Brussels Tourist Attractions
Brussels, capital of Belgium and principal seat of the Belgian Royal Family, is situated at the geographical center of the country. It occupies rising ground on the edge of the valley of the Senne, a tributary of the Scheldt, at a point where the hills drop away to the plain of Flanders. The city is capital of the province of Brabant, and Greater Brussels ("L'Agglomération de Bruxelles") forms one of the country's three autonomous regions, the others being Flanders and Wallonia.
As Belgium's main cultural and scientific center Brussels is home to the Belgian Royal Academy as well as to a university, a polytechnic, numerous technical colleges and art schools and a variety of other cultural institutions. It is also the country's financial capital (National Bank) and economic hub, lying as it does at the intersection of some of western Europe's primary transport routes. Second only to Antwerp as the largest industrialised area in Belgium light industry predominates, in particular the manufacture of "Brussels lace", woolen, cotton and silk goods, carpets and porcelain. The metal, automobile and chemical industries are also well represented. Even so, the commercial and service sectors outweigh manufacturing in importance to the economy, owing in no small measure to the presence of the big international organizations.
Not surprisingly Brussels is also the country's gastronomic capital, plentifully provided with restaurants of high repute catering for a discriminating clientèle. Brussels chocolates are famous.
Brussels is the capital of the European Union (EU) in practice, not officially, but is considered so due to its history with the various EU institutions. Brussels is also host to the headquarters for NATO, the Western European Union and EUROCONTROL. In addition, there are numerous other international organisations and corporations within the city. The city is also highly regarded as a host of international conferences.
The municipality of Brussels proper comprises only the area formerly enclosed by the old ramparts - long since replaced by the broad boulevards of the so-called "Pentagon". It is made up of the Lower Town, through which flow several branches of the Senne (now canalised underground), and the smaller Upper Town on a ridge to the east. Clustered around the city center and today continuous with it are 18 separately administered suburban districts. Thus Brussels as a whole is an agglomeration of 19 different municipalities, each with its own local government. That this has been an obstacle to the coherent development of the city is all too obvious from the many dilapidated areas and failed or poorly executed building projects.
Nowhere in Belgium do Flemings and Walloons live in quite such close proximity as in Brussels, the linguistic frontier running only a few kilometers south of the city. While Brussels itself is officially bilingual, Francophones in fact predominate (80%) in the central district and Flemish speakers in the suburbs. It is Brussels' fate therefore to be at the mercy of often opposing ethnic group interests, the paralysing effects of which have frequently proved to the city's disadvantage.
Nevertheless, few if any European cities have such an international feel as Brussels. A quarter of the approximately one million inhabitants are foreigners and they could hardly be a more varied mixture. On the one hand there are the army of people employed by the international organizations, and on the other hand guest workers and immigrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa.
Brussels is an entirely modern city, extensive replanning and redevelopment since the early part of the century having profoundly altered the character of the old Brabant capital except in one or two places. Even now several major projects are in progress. Work is almost complete on reshaping the area in front of the Gare Centrale to create a more fitting "entrée" to the historic heart of the city. And an ambitious plan exists to redevelop the area around the headquarters of the European Commission in the Palais Berlaymont - due for demolition because of the asbestos risk. Amid all this redevelopment those with an eye for such things will spot many an architectural disaster, as well as districts still badly in need of revitalisation. At the same time, speculative fever combined with the already mentioned ethnic rivalry and fragmented administrative responsibility threatens to destroy the vernacular character of attractive quarters like Les Marolles.
The founding of Brussels is usually attributed to St Goorik (or Géry), Bishop of Cambrai, also credited with introducing Christianity into Belgium. He is thought to have established the original settlement here in about 580, on an island in the Senne. In 977 Charles, Duke of Lower Lotharingia, took up residence on the island, thereby attracting craftsmen and tradespeople to it. As a result the name "Bruocsella" (from "broec" = breach or marsh and "sele" = village") appears for the first time in 979 in a document of Otto the Great. Later, in the 12th century, the counts of Louvain, forerunners of the dukes of Brabant, built anew on the more elevated site of the Coudenberg. Standing as it did at an important crossing on the great trade route between Bruges and Cologne, subsequent expansion was rapid, and between 1357 and 1379 new ramparts were built around the much enlarged town. From then on Brussels ceased to be in the shadow of the hitherto more powerful Louvain.
At the end of the 14th century Brussels became the capital of Brabant, consequently falling in 1430 into Burgundian hands. By 1455 the population had reached 43,500 inhabitants. The dukes of Burgundy occasionally held court in Brussels and the French nobility who gathered there and who were already making the French language fashionable among their Netherlands counterparts, were responsible for a first flowering of the arts and sciences. At the same time trades and crafts increasingly flourished, leading to the emergence of a prosperous middle class and a new pride and self-confidence which soon found expression in the building of the splendid guild-houses and town hall on the Grand' Place.
When the country became a Habsburg possession in 1477, and especially following Charles V's accession in 1515 and the elevation of Brussels to capital of the Spanish Netherlands in 1531, a brilliant court life evolved in the city attracting a bevy of artists. It was during this time also that, in 1490, Franz von Taxis organized a permanent postal link between Brussels and Innsbruck. Charles V's abdication in 1555 however presaged the ending of Spanish rule.
The year 1566 saw the first rebellion in the Netherlands against Spanish oppression, culminating in the execution of Counts Egmont and Hoorn on the Grand' Place. For the time being the Spanish hold remained unbroken, but economically the city was weakened by an exodus of its citizens to the free Netherlands. In 1695, during Louis XIV's wars, Marshal DeVilleroy's bombardment set fire to the Lower Town, destroying more than 4000 houses including the magnificent buildings around the Grand' Place. Although with the end of the War of Spanish Succession the Spanish Netherlands and with them Brussels passed to Austria, the struggle of the people of Brussels for their freedom continued. In 1719 Frans Anneessens, leader of the Brussels guilds, was beheaded on the orders of the Austrian-appointed Governor, Prince Eugène.
Under Maria Theresa and her Governor Charles of Lorraine (1744-1780) more peaceful times ensued, the population rising again to reach 74,000. Then came the French Revolution, Brabantine supporters of which led a new revolt against the Austrians. In 1794 the French themselves marched in, Brussels remaining in French hands until 1814. Possession then passed to the Dutch under whom Brussels became the Netherlands' second city. Finally a popular riot in Theater Square on August 25th 1830 was the signal for the start of the revolution out of which Brussels was to emerge as the capital of the newly created Kingdom of the Belgians.
The new capital now developed rapidly. In 1834 the university was founded, and a year later continental Europe's first rail service began operating between Brussels and Mechelen. Subsequently, under King Leopold II and Burgomaster Ansprach, the great boulevards were built. Although occupied in both World Wars the city was fortunately spared the worst destruction. The 1958 World Exhibition brought a new landmark in the form of the Atomium while the arrival of the EEC and EURATOM in 1959 followed by NATO in 1967 marked Brussels' elevation to unofficial "Capital of Europe". The 1980s saw the first steps towards the city's becoming an autonomous region alongside Flanders and Wallonia, a process which should come to fruition in the 1990s. Sadly, in 1985, the Heysel Stadium was brought to the attention of the world when, before the European Cup Final between Liverpool FC and Juventus of Turin, British football hooligans caused panic in the course of which 38 spectators were killed.
Brussels was the birthplace of, among others, the painters Bernard van Orley, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and René Magritte, the Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta and the cabaret singer Jacques Brel.
In Brussels as in all major cities visitors are well advised to dispense with their own cars. The city's extensive and dependable public transport system brings everything of interest within easy reach.