Belgium – The Heart Of Brussels

THE nucleus of Brussels, as of Paris, was formed by an island, now no longer existing. Round this islet ran two branches of the little river Senne, at present obliterated by the Inner Boulevards. Brussels, in short, has denied its parentage; the Senne, which is visible north and south of the Outer Boulevards, being covered over by arches within the whole of the Inner City.

The centre of the island is marked by the little Place St. Géry, which the reader need not trouble to visit. Here, at the end of the sixth century, St. Géry, Bishop of Cambrai and apostle of Brabant, built a small chapel, succeeded by a church, now demolished. The true centre of Brussels, however, may be conveniently taken as the existing Bourse. Close by, as the town grew, the Grand’ Place or market-place was surrounded by noble mediæval and Renaissance buildings. To this centre then, the real heart of Brussels in the Middle Ages, we first direct ourselves.

Go from your hotel to the Grand’ Place. It may be reached by either of two convenient roads; from the Place Royale by the Montagne de la Cour and the Rue de la Madeleine, or rom the Park by the Montagne du Parc (which takes various names as it descends), and the Galérie St. Hubert. Either route brings you out at the end of the Galérie, whence a short street to the left will land you at once in the Grand’ Place, undoubtedly the finest square in Europe, and the only one which now enables us to reconstruct in imagination the other Grand’s Places of Belgium and the Rhine country.

The most conspicuous building in the Place, with the tall tower and open spire, is the Hôtel-de-Ville, with one possible exception (Louvain) the handsomest in Belgium. It consists of a tapering central tower, flanked by two wings, their high-pitched roof covered with projecting windows. The ground floor is arcaded. The first and second floors have Gothic windows, altered into square frames in . portion of the building. The edifice is of different dates. The original Hôtel-de-Ville consisted only of the wing to your left, as you face it, erected in 1402. The right wing, shorter in façade, and architecturally somewhat different, was added in 1443. The style of the whole, save where altered, is Middle Gothic (” Decorated “). The beautiful open spire should be specially noticed. On its summit stands a colossal gilt metal figure (1454) of the Archangel Michael, patron of the city. The statues in the niches are modern, and not quite in keeping with the character of the building. Observe, over the main portal, St. Michael, patron saint of the town, with St. Sebastian, St. Christopher, St. George, and St. Géry. Below are the Cardinal Virtues. The figures above are Dukes of Brabant. Inspect the whole façade carefully. You will hardly find a nobler piece of civic architecture in Europe. The carved wooden door has also a figure of St. Michael. The gargoyles and the bosses near the staircase entrance to the left are likewise interesting.

Now, go round the corners to the left and right, to inspect the equally fine façades, facing the ,Rues de l’Hôtel-de-Ville and de la rite d’Or. The back of the building is eighteenth century and uninteresting. You may also pass rapidly through the courtyard, which, however, has very little character. But you need not trouble to inspect the interior, unless you are an abandoned sightseer.

The other important and beautiful building which faces the Hôtel-de-Ville is the Maison du Rai, formerly used as the Halle au Pain or Broodhuis. It is of late florid Gothic, verging toward Renaissance (1514, re-stored), and is in three storeys, two of them arcaded. The first floor has an open gallery, like the loggia of a Venetian palace, whence ladies could view processions and ceremonies in the square below. The building terminates in a high roof, with projecting windows, and a handsome open tower and lantern. The whole has been recently rebuilt and profusely gilded. Within, is a small Communal Museum (open free daily, from ten to four). Come again often to view these two noble halls.

The third principal building (on the east side of the Square) known as the Maison des Ducs was the Public Weighing House, constructed in a debased Renaissance style, and also profusely gilded. It bears the date 1698, but is now unworthily occupied by sale rooms and shops.

The whole of the remaining space in this glorious square is surrounded by magnificent Guild Halls of the various corporations.

Beginning on the south side (that occupied by the Hôtel-de-Ville), we have, first, left, two high-gabled houses of good seventeenth-century domestic architecture. Next to them, on the right, comes the Hôtel des Brasseurs, dated 1752, and lately surmounted by a bronze equestrian statue of Charles of Lorraine. This was originally the Guild Hall of the Brewers. After that, again, rises the house known as ” The Swan,” belonging to the Corporation of Butchers. The small building at the corner, next the Hôtel-de-Ville, with an open loggia, now in course of restoration, is known as the Maison de l’Etoile : a gilt star surmounts its gable.

The finest group of houses, however, is that to the west side of the square (right of the Hôtel-de-Ville), unoccupied by any one prominent building. Beginning on the left, we have, first, the house known as ” The Fox ” (Le Renard), dated 1699: it is surmounted by a figure of St. Nicholas resuscitating the three boys, and is adorned with statues of Justice and the Four Continents on its first floor. Then comes the Guild Hall of the Skippers, or Maison des Bateliers, its gable constructed somewhat like the poop of a ship, with four projecting cannon. The symbolism here is all marine — sailors above; then Neptune and his horses, etc. To the right of this, we see the house known as ” La Louve,” bearing as a sign Romulus and Remus with the wolf. This was originally the Guild Hall of the Archers. It shows an inscription stating that it was restored, after being burnt down, by the Confraternity of St. Sebastian (patron of archers). Its relief of the Saint with a bow is appropriate. The two remaining houses are ” La Brouette,” dated 1697, and ” Le Sac,” bearing on its gable a medallion with three faces.

The houses on the north side (that occupied by the Maison du Roi), are less interesting, except those on the extreme right. Next to the Maison du Roi itself come two pretty little decorated houses, beyond which is the Guild Hall of the Painters, known as ” The Pigeon,” and that called ” La Taupe,” the Hall of the Tailors. The two last at the corner of the street are now in course of restoration. Several other fine houses of the same period close the vista of the streets round the corner.

This imposing group of Guild Halls dates, however, only from the end of the seventeenth century, mostly about 1697. The reason is that in 1695 the greater part of the Grand’ Place was destroyed by Marshal de Villeroi during the siege. Two years later, the Guild Houses were rebuilt in the ornate and some-what debased style of the Louis XIV. period. Fortunately, the two great mediæval buildings, which stood almost isolated, did not share the general destruction.

Continue your stroll through the Lower Town.

From the Grand’ Place, take the Rue au Beurre, which leads east toward the Bourse. On your right you will pass the now uninteresting and entirely modernized Church of St. Nicolas. In its origin, however, this is one of ;the oldest churches in Brussels, and though it has long lost almost every mark of antiquity, it is instructive to recognize here again (as at Ghent) the democratic patron saint of the merchants and burgesses in close proximity to their Town Hall and their Guild Houses. The Bourse itself, which faces you, is a hand-sortie and imposing modern building. Go past its side till you reach the line of the Inner Boulevards, which lead north and south between the Gare du Nord and the Gare du Midi this superb line of streets, one of the finest set of modern boulevards in Europe, has been driven straight through the heart of the Old Town, and the authorities offered large money prizes for the best façades erected along the route. Content yourself for the moment with a glance up and down, to observe the general effect, and then continue on to your left along the Boulevard, where the first street on the right will lead you to the little Place St. Géry, now occupied by a market, but originally the centre of Old Brussels. A stroll through the neighbouring streets is interesting, past the Halles Centrales, and the modern Church of St. Catherine, close by which stands the old Tower of St. Catherine, built into a modern block of houses. A little further on is the picturesque Tour Noire, the only remaining relic of the first fortifications of the city. You may prolong this walk to the Place du Béguinage, with a tolerable church. The quarter has no special interest, but it will serve to give you a passing idea of the primitive nucleus of mediæval Brussels.

I will interpolate here a few remarks about the more modern portion of the Old Town. The best way to see it is to take the tram along the Inner Boulevards from the Gare du Midi to the Gare du Nord. You will then pass, first, the Outer Boulevards (see later) : next, right, the Palais du Midi ; left, the Place d’Anneessens, with a statue of Anneessens, the intrepid and public-spirited magistrate of Brussels who was put to death in 1719 for venturing to defend the privileges of the city against the Austrian authorities. Just opposite this, you get a glimpse, to the right, of the Place Rouppe, to be noticed later. Passing the Place Fontainas, where many streets radiate, you arrive at the Bourse, already noticed. The handsome corner building (with dome) in. front of you, which forms so conspicuous an element in the prospect as you approach, is the Hôtel Continental. Just in front of it expands a small new square (Place de Brouckere) still unfinished, on which a monument is now being erected to a late burgomaster (De Brouckere). At this point, the Boulevard divides, the western branch following the course of the Senne (which emerges to light just beyond the Outer Boulevards), while the eastern branch goes straight on to the Gare du Nord, passing at the first corner a handsome narrow house with gilt summit, which won the first prize in the competition instituted by the Municipality for the best façades on the new line of streets.

After reaching the Gare du Nord, you can return to the Gare du Midi by an alternative line of main streets, which also cuts through the heart of the Old Town, a little to the east of the Inner Boulevards. It begins with the Rue Neuve, where a short street to the left conducts you straight to the Place des Martyrs, a white and somewhat desolate square of the eighteenth century (1775), adorned later with a Monument to the Belgians who were killed during the War of Independence in 183o. Shortly after this (continuing the main line) you pass two covered galleries, and then arrive at the Place de la Monnaie. On your right is the handsome building of the new Post Office; on your left, the white Ionic-pillared Grand Théâtre or Théâtre de la Monnaie. You then pass between St. Nicolas on the left, and the Bourse on the right, and continue on to the Place Rouppe (ornamented with a fountain and a statue of Brussels personified) : whence the Avenue du Midi leads you straight to the Place de la Constitution, in front of the South Station.

The remainder of the western half of the town is, for the most part, poor and devoid of interest, though it contains the principal markets, hospitals, and barracks, as well as the basins for the canals which have superseded the Senne.