European cities are built around Squares… or “Circles” or “Places” or “Piazze” or “Platzes” or whatever you want to call them. For the sake of convenience, we’ll refer to them here as “Places” with a capital P, because that’s what they call them in France and that’s where we live. Anyway, every city in Europe boasts numbers of them and each claims that one or another of them is the most beautiful Place in the world. There’s Paris’s Place de la Concorde, Milan’s Piazza del Duomo, Madrid’s Plaza Major—even London sometimes laughingly tries to get into the picture with Piccadilly Circus or some other equally unlikely entrant. In general, though, there are two that tend to stand out. One of these is understandably Venice’s Piazza San Marco, and the other can surprise many people who don’t know it, because it’s in Brussels.
“Brussels,” you say, “isn’t that a vegetable?” No, it’s the capital of a confusing little country where everyone is capable of speaking three languages but refuses to speak more than one depending on whom they are talking to (usually one you don’t speak, like Flemish, which is Dutch in disguise). It is also generally considered to be the capital of Europe because it is swarming with bureaucrats who work in ugly buildings far from one of the most beautiful Places in the world.
The Place in question is in the very center of the city. In a burst of creative inspiration it was named La Grande Place, which means “The Big Place,” but don’t let the simplicity of its name fool you. La Grande Place dates from a long, long time ago (note the stunning depth of research that went into this column), but the buildings that currently surround it generally date from the seventeenth century. At the time, they consisted primarily of guildhalls. The guilds were associations of craftsmen and merchants who formed tightly woven associations to protect their trade and better wield their considerable influence. Each guild went to great lengths to build impressive halls in a kind of competitive architectural potlatch that gave rise to the understandably flamboyant but surprisingly homogeneous architecture around La Grande Place —the whole of it capped off by the City Hall, which is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful town halls in the world.
When you put that all together, you get one hell of a Place. You have to stand in the middle, in a lake of cobblestone, and slowly turn, taking in all of these tall, skinny, elaborate buildings, their walls and roofs studded with statues. There is a kind of game you can play with some of them—one statue of the pregnant Virgin Mary seems to be pointing at a statue of a man across the Place, who is pointing to another, who is himself pointing to another, and so on, in an apparent paternity dispute. The chain ends with the statue of an archangel pointing to the sky as if to say “no, it was him.” Furthermore, the city recently cleaned most of the façades and statues so that their bronze shines in the all-too-rare Belgian sun. If you keep on turning you will eventually come across the Spanish King.
Le Roi d’Espagne used to be the guildhall of the baker’s guild, but it is now a beer hall, which is a nice Teutonic way of saying “bar.” In the summer (a forty-eight-hour period in mid-August) there are tables outside on a kind of wooden dais, but you want to go inside.
Rare are the bars that boast stuffed horses in their entrance. Rarer still are bars that boast stuffed horses and a view of one of the most beautiful Places in Europe. Le Roi d’Espagne is unique in this respect, and it further offers a wide selection of Belgian beers. You may think that Germany is the Vaterland of beer (you and eighty million Germans) but Belgians would dispute that. For some reason, Americans think of waffles when (if) they think of Belgium, but if you ask a Belgian to name his country’s defining foodstuffs he would probably say French fries (which are certainly not named “French” fries in Belgian… nor are they named “freedom” fries, for that matter), mussels, chocolate, and beer. Not the best combination, grant you, but taken individually (paying particular attention not to mix the chocolate with the mussels and the French fries) their gustatory excellence is undeniable. It is in beer, however, that there is the greatest variety, including lambic beers, which are still brewed by letting wild yeast spores drift in through open windows. These beers are lovingly concocted by fat, jolly Trappist monks. Or so I’ve always imagined it.
Anyway, the place to drink these beers is in Le Roi d’Espagne. There are simple wooden tables available downstairs, near the horse, and supposedly a special basement bar that is reported to be somewhat hipper, but the best part of the establishment is the upstairs. This is a mezzanine-type area with tiny windows that open up to the Grande Place. It’s generally less crowded up there, and it’s often possible to get a seat near one of these windows, where you can sip your lambic beer and gaze out on the Grande Place. This is the ideal spot in Brussels to sit and study your very slim tourist guides to the city, planning which of the three sites you’ll be visiting in which order. Incidentally, plan on spending a good twelve minutes at the statue of Manneken Pis, a minuscule bronze of a small boy peeing into a fountain, which is the universally acclaimed mascot of the city of Brussels. It seems the little tyke once tried to help put out a fire in this way a couple of centuries ago and thereby saved the city. It’s worth a laugh, and it’s only five minutes by foot from Le Roi d’Espagne, and if you’re lucky he’ll be dressed up as anything from a medieval pikeman to Elvis Presley. The residents of Brussels get their kicks as best they can. It should also be noted that the renowned inferiority complex of Brussels with respect to Paris can be summarized by the fact that Paris’s defining symbol is a 990 foot tall tower of iron, while Brussels boasts a 3 foot tall bronze one sporting a one-inch dick. Great Place, though, and the best place to relax while considering it is in Le Roi d’Espagne.