The palace grounds of the Castle of Laeken are on the most secure and private of the Belgian royal estates. Only three weeks a year the castle doors are open to the public to visit the exclusive Royal Greenhouses located in the garden. Our Europe Correspondent Laura Dekkers went to take a look.
The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken were commissioned by King Leopold II and designed by architect Alphonse Balat. The Royal Greenhouses were built in the spacious garden of the Castle of Laeken. Between 1874 and 1905 the various greenhouses, the connecting galleries and outbuildings were constructed in different phases. In 1895, Alphonse Balat died, and Henri Maquet and Charles Girault took over his project. King Leopold II wanted his own “Ideal Glass Palace” in an undulating landscape. King Leopold II loved his Glass Palace so much he moved into the Palm Pavilion where he died in 1909. The Royal Greenhouses are full of rare, valuable and exotic plants, some of them even belonged to Leopold II’s original collection. The opening of the Royal Greenhouses for the public is a tradition that has been carried on for over a century.
The Castle of Schonenberg in Laeken is home to King Philippe, Queen Mathilde and their four children. Also living on the Royal Domain of Laeken, but not in the castle, are King Philippe’s sister Princess Astrid and her husband, Prince Lorenz. The Royal Domain is never open to the public except during three weeks a year when a special route is created for visitors.
The Royal Greenhouses can be visited in the afternoon or in the evening. I decided to go for a visit in the evening. First stop on the route was the Castle of Laeken. The policemen held the visitors on a large distance from the castle as the King and Queen were at home. Then, the tour continued through the orangery and the Theater Greenhouse in the garden of King Philippe. The garden is 187 acres and consists of ponts, large lawns, flower parcels, trees, bushes, an Asian garden and greenhouses. Visiting the greenhouses are an exclusive opportunity to take a sneak peek in the private garden of the King as it is never open to the public. I discovered the King has a fantastic view over Brussels from his private terrace.
The tour continued inside the greenhouses. There are greenhouses full with palms, roses, azaleas, geraniums, etc. One of the special greenhouses is the Congo Greenhouse. King Leopold II wanted to plant tropical vegetation from his colony Congo, then his private property. However, the Belgian climate was too dark and too cold. Nowadays, there is a subtropic vegetation consisting of palm trees, rubber trees and ferns. The Congo Greenhouse is, since 2014, under construction, and therefore, it is currently not open to the public.
The greenhouse that is used the most is the Winter Garden. It is the first greenhouse that was commissioned by Leopold II and is the largest. The Winter Garden is used for royal receptions, and nowadays, King Philippe and Queen Mathilde also receive other guests there. Last week it was where the King and Queen hosted ambassadors. The Winter Garden was officially opened on the occasion of the engagement of Princess Stefanie with Archduke Rudolf of Austria. The Winter Garden is quite high so it is also able to have palm trees in it.
One of the most interesting things to take a look at is the atelier, built in 1938, of Queen Elisabeth next to the Azalea Greenhouse. Queen Elisabeth, wife of King Albert I, used to make sculptures of family members and people close to her there. It was her workplace with an amazing view on the huge garden. She also made a sculpture of her grandson King Albert II that is on display in her atelier.
The Royal Greenhouses are still open to the public until the 5th of May and are definitely worth a visit. A visit costs 2,50 euros and lasts around 1,5 hours. Tip: Be there on time because you will not be there alone. If you cannot make it this year, the Royal Greenhouses are open every year for around three weeks at the end of April and the beginning of May.