Drowsy with the morning’s haze, deserted and momentarily muted, we arrived early at Gare du Nord train station in Brussels’ business district, on a Saturday in late October.
‘The Northern Quarter' as the district is known, is concentrated with high rise buildings; the skyscrapers, many of which are over 100 metres tall, loom over you. As we walked through we passed by the masculine buildings of the World Trade Centre and gazed up at the ultra-futuristic Belgacom Towers, one of the tallest buildings in Belgium. Positioned at juxtaposed angles, the Towers are connected by a glass bridge forming a smart, logo-like shape from the outside. However, I’m glad I’m not one of the telecom giant’s employees having to cross it each morning.
The landscaping of The Northern Quarter reminded me greatly of La Defence in beloved Paris. Similar to the plateau from the Grande Arche of La Defence and The Triumphal Way - the long stretch of road which runs from East to West joining the iconic sights of Paris, Brussels too, dramatically underlines it assets. From the Basilique Nationale du Sacré-Cœur set within the lush, green Parc Elizabeth, a concrete runway leads deep down to where the business tycoons dwell in The Northern Quarter. The long, wide roads separating out the opponent-like office blocks.
As we navigated our way through this urban forest of superstructures it reminded me of a scene in Disney’s Jack and the Beanstalk where upon reaching the Giant’s kitchen, Jack treads through a feast-laden table, passing by the oversize shapes of the Giant’s delicacies - only the feast for our eyes was a selection of awe-inspiring, contemporary architecture.
Our plan was to meet up with my brother and so we jumped onto the metro, amused by its retro colour scheme and headed for the meeting point of all meeting points, La Grand-Place. The delicately cobbled square is surrounded on all sides by stunning architecture from three different periods emblazoned in gold. La Grand-Place was heaving with tourists, feeding the imagination of how this enchanting space looked as a booming centre for trade.
The opulent and intricately decorated guildhalls representing the market's historic trading, take up positions on the square, the designs of which are emblematic of their past trades.
The ornate Hôtel de Ville, the Town Hall, is one of the most iconic buildings with its elegant and striking bell tower piercing the sky. We did however overhear a tour guide pointing out its design flaws; its unplanned asymmetry for example. These noticeable errors have led to the locals creating an array of highly imaginative stories as to how the then shamed architect decided to kill himself- these vivid stories are apparently a testament to a very Belgian sense of humour...
Standing antagonistically opposite the Town Hall is the gothic style Maison du Roi, the King’s House, now home to the museum of the city of Brussels. The location of these buildings, facing against each other, is a result of a strained relationship between local government and ducal powers at the time. However, today they can be enjoyed for their bewitching designs and any imperfections, as with anything, adds character and charm.
The spectacular and eclectic quality of architecture of La Grand-Place is not only a visual treat; it’s a tribute to the rich social and cultural milieu of that time in this important political and commercial centre, and it earned La Grand-Place a listing as one of the sites of World Heritage by UNESCO.
We wondered off the market square, down beautiful cobbled streets alive with cafes and bars, a welcomed opportunity to stop for breakfast and sample coffee and waffles.
Though shopping wasn’t strictly on the agenda for our brief visit to the capital, Brussels has a variety of design and clothing shops presented to tempt in passersby and I found myself doing just that as I stepped into some exquisite boutiques. As Saturday is market day we couldn’t escape browsing through the many stalls selling cheeses, foods and a variety of other things, including vintage clothing. The TASCHEN, the unique publishing house on Rue Lebeau, introduced us to a street full of individual designers, design shops and magnificent boutiques.
Our wanderings took us to the Poelaert elevator; a short, sharp ride taking you from the lower town up to a large, flat square where sits the foreboding and ferocious Palais de Justice, situated on top of ‘Gallows Hill’. The colossal Palais de Justice is the Supreme Court of Law for Belgium. It was once the largest courthouse in the world. From square in front of the Supreme Court you can view the characterful skyline of Brussels.
An illustrated city; turn a corner and you’re faced with vibrant street art owning half the side of a building, alleyways and colouring in the cobble-stoned streets. In Brussels it’s clear that the street art is an expression of a city in constant flux. Within a few metres of the tranquility of one of the city’s many serene and extraordinary churches are interesting and unexpected places covered in vivacious, animated art scenes amalgamated into an urban backdrop; often claiming buildings shrouded in scaffolding or midway construction sites.
We headed back towards Gare du Nord and walked through Place St.Catherine to sample some Belgian beer. Place St.Catherine is a location with historic buildings, churches, shops, cafes, brasseries and a fish and seafood market. Even in late October the area was busy with groups of people sat outside drinking and enjoying the last rays of sun.
After finishing our drinks, it was time to leave this wonderful city behind. Brussels definitely left a sweet taste in my mouth. It felt like we were just scraping the surface and I was already intrigued to return and explore more of the city, but that would be for another time. We jumped on the train and headed for the next destination, the city of Delf in the Netherlands.