Belgium – Brussels – The Upper Town

FROM the Grand Place, two main lines of streets lead toward the Upper Town. The first, which we have already followed, runs straight to the Cathedral ; the second, known as the Rue de la Madeleine and then as the Montagne de la Cour, mounts the hill to the Place Royale.

The city of the merchants lay about the Hôtel-de-Ville, the Senne, and the old navigation. The town and the court of the Counts of Louvain and Dukes of Brabant clustered about the Castle on the high ground over-looking the Lower City. On this hill, the Caudenberg, the Counts of Louvain built their first palace, close to what is now the Place Royale. Their castle was burnt down in 1731, but the neighbourhood has ever since been the seat of the Belgian court for the time being -Burgundian, Austrian, Dutch, or Coburger. All this quarter, however, has been so greatly altered by modem ” improvements ” that scarcely a relic of antiquity is now left in it, with the exception of a few medieval churches.

In spite of the competition of the Central or Inner Boulevards, the Montagne de la Cour, which mounts directly from the Grand’ Place to the Cour (the residence of the Dukes or afterward of the Emperors and the Austrian Viceroys), still remains the principal street for shopping in Brussels. It takes one straight into the Place Royale, one of the finest modern squares in Europe, occupying in part the site of the old Castle. Its centre is filled by the famous statue of Godfrey de Bouillon by Simonis : the great Crusader is represented on horseback, waving his banner, and crying his celebrated cry of ” Dieu le veut ! ” The unimpressive Church, with Corinthian pillars, a crude fresco in the pediment, and a green cupola, which faces you as you enter, is St. Jacques sur Caudenberg. To right and left you open up vistas of the Rue de la Régence and the Rue Royale. The former is closed by the huge mass of the new Palais de Justice.

The latter ends in the great domed church of Ste. Marie de Schaerbeck.

In order to gain a proper conception of the Upper Town, one of the best-arranged in Europe, you must take the Place Royale and the Ancienne Cour (just below it) as your starting-point. The Place, the Park, and the streets about them were all laid out, under Austrian rule, at the end of the eighteenth century (1774) by the architect Guimard, who thus made Brussels into the handsome town we now see it. Turning to the right from the Place Royale, toward the Rue de la Régence, you come first to the gateway of a courtyard, guarded by sentinels. Disregarding these, push past them into the court as if the place belonged to you. The quadrangle you have entered is the site of the old Palace of the Dukes of Brabant, for which the present building, known as the Ancienne Cour, was substituted by the Austrian Stadtholders in 1731 after the great fire. The first building to your left is occupied by the Royal Museum and Library. The portion of the building at the end of the court, in a semicircular recess, contains the Modern Picture Gallery (open daily from ten to four, free). In this gallery are colleted the chief works of the modern Bèlgiani School of Painters, which the tourist shod not omit to study, but a full description of which lies wholly outside the scope of these Guide Books.

This modern Belgian School was started in Antwerp, after the Revolution of 183o. It answered at first to the romantic movement in France (headed by Delaroche, Géricault, and others), but the Belgian painters dealt mainly in historical pictures drawn from the struggles for liberty in their own country. The most distinguished of these ” romantic ” Belgian artists were Louis Gallait and Edouard de Bièfve, whose chief national works are to be seen in this gallery. Though they belong to a type which now strikes us as mannered and artificial, not to say insipid, they may help to impress historical facts on the spectator’s memory. A very different side of the national movement will meet us at Antwerp. The later Belgian School has been gradually swamped by Parisian tendencies.

Returning to the Place Royale, and con-tinning along the Rue de la Régence, the first building on the left closed with a grille is the Palace of the Comte de Flandre. Nearly opposite it (with four granite pillars) is the Palais des Beaux-Arts, containing the Ancient Pictures (already noticed). Further on to the right we arrive at the church of Notre-Damedes-Victoires (” Eglise du Sablon “), to be described in detail hereafter. The pretty and coquettish little garden on the left is the Square or Place du Petit Sablon. It contains a modern monument to Counts Egmont and Hoorn, the martyrs of Belgian freedom, by Fraikin, and is worth a visit. The little statuettes on the parapet of the square represent artisans of the old Guilds of Brussels. The building at the back of the Place is the Palace of the Duke d’Arenberg : its central part was Count Egmont’s mansion (erected 1548). Further on, to the left, come the handsome building of the Conservatoire de Musique and then the Jewish Synagogue. The end of the street is blocked by the gigantic and massive façade of the new Palais de Justice, one of the hugest buildings of our period, imposing by its mere colossal size and its almost Egyptian solidity, but not architecturally pleasing. The interior need not trouble you.

Northward from the Place Royale, again, stretches the Rue Royale, along which, as we walk, we have ever before us the immense gilt dome] of Ste. Marie de Schaerbeck. This fine street was admirably laid out in 1774 by the architect Guimard, who was the founder of the Modern plan of Brussels. It is a fine promenade, along the very edge of the hill, beautifully varied, and affording several attractive glimpses over the earlier town by means of breaks in the line of houses, left on purpose by Guimard, some of which have, however, been unfortunately built up. Starting from the Place Royale, we have first, on our right, the Hôtel Bellevue; beyond which, round the corner, facing the Park, extends the unprepossessing white façade of the King’s Palate (eighteenth century, rebuilt). Then, again on the right, we arrive at the pretty little Park, laid out by Guimard in 1774, on the site of the old garden of the Dukes of Brabant. This is a pleasant lounging-place, animated in the afternoon, when the band plays. It contains ponds, sculpture, nursemaids, children, and one of the principal theatres.

Continuing still northward, we pass the Statue of Belliard, in the first break, and then the Montagne du Parc, on the left, leading direct to the Lower Town. At the end of the Park, the Rue de la Loi runs to the right, east-ward, toward the Exhibition Buildings. The great block of public offices in this street, facing the Park, includes the Chamber of Representatives (Palais de la Nation) and the principal Ministries. Beyond these we get, on the left, a glimpse of the Cathedral, and on the right a number of radiating streets which open out toward the fashionable Quartier Léopold. Then, on the left, we arrive at the Place du Congrès with its Doric column, commemorating the Congress which ratified the Independence in 1831. It has a hundred and ninety-three spiral steps, and can be ascended for the sake of its admirable * view, the best general outlook to be obtained over Brussels. (A few sous should be given to the guardian.) The prospect from the summit (morning light best) will enable you to identify every principal building in the city (good map by Kiessling, 72, Montagne de la Cour.

Continuing our route, the street to the right leads to the little Place de la Liberté. Beyond this, the Rue Royale goes on to the Outer Boulevards, and finally ends at Ste. Marie de Schaerbeck, a gigantic modern Byzantine church, more splendid than beautiful, but a good [termination for an afternoon ramble.

Thé Outer Boulevards of Brussels, which ring !round the original fourteenth century city, have now been converted into magnificent promenades, planted with trees, and supplied with special lanes for riders. These Boulevards perhaps the handsomest in the world, replace the ancient walls, erected in 1357-’379, when the town had already reached such considerable limits. Most of what is interest ng or important in Brussels is still to be faun within the irregular pentagonal ring of thé Boulevards. A pleasant way of seeing the whole round is to take the electric tram, from the Gare du Nord, by the Upper Boulevards, to the Gare du Midi. You first mount the steep hill, with the Botanical Gardens on your left, backed by the extensive hothouses.

The line then crosses the Rue Royale, looking on the left toward Ste. Marie de Schaerbeek, and on the right toward the Place Royale. As you turn the corner, you have on your left a small triangular garden, and on your right the circular Place des Barricades, with a statue of the great anatomist Vesalius, physician to Charles V., and an indirect victim of the Inquisition. The rail then bends round the Boulevard du Régent, with glimpses (to the right) of the Park, and (to the left) of the Squares in the Quartier Léopold. You next pass, on the right, the Palais des Académies in its neatly kept garden, beyond which you arrive at the private gardens of the Royal Palace and the Place du Trône. Hence you continue to the Place de Namur and the Fontaine de Brouckere, and continue on to the Place Louise, at which point the open Avenue Louise leads direct to the pleasant Bois de la Cambre. The Boulevard de Waterloo carries you on to the Porte de Hal, the only one of the old gateways still standing. This is a massive fortress of irregular shape, built in 1381, and it was used by the Spanish authorities in the time of Alva as the Bastille of Brussels. The interior (open free, daily) contains a fine winding staircase and a small collection of arms and armour, with a little Ethnographical Museum, which is worth ten minutes’ visit in passing. Hence, the Boulevard du Midi conducts you straight to the Gare du Midi, from which point you can return, on foot or by tram, through the Inner Boulevards or diagonally through the old town, to your hôtel.

The remainder of the Outer Boulevards, leading from the Gare du Midi to the Gare du Nord by the western half of the town, is commonly known as the Lower Boulevards, (Note the distinction of Upper, Lower, and Inner.) It passes through a comparatively poor quarter, and is much less interesting than the other half. The only objects of note on its circuit are the slaughter-houses and the basins of the canal. Nevertheless, a complete tour of the Boulevards, Upper, Lower, and Inner, will serve to give you a better general conception of Brussels within the old walls than you can otherwise obtain.

I cannot pretend in this Guide to point out all the objects of interest in Modern Brussels, within this great ring. Speaking generally, the reader will find pleasant walks for spare moments in the quarter between the Rue Royale or the Rue de la Régence and the Upper Boulevards. This district is high, healthy, and airy, and is chiefly given over to official buildings. On the other hand, the quarter between these two streets and the Inner Boulevards, especially southward about the Place St. Jean and the Rue de l’Etuve, leads through some interesting portions of seventeenth century and eighteenth century Brussels, with occasional good domestic architecture. The district lying west of the Inner Boulevards is of little interest, save in its central portion al-ready indicated. It is the quarter of docks, entrepôts, and the more squalid side of whole-sale business.

The immense area of Brussels outside the Outer Boulevards I cannot pretend to deal with. Pleasant walks may be taken at the east end of the town about the Chaussée de Louvain, the Square Marie-Louise, the Exhibition Grounds, the Parc Léopold (near which is the too famous Musée Wiertz), and the elevated land in the eastern quarter generally. The Bois de la Cambre, the true park of Brussels, makes a delightful place to walk or drive in the afternoon, especially on Sundays. It somewhat resembles the Bois de Boulogne, but is wilder and prettier. Perhaps the Most satisfactory way of visiting it is to take the tram to the gate of the wood, and then Walk through it.

There are three other churches, beside the Cathedral, in the neighbourhood of the Place Royale, which you may go to see, if you have plenty, of time left, but which you need not otherwise trouble about. The three can be easily combined in a single short round.

Go down the Montagne du Parc, and take the first turning to the left, Rue des Douze Apôtres, which will bring you direct to the little Chapelle de l’Expiation, erected in 1436, on the site of the synagogue where the Stolen Hosts were profaned, and in expiation of the supposed crime. The exterior of the building has been modernized, and indeed the whole is of little interest, save in connection with the Cathedral and the Stolen Hosts ; but a glance inside is not undesirable. The interior, flamboyant Gothic, is thoroughly well decorated throughout, in modern polychrome, with scenes from the Gospel History. The apse has good modem stained-glass windows, and frescoes of angels holding the instruments of the Passion. It is separated from the nave by a high rood-loft, without a screen. Modern taste has here almost entirely ignored the painful and malicious story of the Stolen Wafers.

Now, continue down the Rue des Sols as far as the Rue de l’Impératrice (where a slight détour to the right takes you in front of the Université Libre, a large and somewhat imposing, but uninteresting building). Continue rather to the left down the Rue de l’Impératrice, crossing the Montagne de la Cour, into the Rue de l’Empereur and the Rue d’Or, till you arrive at the Place de la Chapelle, containing the church of Notre-Dame de la Chapelle — after the Cathedral, the finest medieval church of Brussels. The exterior has lately (alas!) been quite too much re-stored. It shows a fine nave and aisles of the fifteenth century, and a much lower and very beautiful choir of the thirteenth century, with some Romanesque details of an earlier building (tenth century?). Walk once round the church, to observe the exterior architecture.

The west front is massive rather than beautiful. The sculpture over the door (the Trinity with angels, and Our Lady) is modern. Over the southern portal is a modern relief, in a Romanesque tympanum, representing the Coronation of Our Lady by God the Father and the Son. The Romanesque and transitional work of the beautiful low choir and apse has unfortunately been over-restored.

The interior, with its fine nave and aisles, is impressive, especially as you look from the centre down toward the west end. The round pillars of the nave are handsome, and have the usual figures of the Twelve Apostles. The pulpit is one of the familiar seventeenth century monstrosities, with palms, and Elijah in the Wilderness. The interior of the pretty little apse has been so completely modernized as to leave it little interest. There are a few good pictures of the School of Rubens (De Grayer, Van Thulden, etc.).

On emerging from the church, follow the tramway line up the hill to the market-place of the Grand Sablon. Good views in every direction as you enter the Place. The square is animated on Fridays and Sundays, when markets are held here. Pass through the market-place, which contains an absurd eighteenth century monument, erected by a Marquis of Ailesbury of the period, in gratitude for the hospitality he had received from the citizens of Brussels, and continue on to the Rue de la Régence, passing on your right the beautiful apse of the church of Notre-Damedes-Victoires, now unhappily threatened with restoration. The entrance is in the Rue de la Régence, and the church is not oriented.

Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, or Notre-Dame du Sablon, was founded in 1304 by the Guild of Crossbowmen; but the existing late Gothic building is almost entirely of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It has been over-restored in parts, and the beautiful crumbling exterior of the apse is now threatened with disfigurement.

The interior is pleasing. Over the Main Entrance, within, is a curious ex voto of a ship, in commemoration of the arrival of a sacred image, said to have floated miraculously by sea.

The first chapel to your left as you enter has a tomb of Count Flaminio Garnier, secretary to the Duke of Parma, partly restored, but with fine original alabaster reliefs of the early Renaissance, representing the History of the Virgin. The series begins below ; (1) Meeting of Joachim and Anna at the Golden Gate; (2) The Birth of the Virgin; (3) The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple. Then, above: (4) Annunciation; note the relative positions of the angel and Our Lady, the lily, the prie-dieu, and the loggia in the background ; (5) the Visitation, with the usual arch; and (6) the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.

The apse has restored figures of saints (named) in imitation of those which were discovered in ruined fresco during the restoration. They are a good typical collection of the saints most venerated in the Low Countries in the Middle Ages.

The nave has the usual figures of Apostles, named, and a small open triforium just below the clerestory. The pulpit has on its face a medallion of Our Lady; right and left, Moses and St. Augustine. Below, the four beasts of the Evangelists.

You need not trouble about any other special building in Brussels; but you may occupy yourself pleasantly with many walks through all parts of the city.

You are now in a position to understand the growth and spread of Brussels. From the very beginning, the merchant town occupied the valley, while the capital of the counts, dukes, or sovereigns spread over the hill, in the neighbourhood of what are still significantly called the Montagne de la Cour and the Place Royale. To this day the two contrasted parts of the city are broadly distinct. The valley speaks Flemish; the mountain, French. In the valley stand all the municipal and mercantile buildings — the Hôtel-de-Ville, the Bourse, the Post-Office, the markets, and the principal places of wholesale business. On the hill stand the Royal Palace, the Government Offices, the Legislative Body, the Minis-tries, the Palais de Justice, and the whole of the National Museums and collections. From this point of view again, in our own day, the valley is municipal, and the hill national. The contrasted aspects of the Inner Boulevards and the Rue de la Régence well mark the difference. In the valley, you will find, once more, the !hotels of commerce and of the passing traveller; on the hill, those frequented by ambassadors and the wealthier class of foreign tourists. Near the Place Royale were situated the houses of the old Brabant nobility, the Egmonts and the Cuylenburgs; as at the present day are situated those of the Arenbergs and the De Chimays.

Historically, the spread of the town from its centre began toward the Castle of the Counts of Louvain and Dukes of Brabant, in the Ancienne Cour, now occupied by the Royal Library and the Modern Picture Gallery, as well as toward the ecclesiastical quarter of the Cathedral and the Chancellerie. The antiquity of this portion of the Upper Town is well marked by the continued existence of the mediæval churches of Notre-Dame de la Chapelle, Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, and the Chapelle de l’Expiation. Under the Burgundian. princes, Brussels ranked second to Ghent and Bruges; but after the Hapsburgs obtained possession of the Low Countries, it was made the principal residence of the sovereigns in their western domains. Charles V. inhabited it as one of his chief capitals. Under

Philip II. of Spain, it became the official residence of the Stadtholder of the Netherlands ; and Margaret of Parma, who bore that office, held her court in the old Palace. From that time forth Brussels was recognized as the common capital of the southern Low Countries. The Austrian Stadtholders habitually lived here; and when, after the Napoleonic upheaval, Belgium and Holland were united into a single kingdom, Brussels was made the alternative capital with Amsterdam. By the time that Belgium asserted her independence in 1830, Brussels had thus obtained the prescriptive right to become the seat of government of the new nation.

The old Palace had been burnt down in 1731, and the outer wings of the existing Palace were built by the Austrians shortly after. It was they, too, who laid out the Rue Royale and Place Royale, with the Park and its surroundings, as we still see them at the present day. To the Austrian rulers are also due the Parliamentary Buildings : but the Palais des Académies was built under Dutch rule in 1829. Since 183o the town has been greatly beautified and improved.

The Inner Boulevards have been opened through the labyrinth of streets in the old centre; the Palais de justice has been built, the quartier Léopold has grown up, and great, edifices have been erected at Schaerbeek and elsewhere on the outskirts.

At the present day, of Brussels within the Boulevards, the Hill District is governmental and fashionable; the Central District, municipal and commercial; the Western District contains the markets, basins, canals, and whole-sale business side of the city. Without the Boulevards, fashion has spread eastward to-ward’ the Bois de la Cambre and the Parc Léopold. The poorer districts run southward and westward. But every part of the city is ampli provided with wide thoroughfares and open breathing-spaces. In this respect, Brussels is one of the best arranged cities in Europe.