We finally ended our traveling drought and took a weekend trip to Belgium. Connor was excited, but a little confused; he kept signing and saying “bell-gym” and then “girl” because he was thinking about the two little girls in his gym class. Overall, it was a great trip! We survived rain, wind, map-reading mishaps, and a toddler who wanted to walk (or run) everywhere.
We arrived at our hotel in Brussels in the early afternoon after hitting a short stau (traffic jam), stopping for gas and one restroom break, and tackling confusing roads surrounding our hotel. Connor and I had a nap in the car, so once we checked-in, Charlie napped while Connor and I explored the hotel. Now that everyone was rested, we left for our first adventure with Rick Steves’ guide in hand.
It was a 20-minute walk to the Grand Place, which was Brussels’ market square for 1000 years. Our map didn’t have every little street labeled, so once we were close, we weren’t sure exactly how to get to the Town Hall in the Grand Place. Thinking it would be obvious, we kept following the signs, and when we reached a large, impressive-looking building, we thought we had found the Town Hall. I pulled out Rick Steves’ “Grand Place Walk” and started narrating. I was confused when the book pointed out buildings across the street or next door that I didn’t see, and finally realized we weren’t at the Town Hall! (For those of you who have been to Brussels, we were actually at the Bourse. Whoops.) We got our bearings and felt pretty silly once we actually arrived in the Grand Place. It was quite an impressive sight! It had been lightly raining since we left the hotel, but our spirits lifted as we finally experienced the heart of Brussels. A group of girls asked us to take a picture of them, so Connor found his “bell-gym girls” after all :).
Thankfully, I was able to navigate the rest of our walk without any mishaps. The rain continued, but we enjoyed a cup of hot chocolate (Connor’s first, and he approved!), bought a tin of Neuhaus chocolates, and explored the rest of the sights near the center of town: Galeries Royales St. Hubert (a large, glass-covered fancy shopping mall), a busy “restaurant row,” Church of St. Nicholas, the Bourse (stock exchange), 13th-century convent ruins, and finally the famous Manneken-Pis statue. Yes, the statue is just what it sounds like: a little boy peeing into a fountain. It’s one of the more famous tourist sights in Brussels, but it was a bit of a disappointment. I was expecting a huge statue, not one that was less than two feet tall!
The rain was coming down harder by now, and Charlie managed to navigate us back to our hotel with our sub-par map. We didn’t want to go back out or sit down at a restaurant for dinner, so I picked up Chinese food from the restaurant next door to the hotel. Yes, we ate Chinese food on our first night in Belgium and we aren’t afraid to admit it!
During our hotel breakfast, Connor enjoyed pointing out the people while eating his weight in eggs. With a 0% chance of rain and a blue sky, we were ready for the day’s adventures. We walked just a few short minutes to the metro station and took the train to Parc du Cinquantenaire. The huge arches of the park were impressive! The arches were built in 1880 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Belgian independence. Our first stop in the park was the Royal Army and Military History Museum. We spent most of our time in the aviation section, where Connor excitedly ran around yelling “Eh-PLANE! Biiiiii!” as he marveled at all of the big airplanes. I was grateful for a wide-open hangar with few other people there so that Connor could get a little energy out. Charlie enjoyed all of the planes and other military aircraft, and the highlight for me was seeing how happy my boys were!
After walking through to the opposite side of Parc du Cinquantenaire, we walked about 15 minutes to see the outside of the European Parliament building. We stopped inside the Parlamentarium, which is a free hi-tech tour of the Parliament, but decided we weren’t interested in taking the tour. Connor was starting to get sleepy, but we thought he would be excited to see the dinosaurs at the nearby Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences before he took a nap. We quickly figured out (the hard way) that the location I had marked on the map wasn’t quite accurate, and after asking for directions at a hotel and still not finding the museum, Connor had fallen asleep. (Luckily, he didn’t ask where the dinosaurs were when he woke up later!) Charlie and I decided to continue our windy walk and go on to the Musical Instrument Museum. It was a really neat museum spread among several different floors. The audio guides played musical examples as you walk near each exhibit. Connor woke up about 15 minutes into it, but he stayed pretty happy as we took turns letting him walk around while the other perused the exhibits.
On the 10th floor, we sat down in the crowded café for a much-needed late lunch. The view from the café provided a great birdseye view of Brussels. I secretly started to panic because all of Connor’s toys, snacks, etc. were in the backpack which we had to leave at the coat-check before entering the museum. Thankfully, he was content eating from our plates, with a few breaks to have one of us walk around with him. Charlie ordered a sausage and sauerkraut dish, and I chose black and white pudding with mashed potatoes and apple compote. A trip to another country just would not be complete without a menu blunder from yours truly. I knew that black and white pudding wasn’t “pudding,” but I was still caught off-guard when my plate arrived with two sausages. Charlie mentioned that the dark one might be blood sausage, but that didn’t really sink in at the moment. I must have been too hungry! I ate it, and Connor enjoyed the sausages, too. As I’m writing this blog, I looked it up online, and sure enough…blood sausage. Yum. I suppose that will help our iron count??
Refreshed after eating, we ventured back to the Grand Place to look around the shops. We bought beer, more chocolates (or, as Connor started saying, “chot-let”), and bought frites to munch on while we walked back to the hotel. (Frites are basically French fries, but they are fried twice so that they are extra-crunchy. They are probably the most popular Belgian street food, along with waffles. This was Connor’s first French fry experience, and he was happy to continue sampling!)
We walked back to the hotel, unloaded our goodies, then went back out to look around at the shops near our hotel. As soon as we told Connor that we were going to the store, he started signing “orange.” Lucky for him, we found an express grocery store where we bought an orange for Connor and bottled tea and water for Charlie. Next door was a little café with prepared foods that you could eat there or take with you. We picked up salads, soup, and sandwiches to take back to the hotel for dinner. Connor scarfed down the entire orange faster than I could cut it up for him!
After another hotel breakfast, we hopped on the train to spend the day in Bruges. After a transfer from the metro to the Belgian Rail, we settled in for a one-hour train ride. The train was full, so we ended up sitting on the floor between a second-class car and a first-class car. The first-class car was nearly empty, but we didn’t have the guts to take any of the open seats. Good thing we didn’t bother trying, because when they came through to check tickets, they kicked a few people out that didn’t have first-class tickets! I thought Connor would love the train ride, but he suddenly decided that a morning nap was more appealing.
Once we arrived in Bruges, we followed the rest of the tourists across the street and started heading towards the center of town.
After a 15-minute walk, we arrived at the Markt (Market Square). Charlie narrated Rick Steves’ “City Walk” for us. We saw the Belfort (the bell tower that has stood over the Markt since 1300), Basilica of the Holy Blood (it wasn’t open yet so we couldn’t go inside), City Hall, and walked through the basement of a hotel to see the ruins of a fort and church from 900 A.D. By this point, Connor had finally perked up and he wanted to walk or run everywhere instead of staying in the carrier with me. Rick Steves clearly didn’t have a toddler in tow when he planned his walks! We managed to enjoy several canal views, followed by a quick look inside the Church of Our Lady. All three of us were ready for a break, so we stopped at a café for lunch. Charlie had a panini while I had quiche and a salad, then we shared our first Belgian waffle. The waffle definitely lived up to all the hype!
We headed back to the Belfort so that we could climb the 366 steps for the best view of the city. The line was long when we were there in the morning, and it wasn’t any shorter at this point. Connor had fallen asleep on our way there and stayed asleep the entire looooong wait in line. That was definitely a blessing, because there was no way he would have wanted to wait in that line if he had been awake! He woke up when we were about halfway up the narrow, winding staircase. I certainly didn’t see anyone else climbing the stairs with a toddler on the front and backpack on the back!! (Did I mention that there were 366 steps??) We made it all the way up to see the carillon bells and a fantastic view of Bruges, and even survived the walk back down.
On the walk back to the hotel, we stopped at a waffle truck. This waffle was even better than the one we had earlier in Bruges! After we got settled at the hotel, I walked down the street to pick up burgers for dinner from the Brussels Grill. Poor Connor…I told him we were having meat and green beans for dinner, but the meat was too red for us to feel ok about giving to him (which seemed pretty ironic after I realized I fed him blood sausage earlier that day), and they accidentally gave me fries instead of green beans. He didn’t complain, and found enough to eat from the food we had brought with us from home.
After the best night’s sleep of the whole weekend (for me, at least!), we packed up the suitcase and had one last breakfast at the hotel. We loaded up the car, and on our way out of town, we took a detour to see the Atomium, which was the symbol of the 1958 World’s Fair. Charlie pulled over to take some pictures from the outside, and then we hit the road towards home. Connor fell asleep halfway through and didn’t wake up until we got home. Vacation is hard work!
Where should we go next?