The Boitsfort Hippodrome is one of the quietest places in Brussels. A good place to shut your eyes.
For the time being it’s still a decommissioned racecourse that occupies a liminal space between Brussels’ southern suburbs and the city’s Forêt de Soignes. Laid out during the golden age of European horse-racing between 1880 and 1940, its three main buildings (grand tribune, small tribune, weigh-in station) were initially built in the style of late 19th century eclectic picturesque with ornate wood detailing, girders, red on white brick coursing and steeply slated roofing. Concrete modifications (staircases, the pleasing ellipse of a viewing room on the weigh-in station) were added in the 1940s.
I came here first several years ago. The buildings were overgrown and dilapidated. Graffiti and weeds lined the perimeters of the roughly two-kilometer oval course with treacherous curves down which horses once thundered at speeds of up to 60 km/h. Punters watched, themselves liminal between hope and resignation, from the tribunes and standing-room-only space on the lawn encircled by the course barriers. Winning horses (Socrates, Laocoön) stepped up for photos with cigar-puffing owners and silk-vested jockeys.
Over the past couple of years, the buildings have been renovated. The red and white courses, the angular accuracy of tribune girders are back in the business of re-creating authenticity. But the spaces remain empty. Pop-up bars, a faux shallow pool and palm trees only invade the quiet on summer evenings in woeful anticipation of the ‘five-focus’ Melting Park leisure centre due to open in 2018. Heralding its arrival, a golf academy operates on the inner lawn. The balls click quietly, marking time.
So come now. The building-site barriers are open on weekdays. Slip through, into the past, and look around. Eyes wide shut, open up the carpetbag of images floating on an autumn mist through which the sounds of dog whistlers and a golfer’s expletive percolate discreetly. And there they are: resurgent memories – real and imagined – of horses drenched in sweat, rakishly tipped hats and the slow sigh of defeat.
This was a field of dreams. For the time being, it still is.