The crush of cars choke the roadway. The children – shoulder-to-shoulder in their carseats in the backseat compete for dominance and attention. I press my head into my hand and stare out the passenger window. My husband grips the steering wheel and leans forward, willing the vehicles to move beyond the bottleneck traffic light. The green light allows us and one other car forward before teasing the others and flashing red. We take and left and are free! Only to gaze in horror at the packed parking lots, the cars jumping curbs and grinding to a halt in the weeds along the road. “Here! We can just park here!” my husband exclaims pointing to a vacant patch of gravel. Traffic snakes past our parked car which is now teetering on the shoulder. I gaze at him in astonishment. My own monkeys are screeching behind me. I shake my head. No way. I completely underestimated the popularity of the Planckendael Zoo and thus, the impact of the attendance on a public and school holiday. The whole country is off on this beautiful Monday and everyone with kids is here. Now. I want our first experience at the zoo we’d been hoping to visit for months to be. . . a good one. I know what crowded Europe has the potential to be really crowded. Add a stroller, three already whiny kids, and my American need for at least a tiny bit of personal space, and I play my leader-of-the-pack card. Fight or flight? We flight today. We make plans to try again the following weekend – and To Get. There. Early. Lesson learned.
The following weekend’s weather was just as lovely – the sun throwing warm kisses to all the Belgians, expats, and animals below. We find a parking spot in one of the lots and I could already breathe easier. The trek from the parking lot was a bit of a hike, but not without scenery. The Planckendael Zoo is currently exhibiting a large collection of Lego sculptures – which are cast like confetti throughout the exhibits. The kids celebrate the first of many – a monarch butterfly tucked among the storks – on our way to the entrance. We hand our zoo passes to the attendees, grab maps, and are ushered into the magical world of Planckendael.
The land in which Planckendael Zoo is located has a history dating back to the 1500s. Originally the home of Michiel Coxie, an important Brabant painter considered to be one of the fathers of Flemish Romanticism. The land was improved by subsequent owners to assist in drainage problems. Planckendael Castle was built on the estate in 1780 by Hendrik Moons. In 1813 the estate was purchased by the noble family Langhe Donck and was subsequently extended to include stables and service buildings. In 1956 the land was purchased by the Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp.
The land was originally used as a respite for the Antwerp Zoo – to provide a place for animals to recover from breeding or for overflow. Although the zoo opened to the public in 1960, public interest was very moderate. In 1985, the purpose of the zoo was revamped and the land was redeveloped to include spacious animal habitats. This modern zoo compliments the Antwerp City Zoo.
After entering the zoo, a Lego polar bear mama with three cubs crawling over her greets us. My own children climb on the fence and the youngest wriggles out of his stroller for a closer look. My husband flips through the map and we discover the zoo is divided into continents – with corresponding animals being located according to origin. Already starving, we make our way towards the Asia continent for lunch at the Toepaja Restaurant.
We explore the Asia continent – tromping through indoor rainforests and through stalks of bamboo. I marvel at the authentic decor – rusted train cars, peeling posters, and crooked street signs imported from India. Tuc tucs dot the wild grasses adjacent to the walking paths. Lichen and vines snake among temple ruins from Asia. Of course, the animals were impressive as well. . . the elephants were our favorite and we climb the canopy in the trees to view them from a birds’ perspective. The day ages and the sun‘s heat beats down on the sunny enclosure. The staff throw sliced green apples at the lovely grey beasts, their long trunks stretch into the water, grabbing their treats. A burst of laughter erupts from the crowd as the elephants dip toes, trunks, and then their entire bodies into the tantalizing shimmering water.
We venture out of the Asia continent and after taking a break to build their own lego animals – we explored the Oceania continent. Kangaroos lounged in the grass, tasmanian devils hid from the sun, and emus pranced in the shade.
Around every corner, another playground, tree canopy, or underground tunnel calls to my children, proving that the infrastructure of the zoo is just as entertaining as the animals.
To view the entire zoo in one go, at 99 acres, proved to be too much for my small children (and me) but as we passed the rhinoceros on our way out, we promised the kids we’d return (but not on a public holiday – heh).
Art with Lego Bricks display runs through September 17. Click here to read about our visit to the sister location, Antwerp Zoo.