Belgium: At the Atomium

The Atomium represents an iron atom magnified 165billion times and draws millions of tourists to Belgium each year. Travel writer Conal Healy begins a visit to the European icon in a departure lounge in London.


By Conal Healy

Aka Mick in the Middle

“GOOD morning, ladies and gentlemen, this is the 9.15 service to Brussels”.

Instinctively I turned off my mobile phone, switched off my MP3-player and reached for the seat belt . . . to discover it was missing.

The seat belt was gone!

A sensation of panic started to creep up from my throat . . . just at that moment reality kicked in – trains don’t have seat belts.

My body relaxed and I started to breathe again.

I was sitting on one of Europe’s fastest trains, the 300kmp/h Eurostar and now London’s St Pancras International train station was slowly slipping out of view. Next stop, Brussels.

The past few years have been hard on air-travelers.

There are insurance and fuel levies to be paid.

You have to arrive at the airport two hours before departure, there are at least two security checks before you reach your seat.

When you arrive at your destination there is the wait at the luggage carousel and – thanks to town planners – an hour-long trip into the centre of the nearest city. Even a one-hour flight can mean a five-hour ordeal … longer if you live in fear of deep vein thrombosis.

This is why train services across Europe are regaining popularity.

In the week when British Airways was cancelling dozens of flights from its ill-fated Terminal Five, Eurostar was running regular (half-hourly at peak times and hourly, off-peak) services to Paris, Lille, Brussels, Amsterdam and beyond.

Last year 8.26 million passengers used the trainline that goes under the English Channel.


With a travel time of 110 minutes between London and these European cities, travelers arrive with luggage in hand at a destination that’s usually close to the centre of town.


THE Belgian capital is at the crossroads in Europe. For centuries, armies of varying colours, creeds and political persuasion have passed through this part of the Continent.

The region was conquered by the Spanish, the Austrians, the Dutch, the French, the Germans and–for the past five decades–by an army of bureaucrats. Brussels is at the heart of the European Union–it’s the home of the directly-elected European Parliament, and too many of the tiers of bureaucracy that surround it.

When the people of Belgium aren’t fighting off outsiders, they love arguing with themselves.

Despite being a modern 21st century society (population 11 million) with a history dating back more than 2000 years, Belgium is a divided nation.

The population split is between the Dutch speaking Flanders (where they speak Flemish) in the north with 60 per cent of the population, and the Wallonia in the south (who speak French) with 27 percent, and there are the eastern cantons (who speak German) with 13 per cent.

Brussels, despite being technically in Flanders, is dominated by French speakers. Signs are in both French and Flemish.

It is considered bad manners to speak French to a Flemish person, and vice-versa. (This is the reason why a lot of travelers stick to English, at least initially.)

To add to the mix, there are also one million residents from the rest of Europe, Moroccans, Turks, Africans (mainly immigrants from the former Belgium Congo). Confused? Ahhh, Belgium!

BRUSSELS is compact and easy to walk around.

Napoleon decided to help future city planners by demolishing the old city walls which had been an obstacle for invading armies for some time.

In Brussels one of the many “must do” attractions is a visit to the Atomium.

Designed for the 1958 International Exhibition of Brussels, the Atomium is a structure that is “half way between sculpture and architecture, symbolising an iron atom, magnified 165 billion times” and it dominates the city skyline.

The nine large spheres are joined by tubes which comprise the Atomium.

The Atomium was not intended to survive the Brussels Exhibition of 1958.

Its popularity and success, however, ensured its place as a major landmark.


THERE is a debate among travelers about this building as a tourist attraction.

Some people, quite rightly, point out it isn’t worth the entrance price.

But on the cold spring afternoon I strolled around the huge structure, the workmen were hammering away, and I was glad to be out of the cold.

With only three-quarters of the Atomium modules open, the main desk sold me a discounted ticket.

However, I timed my arrival just as a coachload of Germans got to the only operational lift. With the high-speed lift taking just 22 people at a time, it was quite a wait. (Ahhh, Belgium.)

If you dislike the jarring effect that speedy elevators can give, avoid the Atomium.

A clear panel in the roof of the lift gives you an appreciation of the shaft that runs the centre of the structure (see below). From the top module of the Atomium you get an excellent view of the virtually flat Brussels.

The support struts to the other silver modules extend outwards giving you the impression of being in an alien spacecraft. It wasn’t hard to imagine being a Martian invader from The War of The Worlds. You can grab a meal in the top-level expensive restaurant, which was open. Or a tea at a coffee cart, on a lower level, which was closed. (Aaah, Belgium.) A wander around the top module takes 10minutes, maximum.

You can take your photos, try the pay-telescopes, admire the scenery, step around groups hogging the cooling fans…then join the queue for the lift down. (Ahhh, Belgium.) There were stairs down, but the top sections were shut (Ahhh, Belgium.)

Given you have to queue to get in, queue to get out….well, I missed my connecting bus back to the Brussels.

But as I sat on a park bench, watching the Atomium shining through bare branches in the late afternoon sun, I relaxed. I took a bar of local chocolate from my overcoat, opened it and started to eat it slowly, delighting in its richness. There was nowhere I could go for another hour, if that last bus didn’t arrive it would be a long walk or a taxi ride back to the city. Another piece of chocolate melts in my mouth, I relax and sigh . . . Ahhh, Belgium.

Atomium: The facts

■ The Atomium is 102metres (334ft) high; the spheres have a diameter of 18metres (59ft) and weight about 2400 tons.

■ The escalators installed inside the tubes of the Atomium are among the longest in Europe. The largest is 35m (1148 ft) long. They can take 3000 persons per hour.

■ The elevator speed – the fastest in Europe – is 16.4 ft/sec. It takes visitors up to the top sphere in 23 seconds and its capacity is 22 persons.

■ The stairs inside the bipods – which are 35metres (115 ft high) – have about 200 steps.

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