A weekend in…
The sophisticated uptown
In Brussels, the residences of the upper class towered high above those of the average Joe. As there is a steep altitude difference in the middle of the city, which splits Brussels into two parts, the working class used to reside down the bottom of the hi
THE AUXILIARY PALACE
The Royal Palace in Brussels city centre is the office of the king and his entourage. It is just one of two Belgian Royal Palaces – the other one is situated just outside of the centre, in the district of Laeken, and is the residence of King Filip, Queen Mathilde and their four children. The palace was initially built for William I of the Netherlands, when he became the first (and last) king of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands – the combined territories of Belgium and the Netherlands – in 1815. When the Belgian Revolution commenced at La Monnaie (see page 33) in 1830, the square in front of the palace soon became the battlefield on which the Belgians eventually claimed victory. Back then, the Palace was quite a bit smaller than it is today, as only the central part was built. The auxiliary buildings that extend the palace on both sides were commissioned by the various Belgian kings, and so were the adjoining galleries. In 2002, former queen Paola asked esteemed Belgian artist Jan Fabre to redesign the Mirror Room of the palace. He covered its elegant, classicistic ceiling with the shields of 1.5 million jewel beetles. While some call the work barbaric, others can’t stop gazing at its mesmerising glow.
Rue Brederode 16 (Parc, metro 1 and 5; Trône, metro 2 and 6). Free entrance. Open daily from late July until late August from 10.30am to 5pm.
THE HUNTING GROUNDS
The city park of Brussels acts as a green buffer between the world of politics and the monarchy. The Royal Palace sits on one side of it, and the Federal Parliament of Belgium adjoins the other. When the prime minister has a request for the king, he traditionally crosses this park by foot through the central avenue. Underneath the park lies a bunker, which was built in the 1930s to protect the parliamentarians and royal family from harm in case of an emergency. A tunnel also connects the palace with the parliament. In times of peace, the park is simply a place
for the Bruxellois to relax, picnic, stroll or play Pokémon Go (rumour has it that the city’s best Pokémons are hiding around here). The park is of historical significance as well, as it used to be the private hunting ground of the Dukes of Brabant and was the setting of the Dutch army base during the Belgian Revolution.
Parc de Bruxelles (Parc, metro 1 and 5). Open 24/7.
THE POSH SAND MINES
The Sablon area used to be little more than a piece of wasteland on which a specific type of white sand (or, sablon) was mined for. With the construction of the Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon in 1304, the area attracted more and more people who wished to settle around the church. By the 16th century, the neighbourhood had grown into a posh area where all the industrial leaders and aristocratic dynasties built their mansions. Today, the Grand Sablon square tells the tale of these days of wealth and luxury – with stunning façades, monumental statues and hints of greenery. The square attracts shoppers and foodies alike, as it counts numerous design stores, restaurants and chocolate boutiques.
Place du Grand Sablon (Louise, metro 2 and 6; Petit Sablon, tram 92 and 93).
Separated from the Grand Sablon by Rue de la Régence is the peaceful park that is the Petit Sablon. Besides perfectly maintained hedges and elegant lawns, the garden impresses with 60 statues. Centrally in the park, you’ll find the Dukes of Egmont and Horne as they are about to be executed. This statue was erected in memory of the gruesome acts that the Spanish Duke of Alva committed in this neck of the woods. Surrounding it, you’ll find ten statues of the men who gave shape to the 16th-century Netherlands: military leaders, powerful intellectuals and legendary artists. Finally, adorning the fence of the garden, you’ll see 48 bronze men, representing the 48 trades for which Brussels was known.
Place du Petit Sablon (Louise, metro 2 and 6; Petit Sablon, tram 92 and 93). Free entry. Open daily from 8am to 5.40pm.
THE CREAM CAKE
Palais de Justice is a building with a juicy history. While it has a ground surface of 26,000 square metres (in comparison, Rome’s Saint-Petes Basilica only covers 22,000 square metres), it was never meant to become as bombastic as it is today. The palace was commissioned by King Leopold II and designed by Joseph Poelaert, two men who liked things big and over the top. While the government put aside four million Belgian Francs for the project, the decadent king and ambitious architect managed to spend over 50 million Francs instead. How the duo could do this without being stopped by the powers remains to be a mystery. The palace is textbook eclecticism and the general public didn’t like it at the time. They referred to the building (in fact, they still do) as ‘the cream cake’. Someone who did like the building was Adolf Hitler. In fact, the design of many Nazi monuments was inspired by the Palais de Justice. The roof of the building has been under renovation for decades, so the scaffolding will partially block your view.
Place Poelaert 1 (Louise, metro 2 and 6; Poelaert, tram 92 and 93). €170 per group visit.
THE OTHER PANORAMA
The square in front of Palais de Justice was named after its architect, Joseph Poelaert, and is popular for its views over the city. You can see the Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Chapelle, the tower of the City Hall (see page 30), the skyscrapers of the Manhattan Area (see page 67) and – on clear days – even the Atomium (see page 56). The free elevator takes you down to the Marollen district (see page 19).
Place Poelaert (Louise, metro 2 and 6; Poelaert, tram 92 and 93).
ART AND ARCHITECTURE
BOZAR (a wordplay on ‘Beaux Arts’, French for ‘fine arts’) is Brussels’ most important museums. Today, it is settled in an Art Deco building from Victor Horta, but soon the institution will move to the brand-new building at the other side of the street. BOZAR presents art in the broadest sense of the word. It organises prestigious exhibitions, hosts film festivals and boasts one of Belgium’s most beautiful concert halls. In fact, the Queen Elisabeth Competition, a world-famous classical music concours, is held in this very auditorium. In the basement of the building, you’ll find Cinematek (see page 66).
Rue Ravenstein 23 (Parc, metro 1 and 5). Ticket fees vary between exhibitions and performances. Expos accessible from Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 6pm (to 9pm on Thursday). Timetable of performances varies.
CECI N’EST PAS UNE PIPE
Alongside Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso, René Magritte was one of the most influential surrealist painters of his time. His paintings are full of apples, clouds and bowler hats, often in mind-bending compositions. On top of Mont des Arts, you can visit the museum that is dedicated to his collection. While his most legendary pieces (like Ceci n’est pas une pipe) are spread around the world, the museum does possess a nice collection of intriguing canvases.
Place Royale 1 (Gare Central, metro 1 and 5 and all NMBS/SNCB trains). €10 (discounts available). Open Monday to Friday from 10am to 5pm, and on weekends from 11am to 6pm.
BRUSSELS IN A NUTSHELL
If you want to know all about Brussels’ past, present and future but lack the time to see the entire city, Experience.Brussels can provide you with a crash course. This free, interactive learning centre explains all you need to know about the heart of Europe. Feel free to bring your entire family, as this museum caters to all generations.
Rue Royale 4 (Parc, metro 1 and 5). Free entry. Open Monday to Friday from 9.30am to 5.30pm, and on weekends from 10am to 6pm.
THE KING’S NEIGHBOUR
Musée BELvue is the place to be for belgophiles, as it lays out the entirety of Belgian history and has managed to distil the essence of its culture. It talks about art, politics, people, languages and so much more. Belgium is a complex concoction in a myriad of ways, but after a visit to Musée BELvue, you will understand it all. From the museum’s hall, you can also enter the Coudenberg catacombs (see page 65).
Place des Palais 7 (Parc, metro 1 and 5). €7 (discounts available). Open Tuesday to Friday from 9.30am to 5pm, and on weekends from 10am to 6pm. Mondays are reserved for group visits only.