Cycling in Belgium

Cycling on the Promenade Verte

Guest Blogger Rebecca writes a blog describing her eating and drinking adventures in Brussels, and also provides travel tips on the Belgian capital for the Guardian’s Been There Travel website.

Did you know that there is another Ring in Brussels, one which takes you through the city’s outermost districts at a leisurely pace, but with a full loop still achievable in a day? This ring offers an alternative to traffic queues and junction altercations. And its route makes the most of green spaces sandwiched between urbanised and industrialised areas; and hidden parks, allotments and orchards that you might otherwise never have known existed.

The Promenade Verte is a 63 km loop around Brussels, which takes in parts of the Forêt de Soignes, Woluwe valley, lakes and parks. In 2004 only a small stretch had been created, but now the circle is complete and walkers and cyclists are free to explore the furthest reaches of Brussels, right up to its border with Flanders. The route is signposted, and a guide is available which helpfully divides the loop up into sections.

On Sunday afternoon I joined a 20 km tour of the Southern section of the Promenade Verte, run by Pro Velo, a non-profit organisation which aims to promote cycling It also organises running themed tours to suit all tastes – on surrealism, bars, art nouveau architecture and Brussels’ green spaces.

We start our tour at four o’clock on the map, by an uninspiring junction at Hermann Debroux metro station, and swiftly turn our back on the lanes of traffic and underpass and head into a park. Here our guide pauses before one of the themed Promenade Verte panels to explain our route. The plan is to continue the section of the Promenade until reaching Erasme metro. Yes, cycling the whole route in a day is theoretically possible, but, our guide warns, unlike the Vallée de la Woluwe section, some parts of the route are fairly undulating and demanding, including the part I’m about to cycle today!

However, just to put distances and demands in perspective, she also points out the route of one of the “sentiers de grande randonnée”. These are trails for the serious walker, traversing Europe from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, passing through the more interesting parts of Brussels on their way. Just imagine walking that far!

On the first part of our tour we cross Parc Seny and ride past a ruined château and English-style garden. Then we arrive at Boitsfort, well supplied with Italian restaurants and with a market in full swing in front of the town hall. We cycle along the Chemin des Silex with its reed beds and ponds and briefly enter Parc Tournay-Solvay. This would be a particularly scenic ride with the sun out, but unfortunately the sky is threatening rain.

We pause here to wander round a vegetable garden and orchard. A notice warns sternly that only members of the community growers can pick the fruit! By now it is drizzling and time to press on, and I resolve to stop by the rose garden and second ruined château another time.

As we continue, our group can hear trains heading into Luxembourg station. A new RER line is under construction here. Our guide points out that after England, Belgium had the first railway line on the continent, only 3 years after independence – of course nowadays there are traffic problems of a different scale to deal with. We negotiate a muddy slope under the railway, and emerge the other side into the Forêt de Soignes, in an avenue of ancient trees.

We make slow progress through the forest, and the next challenge is cobblestones in Uccle. We go as far as Linkebeek, all the time remaining within the Brussels border. Panting I climb to the Plateau Engeland, using all the gears on my bike; and then suddenly I am careering down a rough, cobblestoned route in the rain, hoping that my brakes won’t fail and glad to be riding a knobbly-tyred mountain bike and not a racer or heavy electric contraption. Once we all screech to a halt at the bottom, our guide remarks wryly that actually the Promenade Verte is not quite finished …. Some parts clearly still need work.

Shortly afterwards, we are pelted by typical Brussels rain, and our soggy group is forced to take shelter under an evergreen hedge for what seems like a long time. We know that we will not make it to Erasme, but the remainder of our ride still takes us past allotments, a model railway and a new cycle section opened by the community just hours earlier. We even get to see a small slice of the Senne and some disused factories beside it. I peer dubiously into the murky waters trying to ascertain if the guide is right about the presence of fish.

Then we pass by newer grey industrial sites and finish, bedraggled, damp and tired, at the Brussels-Charleroi canal (1833), joined to the earlier Willebroek canal (1560). These days it no longer transports coal, but plenty of enormous barges still pass along it carrying something or other. I should know, I row in it, and have to contend with the waves!

I’ll try the Promenade Verte again on a crisp, Autumn day, with baguette and cheese and a bottle of red in the rucksack. Perhaps I should even get up early and attempt the full loop ….

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