In Japan, there is a practice of shinrin-yoku or forest-bathing, which is a leisurely walk in the forest to reduce stress and improve one’s well-being. It’s like aromatherapy, but instead of inhaling a blended oil, you inhale the natural scents of the forest. But what if you forest-bathed surrounded by millions of bluebells? It’s something that you can experience every spring as the wild hyacinth bluebells turn the Hallerbos, a forest in the municipality of Halle, 30 minutes south of Brussels, into a blue colored, intensely perfumed fantasy.
Bluebells have a delicate scent of green leaves, cloves and lemony roses, but when all of the flowers burst into bloom, the fragrance in the air is rich and heady. Imagine the fragrance of hyacinths at your local florist, dilute it with green tea and rainwater, add a dash of autumnal leaves, and you have the perfume of the Bluebell Forest.
The Hallerbos in Flemish, or Bois de Halle in French, is a nature preserve and one of Belgium’s best kept secrets; it’s worth coming to Brussels in the springtime for a visit. Access is free of charge, and in exchange, visitors simply have to abide by the rules–not to wander off the marked paths and not to pick flowers.
Our enjoyment of the Hallerbos today is due to the perseverance of people and nature. The forest was destroyed during the First World War–Belgium was the first country to be occupied and much of the heavy fighting took place on its soil. Between the 1930s and 1950s, major replanting efforts took place reintroducing the native beech and oak trees. The wild flowers, on the other hand, have regenerated on their own, surging forth with nature’s powerful message of memento vivere, “remember to live.”
In the early spring before the forest canopy is covered with leaves, sunlight pours through the branches and turns the pale blue of flowers into a vivid bluish purple. If you select the right weekend, the bluebell carpet spreads as far as the eye can see, circling around the slender trees, running into the valleys and massing around the creeks. Up close the flowers look slender and exquisitely delicate; from a distance, they form a blue haze that gives the forest a fairy tale quality.
After wandering the narrow paths of the Hallerbos, I return home feeling rejuvenated and refreshed. The blooming season for bluebells is fleeting, and we usually enjoy it for only a couple of weekends before the forest dons its usual plush green coat and wipes out all traces of blue. The memory of bluebells, however, is enough to sustain me until next spring.
Of course, for a great forest bathing experience, you don’t need bluebells. You just need an enclave of nature and some time during which you promise yourself to empty your mind of all worries. This is one instance when I encourage you to forgo perfume completely, because even in a city park, you’ll find enough interesting scents–leaves, bark, flowers and wet soil. Nature is still the best perfumer of all.
*The Hallerbos can be reached by public transport: TEC bus 115A travels between Halle and Braine l’Alleud, and your stop of choice is Vlasmarkt. Take Vlasmarktdreef into the forest. Otherwise, it’s a 20-30 minute car ride from Brussels. You can obtain information about Halle by consulting the website or by calling the tourist office at (32) 02 356 42 59. The usual blooming times are between late April and early May, but this year, the bluebells are two weeks ahead of schedule.
I would love to hear of any parks or nature preserves in your area!
Photography by Bois de Jasmin