Brussels is Belgium’s capital and largest city. The Frank Kingdom (a barbarian kingdom) established the city in 977. Successive generations of the Holy Roman Empire and Burgundy dukes and Netherlands regimes built it into a powerful fortress and trading city. Today Brussels is divided into two primary sections:
- Lower Town is by the river. It is the site of the original walled city. It is the trading center and holds the majority of the city’s population. It has since emerged as the center of government and public facilities; and
- Upper Town was home to the nobility. Today it is home to upper and upper-middle-class neighborhoods and international institutions—especially the European Union.
Lower Town Brussels
Through a combination of a Sandeman’s Free Walking Tour (and our excellent guide Charlie) and our own explorations, we learned about the city’s growth as a major port and trading center between Dutch and French cities, its role under Burgundian, Brabant and especially Dutch monarchies, and its attempts at secession and ultimate 1830 war of independence which resulted in its independence (despite many merchants thinking that the city would experience greater prosperity as part of Holland).
Brussels Grand Place
We began our Lower Town exploration in the jaw-dropping elaborate Grand Place. Originally the city’s primary marketplace, the Place evolved into the political and economic center of the city. It is home to the city hall, royal palace and the houses of all the city’s largest and richest guilds. It is now surrounded by one of the most amazing combination of buildings we have seen in any place in the world—an ensemble for which we lack the superlatives to describe.
Today’s Place was largely due to France’s 1695 siege of the city which specifically targeted the Place and especially the City Hall’s tower. Ironically, while virtually the entire wooden Place and surrounding areas were destroyed in the shelling and the resultant fires, the stone-based City Hall survived. But the destruction of the rest of the Place enabled the building of the incredible combination of today’s buildings. The city’s leaders and guilds were determined to demonstrate their resilience, their commitment and their wealth by rebuilding the entire Place in brick, with elaborate carvings and gold leaf, before the end of the century.
As a result, the current Place is now home to many of the Brussels’ most ornate buildings including the town hall with its soaring tower, the elegant Maison du Roi (the King’s Palace) and several amazing guild houses with gilt-trimmed facades, beautiful carved ornamentation and grand pediments. Among the most notable of these buildings are:
- Hotel de Ville (City Hall). The 15th-century palace was partially destroyed by French shells in the 17th century. It was rebuilt and expanded in a Neo-Classical style is particularly noted for its original 315-foot tower, its lovely courtyard and its public rooms, which were not open when we visited.
- Maison du Roi. The 19th-century, Neo-Gothic home to the city’s Spanish monarchs, now houses the city museum which, unfortunately, was closed both days we were able to visit it.
- The row of amazingly elaborately decorated row of guild houses lining the east side of the Place, with the bakers, boatmen and haberdasher houses each fighting for primacy in battle of superlatives.
- La Maison des Ducs is a harmonious grouping of six guild houses designed as a single unit around the design of an Italian palazzo.
- The incredible Brewers Guild, across a small alley from the City Hall.
Although restaurants and shops on the ground level and offices and residences on the upper floors now occupy the guild houses, their lavish exteriors have been retained.
Beyond Brussel’s Grand Place
A number of the city’s other most noteworthy public spaces and buildings are located just beyond the Grand Place. These include:
- La Bourse (the Stock Exchange), a 19th-century, Palladian-style masterpiece that was built over the river (which was covered for sanitary reasons). Its façade is decorated with ornate carvings, including some that are thought to have been carved by Rodin;
- Bruxella 1238, archeological remnants of, and museum for a 13th-century convent;
- Mannekin-Pis, a petite (roughly two-foot) 1619-bronze, fountain statue that replaced a similar, 15th-century stone figure. That figure has become the symbol of the city. So much so that a tradition began in 1698 when a visiting dignitary on a state visit brought a gift of a woolen coat to keep the boy warm in winter months. Since then, visiting heads of state have traditionally brought the boy small outfits that reflect the tastes of traditions of their home countries. The City Museum now has a collection of 1,018 outfits (on rotating display), including Santa Claus, Elvis, samurai and vampire suits. (Although the museum was closed both days we were in town, a shop does display replicas of a couple costumes and pictures of a number of its costumes are available on the Web.). The little boy has, since 1987, been joined with a female companion, Jeanneke-Pis, a statue of little girl nearby on Rue des Bouchers relieving herself in public.
- Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee, a Nouveau building (that was closed for renovations) that pays homage to the Belgian love of comic strips and their characters. The museum demonstrates the process of creating a comic strip and immortalizes Belgian-created characters such as TinTin and the Smurfs. The museum wall, which displays a mural of a comic strip, is joined by walls of a number of a number of other buildings in the town pm the Comic Book Route.
- The Fashion & Lace Museum traces the history of the product that made the city famous and became one of its most profitable industries.
- Place Ste-Catherine, the square on which the city’s first church (now evidenced only by its 1629 tower around which a new church has been built) was located. The Place, which also used to be the city’s fish market, is now home to a number of seafood restaurants.
- St. Nicholas Street, a tiny, roughly four-foot wide, 50-foot long street that is entered through a small arch beneath a bust of the saint, and leads to one of the oldest cafes in the city;
- Delirium Café, a series of primarily tap rooms with different entrances on the same alley that offer 3,162 different beers, and one tequila bar that offers more than 500 tequilas;
- Rue des Bouchers, which retains its medieval name (Butchers Street) is a protected street lined in 17th-century building. that, while not occupied largely by restaurants, retain their original buildings and details including their gabled roofs and decorative elements. This street is now the home of Jeanneke-Pis, the female companion to Mannekin-Pis.
- Galeries St.-Hubert, a grand, beautifully decorated Neo-Renaissance, 19th-century arcade that was the second to be built in Europe.
Upper Town Brussels
We also toured through upper town Brussels.
- Saints Michael and Gudula Cathedral is a Gothic structure began in the 13th century that was originally dedicated to the city’s patron of Saint Michael. People so effectively lobbied for changing the name to the local Saint Gudula, that the diocese finally agreed to use both names. However, the people refuse to do so and insist on calling the cathedral, Saint Gudula.
- Cardinal Mercier Statue, next to the Cathedral, who, as we learned inspired the city to protest German WWI occupation by humor, rather than violence, such as by skirting German rules, such as by laughing at and mocking their actions and by skirting rules, without actually breaking them. Examples included by not actually wearing the three colors of the Belgian flag, but by walking three abreast, with each person wearing one of the colors. Or, by relinquishing rubber bicycle tires to the Germans (as mandated for rubber), but by having hundreds of people at a time riding bikes with bare rims on the cobblestone streets around German headquarters. Tactics that were reapplied and updated in WWII.
- Place du Grand Sablon is on the slope that divides the two halves of the city. It is surrounded by Art Nouveau-style buildings, antique stores and upscale restaurants and topped by the Gothic-style Notre-Dame du Sablon church. Just across the street is the prettiest part of the square, Place du Petit Sablon, a formal garden enclosed by a fence sporting 44 Art Nouveau-style statues of figures representing the city’s different guilds, a fountain and a dozen additional statues of famous Flemish citizens.
- Palace of Justice is a huge, Neo-Classical, 19th-century building that dominates the Old Town skyline. It has been under repair for several years and is not scheduled to be completed until 2032;
- Place Royale is a cobblestone square, framed by lovely buildings, most notably the beautifully-decorated 12th-century Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg chapel (originally part of a palace) and the 19th-century (which replaced the destroyed Coudenberg Palace) Royal Palace, which is now the official residence of Belgian monarchs. While the Palace is supposed to have a number of grand rooms, we did not go inside. Nor did we visit the square’s BELvue Museum, which traces the history of the monarchy.
- Royal Palace, which King Phillipe and Queen Mathilde seldom use, and is open for visitors one month per year. Here we learned about some of the country’s most beloved monarchs: King Leopold I (the first king after independence) and King Albert I, who worked in trenches with his WWI soldiers, and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, who served as a war nurse. And the most disliked politician was Hubert Pierlot, who, secretly exploited, severely punished and end up killing thousands of rubber workers in the Belgian Congo, even though he did pour much of the proceeds into Belgian building projects.
- Royal Beaux-Arts Museum of Belgium which consists of three museums, of which, since we were in down on only one day for which the museums were open, we could only visit only one (The Magritte Museum, see below). We missed the Museum of the Old Masters, which highlights the works of artists including van Dyck, Rubens, Brueghel the Older and the Younger; and the End of the Century Museum which focuses primarily on European art from the late 19th through the early 20th centuries including Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Art Nouveau.
The Magritte Museum: Hint–Get the Audioguide
We thought we would learn much about Magritte and how he honed his unique ability to create thought-provoking images by depicting ordinary objects in unusual context and by challenging viewers’ preconditioned perceptions of reality. Although we did see a wide range of the artist’s works, the exhibition provided few captions or contextual information, other than a few brief timelines surrounding his career. Purchasing an audioguide would have helped. However we had bought advance tickets and didn’t pass the booth offering the guides. Once we were in the exhibit and realized our error, it was impossible to go back to get a guide. Moreover, an introductory movie was not being shown the day we visited. Lesson One: Get the audioguide before you enter.
This major limitation notwithstanding, the museum does provide a number of his works and brief clues (via scant timelines of his career) as to how to how to interpret them. Combined with some supplemental research allowed us to create at least some context for what we saw in the museum.
Rene Magritte, a leader of the Belgian Surrealist Movement, was born to a wealthy family and attended art school before beginning his career in 1921 as a draftsman for a wallpaper company, and later, a commercial artist who created a range of posters and advertisements.
His artistic experiments were something of a sideline for the next 25 to 30 years. He experimented with approaches and techniques of many different schools before honing his own long-term style. While his off-hours work began with Impressionism, he evolved to Dada before migrating toward Surrealism in 1926. He contributed to the conceptualization of the movement by helping to write the Surrealism “Constitutions” and by editing and contributing to a periodical that examined the intellectual underpinnings of the movement. But despite being featured in a handful of shows, he struggled to make money as an artist and often fell back on advertising to sustain his artistic endeavors.
Although a few of his early works, such as his 1925, “A Box at the Theater”, presaged his later style, he took a number of detours along the path to fully honing that style. He created many drawings, experimented with photography and then, in the late 1920s, began to explore the arbitrary and often meaningless link between objects and the words that we use to represent them as evidenced by a series of paintings and drawings that used seemingly random words to label objects and dispute actual names, as in his famous work “This is Not a Pipe”.
He evolved back to painting in the late 1930s, including with a number of portraits, some quite traditional, others with a clear Surrealist edge. He even began thinking about a new career, and began studying architecture.
WWII and the German occupation of Germany and the post-war era again prompted him to rethink his entire artistic approach. He, for example, began a new Impressionist phase in 1943 and in then, in 1948, he fell under the influence of Jacques Vachey’s writing on pataphysics, a form of pseudo-science that uses the “science of imagination” to redefine traditional conceptions of reality into absurd irony. This led to his “Vache period”, which used Fauvist-like coloring to create dramatic visual effects. His continuing lack of acceptance led him forge other artist’s works, and even banknotes, to support himself.
By 1948, however, Magritte returned to and extended his earlier Surrealist style and began creating some of what would become his most iconic works. His popularity rose on the backs of a growing number of shows and by the early 1960s his work had become popular with art collectors, in popular culture and among other artists. His work, for example, has influenced the development of Pop, Conceptualist and Minimalist art.
His legacy stemmed from his unique ability to recast familiar objects in totally unfamiliar contexts, assign names which apparently have nothing to do with the image and to force viewers to rethink long established preconceptions and even question their own “realities”.
The exhibit ends with the last painting that he created: Blank Page.
- Mussel Mongers. This is a very popular, very good restaurant where we shared an order of perfectly fried calamari with lemon mayonnaise, a large pot of mussels steamed in white wine, dill and garlic and for dessert, a Belgian waffle with ice cream and a pot of Belgian chocolate sauce. We added a bottle of Chimay Blanche Tripple Trappist white beer from a list of close to 50 beers which include White, Blond, Amber, Brown, Stout, Seasonal, Lambic (sour), Fruit and Craft beers. All dishes were delicious, and reasonably priced.
- L’Huîtrière is a more upscale restaurant where we began with a plate of raw seafood (Brittany oysters, large and small shrimp and langostines). We followed it with a whole grilled squid with lemon, oil and a Mediterranean salad. All were very good with a bottle of light, but quite nice 2017 Vieux Lazareth Chateauneuf de Pape Blanc.
- Scheltema was our favorite restaurant in the city. We tried, but weren’t especially impressed by a popular local dish of shrimp croquettes. but we were extremely pleased with the friendly, humorous service and the delicious jumbo (big, fat and juicy) mussels steamed in lobster sauce with a creamy, mustardy mussel veloute as a dipping sauce, and nice, crisp fries. The meal began with cups of complementary tiny boiled shrimp and whelks. Our wine was a very good 2018 Gerard Trembley “Fourchaumre” Chablis 1er Cru.
Fun Belgium Food Facts
- Belgian fries (don’t call them French fries!) stands are everywhere. After all, fries were invented in Belgium in the 17th century according to Belgiums—not in France. And why are their fries better? The “secret” is double frying. Fries are first fried at high temperature (for a crisp surface) and then go through a second frying at lower temperature, and always in beef fat (with vegetable oil only on request);
- Waffle stands and stores are also everywhere. Brussels waffles are crisp, rectangular and eaten with a fork with powdered, cinnamon, whipped cream, chocolate sauce or ice cream. Another type of waffle are Liege waffles which are oval, fluffy and loaded with all types a toppings and usually eaten be hand.
- Beer. Belgiums love beer. Everybody, including children, used to drink 1% beer as a more sanitary alternative to water. During a de facto prohibition, people voluntarily restrained drinking due to health concerns, but it was not legal mandate. But prohibition actually led to higher alcohol beers. And Belgium does have an amazing number of beers. Monk-brewed Trappist beers are typically among the best of the countries more than 1,000 different beers. Trappist beers also typically have the highest alcohol content.