IMG_4548With temperatures here more like April than December, I’m trying to get into the Christmas mood with some photos from a visit to Brussels last year.P1090294 2Brussels is such a pretty city. During the six years I lived there, I didn’t appreciate it–I would hop on the Thalys fast train to Paris or show up at the airport with only a carry-on to check the bulletin board of cheap last-minute tickets. One year, I traveled 50 out of 52 weekends. It was a good way to see Europe.P1090299 2We’ve gone to Belgium for all but one of the past 14 Christmases, and will finally spend our first Christmas at home this year. The highlight of the Belgium holidays was always our day spent in Brussels, amid the lights and pretty architecture, so different from the rundown towns of southern Belgium that are the definition of the word triste.P1090298 2The center of Brussels is its famous Grand-Place (which, despite being LA Grand-Place is not la Grande-Place, a mystery I must resolve one day). The fancy houses on the Grand-Place, mostly with wood construction, were burned down in three days during a bombardment by the troops of Louis XIV in 1695. The wealthy merchants, guilds and corporations weren’t put down, however. By 1697 were rebuilding, this time using stone.

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La Maison des Brasseurs, or the Brewers’ Guild Hall, from 1698, houses a beer museum.

The Grand-Place became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1998, noted for the harmonious yet eclectic mix of buildings that have stayed the same for more than three centuries.

The most outstanding building is the gothic Hotel de Ville, or city hall, built in three phases–the left wing (from 1401-1421), then a nearly identical extension on the right (added from 1440-1450), and finally the top of the tower (from 1449-1455). So obviously it survived the big fire. The top photo shows most of it.P1090300 2Do you notice anything strange about the main entry?

Supposedly the architect became so upset about the mistake that he jumped to his death, but that seems to be urban legend, and the portail is likely off center just because the building got added onto.

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When I lived in Brussels, la Maison du Roi was black and foreboding. Some years ago it was cleaned. A revelation.

The Maison du Roi, or King’s House, is directly across from the Hotel de Ville. It actually is a 19th century reconstruction of what the architects would have wanted to build at the beginning of the 16th century, replacing a building that also survived the fire and that was built in 1515. That building was falling to ruin, and the city spared no expense with the replacement, which took 22 years to build (1873-1895). Keep in mind that Belgium became a country only in 1830. At the time the King’s House was built, the king was Leopold II, the same one who colonized and pillaged the Congo. So that’s where his deep pockets came from.P1090296 2La Maison du Cygne, or Swan House, originally was an inn but now houses a very swanky restaurant. Very good, too.P1090291Not far from the Grand-Place are the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, three glass-roofed arcades that connect.

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A respite from perpetual rain.
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Even more twinkly by night.
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One of the shops. Also several chocolatiers.

All around the galeries, the neighborhood is a warren of medieval “streets” that are more like cobbled footpaths. For example, l’Impasse Saint-Nicolas is one of 17 impasses, or dead-end paths, in the area that lead to buildings that are behind buildings. The entry to our apartments is a similar impasse, a former medieval street leading to an interior courtyard that used to be a tannery, and to buildings that don’t reach to the main streets.

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Just under St. Nick there’s a sign for Duvel–Devil–a brand of beer.

A bit farther off, old and new sit cheek by jowl. La Tour Noire, or Black Tower, remains from the first ramparts of the city, now nearly swallowed up by a Novotel.

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Not a comfortable juxtaposition.

P1090307 2The above excepted, there ARE are plenty of classy buildings, dolled up for the festivities.P1090310 2Even the Christmas street lights are classy.P1090313 2Not far from the Black Tower is the Place Sainte Catherine, site of a Christmas market. It’s near the quais of the canals built in the 1500s and another in the 1800s to transport goods, since the river that the city was born next to (aren’t all cities next to rivers?), the Senne, was hard to navigate. In fact, the city covered over the river 200 years ago, since it had become mostly a sewer.

The quais now are lined with restaurants, especially those for fish and seafood.P1090303While we’re excited about having Christmas at home for the first time, we will miss getting a hit of city sparkle. Meanwhile, the gilets jaunes are the Grinches stealing Christmas. People are shopping online rather than in stores to avoid having to brave the gantlet of protesters. Already the Internet was killing stores; the outlook is decidedly unfestive.

Do you shop in stores or online? Have you been to Brussels?IMG_4550

 

 

 

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32 thoughts on “Christmas in Brussels

    1. It’s nice at Christmas because the gray weather makes the lights shimmer more and everything seems even more cozy. Plus quite a few of the cafés around the Grand-Place have big fireplaces.

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  1. My husband worked in Brussels for seven years. He would leave the UK on a Monday morning and return on a Thursday evening. This meant he had a company flat in the city where I would often stay with our sons. We loved our visits to Brussels. I developed a taste for Belgian beer which we still drink to this day! Our favourite café-bar, in Castelnaudary, has Leffe; our only reason for going there! Your post made me think we really should go back for another visit.

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  2. We bypassed Brussels and drove to Bruges. It seemed too large for the three days we had. Bruges lived up to its reputation. Another time we will visit. One thing that struck us about Belgium was the ease of which people switched between languages….the accents were pitch perfect. Yes, the frites were the best that we have tasted and definetly with mayonnaise.
    Ali

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  3. La Grand-Place brings back memories. A bar there was my first exposure to Belgian beer. I chose one at random at 11am one morning. The waiter pointed out it was a triple. I had no idea what that meant and responded ‘yeah, yeah, that’s fine’. It made my gums go numb, but I have loved Belgian beer ever since 🙂

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    1. As if nobody there drinks a triple at 11 a.m. Ha! When our kid was little, we were in Belgium at Easter and went to a local egg hunt. All the parents were drinking beer (and most were already drunk) by 10 a.m. Then they drove their kids home. It was like a scene out of a bad movie.

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  4. I shop both online and in stores. Last year we were done with our shopping early and went to a movie at the mall just before Christmas and walked around after. It was nice to see the decorations and shoppers and be all done with it.
    I haven’t been to Belgium and would love to go in the future.
    Are you looking forward to staying home for the holidays?

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  5. Hello! I’ve come to your lovely pages from the Vintage Contessa.

    We Love Brussels! Years ago Mr P had a 5-month contract in Ghent and we used to trundle down for exhibitions and what-not. Unfortunately, the summer we arrived there was an infamous Food Crisis (which led to the Government falling & lots of right-wing agitation) which meant the shelves in the food shops looked delightfully Soviet-era for the duration, and only True Patriots would dare eat the hard-to-get foodstuffs, so we’d head off to Paris every weekend on the Thalys.

    Earlier, when I was a single girl in London, friends and I would drive to Bruges every year for the gorgeous Xmas market. Never thought to ever take a photo, of course. The Olden Days, hey?

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    1. I lived in Brussels during the food crisis (1999) but I don’t remember empty shelves–my work hours were such that I rarely got to shop, instead subsisting on takeout and living for the weekend.

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      1. We were living in the Novotel (living the Dream, haha!) so couldn’t cook meals and it was the prepackaged stuff that had most obviously vanished – chocolates, biscuits, cheese and yoghurt, etc. My Mum in Australia reported back that the $2 shops were awash with cheap Belgian chocolates! A little bit of dumping keeps life interesting. We lived on Indian and Turkish for ages, there being no issue with lamb.

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  6. Many memories here. I last visited Brussels over 40 years ago. I loved it then and can see the improvements in your pictures. Cleaning the buildings changes everything. I would love to go again one day.

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  7. I always shop online and have never set foot in Belgium, although that country is on my list of must-visits. Your post certainly makes Brussels look attractive, but I have also heard really great things about Bruges. Gilets jaunes aside, we live far from any decent shops and I find online is the way to go for most things in France — aside from fresh food and groceries — better selection, fair prices, and no attitude!

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  8. I have been to Brussels many times and love it. Seeing your photos brings back many happy memories! I hope that you have a wonderful Christmas at home.
    We are having unseasonably cold weather here and it feels like February and miserable.
    Do tell us more about the food crisis you mention above. I will look it up as well but I like hearing your take on things.

    Have a great week.

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