The Brussels road system is based on three concentric ring roads. The smallest defines the inner city in a five mile, five-sided shape that gives the area its nickname ‘The Pentagon’.
The largest is the Brussels Ring, a two or three lane highway, 45 miles round, that encompasses all nineteen districts of the Brussels city region.
In between is the Great Ring, 19 miles long. We did most of our driving this time between the small and middle rings in the east of the city, in between Parc du Cinquantenaire and Parc de Bruxelles, around all the EU buildings.
From street level the impression is of mainly dead straight and very fast roads, exactly like many of the roads in the rest of the country.
Entering Brussels from the north – headed south east to the suburb Etterbeek – we drove most of the way at quite high speed on dual carriageway, through a succession of tunnels, with jinked hop off points at regular intervals. Even at 4pm we made brisk progress from one side of the city to the other.
Going the other way in the evening rush hour at first seemed like a huge mistake. Traffic was jammed solid for ages. But once passed that we hardly stopped again on the way to the awe inspiring Atomium – the 335ft tall model of an iron crystal built for the 1958 World Fair – just inside the outer ring in the north.
Coming back we’d got the hang it. The complicating factor, as in many historic cities, is the trams. They reach fearsomely high speeds, mostly on central reservations – which drivers can use if they are clear – but they do ding if you get in the way. It’s quite sweet the way they wait at traffic lights.
There are a few one way streets and some roundabouts but the defining feature is the number of level crossings. Like in the UK, you only have to stop for pedestrians if there are no traffic lights. There weren’t that many bikes or mopeds around.
We couldn’t have done without it, but the SatNav did struggle – presumably because of all the narrow streets flanked with very high buildings, but also it’s a bit out of date. There was a bit of road work going on.
Bruxellois driving culture is definitely aggressive but not bad tempered. The favourite tactic is to steam out of a side junction so fast that sitting there and taking it is an involuntary reaction. Many times I steeled myself in anticipation but could never react quickly enough.
Leaving during morning rush hour – in the snow! – we found ourselves in the thick of it on several occasions. Roundabouts are hilarious, a writhing, jostling mass of cars, jerking and inching their way forward, little or no lane discipline, but ultimately getting there quite quickly.
I cocked it up a few times, but the locals just shrugged, if anything. There was no wild gesticulating, bulging eyes, bipping or shouting.
After two visits now – the first time in the Pentagon without satnav – we look forward to the next. The problem in Brussels is not driving, it’s parking.