Hidden Belgium: The secret bunker under the Brussels flea market

Hidden Belgium: The secret bunker under the Brussels flea market

The flea market in Brussels is a popular spot to stroll in search of an old desk, or maybe a vintage photograph that would look good above the fireplace. Its dealers turn up every morning around 6am with battered vans filled with old stuff salvaged from attics or bankrupt offices. Some of it is junk. But you never know what you might find.

The square is surrounded by local cafés such as La Brocante where dealers gather in the early hours for a coffee or a beer. There are also several restaurants where you can get a cheap lunch like the fish snack bar Mar del Sur.

A new cooperative brewery and bakery Mazette, due to open in February 2022, might bring a more hipster mood. But the square still remains a solid working class neighbourhood.

You might have puzzled over the name of the square – Place du Jeu de Balle in French, and Vossenplein in Dutch. The French name is simple. It comes from a ball game played here in the mid-19th century.

But what about the Dutch name Vossenplein (literally, Foxes Square). It turns out this had nothing to do with urban foxes. There was once a factory on this spot called Usine Renard. It manufactured some of the earliest steam trains to run in Belgium until it went bust in the 1840s.

The industrial sheds were eventually torn down in 1851 to create a vast open space. A fire station was built at one end, along with public baths. But the rest of the square was left empty. That’s when people started playing ball games. But the games had to stop when the old market was moved here.

Almost no one knew about this factory until 1997 when the city was planning to build an underground car park on the square. The project led to the rediscovery of a vast air raid shelter built by the German army in 1942. Its two entrances were closed off at the end of the war and soon forgotten.

There were no records of this structure which incorporated the brick cellars of the vanished Renard factory. The city only recently released astonishing photographs showing the vaulted cellars painted with the order: Défense de cracher/Verboden te spuwen (Do not spit).

The car park project was eventually abandoned after angry protests. The city is now working on a plan to turn the underground site into a protected monument. The secret bunker could even become a tourist site.

Derek Blyth’s hidden secret of the day: Derek Blyth is the author of the bestselling “The 500 Hidden Secrets of Belgium”. He picks out one of his favourite hidden secrets for The Brussels Times every day.

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