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Apart from being one of the most beautiful landmarks of Brussels (or even Europe), the Grand Place has also been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998. The large square paved with cobblestones feels like an open-air museum, as it is surrounded by majestic monuments like the guild houses, the Museum of the City of Brussels and the town hall.
The grand majority of buildings have been constructed after the massive bombardment of Brussels in 1695. The French attacked the mostly defenseless city center with cannons and mortars in an effort to draw the League of Augsburg's forces away from their siege on French-held Namur . As a result, only the town hall and fragments of a few other buildings remained standing. The city’s guilds rebuilt most of the Grand Place in the following four years.
Did you notice that the town hall is not built symmetrically at all? It could be fun to challenge your travel companion to spot as many differences as you can. The faulty symmetry is due to the fact that it was built in several stages between 1402 and 1455, each one under the lead of different architects. Although the gothic building looks good at first sight, you’ll notice that the tower is not exactly in the middle and that it has round windows on one side and square ones on the other… Legend has it that the architect who designed the building committed suicide by jumping from the top of the belfry after realizing his mistake. The spot has ever since been marked with a star. Truth is, the star represents the zero point in Brussels, the point from which the distance to the capital is measured. And the statue towering over the townhall is of Saint Michael, the patron saint of Brussels, slaying a demon.
The Museum of the City of Brussels
The Museum of the City of Brussels is located in the Maison du Roi (French for King's House) or Broodhuis (Dutch for Bread Hall). In the 13th century, it was a wooden building where bread was sold. In the 15th century, it was replaced by a stone building that housed the administrative services of the duke and later the king. The locals kept on calling it the Broodhuis, whereas the French-speaking elite referred to the building as the Maison du Duc or Maison du Roi.
Today, the building houses the Museum of the City of Brussels. It is dedicated to the history and folklore of the City of Brussels from its foundation to modern times, which it presents through paintings of Breughel, sculptures, fine tapestries, engravings, photos and models, including a notable scale-representation of the town during the Middle Ages.
Access to the museum is 8 euro, which also grants you access to the Garderobe MannekenPis. Every first Sunday of the month, entrance is free.
The guild halls
The facades of the guild houses on Grand Place have marvelous and detailed facades which reveal a lot about their days of glory, when Brussels was one of Europe’s main centers of industry. Can you guess which one belonged to the brewer’s guild? Or to the bakers? They’re actually quite easy to recognize.
- Le Roi d’Espagne (no. 1) was the baker’s house, which you can tell by the statue of St. Aubert, patron of bakers, on the first floor. Other clues are the six statues on the balustrade representing the six ingredients of bread: energy, agriculture, wind, fire, water and prudence. Currently a restaurant, the building is named after king Charles II (1661-1700), ruler of the Spanish empire. On the second floor, his statue looks down on two slaves in chains, which refers to his triumphs.
- La Brouette (no. 2-3) belonged to the guild of the fat renderers who sold products like butter, cheese, sausages, oil and candles. The fronton features a statue of Saint Gilles, the patron of the fat renderers.
- Le Sac(no. 4) belonged to the woodworkers and coopers.
- La Louve (no. 5) features a statue of Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome, who are being suckled by a wolf. The archer’s guild later bought the building and added some attributes to the facade. One of those decorations is the golden phoenix towering over the house, symbolizing the rebirth of the house after a devastating fire in 1690 .
- Le Cornet (no. 6) is covered by nautical symbols and the rooftop features a replica of a galleon’s stern, manned by a scaled horse. This guildhall belonged to the boatmen.
- Le Renard (no. 7) is the House of the Corporation of haberdashers. Look for the beautiful wooden statue of a fox above the entrance.
- L’Etoile (no. 8) is the smallest, but oldest house on the Grand Place. It used to be inhabited by the amman, the representative of the king.
- La Cygne (no. 9) was the butchers’ guildhall, featuring a carved swan above the door. In 1847, communist ideology founder Karl Marx spent a lot of time here. Nowadays it has ironically become the Grand Place’s finest upmarket restaurant.
- L’Arbre d’Or (no. 10) is the House of the Corporation of Brewers and is decorated with hop leaves. Its basement is nowadays converted into a brewery museum.
- La Rose (no. 11) and Le Mont Thabor (no. 12) were both private houses.
- The entire east side of the square (no. 13 to 19) is taken up by the House of the Dukes of Brabant, which housed guildhalls of the carpet makers, tanners, cartwrights, sculptors, masons, stone-cutters and slate-cutters.
- The north side (from no. 20 to 39) holds mainly private houses, apart from La Chaloupe d’Or (no. 24-25) and Le Pigeon (no. 26-27). The former was the House of the Corporation of Tailors, characterized by the rooftop statue of Saint Homobonus of Cremona, patron saint of tailors. The house next-doors was the property of the Corporation of Painters, which is where Victor Hugo stayed during his stay in Brussels.
Events on the Grand Place
The Grand Place often hosts major events and festivities like
- The light and sound show during the Christmas period.
- The Flower carpet: Every two years, the entire square is covered with a million colorful begonias.
- Flowertime: Alternating with the Flower Carpet, Flowertime transforms the city hall into unique floral exhibition space
- The Ommegang: a historical re-enactment of the arrival of Emperor Charles V in Brussels in 1549.
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