Not that I was there especially, but witnessing the first European solar eclipse of the century in the Belgian city of Antwerp didn’t look promising on the morning of 20th March 2015.
It was so overcast in Antwerp’s Stadspark on the morning of the solar eclipse, I required some divine inspiration to point me in the right direction for the sun
Yet, at 10.30am local time and close to the moment of totality further up north, there was a merciful break in the Belgian clouds.
85% solar coverage in Antwerp
Belgium experienced a maximum of 85% solar coverage that morning, and although my surroundings did become noticeably chillier and a tad darker at the time (but it wasn’t very warm nor bright to begin with), it didn’t become dark enough to fool the birds on the Stadspark lake into roosting.
They’ve clearly seen it all before
In Brussels a few hours later, I was rather disappointed to find that Manneken Pis wasn’t dressed up as a moon or a Sun God or something else related to the constellatory excitement earlier.
Evidently, the anniversary of Bilbao’s Peña Athletic football club (the strip of which Manneken was wearing on the 20th March 2015) was a much rarer occasion to celebrate than a solar eclipse
Enthused by the events of the morning in Antwerp, I needed a new astronomical fix in Brussels and where else in the Belgian capital can one satisfy such a desire more aptly than at the space age Atomium.
The Atomium in Brussels looking magnificent after its multi-million Euro facelift ten years ago. It no longer resembles a wobbly Blue Peter construction of toilet rolls and flaky tin foil as I remember it on my first visit to it back in 2002 (PS this photo was actually taken on my visit in February 2014 when the weather wasn’t so overcast)
Images of the Atomium’s construction and initial reception at the Belgian World Trade Fair of 1958 – Expo 58 – which the Atomium was built especially for. It was only supposed to remain in place for six months after the fair, but proved so popular with visitors it became a permanent and much loved Belgian landmark
More images from Expo 58, including a snap of one special visitor to the Atomium in that year (top left) …
… who clearly wasn’t as impressed as everybody else by a model of the Atomium (I’m sure Ms Taylor was much more excited by the real thing)
Visitors to the Atomium today are first whisked up to the top sphere of the structure in what is said to be the fastest lift in Europe.
Looking up through the shaft of the fastest lift in Europe on ascent, and possibly the closest most of us will get to experiencing what Starbuck sees when launching a Viper in Battlestar Galactica
At just over one hundred metres above the ground, the panoramic views from the top sphere of the Atomium are stunning, even on a misty, overcast day.
Europe seen from above … well, actually it’s ‘Mini Europe’ (a collection of scaled models of European landmarks) seen from the top sphere of the Atomium. I think I can see Paris and Edinburgh from here
Leading towards Place Louis Steens and the royal park beyond seen from the top of the Atomium. Such a shame nothing resembling a collection of ten bowling pins can be seen at the end of the boulevard from here
Roi Baudouin ‘Heysel’ football stadium
Too late and too overcast for me to see the solar eclipse from the top of the Atomium on the 20th March, but I was consoled by the view of the vast collection of solar panels on the Brussels Trade Mart opposite
When visitors are ready to do so, they return to ground level via the same lift and then continue their visit up through the Atomium via a network of stairways and escalators.
A sign greeting visitors in one of the lower Atomium spheres
I particularly like the ‘prohibited’ symbols along the bottom of the sign. Don’t worry Atomium organisers, I will not stick my head into a rainbow (not whilst wearing a hat anyway)
The stairways and escalators housed in the tubes connecting the spheres are a sci-fi fan’s dream as this short video illustrates (I’m sorry, it was filmed in Portrait).
Any moment now Ming the Merciless will descend these steps
Music by Pink Floyd was played through the speakers along this escalator. Being the day of the solar eclipse, it was a shame that their track ‘Eclipse’ wasn’t used to mark the occasion
A scene reminiscent of War of the Worlds; the view out of one of the potholes lining the tube
A fabulous touch: original Atomium themed banisters
The spheres themselves host intriguing exhibitions. There is a permanent exhibition about the history of the Atomium in the lower spheres, and temporary exhibitions usually themed around architectural movements and design presented in the higher ones. On entering the Orange Dreams exhibition I thought I had walked into the props cupboard of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (and coincidentally, scenes from that very movie were being shown on a large screen as part of the exhibition).
Celebrating the Sixties’ and Seventies’ love for creating and consuming innovative new products made from innovative materials never used on such a mass scale before then
The use and versatility of plastics in the post-war era affected every aspect of people’s lives, from the clothes they wore (e.g. by Chardin), the vehicles they drove (e.g. the Vespa) …
… the furniture they bought (e.g. the Boomerang desk by Maurice Calka, 1969) …
… and the common sense they used: Peter Ghyczy’s iconic Garden Egg chair may well be smooth, may well slide and may well be beautiful (which I think it is), but is it comfortable to sit on? (I doubt it)
Although not an exhibition, the contents of one sphere in particular caught my imagination more than most. Frustratingly though, this sphere had an age restriction which prohibited me and anyone over the age of twelve entering it. The Kids’ Sphere is only open to school groups who are invited to attend scientific workshops held in the sphere during the day. The school children are then invited to spend the night sleeping in eight specially designed spherical beds that fill the sphere before being given a private tour of the Atomium first thing in the morning. I felt it was incredibly unfair that this experience was only offered to children between the ages of six and twelve. I would pay good money to try out one of those Ereo-Aarnio-style beds for the night … and I can imagine there are quite a few fans of the 1960s TV sci-fi series The Prisoner who would do the same!
The Kids Sphere at the Atomium. Entry is prohibited to Patrick McGoohan
One of Alicia Framis’s tantalising spherical beds in the Kids’ Sphere
Number Two must have gone on a tea break
Even the typography used for the Kids’ Sphere appears Prisoner-esque
… and ‘Here’ was coincidentally level six of the Atomium. Be seeing you
Getting to the Atomium by public transport is much less complicated now that some of the Brussels metro lines have been reorganised and renamed. Line 6 can be picked up from key metro stops in central Belgium bringing visitors direct to Heysel where from there it is a short walk, albeit through a car-park, to the Atomium visitors’ centre and ticket office.
The official website for the Atomium, including upcoming exhibitions and ticket prices, can be found here.