They say a person’s character can be judged by how they treat the vulnerable and less fortunate. In the same way, perhaps a city can best be judged not by its large monuments or famous plazas, but by how it values its hidden corners and jagged edges – the places where concrete gives way to nature, where wildflowers come up through cracks in the pavement and where humans grab themselves patches of unadopted land for a kitchen garden.
A new initiative by Brussels Environment, the Promenade Verte or Groene Wandeling puts city dwellers and visitors back in touch with a series of forgotten paths, parks, allotments and green scrubland to create a 63km walking and cycling route – all around the city. The way is clearly indicated with green signage and the number #01 and is easy to follow. With seven sections, you can start anywhere it’s convenient for you to join the route, and go in either direction, discovering as much or as little as you like.
I recently made up my mind to give the Promenade Verte a go. I was hoping to complete it in four separate walks, but in the end it took me five. If we imagine Brussels as a clockface, I started at 6 o’clock, near Engeland bus stop in the south of the Uccle and headed clockwise towards the wooded Kinsandael nature reserve, past Keyenbempt’s corners of greenery abandoned by the developers of the Brussels’ Ring (ringroad) and now snatched back for everyone’s enjoyment. Other highlights of this stretch included the ancient Nekkersgat watermill dating from 1667.
Further on, I discovered a small steam railway in Forest’s Bempt park and saw Forest’s footballers training on their ground. The route crosses beneath the railway lines near Audi’s giant car plant and traverses a fascinating, more industrial stretch where I was delighted to find a section of Brussel’s old river, the Senne, out in the open air before it disappears under the city. On the opposite bank I spotted an elderly lady tending a vegetable garden near a shack. Surely she can’t live there? I thought, before I read a noticeboard with sepia photographs documenting her and her husband’s makeshift smallholding over the years, a lifestyle from a previous century.
Onwards, and along the banks of the canal, where young men were throwing themselves into its cool waters. They invited me to join them. I declined. Rowers from a nearby club muscled their way by. Under the Ring and then a group of well-established allotments complete with gnomes, windchimes and blackberry patches gave way to a 3km stretch passing IKEA and heading towards Erasmus hospital and characterised by pollarded willows.
A new day and we begin on our clockface at around 8 o’clock. After Erasmus, I entered what would become one of my favourite parts of the promenade – the Pajottenland. Breughel painted landscapes here. In places the path drops down into ancient sunken lanes, its banks woven with gnarled roots and fox holes. Elsewhere farm fields, wetlands and grassy prairies jostle for your gaze.
I’ve long known the north of Brussels has delights but still was surprised by the Molenbeek Valley, the lush reediness of the Ganshoren marshes and beyond, the lakes and gardens of Parc Roi Baudouin. Stumbling across a lively guinguette and a marching band at the edge of the park was a gem of a moment.
But the most stunning? Popping out of the Stuyvenberg Park to an unexpected view of the Atomium looming overhead. The people behind the Promenade Verte really know how to create theatre and magic.
Through the parks of Laeken, past relics of Expo ’58 like the Chinese and Japanese Pavillions, and then another key moment: the bridge back over the canal giving a satisfying sense of a semi-circle completed, continuity and progress. This time there were views over the post-modern power station to the northeast. Soon it was time to end that leg and head home for a rest.
Picking up where I left off at Bordet, the green corridor continues. I pass the Cimetiere de Bruxelles, walking on through Evere’s residential streets, past the old Tir National where Edith Cavell was executed and is memorialised. Under the E40 motorway and before long it’s time to join the attractive old railway path from Woluwe, passing more beautiful parks and giving glimpses into private back gardens where deckchairs sit waiting and lazy cats meet your eyes.
The Tram Museum sits below a large steel footbridge. From there it’s round into Brussels’ southeast, leaving the old railway and through Auderghem into Parks Seny and Ten Reuken, where a bespoke wooden sculpture floats indolently on a lake and stormy skies are reflected in the water. I take the tram and train home before the heavens open.
Another day and the final stretch for me started at around 4 o’clock on the Brussels’ timepiece. This last leg contained the lakes of Watermael-Boitsfort and Parc Tournay Solvay, and took me through magnificent cathedrals of beeches in the Sonian Wood and along ridges and mini-cols between the Karregatbeek and Vuylbeek streams. Almost back at the starting point now, I exited the forest, crossed Avenue Dolez and discovered a sunny prairie at the back of a new complex of apartments near Uccle’s Kauwberg reserve.
What a way to get to know a city. Over 63 kms walked, unfamiliar neighbourhoods and public transport hubs discovered, and a new sense of how the city of Brussels sits in its surroundings, how it is growing, and how very much it treasures its green spaces. I hope you do too.
Learn more about the Promenade Verte at https://environnement.brussels/thematiques/espaces-verts-et-biodiversite/la-promenade-verte