Sometimes, and I am putting it mildly here, all is not as it should be. It all started on the way to the airport, at quarter past four in the morning, when I realised I have forgotten my wedding ring at home on the dresser and it was too late to ask the taxi driver to turn around and go get it. No, actually it started two days earlier when, in the middle of half-term, one of the people working on (not)renovating the road outside our home (it’s been going on since August with no end in sight) had cut the phone wires and left the whole street without phone or internet (and without telling anyone). No, actually it started four days before that when Yon got his first report card which was, how do I put politely, unrelated to his abilities or achievements. No actually it all started ten days before that when we went on a two weeks detox regime of no sugar, no gluten and no dairy. We ended up eating lots of tofu with spinach, peppers and zucchini, and alternating between cucumber water and coconut milk.
On day 13 of the detox-horror and after setting a meeting with Yon’s teacher and being promised internet the next Monday, we packed our bags and ran away form the no-internet (and no-food) zone to Brussels, with one goal in mind – to consume as much chocolate (and Belgian waffles. We are flexible like that) as we possibly can. Museums, sight-seeing, and shopping were all secondary targets left for “if we have the time between chocolate munching”. I have to give it to us, we made it all the way through the airport without buying anything. It was, after all, 8am and even we have our limits (granted, they are vaguer than most) but mostly we had our Valentine’s chocolate that was intended to be the first chocolate we eat on the holiday. We ate it on the train ride to the hotel. It was, after all, 8:15.
We’ve been meaning to get to Brussels for a while now, mostly because it’s one of the cheapest flight destinations out of Berlin, but also because we are city-people and so we are also city-travellers. I know lots of people like to take the kids to “see nature” when they are on holiday, but personally it drives me nuts whenever I start researching a new country – sleep outside the city, take the kids to the farm, have the kids run around in the open fields, and my absolute favourite – yes, of course this city has loads to offer kids, it has parks. If I wanted to go to the park (which I never do) I would go to the one 5 minutes from my house (or to my own back yard for that matters). I wouldn’t wake up at 3:30am and forget my wedding ring. For me, nature is best kept to other people’s Instagram feed. I like cities, I like walking in the city, I like feeling the history, I like the concrete and the cafes and mostly the atmosphere you can only get in a city. And out of those, I am a sucker for “Old Europe”, I guess with so many years of Art-History studies under my belt I have to be, but it never cease to amaze me the feeling of walking inside a piece of history that up to that moment I only saw in books and films and my imagination, so it is my aim to visit as much as I can from it and make the kids fall in love with it too.
It’s a funny place Brussels, I am not sure exactly what I was expecting but it wasn’t that. We spent most of the time walking around the centre of the city, and more than anything, Brussels made me sad. On the one hand it is a beautiful city, filled with amazing buildings and brimming with life. It was great to see all the international brands we like next to local ones, for me it says we are open to the world but we are also proud of our country, and it felt open and right; everyone we talked to spoke English (and French, and Dutch, and German), and people were very friendly and helpful, more than once they volunteered to help us when we looked lost. And when they talk to you they like to touch you, just to make sure you understand. On the other hand, everywhere we went, when we looked just a tiny bit under the surface, there were poverty and homelessness and youth-gangs. It is surprising and sad and mostly heart breaking to see the hopelessness and neglect spreading around the city. Walking around I couldn’t escape the feeling that it is fading. Since I am also a geek at heart (and because the kids latest craze is the theme-songs from the Hobbit) it made me think of the way Tolkien described Gondor. Everywhere we walked we could see it for what it used to be, and for what it is today, and what it could (or maybe should) be, and unlike in the book, the gap between all of them seemed too wide to ever bridge.
Except in one regard that is.
Which is, coincidently, our main point of interest (or the reason to live. You choose).
I have to be honest here and say that though we tried our best, we failed miserably in our quest. We did not consume our bodily weight in chocolate. We did not taste a bit from every chocolate maker we passed along the way. We did not discover how much chocolate is too much chocolate. We do not have an answer as to what is the best chocolate in Belgium. We did learn, however, why Belgian chocolate is the best in the world (they don’t add any vegetable fat to the chocolate. It’s pure cocoa butter), that comics is hard work (but that it is also timeless. Kids are now crazy for Lucky Luke), and that you can take the kids to all the expensive or educational or cultural adventures you want, they will still finish the trip with “and my best part was the swimming pool in the hotel” (on the other hand, it was better than their other choice which was seeing the soldiers patrolling around town).
All the details, if you’re heading to Brussels –
We flew easyJet, because when you get four return tickets for a 100 Euros it’s really a no brainer (we only take three cabin sized suitcases and one bag, so no extra pay for luggage, we get the speedy-boarding at no extra cost because of Yon’s disability and our rule is for flights less than two hours we don’t pay extra to book seats. We figured the worst that could happen is someone else will have to sit next to Yon the whole time and listen to him talk Minecraft. Luckily for all the other passengers on our flights, to this day, it never happened. The 2 hours rule is because that’s what all my claustrophobia and fear of flying can handle, after that I have to sit in the front where I don’t feel the plane closing in on me).
We stayed at the Sheraton close to the Brussels Nord station. We booked it for a ridiculous price of 58 Euros a night for a family room through Hotwire. The location is fine – a short walk to the centre of town, a shopping mall (with free wifi) right next to the hotel, close to the train station and not in a scary neighbourhood. The rooms are nice enough, though for the life of me I cannot understand who decided to put the kettle in the bathroom, and the main attraction as far as the kids were concerned was that the hotel has a swimming pool on the 30th floor (which has freezing cold water and no lifeguard). BUT, they seem to think that over-charging is an art form – 62.5 Euros for breakfast for 4 per day(!), 15 Euros for 24 hours of internet in the room (you can get a cheep 5 euros deal, but you can’t Skype, stream or watch YouTube on that one) for only 3(!) devices, 15 Euros for a movie on a TV that has no freeview channels… As it was, we were expected to spend more on extras (which let’s be honest, are quite basic) than the room price per night. We somehow resisted the urge, and only paid for one breakfast (the kids love hotel breakfast) and the internet. It ended up being a reasonably priced hotel, but not a bargain and not a chain we will ever use again.
We mostly walked, and only used public transportation – the train from the airport to the hotel cost about 8 Euros per person (kids under 12 do not pay), and was easy enough to find and buy a ticket to (we bought at the information station on the way into town and in the machines on the way back. Same prices, less queue). The Metro is not very difficult to master, it’s just that it is not really clear from what age kids should pay, and Ron & I got stuck inside the entryway because of that. You get the tickets at the machines and just scan them to pass through the doors in and out of the station. There are a few options and more complicated tickets to buy, but since we spent most of the days mostly walking (to offset all the chocolate, and because it’s much more fun and interesting) and only used the Metro on one day, it made sense to stay with the one-way ticket the machine sells you.
We took one day to visit Brugge, which is about an hour from Brussels on the train. We bought the tickets in advance on the BelgianRail website and used their 50% off on weekends rides offer, so the ticket cost 15 Euros per person, return. On the way out of the station in Brugge there is the information stands, where you pick up your map and just follow the masses. Brugge is most definitely one of the most beautiful places I have seen, and it’s a wonderful place for one-day tourism. Just take into account two things – everyone thinks that, so it is massively full of people, especially on the weekends, and it is excruciatingly pricey (50 Euros for a half hour carriage ride is one example). We had lousy weather (grey for most of it and rainy from lunchtime onwards), got a late start (everyone was tired from too much time in the pool the evening before), were stingy and wouldn’t do the boat or carriage rides, and had a bit of a difference of opinion as to who should lead the family which took a few hours to resolve, and we still had an amazing time there (and they have chocolate makers of their own. Which we tasted of course).
We went to the 3D World, Magic and Fun exhibition where we took tons of silly photos; The Magrit Museum which was our first ever real museum with the kids (at least since the debacle of 2012 where we went to Buckingham Palace and Yon almost broke one of the statues) and turned out to be a massive success with kids, apparently (unlike their mum) they are modern-art lovers (and because you now enter through the main entrance of the museum complex so they can do security checks, we ended up buying the full ticket and going through the Old Masters rooms as well); The cocoa and chocolate museum which is small but well done plus there is a chocolate tasting station and a demonstration (in French) of chocolate making (with more tasting); The Comics Museum which is really great and also showed the kids how much work goes into one strip of comics. It also got them into all the Belgian comics that we loved growing up; The Atomium which is kind of a must, and you can totally understand why when you’re there (unfortunately the Mini-Europe was closed so we couldn’t go in, but it looks amazing from above); We found the Manneken Pis, which was a bit disappointing for the kids as it is tiny and there were loads of people around.
Free Wifi is very popular, especially in the centre of town, and you can also buy a hotspot subscription for an hour, a day or five days. It works quite well, but for various reasons we mostly went without internet this trip.
Google maps works excellently in Brussels, also in offline mode. The only problem for me was the lack of direction when you open it through the app, so because most streets are one-way I used the direction of the oncoming traffic to figure out if we’re heading in the wrong direction (which we usually are). You can also use Citymapper, which I normally love, but doesn’t do as well without internet.
For food we mostly do easy street food, especially in a city like Brussels, so I don’t have any fancy restaurants recommendations. We spent way too much on food this time, a combination of tourist-restaurants, the hotel breakfast, a frightening amount of chocolate and waffles, and Starbucks (before I get judged, they had this Pistachio-Rose Latte that was to die for). My few recommendation are the waffine at the Waffle Factory (Rue du Lombard, 30 1000, very close to the Menneken Pis, so a good place to regroup after the disappointment). It is a chocolate stuffed waffle. Need I say more? Also, Leonidas was my favourite chocolate (there are shops everywhere, but my favourite was in Galerie du Roi 24-26), the chips at the Belgian Frites – Papy are really good and not overly expensive (Rue de la Madeleine 1, 1000 Brussels, Belgium), and sandwicheries are all the rage so you can find one everywhere (though we were not huge fans. Non of them is as good as Pret).
This trip we bought the kids their own camera and designated travel journals (it’s a real thing, at least in Berlin) and every evening while we were eating picnic-dinner on the floor of the hotel room we watched all the photos (and videos, my kids it seems live inside a YouTube video) we all took and discuss our day, and then they wrote in their journals. It sounds weird (and boring, and not holidayish), but they really gotten into it, and even made me do the whole thing again after we got back to Berlin so they could finish the last day.