Brussels is one of cities in the world, known best – in the context of sightseeing – by a square: the Grand Place, this architecturally so aesthetic space in the middle of the city centre with its buildings from the15th and 17th century (ok: there are Manneken Pis and the Atomium – but, what are they compared with that Grand Place?!).
As the Brussels authorities are doing nothing to liberate the square Sablon from its function as a parking lot, there seems no Brussels-based real competitor for the Grand Place as the most fascinating square of the city. Since some years, a newcomer has emerged as the square you have to visit (and even to become as thrilling as the Grand Place): Place du Luxembourg.
Two hundred years ago, the space was forest and agricultural land. With the 1830 independence of Belgium, the financial means resulting from the industrialisation of the country and later the influx of money from the colonial reign in Congo, a new quarter was developed to honour King Leopold: the Quartier Leopold. The new members of the Belgian upper class found there the possibility to live in neoclassical mansions just besides the Royal castle. The need for extraordinary architects and artists attracted temporarily even personalities like Gustave Eiffel and Auguste Rodin. The central square of this quarter is the Place de Luxembourg.
As the will of the people and destiny had brought me as the first Green Member of the European Parliament to Brussels, I have since the mid-eighties observed how this square developed. I have even discovered the “Five Secrets of Place du Luxembourg”, which I would like to share with you.
1. The oldest building of a train station in the world
Since the early years of public railways, train stations were built in – or near – the city centre. As traffic increased, those initial buildings became too small and were replaced by bigger ones. There are eleven countries in the world with early public railways (Canada, Belgium, France, Germany, India, Italy, Netherlands, Pakistan, Russia, Spain and the US). If you look at the buildings of the first train stations of those countries, you will discover that the oldest preserved building is the train station of “Bruxelles Quartier-Léopold”, overlooking since 1855 the Place du Luxembourg.
After having survived two world wars, the train station was in 1990 threatened by destruction when just besides the new buildings of the European Parliament (EP) were erected. A civil society campaign succeeded finally on 21 November 1991 to stop this historical sin by achieving a Belgian administrative decision to classify that building. Since then, the building is no longer used for railway purposes but became a part of the European Parliament as the information centre for the Belgian public.
Why did the train station survive? It was an intermediate stop rather than a terminal one and it was especially big compared to other train stations – as it was designed as the station to be used as well by the Royal family (as you can see in the first floor with a St. Petersburg style waiting room at their disposal).
2. Prime Minister and Peace Nobel Prize laureate
At the corner of Rue d’Arlon you will find the house where Auguste Beernaert lived, for ten years Belgian Prime Minister and 1909 Nobel Peace Prize laureate (to be objective: the Grand Place has more prominent names to offer: the houses where Karl Marx and Victor Hugo lived).
Auguste Beernaert was as well President of the International Law Association, played a key role to unify international maritime law, was involved in the setting up of the system of Permanent Courts of Arbitration, represented Belgium in the Hague Peace Conferences and fostered the construction of transport infrastructure (rail, canal and road) in Belgium.
3. A very diverse history of traffic: a caterpillar turns into a butterfly
In case you are strolling around below the Palais de Justice in the Marolles quarter, you will certainly pass by the square Jeu de Balle with its daily flea market from 06.00 to 14.00. There you will find among others postcards with a view from Place du Luxembourg in the early days of the 20th century with several tram lines, buses, cars and pedestrians as the square became quite popular with bars, restaurants and hotels.
In the middle of the 20th century the trams disappeared, cars dominated (including parking spaces), few room for pedestrians … and in the 90ies everything changed: The public authorities proposed to narrow the street, to eliminate parking and to create walkways the size we know from Paris and New York. Despite the resistance of the owners and tenants of the bars, the square became the face we know today: outdoor catering with tables and hundreds of chairs and parasols against sun and rain (and the once so reluctant bars are profiting).
The square lived through a process – like in nature, where a caterpillar turns into a butterfly.
4. … you can even meet Belgian government Ministers
The implementation of the European Union and the new building of the EP brought tens of thousands of newcomers: politicians, civil servants, representatives of hundreds of law firms, consulting companies, NGOs, media, associations, diplomats and visitors. Therefore, this international public has taken over the bars and restaurants of the square. At lunchtime and after work, the square is becoming a mix of the cafeteria of a building of the United Nations and the Tower of Babel (with English as the lingua franca).
No one will contest that the highlight is happening every Thursday: Since some ten years, the square has become after work a sort of beehive of well-educated, ambitious, multi-lingual Millennials and Generation Alpha who are either in the starting blocks for a job in the EU institutions (or have just achieved it). Over a glass of wine or beer, a cocktail or an energy drink, they are looking for a flirt (or more) partner. If the weather is supporting this process, two to three thousand people are invading the bars, the lawn and the streets around the square – transforming the Place du Luxembourg into the “Flirt Square”.
This internationalisation became an unexpected advantage for local Belgian politicians as well: if they want to have a quiet drink without being recognised – who of those Estonians and Maltese will recognise the face of the Belgian regional or federal minister? Those indigenous politicians have therefore the privilege to mingle with that international public and remain anonymous.
5. Water cannons and human rights
Political life all over the world is not only happening in the temples of power but – with through demonstrations – outside those buildings as well. Brussels and the EU are no exception. The Place du Luxembourg is besides the Place Rond Schuman the preferred spot for those EU related demonstrations.
One can distinguish two sorts: the first one is the angry reaction of professional groups in the EU, the second is a lobbying effort of a small group. For the Place du Luxembourg, the consequences are quite different.
When 10,000 dockers from the harbours are approaching or 20.000 farmers arrive with their tractors (sometimes even cows), the police are blocking the square – the presence of (sometimes) Molotov cocktails and (always) water cannons is changing the square into a sort of no man’s land.
The second sort of demonstration is happening much more often: Not more than 100 human rights activists or opposition forces to their government occupy the lawn in the middle of the square with banners, posters, photos and megaphone to inform about human rights violations, a manipulated election, the lack of self-determination or military interference of outside players. While three or four policemen are supervising, the general public in the bars is consuming their cappuccino, Orval beer, wok or pasta – and seems to consider what is happening some 40 meters away as a sort of background entertainment like the music of the piano player in a entrance bar of a five star hotel.
PS: The conclusion: having visited Brussels and not having passed by the Place du Luxembourg is like visiting Rome and not having seen the Piazza del Popolo, Piazza Navona or Piazza di Spagna.