MIXITY Walk: Sablon and Marolles

MIXITY Walk: Sablon and Marolles

The Sablon and the Marolles appear to be two extremes: on the one hand a chic and affluent neighbourhood, and on the other a working class neighbourhood, authentic and a little rough around the edges. Yet both imperceptibly overlap and influence each other.


Sablon/Zavel and Marolles/Marollen seem to be the polar opposite of each other: one an elegant and prestigious neighbourhood, the other more down-to-earth, authentic and somewhat down-at-heel. Even so, these neighbourhoods flow into each other unnoticed and influence each other. Sablon/Zavel is a place for antiques, while in Marolles/Marollen the same antiques are on offer at the daily flea market for a song. Sablon/Zavel was once the aristocratic district of Brussels, but the rue Haute/Hoogstraat, which runs directly through the Marolles/Marollen neighbourhood, still holds its own. It already had a certain status in the 16th century. Part of the Marolles/Marollen is still influenced by the Sablon/Zavel: buyers with lots of capital are acquiring empty buildings in rue Blaesstraat or rue Haute/Hoogstraat and turning them into antiques businesses. Parts of Marolles/ Marollen are starting to look more and more like the Sablon/Zavel.


The history of the Sablon/Zavel as an antiques district began in 1950 with a Sunday antiques market. This market attracted antiques dealers, art dealers and later also top chocolatiers and restaurants. Today, the Sablon/Zavel district is one of the capital’s most exclusive neighbourhoods. Hence it fits in perfectly with the city's luxury boulevards, such as avenue de la Toison d'Or/Gulden-Vlieslaan and avenue Louise/Louizalaan This is a district you should really visit on a Sunday: to sip coffee outside, buy pralines that look like miniature works of art, or visit a trendy gallery.


During the Middle Ages, Sablon/Zavel was a district of Brussels noble families who lived in luxurious palaces. One of the richest families was undoubtedly the family von Thurn und Tassis. Back in the day this originally German-Austrian family had the monopoly on the postal delivery on the authority of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. The personal physician of Charles V and founder of modern anatomy Andreas Vesalius also lived in a stately mansion in rue des Minimes/Minimenstraat, which connects Sablon/Zavel to Marolles/Marollen. Legend has it that as a small boy on the Mont des Potences/Galgenberg, or gallows hill, the hill on which the Palace of Justice is now located, Vesalius is believed to have stolen the corpses of convicted criminals in order to carry out autopsies on them in the greatest secrecy.


Marolles/Marollen is considered the friendliest district in Brussels: with its daily flea market, cafés on place du Jeu de Balle/Vossenplein, the streets and alleyways between rue Blaes/Blaesstraat and rue Haute/Hoogstraat, overshadowed by the imposing silhouette of the Palace of Justice. If Sablon/Zavel is the luxurious and exclusive district, then the Marolles/Marollen is the neighbourhood of folk authenticity, of the jokey sketch and the ‘skit’, but also of that typical Brussels mix of French, Flemish, Spanish, North African and more.


The story of the Marolles/Marollen is also the story of an intriguing social history. This was where workers who stood up for the basic right to vote were shot dead. This was the district where, during the 19th century, the bourgeoisie walked around with disdain and suspicion because the area was full of agitators and strikers, anarchists and socialists, hooligans and drunkards. This was the district that had to be disciplined and sanitised, the alleyways and dead-end streets would make way for rectilinear boulevards and austere concrete buildings. Les Marolles/De Marollen: for centuries this was the repository for everything that did not belong in the distinguished city centre: lepers and rag-and-bone collectors, leather workers, the destitute and down-and-out. Yet despite this marginalisation, and the obsession for progress, the district has managed to preserve its own individuality and down-to-earth character. Today it is even trendy: Euro officials, hipsters and yuppie types with capital live here in luxurious studio apartments.