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Yes, Brussels is known for its beer — and, as a worldly traveler, one must steep oneself in the culture of a destination and do (e.g., drink) as the locals do. But the Belgian capital is also home to an abundance of green spaces, a characteristic of the cosmopolitan city that it’s far less known for.
I was recently introduced to a portion of Brussels’ more than 30 square miles of parks, fields and woodlands on a “green spaces” bike tour with Pro Velo, a Belgian cycling company that offers themed city tours by bike in addition to supporting the local cycling community through bike service, education, events and research. I met my guide, Yves Jacquet, at our starting point: Pro Velo’s headquarters, located just a few minutes from the city’s historical Royal Quarter.
Jacquet has been a tour guide with Pro Velo since 1999, nearly as long as the 24-year-old company has been around, and he doesn’t just use two wheels for work. He can almost always be found on a bike, his preferred mode of transportation, and avoids using his car unless he has to venture out of town — which, he says, he doesn’t often do because he enjoys pedaling around his city so much.
For a little over three hours, Jacquet led me around Brussels, stopping in his favorite parks to point out history, architecture and, sometimes, to say nothing at all — rather, to simply admire the tranquility that can be found in little pockets all over the 62-square-mile city.
We began with a leisurely ride past Espace Leopold, a complex of buildings housing the European Parliament that looks something like a futuristic train station, and its adjacent park. We then cycled to Ambiorix Square, across from which we spied Maison Saint Cyr, an extravagant art nouveau townhome built in 1903 by Gustave Strauven, a pupil of renowned Belgian architect and designer Victor Horta.
We pedaled around the impressive Belgian Arc de Triomphe, the centerpiece of Parc du Cinquantenaire (Park of the Fiftieth Anniversary), which dates back to 1880 and also houses the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History, Cinquantenaire Museum and AutoWorld Museum, in addition to the oldest mosque in Brussels.
From there, we visited the quiet and quaint Jean-Felix Hap Garden, walked our bikes through the small, peaceful oasis of Tenbosch Park, a former dendrological garden and perhaps my favorite green spot in the city, then rode past the Ixelles Ponds to the gardens surrounding the Abbey of La Cambre, located in the upscale municipality of Ixelles. The meticulously kept topiary surrounding the gardens and abbey, which was founded in 1196 and rebuilt in the 18th century, reminded me of the landscaping you might see at an old English manor, with hedges shaped like cubes and cylinders. The gardens are also home to the National Geographic Institute of Belgium, the national mapping agency in the country.
It’s hard not to find history around practically every corner in Brussels — even in its many green spaces — but those who want a truly natural experience can journey out to the Sonian Forest at the edge of the city. Spanning nearly 11 acres, it’s Brussel’s largest portion of green space. While I didn’t have the time (or stamina, if we’re being honest) to pedal through the majestic beech trees, Jacquet brought me to Bois de la Cambre, a large park at the edge of Sonian Forest. With flat, vast lawns perfect for sunbathing and playing Frisbee, as well as a lake where visitors can leisurely paddle in small rowboats, the space may as well have been New York’s Central Park. And Bois de la Cambre even has its own version of Tavern on the Green — Chalet Robinson, a typical Belgian brasserie, restaurant and event venue located on the lake’s small island.
It was close to 5 p.m. when we began to make our way back toward Pro Velo’s offices, and I got a taste of Brussels’ urban side as Jacquet and I weaved our way through cars stuck in after-work traffic. But he was determined to leave me dreaming of green, so we stopped briefly in Petit Sablon Square, a small park surrounded by Gothic columns topped with bronze statues that represent 48 historical professions, such as a clockmaker and a tinsmith.
Finally, we rode through the neoclassicist-style Brussels Park, the largest urban public park in the city’s center, which was created in the late 1700s. The park, which hosts free events throughout the summer, is surrounded by rows of bright-green lime trees.
Clients can choose a private and customized ride like mine, or they can choose the 9.3-mile, 3.5-hour Architecture and Green Areas tour, which visits many of the same spots mentioned above as well as some of the gorgeous art nouveau buildings around the city. Additional themed tours focus on everything from beer and culinary specialties to comic books and history.
City of Brusselswww.brussels.be