The Road Less Travelled: Lockdown at Porte de Hal/Hallepoort (Brussels)
My mother–we’ll call her Mama Intolerant–is always up for an adventure. She has visited me in almost every locale I’ve lived with the exception of Berlin and Hanoi. She even came to Rwanda and hiked solo in the forests of Cyangugu/Ruzizi (bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo) and also spent a month in Egypt where she did everything from cruising down the Nile to hiking to the peak of Mount Sinai, on New Year’s Eve no less.
She’s quite the woman.
Last fall Mama Intolerant came to Europe for an extended vacation. She spent five weeks walking the Santiago de Compostela and at the end of her journey she chose to rest and refuel in Brussels. Since I had a conference to attend in Paris at the start of November, I decided to join Mama Intolerant in Belgium to catch up, hear about her pilgrimage and just take a break from Cairo.
Because Mama Intolerant is always up for good food, wine and discovering new things, we spent the last week of October touring the Belgian capital on foot to uncover as many restaurants, shops and chocolatiers as possible. Aside from stuffing our faces and going for broke in several second hand and vintage shops, we also had our fill of “cultural” sights. One of the most memorable was our visit to Porte de Hal; an archaic museum/landmark located between the districts of St. Gilles and the Marolles in Brussels.
Porte de Hal (or Halle Gate or Hallepoort) is a city gate that was built in 1391. It was part of a secondary defensive wall that ran around Brussels and served to fortify the medieval city. For hundreds of years Brussels had seven gates that saw the passage of royalty, citizens, merchants and other visitors, and this one in particular was named for the city of Halle (located in Flanders–the direction which the gate happens to face).
Of the seven gates (locks) that once surrounded Brussels, Porte de Hal is the only one still standing. This is because the gate was first transformed into a prison and then a customs house, a granary and a church over the years. The building became a museum around 1850 and was restored in 1870 at which point a large spiral staircase, turrets and conical roof were added in order to give the monument a more romantic feel.
It’s a beautiful structure and it is quite nice to see a medieval building standing in central Brussels. A visit to Porte de Hal can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours and visitors have the opportunity to learn not only about the history of the building but also about what life was like back in 15th century Brussels.
Aside from admiring the architecture of the building, there are rooms filled with plenty of informational videos and placards and there’s some pretty impressive bling to take stock of including gilded necklaces, the ceremonial armour of Archduke Albert, a stuffed and mounted horse, old maps of Belgium and various types of weapons and torture devices.
Arriving at Porte de Hal around 16:00, Mama Intolerant and I made our way around the museum and learned a fair amount about “old school” Belgium. The highlight however, was taking in a spectacular view of the city from above. Once on the top floor of the gate, visitors can walk through one of several heavy wooden doors out onto a balcony that runs around the circumference of the building and affords fantastic views of Brussels in every direction.
Given that it was a balmy autumn day we took in the view for a good 15 minutes, identified as many landmarks as possible and enjoyed the warmth of the sun as it slunk towards the horizon.
The only drawback, and a very minor one at that, were the old iron doorknobs affixed to the doors on the top floor of the gate. It was thanks to these wicked metal handles that Mama Intolerant and I found ourselves locked out on the balcony around 16:48.
12 minutes before the museum was set to close.
We spent the next seven minutes racing around the top of Porte de Hal wildly pushing down bolts and kicking the bottom of heavy wooden doors in an attempt to get one of them to give. While we felt (relatively) confident that someone from the museum would do the rounds to ensure there were no visitors left in the building, it didn’t stop us from losing our collective cool at around 16:55. This was the point when we thought we should maybe start yelling at passers-by on the street below (like urban princesses seeking out modern-day knights in shining armor) for assistance.
You know, to avoid spending the night at the top of the gate.
Before we played the damsels in distress card we made one last ditch attempt to get back inside the gate. I don’t know how she did it (adrenaline rush is my guess) but after two minutes of pounding and doorknob jiggling Mama Intolerant was successful at prying one of the doors open. We slipped inside, took a sigh of relief and smoothed down our windblown hair. Taking the steps two at a time we rushed down the circular staircase to the ground floor and made our way out onto a street bustling with people on their way home after a long day at the office.
“Right, that was interesting and fun,” Mama Intolerant noted with a smirk as we walked in the direction of the Marolles. “I’d say it’s time for a coffee and chocolate don’t you think? A glass of cava might even be in order, to celebrate our escape from the gate.”
Like mother like daughter.
Anyhow, Porte de Hal: a Brussels landmark highly recommended by this family of Intolerants.
Well before 17:00 at least.
Practical info for Porte de Halle/Hallepoort:
Opening hours: Tuesday – Friday from 9:30 – 17:00 AND Saturday – Sunday from 10:00 – 17:00
Admission: Adults €5 * Students €4 * Children under 13 w/ family – free!