Once a year, in Spring, the Royal Greenhouses adjacent to the Royal Palace in Laeken are open to the public. This time of year is the highlight of the blooming season, so the garden is at its best, replete with stunning colors and mesmerizing scents. Visitors are free to walk through the large complex of steel and glass greenhouses and marvel at the abundance of exceptional flowers and trees.
The gardens date back to the beginning of the 19th century when king Willem I ordered the creation of a vast orangery next to his palace. At the end of the 19th century, the Belgian king Leopold II commissioned architect Balat to extend the orangery and develop the Royal Greenhouses. Balat designed a complex of seven greenhouses which took 31 years to complete. The result is a real pearl of Art Nouveau.
The Greenhouses are known world-wide not only for their architecture, but also for their huge collection of tropical and subtropical plants. Over the years, the royal gardeners have assembled a large collection of very rare flowers and trees from all over the world. As the Greenhouses belong to the Royal Park, the private garden is generally closed to the public. Every year in Spring, for three weeks from mid-April to the first week of May, the greenhouses are open to the public, in compliance with the tradition introduced by Leopold II who wanted to let the public in on his glimpse of paradise.
Every greenhouse has a different theme and collection of trees or plants. Below is a description of the different pavillions and greenhouses you'll pass through during your visit.
Normally, you won't get closer to the Royal Palace than the gate that blocks the domain. The opening of the Royal Greenhouses means you'll be able to enter through the gate and -after paying the entrance fee- walk up to the Royal Palace. You'll still have to keep a distance, but this is your opportunity to take a nice shot of the Royal Palace without having the gates block your view.
Now, let's discover this glass palace! First, you'll walk past the Orangery, but as you'll go inside at the end of your visit, I'll discuss it later on.
The first hothouse you'll enter is the Theatre Greenhouse, one of the most recent greenhouses at the Royal Estate. Nowadays it is used to shelter the camellias against the cold in Winter. Camellia's were King Leopold II's favourite and Whenever he travelled, he brought back new plants for his collection.
When you exit this greenhouse, don't forget to look back for the beautiful architecture.
Walk on and on your left, you'll get a beautiful side view of the Winter Garden that you'll walk through at the end of your visit. (If you think the exterior is pretty, just wait until you see the interior!)
On your right side, you'll get a side view of the Royal Palace, next to which lies the Royal Park of Laeken. The pink blossoming cherry trees are a real eyecatcher here, but also look at the left side of the path for the huge 'naked' tree with curvy branches. It looks funny by day, but in the dark this tree must be so horrifying.
A bit futher, the wooden building on your left is Queen Elisabeth's Studio. Queen Elisabeth (1876–1965), the wife of King Albert I, had an immense interest in the arts and was a passionate violinist and sculptor. Her studio, built in 1938, has been preserved in its original condition.
When you reach the pond on your right side, make sure to pay attention to the Japanese Tower in the distance. This is actually a pagoda, inspired by a construction Leopold saw at the Paris Exposition of 1900. King Leopold II asked its architect Alexandre Marcel to build him a similar one in Laken.
Having walked around the complex, you'll be able to enter the greenhouses again from the other side. Right beyond the entrance is a beautiful gallery with glass walls, red geraniums and hanging plants. You cannot enter this gallery, but don't worry, you'll get to see way more geraniums later on. But first, check out the Palm Greenhouse with its subtropical plants such as large palm and fern trees. Pay close attention to support pillars, as they have Art Nouveau floral motifs on them.
Before entering the Azalea Greenhouse, you'll pass by a staircase that is beautifully decorated with flowers. These stairs lead to the Palm Pavilion, to which unfortunately, visitors have no access. It is in this Pavilion that king Leopold II spent most of his last remaining years, so the room has a rich historical value.
Proceed through the Azalea Greenhouse. Every year, the gardeners transform its interior into a spectacular showcase. A bust of Louis Paras, head gardener of the Royal Estate from 1921 to 1939, stands among the flowers. It was made by Queen Elisabeth in her studio.
Next, you'll pass through the 200-metre-long Great Gallery. The first part is the Geranium Gallery that houses various plant species such as geraniums and fuchsias, as well as sporting heliotrope and abutilon flowers.
Somewhere halfway is the Diana Greenhouse, containing flowering plants, palms and a dombeya bush.
When a staircase takes you downstairs, you're about to enter the Mirror Greenhouse. The most striking plant here is the imposing royal fern at its centre. A cinnamon tree grows in the corner of the staircase. This is one of my favourite places along the trail, because you're going through some kind of cool, green tunnel. The gallery’s walls are covered with a severely pruned climbing fig and oak ferns creating kind of a wild effect. Between them is a collection of elkhorn ferns.
The Great Gallery leads you to Embarcadère Greenhouse. It was here that guests invited to royal receptions would enter the greenhouse complex. The construction is composed of two rectangular sections that run parallel to one another. A copy of Donatello’s David adorns the section that looks out over the chateau grounds. Two statues stand at either end of the outermost part: Dawn and Evening by Charles van der Stappen. Medinilla plants stand in the vases brought back by Leopold II from the Far East.
The square Congo Greenhouse contains a varied collection of plants, several of which are subtropical. At the time of Leopold II, the greenhouses were meant to represent the king's colonial power in Belgian Congo. Plants originating from that country would symbolize that power.
The tropical heart of the greenhouse complex is the Winter Garden. This was the first greenhouse built for Leopold II. A metal framework of 36 rafters creates the glass dome that depicts a royal crown. 60 metres wide and 30 metres high, the Winter Garden is the largest greenhouse on the domain, which leaves enough space to plant some Congolese palm trees and other giant jungle beauties. There is also a really cool, but weird tree with hairy branches, I wonder what that is.
Just as it did from the outset, the imposing structure still serves as a location for royal receptions.
You'll exit through the Orangery, which facade you have passed at the beginning of your visit. Built in 1820, this is the oldest monument of the Royal Greenhouses. The esplanade in front of the Orangery is lined with extremely old orange trees, bay trees, rhododendrons and camellias. These plants are brought inside the Orangery for the winter, before returning outside again in spring.