There are several cities which house key European Union institutions, each often proclaiming itself to be a Capital of Europe in some way or another. One that stands out amongst these cities is Brussels, which is home to the headquarters of not only the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, but also to NATO, the military alliance linking most Western European countries with the United States and Canada. These institutions have left their mark on the city with their formidable buildings, where major international meetings are often held.
A crossroads in history
In a way, Brussels has been a major crossroads point throughout European history, and it has left a legacy of grand buildings from the time when it served as an important market for the products from around Europe and the wider world. This was a time when the trading burghers grew wealthy, and their civic pride could be translated into public spaces like the Grand Place. Surrounded by late-17th Century buildings which used to serve as guildhalls for the many influential tradesmen of the city, the Grand Place has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The Grand Place has always served as a marketplace and until today, you can still buy items from here at specific times of the day. A well-known bird market is held here nearly every Sunday. A special event which takes place every two years here is the flower carpet. Held in the third week of August, flower cultivators will decorate the flowers to form a pattern following a different theme each time it is held. Almost anytime in the year, large numbers of tourists will come here to view the historical buildings, or to sit in the café terraces to drink signature Belgian.
Another regular event held either at the end of June or the middle of July is the Ommegang. This event commemorates the grand progress of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, into Brussels in 1549. Horsemen and flag bearers dressed in period costume march into the square, and the highlight is the entry of the statue of the Virgin being carried into the square from the Sablon Church, located within Brussels. Limited seating is available, and reservations can be made starting May 19, from the Tourist Information Brussels office, which is located in the Town Hall in the Grand Place itself.
Once the capital of a Global Empire
The magnificence of the Grand Place reflects the history of the city, when it was the headquarters for Charles V’s empire. Then the most powerful ruler in the world, his empire extended to Spain and the newly discovered lands of America. The square itself had started to take shape even before then, when the simple wooden houses ringing the town marketplace began to be replaced by the stone mansions of upper class families who had acquired wealth with the growth of trade and industry. This process began in the 14th century, and by 1455, when the Town Hall was completed, the square had already become the political centre of the city. Meetings were held here, and prominent people visiting the city were received by the cityfolk here.
The buildings which stand in the square today represent the traditional guilds of trades and crafts. However, while the Grand Place had already achieved great prominence earlier, none of the buildings which currently stand are any older than 1695. In that year, an invading French army demolished all of the buildings in the square, save the tower of the Town Hall. All of the buildings surrounding the square were quickly rebuilt in the years following the bombardment. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many of the buildings passed into private hands. The owners wanted to modernize the facades, but the Mayor of Brussels succeeded in regulating this, thus preventing the destruction of Brussels’s most valuable heritage.
With the added status as a World Heritage Site, the Grand Place should remain in well-preserved shape for many years to come. The centerpiece of the square remains the indomitable Town Hall, which was restored after the bombardment in 1695. The building is built in a late-gothic style, decorated with 203 statues representing the Dukes and Duchesses of Brabant (pic above), who ruled the city from AD 580 to 1564. A gilded statue of St. Michael crowns the tower. The current statue is actually a recent replacement for the old one, which had stood in this position from 1455 until 1996, an astonishing 541 years! The present day government of Brussels City still operates from here.
Tours are available here, with prices of EUR 2.48 per person, or EUR 1.98 per person for groups of 12 persons or more.