Brussels started as a fortress on an island in the Senne River sometime around the turn of the first millennium. Both the river and the protection of the fortress encouraged trade and a hamlet started to grow near the fortress. In the early 12th century, the Counts of Louvain, who would later become the Dukes of Brabant, left the swampy conditions of the Senne River and built a palace on a nearby hill, the Coudenberg, more or less on the location of the present Royal Palace. This also explains that the present city of Brussels is composed of a lower city and an upper city. Since its construction, it was the seat of counts, dukes, archdukes, kings, emperors, and governors until its destruction in 1731. (The remains, below ground level, have been restored and can be visited.) Brussels’ prosperity increased during the middle ages, and it became an important center of administration, trade, and art, which is witnessed by the construction of buildings such as the Gothic City Hall in the early 15th century, and the also Gothic Collegiate Church of St. Michael and St. Gudula (elevated to the status of co-cathedral in 1962) in the early 13th century—replacing an earlier Romanesque edifice—but completed only 300 year later …
During the 15th century, most of what is now Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg, and to which we shall commonly refer to as the Low Countries, was part of the Duchy of Burgundy. Towards the end of the 15th century, the Low Countries came into the possession of the Habsburg dynasty, and the 16th century would see its most illustrious member rule from the palace on the Coudenberg: Charles V, born in 1500 in the Flemish city of Ghent, who became ruler of the Low Countries in 1506, King of Spain (as Charles I) in 1516, and Holy Roman Emperor of the Germanic Nation in 1519. Of his empire, which included the Spanish colonies in South- and Central-America, it was said that the Sun never set over it.
Charles V spent more time in the Netherlands than in either Spain or Germany. It was in Brussels, in 1555, that Charles V, severely suffering from gout, publicly announced his abdication.
The reign of Charles V also saw the rise of Protestantism, and the religious wars that ensued were devastating for the southern part of the Low Countries (more or less corresponding to present-day Belgium). It stayed under roman-catholic Spanish rule, while the predominantly protestant northern part managed to become an independent republic in 1581. When the dust of this upheaval settled, the Southern Low Countries found themselves the victim of a brain drain without precedent—numerous intellectuals and artists, who generally were more comfortable with the protestant teachings, emigrated to the North and initiated the Golden (17th) Century of the Netherlands …
One of the most dramatic events in the history of Brussels is the bombardment of the city by the troops of the French King Louis XIV, which would ruin the Grand Place and destroy about one third of the buildings in Brussels. The reconstruction of the city would therefore lead to a dramatic change to its appearance.
Due to succession issues within the Habsburg dynasty, the Southern Low Countries would go over into Austrian hands in the 18th century. Both the Northern and Southern Netherlands, however, were overrun by the French in 1795 in the wake of the French Revolution and remained under French rule until the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo, just south of Brussels.
As a consequence, the map of Europe had to be redrawn, and the Northern and Southern Low Countries found themselves reunited in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which only lasted 15 years, from 1815 to 1830. It had two co-capitals, Amsterdam and Brussels, and government institutions would convene alternatingly for six months in The Hague and Brussels. Despite this and other measures to ensure that both the North and the South would feel comfortable with the new construction, the tensions created by more than two centuries of separation could not be appeased. Especially the autocratic attitude of the King, William I, towards issues such as language (Dutch versus French) and religion (Protestantism versus Catholicism) caused the so-called Belgian Revolution, which started after the performance of an opera in Brussels, the content of which was interpreted as a nationalistic message by the listeners.
As the united Kingdom of the Netherlands was economically very powerful, the major countries of Europe were only too eager to recognize Belgium’s independence. Not surprisingly, Brussels became the capital of the new country. As it had assumed this role informally or formally many times before, the necessary infrastructure was already there, although new buildings were added or existing ones remodeled, especially under the rule of Belgium’s second king, Leopold II.
Many important buildings are located around the Park of Brussels: the Royal Palace, the Parliament, and also the Academy building where this conference is taking place.
The tensions between Dutch and French would soon reemerge, however, as the north of the country, Flanders, was Dutch-speaking and the south, Wallonia, French-speaking. In Brussels, originally, a Dutch-speaking city, French was spoken more and more due to a combination of various factors, including immigration and the higher social status of this language at the time. Halfway the 20th century, the majority of Brussels inhabitants spoke French. Currently, only 10% to 20% of the people in Brussels still use Dutch as their first language.
Especially since the 2nd half of the 20th century, Belgium evolved towards a federal structure, which is quite complicated, unfortunately. Belgium is divided into three communities: the Flemish (comprising Flanders and the Dutch-speaking inhabitants of Brussels), the French (comprising Wallonia and the French-speaking inhabitants of Brussels), and the German (Belgian acquired a small section of Germany as compensation for the war damages after World War I, which is located in the easternmost part of Wallonia). Belgium is also divided into three regions: Flanders in the North, Wallonia in the South, and the Capital Region of Brussels. The federal level, the communities, and the regions each have their own competences, and, in principle, each entity has its parliament and government, except that the Flemish community and region have merged theirs. Brussels is not only the capital of the federal state, but also of Flanders (even though the city is not part of the Flemish region). The other entities have their seats in Wallonia.
While the issue of Dutch versus French has long dominated politics in Brussels, it has obviously become less dominant in recent years, also because Brussels has become much more cosmopolitan in nature due to immigration of people of various nationalities. Compared to a decade ago, it is striking that English has become much more prominent in the city than before. A contributing factor to this is of course that Brussels is the de facto capital of the European Union. Founded in the 1950s as an initiative to create an economic interdependence between Germany and France with regard to coal and steel (essential ingredients for making weapons) to prevent these countries from being at war with each other ever again, this European Steel and Coal Community evolved through a number of treaties to the European Union we know today.
In the European Quarter of Brussels, we find the offices of most European institutions as well as the European Parliament, although this parliament also meets in Strasbourg. We will be there on Wednesday evening, as in this area, we also find the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, where the official dinner will take place. In 1878, in a coal mine near Bernissart, in the south of Belgium, more than 30 complete skeletons of iguanodons were discovered, and brought to the Natural Sciences Institute of Brussels. Some have been mounted and some are displayed as they were found. This was one of the first finds of complete dinosaur skeletons, let alone in these quantities. It is still one the richest finds of dinosaur fossils to date and its importance, in a time that the study of these creatures was still in its infancy, can hardly be overestimated.
There is a saying that if it rains in Paris, it drizzles in Brussels, meaning that trends in Paris tend to be reflected—at least to some extent—in Brussels. This is also the case for innovative architecture. We already mentioned King Leopold II who tried to modernize the Belgian capital with several building projects. He did not show much interest though in one of the most conspicuous buildings in the city, the Palace of Justice, which, while built during his reign, cannot be considered part of his legacy.
There was also the very influential World Exhibition in Brussels in 1958, of which the Atomium, a huge representation of an iron crystal, is the most conspicuous survivor.
Brussels is best known for its art nouveau and art déco architecture, however. A nice example of art nouveau style on the road from the Central Station to the Royal Palace is Old England, originally a British department store built in 1899, converted to a museum of musical instruments in 2000. Its roof terrace is a restaurant which one can enter without having to visit the museum and which provides a magnificent view over Brussels.
The most famous name with respect to these architectural styles is the Belgian architect Victor Horta. Although several of his buildings have been destroyed when art nouveau was out of fashion—the reverse side of the medal of the building frenzies that swept through Brussels—many still survive. After the First World War, people did no longer have the money for elaborate art nouveau buildings, and the style simplified to art déco. An example of the latter is the Palace of Fine Arts (often referred to as the Bozar), not far from the Central Station and at the base of a staircase that leads to the Park of Brussels. The Central Station itself was also designed by Horta, but finished only in 1952, five years after the death of the architect.
Some notable artists have worked in Brussels too. One of them is the 15th century painter Rogier Van der Weyden, born in Tournai in Wallonia as Roger de la Pasture. Among more contemporary artists, we mention the 20th century surrealist painter René Magritte. A museum dedicated to this artist opened its doors in 2009 and is located very close to the Royal Palace.
Brussels is also the capital of the comic strip, of which Tintin, the Smurfs, and Lucky Luke are the most famous representatives. You can visit the Belgian Comic Strip Center, which, as an additional bonus, is located in the former Waucquez Warehouse, a 1906 creation of Victor Horta.
Although this overview of various aspects of Brussels is very incomplete, no essay on Brussels should omit its gastronomical delicacies, and in particular the Belgian chocolates, or, as they are called here, pralines. Their history started with a Swiss immigrant pharmacist, Jean Neuhaus, who used chocolate to make his medicine more palatable in his pharmacy that was opened in the Galeries Royales in 1857—still operating as a chocolate shop today! Chocolate would soon become the core business of the family, and the pharmacy was gradually transformed into a chocolate shop. The founder’s grandson, Jean II Neuhaus, created the chocolate-filled praline that we know today in 1912. Chocolate shops can be found all over the city, but for some of the more exquisite ones, try the Grand Sablon square within easy walking distance of the conference site.
Brussels has of course also other delicacies to offer. One of them is the Belgian Waffle, which is known in this country as a Brussels Waffle. No offence intended, but you will find it much tastier than its North American namesake! Only, in Belgium, a Brussels Waffle is not eaten at breakfast, but rather as a late afternoon snack. Many cafés and taverns feature it on their menu. And if you fancy something more hearty, why not try mussels with French fries in one of the many bistros of the city?
Marc Gyssens, Hasselt University