Grote Markt, Brussels
Published JanuaryFebruary 2014
Something Old, Something New, Something Belgian, Something Brew
From architecture and culture to beer and waffles, this tour of Brussels, Ghent, and Bruges has it all
While traveling beneath the English Channel from London to Brussels, I eagerly anticipate my visit to a country I’ve heard is full of delightful surprises. Belgium has always been in a unique position as a key component to Europe’s livelihood, whether as a trading cornerstone in the 15th century or the political hub it is today. A combination of French and Dutch, it is a place for the old and new, for the serious and the creative, satisfying the desire to both act like a tourist and like a local. It is a place for everyone.
We start our visit at the Brussels Palace of Justice, the epicenter of Belgium’s court system. After marveling at the 19th century architecture by Joseph Poelaert, we gaze out over the panoramic view at the appropriately named Poelaert Square. The icy winter air whips our hair and bites at our faces as we continue on to the flea market on Place du Jeu de Balle. The small square is crammed with the most eclectic collection of items — sculptures and artwork from Africa, family knickknacks, with pieces of new and old Belgian culture scattered throughout. Even if you’re not there to buy, it’s a nice way to get a feel for Brussels and its citizens. After perusing the items for sale, we stop to warm up with coffees and croque-madames at one of the small cafés that surround the market.
The Grand Place (or Grote Markt) has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998, and one look tells you why. We walk past lace shops, chocolatiers, and waffle stands before turning the corner and being suddenly surrounded by intricate beauty and design. The Town Hall, built and rebuilt in the 15th and 17th centuries, stands 315 feet tall. We crane our necks to gaze at the very top, where a 12-foot statue of St. Michael slaying a demon is perched. Drinking in the craftsmanship of the Guildhalls and Maison du Roi, we walk slowly around the square, trying to memorize every detail. Like the Trevi fountain in Rome, or even the Grand Canyon, the Grand Place is something that must be seen to be believed; my words and photos cannot do it justice.
Snow falls our first night, so the next day we crunch tenderly up and down the icy streets toward the Royal Palace of Brussels. Walking past the Royal Park with trees glistening in powdery white snow, we stop to admire the elegance of the palace, which is free to visit, but only open in the summer. Instead, we decide to tour the palace that sits next door.
The entrance to the Palace of Coudenberg is in a square surrounded by museums, but the palace itself is situated underground. Available to the public just in the past 20 years, the 12th century Coudenberg was the seat of power for almost 700 years, before being destroyed in fire, and then razed. Throughout this self-guided tour, I’m amazed at how such a magnificent structure, and its artifacts, can be so old and yet so new to all of us. Standing at the foot of a stone staircase that’s been used for hundreds of years sends chills (unrelated to the temperature) up my spine.
We ride the metro to the Roodebeek station and cross the street to the Cook & Book, a restaurant and bookstore combination. The layout was impossible to imagine until we walk into the first room, dedicated to comics, and then saw the dining tables spread throughout the quirky, yet modern space. Cook & Book comprises a series of connected bookshop rooms where you can shop, relax, and dine. In the Travel room, we eat dinner and sip Maredsous Blond beer next to an Airstream trailer, while listening to a local band play in the Music room.
We take the train to Ghent, a university town about 35 miles northwest of Brussels. While having a layout similar to Bruges, Ghent does not receive quite as many tourists. Visiting in off-season, we never feel particularly crowded at any point in Belgium, but Ghent gives the impression of being a little more open and relaxed.