The Royal Greenhouses at Laeken:
A Regal Spring Tonic in Brussels
Frank Lloyd Wright had a clear concept of how visitors should enter the spaces he had designed. He liked to keep the entrance hall low and dark and confined so that when you stepped out into the main room, the high ceiling space would come as a powerful perceptual shock, an enlargement that would cause the observer to stop and truly absorb the new space.
This has only tangentially to do with the travel experience I am going to tell you about, but it illustrates the way I came to it, and how it came to me.
I entered Brussels through a Frank Lloyd Wright hallway.
Arriving on the Eurostar after midnight, I walked through dark streets in a chilly rain. My hotel was a mere four blocks from the station, and I have an aversion to taxis - something about sitting in the back of a car being driven by a stranger has always creeped me out. So I was one of the only people on the rain slicked narrow street that led to the small square and my hotel, The Dominican. The lobby was dimly lit, the staff spoke in hushed tones and just on the periphery of sound was the somnolent chanting of monks. I was too preoccupied to take note.
The next morning I fussed about catching the right bus, changing to the correct line, and getting off at the designated stop. I shouldn't have worried. The driver remembered my fractured French request to notify me when to get off and most of the passengers were going to the same place. I grabbed my camera, hugged my notebook to my chest and hurried after the crowd, intensely aware that my time was limited.
I stopped at the gilded gates to the Royal Gardens and that was the FLW moment. The surrounding neighbourhood fell away, and the rest of the crowd continued on through the gates, but I was halted in my tracks.
In front of me perfectly groomed lawns unrolled downhill, bordered by flowering trees. Under an immense blue sky, the glass cupolas of the greenhouses winked in the sun. Smells of damp earth, cut grass and camellias saturated the air. The transition from cramped and tight and dark, to large and open and light forced me to be totally present.
"Look,smell, touch, take this all in," a voice told me, " Be fully present in this moment." Maybe it was FLW, the engineer of such experiences whispering in my ear, or maybe it was Alphonse Balat, the architect who designed the greenhouses.
So perhaps the connection to FLW isn't so far off after all. The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken, in the north section of Brussels, which I was about to experience, were designed by the architect Balat, the mentor of Victor Horta, the Belgian architect who is considered the father of European Art Nouveau design.
The greenhouses were commissioned by Leopold 11- evidence that even bad men can do good things- in 1873 and were to be "palaces of glass." The eleven structures that Balat created are to this day the finest example of glass and iron architecture in the world. And these are not your garden variety greenhouses- the cupola of the Winter Garden greenhouse soars high enough to allow a jungle of fully grown palm trees to exist comfortably beneath its glass curves. There are colonnaded walkways, shaded arcades, graceful staircases, sculptural figures and miles of flower-filled glass rooms.
Picture a mass of jungle ferns, densely packed and toned in more shades of green than one can count, walls of camellias so perfect that only their scent reveals their reality, ceilings hung with fuchsia, glass-ceilinged rooms lined from floor to ceiling with geraniums, cyclamen and lilies.
One surprise is the perfectly preserved studio where the Belgian Queen Elisabeth painted , with her easel, painting supplies, and a carefully placed chair next to a window with views of the exterior gardens.
These garden houses are royal delights, usually reserved only for the pleasure of Belgian royalty, but for about three weeks a year, the public is permitted to tour the fabulous flower- filled rooms. It's a sensual experience that is well worth a special trip, all the more precious because the window for experiencing it is open for such a short time.
A walk through the Laeken greenhouses is a garden experience that feeds something in the soul, and is particularly welcome after the winter most Canadians have just endured. Do this if you possibly can.
It's the real Spring tonic.
If You Go:
The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken are open to the public this year from April 24 To May 14. Admission is $3.40 CAD (€2.50). I would advise visiting early. I began my tour just as the gates opened at 9:30 in the morning, and the crowds were still light. By midday the place was very busy. Also consider a night visit, when the greenhouses are lighted and there's a whole different feel to the gardens. Tours are self guided, although there are some French language guided tours. There's no restaurant, but some small food outlets and a very limited gift shop. This is not a commercialized attraction, but rather a valuable but short-lived chance to see these fabulous greenhouses and gardens at their best. Directions of how to get to the Royal Greenhouses can be found on the website: Closed Mondays.
Where To Stay
Rue Léopold / Leopoldstraat 9
1000 Brussels, Belgium
This elegantly understated hotel, located in a former monastery, is a short walk from the main train station and within easy reach of buses that will take you anywhere you want to go in the city, including out to the Greenhouses. Rooms from $190 CAD ( €140)