Halfway to Paradise in Western Wallonia
In the expansive grounds of a ruined Cistercian abbey north of Mons, the self-styled ‘zoo of the future’ is one of the most ambitious tourist projects in northern Europe. Until a year ago it was known as ‘Paradisio’, and all the road signs in the neighbourhood still use that word, but then its creator decided to change its name to Pairi Daiza, which means ‘closed garden’ in Persian.
Despite the fact that it’s still at least five years from completion, this extraordinary place is Wallonia’s second most popular tourist attraction. Pairi Daiza has a bit of everything, from almost every part of the world, within its 125,000 acres of rolling parkland.
There are exotic animals, from monkeys and otters to giant tortoises and elephants. There’s a phenomenal array of birdlife, including the largest aviary in Europe with 300 species. The park contains an aquarium too, but the designers have more than a conventional zoo or safari park in mind: they want to show the essential connection between animals and plantlife. So they’ve built a giant greenhouse showcasing tropical flora and fauna, adding two sumptuous ornamental gardens from south-east Asia. The Chinese garden, based on a 2,000-year-old design, is the largest in Europe, and the Indonesian garden includes temples designed so authentically they’re used as places of worship by the local Indonesian community. In time, there’ll be sections of jungle, rainforest and savannah, and to demonstrate its commitment to the environment Pairi Daiza has set up breeding programmes for a number of endangered species.
With its gardens, parkland, lakes, and walkways, you could say it’s a little piece of Paradise in Belgium.