Springtime Tradition: Royal Greenhouses of Laeken

Author: Martha Hepler   /   Brussels, Explore   /  
Spring seeps into the air slowly in Belgium. Tulips push up shyly, birds think about gathering nesting materials, a cherry tree here and a magnolia there start showing signs of pink—only the forsythia jumps in with two feet, its yellow blooms loud and long against the tumultuous sky. But as sunrise creeps ever earlier and sunset stretches later, one spring tradition actually takes eager flower lovers indoors: the annual opening of the Royal Greenhouses at Laeken.
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The greenhouses are part of larger royal grounds on the outskirts of Brussels, as described by Vero in this post. Every spring for the last hundred years, they’ve been opened to the public for three weeks. After parking across the street from the palace, my family and I joined the stream of people moving through the palace gates. Different languages, clothing styles, and ages abounded; it was an occasion that truly attracted all types. After purchasing tickets, we strolled past a small grove of sequoias and under orange trees toward the rainbow-shimmering glass domes of the greenhouses.

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I was relieved to see that the visit followed a set course, so it’s simple: you just walk the way you’re supposed to walk. (When travelling with young kids, I think we can all agree that often all of your energy is spent just getting somewhere and there’s not much left for ensuing decisions!)

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First we strolled through breathtaking outdoor gardens for about ten minutes, pausing for photo ops under blossom-laden cherry varieties, with rolling green meadows and Brussels in the distance. The greenhouses themselves are spectacular to view from the outside; designed in 1873 by architect Alphonse Balat at the behest of King Leopold II, their glass and metal construction was innovative and went on to influence Art Nouveau style. At the last greenhouse we turned to go inside and loop our way back down toward the entrance.

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It being a Saturday afternoon, the crowds were like molasses in the first conservatory but thinned out comfortably as we moved farther in. One of the most striking sights was the long domed halls with fuschias growing up the walls and across the ceiling. It was magical; we were practically peeking around flowers expecting to see fairies. My daughter danced from flower to flower, sniffing each one and proclaiming it her favorite, and my son gazed up from his stroller with saucer eyes. Each of the seven greenhouses held something different, from every variety of hydrangea to exotic colors of geranium, fine statues to antique Chinese vases. Many of the plants date back to Leopold II’s rule in the latter 19th century. There were rare camellias, luscious azaleas, ferns tiny and towering, succulents and palms, an underground section featuring plants that like such places, and often a little surprise hidden away in an unexpected corner—including what I suspect was a carnivorous pitcher plant.

Our final stop, the Winter Garden, was a construction of impressive size dominated by 150-year-old palms.  It had all the beauty of a rain forest, but none of the unpleasantness. We could just imagine foreign dignitaries strolling through its grandeur.

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As neither a gardener nor botanist of any type, I’m afraid that some of the most extraordinary aspects of the conservatories’ contents were lost on me. But as an appreciator of color, natural and architectural splendor, careful cultivation, and pleasing design the outing was worth much more than the paltry price and hour’s walk through such extraordinary beauty.

Tickets: 2,50 euro per adult; under 18 free. Only available at the gate. Informative booklet available for 1 euro.

Where: Castle of Laeken, Avenue du Parc Royal – 1020 Brussels (Laeken)

When: In 2015, they are open 17 April through 8 May, with daytime and some evening viewing hours. The dates are determined by peak blooming season.

Parking: A large, free parking lot is directly across the street from the palace.

Logistics: There are some stairs in the greenhouses, but we were okay with our travel stroller. Bathrooms are available before and after the tour. Water coolers are available throughout.

Websites: http://www.brussels.be/artdet.cfm?id=4843&agendaid=369



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