by Nick Johnston
Soon in Leuven Editor
Spring is upon us, and lovers of nature have much to rejoice over. Here, we offer our readers an overview of some fine outdoor options to consider. Among the hiking and biking paths available, and easily accessible to students, perhaps one of the best-loved in Belgium is Hallerbos: the bluebell-carpeted springtime treasure of Flanders. For those seeking paths less travelled, we will recommend some others, and give wanderers somewhere to get lost - in the good way.
The blooming of the bluebells in the Hallerbos is a spectacle which occurs every spring, peaking from mid April to early May. The bloom creates a fairytale spectacle of vibrant green canopies of beech and oak trees, with a sea of blue and purple that sprawls between the trunks for acres. On the paths that crisscross the Hallerbos you can wander away from busy streets and the sound of cars, and lose yourself in the sort of tableau one might expect in an animated children’s film or romantic novel. It is precisely this charm that brings tens of thousands of visitors from across Belgium and beyond. To facilitate transport for this high traffic flow, De Lijn will be offering free shuttles to and from Halle station to the forest for the last three weekends of April.
With such high traffic, some visitors may favor quieter hikes and locales less known to the broader public. Other options featuring similar scenery are plenty. In East and West Flanders one can find forests with bluebells such as Kluisbos and Brakelbos in the Flemish Ardennes, bordering and partly extending into Wallonia. Helleketelbos is another option, featuring a restaurant and other amenities for visiting families. However, the downside to these options is that from Leuven, they are considerably further afield. While Hallerbos is a bikeable day trip for more ambitious cyclists, the provinces of East and West Flanders pose more of a challenge.
We’d be remiss not to mention Zonienwoud, south of Brussels. A source of inspiration for Auguste Rodin, Victor Hugo, and Lord Byron, this wood is a remnant of a primeval beech forest and is a recognized UNESCO world heritage site. Stretching over 10,000 acres, the Zonienwoud is often speckled with flowers in the undergrowth, frequented by equestrians, and even has a few small chapels hidden throughout. Though it lacks carpets of bluebells, the Zonienwoud is the pride of many Belgians and remains in the memories of many who wandered along its paths.
Lastly, something very close to home. Only a few minutes away is a quaint forest by the name of Sint Gertradisbos. Lying on hills, it stretches from east to west between Kesselberg and Holsbeek. North of Leuven, you can get there in about 20 minutes by bike. To enjoy the journey there, take your time and pass through the Kessel Lo park Provincial Domein, and then pass through Abdij Vlierbeek before heading north through Kesselberg to Koningstraat up a hill, and into the trees. The forest lies on a hill and stretches a few kilometers with some rural homes tucked away behind high hedges. From a map, Sint Gertrudisbos doesn’t look far, but those few kilometers make a world of difference. Keep your eyes open, feel your way around and take some wrong turns - you’ll find cherry trees, pastures with horses, an open-air theater, poppies, and a tavern where Napoleon Bonaparte once slept. If you’ve made it that far, you are well on your way to Kasteel Van Horst, the palace on the pond.
Belgium may not be famed for its forests. It may lack valleys, mountain peaks, steppe, and fjords - but that doesn’t mean there isn’t discovery to be had. Hopefully, these recommendations can whet your appetite and get you out your front door. From Hallerbos to Zonienwoud to Sint Gertrudisbos, there’s plenty to see and always more, as long as you’re willing to look! You needn’t have a big budget or even lot’s of time. Muster up your will and you’ll find a way.