Last summer I received an email from one of my readers, Wendy. Wendy is a Canadian who’s moved to Brussels, Belgium‘s capital, more than 15 years ago and who fell in love with the city. So much so, that she researched a part of Brussels’ history not many people pay attention to: the old city walls.
As she wanted to share her discoveries with others, she launched the Wondrous Wall Wander, a guided walk along the scarce remains of Brussels’ old city walls, full of informational tidbits and chunks of history. I took her tour and learned so many new things about the city that I wanted to share it here with you guys as well.
Instead of writing a review, as I normally do, I asked Wendy to tell you a bit more about her Wondrous Wall Wander.
Why did you develop the Wondrous Wall Wander?
My imagination is captured by stories and anecdotes. So one of my all-time favorite discoveries in my 18 years in Brussels was finding out that parts of the 13th-century first city wall still exist! I’m fascinated by the fact that we can trace the history of Brussels by following the remains of the wall, as well as using it as a metaphor to gain insights about our own lives.
Digging through books and archaeological documents (mostly in French) to learn why the wall was built, understand its importance and how it shaped life in the medieval city transported me back in time. The wall was a symbol. It demonstrated wealth and power, as well as protecting those inside the barrier. But it also gave the ruling class power over the people contained within the wall (it wasn’t an accident that the palace was built on a hill above the city outside the wall).
The Wall Wander tells a story people can see unfold in front of their eyes. It’s the story of a city founded in 979 on a swampy island in the Senne River. By the early 1200s Brussels was important enough to build a 4-kilometer long, 2.5-metre thick wall with 50 towers to keep track of what was going on outside – and inside – the city.
Yet, within just over 100 years, Brussels had grown so much that a second wall was needed, greatly expanding the city limits and forming what we now know as the inner ring road, or pentagon, around Brussels. Some 800 years have passed since the rise to power of a city that is now the capital of Europe.
Of the 50 defensive towers only four remain and we can visit three of them: two near the Sablon square and one at Place Sainte-Catherine. The fourth is out of sight in the garden of the Deacon’s house, behind the Cathedral of Saints Michael and Gudula.
There were seven gates with drawbridges in the wall, as well as 5 smaller doors controlling foot traffic. The gates were closed at night and if you didn’t make it back inside on time, you slept outside or perhaps could afford a room at an inn outside the walls. There are a few inns dating the 16th and 17th centuries still dotted around the city.
Following the first city wall is like connecting the dots that link Brussels of the past to Brussels of today. As one Wondrous Wanderer commented, it showed him “the order in the chaos” of central Brussels.
I see the wall as a metaphor for life. We build walls around us culturally, emotionally, and spiritually and sometimes, when we’ve understood enough about ourselves and others, we tear them down. And as any expatriate who has moved to a new country knows, we often bang our heads against the wall when it comes to administrative tasks!
Can you tell us a few fun facts about the wall?
There is a curved wall at the entrance to a clockmaker’s shop Rue des Chartreux that belonged to one of the 50 towers, which protected a smaller gate in the wall. Townspeople used this route in the Middle Ages to go to a mill in the countryside.
The Villers Tower was discovered in 1893, apparently in a dance hall or cabaret. Ironically, almost the only people who ever see the rounded outside wall of this tower now are children, as it’s located in a schoolyard!
The nearby area was the site of a 13th-century grain market (the evidence remains in its name: Place de la Vieille Halle aux Blés), which became a transportation hub in the 18th century. Stagecoaches left from several local inns to other parts of Belgium and neighbouring countries. It’s hard to believe it took three or four days to get to Paris back then when today it only takes us an hour and a quarter by high-speed train!
What do people take away after walking the route of the wall?
The trick to appreciating the hidden gems in Brussels is understanding the story behind them. I’ve watched visitors walk past a huge section of the wall and only give it a glance because they don’t know what it represents or how old it is. When I explain its significance, their eyes open wide and they’re hooked! Whether I’m talking to a visitor, an expatriate, or a dyed-in-the-wool Bruxellois, whether they’re a business group, on their own, or with their family, people enjoy learning about the city and its history in a way that tells a story, is visual and even sensory – after all, it’s not every day you can reach out and touch over 800 years of history! When you finish a Wondrous Wander, you see Brussels through new eyes, you’ve developed a fresh appreciation for the city and you’ve likely learned something about yourself as well.
I like to think of myself as a combination of a Perception Changer and Expat Expert, imbued with a large dose of cultural curiosity. Nothing makes me happier than seeing the look of surprise and wonderment on people’s faces as Brussels unveils its secrets for them, or they discover a life lesson that impacts how they see themselves.
That’s why I’m so passionate about what I do.