The obvious place to begin any tour of Brussels is the Grand-Place, one of Europe’s most beautiful squares, which sits among a labyrinth of narrow, cobbled alleys and lanes at the heart of the Lower Town. Here, the Gothic extravagance of the Hôtel de Ville (town hall) presides over the gilded facades of a full set of late seventeenth-century guildhouses, whose columns, scrolled gables and dainty sculptures encapsulate Baroque ideals of balance and harmony. Inevitably, such an outstanding attraction draws tourists and expats in their droves, but there’s no better place to get a taste of Brussels’ past and Eurocapital present.
Originally marshland, the Grand-Place was drained in the twelfth century, and by 1350 covered markets for bread, meat and cloth had been erected, born of an economic boom that was underpinned by a flourishing cloth industry. Later, the Grand-Place’s role as the commercial hub of the emergent city was cemented when the city’s guilds built their headquarters on the square and, in the fifteenth century, it also assumed a civic and political function with the construction of the Hôtel de Ville. The ruling dukes visited the square to meet the people or show off in tournaments, and it was here that official decrees and pronouncements were proclaimed.
During the religious wars of the sixteenth century, the Grand-Place became as much a place of public execution as trade, but thereafter resumed its former role as a marketplace. Of the square’s medieval buildings, however, only parts of the Hôtel de Ville and one or two guildhouses have survived, the consequence of an early example of the precepts of total war, a 36-hour French artillery bombardment which pretty much razed Brussels to the ground in 1695; the commander of the French artillery gloated, “I have never yet seen such a great fire nor so much desolation”. After the French withdrew, the city’s guildsmen dusted themselves down and speedily had their headquarters rebuilt, adopting the distinctive and flamboyant Baroque style that characterizes the square today.Read More
The Hôtel de Ville
The Hôtel de Ville
From the south side of the Grand-Place, the scrubbed and polished Hôtel de Ville (town hall) dominates proceedings, its 96m spire soaring high above two long series of robust windows, whose straight lines are mitigated by fancy tracery and an arcaded gallery. The edifice dates from the beginning of the fifteenth century, when the town council decided to build itself a mansion that adequately reflected its wealth and power. The first part to be completed was the east wing – the original entrance is marked by the twin lions of the Lion Staircase, though the animals were only added in 1770. Work started on the west wing in 1444 and continued until 1480. Despite the gap, the wings are of very similar style, and you have to look hard to notice that the later one is slightly shorter than its neighbour, allegedly at the insistence of Charles the Bold who – for some unknown reason – refused to have the adjacent rue de la Tête d’Or narrowed. The niches were left empty and the statues seen today, which represent leading figures from the city’s past, were added as part of a nineteenth-century refurbishment.
By any standard, the tower of the Hôtel de Ville is quite extraordinary, its remarkably slender appearance the work of Jan van Ruysbroeck, the leading spire specialist of the day, who also played a leading role in the building of the cathedral. Ruysbroeck had the lower section built square to support the weight above, choosing a design that blended seamlessly with the elaborately carved facade on either side – or almost: look carefully and you’ll see that the main entrance is slightly out of kilter. Ruysbroeck used the old belfry porch as the base for the new tower, hence the misalignment, a deliberate decision rather than the miscalculation which, according to popular legend, prompted the architect’s suicide. Above the cornice protrudes an octagonal extension where the basic design of narrow windows flanked by pencil-thin columns and pinnacles is repeated up as far as the pyramid-shaped spire, a delicate affair surmounted by a gilded figure of St Michael, protector of Christians in general and of soldiers in particular. The tower is off-limits, and guided tours in English are confined to a string of lavish official rooms used for receptions and town council meetings. Tours begin at the reception desk off the interior quadrangle; be prepared for the guides’ overly reverential script.
The health of Charles II
The health of Charles II
Philip IV of Spain (1605–65) had no fewer than fourteen children, but only one of his sons – Charles II (1661–1700) – reached his twenties. With women banned from the succession, the hapless, sickly Charles became king aged just four and, much to everyone’s surprise, survived to adulthood. After his first marriage in 1679, there were great hopes that he would sire an heir, but none arrived, allegedly because Charles suffered from premature ejaculation. A second marriage, twenty years later, was equally fruitless and, as it became increasingly clear that Charles was unable to procreate, Europe focused on what was to happen when Charles died and the Spanish royal line died out. Every ambassador to the Spanish court wrote long missives home about the health of Charles, none more so than the English representative, Stanhope, who painted an especially gloomy picture: “He (Charles) has a ravenous stomach and swallows all he eats whole, for his nether jaw stands out so much that his two rows of teeth cannot meet…His weak stomach not being able to digest the food, he voids it in the same (whole) manner.”
In the autumn of 1700, it was clear that Charles was dying and his doctors went to work in earnest, replacing his pillows with freshly killed pigeons and covering his chest with animal entrails. Not surprisingly, this didn’t work and Charles died on November 1, an event which triggered the War of the Spanish Succession.