Wherever else you go in Belgium, allow at least a little time for BRUSSELS, which is undoubtedly one of Europe’s premier cities. Certainly, don’t let its unjustified reputation as a dull, faceless centre of EU bureaucracy deter you: in postwar years, the city has become a thriving, cosmopolitan metropolis, with top-flight museums and architecture (including a well-preserved late seventeenth-century centre), a superb restaurant scene and an energetic nightlife. Moreover, most of the key attractions are crowded into a centre that is small enough to be absorbed over a few long days, its boundaries largely defined by a ring of boulevards – the “petit ring”, or less colloquially, the “petite ceinture”.
First-time visitors to Brussels are often surprised by the raw vitality of the city centre. It isn’t neat and tidy, and many of the old tenement houses are shabby and ill-used, but there’s a buzz about the place that’s hard to resist. The city centre is divided into two main areas. The larger westerly portion comprises the Lower Town, fanning out from the marvellous Grand-Place, with its exquisite guildhouses and town hall, while up above, on a ridge to the east, lies the much smaller Upper Town, home to the finest art collection in the country in the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts.
Since the eleventh century, the ruling elite has lived in the Upper Town, keeping a beady eye on the workers and shopkeepers down below – a state of affairs that still – in part – remains. In recent times, this fundamental class division, so obvious in the layout of the centre, has been further complicated by discord between Belgium’s two main linguistic groups, the Walloons (the French-speakers) and the Flemings (the Dutch- or Flemish-speakers), and to add to the communal stew, these two groups now share their city with many others, including EU civil servants and immigrants from North and Central Africa, Turkey and the Mediterranean. Each of these communities tends to live a very separate, distinct existence, and Brussels’ compact nature heightens the contrasts: in five minutes you can walk from a chichi shopping mall into an African bazaar, or from a depressed slum quarter to a resplendent square of antique shops and exclusive cafés. This is something that increases the city’s allure, not least by way of the sheer variety of affordable cafés and restaurants – Brussels is a wonderful place to eat, its gastronomic reputation rivalling that of Paris. It’s also a great place to drink, with bars ranging from designer chic to rough and ready with everything in between.
The city’s specialist shops are another pleasure. Everyone knows about Belgian chocolates, but here in the capital there are also huge open-air markets, contemporary art galleries and establishments devoted to anything from comic books to costume jewellery and clubland fashion. Furthermore, Belgium is such a small country, and the rail network so fast and efficient, that Brussels also makes the perfect base for a wide range of day-trips. An obvious target is the battlefield of Waterloo, one of the region’s most visited attractions.
Brussels takes its name from Broekzele, or “village of the marsh”, the community which grew up beside the wide and shallow River Senne in the sixth century, allegedly around a chapel built here by St Géry, a French bishop turned missionary. A tiny and insignificant part of Charlemagne’s empire at the end of the eighth century, it was subsequently inherited by the dukes of Lower Lorraine (or Lotharingia – roughly Wallonia and northeast France), who constructed a fortress here in 979. Protected, the village benefited from its position on the trade route between Cologne and the burgeoning towns of Bruges and Ghent to become a significant trading centre in its own right. The surrounding marshes were drained to allow for further expansion, and in 1229 the city was granted its first charter by the dukes of Brabant, the new feudal overlords who controlled things here, on and off, for around two hundred years. In the early fifteenth century, marriage merged the interests of the Duchy of Brabant with that of Burgundy, whose territories passed to the Habsburgs in 1482 when Mary, the last of the Burgundian line, died; she was succeeded by her husband, Maximilian I, who was anointed Holy Roman Emperor in 1494.
The first Habsburg rulers had close ties with Brussels, and the Emperor Charles V (1519–55) ran his vast kingdom from the city for over a decade, making it wealthy and politically important in equal measure. By contrast, his successor Philip II (1527–98) lived in Spain and ruled through a governor (for the whole of the Low Countries) resident in Brussels. It could have been a perfectly reasonable arrangement, but Philip’s fanatical Catholicism soon unpicked the equilibrium. Horrified by the Protestant leanings of many of his Low Country subjects, the king imposed a series of anti-Protestant edicts, and when these provoked extensive rioting, he dispatched an army of ten thousand men – led by a hardline reactionary, the Duke of Albe – to crush his opponents in Brussels absolutely. Albe quickly restored order and then, with the help of the Inquisition, set about the rioters with gusto, his Commission of Civil Unrest soon nicknamed the “Council of Blood” after its habit of executing those it examined. Goaded into rebellion by Albe’s brutality, Brussels, along with much of the Low Countries, exploded in revolt, and in 1577, the one-time protégé of the Habsburgs, William the Silent, made a triumphant entry into the city and installed a Calvinist government. Protestant control lasted for just eight years, before Philip’s armies recaptured Brussels – and the king wasn’t a man to forgive and forget. Seeing which way the religious wind was blowing, hundreds of Protestants left the city and the economy slumped, though complete catastrophe was averted by the conspicuous consumption of the (Brussels-based) Habsburg elite, whose high spending kept hundreds of workers in employment. Brussels also benefited from the digging of the Willebroek Canal, which linked it to the sea for the first time in its history in 1561.
By the 1580s, the Habsburgs had lost control of the northern part of the Low Countries (now the Netherlands) and Brussels was confirmed as the capital of the remainder, the Spanish Netherlands (broadly modern Belgium). Brussels prospered more than the rest of the country, but it was always prey to the dynastic squabbling between France and Spain: in 1695, for example, Louis XIV bombarded Brussels for 36 hours merely to teach his rivals a lesson, though the guilds, those associations of skilled merchants and workers who were crucial to the economy of Brussels, rebuilt their devastated city in double time, and it’s this version of the Grand-Place that survives today.
In 1700 Charles II, the last of the Spanish Habsburgs, died without issue. The ensuing War of the Spanish Succession dragged on for over a decade, but eventually the Spanish Netherlands were passed to the Austrian Habsburgs, who ruled – as had their predecessors – through a governor based in Brussels. It was during this period as capital of the Austrian Netherlands (1713–94) that most of the monumental buildings of the Upper Town were constructed and its Neoclassical avenues and boulevards laid out – grand extravagance in the context of an increasingly industrialized city crammed with a desperately poor working class.
The French Revolutionary army brushed the Austrians aside at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794, and the Austrian Netherlands promptly became a département of France. This lasted until the defeat of Napoleon when, under the terms of the Congress of Vienna which ended hostilities, the great powers decided to absorb the country into the new Kingdom of the Netherlands, ruled by the Dutch King William I. Brussels took turns with The Hague as the capital, but the experiment was short-lived, and in 1830 a Brussels-led rebellion removed the Dutch and led to the creation of an independent Belgium with Brussels as capital.
The nineteenth century was a period of modernization and expansion, during which the city achieved all the attributes of a modern European capital under the guidance of Burgomaster Anspach and King Léopold II. New boulevards were built; the free university was founded; the Senne – which by then had become an open sewer – was covered over in the city centre; many slum areas were cleared; and a series of grand buildings were erected. The whole enterprise culminated in the golden jubilee exhibition celebrating the founding of the Belgium state in the newly inaugurated Parc du Cinquantenaire.
Following the German occupation of Belgium in World War II, the modernization of Brussels has proceeded inexorably, with many major development projects – not least the new métro system – refashioning the city and reflecting its elevated status as the headquarters of both NATO and the EU.