ForÍt de Soignes, Brussels
This story describes just the latest visit which I have enjoyed in the Forêt de Soignes, which I always assumed meant "Forest of Beeches" but now I discover is translated as "Sonian Forest" in English or "Zonienwoud" in Flemish.
Wikipedia indicates that it is the remnant of a much larger ancient forest, but was reduced in size by felling over the centuries, including the use of 22,000 oaks by Napoleon to build a fleet intended to invade England. It is now around 44 sq km, still an extensive area. Once reserved for hunting it is all now open to the public.
The first time I walked here was as a student, when I came over to Brussels for the wedding of a friend. It was a great experience all round, but I particularly remembered going out to Tervuren and walking across into the forest. I was struck by the hundreds of tall silvery grey beech tree trunks rising high above the forest floor: a really memorable landscape.
Since then I've gone back again several times, usually running rather than walking. There are always other people out enjoying the forest: walking in couples or with the dog, out on horseback, or running.
On this latest visit, in October 2008, there was bright afternoon sunshine. I'd just read an article in the Ramblers "Walk" magazine (No 20, Autumn 2008) by Peter Cairns which argued that "sunshine is the kiss of death for forest pictures" because the dancing lightbeams create "a technological barrier that, for once, cannot be overcome" by the camera.
I beg to differ. The shafts of light through the branches, the sunlight picking out fresh spring leaves against a shaded background, tall tree trunks standing out against the dark depths of a forest, the long shadows of trees stretching across the forest floor, and beams of light illuminating a path through the trees, all create striking impressions on photos just as when you're actually there. See for example some of the photos from Camperdown Park and Lucklaw Hill, near Dundee, and others from Lady Mary's Walk and The Knock at Crieff, in Scotland.
These from the Forêt de Soignes should further reinforce the argument that sunlit woodland is one of the most striking situations for photography. See the larger versions (and some extra ones) in the Gallery for this story.
Access and facilities
The forest is best reached from Brussels through the parkland of the Bois de la Cambre, created out of the original forest, which forms a wedge between the communes of Uccle and Ixelles in the south of the city. You can take a bus or tram out there, or a train to one of the suburban stations such as Boondael, Diesdelle, or Boitsfort (the STIB/MIVB public transport map, available from stations and elsewhere, is very useful to find out the easiest way to get there).
You could take a bus or train to one of the small towns on the other side of the forest and then walk back to Brussels, or vice-versa. There are shops and places to eat in each of these settlements. On one of our family visits, we walked there via St Job and Fort-Jaco, where we enjoyed a splendid Sunday lunch at the Café Marjs beside the Chaussée de Waterloo. It was just 10 minutes' walk from there into the edge of the forest.
On that occasion we picked a forest drive paved with cobbles - not ideal for a pushchair - but most of the other main drives are firm but unpaved, suitable for pushchairs and wheelchairs.
There are a few inclines as the terrain is undulating, with low hills divided by small watercourses. However the only steep sections are on narrow paths which run down to the streams between the main drives.
I also noticed a car park, just to the west of Boitsfort station, reached from the Chaussée de la Hulpe. It's near the south-east corner of the Brussels Golf Club / racecourse circuit, in the north-west corner of the forest. From here it's a short walk downhill to the attractive little lake, Etang du Fer à Cheval, where I stopped to admire the autumn colours (see below).
It can be disorientating running or walking through a dense forest like this, but fortunately the drives and even the narrower paths are all named with signs at most of the junctions. The names are also shown on the Michelin map which I was using (having photocopied the relevant section as it's an enormous map when unfolded!), except for the drive which I found was the most convenient when entering from the Bois de la Cambre. This is the Dreve de Boendael.
An attractive route via Bois de la Cambre and the Dreve de Boendael
The Bois de la Cambre begins at the southern end of the Av Louise, the busy highway which runs southwest from the Place Louise near the Palais de Justice in central Brussels. This connects with the Av Franklin Roosevelt skirting the eastern side of the park, whilst the Chaussée de Waterloo follows the western boundary. In between, a stretched figure-of-eight road winds through the woods, enclosing the central spaces with open parkland and trees and, inside the southern loop, a lake. There are plenty of paths cutting through the park, but with all the curving roads and paths it can take several visits to become familiar with the layout.
I entered from the Chaussée de Waterloo in the north-west corner, and after crossing the Av de Diane (one section of the figure-of-eight, busy on a weekday afternoon) turned south along a succession of paths. There's a grassy valley cutting across the park, with a path winding round, down and up again. On this visit it was under reconstruction - there always seems to be some section of path being rebuilt.
I crossed the middle connecting section of the figure-of-eight road, which is closed to traffic, and headed down towards the banks of the lake. It was a pleasantly warm afternoon in early October, and quite a few people were taking advantage of the weather to sit and relax in the sunshine. The path round the western side of the lake was closed because a new building was being erected there, so I went straight down the eastern side and then up the grassy slope leading up to the Av de Boitsfort - the lower curve of the figure-of-eight. Crossing this carefully, I found one of the paths which bend and dip and climb through the trees before emerging at the busy Chaussée de la Hulpe. It runs east-west, dividing the Bois de la Cambre from the Forêt de Soignes.
There are traffic lights here to allow pedestrians to cross into the forest, and on the other side is the start of the Drève de Boendael. It runs due south into the forest, crossing a couple of the east-west drives before bending right to run around the western end of the racetrack which encloses the Brussels Golf Club. After passing alongside what looks like an abandoned section of the racetrack it crosses the Drève du Caporal, with tall beech trees above the junction, then continues to a T-junction with the Drève des Enfant Noyés. These are all wide forest drives, maybe 3-5 metres, solid underfoot.
I wanted to go further south into the beechwoods and found a narrow path which led down a slippery bank to the stream in a little valley, before climbing up the other side to the Chemin du Fer à Cheval. I'd been along this track before, and thought it was translated as "horse railway" to indicate it was for use by riders. However I mentioned it to my sister, and she said it meant "horseshoe way", because of its curved shape. That's the significance of "du" rather than "de".
The Dreve de l'Infante cuts across the loop in the Chemin du Fer à Cheval and continues to the Chemin des Deux Montagnes, deep in the beech forest. I turned left (north-east) along this. It was a great section of forest road with magnificent trees all around. At the end of a long straight I could see a railway bridge ahead and a group of children nearby with a couple of women supervising them. They were making for a playpark next to the track on the left, and I ran through this to find a path on the other side. This was narrow but well-maintained, the Sentier du Martin pêcheur. It bent right then left before passing on the south side of a little lake - the Etang des Enfant Noyés.
Just beyond, it reached a surfaced road near another lake, the Etang du Fer à Cheval which was also horseshoe-shaped! A young woman was sitting on the bank, leaning on a tree basking in the sunshine, and 3 or 4 other people were walking around. A footbridge led across the narrow neck of the lake to the peninsula separating the two halves. I stopped here to enjoy the view: a curtain of orange and gold folliage cloaked the bank on the other side of the lake, reflected in the water. I started on the surfaced road leading up towards the car park near the racecourse (mentioned above), noticing the brilliant sunshine cutting through the trees up the slope on the left. Then I turned onto the Sentier du Bocq which ran alongside the stream then met the Drève de l'Infante. I turned right up this, left along the Dreve des Enfants Noyés, and right onto the Drève de Boendael once again.
From there I retraced my steps. However, you could easily continue along the Drève des Enfants Noyés to the next junction with the Chemin du Reservoir, which also runs north back to the Bois de la Cambre. It goes past a tennis club and becomes a surfaced roadway.
The route above is just one of numerous possibilities, suitable for a couple of hours' walk. The description doesn't really do it justice - next time you're in Brussels, go and see for yourself!
Contributed by Andrew Llanwarne - November 2008< Back to Belgium page for links to other stories
GalleryView a gallery of further images for this story.