I was recently in Brussels for a conference. I haven’t been to Brussels for years, and was curious to return to its central Grand’ Place to see its whimsical architecture, but my work schedule and flights made that difficult.
So I woke up early one morning, took a walk, and made the startling discovery-well, perhaps not too startling, truth be told- that Brussels does not share New York’s moniker as the city that never sleeps. Strangely, it even manages to make Rome seem almost like a city of early birds.
But on that Friday on a cold winter’s morning in Brussels, I also had the pleasure of having the entire, spectacular Grand’ Place to myself. I wandered the illuminated square in the crisp morning air, with only the occasional sanitation workers breaking the silence of the square.
The Grand’ Place, named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998, is as spectacular as I remembered. Built in the 17th century, it was a showpiece illustrating the wealth and power of the country’s merchant class. All the old merchant guild houses were housed on this prominent square.
The style is hard to describe – an odd mix of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque. Its reliance on stucco, statues, gold leaf, decorations , and peaked roofs should appear gaudy, but instead the square manages to take on a whimsical, fairy-tale quality –one that is surprisingly harmonious.
The towering spire of the Hôtel de Ville, town hall, is a recognizable point on the cityscape. It’s topped by a statue of St. Michael crushing the devil under his feet.
Across from town hall is the 16th century Maison du Roi. Despite its name, this stunning building never housed a king. Today, it’s the city of the city museum, with an impressive collection of Gothic sculptures, period clothing, and a number of paintings, including Brueghel’s Marriage Procession.
So yes, it was odd to wander the Grand’ Place completely alone in the early morning hours, with no open café or boulangerie in the vicinity. But It was also beautiful.
For the rest of the day, the Grand’ Place is a bustle of tourists, city dwellers, and hectic with crowds filing into its shops, and restaurants, and pubs. Rarely does a visitor have the chance to have it all to himself/herself.
In the end, I enjoyed my solitary wanderings on “my” beautiful seventeenth century square.
Although, on my next visit, I’ll be eager to return during the hours in which my favorite Godiva chocolate shop is open to the public.
On this visit, I managed to leave some chocolate to the good people of Brussels, but I can’t promise the same next time.