Often you hear people bemoan the fact that on the day they visited the Grand Place in Brussels, Belgium, or any well-know European square, that it was crowded and rainy and that there was scaffolding. On the day I visited there were all three. But fortunately the magnificence of the Grand Place is found in both its imposing scale and its tiniest of details.
The Grand Place originally came to be in the 15th century as the central marketplace of Brussels around the town hall and the house of the Dukes of Brabant. Although the original medieval town hall still stands, most of the wooden buildings in the Grand Place were destroyed in 1695 by the French following a brief bombardment. By this time the guilds throughout Flanders (such as tailors, brewers, haberdashers, fishermen, etc.) had risen to great wealth with each having a stake in their local government. In wake of the bombardment, plans by architect, Guillaume De Bruyn, were quickly approved, providing for each of Brussels’ guilds to re-build on the Grand Place, in addition to several residences.
Touted by many as “the most beautiful square in Europe,” the Grand Place as it exists today was achieved largely because of a coordinated re-building process with the plan for each structure being subject to approval. Architectural harmony remains in spite of designs mixing Baroque, Louis XIV, and Gothic styles, with each guild house varying in size and level of ornamentation. One of the most striking decorative elements that unifies the Grand Place is the use of gold leaf accents and sculpture.
Approach like this: Emerge on to it from one of many small lanes and at first look, stop and allow yourself a few moments to be awed. Walk to the center of what was once a medieval market square and take in the 360 degree view, always keeping your focus above the throngs. Last but not least stroll the perimeter – slowly.
Notice plaques commemorating things such as the fact that Karl Marx stayed for several years in what was then the butcher’s guild house and is now Maison de Cygne, a renowned Michelin starred restaurant. Although it was a section covered in scaffolding this past July, I liked it that another literary refuge, Victor Hugo, during the time he openly declared himself a traitor to France and the rule of Napoleon lived above what is now a branch of Belgium’s famous chocolaterie, Neuhaus.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Grand Place is the nexus of Brussels’ civic, social and tourist activity. A flower market is held every day except Mondays and Thursday, and a traditional bird market takes place on Sundays. If you are spending the night in Brussels, be sure to go back once night falls for a look. Elegant lighting creates a golden glow that is both subtle and spectacular.
But during daylight hours even on the most gloomy day, don’t be surprised if the sun does make a brief appearance. When the sun takes a look see and licks the centuries old gold leaf on the facades of the Grand Place, grab your camera. I dare you not to be a least a little bit dazzled.