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How and where to celebrate Belgian National Day in style
At dawn on 17 July, 1831, King Leopold I arrived at the Belgian coast and first set foot in his new kingdom. On 21 July he swore his oath of office on the steps of the church of Saint-Jacques-sur-Coudenberg to become the first King of the Belgians. Eleven months earlier on August 25th 1830 the Belgian Revolution had started when the performance of an opera at the Monnaie was the spark that set off the tinderbox that was the political situation and people stormed out of the theatre and started the insurrection that led to the declaration of independence a couple months later. Most European powers were against the creation of an independent Belgium and Leopold’s arrival gave hope to the people, so 21 July was chosen as National Day.
Fast forward 155 years and Leopold’s great-great-great-grand son Baudouin radically changed the National Day festivities because he felt that the standard military parade and fireworks was boring and didn't engage or involve the citizens. Since then the celebrations have grown to two days and a number of events.
The national day festivities now start on the evening of the 20 July with the National Ball. This event was created in 2003 to celebrate King Albert II's 10 years on the throne and was originally planned as a single-year event, but proved so popular that it is still going strong 16 years later.
Taking place in the emotional heart of Brussels, the Marolles district, it is the epitome of Zwanze, the self-deprecating, ironic, swell-head puncturing, trilingual humour of plebian Brussels. You might not catch all the jokes but you can't help from being seduced and transported by the friendly enthusiasm. About 15,000 people gather to drink beer, enjoy the nostalgia of acts from the past, and eat a wide variety of street food. Not only do the cafés lining the square serve their regular fare, they also set up BBQs with food from all over the world.
Starting at 19.30 the party gets going with Let’s Dance Ketjes, who choreograph the crowd for an instant big dance number. That will be followed by Frédéric Longbois who was one of the major discoveries of last year’s The Voice France. Then it’s time for Belle Perez, born of Spanish parents in Limburg, celebrating 20 years of a career which reflects her different roots. Belle’s Latino pop then makes way for the Belgian Monty Python, Les Snuls. Beloved in the 1990s, their hits and skits will be mixed live by DJ Saucisse.
83 years old but still going strong we have Le Grand Jojo, whose 1970s hit Chef un p’tit verre on a soif is well-known. He also is the author of Anderlecht football club’s song as well as a number of Red Devil hymns and he appears at the National Ball on alternate years.
Next, a truly original artist, Big Ben, the king of the beatbox. The sounds he produces will wow you. Twice Belgian beatbox champion, he is now a beatbox judge across Europe. He’s followed by Crazy Sir-G who is both DJ and acrobat, a winning combination for getting the audience on its feet. At this point in the evening it’s time for the obligatory cover band. This year it’s The Amazing Flowers who have been perfecting their mastery of covering disco, pop, rock and R&B for 10 years across Flanders. And the evening closes with Paul Ambach known as Boogie Boy. Musician since his childhood, he was also a concert producer producing shows for U2, Joe Cocker, Michael Jackson and the Rolling Stones among others. He will be presenting a show that highlights his guitar and piano playing as well as his voice, mixing soul, swing and groove.
The Brussels flea market is open 365 days of the year and nothing can intrude, so for the third year, on the morning of the 21st, the flea market joins the festivities with red yellow and black bunting, the De Corte frites stand opens at 8.00, plus marching band and majorettes, an accordion player and balloon and soap bubble sculptors.
At 10.00 it’s the traditional Te Deum at the cathedral in the presence of the royal family, at 16.00 the military parade with flyover and at 23.00 the fireworks. But all day from the Royal Park to the Palace of Justice it’s the big celebration which this year salutes the 75th anniversary of the liberation at the end of the second world war. In the park there are plenty of activities for children, food, military vehicles on display and well as 19th-century re-enacters, and the King and Queen’s traditional walkabout. All the museums, churches and institutions along the route are open to the public.
The army will put on its many interactive attractions: camouflage, F-15 cockpit visits, wall-climbing, flight simulator and more. The federal police will be presenting their very popular canine show and there will be a European Village on the Place Royale. 40 Belgian folkloric giants will parade the length of the Rue de la Régence, a unique event since most of the time Belgian giants tend to make appearances singly or in duos or trios. And, of course, from end to end of the event, there will be frites stands every couple of hundred feet. The day has become what Baudouin was hoping for, a vast carnival anchored in Belgian-ness.
This event, now in its seventh year has been a hit from the start: more than 1,300 people eat 30 tonnes of mussels and many frites in a giant open air restaurant on the flea market square. The meal starts at 16.00, with the marching band Funfare playing at 17.00, the Mignonettes & Mamygnonettes (majorettes of all ages) performing at 18.00. Then at 19.00 it’s time for la chanson française (Trenet, Piaf, Laforet, Brassens etc) with Rita et les Martins, and finally at 20.00 Bruxelles Zingt is a giant karaoke in Dutch, English and French. Then everyone makes the trek up the hill to watch the fireworks. Access to the Place des Palais for fireworks viewing is often very crowded and difficult. An alternative is to go to the park on the Place du Trône which offers a complete but side view of the show.