role to ask these questions. I will help communicate both the questions and the answers, but it’s not me that will be putting people on the spot demanding the answers.
It’s my role to see the positive in a given situation and to communicate the glass-half-full story in order to change people’s perceptions. I’m an optimist.
That doesn’t mean I’m naive, it simply means I will take the time to find the silver lining to the cloud that’s blocking my view of the sun. I choose to be curious, open-minded, and try to see things through new eyes — then help others see them that way.
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I’d say that on this, a day of Thanksgiving for many, that’s something to be thankful for.
PS: To hear my views on living in Brussels during the terrorist threat, check out this interview I did with CBC TV in Toronto, Canada