Wednesday, December 30, 2009


ALTHOUGH ONE of Brussels’ largest suburbs and a busy transport junction, the heart of Ixelles remains a peaceful oasis of lakes and woodland. The idyllic Abbaye de la Cambre was founded in 1201, achieving fame and a degree of fortune in 1242, when Saint Boniface chose the site for his retirement. The abbey then endured a troubled history in the wars of religion during the 16th and 17th centuries. It finally closed as an operational abbey in 1796 and now houses a school of architecture. The abbey’s pretty Gothic church can be toured and its grassy grounds and courtyards offer a peaceful walk. South of the abbey, the Bois de la Cambre remains one of the city’s most popular public parks. Created in 1860, it achieved popularity almost immediately when royalty promenaded its main route. Lakes, bridges and lush grass make it a favoured picnic site. The Musée Communal d’Ixelles nearby has a fine collection of posters by 19thand 20th-century greats, such as Toulouse Lautrec and Magritte, as well as sculptures by Rodin. The former home of one of Belgium’s finest sculptors is now Musée Constantin Meunier, with 170 sculptures and 120 paintings by the artist, and his studio preserved in its turn-of-the-century style.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Avenue Louise

MOST VISITORS to Brussels travelling by car will come across this busy thoroughfare, its various underpasses constructed in the 1950s and 1960s to link up the city centre with its suburbs. In fact, the avenue was constructed in 1864 to join the centre with the suburb of Ixelles. However, the north end of the avenue retains a chic atmosphere; by the Porte de Namur, fans of designer labels can indulge themselves in Gucci and Versace, as well as investigating the less expensive but no less chic boutiques. The avenue also has its architectural treasures. The Hôtel Solvay at No. 224 was built by Victor Horta in 1894 for the industrialist Solvay family. Its ornate doorway, columns and balconies are a fine example of Art Nouveau style. The house is still a private home. At No. 346, Hôtel Max Hallet is one of Horta’s masterpieces, built in 1903. Continuing south leads to the peaceful atmosphere of Ixelles and its parkland.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Bruxella 1238

ONCE HOME to a church and 13th-century Franciscan convent, in the early 19th century this site became a Butter Market until the building of the Bourse commenced in 1867. In 1988 municipal roadworks began alongside the Place de la Bourse. Medieval history must have been far from the minds of the city authorities but, in the course of working on the foundations for the Bourse, important relics were found, including 13thcentury bones, pottery and the 1294 grave of Duke John I of Brabant. Visitors can now see these and other pieces of Burgundian history in a small museum built on the site.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Halles St-Géry

IN MANY WAYS, St-Géry can be considered the birthplace of the city. A chapel to Saint Géry was built in the 6th century, then in AD 977 a fortress took over the site. A 16th-century church followed and occupied the location until the 18th century. In 1881 a covered meat market was erected in Neo-Renaissance style. The glass and intricate ironwork was renovated in 1985, and the hall now serves as a cultural centre with an exhibition on local history.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Hôtel Métropole

THE AREA lying between Place Rogier and Place de Brouckère is known as the hotel district of Brussels, and one of the oldest and grandest hotels in the area is the Métropole.

In 1891 the Wielemans Brewery bought the building and commissioned the architect Alban Chambon to redesign the interior, with money no object. The result was a fine Art Nouveau hotel which opened for business in 1895 and has since accommodated numerous acclaimed visitors to the city, including actress Sarah Bernhardt. In 1911 the hotel was the location of the science conference Conseil Physique Solvay, attended by the great scientists Marie Curie and Albert Einstein.

The Hôtel Métropole continues to welcome guests from all walks of life, at surprisingly reasonable cost given its beauty, history and location. It is particularly popular for drinks in its café and heated pavement terrace, which are both open to non-residents to enjoy cocktails and cappuccinos in elegant surroundings.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Rue Neuve

BRUSSELS shoppers have been flocking to the busy Rue Neuve since the 19th century for its reasonably priced goods and well-located stores. Similar to London’s Oxford Street, but now pedestrianized, this is the heart of commercial shopping. It houses well-known international chainstores and shopping malls, such as City 2, which has shops, cafés and the media store Fnac all under one roof. Inno department store was designed by Horta, but after a fire in 1967 was entirely rebuilt.

To the east of Rue Neuve is Place des Martyrs, a peaceful square where a monument pays tribute to the 450 citizens killed during the 1830 uprising.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée

IN 1797, THE CITY of Brussels created a botanical garden in the grounds of the Palais de Lorraine as a source of reference for botany students. The garden closed in 1826, and new gardens were relocated in Meise, 13 km (9 miles) from Brussels.

A grand glass-and-iron rotunda was designed at the centre of the gardens by the French architect Gineste. This iron glasshouse still stands, as does much of the 19th-century statuary by Constantin Meunier, including depictions of the Four Seasons. The glasshouse is now home to the French Community Cultural Centre and offers plays, concerts and exhibitions.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie

THIS THEATRE was first built in 1817 on the site of a 15th-century mint (Hôtel des Monnaies) but, following a fire in 1855, only the front and pediment of the original Neo-Classical building remain. After the fire, the theatre was redesigned by the architect, Joseph Poelaert, also responsible for the imposing Palais de Justice.

The original theatre was to make its historical mark before its destruction, however, when on 25 August, 1830, a performance of La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl) began a national rebellion. As the tenor began to sing the nationalist Amour Sacré de la Patrie (Sacred love of the homeland), his words incited an already discontented city, fired by the libertarianism of the revolutions taking place in France, into revolt. Members of the audience ran out into the street in a rampage that developed into the September Uprising.

The theatre today remains the centre of Belgian performing arts; major renovations took place during the 1980s. The auditorium was raised 4 m (13 ft) to accommodate the elaborate stage designs, but the luxurious Louis XIV-style decor was carefully retained and blended with the new additions. The central dome is decorated with an allegory of Belgian arts.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Théâtre Marionettes de Toone

APOPULAR pub by day, at night the top floor of this tavern is home to a puppet theatre. During the time of the Spanish Netherlands, all theatres were closed because of the satirical performances by actors aimed at their Latin rulers. This began a fashion for puppet shows, the vicious dialogue more easily forgiveable from inanimate dolls. In 1830, Antoine Toone opened his own theatre and it has been run by the Toone family ever since; the owner is the seventh generation, Toone VII. The classics are enacted by these wooden marionettes in the local Bruxellois dialect, and occasionally in French, English, German or Dutch.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Rue des Bouchers

LIKE MANY streets in this area of the city, Rue des Bouchers retains its medieval name, reminiscent of the time when this meandering, cobblestoned street was home to the butchers’ trade. Aware of its historic importance and heeding the concerns of the public, the city council declared this area the Ilot Sacré (sacred islet) in 1960, forbidding any of the architectural façades to be altered or destroyed, and commanding those surviving to be restored. Hence Rue des Bouchers abounds with 17thcentury stepped gables and decorated doorways.

Today, this pedestrianized thoroughfare is best known as the “belly of Brussels”, a reference to its plethora of cafés and restaurants. Many cuisines are on offer here, including Chinese, Greek, Italian and Indian. But the most impressive sights during an evening stroll along the street are the lavish pavement displays of seafood, piled high on mounds of ice, all romantically lit by an amber glow from the streetlamps.

At the end of the street, at the Impasse de la Fidélité, is a recent acknowledgement of sexual equality. Erected in 1987, Jeanneke Pis is a coy, cheeky female version of her “brother”, the more famous Manneken Pis

Monday, December 7, 2009

Galeries St-Hubert

SIXTEEN YEARS after ascending the throne as the first king of Belgium, Léopold I inaugurated the opening of these grand arcades in 1847. St-Hubert has the distinction of being the first shopping arcade in Europe, and one of the most elegant. Designed in Neo-Renaissance style by Jean- Pierre Cluysenaar, the vaulted glass roof covers its three sections, Galerie du Roi, Galerie de la Reine and Galerie des Princes, which house a range of luxury shops and cafés. The ornate interior and expensive goods on sale soon turned the galleries into a fashionable meeting place for 19th-century society, including resident literati – Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas attended lectures here. The arcades remain a popular venue, with shops, a cinema, theatre, cafés and restaurants.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Eglise St-Nicolas

AT THE END of the 12th century a market church was constructed on this site, but, like much of the Lower Town, it was damaged in the 1695 French Bombardment. A cannon ball lodged itself directly into an interior pillar and the belltower finally collapsed in 1714. Many restoration projects were planned but none came to fruition until as late as 1956, when the west side of the building was given a new, Gothic-style façade. Named after St Nicolas, the patron saint of merchants, the church contains choir stalls dating from 1381 which display detailed medallions telling St Nicolas’ story. Another interesting feature is the chapel, constructed at an angle, reputedly to avoid the flow of an old stream. Inside the church, works of art by Bernard van Orley and Peter Paul Rubens are well worth seeing.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

La Bourse

BRUSSELS’ Stock Exchange, La Bourse, is one of the city’s most impressive buildings, dominating the square of the same name. Designed in Palladian style by architect Léon Suys, it was constructed from 1867 to 1873. Among the building’s most notable features are the façade’s ornate carvings. The great French sculptor, Auguste Rodin, is thought to have crafted the groups representing Africa and Asia, as well as four caryatids inside. Beneath the colonnade, two beautifully detailed winged figures representing Good and Evil were carved by sculptor Jacques de Haen. Some areas of the building are open to the public, but a screen divides visitors from the frantic bidding and trading that takes place on weekdays on the trading floor.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Parliament Quarter

THE VAST, MODERN, steel-andglass complex, situated just behind Quartier Léopold train station, is one of three homes of the European Parliament, the elected body of the EU. Its permanent seat is in Strasbourg, France, where the plenary sessions are held once a month. The administrative centre is in Luxembourg and the committee meetings are held in Brussels. This gleaming state-of-the-art building has many admirers, not least the parliamentary workers and MEPs themselves. But it also has its critics: the huge domed structure housing the hemicycle that seats the 600-plus MEPs has been dubbed the “caprices des dieux” (“whims of the gods”), which refers both to the shape of the building which is similar to a French cheese of the same name, and to its lofty aspirations. Many people also regret that, to make room for the new complex, a large part of Quartier Léopold has been lost. Though there are still plenty of restaurants and bars, a lot of the charm has gone. When the MEPs are absent, the building is often used for meetings of European Union committees

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Musée Charlier

THIS QUIET MUSEUM was once the home of Henri van Cutsem, a wealthy collector and patron of the arts. In 1890 he asked the young architect Victor Horta to re-design his house as an exhibition space for his extensive collections. Van Cutsem died, and his friend, the sculptor Charlier, installed his own art collection in the house. Charlier commissioned Horta to build another museum, at Tournai in southern Belgium, to house van Cutsem’s collection. On Charlier’s death in 1925 the house and contents were left to the city as a museum.

The Musée Charlier opened in 1928. It contains paintings by a number of different artists, including portraits by Antoine Wiertz (see p72) and early landscapes by James Ensor. The collection also includes sculptures by Charlier, and the ground floor contains collections of glassware, porcelain, chinoiserie and silverware. Of special note are the tapestries, some from the Paris studios of Aubusson, on the staircases and the first floor, and the displays of Louis XV- and Louis XVI-style furniture on the first and second floors.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Palais de Charles de Lorraine

HIDDEN BEHIND this Neo-Classical façade are the few rooms that remain of the palace of Charles de Lorraine, Governor of Brussels during the mid-18th century. He was a keen patron of the arts, and the young Mozart is believed to have performed here. Few original features remain, as the palace was ransacked by marauding French troops in 1794. Extensive renovations were recently completed. The bas-reliefs at the top of the stairway, representing air, earth, fire and water, reflect Charles de Lorraine’s keen interest in alchemy. Most spectacular of all the original features is the 28-point star set in the floor of the circular drawing room. Each of the points is made of a different Belgian marble, a much sought-after material which was used in the construction of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Hôtel Ravenstein

OVER THE centuries the Hôtel Ravenstein has been the home of patrician families, soldiers and court officials, and, for the past 100 years, the Royal Society of Engineers. The building was designed at the end of the 15th century for Adolphe and Philip Cleves-Ravenstein; in 1515 it became the birthplace of Anne of Cleves. Consisting of two parts, joined by gardens and stables, it is the last remaining example of a Burgundian-style manor house. The Hôtel Ravenstein was acquired by the town in 1896 and used to store artworks. Sadly, it fell into disrepair and renovation took place in 1934. One half is now a Belgian restaurant, the other the Royal Society of Engineers’ private HQ. However, the pretty, original inner courtyard can still be seen.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Palais des Beaux- Arts

THE PALAIS des Beaux-Arts owes its existence to Henri Le Boeuf, a music-loving financier who gave his name to the main auditorium. In 1922 he commissioned the architect Victor Horta to design a cultural centre which would house concert halls and exhibition areas open to all visitors and embracing the artistic fields of music, theatre, cinema and art. The construction took seven years as the building was on a slope but could not be so tall as to block the view of the town from the Palais Royal: Horta had to revise his plans six times. The centre was the first of its kind in Europe.

The complex has a fine reputation and has played a key role in the cultural life of Brussels for over 70 years. It is the focus for the city’s music and dance, and is home to the Belgian National Orchestra.

The complex also houses the Musée du Cinema, set up in 1962, with its fine archive and exhibition of old cameras and lenses. Its main activity is the daily screening of classic films.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Eglise St-Jacquessur - Coudenberg

THE PRETTIEST building in the Place Royale, St-Jacquessur- Coudenberg is the latest in a series of churches to have occupied this site. There has been a chapel here since the 12th century, when one was built to serve the dukes of Brabant. On construction of the Coudenberg Palace in the 13th century, it became the ducal chapel. The chapel suffered over the years: it was ransacked in 1579 during conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and was so badly damaged in the fire of 1731 that destroyed the Coudenberg Palace that it was demolished soon after. The present church was built in the Neo-Classical style of the rest of the area and was consecrated in 1787, although it served several years as a Temple of Reason and Law during the French Revolution, returning to the Catholic Church in 1802. The cupola was completed in 1849. The interior is simple and elegant, with two large paintings by Jan Portaels on either side of the transept, and a royal pew.

Friday, November 6, 2009


THE COLLECTION of modern art is wide and varied and includes works by well-known 20th-century painters from Belgium and around the world. There is no clearly defined route to follow within this section, nor are the exhibits strictly grouped by period or movement, so it is best to wander through the collection, stopping at areas of interest.

There are a number of works by the leading Belgian artists of the 20th century, such as Fauvist painter Rik Wouters’ (1882–1916) The Flautist (1914). International artists include Matisse, Paul Klee and Chagall. But the real draw for most people is the collection of pictures by the Belgian Surrealists, in particular René Magritte (1898–1967). His best-known paintings, including The Domain of Arnheim (1962), are on display here. Another noted Surrealist, Paul Delvaux, is also well represented with works such as Evening Train (1957) and Pygmalion (1939).

Belgian art of the 20th century tends to be severe and stark, but the postwar Jeune Peinture Belge school reintroduced colour in an abstract way and is represented in works such as Marc Mendelson’s 1950s Toccata et fugue.

Sculpture highlights in this section include Ossip Zadkine’s totem pole-like Diana (1937) and Henry Moore’s Draped Woman on Steps (1957–8).

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Musée de la Dynastie

THE MUSÉE de la Dynastie contains a broad collection of paintings, documents and other royal memorabilia charting the history of the Belgian monarchy from independence in 1830 to the present day. Since 1992 it has been housed in the former Hôtel Bellevue, an 18th-century Neo-Classical building lying adjacent to the Palais Royal, which was annexed to the palace in 1902. A permanent exhibition in honour of the late, immensely popular, King Baudouin (r.1951–1993) was added in 1998. As well as official portraits, informal photographs are on display which give a fascinating insight into the private lives of the Belgian royal family. The collection is displayed in chronological order in a series of rooms with a bust of the sovereign to which it is devoted at the entrance to each one.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


The béguine lifestyle swept across Western Europe from the 12th century, and Brussels once had a community of over 1,200 béguine women. The religious order is believed to have begun among widows of the Crusaders, who resorted to a pious life of sisterhood on the death of their husbands. The women were lay nuns, who opted for a secluded existence devoted to charitable deeds, but not bound by strict religious vows. Most béguine convents disappeared during the Protestant Reformation in much of Europe during the 16th century, but begijnhofs (béguinages) continued to thrive in Flanders. The grounds generally consisted of a church, a courtyard, communal rooms, homes for the women and extra rooms for work. The movement dissolved as female emancipation spread during the early 1800s, although 20 convents remain, including those in Bruges (see p117) and Ghent

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


THIS QUIET TOWN grew up around the River Dendre. Ath is known for its festival – the Ducasse – which occurs every year on the fourth weekend in August. Held over two days, it features the “Parade of the Giants”, a procession of gaily decorated giant figures representing characters from local folklore and the Bible, such as the Aymon brothers and the Steed Bayard (see p99), as well as David, Goliath and Samson.

The surrounding country of gently rolling hills is dotted with hamlets and farms, as well as historical sights. A few kilometres northeast of Ath is one of the most popular attractions in the region, the Château d’Attre. This handsome 18th-century palace was built in 1752 by the Count of Gomegnies, chamberlain to the Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II, and was a favourite haunt of the Hapsburg aristocracy. Its interior is opulent, with ornate plasterwork, parquet floors and paintings. The River Dendre crosses the delightful grounds.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Hans Memling Museum

This small museum (a former 13th-century hospital) contains the works of Hans Memling (1430–94), one of the most talented painters of his era. Among them, The Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine (1479), the central panel of a triptych, is superb. The former wards also house a collection of paintings and furniture related to the hospital’s history.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Quartier Européen

THE AREA at the top of the Rue de la Loi and around the Schuman roundabout is where the main buildings of the European Union’s administration are found.

The most recognizable of all the EU seats is the star-shaped Berlaymont building, now nearing completion following the removal of large quantities of asbestos discovered in its structure. The Berlaymont, formerly the headquarters of the European Commission, will continue to be refurbished until further notice. The commission workers (the civil servants of the EU) are at present dotted around the area. The Council of Ministers, which comprises representatives of member-states’ governments, now meets in the sprawling pink granite block across the road from the Berlaymont, known as Justus Lipsius, after a Flemish philosopher. Further down the road from the Justus Lipsius building is the Résidence Palace, a luxury 1920s housing complex that boasts a theatre, a pool and a roof garden as well as several floors of private flats. It now houses the International Press Centre. Only the theatre is open to the public, but EU officials are allowed into the Art Deco swimming pool.

This area is naturally full of life and bustle during the day, but much quieter in the evenings and can feel almost deserted at weekends. What is pleasant at any time, though, is the proximity of the city’s green spaces including Parc du Cinquantenaire, Parc Léopold and the verdant Square Ambiorix.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Square Ambiorix

Square AmbiorixCLOSE TO THE EU district, but totally different in style and spirit, lies the beautiful Square Ambiorix. Together with the Avenue Palmerston and the Square Marie-Louise below that, this marshland was transformed in the 1870s into one of the loveliest residential parts of Brussels, with a large central area of gardens, ponds and fountains.

The elegant houses, some Art Nouveau, some older, have made this one of the truly sought-after suburbs in the city. The most spectacular Art Nouveau example is at No. 11. Known as the Maison St Cyr after the painter whose home it once was, this wonderfully ornate house, with its curved wrought-iron balustrades and balconies, is a fine architectural feat considering that the man who designed it, Gustave Strauven, was only 22 years old when it was built at the turn of the 20th century.


ANYONE WITH an interest in sculpture should follow this route down to the lower ground level in the Musée d’art ancien. Here, 18th- and 19thcentury stone, marble and bronze Belgian sculpture is displayed alongside an exhibition explaining various methods behind many of the works on show, from carving to casting and burnishing in the materials of past centuries. There is also access to a sculpture terrace from outside the entrance of the Musée d’art ancien.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Chapelle de la Madeleine

Chapelle de la Madeleine
THIS LITTLE church once stood on the site now occupied by the Gare Centrale, but it was moved, stone by stone, further down the hill to make way for the construction of the Art Deco-style station and its car park during the early 1950s. The 17th-century façade of the church has been restored. The original 15th-century interior has been replaced by a plain, modest decor, with simple stone pillars and modern stained-glass windows. Off the regular tourist track, the chapel is used by people as a quiet place for worship. The Baroque chapel which was once attached has now gone.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Galerie Bortier

Galerie Bortier
GALERIE BORTIER is the only shopping arcade in the city dedicated solely to book and map shops, and it has become the haunt of students, enthusiasts and researchers looking for secondhand French books and antiquarian finds.

The land on which the gallery stands was originally owned by a Monsieur Bortier, whose idea it was to have a covered arcade lined with shops on either side. He put 160,000 francs of his own money into the project, quite a considerable sum in the 1840s. The 65-m (210-ft) long Galérie Bortier was built in 1848 and was designed by Jean-Pierre Cluysenaar, the architect of the Galéries St-Hubert nearby. The Galérie Bortier opened along with the then-adjacent Marché de la Madeleine, but the latter was unfortunately destroyed by developers in 1958.

A complete restoration of Galérie Bortier was ordered by the Ville de Bruxelles in 1974. The new architects kept strictly to Cluysenaar’s plans and installed a replacement glass and wrought-iron roof made to the original 19th-century Parisian style. The Rue de la Madeleine itself also offers plenty of browsing material for bibliophiles and art lovers.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Palais de Justice

THE PALAIS DE JUSTICE rules the Brussels skyline and can be seen from almost any vantage point in the city. Of all the ambitious projects of King Léopold II, this was perhaps the grandest. It occupies an area larger than St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and was one of the world’s most impressive 19th-century buildings. It was built between 1866 and 1883 by architect Joseph Poelaert who looked for inspiration in classical temples, but sadly died mid-construction in 1879. The Palais de Justice is still home to the city’s law courts.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Palais d’Egmont

THE PALAIS d’Egmont (also known as the Palais d’Arenberg) was originally built in the mid-16th century for Françoise of Luxembourg, mother of the 16th-century leader of the city’s rebels, Count Egmont. This palace has twice been rebuilt, in 1750 and again in 1891, following a fire. Today it belongs to the Belgian Foreign Ministry. It was here that Great Britain, Denmark and Ireland signed as members of the EEC in 1972. Though the palace itself is closed to the public, the gardens, whose entrances are on the Rue du Grand Cerf and the Boulevard de Waterloo, are open. There is a statue of Peter Pan, a copy of one found in Kensington Gardens, in London. Many of the gardens’ buildings are now run down, and plans have started to restore the ancient orangery and the disused ice house.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Place du Petit Sablon

THESE PRETTY, formal gardens were laid out in 1890 and are a charming spot to stop for a rest. On top of the railings that enclose the gardens are 48 bronze statuettes by Art Nouveau artist Paul Hankar, each one representing a differincident ent medieval guild of the city. At the back of the gardens is a fountain built to commemorate Counts Egmont and Hornes, the martyrs who led a Dutch uprising against the tyrannical rule of the Spanish under Philip II, and were beheaded in the Grand Place in 1568. On either side of the fountain are 12 further statues of 15th- and 16th-century figures, including Bernard van Orley, whose stained-glass windows grace the city’s cathedral, and the Flemish mapmaker Gerhard Mercator, whose 16th-century projection of the world forms the basis of most modern maps.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Notre-Dame au Sablon

ALONG WITH THE Cathédrale Sts Michel et Gudule, this lovely church is one of the finest remaining examples of Brabant Gothic architecture in Belgium.

A church was first erected here when the guild of crossbowmen was granted permission to build a chapel to Our Lady on this sandy hill. Legend has it that a young girl in Antwerp had a vision of the Virgin Mary who instructed her to take her statue to Brussels. The girl carried the statue of the Virgin to Brussels down the Senne river by boat and gave it to the crossbowmen’s chapel, which rapidly became a place of pilgrimage. Work to enlarge the church began around 1400 but, due to lack of funds, was not completed until 1550. All that remains today of the differincident are two carvings depicting the young girl in a boat, since the statue was destroyed in 1565.

The interior of the church is simple but beautifully proportioned, with inter-connecting side chapels and an impressive pulpit dating from 1697. Of particular interest, however, are the 11 magnificent stainedglass windows, 14 m (45 ft) high, which dominate the inside of the church. As the church is lit from the inside, they shine out at night like welcoming beacons. Also worth a visit is the chapel of the Tour et Taxis family, whose mansion once stood near the Place du Petit Sablon. In 1517 the family had tapestries commissioned to commemorate the legend that led to the chapel becoming a place of pilgrimage. Some now hang in the Musées Royaux d’art et d’histoire in Parc du Cinquantenaire, but others were stolen by the French Revolutionary army in the 1790s.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Place du Grand Sablon

SITUATED ON the slope of the escarpment that divides Brussels in two, the Place du Grand Sablon is like a stepping stone between the upper and lower halves of the city. The name “sablon” derives from the French “sable” (sand) and the square is socalled because this old route down to the city centre once passed through an area of sandy marshes.

Today the picture is very different. The square, more of a triangle in shape, stretches from a 1751 fountain by Jacques Berge at its base uphill to the Gothic church of Notre-Dame du Sablon. The fountain was a gift of the Englishman Lord Bruce, out of gratitude for the hospitality shown to him in Brussels. The square is surrounded by elegant town houses, some with Art Nouveau façades. This is a chic, wealthy and busy part of Brussels, an area of up-market antiques dealers, fashionable restaurants and trendy bars, which really come into their own in warm weather when people stay drinking outside until the early hours of the morning: a good place in which to soak up the atmosphere. Wittamer, at No. 12, is a justifiably well-known patisserie and chocolate shop, which also has its own tea room on the first floor.

Every weekend the area near the church plays host to a lively and thriving, if rather expensive, antiques market.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


THIS SECTION covers the 19th century and is closer to the contemporary collection both in position and period. It is an informed introduction to the cutting-edge displays nearby. The works along the yellow route vary greatly in style and subject matter, from Romanticism, exemplified by David, and Neo-Classicism, to Realism and Symbolism. There are, as in the other sections, examples of work by artists from outside Belgium, including Pierre Bonnard’s Nude against the Light (1907), Edouard Vuillard’s Two Schoolchildren (1894) and Monet’s Sunset at Etretat (1885), but once again most emphasis is on Belgian artists.

Social realist artist Constantin Meunier (1831–1905) is represented by many of his sculptures, including Firedamp (1888). Much of the work of James Ensor (1890–1949) remains in his native city Ostend, but many of his macabre works are displayed here, such as Scandalized Masks (1883) and Two Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring (1891). This section also offers the chance to see pictures by artists who are less well known outside Belgium, such as Henri Evenepoel (1872–99) whose lively Arab scene Orange Market at Blidah (1898) provides a contrast to the stark works of painters such as Ensor. The work of Impressionist Emile Claus is of value to followers of the movement. Of local interest is the landscape of Brussels by van Moer, painted in 1868, which clearly shows the River Senne before it was covered over for hygiene reasons. Moving from the passion of Romanticism to grim industrial realism and gentle Impressionism, this survey is definitive.


STRATEGICALLY situated beside the River Scheldt, the little town of Oudenaarde has suffered at the hands of many invaders, and little remains of the old town. The 16th-century Stadhuis has survived, and is adorned with beautiful stonework. The interior is open to visitors and is famous for an exquisitely carved oak doorway and its outstanding collection of tapestries – one of the finest in the country. Oudenaarde was once a centre of tapestry manufacture and its products were bought by monarchs across Europe. Today, visitors can see tapestries being made at the Huis de Lalaing, a workshop near the Grote Markt.

Monday, October 19, 2009


SET AMONG the pretty hills of the Flemish Ardennes, Ronse is famous for its Zotte Maandag, or Crazy Monday festivities. Every year, on the second weekend in January, a boisterous procession of masked medieval characters parades through the town.

In medieval times, Ronse was where thousands of the mentally ill were taken to seek a cure. The object of the pilgrimage was a visit to the chapel of Hermes, a Roman saint thought to be an expert in exorcism. Today, the chapel retains three rusty iron rings that recall the days when the insane were chained up awaiting a miracle. A painting here depicts St Hermes on a horse, dragging a devil behind him.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


IEPER IS THE Flemish name of the town familiar to hundreds of thousands of British soldiers as Ypres – its French appellation. During World War I, this ancient town, which was once a centre of the medieval wool trade, was used as a supply depot for the British army fighting in the trenches just to the east.

The Germans shelled Ieper to pieces, but after the war the town was rebuilt to its earlier design, complete with an exact replica of its imposing, 13th-century Lakenhalle (cloth hall). The original building was located by the River Ieperlee (which now runs underground), and boats could unload their wares on site. Today, part of the interior has been turned into the excellent “In Flander’s Fields” Museum, a thoughtfully laid-out series of displays that attempt to conjure the full horrors of World War I. There is a simulated gas attack, personal artifacts and an array of photographs.

Another reminder of war is the huge Menin Gate memorial (just east of the Grote Markt) inscribed with the names of over 50,000 British and Commonwealth troops who died in and around Ieper but have no known resting place. The last post is sounded here every evening at 8pm.