La Grand Place – Brussels, Belgium
The Central Courtyard of the Continent’s Capital
Few great urban squares make the impact you’ll find upon entering Brussel’s gigantic one-of-a-kind Grand Place (Grote Markt). Louis XIV of France bombarded the entire city center in the 17th century, destroying more than wooden buildings; what you see today is damage-turned-triumph. Most art historians agree with Jean Cocteau, who called it “a splendid stage.” The ornate Baroque facades of the powerful (and competitive) guild houses and the Gothic Hotel de Ville that dates to 1402.The only building to have survived the 1695 destruction, are the highlights.
The heart of town since the 13th century, something’s always going on: this is the incomparable setting for the Flower Carpet (Tapis de Fleurs), August 14 to 16 in even years only. The design each year is unique, a highly classified secret until the begonias from the flower-growing district near Ghent are deposited to create an ephemeral carpet 80 by 250 feet. For a nominal fee, it can be viewed from the best vantage point: the second-floor balcony of the Town Hall. The square is equally captivating during the Ommegang pageant, the annual medieval pageant the first Tuesday and Thursday in July that reenacts a sumptuous 1549 procession honoring the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
In a building that once housed the butcher’s guild, the renowned restaurant La Maison du Cygne is exquisite, with ancient wood paneling, gorgeous chandeliers, and original paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Arciboldo. The recently renovated Hotel Amigo, right behind the Town Hall, is the hotel of choice for its Grand Place proximity and unerring old-world hospitality.