Belgium, that country Americans only associate with waffles and other Europeans, a fountain of a peeing little boy. Even though Brussels, the country’s capital, is also home to the capital of the European Union, it doesn’t get much play on being a popular tourist town. I don’t often hear “I’ve dreamed of visiting Brussels my whole life!” But trust me, if you haven’t, you are missing out!
Our first year in Germany we lived 2 hours by car from Brussels. The city’s beautify and proximity to our new home made it our go to “let’s get out of town” weekend destination, much to the disbelief of our German friends who thought we were crazy to drive some where so far away just for the weekend. One of the cultural difference between Germans and Americans, our perception of how far is too far to drive and how long even “short” get-a-ways are. Our first trip to Brussels we did in just one day. I had moved to Germany 2 weeks prior and I was bursting at the seams to explore and see other countries now that we were there and everything was “so close.” We literally woke up that morning, in the snow, and decided that since it was the weekend and my husband actually had the day off, we needed to go somewhere.
A friend of ours, who had met up with us from her travels in Italy, mentioned a really old Belgium brewery that she wanted to see in Brussels. It is the oldest continuously family operated brewery in Belgium, over a 100 years. The name of the brewery is Cantillon. So, off to Brussels we went. To be sure we got there before they closed, we went to the brewery first. At the time, my oldest son was just 22 months old and my other son was just 2 months old! The brewery was charming, not very big, but just what I had expected in my mind when I imagined a quaint family owned European brewery. At the end of the tour you got a sample of their beer, which is actually bottled in glass bottles that look more like champagne than beer bottles. It is also more of a fruity beer too, which was wonderful for a person like myself who isn’t as fond of beer as I am wine. While all three of us adults were starting to enjoy our free refreshment, my little toddler started reaching up towards our glasses and indicating that he wanted some. Apparently the server noticed this before I did as by time I figured out what my son wanted and started to tell him “no you can’t ha…..” the server had already poured him a small glass and then held it up to his mouth so he could take a drink! I was shocked. Not so much in the fact that my toddler just took his first sip of alcohol, but because someone just gave it to him without asking. It was definitely one of those things that would have never happened in the U.S. The server just smiled at him then set the glass down on the table as to indicate that we could then do what we wanted with it. My little guy of course wanted some more of the “juice” as it was rather sweet. I looked at my husband and we agreed we would let him have one more sip. I’ve always maintained a bit of the attitude that if you don’t make a big deal out of things you don’t want your kids to have they will be less likely to want them. So after his second little sip we gave it back to the server, thanked him, and told him we were done with it. All I could think the rest of the day was “Welcome to Europe Heather. We’re not in Kansas anymore!”
After our tour of the brewery we headed into the city center. Even with the gloomy and snowy January weather with the sun barely cracking threw, I almost lost my breath when we entered the square. The Grand Place (or Grote-Markt in Dutch) lives up to it’s name. We were surrounded by tall, detailed buildings, some painted with gold accents, with the clock tower of the Town Hall building reigning supreme over the square. It was what I imaged the rest of Europe to be like, each street doused with palace like building facades. However wrong I was about all of Europe looking this way, in Brussels, you can walk through the square and feel like you are royalty and that this is your private court yard and the hustle and bustle around you are simply your courtiers carrying about the business of the land on your behalf.
Of course to make the city center even better, as you wander the little alleys that shoot off in all different directions, you encounter tempting chocolate shops and the ever popular waffles! Restaurants galor also occupy the surrounding streets around the Grand-Place. Brussels is also famous for mussels and traditional restaurant food is described as “French quality with German portions!” We came across what looked like a more traditional French restaurant and decided to stop there for lunch. I was looking forward to trying out my rusty French since my German was non-existent at the time. Belgium has three official languages: French, Dutch, and German. Of course many people also speak English. We had a nice meal in a crammed booth, but were excited to get in given the size of our party (5 is considered large, especially with a stroller to tuck away). But we managed and my oldest son even got his own dish of “frites.”
We wondered back to the town center for dessert, we HAD to get a waffle! Somehow you are supposed to eat all the piled high yumminess that is a Belgium waffle with an itsy bitsy tiny fork. I was willing to try, despite my Celiac and the risk of being sick for the next few days, I took the plunge right into the whip cream and ate the waffle. I did of course share with my older son. We lingered about the square as we finished our waffles before breaking out the map and seeing what else was near by.
I noticed the royal palace with a park that looked within walking distance so we headed that direction. The snowy park wasn’t exactly covered enough for a beautiful winter wonderland, but it provided enough sliding fun for my toddler with the palace providing a regal backdrop. As we were approaching the end of the day, and the temperature was starting to drop, we headed back. Had we ventured just a little further away from the palace, we would have found a nice playground, which we did visit on our next trip. We also did not make it over to The Atomium, from 1958 when Brussels hosted the World’s Fair. Paris got the Eiffel Tower, Seattle got the Space Needle, Brussels got The Atomium. While it is a tourist draw, we drove by it and sadly it seem like Seattle and Paris got the better deal for long term landmarks. There is so much more to explore in Brussels than we were able to do in all of our trips. Mostly because each time we go we get mesmerized by the city center and just want to hang out in the beautiful scenery and chocolate shops. By far the best times to go is in August when they have the annual Flower Carpet in August, and in December for the Christmas markets.
(This trip was from January 2010)