A Day in the Capital of Europe – Part 2
[Brussels, Belgium, Dec 19, 2019]
Visiting the European Parliament and the area around Grand Place took up most of my morning. I decided to spend the second half of the day in the upper part of town following a 90-minute walk described in my guidebook. It started at Royal Place, a square just a 15-minute walk uphill from the Maneken Pis statue, where I had ended my lower town sightseeing.
I had not reached the Royal Place yet when I stumbled upon what I later found out was Mont des Arts, meaning “hill/mount of the arts.”
King Leopold II bought this entire area in the late 19th century to convert the site into an arts quarter. He butted heads over this with the then-mayor of Brussels Charles Buls – you may remember the plaque honoring him from my previous post. Leopold did not complete his vision as the project lacked financing, but a park eventually sprung up here by 1910 just after Leopold’s death. The park was dedicated by King Albert I, whose statue graces the edge of the site. In the 1950s, it gave way to the geometric park and the massive buildings that surround it today. They house the Royal Library of Belgium and the Brussels Meeting Center. The upper edge of the park boasts one of the best views of Brussels.
I finally got to the top of the hill where Place Royale sits. A statue of Godfrey de Bouillon, one of the leaders of the First Crusade (in 1096) sits at the center. Godfrey, of house Flanders, established his family’s rule over what would later become Belgium. Behind him is the Church of St. Jasques-sur-Coudenberg, built in 1787.
Nearby is the royal palace, where the Belgian king still lives.
At this point the walking tour took me by the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium – a trio of museums housed in the same building.
The Old Masters Museum features Flemish and Belgian art from the 14th to the 18th century. The Fin-de-Siecle covers the late 19th and 20th centuries. The Magritte Museum contains more than 200 works by Belgium’s own Surrealist painter Rene Magritte. I decided to do all three – the marginal cost was negligent and although these museums are not as grand as the ones in France or Italy, I still wanted to check them out. To save time, I focused on the works highlighted in my guidebook.
From the Old Masters:
From the Fin-de-Siecle:
I loved seeing Georges Seurat’s The Seine at La Grande-Jatte. His much larger and more famous A Sunday on La Grande-Jatte is at the Art Institute of Chicago, where I saw it in 2015.
The Magritte was dedicated to Rene Magritte (1898 – 1967). He is Belgium’s most famous 20th century artist. A surrealist, he was best known for painting ordinary objects in an unusual context, challenging the viewer’s perception of reality.
In the beginning of his career in the 1920s, he made a meager living designing advertisements and posters, many of which were on display.
After spending a couple of hours in the museums, I was ready to go back outside. I doubled back a little to the Museums of Musical Instruments. I wasn’t interested in the museum itself, but my guidebook mentioned a rooftop cafe there, and I was ready to be off my feet for a little bit. The view from up there did not disappoint. I could see the Royal Place and the cupola of the Palace of Justice in the distance.
My next stop was right next to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts. It was a delightful sculpture garden where people hung out enjoying a snack or a kiss from their beloved. The big statue in the middle of the little lake is by Aristide Maillol, a contemporary of Rodin.
I was now in the Sablon neighborhood of Brussels. This upscale area of Brussels is home to many bars, restaurants, galleries and chocolate shops. All this is anchored by the Notre-Dame du Sablon church, a 14-th century Gothic church, and a charming little park called Place du Petit Sablon.
The church is most memorable for its stained glass windows, but it’s also famous for the small wooden statue of Mary dressed in white with a lace veil. This is a copy, but the original statue was thought to have healing powers that saved the town from plagues. The carved pulpit is also interesting – it is supported by an angel and animals.
I finally got the see the giant Palace of Justice. It’s marble dome had been looming in the distance ever since I got to upper town. It was built under the now familiar King Leopold II – I guess he really liked big buildings! He became extremely rich exploiting the labor and natural resource of Belgium’s African colony, Congo.
The square around the Palace of Justice is called Place Poelaert and it had even better views of the city than Mont des Art. I was standing 200 ft above the city.
I didn’t take the elevator but circled back to the back side of the Notre Dame du Sablon church and found a cute little square there. I could tell I was nearing the end of my upper town walk because I was heading downhill through the Sablon neighborhood back towards Grand Place.
This rare surviving section of the Brussels medieval city wall was at the bottom of the hill, right before I crossed back over to lower town. I had already seen another surviving tower in the St. Katherine neighborhood earlier in the day, but this one included a section of the wall itself.
By this time it was late afternoon and I knew the sun would be setting soon. I headed back to my hotel for a quick rest. Once it got dark, I popped to Grand Place to see it all lit up, and it did not disappoint!