Cathedrals, Churches and Chocolate…
These are a few of my favourite things!
So on my recent trip to Brussels, my second time visiting the city; I made a day of these fine things!
Staying in the hotel district of Brussels near Rogier metro station, it was a short walk to the Hotel Metropole for morning coffee, or in my case a hot chocolate, the first of the day! I had read about the hotel cafe’s sumptuous renaissance decor prior to arriving and decided I had to visit just to see its interiors! A hot chocolate and accompanying pastry seemed like a good excuse to have a nosy at the hotel’s fine interior. And the hot chocolate was delicious, though as I was to discover later in the day – was not the best on offer in Brussels.
Set up for the morning, I set off in search of my first churches of the day, both very close to Hotel Metropole. Crossing the main Boulevard Anspach from the hotel, head down Rue des Augustins and bear right on Rue du Cypres to reach Place du Beguinage where on rounding the corner the stunning baroque edifice of Eglise Saint Jean-Baptiste au Beguinage (St John the Baptist at the Beguinage) greets you.
The church stands in what was once the largest beguine community in Belgium, the beguinage being the architectural complex which housed beguine women. These women were lay nuns, who opted for a secluded existence of voluntary poverty, and devoted themselves to charitable deeds and religious devotion, but were not bound by permanent vows.
The beguine movement swept across Western Europe in the 12th century and this beguinage was home to 1,200 women. The complex typically consisted of a church, courtyard, cottages and houses for the women, communal rooms and work rooms. Most beguinages disappeared in the 16th century during the Protestant Reformation; indeed the previous church on this site was destroyed by Calvinists (a major branch of the Reformed Church) in 1585. As a result the beguines decided to rebuild their church in the baroque style and the building of the current Eglise St Jean-Baptiste was started in 1657.
The structure was inspired by the Gesu Church in Rome (which is reported to have been constructed with the first truly Baroque facade), and combines lavish Baroque style decoration inside and on the facade with some Gothic structural components. Designed by Luc Fayd’Herbe, a student of Rubens, this Flemish Baroque Masterpiece is often cited as Belgium’s prettiest church. Now I’ve not ventured outside of Greater Brussels, so I can’t comment; but of all those I’ve seen in the city, this certainly takes the award for the most ornate and if the exterior was cleaned up, it’d certainly be in the running for the most beautiful. Unfortunately the church was closed when I visited, so I did not get to experience it’s equally stunning interior.
From the Place du Beguinage set off down Rue du Peuplier to emerge into a large elongated square and to your left you’ll see the Northern side of the Eglise St Catherine. It’s hard to imagine but this area was once the site of the now invisible and diverted River Senne with moorings to serve the city’s famous fish market. The restaurants which line both sides of the square feature fish-strong menus, so the area has kept its reputation as ‘fish centre.’
Situated in front of the present water basin (which turns out to be only a few inches deep) is a large iron wheel which formed part of the mechanism of the old revolving bridge “de Bargues”. The wheel was found in 1979 when new basins were being excavated and its position here forms a stark contrast between the quiet religious and bustling industrial markets. It’s also serves as a reminder of the days when the river used to come right through the area.
As you move round to the front of the Eglise St-Catherine, the first thing that comes in to view is the separate bell tower which is the only remaining feature of the original 15th century church. This Baroque bell tower added in 1629 would have flanked the choir in the old church.
The present church building was re-designed in 1854-59 by Joseph Poelaert in a mix of Gothic and Baroque styles, with rounded Norman style arches and is thought to be inspired by the Eglise St-Eustache in Paris. Inside you can find a 14th century statue of the Black Madonna and a portrait of St-Catherine. The entrance to the church is particularly imposing and mimics the height and width of the spacious nave arches of the interior.
The Place St-Catherine which extends out in front of the main entrance was only laid in 1870 after the basin was filled in. There was a vibrant market in action while I was there and a pervasive smell of fish from the fresh fish stalls and many restaurants that surround the square. This would definitely be the place to come to sample some seafood.
And on the subject of food, I think it was time to locate some more chocolate, maybe lunch, but definitely chocolate.
Take the Rue Ste-Catherine back to Boulevard Anspach and cross over to the imposing Bourse (to the right) – Belgium’s 1873 stock-exchange building. Walking down the left hand side of the grandiose building, you’ll come upon the Eglise St-Nicolas. This 1956 gothic-style west end of the church is the best view of it as the rest is almost completely hidden by surrounding shops and houses.
On the approach to the Grand Place, the chocolate shops reign supreme! Check out Corne Port-Royal and La Cure Gourmande. The latter I discovered earlier this year in Paris and is a Parisian brand, but their biscuit fancies are divine and worth spending a few euros on for a snack. The delicacies that are shaped like a loom’s shuttle and flavoured in Vanilla, Cinnamon and Chocolate chip are gorgeous. And if you fancy a savoury version, they sell bags of bite-sized ones flavoured with herbs. So moreish!
If you can tear yourself away from the magnificent architecture of the Grand Place, I recommend a visit to Godiva located towards the Eastern corner of the square – the chocolate covered strawberries in the window are delish! Mark this as a place to return to for dessert later!
You will fall over chocolate shop after chocolate shop on any of the roads leading off the Grand Place so go explore – Brussels really is a chocolate lovers dream! But it was now time for lunch (and another hot chocolate) and I can recommend Mokafe in the Gallleries St-Hubert. Their hot chocolate was probably my favourite that I tasted on this trip to Brussels. The food was excellent too, so after amazingly presented salads which tasted equally as nice, superb crepes and (more) hot chocolate it was time to hit the pavements again!
Delices du Roy, next door to Mokafe enticed me with chocolate macaroons, but don’t spend too long looking in all the deli’s and chocolate shops at this point as they stay open till late evening, so it’s worth coming back then after all the churches and other attractions have shut for the day.
Exit the Galeries St Hubert at the opposite end to the Grand Place and turn right up the Rue d’Arrenberg to the intersection where looking up through the tree lined pathway to the left, you’ll spot the Cathedral of St Michel and St Gudule, the national church of Belgium. Not dissimilar in appearance to the frontage of Notre-Dame in Paris, this is my favourite church building in Brussels, (and probably the cleanest!)
Like with most church and cathedral sites, the current building was not the first. A chapel to St Michael has existed on the site from the 9th century, followed by a collegiate church in the 11th century. After the relics of St Gudule were brought to the site, it became known as the collegiate church of both saints. The building of the current gothic church was begun in the 13th century at the behest of Henry I, Duke of Brabant and took 300 years to complete. It was only given cathedral status in 1962.
The interior of this building should not be missed as it is spectacular! After the nave’s restoration in the 1980’s, the stones, vaults and windows were returned to their former glory and the nave is flooded with light, with magnificent stained glass delivering a luminescence throughout the interior.
The extremely colourful stained glass windows of the nave’s side aisles were designed by J.B. Capronnier in the 19th century and the rather large transept windows were made by Jean Haeck, a master glass-worker from Antwerp, from paintings by Brussels painter Bernard Van Orley. They are particularly unusual as they are single images picked out against a clear glass background and therefore it’s very easy to unravel the story in the glass. They represent the rulers of Belgium in 1537/8.
Also of particular note in the cathedral is the stunning and architecturally beautiful organ created by German organ-builder Gerhard Grenzing in 2000. A total of 4,300 pipes occupy an unusual position split into three high up on the northern side of the nave. I would have loved to be present for organ practice or a service to hear what it sounded like.
It’s free to enter the cathedral, but if you want to visit the crypt and/or the treasury, there is a small admission charge.
You probably won’t have time to fit in all the rest of the following churches, but if you’re happy to just marvel in awe at the exterior of the buildings, take the following route to see the next 3 churches.
Pass round the southern side of the cathedral and take the road curving off to the right, then turn left to head up to the Parc de Bruxelles. On reaching the corner of the park walk along the edge alongside the tram route until you reach the Place Royale. The Eglise St-Jacques-sur-Coudenberg dominates this square, though looks more like a Greek temple than a church.
Continue along till you see Notre-Dame du Sablon on the right, then walk down to the Place du Grand Sablon, exiting out its western side on Rue Stevens to reach Notre Dame de la Chapelle.
This building is a joyful mismatch of different construction styles due to repeated damage as a result of fire and bombardments. Therefore numerous reconstructions have heralded a rather attractive building despite its mismatch of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque styles. In the spirit of making comparisons, the tower and roof line are not out of keeping with a typical German or Romanian castle. Do you agree?
After all this walking, it’s either time for a drink, a meal or both: it certainly was for me; so make your way back towards the Grand Place and reward yourself with a little of what you fancy, but don’t forget to head back to Godiva for chocolate covered strawberries afterwards to be enjoyed while stood marvelling at the magnificently lit Grand Place!
Spend the evening taking in more chocolate culture as the stores typically stay open till 11pm. Make sure you find La Belgique Gourmande: their chocolate offerings are varied and the truffles were my personal favourite amongst all I tried. Pick up some of their dark chocolate covered orange peel – Oh my – I didn’t think I’d like it, but it was extraordinarily delicious!
Other chocolatiers I can recommend are Bruyerre, Leonidas and Elisabeth.
It’s worth noting that there are many outlets of each chocolatier across the city centre, so no need to get to a specific location as you’ll likely pass another elsewhere. I lost count of the number of Godiva’s I saw.
If you have time on another day in Brussels, there’s one last church you must check out! It’s a little way out of the city centre, so you’d need to hop on public transport…. and that’s the National Basilica of the Sacred Heart in the Koekelberg district.
This is a magnificent Art Deco monument and ranks fifth among the world’s largest churches, after the Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Paix in Yamoussokro on the Ivory Coast, St Peter’s in Rome, St Paul’s in London and Santa Maria Dei Fiori in Florence.
It was built under the instruction of King Leopold II to honour the 75th anniversary of Belgium’s independence and was inspired by the Sacre-Coeur in Paris. Work began on the basilica in 1905, but wasn’t completed till 1970 due to funding complications and the influence of two world wars. Architect Albert van Huffel designed the art deco masterpiece that eventually came into being in the 1920’s in order to make it less expensive to build while embracing the new and greatly admired design movement. Inside there are 2 museums, the Museum of the Black Sisters and the Museum of Modern Religious Art.
I recommend jumping on the Number 2 or 6 metro line in a clockwise direction to Simonis (Leopold II) and walking up the tree-lined approach to it!
Do you recommend visiting any other churches in Brussels?
Which is your favourite chocolatier?
And where are your favourite hot chocolate spots?
I’m sure you’ll agree with me that churches and chocolate are great companions!