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Grand Place/Grote Markt, Brussels

The Grand Place (in French) or Grote/Groot Markt (in Dutch) is the central market square of Brussels, the capital city of Belgium. It is considered one of the most beautiful town squares in Europe. Surrounding it are a number of fine buildings, including the city's Town Hall, guild houses and the Bread House. In 1998, the cobbled rectangular market square was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Understandably, it is one of the most popular and memorable tourist destinations in the city.

The 68 by 110m square is a homogeneous body of public and private buildings, dating mainly from the late 17th century and the architecture of the buildings on it gives a vivid illustration of the level of social and cultural life of the period of one of Europe's most important political and commercial centres.

Map courtesy of

A history of Grand Place/Grote Markt follows and for clarity of reading, the former of the two names is used.  The city of Brussels originated when Charles, Duke of Lower Lorraine built a fort in the 10th century on Saint-Géry Island, the furthest inland point at which the Senne (Zenne) river was accessible by ships. By the end of the 11th century, a marketplace (Nedermerckt/Lower Market) had been setup near the fort. The market is thought to have developed alongside the city of Brussels as it grew as a place of commerce and it's site was conveniently situated  along an important commercial road which linked the area to the prosperous regions of the Rhineland and Flanders. In the early 13th century, three indoor markets for meat, bread and cloth, were constructed on the northern edge of the Grand Place site. The markets belonged to the Duke of Brabant, allowing trade to be conducted in a reliable and financially controlled fashion. Other buildings would have enclosed the square at this time. The Grand Place underwent further improvements from the 14th century as the importance of trade grew. However, the buildings would have been laid out in a somewhat unplanned manner. The city took over a number of buildings that clogged the square and demolished them, formerly defining the outer edges of the square. Between 1402 and 1455, the city's Town Hall was built, in stages,  on the square's southern side, making Grand Place the seat of municipal power. From 1504 to 1536, to counter this symbol of municipal power, the Duke of Brabant built a large building, the King's House, across from the city hall as symbol of ducal power (although a King never actually lived there). Today, this building is still known as King's House in French (Maison du roi) although having been previously on the site of a bread market, in Dutch it is known as the Breadhouse (Broodhuis). In addition, the wealthier of the merchants and the guilds of Brussels built houses around the edge of the square.

In August 1965, a French army, 70,000 strong, under Marshal François de Neufville, Duke of Villeroy bombarded the city in the hopes of drawing the League of Augsburg's forces away from their siege on French-held Namur (in modern-day southern Belgium). The city had little in the way of defences and the centre was attacked with mortars and cannon, setting it ablaze and flattening most of the square and surroundings. More than 4000 houses were destroyed, although ironically, the  stone shell of the Town Hall remained one of the few structures still standing and this was the main target of the French. During the four years that followed, The square was rebuilt by the city's guilds. The rebuilding was regulated by the city councillors and the Governor of Brussels with planning approval required for the construction work. This is how the "remarkably homogeneous" (as UNESCO describe it) body of public and private buildings we see today came about, despite there being such an eclectic mixture of architectural styles amongst the different buildings (Gothic, Baroque and Louis XIV styles).

The Grand Place was sacked by Brabant Revolutionaries in the late 18th century. They destroyed statues of nobility and symbols of Christianity. The guildhalls were seized by the state and sold off, leading to a period of neglect. However, in the late 19th century, the square was returned to its former splendour through restoration work under the mayor, Charles Buls. During the two World Wars, the Germans occupied the city. However, the square continued to serve as a market right up until 1959.

The Town Hall is shown in the photo above. The main tower stands 96m tall. Constructed between 1402 and 1455, the original architect was probably Jacob van Thienen. It's  gothic tower was designed by architect Jan van Ruysbroeck. At the top of the tower stands a statue (not shown) of St. Michael, the patron saint of Brussels.

The photo above is one of a few on this webpage which show the Breadhouse (Broodhuis in Dutch) or in French, the Maison du Roi (King's House) and before that, the Maison du Duc (Duke's house). This neo-gothic building stands opposite the Town Hall and is now the historical City Museum. The Dutch name indicates the origins of the building. An earlier wooden structure stood on it's site from the early 13th century and this was where the bakers sold their bread. In 1405, a stone building replaced the original wooden bread hall. However, in the early 15th century, the building began to be used more and more for administrative purposes by the Duke of Brabant when the bakers turned to selling their products from door-to-door. The building was rebuilt in a Gothic style between 1515 and 1536, during the reign of Emperor Charles V.

The House of the Dukes of Brabant (Above) is actually a group of seven houses and is also a part of the Grand Place. The statues of the dukes can be seen on the building, although no dukes, or kings, ever lived here. The seven houses are named The Fame, The Hermit, The Fortune, The Windmill, The Tin Pot, The Hill and The Beurs. The entire set of houses at Grand Place is commonly called the Guild Houses, although they didn't all necessarily belong to the medieval city guilds - some were private dwellings.

These days, a number of organised events take place on the square. These include concerts and musical events, such as the annual Ommegang Pageant and the biennial Flower Carpet. The latter is held in August when over 300m² is covered with a gigantic tightly packed carpet of fresh begonias (these have been intensively cultivated in and near Ghent since 1860, although the idea for the flower carpet started in 1971).

Of course, this webpage has been about the Grand Place, although there are many more other sites to see in Brussels. For the visitor finding themselves bang in the heart of the city centre and with limited time, one site to see nearby that springs to mind is namely the unmissable Manneken Pis (1618 or 1619), the famous small bronze sculpture depicting a naked small boy urinating into a fountain's basin. It is nearly impossible to miss recreations of him at the numerous souvenir outlets - corkscrews, snow storms and so forth.

References and Further Reading

1. La Grand-Place, Brussels on the UNESCO website Here
2. Official website of the tourism and convention bureau of Brussels Here

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