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A handful of gems tucked away behind Brussels Airport

By Roger Thijs, Belgium, ©February, 2008
Aircraft landing at 22R (The tower and the church are midway between runways 22R and 22L.)

Steenokkerzeel, a municipality in Vlaams-Brabant (Flemish Brabant, Belgium) has historically four centres:

Steenokkerzeel village,
Ter Ham,
Wambeek and

In the 1970s, Steenokkerzeel further absorbed the municipalities of

Melsbroek and

The western part of Steenokkerzeel and the southern part of Melsbroek have been turned into an airport zone. Actually, Brussels Airport had its main building originally in Melsbroek, north of the airport, but left it to the military and constructed the passenger building west of there in Zaventem. The cargo airport is situated in Machelen, northwest of there. The control tower is in Steenokkerzeel. All these municipalities are in Vlaanderen (Flanders), not in the Brussels Capital Area.

Main roads (national roads) crossing Steenokkerzeel from north to south:

N227 from Mechelen via Tervuren to Waterloo and
N21 linking Haacht in the east with the Brussels North railway station
   area in the west.

Map of Brussels and Steenokkerzeel

Directions to the north and to the south

In 1840, N227 replaced the old “Waalsche baan.” It is very popular as an escape route during rush hours for the eastern part of the Brussels Ring Motorway and E19 to Antwerp. For a few years now the section through the centre of Steenokkerzeel is being relieved by N227b along the fence of the airport.

Brussels is called Brussel in Dutch, Bruxelles in French, Brussele in Walloon, and Brüssel in German. (Dutch, French and German are Belgium’s official languages, allocated to specific regions.) The name of the city is derived from Old Dutch Bruocsella, meaning something like “Marshland Place.” English seems to have borrowed the name Brussels not from Dutch but from French.

The N21 (Haachtse steenweg) is an upgrade of the former “Oude Brusselsche Baen,” originally the “Keulsche Baen.” In the beginning of the 19th century, traffic from Brussels to the east was diverted to N2 which leads to Leuven, a few miles south of the N21, and since the 1970s to the E40 motorway to Liege, a few hundred metres farther south.

Wambeek is at the intersection of N21 and N227. It was created as an official municipality by the French in the third year of their revolution, but it was absorbed by Steenokkerzeel in the eighth year (1799). Wambeek was a place of veneration of the Saint Pharaildis (Sint Veerle maagd in more modern Dutch), daughter of “Theodoricus Witgerus, een machtigh Prince van Loreynen.” She is represented with a bustard (trapgans in Dutch) under her arm.

The miracle of the bustard as told by Rosweydus (in 17th-century Dutch):

The Chapel of Sint Veerle in Wambeek

En onder andere wordt daer verhaelt, hoe dat sy nu out synde, in den winter op haren acker met terwe besaeyt eene groote kudde trapganzen gevonden heeft, de welcke sy als tamme ghedierten met haren stock t'huyswaert gedreven ende in eenen stal opgesloten heeft, niet toelatende datmen eenigen van die dooden soude.
     Maer soo (ter wijle sy ter kercke was ghegaen) jemandt daar eene af gedoodt ende met syne medghesellen ghegeten hadde, ende als sy des andere daeghs willende die voghels vry laten wech gaen, gewaer wierdt dat daer eenen gebrach, heeft van een kindt verstaen wat daer af gedaen was.
     Siet een wonder werck: sy heeft de beenderen ende pluymen die daer af te vinden waren, doen vergaderen, ende den voorseyden voghel is gheheel ende levende gheworden ende sy heeft dien met de andere na syne ghewoonlijcke weyden laten gaen.

     (The long and short of this is that Saint Pharaildis revived an eaten bustard from its remnants.)

Together with Nederokkerzeel (now part of Kampenhout), Steenokkerzeel originally made up a larger area then called Ochinsala. It was bestowed by Pepin of Herstal together with “Ham” to the Abbey of Sint Truiden in the 8th century.

• 1076 Hocensele
• 1147 Hockenzela


• sala: Franconian for “place”
• ochin: different explanations in litterature:
   · diminutive of Hukkon, Hugo (Carnoy)
   · hokko, an abbreviation of Hueger, Hugbald (De Vries)
• steen: most probably referring to a stronghold or fortress.

The airport tower and the church compete for dominance of the Steenokkerzeel Sunday market.
International specialties include Moroccan food.

Both the church tower and the airport control tower are midway between the final approach to the two east-west runways.

Namegiving of runways is standardized: it is the degrees in the direction one flies divided by 10. If there are parallel runways, R stands for Right and L stands for Left.
All runways have double numbering, depending of the direction of use.
Brussels has: 25R = 07L, 25L = 07R and 20 = 02
(there are 180 degrees difference between 250 and 70 and between 200 and 20)

Since in this region winds tend to blow from the west, the 25L is mostly used for landing of passenger aircraft, while the 25R is mostly used for take-offs of all aircraft and for landings of cargo and military aircraft (since the cargo and military airports are at the north).

N227 passes under runway 25L-07R just South of Steenokkerzeel. The centre for illegal immigrants at that corner of the airport attracts protesters and frequently causes Steenokkerzeel to be mentioned in the news.

N227 and signs

Berg (now part of Kampenhout) just east of Steenokkerzeel made the news because of a major airplane crash in 1961. Casualties included the entire US Figure Skating team.

A small monument and the flags of the USA, Belgium and Kampenhout mark the spot of the
aircraft crash in Berg (Kampenhout)
at the very edge of Steenokkerzeel. The plaque reads,
“A Sabena Boeing 707 crashed here on February 15, 1961. We remember the 73 victims.”

The exact crash site location according to eyewitness reports

More information:

The roof of Ham Castle was completely removed during World War II to guarantee safe landing when descending from the east:

The Castle of Ham deprived of its original roof, and what it used to look like.

As to the streetnames around the castle, one of the inhabitans was the empress Zita of Austria I’m not sure I have found all relevant plates referring to inhabitants.

The main road to the castle is Hamdreef.

WNT gives: DREEF (I), znw. vr Mnl. dreve. Van Drijven.
1) Breede weg, geschikt om er vee langs te drijven; breede landweg …
In Belgian French (also in Northern France): drève

Other roads around refer to former inhabitants or owners of the castle, including Empress Zita of Austria, Catherine of Brandenburg, the Princes of Salm, Charles de Lannoy, Guilielmus de Coutereau, Jeanne de Maillé de la Tour Landry, Margrave de Croix d’Heuchin, and Elisabeth de Groesbeeck.

Typical for traditional local buildings is the use of brick and natural stone, often combined, as in the following examples.



For recreation, Melsbroek offers golf facilities in a very pleasant setting.

There is a wide variety of decent local eateries, starting obviously with the fritkot, offering Belgian fries with a variety of sauces and snacks.

“De gave friet” and “De Fritzak”, both on the old N227

International cuisine is offered as well.

Japanese and Italian take-away restaurants, both on the old N227

But why not combine a beer with good snacks at the Market Place?

“’t Kraainest” and “De Smulpot” at Market Place

“’t Wiel” and “Taverne De Markt” at the Market Place

“’t Kliekske” and “kaffeiklasj” (Brabantish for “bar-chat”) at the Market Place

Living in the Flemish “Green Belt” that surrounds Brussels, the people of Steenokkerzeel try to preserve local culture and language, which are threatened by French-speaking expansion from Brussels. “Dutch for non-Dutch speakers” courses are offered locally on a regular basis.

Roger Thijs

All photographs are by Roger Thijs, with the exception of a part of an old postcard.

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