Listen, I’ve got a secret. I didn’t realise it was a secret, but after almost eight years in Brussels and no-one telling me to run directly to the Coudenberg museum, the only reason can be that it is highly classified information. So don’t tell anyone else, but get there as soon as you can.
The original palace of Coudenberg (meaning “cold hill”) was on the site of the current Royal Palace, perched on the hill overlooking the centre of Brussels. It’s a good starting point for anyone visiting Brussels for the first time: a natural stopping off point on the road from the Grand Place to the European institutions.
Look how pretty it was when it was in its prime (the following three pictures are from the official website):
Unfortunately in February 1731, a spark in the kitchens, mixed with iced-up wells, windy weather conditions, overzealous security and inadequate fire services, saw the whole palace (bar the chapel) suffer massive damage, with innumerable works of art lost forever.
For 40 years, it lay dormant, an ugly eyesore on the Brussels skyline, until the government decided to renovate the royal quarter, levelling the entire ruin to create what is now the Place Royale. The chapel, the only surviving building, was also torn down because it wasn’t in keeping with the neoclassical vibe.
All that was left of the palace were the foundations, cellars and the remains of a street, rue Isabelle. Some of the cellars were even used for archive storage in the Lloyds bank building on the square. After a bit of dithering during the late 19th century and early 20th century, the first archaeological excavations took place in the mid-1980s. Work continued on and off for twenty years, with a temporary exhibition here and there, until the permanent museum opened in 2009.
I had a vague idea of this but didn’t really know what to expect when I walked in. But to say I was blown away was an understatement. Going in there at 2 on a Wednesday afternoon in January probably played a part, as the place was empty. After paying for my ticket, I did not see or hear another person for another hour and a half. What I did see was a lot of this:
And the only sounds I could hear were cars and trams bumping along the cobblestones of Place Royale, just over my head.
That’s rue Isabelle above in the last photo, running along under the pavement like nothing ever happened. With the place to myself, I strolled up and down with purpose a couple of times, as if I were one of the royals on my way down the hill to the cathedral. Now I’m sure they didn’t travel on foot and they didn’t have CCTV cameras pointing at them, but it felt atmospheric nonetheless. Within the museum, the street leads from the foundations of the Aula Magna, the royal banqueting hall, to the Hoogstraeten House, which houses all the archaeological artifacts found during the excavation. Those archaeologists must have been absolutely weak for themselves during this period. Imagine unearthing all this lovely green lead paint.
I was so caught up in the whole thing that I forgot to go back for an audio headset, but for a €6 entrance fee, I’ll happily go back again for another brush with the history of Brussels.
Don’t tell anyone, ok?