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The top attraction in Brussels is the Grand Place, or Grote Markt. This centrally located square is renowned for its rich history. Surrounded by the City Hall, the ‘Broodhuis’ and numerous guildhalls, it is not surprising that UNESCO added the Grand Place to its list of World Heritage Sites in 1998.
The guilds (associations of professional groups) used to play an important role in the city. Carpenters, bricklayers, surgeons and captains were all represented by a guild. The guild administration was housed in a guildhall, where meetings were held and meals enjoyed. Many of the guilds had offices on the Grand Place. These beautifully designed buildings continue to form part of the exquisite square décor. French writer Victor Hugo even called the Grand Place the 'most beautiful square in the world'.
During the first half of the 15th century, the City Hall was built on the south side of the square, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. The interior has an elaborate mix of styles including the Louis XIV style from the early 18th century. The building has a tower 96 metres in height, topped with a 3-metre tall statue of the archangel Michael killing a dragon. This show of strength incited the envy of the Duke of Brabant, who promptly had the former Broodhuis (Breadhouse) on the other side of the square extravagantly decorated. He renamed it ‘Maison du Roi’ – House of the King.
In 1695, the Grand Place suffered extensive destruction during heavy bombing by Louis XIV’s troops. The French Sun King wanted to expand his territory during the Nine-Year War, which ravaged Brussels as well. But the city recovered quickly, thanks in part to the guilds. The centre was rapidly rebuilt and, after a relatively short period, the Grand Place was returned to its former glory.
One of the most ornately decorated buildings on the Grand Place is the Broodhuis, the ‘Maison du Roi’. It has undergone renovations on numerous occasions throughout the centuries. Bread was sold here in the 13th century, and in the early 15th century, the building was occupied by the Duke of Brabant. It was still a wooden construction at the time but was replaced by a stone building in 1405. A Gothic façade with flamboyant details was added under Emperor Charles and, in the mid-19th century, the building was once again demolished and rebuilt in Neo-Gothic style. Nowadays, the Broodhuis houses a museum with a valuable collection of paintings, wall tapestries, sculptures, silverware and porcelain. It is definitely worth a visit, as the collection provides a fabulous overview of the city’s history.
Every 2 years in August, the Grand Place square is covered with an enormous flower carpet. About 120 volunteers spend four hours covering a surface area of 1,800 square metres with 800,000 colourful begonias in beautiful patterns. The first flower carpet, made in 1971, was such a success that a tradition was born. The event always attracts thousands of tourists. It is an impressive site to see a stone square transformed into a sea of flowers for an entire week.