Q: Describe the origins of the Grand Place. 

A: The origins of the Grand Place are, as is the case for most of the city’s history, uncertain. We do know, however, that the area gradually transformed from a marsh to the main market place in town (hence, Grote Markt in Flemish, referring to the economic activity that always existed here). The current square is indeed a former swamp, very near a little river (the actual Grasmarkt/Marché aux Herbes). The marshy land was surrounded by sandy hills, on which wooden constructions were erected. 

Towards the end of the 14th century, the production of quality cloth reached such heights, that a cloth hall was built. This stone building housed the weavers’ guild, and it was a place where cloth was quality controlled, and subsequently sold. 

In 1402, the city authorities decided they wanted a proper building in which to convene. Town hall was built right against the cloth hall and was L-shaped (i.e. along the current Karel Bulsstraat/Rue Charles Buls and the left wing, including the lower part of the tower). Some twenty or thirty years later, the right wing was added and only after that was completed did they finish the beautifully carved belfry tower. 

Wooden constructions in the immediate surroundings of this new Town Hall were being replaced by stone buildings. Thatched roofs were replaced by tiled roofs in order to reduce fire hazards.

For the next couple of centuries, the main market square must have been quite a hectic place. Not only was it a market, but from the balcony on the first floor of town hall, new laws would be proclaimed, death sentences announced, new rulers acclaimed and visiting ‘stars’ welcomed. Common criminals would be hanged outside the city walls, while esteemed inhabitants and aristocrats were beheaded on this square. Think of it as a lynching party in an old-fashioned western: everybody would come to see the event and pick-pockets would have a field day. 

The year 1695 was the ‘annis horribilis’ for Brussels. French King Louis XIV decided to have Brussels bombed. For three days and nights, the French artillery aimed for the Town Hall tower, destroying everything but their target. The whole town lay in shambles. And yet, only seven years later, the Grand Place looked more beautiful than ever. 

When the French took over, towards the end of the 18th century, they had nearly all sculptural elements removed – being allergic to every possible representation of aristocracy or religion.

Towards the end of the 19th century, our Grand Place looked pretty grim. The façades looked black as charcoal, the former Bread Hall had to be taken down and the first house to the left of Town Hall taken down in order to make traffic a little more fluid (yes, towards the end of the 19th century). Mayor Karel Buls/ Charles Buls did whatever was in his power to save this gem. He arranged for all the façades to be purchased by the City (40cm from the building line is city property, all the rest is private property), had the Star rebuilt on an arcade (thus enabling traffic to remain fluid) and had the former Bread Hall rebuilt. 

During the last years of the 19th century, and during the first years of the 20th century, sculptures were ordered from various Belgian artists to be put either on the façades of Town Hall or to replace the decoration destroyed by the French after 1795. 

Today, apart from a flower stall, there is no market activity left on the Main Market Square. Surreal? Perhaps! But millions of people take pictures galore of one of the most beautiful squares in Europe (and, perhaps, of the world). And quite often, free open air concerts attract a grateful audience. 

 

Q: How did the Grand Place evolve over the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries? 
A: The Flemish words being more descriptive, the term ‘Grote Markt’ simply means ‘Main Market Square’.  In those times there’d be the daily hustle and bustle of a market. Not only here, but also in the streets leading to the square. Botermarkt (Butter Market), Kaasmarkt (Cheese Market), Grasmarkt (Grass Market), Kolenmarkt (Cabbage Market) are street names in the immediate surroundings of the Grand Place. 

As the city grew, more specifically in the 19th century, the city had an early morning wholesale market organized here. After World War I, that market moved to new buildings near the canal, to move towards its actual site between the canal and the rail connection to Laken. Houses in previous centuries had bakers, butchers, grocery stores, tobacco shops and taverns on their ground floor. Today, there are mainly restaurants and bars. 

Sourced through Scoop.it from: grandplacebrussels.be

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