Have you ever hatched a holiday plan that sounded fantastic but turned out to be a really terrible idea?
Well, our holiday trip to Brussels in the camper van was one of those moments. Holiday craziness took over from rational thinking.
I’d read that Brussels was a spectacularly unfriendly place for motor homes but still thought we could find a clever way of ‘doing the city’ in the van.
Camper van hell
Brussels is a very busy capital city with its mix of European Union bureaucrats, tourists and hard-working locals. It’s also a major transport cross-roads where all routes seem to converge.
As a result, it’s a strong contender for the title of ‘most congested city in Europe’. Worse than Rome. More clogged-up than London and busier than Paris on a bad day.
So why venture into the city in a motor home? Laziness and convenience, I guess. I thought we’d save time and hassle by heading to the city centre and by-passing a long ride into town by public transport.
The alternative was to park a very long way out-of-town and travel in by bus and tram, wasting hours of time.
As we drove into Brussels, the traffic got busier and busier. Eventually we came to a complete standstill in a tangled jam of cars, lorries and white vans which barely moved . We should’ve turned back there and then.
Waiting in the traffic we kept up our spirits by planning an action-packed itinerary full of museums, galleries, beer drinking and tours of Tintin territory.
I was delighted to discover that our Camperstop Guide book had listings for motor home parking in the city centre, although the small print did warn us that overnight stays were forbidden. We set the GPS to navigate to the recommended car parks.
It wasn’t long before we realised our mistake. After being stuck in another huge traffic queue which crawled along for nearly an hour, we were no further forward. It was nearly lunchtime and we were way behind schedule.
After long delays, we arrived at our destination – a car park with camper van spaces near the Royal Palace.
Unfortunately, the police had commandeered the car park and it was surrounded by yellow tape to stop anyone parking. Lesson number one – never assume you’ll find a parking spot close to the city centre.
Not to be defeated, we tried another recommended car park. This one was now a construction site where an office development was springing up. So far, so bad…
Driving in circles
Things were looking dodgy as we drove in ever decreasing circles looking for a parking space big enough for the truck. As time ticked by, we hit another horrendous traffic jam into the city centre. And it wasn’t even rush hour!
A detour down a side-street, as a result of road works and diversions, started the alarm bells ringing. As the streets got narrower and more congested, the camper van squeezed through at snail’s pace with barely a millimetre to spare on each side.
“Which idiot thought this was a good idea?”, shouted Tony who was getting angrier by the minute. “It was both of us,”, I replied as his temper flared up and the language became unprintable.
After another diversion and GPS meltdown, we got stuck in the neighbourhood of Ixelles – where a series of one-way streets went round in a perpetual loop. It was also white van delivery territory with vehicles blocking every inch of road space.
It took another 30 minutes before we could escape but further blockages lay ahead. Finally, red-faced Tony decided on a change of plan. We would abandon the plan and drive miles out of the city centre to look for parking.
After half an hour of driving, the GPS took us to a large car park on the far side of the city near the Heysel Stadium.
Imagine my surprise when I spotted the iconic symbol of the city, the Atomium, out of the corner of the car mirror . Yes, we had arrived at Brussels’ exhibition and conference parking centre!
To be honest, I’ve never been so pleased to see a car park. After parking up, the air of grumpiness continued as we caught the nearby tram into the city, a journey of 30 minutes. At least it was completely relaxing and lacking in traffic stress.
Lesson two – always start with the easiest parking option in a busy capital city, even if it involves multiple tram and underground journeys!
After a bad-tempered start to the day, finally we hit the streets of Brussels and our frayed tempers disappeared as we visited a fabulous Belgian chocolatier. The amazing healing powers of chocolate!
A trip to the city’s museums and galleries also restored our spirits – and by the time we hit the fabulous Grand Place for a Belgian beer in the late afternoon, we’d forgotten the trails and tribulations of the traffic (almost).
OK, I admit that it was a dumb idea to take the camper van into Brussels city centre. Even madder than driving our previous motor home into the crowded streets of historic Prague. That was an accident incidentally – the GPS hadn’t been working!
But Brussels should learn from other European cities like Berlin, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Copenhagen which provide city camping and parking for motor homes close to their centres.
There are no overnight motor home sites within easy reach of Brussels – and directions to parking for RVs are non-existent. You have to drive miles out to towns like Lier and Antwerp to find a place to stay.
Fortunately, we managed to spend the night with our lovely friends who live in Overijse, 40 minutes drive from Brussels. But even that driving experience was like running the gauntlet with huge jams and traffic congestion day and night.
To be frank, Brussels should put up signs on its city limits saying ‘Camper Vans NOT welcome’. Given that our truck is the size of delivery van and not a massive RV, it seems a little harsh to be so biased against visitors in smaller motor homes.
Even London has parking for vans at Abbey Wood and further out in the Lee Valley whilst the O2 Arena had good motorhome parking and it’s close to the Tube.
Brussels should think creatively about motor homes rather than having a blanket ‘no go’ attitude. Nearby Antwerp is a case in point. It has a good quality city centre motor home site at Vogelzang park, a short tram ride from the historic quarter. Even Bruges has decent quality van sites within easy cycling distance from the centre.
Perhaps a well-designed, overnight site near the Atomium would be the ideal solution?
Until then, the camper van will be staying away from Brussels and we’ll be visiting the city by plane or train. Brussels is a fascinating city but it’s no wonder Tintin and Snowy never travelled by camper van!
Tammy’s guide to Brussels
Stay out of the city centre if you’re in a car, motor home or camper van. Don’t even think about getting close to the Brussels’ conurbation which is hugely congested.
There are some great attractions to visit in Brussels as well as fabulous architecture to soak up. If you’re on a short vacation, head for the spectacular Grand Place for a historic tour of the square’s architecture. Enjoy an authentic Belgian beer in one of the many cafes.
Art lovers can enjoy the city’s excellent galleries including the Magritte museum, the Comic Strip Museum and the extensive collection of the Fine Art Museum.
The fabulous Horta House, a must for lovers of Art Nouveau, with its fin de siecle architecture and ornate interiors.
The best place to park if you’re in a car or camper van is the Atominum on the far outskirts of the city where there are fast tram and metro services to the city centre. The journey takes around 35 minutes.
There are also small RV camping areas at Oudenaarde and Overijse, quite some distance away from Brussels, if you’re stopping overnight on your way out of the city. They are not hugely practical for regular trips in and out of Brussels by public transport.
Transport in Brussels city centre is excellent by tram or underground services.