Beyond Belgian waffles, chocolate and beer, Brussels has something else to offer every other summer. If you’re lucky enough to be in Amsterdam in mid-August, your luck may extend to catching The Brussels Flower Carpet Festival on an easy day-trip to the Belgian capital. The trip is especially seamless if you go with Cherry Travel & Tours, a one-woman show headed by cheery Cherry Heung, a travel specialist from Hong Kong who welcomes international visitors, expats and locals to her weekend excursions to popular European cities and attractions.
For this trip, I met more than a dozen day-trippers at 9:30 on a Saturday morning at the Victoria Hotel across from Amsterdam Central Station. There, a private coach (with toilet!) was waiting to take us on the 2½-hour journey to Brussels. After a stop in Utrecht to pick up more people, we were on our way. Those of us who were “Cherry virgins” before this trip soon learned her excursions are as much about fostering connections as they are about visiting interesting destinations. After a briefing on the day’s activities, our enthusiastic guide—a passionate traveler herself who’s lived in many countries around the world—facilitated personal introductions by every person on the bus. Thanks to a working microphone, the intros were audible to all and served as fine ice-breakers for friendly interaction with others on the trip.
In the city, Cherry escorted us to a local bistro, where we refueled on seasonal mussels, Belgian fries and Flemish beef stew before heading to the main square for the day’s main attraction. Surrounded by camera-toting tourists like ourselves, it was easy to spot: a giant blooming carpet on the Grand-Place set against a palatial backdrop of 15th century Gothic and Baroque architecture. For four days, the UNESCO World Heritage site—touted by admirers as the most beautiful central square in the world—framed more than 600,000 begonias (300 per square meter), plus a few dahlias, all arranged in artful precision for The Brussels Flower Carpet Festival.
First created in 1971 by begonia-loving landscape architect Etienne Stautemas, flower carpets have attracted visitors to Belgium, one of the world’s leading cultivators of the hearty flower, for decades. Known for its robustness and ability to survive intense heat, wind and other inclement weather, the tuberous West Indies native is cultivated in shades ranging from delicate pastels to vivid neon hues. Since the first Brussels Flower Carpet Festival in 1986, the floral showstoppers have embraced a new theme every two years.
The blooming masterpieces are the harvest of an intense artistic process under the creative direction of Tapis de Fleurs, a non-profit association of illustrators, graphic designers and landscape architects. After carpet artists create scale projects illustrating a theme that commemorates an event, country, continent or international friendship, calculations are made and numbers established for different shades of flowers. Several days before the flower carpet is installed, a full-size drawing on micro-perforated plastic is placed on the cobblestones of the Grand-Place.
More than 100 volunteer gardeners assemble the giant floral puzzle in less than four hours. The day before opening, spaces between the motifs are filled in with sod. Packed so closely they can´t blow away, the flowers create their own microclimate that preserves their freshness, with a little irrigation help by humans, throughout the four-day festival.
In 2016, Brussels’ 20th Flower Carpet Festival celebrated 150 years of Belgo-Japanese diplomatic friendship. At its center, a red Japanese crane symbolizing good fortune and longevity hovered across a wild landscape above red and white Koi swimming among the blossoms. “The patterns and symbols of the flower carpet express happiness and peace,” said Fujie Suzuki, one of the lead designers.
For €5, you can climb to the balcony of the Town Hall for a wide-angle view. Alternatively, take your camera to the upper levels of restaurants surrounding the Grand-Place, where similar views can be had. Before leaving Brussels, arm yourself with snacks and drinks for the return journey, as August is a popular month for travel in Europe and you may face freeway gridlock, as we did. But it was a small price to pay for visiting an ephemeral floral spectacle that’s been wowing international visitors for decades. The next Brussels Flower Carpet Festival will take place in 2018.