Monday, April 17, 2017

Easter at the Laeken Royal Greenhouses

Dimanche, 16 avril

It is Easter Sunday and spring has sprung in Belgium! Or so they tell me. While the weather does not have any apparent plans to get any warmer (my winter coat is still in a depressingly regular rotation), the flowers are blooming, the days are getting longer, and -- as of this weekend -- the Laeken Royal Greenhouses are open.

Located on the estate of the Royal Castle of Laeken, the primary residence of the Belgian royal family, the Royal Greenhouses open to the public for several weeks in April and May as an annual spring treat for locals and tourists, who line up by the hundreds to get a glimpse of the unique flowers and plants in the historic royal collection. And what better way to spend Easter than surrounded by fancy flowers?!

The Serres Royales de Laeken or Koninklijke Serres van Laken were built by Leopold II, the second King of the Belgians. During his forty-four year reign between 1865 and 1909, Leopold II was known as the "Builder King" due to the number of public buildings he constructed across the country, including the triumphal arch in Brussels' Parc du Cinquantenaire and the Antwerpen-Centraal Railway Station.

The stunning Jardin d'Hiver, or Winter Garden, was the first of several greenhouses to be constructed on the estate. Built between 1874 and 1876, they still contain many of the massive palm trees that were part of Leopold II's collection. And that roof!


Built of steel and glass in a style considered quite groundbreaking for its time, the greenhouses were envisioned as a shining city of glass by architect Alphonse Balat. The structures marked a stylistic departure for Balat and an important step toward the Art Nouveau style that would later be developed by, among others, Balat's own apprentice, Victor Horta!

The greenhouses are home to a historic collection of trees and plants, many of which date back to the reign of Leopold II, but gardeners add a particularly colorful touch to the rooms of the Pier Greenhouse for the annual public viewings.

A quick digression. While the royal greenhouses are lovely, it's important to point out that the influence of Leopold II goes beyond impressive buildings and statues. He is most often remembered for his role in the partitioning and colonization of Africa in the late nineteenth century and, in particular, for the infamous exploitation and abuse of the Congolese people in the so-called Congo Free State. As the founder and owner of the Congo Free State, Leopold II benefited personally from the exploitation of the Congo's natural resources at the expense of the indigenous population, millions of whom were mutilated or killed during his reign. When the king was finally forced to cede personal control of the region, he went to great lengths to destroy records of his own misdoings.

It is impossible to ignore the lasting impact of Leopold II, the country's longest-reigning monarch, on the kingdom of Belgium: if you've visited the greenhouses at Laeken, passed under the triumphal arch at the Parc du Cinquantenaire, or traveled through Antwerpen-Centraal Railway Station, you know how imposing and admirable this legacy can seem. However, it is important not to allow these highlights to eclipse the darker side of the country's history.

I hope to come back to the ways in which contemporary Belgium responds to its colonial past in future blog posts (especially once the long-awaited renovations of the Museum for Central Africa are complete next June). But for now ... a couple more flowers!

A glimpse of the Japanese Tour from across the gardens.

If you want to get a peek at the Royal Greenhouses this spring, what are you waiting for? The greenhouses are only open for three weeks when the flowers are in full bloom! Tickets are inexpensive at 2.5 euro per adult, but visitors should think about arriving early to avoid crowds.


  1. So interesting! It has perked my interest in knowing more about Leopold and colonization.

  2. Merci pour ces belles images...