Brussels: In and around the Grand Place

On The Road Travel Essays

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Brussels: In and around the Grand Place

General  This is Brussels' historic square, the center of the medieval city. It symbolizes the prosperity and influence enjoyed by Brussels during its Golden Age. The Town Hall, guildhouses, and palaces are all Gothic in style, but with rich decoration on the outside that is typical of Flemish tastes.

The Grand'Place throughout the day  Early in the morning, the Grand'Place is one huge farmers' market: food growers bring their produce here from miles around. By noon, the place has been cleaned up for the afternoon coffee-drinkers, many of them on a break from their jobs at the nearby Bourse (stock exchange). Then flower stalls are set up for the late-afternoon crowd: businessmen wanting to take home a little something for the missus. At night the floodlights come on, creating a pantomime of shapes and shadows on the stone facades. It's at night that you realize why Victor Hugo, who once lived on the square, insisted that it be called, not the Grand'Place, but the Gigantesque Place.

Town Hall  The most imposing building on the square. You can see its gilding, and its exquisite tower, soaring heavenward. On top of the tower is a 16-foot weathervane of St. Michael vanquishing the Dragon. The Town Hall is probably the most beautiful example of Gothic architecture in Belgium. Notice that the wings on either side of the tower are unequal in size. The wing on the left is much larger. Also, the windows on the first floor of each wing are unequal: on one wing, they are pointed on top. On the other wing, they are flat on top. There are other differences: the sculptures on top of the windows.

The reason for the unequal size of the wings is that the left wing was built first (1402), the right added in 1444. The tower was designed by Jean van Ruysbroeck and built last of all (1449). Poor Ruysbroeck. When the tower was almost completed, he saw that the entrance to the building would not be in the exact center. Heartsick, and feeling he had let the city down, he committed suicide.

Guild Houses  The finest are on the west side of the square. Point out the various medieval merchant guilds represented: carpenters, archers, boatmen, haberdashers, etc.

The King's House (Maison du Roi) is on the north side. It was once the guild house of the bakers, built by Emperor Charles V (who ruled Belgium at the time). Inside the King's House is the city's Municipal Museum, including the 100 or so costumes worn by the Manneken-Pis. It is built in Gothic lacework style, and is so large that it is often mistaken for the Town Hall. But it doesn't have the high spire that the Town Hall has.

Le Pigeon, sometimes called "House of the Painters," also on the north side. Victor Hugo lived here in 1852.

Others  On the east side is the former house of the Dukes of Brabant, now divided up into six separate houses. La Bourse (the Purse) is also known as La Balance (Scales), because it was a weighing house to establish the proper value for goods. You'll see an angel holding scales. The balcony is supported by statues of two Negroes, and it's one of the finest Baroque facades in Brussels, built in 1704.

You'll notice various restaurants and stores in the square. In no Belgian restaurant is liquor served. This might be why Belgian beer is so good, and why it's drunk in such quantity. Belgium drinks more beer per capita than any other European country, more even than Germany.

Manneken-Pis

Getting there: You can reach this landmark on foot from the Grand'Place. Take the little street that runs along the side of the left wing of the Town Hall. You have to cross a major intersection. (You normally lose half your group at the traffic light.) Cross the intersection and walk straight on. When you come to the end of the row of souvenir shops, on your left, you'll be at the Manneken-Pis. "Manneken" means mannikin, and "Pis" means, well, what you'd expect.

About the statue: The story is told that the son of a well-to-do merchant of Brussels got lost one day. Everyone went out looking for him, but to no avail. His father, desperate, promised he would donate to the city a statue if the boy were found: it would show the boy in exactly the position in which he was found. Well, that's the position in which he was found.

The statue was considered shocking when it was first put up. When the French troops entered Brussels to capture it for King Louis XV of France, they had heard of the statue. They stole it and took it back to France. The Bruxellois were in an uproar. Louis XV, agreeing that this was excessive plunder, ordered the statue recovered and brought to him at Versailles. He had special costumes made for it which matched his own elaborate royal vestments. Then he returned the statue to Brussels. Louis XV's costumes started a tradition. U.S. troops in Brussels at the end of World War II contributed several outfits of their own, including an American Indian in feathered headdress, and a Japanese Samurai's coat of armor. On ceremonial occasions, the statue is dressed up in one or another costume.

The little statue is held in great affection by the townspeople, who call it "Brussels' oldest citizen." (It was cast in bronze in 1619.) It's probably small in size because the father and sculptor were too embarrassed by the whole affair to make it any larger.

OTHER PLACES IN BRUSSELS

Royal Palace  This is the official residence of Belgium's King Baudouin I. If the flag is flying, then the royal family is in residence. To the right of the palace is the Royal Park, with large glass greenhouses. Queen Fabiola in an orchid enthusiast, and every year in May she opens these greenhouses to the public to show off her orchids.

Stretching north from the palace is another park, the Parc de Bruxelles, the city's largest. On the other side of the park is the Rue de la Lois (Street of Laws), the center of the Belgian govern- ment. Flanking it on both sides are state and civil service offices.

Palais de Justice  This stands up on a hill with an interesting outlook on the city. The building itself was the largest one built in Europe during the 19th century (1866-83). Its architecture is a bizarre mixture of Greek, Roman, and Babylonian styles. Its massive, overpowering size was designed to awe the visitor with the majesty of justice. Appropriately enough, it stands where the city's gallows used to be.

Atomium  This gigantic construction stands just outside the city. It is a huge molecular model built for the 1958 Brussels World's Fair, the theme of which as the atom and nuclear technology. The mammoth tubes and ball joints are supposed to symbolize man's conquest and peaceful use of the atom. But the massive size of the structure suggests the atom's conquest of man.

The Atomium is supposed to represent a crystal iron atom, magnified 200 million times. In the original design, there were to be no stairs, as there are now. But no insurance company could be found to insure against injury by climbing up inside the hollow tubes; so the stairs were added.

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