Ommegang in Brussels
Performers march in front of the Brussels Town Hall as part of the Ommegang procession in June 2022. Over 1,400 performers participate in the pageant each year. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Goldfein, U.S. Army Garrison Benelux Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

[Editor’s Note: The following story is the eleventh in the series Bits of the Benelux. This series takes a deep dive into the stories, cultures and traditions found throughout Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany.]

BRUSSELS – As the capital of Belgium, Brussels is known worldwide as both a major tourist destination and the modern-day headquarters for organizations such as the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

However, on the evenings of June 28 and 30, 2023, visitors can see a new – or rather, very old – side of the city during the annual Ommegang celebration.

Based on the Dutch phrase for “walking around,” Ommegang combines Belgian folklore and history into an elaborate Renaissance-era pageant.

The event begins with a crossbow competition and ceremony at the Church of our Blessed Lady of Sablon at 7:20 p.m. Afterwards, at around 8:50 p.m., a grand procession of costumed entertainers, acrobats, horseback riders, giants, folk and historic groups and more makes its way through the city center. Upon arriving at the Grand Place, participants mix traditional performances with modern lighting and pyrotechnics in a two-hour long celebratory gala.

Over 1,400 individuals participate in the display each year, including members of Belgium’s contemporary aristocracy.

“The pageant was very impressive,” said Christine Dal Bello, a foreign service officer working as a U.S. voluntary national contribution to NATO who attended Ommegang last year. “There’s a lot of choreography, costumes, dances and arrangements. It’s a great event that kind of encapsulates a lot of…interesting cultural performances.”

While Dal Bello mentioned there is an option to buy tickets for the show in the Grand Place, she stressed they weren’t required in order to enjoy the event.

“The beauty of it is the flexibility,” said Dal Bello, who experienced both the procession and the Grand Place performance from the ground. “You can stage yourself at Sablon to see the departure and beginning of the parade…you can be on the route, or you can be at the end and catch glimpses of the performance.”

Deborah Goldfein, a library technician at U.S. Army Garrison Benelux-Brussels, agreed.

“Even if you don’t have tickets on the Grand Place, you will still see wonderous sights strolling about,” she said.

In addition to viewing parts of the 2022 Ommegang pageant as a spectator, Goldfein and her husband were invited to join in the procession by one of her husband’s Belgian colleagues.

“[They] invited us to dress in period clothing and carry guild flags,” she said as she explained the experience. “Walking through the city, it was a treat to see horses and carriages, giant puppets and other pageant re-enactors along the way.”

In addition to the main pageant, the Ommegang festivities include a Renaissance Village and Market in the Sablon area. Open this year from June 28 to July 1, the area showcases life during the Renaissance with jousting and combat tournaments and craftsmen demonstrations such as blacksmiths, ironworkers, and surgeons.

While the origins of Ommegang date back to the 14th century, today’s version focuses on the procession held in honor of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his heir, the future Philip II, during their visit to the city in 1549. First revived in 1930 as part of Belgium’s centenary celebrations, the pageant was officially added to UNESCO’s “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” in 2019.

“The pageantry, lighting and fireworks are all a spectacular connection to the religious and political history of Brussels,” Goldfein said. “We’re planning to participate again this year and would most definitely recommend it as a wonderful Belgian cultural event.”

Learn more about Ommegang and view a full schedule of events.

This series, Bits of the Benelux, will continue to explore the many cultural traditions in and around the Benelux. Further stories like this on the local traditions, festivals, and events are scheduled to be published monthly, as they occur.