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Lepers to art lovers: The story of Les Marolles in Brussels

Today's Marolles is a centre of medical expertise. The Saint Pierre hospital, stands where the nuns of Maria Colentes, or Marikollen, tended lepers in the Middle Ages. Now the area is being gentrified, or Sablonised in a reference to the Sablon area, renowned for smart chocolate shops, which adjoins the Marolles.

travel Updated: Aug 31, 2015 15:59 IST
Barbara Lewis
A man sits near paintings on the Place du Jeu de Balle during the daily flea market with second-hand clothes, books and bric-a-brac in Brussels. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)
A man sits near paintings on the Place du Jeu de Balle during the daily flea market with second-hand clothes, books and bric-a-brac in Brussels. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

Les Marolles in French, or de Marollen in Dutch, once the last refuge of lepers and criminals, is today one of Brussels' quirkiest neighbourhoods teeming with vintage furniture sellers, flea markets and linguistic invention.

It stretches from the Gare du Midi, where Eurostar trains arrive, to the city's highest point, the Mont des Pendus or Galgenberg (Gallows Hill), from where you can look down on half of Brussels. The district is dominated by a massive law court that has helped to form the Marolliens' rebellious spirit.

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A cyclist climbs a street towards the Brussels' Palace of Justice (back C) and the Marolles elevator (L), an urban elevator connecting the lower and higher levels of the district. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

Nicknamed the ink-pot because of its giant gilded dome, the 19th-century Palais de Justice sprawls over 26,000 square metres (6.4 acres). It was designed by Joseph Poelaert, who was promptly dubbed the "skieven architek" or crooked architect. The expression is still a potent insult for the Marolliens who were outraged by the number of houses cleared to make way for the hated court on a site where criminals were hanged in the Middle Ages.

As city guide Didier Rochette points out in his tour, there was a positive aspect to the hangings: the corpses, left to rot until they dropped from the gallows, allowed doctors to improve their understanding of anatomy.

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A tourist walks up a street covered with graffiti in the Marolles district in Brussels. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

Today's Marolles is a centre of medical expertise. The Saint Pierre hospital, affiliated to Brussels university, stands where the nuns of Maria Colentes, or Marikollen (hence Marolles), tended lepers in the Middle Ages. The lepers were outcasts, living alongside the working classes, which the upper classes also believed should be kept at arm's length in a district then beyond the city walls. Now the area is being gentrified, or Sablonised in a reference to the Sablon area, renowned for smart chocolate shops, which adjoins the Marolles.

"It has changed enormously but it has kept its character," said Stephane Carette, one of the partners at Haute Antiques gallery, an Aladdin's cave of a furniture store based in a former dance hall and cinema at 207, Rue Haute (Hoogstraat). Rue Haute and Rue Blaes (Blaesstraat) are the Marolles' two main arteries and home to vintage and antique shops that evolved naturally from the workshops of the old Marolles district. For those with smaller investments in mind, La Place du Jeu de Balle is the setting for a daily flea market with second-hand clothes, books, bric-a-brac and, in season, stands selling oysters and white wine.

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Residents are pictured in the Cite Hellemans, an early 20th-century project by architect Emile Hellemans, who sought to replace unhygienic alleyways and cramped homes with planned, aesthetic social housing in the Marolles district in Brussels. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

Jeu de Balle refers to a ball game played with teams of five players in Belgium and eastern France, and it is only one of several names for the square, listed on a plaque in the dialects that have thrived in the Marolles.

Now French and Dutch, as well as ubiquitous English, dominate, although a handful of the older Marolliens still speak Zwanze, a dialect characterised by mockery and exaggeration. The Jeu de Balle name plaque is on a corner next to the Cite Hellemans, an early 20th-century project by architect Emile Hellemans, who sought to replace unhygienic alleyways and cramped homes with planned, aesthetic social housing. For architecture connoisseurs, another very different study is number 132, Rue Haute, believed to have been the 16th-century step-gabled home of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

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The facade of the Haute Antiques gallery (back C), an Aladdin's cave of a furniture store based in a former dance hall and cinema, is seen in the Marolles district in Brussels. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

Regarded as the greatest of a dynasty of painters, his scenes of rugged peasant life are on display in the fine arts museum beyond the main Sablon square.

He is buried beside the church of Notre Dame de la Chapelle, founded in the 12th century. Precisely where he lies is unknown. It could even be beneath the fritkot, or chip cart, that serves some of Brussels' best Belgian fries to church-goers and furniture-shoppers alike.

(Editing by Michael Roddy and Louise Ireland)