This working-class district is often referred to as the home of the true Brussels spirit, with its very diverse population, local comic strip heroes decorating many street walls, and being one of the last areas where Brussels’ local dialect can still be heard. Hipsters love hanging out in its many bars, its antique shops attract tourists and Belgians alike, and nightlife options abound in and around the Marolles. The Place du Jeu de Balle, where the city’s best-known flea market takes place, is also home to various folkloric events as well as to the Bal National, celebrating Belgium’s National Day on July the 21st.
The district’s history begins during the 12th century, when the Notre-Dame chapel as well as a leprosarium are built: the latter became the Saint-Pierre hospital, the former the Notre-Dame de la Chapelle church, and both are still up and running. Located just outside the city’s first walls, the Marolles was home to craftsmen, workmen, and poor people excluded from the inner city after sunset. This situation led to defiance, conflict, and violence between Brussels’ ruling class and the inhabitants of the area across the centuries. But things have settled down since, of course: all that remains of this is the spirit of defiance, expressed through humour and street art.
The Marolles also embodies Brussels’ spirit of resistance and hospitality: refugees and migrants have populated the area for centuries. And the construction of the (in)famous Palais de Justice in the second half of the 19th century, which led to the expropriation of many local residents, lies at the origin of the use of the word ‘architect’ as the supreme insult: to this day, people in Brussels still use it derogatively, even though architects themselves have nothing to fear anymore, except for a harmless joke or two.
The neighbourhood is seen as the de facto geographical frontier between the lower and higher city, especially since the installation of a public elevator that allows pedestrians to jump a few dozen meters up or down town without hurting their legs. Visiting the Marolles for the first time can be considered as the perfect introduction to Belgium’s surrealism and mix of genres, while arts, crafts, people, and countless little delights make it as hard to describe as it is pleasant to stroll around on lazy Sunday afternoons. Or during any other non-lazy moment of the week, as evidenced by clubbers leaving the world-famous Fuse to see the sun rise…