A Belgian fete mingling history with fun. Colorful Ommegang spectacle now a two-day event
`YOU'LL never have seen a pageant like it,'' a friend living in Brussels promised. He was right. The ``Ommegang'' (literally the ``around-going-procession''), presented at the beginning of July every year in the ostentatious setting of the Belgian capital's Grand' Place, is quite remarkable. It is an evening of history, color, solemnity, entertainment, and fun.
This year, for the first time -- because of this spectacle's popularity and limited number of seats -- it is to be held on two nights instead of one: July 2 and 3.
The Ommegang is an authentic evocation of an actual event: the fete given on June 2, 1549, by the Magistrat, the governing body, of Brussels, in honor of Emperor Charles V -- known as Charles-Quint -- his son Philippe, Infante of Spain, and his sisters Eleonore, Queen of France, and Marie, Queen of Hungary. It seems that Charles-Quint (the slightly younger contemporary of England's Henry VIII) still holds a special place in the Belgians' sense of their history. He had been born in Ghent and educated in the Netherlands and loved this country. He was loved by its people in return. His domains were immense, stretching as far as the Americas. He was Roman Emperor and King of Spain.
It was after his victory against the Lutherans in Muhlberg in 1547 that this Catholic monarch decided the time was ripe to introduce his heir, Philippe, to his Northern subjects. An enormous caravan accordingly traveled from Barcelona in Spain, crossed the Mediterranean, and moved up through Italy, Austria, and Germany, arriving finally in the Netherlands.
The Brussels Ommegang is so well reenacted today that you might believe you are witnessing the triumphant imperial arrival here in the mid-16th century.
It is still daylight when the pageantry starts. The Grand' Place fills with Brueghel-like peasants and burghers -- the ``good people of Brussels'' as the program puts it. Jean Cocteau described this opulent square, mixing with elaborate abandon elements of the medieval and the baroque, as ``the richest theater in the world.'' For the Ommegang, that is precisely what it is.
Suddenly ``Theban trumpets'' sound bracingly on the evening air (fanfares and music punctuate the entire show), and the procession of dignitaries begins.
It is all very orderly as it happens, the pace of the accurately costumed Renaissance figures measured and stately. But in the memory it becomes a mingling of halberdiers and standard bearers; patient, brilliantly caparisoned horses bearing insistent drummers; interweaving processions of important personages, their wives and entourages; city officials representing different guilds and professions.
Then comes the royal party itself, in ascending scale of importance. Many of the people now striding into the square, each representing a person known to have been present in 1549, are in fact titled aristocracy themselves. They are princes and princesses, comtes and comtesses, barons and baronesses.
Finally Charles himself appears, walking under a yellow and black canopy. He is played by comte Adrien d'Oultrement, smiling broadly. The ``royals'' seat themselves to watch the ensuing show. There are glorious displays of banner-throwing -- great rippling cloths of orange-and-blue, blue-and-red, rip pling through the air as they are tossed mightily from one thrower to another or revolved horizontally by throwers lying flat on the cobbles.
There are white-clad monks carrying torches. And there are fusiliers suddenly firing with a shattering bang. And, in addition, there are jugglers and folk-dancers, cartwheelers and hand-standers, a blue unicorn, a sea-monster, giants and kettle-drummers, and firework wizards, and pipers, and fire-eaters.
The stilt-walkers are astounding: they first stride like giraffes into the square in procession, starting with the smallest and shortest and ending with one who must be about 20 feet high.
They then form a line and make a stilt-tunnel. The shorter turn and march through the ``legs'' of the taller, one after the other, until only the tallest is left.
Later in the evening they come back for a funny, free-for-all stilt-fight. They knock each other over like ninepins. Eventually the field is reduced to two survivors. In opposite corners, they paw the ground. One pretends to have the jitters, his stilts shivering and shaking. It is dark now, and each is dramatically spotlit. A drum rolls. They charge. One loses a stilt. But he balances long enough on the other for the stilt to be handed back to him. They charge again. And again. Then -- defeat! Ignominy! Victory! The champion preens and struts like a cockerel. This is the closest the evening comes to the tilting that actually took place in the Grand' Place centuries ago.
The climax of the Ommegang, before the emperor and his escort retire, is the appearance of the ``gilles.'' These fancifully dressed types are thought to represent the Incas, whose country had been invaded by the Spaniards in Charles-Quint's reign. They wear enormous headdresses of gigantic white feathers.
It is now black night. The ``gilles'' form a kind of ritual dance in the center of the Place, lit by a circle of red flares, accompanied by a band. The entire ``cast'' of Brussels residents moves slowly around the outside of the square, each one of them carrying a white torch. It looks like a crowd of thousands. The effect is dazzling, magical, and unforgettable.