Brussels is a hard one to explain, especially after staying only a few days.  But sometimes a first impression can be most revealing…

Grand Place, Brussels - taken with the Diana

Grand Place, Brussels - taken with the Diana

Unlike the other cities we visited in Belgium and the Netherlands, Brussels is not quite bursting with a sense of history.  Other than the phenomenal Grand Place, the majority of historic sites are scattered further afield – and everything that lies in between the major points of interest is wholly unattractive- swaths of uninspired 20th century office blocks, ugly residential streets, etc.

At first, I thought it a grumpy city, with a lot of reeling, half-belligerent drunks.  On our first night, there was a street brawl right on the Grand Place.  West Side Story shit…  a bunch of inebriated teenagers kicking the crap out of each other.  The drinking culture in Brussels definitely gives the city a bit of an edge.

But, actually, I find it more a tired city than a grumpy one-  a reluctant capital of sorts.  Wearily carrying the weight of a history that was never really its own.  And the weight of a present that is not exactly its own.  The Brussels of the past belonged to the heavyweights of Europe.  The Brussels of the present seems to belong predominantly to the European Union, NATO, and hoards of tourists.  If there is a vibrant native urban culture, it is very well hidden, for the residents seem to be turned inward.

Accordion player in Marolles, Brussels

Marolles, Brussels

Beyond all the international hubbub, Brussels seems to be a very large provincial town, segregated by neighborhood. People tend to keep to their own, whether it be in the Arab community around Gare du Midi, the opulent buildings along Boulevard Anspach, or the African community near the Royal Palace.  Even the tourists do not spread too far afield from the city center.  This certain lack of cosmopolitanism is striking for a capital city.

In the past, this provincialism was especially true in working-class Marolles, a fiercely individualistic neighborhood dating from the Middle Ages, which, until very recently, even had its own dialect (Bruxellois- a hybrid of French and Dutch).  A fiercely proud neighborhood battered in the 19th century by the urban development plans of a megalomaniac  monarchy with imperialistic designs.

The final blows to the old Marolles are underway.  Gentrification spreading south from the nearby center is overtaking the area once and for all- another piece sliced off of Brussels’ native character.

……. Of course, there are always exceptions. 

And here, thankfully we  found quite a few.

I came to Brussels for the history and beer.  I got both in great abundance-  The rest was somewhat weary and sad- a confused, frustrated city shrinking from the international spotlight.

Porte de Hal, Brussels

Porte de Hal, Brussels

Porte de Hal:

Hallepoort in Dutch.

The sole surviving gate of the 2nd set of defensive walls built around Brussels in the 14th century, La Porte de Hal dates from 1381.

It faces the adjacent city of Halles and one can still see part of the moat built in front.

If the builders of this structure were to see such a thing as the plane in this picture streaking across the sky, one can only imagine the mortal panic that would ensue, especially only a generation or so after the Black Death.

Le Grand Place, Brussels

Le Grand Place

History of Le Grand Place-

Le Grand Place, or Grote Markt, is undoubtedly the prime attraction of Brussels.  There has been a market here since the 900’s, when a fort was constructed nearby on an island in the Senne (the city covered the river in the 19th century).  As Brussels grew during the Middle Ages, the square became the focal point of the city, hosted many markets, and was the site of the public executions commonly associated with this era.

In 1695, a French army under Louis XIV bombarded Brussels in order to draw its enemies away from a siege at Namur, in the south of Belgium.  A third of the city’s buildings were destroyed, including much of Le Grand Place.  Within 4 years, however, members of Brussels’ mercantile guilds rebuilt the square in grand Baroque style- a testament to the city’s wealth.  These guild halls, and the Hotel de Ville (which survived the attack, despite being a prime target), have made this square one of the most noted in Europe.


About ventilateblog MUSIC Classically trained cellist. Attended Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University - degree in Music Composition, and three years of recording arts and audio electrical engineering. Multiple works for chamber groups and orchestra have been produced and performed. Singer-songwriter with rock and folk roots.. Electronica. Today, it's about mashing together all these things into improbable hybrids. Also, a longtime educator of music. PHOTOGRAPHY Unpredictable and in the moment is what I love. Streets, architecture, and people. Ruined places. History. Frozen moments. Great love for imagines wrought by beautiful mystery of film and vintage cheapy cameras. WRITING The vague, ephemeral. The historical - the ghosts behind the veil of time. Delving deeply into the intricacies of our physical and cultural world. Relaying memory and longing. And sometimes the absurd. Life runs deep. Life

Posted on May 3, 2011, in Belgium, travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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