The beautiful Cistercian Abbaye de la Cambre, hidden in a leafy hollow
Cities across the world have been launching initiatives to discourage cars from the urban centre. Copenhagen, Paris, Helsinki and Oslo are among capitals that have developed ambitious plans to encourage citizens to avoid driving in the heart of the city.
Brussels has also been changing gear from its car-based lifestyle. Since some time, it already has a car-free day once a year when the entire city closes off its streets to all traffic except for taxis, buses, trams and authorised private cars. It’s a massive event that is meant to persuade residents to try out alternative ways of getting around the city.
Held this year on 18 September, the event is a unique opportunity to explore the city by public transport, which is free for the day, or to tour the streets by bicycle. But it’s also the perfect moment to explore the city’s streets on foot. The Flemish organisation Trage Wegen, Slow Ways, has mapped out all the slow routes for walking in the city. You can use its online maps to discover thousands of meandering routes and develop your own personal walking trails across town.
Here are five slow walking routes for you to try out when the streets are quiet.
One of the most beautiful walks in the city runs along an old river valley that was partly drained in the 19th century, leaving a string of landscaped ponds. Begin on Place Flagey and follow the lake that runs next to the church. It takes you past some beautiful town houses built in eclectic 19th century styles, including several Art Nouveau gems.
At the end of the pond, a mock classical temple is being restored to its original state after years of neglect. The commune has put up some information panels charting the history of this curious landmark.
Continue along the edge of a second pond until you come to a busy crossroads. Head to the green space on the far side where you find the beautiful Cistercian Abbaye de la Cambre hidden in a leafy hollow. Not many people know about this place, yet it is a beautiful spot to sit with a book on a Sunday morning.
The abbey was founded in 1201 by a rich woman called Gisèle, who named it La Cambre after the chambre, or room, where Christ was born. The Belgian military now occupies some of the buildings, while the national cartographical institute is based in the former brewery.
A plaque was put up in 2013 outside the former infirmary where Henry van de Velde founded La Cambre school of design in 1927. Van de Velde was living in Germany at the time, having helped to set up the Bauhaus school of design. He was invited back to Belgium by Queen Elisabeth to create the first school of design in Belgium.
Some of the country’s most creative talents have been nurtured in this slightly shabby whitewashed building, including the artists Ann Veronica Janssens and Marie-Jo Fontaine, the fashion designers Sandrina Fasoli and Anthony Vaccarello and the graphic artist Benoît Jacques.
THE EUROPEAN QUARTER
Many people wouldn’t necessarily jump on the idea of a walk in the European Quarter, but it can be a very interesting adventure if you follow the slow trail mapped out by Trage Wegen from Schuman to Place du Luxembourg.
Begin on Schuman square, where the glass and steel Berlaymont Building was built in 1963 as the seat of the European Commission. The main EU axis runs down the busy Rue de la Loi, but it’s quieter to turn down Rue Froissart – the street that runs next to the Justus Lipsius building, where the EU’s 28 leaders regularly meet. A right turn at the Exki café leads to the Place Jean Rey where hidden fountains spurt in the summer.
This once desolate square has become one of the city’s most vibrant neighbourhoods, with Frederic Nicolay’s two-floor café Le Grand Central bringing a cool industrial look to the quarter. The two-floor bar is open from early morning until late at night with a menu of good coffee, organic lunches and Belgian beers.
Now head across the road to the romantic Parc Léopold where a city zoo opened in 1850. It didn’t last long, but the original entrance pavilions decorated with lion’s heads have survived. The site was turned into a science park in the early 20th century with impressive buildings dedicated to different scientific disciplines. The former George Eastman Dental Institute, just inside the park, is due to reopen soon as a House of European History.
Keep walking to the top of the hill, where a hidden footpath curves around the steel and glass walls of the European Parliament. This is where the EU’s elected representatives hold most of their sessions (when they are not meeting in Strasbourg).
You can end the walk in Karsmakers, a bright modern coffee bar opposite the European Parliament. If the sun is out, its walled back garden is one of the most romantic spots in town.
THE FASHION DISTRICT
It might not be Milan, but Brussels has built up a modest reputation as a city of design and fashion. You can check out the latest trends during a slow walk in the Dansaert district, beginning on Place St Géry, where each café makes a different design statement. You might choose to sit at one of the colourful metal tables outside Café Zebra. Or you might be persuaded by Café Central’s retro interior.
Now walk down Rue Dansaert until you reach the Place du Nouveau Marché aux Grains. The route takes you past some of the best Belgian fashion stores in town. You find other shops, less exclusive, in the quiet side streets. Go down Rue Léon Lepage, where several jewellery shops are located, then turn into Rue de Flandre.
Once you get to Place du Vieux Marché aux Grains, continue along the street that curves past the Atlas Hotel until you come to Rue des Chartreux. Here you will find some of the city’s most inspiring concept stores, vintage boutiques and design shops, as well as the Zinneke statue of a dog peeing in the street, which reminds you that this is Brussels and not Milan.
THE ANTIQUES QUARTER
Brussels is full of shops selling second-hand stuff, from theatre costumes to dusty stuffed giraffes. You can find some of the best vintage shops during a meandering walk through the Marolles. Begin at the flea market on Place du Jeu de Balle and follow the Rue Blaes back into town. At the Place de la Chapelle, turn right up the hill to reach the Place du Grand Sablon. The more upmarket antique dealers have their shops on side streets like Rue des Minimes.
BOIS DE LA CAMBRE
Here is the place to walk on a Sunday. Landscaped in 19th-century romantic style, it features artificial crags, a lake with an island and several restaurants. Take tram 94 to the Legrand stop and set off down one of several forest paths to reach the lake. A mechanical ferry plies across the water to the Chalet Robinson restaurant, which remains one of the most romantic spots in town.