Sumptuous costumes, billowing scarlet banners and Dominic West gazing ruggedly into the distance: the BBC’s dramatic new remake of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables has been dazzling our screens and had us standing on our sofas belting out La Marseillaise for the past few weeks.
So you might be surprised to learn that not one scene in this adaption of the most famous novel about Paris ever written was actually filmed in the French city. The majority of the scenic shots were done in none other than…boring old Belgium?
The decision to cast Belgium in the starring role is surprisingly fitting. Hugo first published his novel in Brussels (where he lived as an exile) in 1862 and the capital was also the site of the first theatrical performance of Les Misérables, organised by Hugo’s son one year later.
Budding revolutionaries wanting to discover the real world behind the longest book in European literature should start off their journey, as I did, in the historic heart of Brussels.
“A miracle: these were the words that sprang to the author’s mind when he first set eyes on Grand Place, the city’s medieval marketplace, on a tourist trip in 1837. Returning 15 years later, fleeing France with many other political dissidents after Napoleon III’s coup d’état, Hugo rented out an apartment which a direct view onto the square.
Standing before Le Pigeon (26-27 Grand Place) you can still make out the inscription on a plaque dedicated to the novelist between the soaring Baroque pillars of the guildhall where he lived. Now a famous chocolate shop, come in and sample a few of Belgium’s famous
pralines before continuing on your way.
Next wander north-east towards the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. Hugo would walk through this glass-vaulted passage every day to visit his beloved mistress, Juliette Drouet. Wherever Hugo went, Drouet would follow. She wrote him one letter a day for the duration of their relationship (22,000 love notes in total). Though he’s most often remembered for his literature and philanthropic work, Hugo also had a vibrant sex life and many affairs – reportedly even once seducing his own son’s lover.
Dive down a side alley to arrive at Tropismes, Brussels’ most magnificent bookshop. This building, which now houses thousands of novels within its ornately gilded and mirrored walls, was where Hugo had Drouet installed and where the pair planned how to smuggle his work back into France, where it had been banned. Make sure to pick up a copy of Hugo’s 1,500 page tome before you leave.
Théâtre Royal des Galeries
Meander further along the galleries and you come across the marble arches and gold lettering announcing Brussels’ Théâtre Royal des Galeries. It was here that Hugo’s son, Charles, chose to stage the first ever theatrical performance of Les Mis (Hugo’s name still being blacklisted in France). Take a velvet-clad seat under the theatre’s enormous chandelier and admire the blue painted heavens on the ceiling above (the work of celebrated Belgian artist René Magritte)
Taverne du Passage
Turning back on yourself you pass by the art deco frontage of the Taverne du Passage. The walls of this brasserie provided a safe haven for Brussels’ Cercle Artistique et Littéraire (Artistic and Literary Circle) to meet and discuss art and politics. The group was made up of French and other European political exiles who had all flocked to Brussels because of its free-thinking spirit. Regulars included author Alexandre Dumas, the painter Jacques-Louis David, Karl Marx and, of course, Hugo himself. Stop to refuel on hearty portions of Belgian staples such as moules frites and vol-au-vent.
The Grand Sablon
Wind your way southwards, pausing to admire the view from the top of Brussels’ Mont des Arts (Mound of the Arts), until you reach the delicate lace-like Gothic exterior of the Sablon Church. Among the dozens of antique shops dotted around the cobbled square in front is the famous Costermans, which features as the apartment of Monsieur Gillenormand (the grandfather of Marius) in the 2019 television drama.
Amid pendulant chandeliers and lavishly painted wallpapers the hundreds of Ancien Régime-era treasures stuffed into the shop will have you listening out expectantly for the stamp of approaching revolutionaries or the clip clop of gendarmes on horseback.
Next make your way back to Brussels Central Station and hop on a train to Enghien. The elegant Louis XVI style chateau here was used during filming as a police station, convent and the safehouse of Jean Valjean. Dedicate a few hours to exploring the 182 hectare park, considered one of the 17th century’s most impressive, with its Greek sphinxes, Chinese pavilion and Rose Garden of over 800 varieties.
Half an hour’s drive east is the field which saw the blood of around 50,000 men spilt in the Battle of Waterloo. Hugo devotes 45 pages of his novel to describing the event. The opening scene of the BBC drama, a camera panning over mounds of strewn bodies, was shot just 15 miles from the original battle site.
The gently undulating landscape is best viewed after a hike up the 226 steps to the top of the Lion Mound where a 28-tonne cast iron feline commemorates Wellington’s victory.
It was near here that the author, staying in a hotel room with a view over the battleground, concluded the final pages of Les Misérables. He became well-known among the hotel’s staff for his predictable choice of dish: three fried eggs smothered in vinegar accompanied by Belgian fries and a hunk of Gruyère cheese.