As first-timers in Brussels, one of the first things we saw was the city’s main square, the Grand Place. The square, actually more of a rectangle, served as a market for the city of Brussels from the late 11th century until the mid-1900’s. Now, the only things you’ll find for sale here are cheap knick-knacks and souvenirs, but the appeal of this area is not in what you can buy, it’s in what you can see.
Destroyed and rebuilt at least twice since its first recorded origins, the Grand Place is now surrounded on all four sides by absolutely stunning 17th century architecture. The combination of Gothic and Baroque styles are beautiful when seen by day, but it’s at night when the square is softly lit by lamps on the surrounding buildings that the Grand Place really comes to life.
On our last evening in Brussels, disappointed by the fact that I had no photos from our trip where the skies weren’t overcast and somewhat drab, we were sitting at our hotel watching a gorgeous sunset over the city when I realized that if we left right then, I’d be able to capture some photos of the city in that just-after-sunset light I love so much. Naturally, we went straight to the place that symbolizes Brussels best – the Grand Place.
The square that by day had been filled with vendors and buskers and other tourists like ourselves, was now filling up with people relaxing on blankets spread out over the cobblestones, their bottles of wine and picnic dinners spread out around them. Seeing the Grand Place at this time of day reminded me a lot of Dam Square in Amsterdam – that same buzzing, happy vibe was in the air as everyone, whether visitors to the city or locals, began to unwind for the evening.
Arguably, the most striking building among those surrounding the square is the Town Hall. With its tall steeple, I mistook it for a cathedral at first. The city’s archives and art collection were stored here until 1695 when the French attacked and nearly the entire building was brought down. The Town Hall was quickly rebuilt and now contains a large collection of paintings, sculptures, and tapestries.
On either side of the Town Hall are sets of guild houses built by wealthy merchants and guilds as meeting places for their particular crafts. When we visited, one entire stretch of guildhalls was under restoration and wrapped in a scaffolding cover meant to recreate the facade of the houses. While I appreciate the effort to minimize the out-of-place look that scaffolding lends to such a famous historic sight, those covers aren’t fooling anyone. I see these everywhere in Europe and they crack me up every time. I find it easier just to crop out as much of the eyesore as possible than to pretend that a printed image looks anything like the real thing!
Facing the Town Hall on the opposite side of the square is the Maison du Roi, or King’s House, although no king ever lived there. In Dutch, this building is called the Broodhuis, or Breadhouse, which makes a little more sense seeing as it was built on the site where a bread market once stood. Now it houses the Museum of Brussels, a collection of art and artifacts showcasing the city’s diverse personality. You’ll find things inside ranging from religious altarpieces to the extensive wardrobe of the Mannekin Pis. I love a city that makes sure even its statues are fashionable.
If I could do this trip over again, I’d plan it for just a few weeks after the weekend we went. Then our trip would have coincided with the bi-annual Grand Place Flower Carpet, when close to a million begonias “carpet” the square over Assumption Day weekend. The design and theme differs for every carpet, but each one is meticulously planned a year in advance and then put together in just four hours in the square. I would have loved to see this year’s carpet in person. I suppose that gives us a reason to return in 2016!
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