Thursday, November 14, 2013

Brussels' Upper Town: Where the Fancy French People Lived

In the previous post, we covered the sites of Brussels' Lower Town. But what about the Upper Town?

Unlike the twisty cobbled medieval streets of the Lower Town, the Upper Town has more of a planned feel with wide streets more conducive to strolling and driving. After Belgium became independent in 1830, it became the financial center of Europe (with the first bank!) and power was held in the hands of the small French-speaking elite. As money poured into the city, the liberal city administration created the Upper Town as a modern capital city with "broad avenues and majestic buildings." The planners dreamed of designing an ideal city and the spirit of optimism was reflected in Belgium hosting seven world fairs before the outbreak of WWI. Basically, the Upper Town was a reflection of the changing times and the burgeoning consumer society. *

Despite all this talk of modernism, the Upper Town is still a mix of old and new. It's full of grand parks and art nouveau buildings, but is also home to a large gothic cathedral and royal palace. And just past that are modern office and apartment buildings and the home of the European Union. The Upper Town is kind of schizophrenic that way--but I like it because there is always something different to look at. 

A remnant of Brussels' 13th century original town wall is surrounded by modern construction scaffolding. Somehow it seems symbolically appropriate.

Climbing up the hill from the Lower Town to the Upper yields spectacular views. The large spire in the background is of the Town Hall in the Grand Place.

The first thing you notice in the Upper Town is the Royal Palace, used as the office of the current King, Albert II. The royal family actually lives in another palace a few miles out of town. The King is largely a figure-head but is seen as a common bond between Belgium's bickering Flemish and Walloon citizens (the country is divided into three regions: French-speaking Wallonia, Flemish/Dutch-speaking Flanders, and a small German-speaking community). The palace was not open to visitors when I was there, but its outside is certainly impressive. 
The Palais Royale.

Me and Jonathan outside the Palace.

Across the Royal Palace is the Parc de Bruxelles. I managed to haul myself out of bed two freezing mornings to run in the park (it has about a .75 mile loop). The park was created in 1776 by the Habsburg empress, Maria Theresa of Austria, when she ruled, but never actually visited, Brussels. The Parc de Bruxelles was also the site of the first conflict between the Belgian patriots and the troops of the Dutch King in 1830, right before the country won its independence. My guidebook describes the revolution as "almost bloodless." Tell that to the peeps who died here though, right?

Attached to the Royal Palace is a really interesting museum chronicling Belgian history, the BELvue Museum. It covers two floors and outlines the history of Belgium using documents, photographs, and other primary sources. Each of the museum's nine rooms covers a specific time period and the exhibits are all numbered. Upon arrival, you are handed a large pamphlet that includes descriptions and context for each exhibit. I wasn't sure what to expect--but darn if the whole thing wasn't actually fascinating. Especially the darker periods of Belgium's history, such as the atrocities committed in the Belgian Congo (as part of the rubber, ivory, and chocolate trades) and the cooperation of many Belgians with the Germans during WWI and WWII.

The entrance to the BELvue Museum. 

In one of the museum's rooms, holding the brochure and moving through the exhibits.

If you walk around the corner from the Royal Palace and down the Rue de la Regence, there are a couple of neat things to see including....

A public sculpture garden, the Place du Petit Sablon, with a beautiful fountain which is located across the street from....

Notre-Dame du Sablon Church. It's a 14th century gothic Catholic church that stands at the top of the Grand Sablon (remember, that's where I scored all that yummy chocolate a few days earlier). I went inside, but Mass was in progress since it was a Sunday so I just quietly observed from the back for a while. 

At the end of the street you come to the Place Poelart, which is a beautiful overlook point for the Lower Town part of the city. It's 200 feet above the former Senne River Valley and on a clear day (like I had) you can see all the way to The Atomium, built for the 1958 World's Fair to commemorate the dawn of the nuclear era. 

At the end of the Place Poelart is an elevator that can take you down to the Marroles neighborhood that has a pretty rockin flea market. It was unfortunately raining that morning (before I went for my Upper Town walk) so I didn't make it to the market, but you have to leave some things for next time, right?

At this point in my walk, I made my way back down to the Grand Sablon and might have stopped into another chocolate shop to try the wares (that might or might not have been Frederic Blondeel). Instead of pulling out the map, I decided to just walk down some new streets and find my way back to the apartment. Part of the fun of wandering a new city is the wandering. I knew the general direction I needed to head in, and the spire from the Town Hall in the Grand Place makes for a really good landmark. I didn't have any trouble finding my way back (though I take a bit of circuitous route) and ended up getting home just before the afternoon rain hit.

*Most of this information comes from the guidebook provided by the BELvue Museum which explains Belgium's belle epoque.

Coming up next: my visit to the EU and notes on Belgium's cuisine (and yes, there is more to Belgian food than chocolate and waffles).

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