One of my many New Year’s Resolutions was to get out and explore more of Brussels proper, to learn the history and get dirty with the sights. This past week I decided to head to The Coudenberg Museum located in Central Brussels.
I had heard about it from a friend of a friend who knew someone who had been there. Such is typical around these parts. This museum is an archeological site under the Royal Palace of Brussels. You see, back in the day, Brussels was a pretty formidable city. The entire city was fortified by a giant wall and a tremendous royal castle sat upon the highest hill. In the 18th century, that castle burned and fell to ruins. And in 1770, instead of just tearing it down the engineers of the time just threw earth over the ruins, paved over it, raised the elevation, and built a new palace. Recently (as in within the past 30 years), a team of archeologist unearthed the ruins of the area underneath and created this underground museum.
The entrance to the Museum is inside of the BelVue Museum in the back corner there. Because having its own entrance would be crazy, make sense and people would know where they were going.
You can see in this picture, what is the back of the current Royal Palace. This is the area where the earth was built up.
The entrance to the Coudenberg is pretty cool. You type in the code that the ticket man gives you into a keycode panel in the basement. Then a large steel door opens with a WOOSH CLANG! and you are thrown into the 14th century.
I happened to be the ONLY ONE in the entire underground museum that day and it gave me a really erie feeling. You could hear the people, cars and buses up above you, yet they had no idea you were directly under them walking along 14th century walls and streets.
This is the old “Rue Isabella”. This road travelled between the castle, church and other buildings. The wall is the outer wall of the church and you can see up at the top where the road started to descend down the hill (I’m standing “in the street” to take this picture). The cement above me here, with the lights hanging on it, is the loud, current day street with cars zooming by.
At the end of the museum, you exit out a sliding glass door that does not open from the outside. You are then dumped out into an alley way that is no where near your original entrance. I had to laugh because it was just like, “Thank you for coming! Find your own way back! Hope you know where you are!”
I did find my way out and on the way back to my car I stopped by the Notre-Dame du Sablon. It was a great time of day to take a walk around the inside because the sun was hitting the stained glassed windows perfectly.
In addition to this solo field trip, I also went on a guided tour of The Marolles area of Brussels with some other moms from the children’s school. It was educational but I will save that history lesson for another blog entry.
The weather was warmer than freezing on Saturday so we headed back to the zoo to get some fresh air.
A few things struck me as funny. The chances of finding a burning fire to help visitors warm up in the middle of a public place are about 0% in the US. I don’t know where the baby in the stroller was but, can you imagine in the US how much people would be freaking out. THERE IS A FIRE! AROUND CHILDREN!!!!!!!
Video Recap of the week:
If you are really psyched about history, here is more on Coudenberg. Hey, you never know when you will end up on Jeopardy.
Taken from the Coudenberg Museum website
The palace of Dukes of Brabant
Perched on the Coudenberg and dominating the town, the Palace of Brussels was without a shadow of a doubt one of the most beautiful princely residences in the whole of Europe. It traces its roots back to the 12th century. In the 13th century, the Dukes of Brabant decided to give the city a central political role. In the following century, this defensive castle soon became a mecca for diplomats and a prime site for entertaining.
When the Duchy of Brabant fell into the hands of the Dukes of Burgundy and more specifically Philip the Good, the city of Brussels endeavoured to attract these rich princes – the most profligate spenders of the age – to stay within its walls. To this end, the city constructed a prestigious state banqueting hall – the Aula Magna – between 1452 and 1460.
The successor of the Dukes of Burgundy – Charles V, the most powerful Western emperor – personally oversaw the development of the palace during the first half of the 16th century. An imposing chapel in the Gothic style was built during his reign.
The palace’s other wings did not lag behind: the main building was also enlarged and elevated, new windows were added, and a vast gallery decorated with statues was erected. This ample complex was transformed over the centuries in the Brabantian, Burgundian, Spanish and Austrian style as each sovereign was intent on making his own mark. Highly refined works of art graced the apartments including the most delicate tapestries and embroideries, sumptuous silver and gold objects, luxurious illuminated and printed books, sculpted statues and busts and the finest glass and china work, without forgetting countless paintings by renowned artists such as Titian, Rubens and Brueghel.
The fire of 1731
On the 3rd of February 1731, after a tiring day, the Governess of the Netherlands, Marie-Elisabeth of Austria, retires to her apartments in the palace of Brussels. Overcome with fatigue, the sister of the Emperor Charles VI fails to extinguish the candles. The fire quickly passes through wooden panelling into adjacent rooms.
Throughout the night, the palace guards struggle to extinguish the blaze with the only means at their disposal at the time: leather buckets and water spray pumps. The town militia who gather quickly to help are pushed back in the confusion. The strict respect of protocol, formally forbidding access to the governor’s private apartments, prevents the fire fighters from attacking the source of the blaze. The governess is saved by the intervention of a grenadier who dares to break down the doors of her apartments. In addition, the wind is strong and icy conditions hamper water supplies.
From reading the investigation report, it appears that the witnesses didn’t dare to directly accuse the signora Capellini, the Governess’ maid and one of her favourite companions, but that they nevertheless thought her guilty. The findings of the investigation aimed to protect the Governess by establishing that the fire had originated in a kitchen located underneath her apartments, where a banquet was being prepared.
The Royal Quarter of the 18th century
After the drama of 1731 that left half of the palace destroyed, the Court moved to the neighbouring Nassau House, which served as the future palace to Charles of Lorraine. The ruins of the palace were left almost completely abandoned for forty years and were nicknamed the “Burnt Court”.
In the 1770s, political will and financial conditions met around a large-scale architectural project to redevelop the entire court district. The ruins of the old palace as well as numerous surrounding buildings were raised to the ground in order to make way for the creation of a new square: Place Royale. The square was to be bordered with neo-classical buildings, that can still seen today.
As for the park and the numerous gardens of the palace, they have been replaced by a neo-classical park and the Coudenberg’s former slopes have disappeared from the urban landscape.
Certain elements of the old buildings were nevertheless preserved to function as cellars and foundations for the new constructions. It is these remains that we can visit today at the Coudenberg archaeological site.