Le Grand-Place, Brussels: Place Making is Community Making

When my book Performing Catholicism (UP Press, 2016) was chosen by the National Book Development Board to be part of the official book launch event of the Philippine Pavilion at the Frankfurt International Book Fair in 2016, I made sure to do a side trip to Brussels. Besides, the transportation system in this European region (i.e. from Frankfurt to Brussels) is really reliable. Thanks to the European railways – my trip, which initially was focused only at the Frankfurt International Book Fair, made me visit four UNESCO World Heritage Sites (WHS) in just a week: one in Germany (Cologne) and four in Belgium (Brussels and Bruges). The trip enabled me also to visit two tentative sites in Brussels.

Actually, it was my good friend Oscar who really pushed me to do a side trip outside of Frankfurt, particularly to Brussels. I was really hesitant to leave Frankfurt for fear of missing several important events at the fair. But after the launch, which happened on the first day, nothing was really happening. I realized the fair was for agents and not for authors. In short, I was already bored on my second day. I finally said “yes” to Oscar’s invitation (Unfortunately, he was no longer in Brussels when I said I would go and visit the city).

But I digress, Oscar knew very well my fascination with WHS. Both of us know that in Brussels alone, four of Belgium’s 13 WHS’s are located in Brussels: Major Town Houses of the Architect Victor Horta, the Stoclet House, the transnational site Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and other Regions of Europe and the Le Grand-Place, Brussels. We are also aware that two of Belgium’s tentative list are in Brussels: Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert and the Palace of Justice.

So I took the train. And when I arrived and stepped out, it was unforgettable. I remember the sweet smell of waffles. I hurried down – away from the platform and followed the smell until finally, I was able to say to myself, “yummy, authentic Belgian waffle!”

The Grote Markt at Gent, another spectacular Belgian city (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
The guild houses of Antwerp’s Grote Markt (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

In many Belgian major cities, the Grote Markt (Major Town Square or Large Market Square) is an important starting point to understand the city’s socio-cultural history.

Take, for example, Brussel’s Grote Markt or more popularly called Le Grand-Place.

Le Grand-Place was inscribed as a WHS in 1998 for being “an outstanding example of the eclectic and highly successful blending of architectural and artistic styles that characterizes the culture and society of this region” and for illustrating “an exceptional way the evolution and achievements of a highly successful mercantile city of northern Europe at the height of its prosperity” (criteria ii and iv respectively). Thanks to Sandeman’s free walking trip, the city’s socio-cultural past was narrated in a very light and fun way.

The idea or concept of city or town squares is not exclusively Belgian. Other European cities pride having grand squares. Some cities call them plazas. Others are called agoras (shout out: the agoras of the Ancient Greeks). But these sites had and still have always been fostering the development of community, culture, and even politics.

In Amsterdam, Grote Markt is Dam. This is Dam Amsterdam in The Netherlands. On the background is the City Hall (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
The City Square of Novi Sad in Serbia (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
The City Square in Frankfurt (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

A European town or city square is commonly a humungous wide piece of “free” space surrounded by a series of Medieval buildings. These buildings, somehow, enact as the walls or fortifications of the square. Locals often enter and exit freely on small entrances and exits, commonly on every corner of it.

The buildings, most of them, are shop houses or as called during the Medieval Period, guild houses. What is also significant in these squares are important civic and religious monumental edifices adding texture to the social fabric of the entire ambiance. Important church structure such as the Cathedral or important civic structure such as the city hall was suggestive that the place was the most important location in the entire city (well, these edifices are still suggestive that the location is an important site in the entire urban zone). In many occasions, it was in the square where locals met to sell goods (i.e. marketplace), performed important religious or civic festivals, play-area of children, places of public engagements such as protests against the government, civic and political engagements such as the beheading of prisoners, exchange of ideas to name a few. Save for the beheading and other punitive state-sponsored activities, the squares are still the venues for these socio-cultural and socio-political activities.

Le Grand-Place, for example, is a “reflection of the Lower Market as reconstructed in the late 17th century and testifies to the willingness of the authorities to preserve the harmony of the square during the rapid rebuilding campaign that followed the terrible bombardment of 1695 so that it could regain its former aspect and splendor” (UNESCO Document)

According to our Sandeman tour guide, at the beginning of the 13th century, Le Grand-Place was transformed into an indoor market with a meat shop, a bakery, and a place where fabrics are sold. The buildings, which belonged to then Duke of Brabant were used as trade centers to sell the above-mentioned products.

Detail of the City Hall in Le Grand-Place (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
A small entrance and exit way of visitors between the City Hall and a former guild house, now a restaurant and a Belgian Waffle shop (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
This is what the City Hall looks like from the inside (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Like other European major town squares, Le Grand-Place witnessed many tragic events. In 1523, Henri Voes and Jean Van Eschen (Protestant Martyrs) were “burned at the stake” by the Inquisition. The town square also witnessed the beheading of political dissidents: the Counts of Egmont and Horn after speaking ill against King Philip II. I am not sure though if this was the same Philip II where the Philippines was derived from. But it could be – because according to our guide, King Philip II was the ruler in the Spanish-Netherlands that time (I wished I asked when I had a chance).

The City Hall (Hôtel de Ville/Stadhuis) is the central edifice of the Grand Place. Built in several stages between 1402 and 1455, the City Hall is considered the square’s only remaining medieval edifice. No one is certain who designed the building but Jean Bornoy and Jacob van Thienen are often credited as the brains behind the massive edifice. Nonetheless, the city hall is a unique building for being asymmetrical: the tower is not exactly in the middle. The left part and the right part of the edifice are not identical. An old legend known to the Belgians: the architect who designed the building committed suicide by jumping from the top of the tower after realizing his error.

Tried to capture the entire building but to no avail. Anyhow, this photo is proof of how asymmetrical the City Hall building is: the left part is longer than the right part (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
On the east is this view (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
Me, posing behind former guild houses. The rightmost was once upon a time the house (and shop) of a midwife. Notice the stork on the facade? That’s not an ornament – it was used to signify that a midwife was residing in the building (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
Guild houses, now turned into posh restaurants (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Today, cultural events are frequently organized at the Le Grand-Place. A light and sound show is performed annually during the Christmas season. There are also some concerts performed on a make-shift stage once in a while, especially during the summer. Among the most important and most popular events staged at the square are the Flower Carpet (every August) and the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity Ommegang, the historical reenactment of Charles V and his son Philip II entering the city.

My final shot of the City Hall before leaving Brussels in September 2018
My Le Grand-Place adventure was completed by my food trip around the area. In September, That’s not chicken and it does not taste like one. That’s rabbit meat! And of course, Belgian Beer! (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
I was lucky that the time I went to this place in 2018, there was no huge line! Waffle? No! Waffles!!!!!! They were yummy! (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Around the designated area or what in UNESCO calls the buffer zone, a lot of the buildings are used today as hotels, tourist information, restaurants, and other specialty-stores (i.e. chocolate stores and souvenir shops). On my second visit in September 2018, I tried hopping in and out of some restaurants within the WHS area. Experienced the Belgian stew (cooked in chocolate, I think), rabbit meat, pigeon, mussels and of course, the amazing Belgian waffle.

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