Archduchess Isabella, daughter of Philip II of Spain wrote about the Grand Place during her visit to Brussels on September 5, 1599:
“Never have I seen something so beautiful and exquisite as the town square of the city where the town hall rises up into the sky. The decoration of the houses is most remarkable.”
Isabella wasn’t alone in her thinking, any of the thousands of tourists and locals who step into the square are mesmerized by first the great size and then the blending of architectural and artistic styles. Of course when their stomachs grumbles, no one can help but notice the small shops selling chocolates and waffles.
Today, the Grote Markt (Dutch) or Grand Place (French) is the central market square of Brussels. It is surrounded by guild houses, the city’s Town Hall and the Bread House. Neighboring streets still reflect the area’s origins, named after the sellers of butter, cheese, herring, coal and so on.
History of Brussels and Grand Place
In 580, Saint Gaugericus of Cambrai built a chappel on the largest island in the Senne river, an island soon to be called Saint-Géry in the saint’s namesake. The settlement was in swampy area of low-lying land by the river and remained waterlogged for extended periods of times hence the name “Brussels,” which comes from Bruocsella or Broekzele, meaning “settlement in the marsh.” [Brussels Onderwijs Punt] The red region in the picture above is the island in Brussels in 1837, and the green region is the location of the square.
Later on in the Xth century, King Lothair II of Lotharingia appointed his brother Charles to be Duke of Lower Lorraine. Charles constructed a fort on Saint- Island as a strategic defensive position for the Holy Roman Empire against attacks by the French. [Belgian Monarchy]
The island was said to be once completely carpeted in irises thus the iris has been the symbol of Brussels since the XIXth century and is now the sole feature on the flag of the Brussels-Capital Region.
By the end of the XIth century, an open-air marketplace was set up on a sand bank between two brooks which ran downhill to the Senne River. [Wikipedia Saint-Gery] Once the sand bank was reclaimed it turned into the Niedermerckt, or lower market. [Trabel]
Texts from the beginning of XIIIth century reveal the installation of a first group of buildings made up of three covered markets (bread, cloth and meat) surrounded by wooden houses lived in my representatives of the Duke of Brabant. Beginning in the XIVth century the rich and powerful patrician families began to build stone mansions, and in 1353, the city undertook the construction of a new cloth covered market. [Commune Libre de l’Ilot Sacre]
Later on in the XIVth century, in spite of the paving of the adjacent streets and the expropriation of houses intended to regularize the lower Market, there is an irregular juxtaposition of motley buildings often surrounded by annexes and gardens. Only in the late XVth century would someone attend to the aesthetic development of what became with the course of time the principal economic and political centre of the most important city in Beligium. [Commune Libre de l’Ilot Sacre]
(Photo Courtesy of Kyle Gerstenschalger)
The Town Hall was constructed between 1402 and 1455. The original architect was Jacob van Thienen (click thru link). The gothic tower was designed by architect Jan van Ruysbroeck. At the top of the 318 feet tower stands a statue of St. Michael, the patron of Brussels.
Broodhuis (Bread House) or Maison du roi (King’s House)
Opposite the Town Hall stands the neo-gothic Maison du Roi in French or “Broodhuis” in Dutch. It is now the historical City Museum.
The Dutch name “Broodhuis” (bread house) indicates the origins of the building. In the beginning of the thirteenth century a wooden structure was where the bakers sold their bread. In 1405 a stone building replaced the original wooden bread hall. In the early fifteenth century, when the bakers turned to selling their products from house to house, the building began to be used more and more for administrative purposes by the Duke of Brabant. When the duchy fell to the Habsburgs, the Maison du Duc (Duke’s house) became the Maison du Roi (King’s house), the latter being the current French name of the building. During the reign of Emperor Charles V, the King’s House was rebuilt in a Gothic style between 1515 until 1536.
On August 13, 1695, the French launched a massive bombardment of the mostly defenseless city center with cannons and mortars, setting it on fire and flattening the majority of the Grand Place and the surrounding city. More than 4000 houses were completely destroyed. Only the stone shell of the Town Hall and a few fragments of other buildings remained standing. It’s ironic the only building left standing was the Town Hall, as it was the principal target of the artillery fire.
The square was rebuilt in the following four years by the city’s guilds. Their efforts were regulated by the city councilors and the Governor of Brussels, who required that their plans be submitted to the authorities for their approval thus helping to create a harmonious layout for the rebuilt Grand Place, despite the ostensibly clashing combination of Gothic, Baroque and Louis XIV styles.
We were lucky enough to visit after some of the buildings had been restored and cleaned up.
One of the buildings had yet to be restored and so looked like the above in order to not take away from the picturesq surroundings. We called it the fake facade (the reduncy is noted).
During the day, we swung past the many buildings, stopping to take pictures of the great buildings or the great number of tourists taking pictures. Each inch of every building has so much detail that in order to see everything you must stand a foot away. I don’t know much about architecutre, but here is a page going bit more in depth.
If you see Grand Place mid-day and you don’t think it can get any better, think again. I went back to the square at about mid-night and laid down (more correctly sprawled) in the middle of the square to see it lit up. Each building has lights installed and glows underneath the star-less sky. To the left of me is Joyce who we met at the hostel and traveled around with at night.
But the most beautiful time to visit the square is early Sunday morning before Brussels becomes alive. There are virtually no people and the square is full of flowers from a local shop. Every two years in August, there is an enormous flower carpet made that covers the floor of the square about 19,000 square ft. But even without the installation, I don’t think it’s a hyperbole to say it’s one of the most beautiful squares in Europe.