They came by bus, car and coach, bringing their children and dogs, draped in the flag of Catalonia and with their yellow ribbon symbol pinned proudly to their chests. Some marched with prams others drove their mobility scooters towards the park where Carles Puigdemont was due to speak.
Organisers claimed at least 50,000 Catalans had travelled the 1,200km to Brussels to bring the heart of the city’s European Union quarter to a standstill. Belgian media reported the number to be at least 20,000.
They marched en masse, some in mobility scooters, others in prams and several with dogs wearing Catalan flags, through the Brussels drizzle and past the headquarters of the European Commission.
“The weather is poor here,” said Joseph Teixidor, 42, a banker, “But the people are warm.”
Joseph, 42, his physiotherapist wife Laura Planes, 38, and their daughter Sara, 6, had driven for a total of 12 hours, with an overnight stop in France dividing the seven and five-hour stints behind the wheel.
Joseph said: “We are here because we want the EU to listen to us. Carles Puigdemont is our elected president and he is still our elected president.”
The European Union has greeted the Catalan independence movement’s cries for help with either deafening silence or solid statements of support for the Madrid government. Some protestors held posters of Jean-Claude Juncker, the commission president, with the word “Shame” emblazoned above him.
Joseph said he expected Mr Puigdemont to triumph in the regional elections but that Madrid would not respect the result.
Jordi Santivere, 51, smoked a cheroot while clutching his shivering lapdog whose coat had a tiny Catalan flag. The bus driver had ferried his wife, Nuria Martin, 50, for 14 hours from Barcelona.
He said the moment he chose to back independence came six years ago. “You have to see the problems in Barcelona. The Spanish government is not good.”
“We are also here for our political prisoners. That is why we have come,” he added.
Eva Fernandes, 47, and Sergi Soler, 47 travelled in a group of five. They arranged their own bus tickets for a 20 hour marathon trek.
“Everyone except maybe one Spanish guy on the full bus was Catalan,” said Sergi. “There was a lot of singing.”
“But no sleeping,” said Eva, who told The Telegraph they had set off Wednesday at 11am and arrived at 6.30am yesterday morning.
“I have supported independence since I was born. My father did and my grandfather fought in the Civil War,” the hospital biologist said.
“My grandfather did as well,” said Sergi, a software engineer, who accused the EU of ignoring Catalonia.
Eva, who was pessimistic that the EU would listen to their plight, added: “We are here for the president, for Puigdemont and for the political prisoners.”
Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, the Spanish deputy prime minister, said the only reason the protesters were able to march in Brussels was because they were citizens of Spain, an EU member state.
She told a press conference: “They are exercising a European right derived from the fact that Spain forms part of the European Union, of precisely that European Union which they are criticising,” adding that Catalan politicians didn’t hesitate to “throw stones” at Europe when it did not back them.
“Having a Spanish ID card and belonging to the European Union is what has enabled them to go there and protest,” said the deputy prime minister, who is also acting as head of the Catalan government while direct rule is in place.
She took a swipe at Mr Puigdemont for campaigning from exile, saying that instead of going out to ask people for their vote, “some citizens have had to go and visit him” in Brussels.
More: The Telegraph