La Grand Place is the majestic centerpiece of Brussels, Belgium, a city that is far from boring, no matter what the reputation may be.
There are the crushing disappointments in Brussels. The main park in a city is usually treated with a sense of pride, an ostentatious symbol of the way the residents are looked after, a sumptuous oasis of greenery amongst the hustle. Not the Park de Bruxelles, which is approached with a desperate need to temporarily rest weary feet. The grass is a faded brown color, any thoughts of watering it clearly dispensed with through laziness or environmental concern. The park is also covered in litter; bins are overflowing and piles of water bottles, burger wrappers and newspapers just fester in the sun. It’s frankly disgusting, even though you can see the potential in the massive, billowing fountain and lurching trees.
This would-be focal point is in stark contrast to what does take that role, however. You don’t need a fluent grasp of French and a comprehensive walking tour diagram to understand that it’s going to be worth following signposts to La Grand Place. This huge square is a celebration of architecture, and whereas most civic centers such as this tend to be one magnificent building dominating a lot of humdrum counterparts, this is not the case here.
All around, ornate guild houses tower, making the humble pedestrian in the middle feel very small indeed. Nearly all have been created since 1695 when the French attacked and pretty much flattened the whole square. The only thing they missed was magnificent Town Hall, ironically the main target. This light, Gothic, and somehow brittle-looking construction is still the biggest fish in the pond, but the old guild buildings are still immensely impressive.
For an indication of how lavishly decorated these structures are, let’s take one small block at random; a chunk of one building, three windows, and about five meters wide. It’s five stories and a cherry on top tall, and from top to bottom, it is amazingly elaborate. Two golden lions are holding a shield bearing a coat of arms; two men on plinths; an old queen’s head surrounded by the four winds in angelic form; a row of not very scary gargoyles.
Lower the head, and you have a stone boy wrestling a dog, a rider slugging back a tankard of beer whilst mounted and a man riding a horse with a scaly tail, raising his fist as if he’s about to lay into his steed. This is just the top two stories, and we’ll gloss over the chains of suns, arrows, chains, and wheels before this becomes a Tolstoy-esque epic.
These interpretations may not be correct, of course, but that’s part of the fun. You could lose yourself for hours looking at these buildings. Remember that this is just one tiny part of the whole square, and as it happens, this level of grandeur and detail is now used to house a solitary ATM. That’s some wow factor.
Brussels is also home to arguably the best pub in the world, just around the corner from La Grande Place.