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Bruxelles

Classic elegance

Brussels has been a real surprise for me! I imagine like many others, I pictured a misty and grey town, maybe, due to the timing of my visit, which was in November. For sure, late autumn faded swathes of summer colour along the streets and in the parks. Despite the season, I felt the pressure to discover for myself a smaller version of Paris, as robust but with less city traffic.

Alas, urban decay is readily apparent in the outskirts of the city, here called banlieue or buitenwijken. For the average tourist, the city centre is the attraction, packed with 1,500,000 residents and brimming with many sites of immense historical value of great cultural interest.

Coming from a word signifying home on the marsh, the Old Dutch name Bruocsella  evolved into the modern Brussels under centuries of French influence into the now heavily divided cultural populations of Belgium, a majority of which speak French, the rest Flemish. Today, Brussels, in addition to being the capital of Belgium, is the capital of the European Union, an honor it shares with Strasbourg and Luxembourg. It was established in the 10th century by Charles, Duke of Lower Lotharingia, a name derived from Lothair I, second Holy Roman Emperor and son of Charlemagne. Eventually Brussels and surrounding territories composed the Duchy of Brabant, associated with the current royal dynasty of Belgium. The daughter of King of the Belgians Philippe I, Elisabeth, Duchess of Brabant is heiress to the throne. As a strategic commercial crossroads and political centre, it was coveted by the imperial houses of Austria, France and Spain. Independence was granted in 1830. State sovereignty was gained by an overwhelming vote to create a constitutional monarchy, naming a prince of the house of the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Leopold I, first king of the Belgians in 1831. A dual casualty of wars between Germany and France, Belgium suffered invasion and occupation for the durations of World Wars I & II. Since liberation in 1945, the Belgians have lived in tranquility until 1985. The controversial choice of Heysel Stadium for the European Cup Final, Liverpudlian fans were able to use crumbling parts of the structure to assault fans of the opposing team from Turin, Italy, resulting in 39 deaths and an additional 600 injured. Another 31 years would pass, when terrorists attached to the purported State of Islam (ISIS), triggered deadly bombs, within an hour of each other. Reportedly, 34 people were killed and up to 220 others were injured at two locations in Brussels, Zaventem Airport, and Maelbeek metro station which is in walking distance of the headquarters of the E.U. Commission and the Council of the E.U.

Walking along central streets in the city centre allows one to triangulate among popular tourist sites of the Royal Palace, the Duke of Brabant commissioned gothic style Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula (constructed 1226-1519), and the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall). Charming architecture expresses the styles of the times between the ancient and the modern for residences, businesses, places of worship, and public buildings, dedicated to local discourse, national politics or European and international beaurocracies.

Brussels (in which, within the scope of its political zone, four languages have been identified, including marollien) and Flanders make up the northern one-third of the country. They harbour the larger percentage of the population, who speak Flemish, closely related to the language of Holland, Dutch. Some consider Flemish and Dutch distinct, though separately evolved languages; other believe they are indistinguishable, yet obvious dialects of the same tongue. A small portion of the population still speak Wallonian, a Romance language in danger of becoming extinct by virtue of dis-use by young people. They and their elders, who live in the rest of the country, speak french, by virtue of the power of the lingua franca. Since the Enlightment era, possibly going back to the reign of the French Sun King Louis the 14th, and lasting until the twentieth century, french has been the language of diplomacy and the courts of Europe, the educated, the arts, socialites and self-acclaimed elites alike. It was readily adopted by Wallonians, who allied themselves to the French during power struggles with Spaniards and Austrians. Enriched through coal mining and industrial revolution era trade competitiveness, Wallonians held supreme economic, political and social status over their Flemish brethern. In recent decades, the minority Flemish population have exerted political and economic power, pushing back against age-old policies that did not benefit them.

For the arts, among many museums and galleries in this very European city, do not miss the Magritte Museum, with masterpieces by this surrealistic artist, a Belgian born in Lessines.

How to get there:

  • Charleroi Airport (one hour to the city) or Bruxelles Airport in Zaventem
  • Train: from Paris or Amsterdam in one hour

To be seen:

  • Grand Place
  • Manneken Pis
  • Atomium
  • The Royal Palace
  • The Museum of Musical Instruments

Eleganza classica

Personalmente, Bruxelles è stata una sorpresa. Come molti, mi ero immaginata una città brumosa e grigia anche forse per il periodo in cui l’ho visitata, cioè a novembre. Certo l’autunno inoltrato, direi quasi inverno, ha tolto un po’ di colore alle vie e ai parchi, ma nonostante la stagione ho avuto l’impressione di trovarmi in una Parigi più piccola, con un traffico non assillante.

Il degrado è evidente nei sobborghi, chiamati banlieue o buitenwijken, ma per i turisti l’agglomerato centrale che conta circa 1’500’000 abitanti è una zona storica di grande interesse.

Il nome della città deriva da Brucsella, che ha significato di casa/palude, quindi possiamo immaginare che i primi insediamenti siano stati ricavati da un terreno palustre. Oggi è considerata la capitale dell’Unione Europea, e non solo del Belgio, quale sede di Commissioni, Consiglio e Parlamento. Nel suo passato storico, fu residenza dei duchi di Brabante e dei duchi di Lorena, e fu contesa tra Spagna, Austria e Francia in un momento in cui era considerata una delle città più attraenti dell’Europa grazie ai suoi traffici commerciali, perlopiù di tessuti. Fu occupata dalle truppe napoleoniche e finalmente il Belgio raggiunse l’indipendenza nel 1830. Dopo le invasioni della prima e seconda guerra mondiale, il paese visse tranquillamente sino agli anni recenti, in cui – purtroppo – alcune stragi avvenute qui passarono alla storia: dapprima la strage dello stadio dell’Heysel Stadio (1985) in seguito gli attacchi da parte dello Stato Islamico dell’ISIS all’aeroporto di Zaventem e alla metrò di Maelbeek, vicino dai palazzi delle Istituzioni europee (2016).

Attraversando le vie centrali, oltre al Municipio e gli antichi palazzi, troverete il Palazzo Reale, residenza ufficiale del re del Belgio, e la Cattedrale di San Michele, in stile gotico brabantino, e molte chiese e basiliche che vennero erette all’inizio del dodicesimo secolo.

L’area di Bruxelles, che fa parte delle Fiandre, si esprime con dialetti derivanti dall’olandese. Oggi la lingua più parlata è il francese che ha soppiantato alcune vecchie espressioni del popolo, come il marollien, idioma locale influenzato dalla lingua vallone.

Per quello che riguarda le arti non potrete mancare la visita al Museo Magritte, che espone i capolavori dell’artista surrealista, belga di Lessines.

Come arrivare:

  • Aereo: Aeroporto di Charleroi (a circa un’ora di treno dalla città) o Aeroporto di Bruxelles a Zaventem
  • Treno: da Parigi o Amsterdam in circa un’ora.
  • Auto: da Roma ca. 1400 km.

da vedere:

  • Grand Place
  • Manneken Pis
  • Atomium
  • Palazzo Reale Museo di Strumenti Musicali

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