Trail of the unexpected: The growing attraction of Belgium's botanical marvel

I thought I knew Brussels pretty well, but until last year I'd never been around for the annual opening of the greenhouses at Laeken. These huge, circular glass and iron structures stand 5km from the city centre, in Brussels' northern suburbs.

Built in the late 19th century by Alphonse Balat and his apprentice Victor Horta (before he became the king of Belgian Art Nouveau) they were a late addition to the Saxe-Coburgs' royal palace. The family always preferred their home on this wooded hillside to the Palais Royal down in the city. The palace itself is strictly private, but once a year, usually in April, the king opens his glasshouses, Les Serres Royales, for two or three weeks.

Coach parties come from across Belgium and from Germany, France and Holland. The appeal of Laeken is not just this sequence of vast interconnected conservatories and all the flowers contained within, it's the chance to get a glimpse into the home life of the Belgian monarchy.

Turn up on a Sunday, as I did, and the police will be out in force directing coaches up the long avenue that leads to the monument commemorating Leopold, first king of the Belgians. Half the visitors were, I'm sure, playing a royal version of Through the Keyhole.

Royal-watchers will be disappointed, however. The glasshouses provide a sealed off eastern wing to the palace, which sits with its back to the main road. The building itself gives nothing away, not even a flag. As I queued and shuffled, I tried to grasp the evident excitement of the crowd in front of me: families with pushchairs, retirees with video cameras. This was a holiday atmosphere.

Once through the glass doors we all entered a large empty orangery that was built for the Dutch King William, who briefly absorbed Belgium into his United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815 after the Congress of Vienna.

The Belgians did not take well to that and a riot broke out in the opera house down below in Brussels. Soon the crown was offered to the Saxe-Coburgs if they would agree to be the first kings of the Belgians, not of Belgium. Even today no one succeeds to the throne until he or she first swears an oath: "I swear to observe the laws of the Belgian people."

In 1874, royal favourite Alphonse Balat was instructed by Leopold II to integrate the old orangery into a sequence of new glasshouses that would rival Cousin Albert's Crystal Palace in London. As we passed from the older structure to the new one, iron and glass seemed to soar high above us, bringing light flooding in on all sides. Surmounted by a dome-like crown and vented by two tall chimneys built to resemble minarets, the central structure looks like a glass-and-metal mosque. It was while working on this project that a young Victor Horta worked out what these materials could bring to Art Nouveau.

Our path through the first glass house was clearly marked and bordered on all sides by giant palms, orange trees, camellias and geraniums. In the centre beneath the dome was an open circular space surrounded by tall carved columns. When the Serres Royales were finally completed, Leopold II was so delighted with this part of the structure that he moved the royal chapel in. Today this central dome is still known as the Iron Church.

The tourist route is circular. But because Balat and Horta built only a three-sided structure, that means visitors have to step outside to walk the fourth side along gravel paths overlooking the royal gardens. This area was once a hunting ground for the dukes of Brabant, whose lands included the medieval city of Brussels. Now the landscape is tamed, a rolling Arcadian paradise with a tree-lined lake, classical statues and rhododendrons. There's even a Japanese pagoda rising on the horizon.

This is the kind of luxury that only a rich African colony can buy you. Leopold II, who employed Balat and Horta on these greenhouses for 21 years, drew immense personal wealth by ruthlessly exploiting the Belgian Congo – and it shows.

The size of this whole enterprise is huge. It takes 20 full-time gardeners to keep the plants in order and 400 tons of fuel to sustain the right temperatures inside over the course of a year. Washing the windows must be a major undertaking, and after over a century of use, there's rust forming on the iron girders.

Our trail ended back in the orangery. It was here that the wedding reception of the Belgian Princess Astrid was held in 1984. Again, royal-watchers will be disappointed: no wedding photos are on display and you can only buy postcards of the greenhouses and the plants. I got the feeling that the Saxe-Coburgs don't market themselves like their English cousins. This monarchy keeps it head down, especially for those three weeks a year when the hoi polloi are let in.

The Royal Greenhouses at Laeken (00 32 2 551 20 20; tinyurl.com/czrtwk) are open from 18 April-10 May 2009 (excluding Mondays). Admission on 21 April is reserved for disabled/less able visitors only. Admission €2.50.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Living for the moment: Julianne Moore playing Alzheimer’s sufferer Alice
health
News
Jay Z
businessJay-Z's bid for Spotify rival could be blocked
News
The spider makes its break for freedom
VIDEO
Voices
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle v United player ratings
Arts and Entertainment
books
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot