It certainly isn´t the prettiest or trendiest park in Brussels but there´s something about Duden Park that sets it apart from the rest.
For the uninitiated, Duden Park, in south-west Brussels, can lay claim to a number of unique selling points. It is adjacent to the highest geographical point in Brussels (Altitude Cent) and is possibly the oldest parkland in the city.
This apparently modest park is also home to one of the founding members of the Belgian football league, Union Saint Gilloise.
Each of the above certainly contributes to its attraction. But its stand out appeal is, arguably, its sheer raw beauty.
You won´t find any of the carefully manicured lawns of Tervuren park here. Nor does it boast the wonderful historical backdrop of the city´s Royal Park, surrounded, as that is, by the Royal Palace, the Belgian Parliament and numerous embassies.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
One side of Duden Park is lined with rather monotonous, high-rise apartments, the other partly overlooks the ugly industrial landscape of Forest (Vorst).
What this park offers, though, is a taste of raw park life, pre-gentrification.
First, it’s worth considering the history.
It once belonged to a rich lace merchant, Guillaume Duden who, a century ago, donated it to King Leopold II on the condition it would be turned into a public park carrying his name.
Before Brussels became the sprawling city of 19 communes that we know today much of it was covered by forest. Over generations, this was built over, leaving only Forest Soignes, or more specifically Bois de la Cambre, as the original woodland – along with Duden park, that is.
Even a cursory stroll gives you a sense of the park’s longevity, with the sheer size and age of many of its majestic trees looming like legacies from another age.
Unlike many other, prettier parks in Brussels, you´re unlikely to find well laid-out walking paths in Duden…rather just rock-laden tracks, meandering their way ever downwards to, possibly, the one thing that makes it unique.
For years, Duden has been home to Union Saint Gilloise, the much-loved football club, with Stade Joseph Marien being located to the west of the park, near its lowest point. The club´s run of 60 consecutive unbeaten matches (achieved between 1933-1935) is still a record in Belgian football.
Over the years, Union Saint Gilloise has fallen from grace somewhat and now languishes in the lower reaches of the Belgian league – it could almost be a metaphor for the park itself.
Even so, if you find yourself in this green oasis on a Sunday afternoon you might join the gaggle of ‘fans’ who, for years now, have gathered on a hillock overlooking the ground to peer through a broken fence where they are able to catch a glimpse of the football action (free of charge) taking place below.
Hard to imagine that happening at Anderlecht or Standard Liege!
Venture to the other side of the park and you will find some of the very best panoramic views of Brussels, with a particularly fantastic vista of the huge Palais de Justice from the usually overgrown steps close to where Duden joins the adjacent Parc Van Vorst.
Another appealing aspect of the park is that is something of a melting pot of nationalities – an outdoor United Nations – with its occupants ranging from members of the very large Muslim community nearby to the many elderly Belgian folk also living close by.
Brussels, of course, likes to promote itself as one of the greenest cities in Europe but its parks and gardens are sometimes well hidden. Though it is easily reached by tram or bus from the city centre, Duden could be overlooked unless you are perhaps attending a concert at the nearby Vorst National.
If so, that would be a shame.
When this country-loving writer moved to Brussels in 2001, Duden provided a very welcome relief to urban life. Having initially lived on its doorstep for six years but now residing some distance away, I am still filled with a sense of nostalgia when I drive past.
If you seek landscaped lawns, walled gardens and artificial ponds give Duden a miss. But if real park life is your bag this most certainly is the place to be.