Brussels to the Dutch Border

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Brussels to the Dutch Border

You have about 55 miles, one more hour, in Belgian territory. The road is the A1. You are driving through the provinces of Brabant and Antwerp. Once again the scenery lacks drama.

On leaving Brussels you should make sure to pass through Laeken and Heysel.

Laeken  This is a large private royal park, le Domaine Royal de Laeken. In it the Chateau Royal is the everyday (as opposed to official) residence of the royal family. The park is also famous for its amazing C19 royal greenhouses. You do not get much of a view of the park as you skirt it but you should catch a glimpse of two of the odder sights of Laeken, the Chinese Pavilion and, opposite it, the Japanese Tower.

Atonium  A familiar huge construction built for the Brussels' World's Fair of 1958. The theme of the fair was nuclear technology. The thing itself represents an atom of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. It is made up of 9 steel balls (electrons) sheathed in aluminum. Each electron is 59 feet in diameter. You get from one to another by escalator or lift. The whole thing is 335 feet high. Inside four of the electrons are exhibitions about the history of medicine, genetics, biotechnology, etc. If you wish you can stop for a photo though the Atomium doesn't quite seem to impress today as much as it must have done in 1958. The surrounding buildings of the Parc du Centenaire are used today as conference and exhibition space.

Heysel is the name of the area where the World's Fair was held. The Heysel Stadium, Belgium's national football stadium, is clearly visible from the Atomium 250 yards away. Any of the group who are interested in football will know the name of Heysel from the shameful and tragic event in 1985 when English football hooligans, Liverpool fans, caused a stand to collapse resulting in the death of 39 Juventus fans from Italy. English clubs were subsequently banned from European competition for the next 5 years.

Antwerp  Belgium's second city, 500,000 inhabitants, Flemish speaking. The motorway takes you through Antwerp's urban sprawl though you see nothing of and get no idea of its centre. It is probably not worth going into great detail about the history of the place but in a nutshell Antwerp was Europe's C16 boomtown. When Bruges died with the silting up of the Zwyn, the Hanse towns and the great Italian cities moved their commercial interests here. It is linked by the river Scheldt (you don't cross it) to the North Sea. Antwerp "owes the Scheldt to God, and everything else to the Scheldt" (Edmund de Bruyn). At the same time Portuguese merchants, the new force in world trade because of the fruits of their discoveries, chose Antwerp as their distribution centre. Today it is a major industrial city and one of the biggest ports in the world, covering over 80 miles of waterside and growing. It is also a busy and stylish city with a very attractive historic center (in spite of being badly bombed in WW II) and a vibrant life. Antwerp was designated European City of Culture in 1994. This is one of the world's prime centres for the diamond trade and diamond cutting. Interestingly, it has the largest orthodox Jewish population by proportion in Europe. Antwerp's most famous son is the painter Pieter Paul Rubens — he of the plump, fleshy women — who lived and died in this city (1577-1640).

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