Brussels: Home is where your heart is

I always believed that. For me, in fact, those people who feel the urge to come back home after some time away were some kind of a mystery to me. Why be so attached to a specific place when the world is so big and full of other things to see and live? It doesn’t make any sense.

The idea is this: with so many possibilities out there, why would you miss what you already know? If you feel loved and welcomed, you have the liberty to come and go without a heavy conscience, and why would you come when you can so easily go?

That’s why I never quite understood the reason for why, when I had so much to see that I hadn’t yet, I always made time to visit the Grand Place when I was in Brussels. It’s a touristic must-see, but I had already seen it more times than I could count. So why the unshakable need to come back every time?

I was there last week. My mind was frustrated, my heart was sad and my soul was confused. The steps to get there were as much instinctive as they were deliberate. A man stopped me to ask in which direction was the Manneken Pis (I never know, but I checked the map later to see if my indication was any good and miraculously it was right). My body tensed as I was approaching. Then I entered the square, saw the Hôtel de Ville and my whole being was enveloped in a warm, comforting and ever-lasting sensation of being home.

The Grand Place (or Grote Markt) has its oldest reference dating back from the 12th century. It is particularly famous because in 1695 the troops of Louis XIV destroyed the rectangular square in only three days. The City Magistrate, resilient as most Belgians are, reconstructed the buildings in the same way they had been before, differently from the normal practice of contemporizing it when rebuilding. Therefore, what you see is what you would have in the 1100s.

My favorite building there is without a doubt the Hôtel de Ville, built between 1402 and 1420, that has a 96 meters (315 ft.) tower. On top of it, there’s a 5-meter-high (16 ft.) metal sculpture of Archangel Michael (patron saint of Brussels) slaying a dragon. Some trivia for you: the bombardments of Louis XIV destroyed almost everything, but the tower with the Archangel on top remained intact.

In case you like urban legends, there’s one regarding this tower as well. The tower is slightly off-center regarding the rest of the construction, and it is said that when the architect (Flemish Jan van Ruysbroek) realized this, he jumped from the top of the tower in shame. The real cause of death, like the date of his birth, is unknown, so maybe he actually did that, but I hope not. The error is not something you easily spot and, honestly, most of the time, the imperfections are what make something perfect.

The Grand Place is today a World Heritage protected by UNESCO (since 1998), and it is the main symbol of the Belgium capital. Something as unmissable to see as the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Big Ben in London. It is the place where you can see not only the Hôtel de Ville, but the Maison du Roi too, containing the Museum of the City of Brussels, as well as numerous other buildings that circulate the square. There are also a lot of restaurants and bars there. My personal recommendation is that you buy a gauffre (known majorly as waffle) covered in Chantilly and strawberries and eat it while walking through the square. Nothing like gaining some calories while sightseeing a World Heritage.

When I went there last week though I didn’t eat anything, I just stood there, my head tilted backward to be able to see the top of the tower, absorbing the marvelous Gothic construction as I lowered my gaze. I am someone who is always feeling at home wherever I go, but few are the places where I feel truly and completely protected and relaxed. Grand Place is one of them. I don’t think I ever left there with a heavy heart.

I observed the tourists, the atmosphere, the environment, for as long as I needed, until I felt happy and optimistic as a child. Until my mind was satisfied, my heart was content and my soul was goal-oriented again. That’s why you come home, isn’t it? To feel safe and confident again. To lose fear.

Home really is where your heart is. And, I realized, a part of mine will always be in Grand Place, no matter what I do or where I live. Maybe because I recognize that even though I will change through the course of my life, my structure will always be the same. Like the buildings of the Grand Place.

PS: Credit of the photo to Laetitia Bazzoni, from JV Magazine.

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