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BRUSSELS - A GRAND PLACE

The greatest sightseeing highlight of the Belgian capital is the Grand'Place. Quite apart from the permanent visual feast in one of Europe's finest city squares, several major festive events are centred on this traditional marketplace. 

There is music and a Sound and Light show every evening from Easter until late September, when the floodlit facades look as if made of delicate Brussels lace. For most of the year, colourful flower stalls appear almost daily, while every Sunday sees a flourishing pet and bird market.

Every year, a 3-day jazz marathon takes place in mid-May, with some shows elsewhere in the city. For 2008 it's 23-25 May.

Then on July 1-3 hordes of actors in 16th-century costume re-enact a historic procession called the Ommegang Renaissance, complete with horses and jousters - 1400 performers altogether.

Travel Facts

 

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TRAVEL FACTS

Central Brussels divides into the Lower Town around the Grand'Place; and the Upper Town around the Royal Palace. There's a steep climb from Lower to Upper, and it's worth taking a taxi. Make sure your footwear can cope with cobbles.

In Belgium, half the population speak French, but the other half speak Flemish, which doubles as Dutch. Brussels is half-and-half, totally bilingual, with street names in both languages. Most Belgians can speak English.

Shops and banks are generally open 9-12 hrs and 14-18 hrs. Tourist shops are open Sundays, while museums close mostly on Mondays.

What to buy: chocolate, lace, beer, tobacco. 

More information: Tourism Flanders-Brussels, 1a Cavendish Sq., London W1G 0LD. Tel: 0207 307 7738. Brochure line 0800-9545-245. 

or Belgian Tourist Office Brussels & Wallonia, 217 Marsh Wall, London E14 9FJ. 
Brochures can be downloaded online.
 

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They start from Sablon Church, and you can watch along the route. Three thousand seats in the Grand'Place itself are available by ticket only, bought in advance. Check the dates from the Belgian Tourist Office for Brussels & Wallonia in London.

In mid-August 2008 the Grand'Place will be covered with a gigantic flower carpet, using ten colours of 700,000 begonias. This event is held every second year.

Best of all, throughout December  the Grand'Place with a few stalls is starting-point for an annual European Christmas market that reaches to the former Fish Market - Place Sainte Catherine.

Products from all over Europe are on display, while jugglers, musicians and painters entertain among the stalls that sell crafts, toys, delicacies and wines. Decorations vary, but typically the city planners may decide to give the event a country look, with lit-up cows and sheep floating in the air. 

The easiest route to Brussels is by Eurostar from London, starting from St Pancras. In 2 hours 20 minutes you're rolling into Brussels' Midi Station. Take an immediate connection to Central Station, and it's only a short stroll to the Grand'Place. 

En route, however, you may get waylaid by the splendid glass covered Galeries St-Hubert, one of the earliest shopping arcades ever built in Europe, dating from 1847. The galleries are split into three - the King's, the Queen's and the Princes' Gallery - all very stylish and pricey.
Gable-end architecture is a favourite style
The Grand'Place layout as a marketplace dates from the 12th century. The city's first ramparts protected the square and the surrounding rabbit-warren of narrow streets. 

These little streets formed the food district, and their names still survive into the 21st century - Butter Street, Pepper Street, Herrings, Meat and Bread, Butchers, Herb Market Street...  

When the city expanded outside its 12th-century walls, a second line of fortifications arose in the 14th century. By the 18th century, with still further city expansion, the walls had become a nuisance, and Napoleon had them removed.

The present-day look of the Grand'Place owes thanks to a bombardment of the city ordered by Louis XIV in 1695. Training their cannon on the Town Hall spire, the French artillerymen rained 4,000 cannon balls on the city centre. 

The square and its surrounding wooden houses were set ablaze. All that survived was the Town Hall, damaged but not destroyed.

Out of the ruins a new Grand'Place arose, with the guild houses of the wealthy trade guilds rebuilt in stone. In four years the job was done, all in Italian Baroque style, with each guild rivalling its neighbour in lavish decoration. Overlooking everything is the Town Hall, though the lack of balance led to an accusation that the architect was drunk when he designed it. 

Each side of the square is packed shoulder-to-shoulder with civic buildings. Gold-leaf decorations sparkle in the sunshine or glow in the evening floodlighting. Every building has a story.

Like all good Belgian city-centre squares, whenever you're gripped by hunger and thirst, there are numerous taverns and restaurants within easy reach. 

Shell-fish display outside a restaurant in Rue des Bouchers Explore the very narrow street called La Petite Rue des Bouchers. A former centre of the meat trade, it's now totally lined with restaurants. Just wander along and inspect the menus in what's known as 'The Stomach of Brussels'.

Despite the original meat connection, many of the eating places are dedicated to seafood. Chez Leon, for instance, is Europe's most famous restaurant for mussels, with branches in other cities including Paris.


During warm weather you can do your Grand'Place sightseeing sitting down with a coffee or beer at one of the square's outdoor bar terraces. If you can spare the time, remember that Belgium boasts a selection of 400 different brews. The most popular tourist symbol of Brussels is the Mannekin-Pis fountain of a nude boy. He has leaked away for centuries, but still hasn't finished. The Mannekin is reproduced in every imaginable souvenir style. 

There's a custom of dressing him up in national costumes and uniforms during the year, mainly on special days for various trades and guilds. Six hundred costumes are displayed in the Museum of Brussels, housed in the Maison du Roi in the Grand'Place. There's even an Elvis Presley outfit.
Maison du Roi
Despite its appearance, the Maison du Roi (or the Bread Hall in Flemish) is not medieval. It was built in late 19th century, on the site of the original Bread Market. 

There's a museum of the development of Brussels on the first floor and historical paintings on the top floor, where the Mannekin-Pis costumes are displayed. If you go around the corner to the Rue de la Colline, lined with chocolate shops, you can buy Mannekin-Pis in edible form. 

Read what else to see in Belgium

BELGIUM - Flanders in a nutshell

ANTWERP for Rubens and rocks

BRUGES - fast track to the Middle Ages

FLANDERS - Visit Ypres for Flanders Fields

GHENT - A central base for Belgium's art cities


"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

Brussels (Eyewitness Travel Guides) - Everything you need to know during a long or short stay in the Belgian capital. 

Flemish Cities Explored: Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Mechelen, Leuven and Ostend (Pallas for Pleasure)  by Anthony Blunt - Excellent choice for anyone who wants to stay longer in Belgium, and explore the highlights in detail on foot.

The Rough Guide to Brussels - Good coverage of hotels, bars and restaurants at all levels, together with all the sightseeing highlights. Also describes day trips to Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp.


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