Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

The Coudenberg

Long, long ago, I remember reading a mocking article in The Bulletin (the English-language weekly for expats in Belgium, which I haven't myself picked up for years) about the Belvue Museum in Brussels: who, it asked, really wants to pay €15 to look at the genuine spectacles of the late King Baudouin? I sniggered and marked it down as one of those things I would never willingly visit.

Then about a year ago, I was invited to a reception by the King Baudouin Foundation held in the museum foyer. (As well as running the museum, the KBF funds a number of projects in the Balkans which I have been loosely involved with.) I teased our hosts about the €15 to see the king's possessions, and they pointed out to me the (relatively) new admission rates: €5 for adults, €4 for pensioners, €3 for students and free for under-18s. Duly humbled, I apologised to the representatives of King Baudouin, and made a mental note that I should go and look at the museum properly some time.

Last week I noticed that it has an exhibition on about gender roles throughout the history of Belgium, set up by the Women's History Archive Centre (of whom I know nothing more than that they set up the exhibition). It had a nice poster which looked as if there would be fun and consciousness-raising things to look at: I showed it to young F on the website and he agreed to give it a try. It's conveniently located on the same block as the Royal Palace (where the King, of course, does not live, this being Belgium) just where the Rue Royale / Koningstraat doglegs into the Place Royale / Koningsplein.

Well, it wasn't quite as gripping as I expected. The main bit of the museum has some nice artifacts - and I admit that after reading a bit more of the history, I found the sight of the late King Baudouin's spectacles oddly moving - but it is a bit cluttered, and the narratives about Leopold II and III are rather airbrushed. The exhibition on gender history was a bit above the nine-year-old audience I had brought, and had fewer interesting exhibits than I had expected. (Though I did have to explain to my son what a typewriter was.)

However, the unexpected hit of the day was the Coudenberg ruins, also attached to the BELvue museum (as it prefers to be spelt). This is basically the excavated foundations of the old Coudenberg palace, burnt down in 1731 and buried by urban redevelopment thereafter: a lovely set of underground chambers, including most amazingly of all the subterranean Rue Isabelle, now a road to nowhere, an empty pathway covered by a concrete roof that was open to the sky three centuries ago.

I remembered having visited the Coudenberg cellars twice before many years ago, once with Anne to see a small exhibition, and once for yet another reception (this time for the European Liberals); the acoustics for speeches, especially with a large crowd, are terrible but that may have been just as well. On a quiet Sunday morning, just a few weeks after it was reopened and with our audio guidebooks in hand, it was enchanting.

They are still getting their act together - the Wikipedia entry has more information than the official site. But I strongly recommend it for those of you with an hour or so to spare in the middle of Brussels.
Tags: world: belgium

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