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.