Saturday, April 22, 2017

Flowering Forest of Hallerbos

Samedi, 22 avril

"Florals? For spring? Groundbreaking."

This Miranda Priestley takedown one of the most enduring lines from The Devil Wears Prada, a movie that I have seen so many times I have lost count and that gave me incredibly unrealistic standards for the amount of time and effort that employees are supposed to commit to their jobs. Which, come to think of it, is perhaps why I found myself in Flanders this weekend, having volunteered to lead a group of American Fulbrighters on a seven kilometer walk through Hallerbos.

But when your office looks like this, wouldn't you want to work on weekends too?

What we now call Hallerbos was originally part of the massive carboniferous forest known to the ancient Romans as Silva Carbonaria, which once extended from the banks of the Rhine and Moselle rivers all the way to the North Sea. The first written reference to Hallerbos came later, in 686; at the time, control of the forest was shared by the Abbey of St. Waltrudis and the count of Hainaut. King Philip IV of Spain, who held the title of count of Hainaut in the mid-17th century, was forced to sell the land, which came into the possession of the Duke of Arenberg. Reminders of this period can still be seen in the forest today, thanks to the stone markers set up to establish which part of the forest belonged to the abbey and which to the Arenberg family. The Arenbergs, who later took control of the entire forest, carefully cultivated Hallerbos as a timber forest.

Hallebos was almost entirely destroyed during World War I, when the occupying German forces took its status as a timber forest to heart and felled all of the largest trees. (Moment of silence for all the old big trees.) The forest was repopulated between 1930 and 1950, meaning that despite its ancient history, almost all of the forest's trees are between 50 and 80 years old.

Funnily enough, however, it was the near destruction of Hallerbos during World War I that turned the forest into the famous destination it is today. Wild bluebells already grew in the forest, but the combination of rich loamy soil in the ancient forest floor and the sudden replanting of thousands of beech trees in the 1930s and 1940s provided the perfect conditions for them to truly take off. And did they ever!

Though seemingly an endless sea of flowers, the bluebells that grow in Hallebos are actually extremely delicate. When trampled, whether by animals or -- as is more likely -- by overeager Instagrammers, the flowers are unable to reproduce the following year.

Volunteers at Hallerbos have responded to this problem by marking clear paths through the woods ... and they're not shy to call out tourists who break the rules!

No bluebells were harmed in the taking of these photos!

Although it was the bluebells that drew me to Hallerbos this year, just being back in the proper outdoors was enough to make the trip out to Halle more than worth it. One of things that I loved the most about Luxembourg was the ease with which we could leave the city and feel truly and properly outdoors. I remember being surprised by how much I liked hiking, and how much happier I would feel after a day spent hiking in Mullerthal, or exploring the Red Rocks Region. Getting outdoors has definitely proven more difficult in Belgium, where most proper hiking requires a day trip to the Ardennes (and a car to boot).

But after wandering through Bois de la Cambre on a sunny weekend earlier this month and traipsing through the battlefield at Waterloo last weekend, I am starting to realize that it might not be as difficult as I thought to get out of Brussels and into the great outdoors!

... and as if it could not get any more beautiful, THE SUN CAME OUT.

More than the others, I feel like these photos accurately capture how it felt to look out at a carpet of bluebells stretching as far as the eye could see. We kept joking how hard it was to fight the natural urge to frolic!

The forest of Hallerbos is open to visitors year round, but it is most popular in the spring during the Bloeiperiode, or blooming period. The best source of information about the forest and its flowering period (which can vary from year to year) is the official website.

Unsurprisingly, Hallebos is not the easiest place to access via public transit. However, on three weekends -- this year, the weekends of 15-17 April, 22-23 April, and 29-30 April -- free shuttles are available to take visitors from the train station in downtown Halle (a short 20 minute train ride from Brussels Central Station) straight to the edge of the forest. If you're coming during the peak of the bluebell blooms, it may be a good idea to get there early, as crowds can take away from the magic of the experience -- and cause you to wait in line for the bus! That said, we were in the forest on one of its busier days (thanks to the yearly Bluebell Jogging), and it was still one of the more magical things I have ever seen.

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