I promised fun stuff and pretty pictures and I am a woman of my word.
The problem was: how do you make Christmas feel like Christmas when you have no local family or Christmas Day-level friends? When all your other Christmases have involved heat and humidity, pavlova and beach cricket? When you’ve turned the lives of your children upside-down and you’re really hoping they don’t hate you for it?
You ask Uncle Google, that’s what you do.
Christmas markets, said Uncle Google. Find a lovely Christmas market with ice skating and mulled wine and roast chestnuts and fireworks, and go there. Yes, I thought. If we can’t have a Christmas like we’re used to we’ll have one like we’ve been seeing on Christmas cards since we were knee-high to a grasshopper.
There were many options. Prague has a Christmas market
and after many, many happy hours on the internet I decided on Brussels.
Mostly I chose Brussels because its market continued until New Year. We couldn’t go until after Christmas because the high school made the kids sit exams right up until December 23rd just so that their parents couldn’t take them out early to get better holiday deals. But that was okay because Brussels sounded fine.
It was more than fine. It was awesome.
Belgium is famous for chocolate so we did that.
It’s also famous for waffles so we did that too.
Belgium is the birthplace of Tintin
and the Smurfs (or ‘Strumpfs’, in the original)
Then we had some more waffles
and went to the Atomium. The Atomium was built for the 1958 World’s Fair. It’s now an aviation museum. It is 102 metres tall and is made of 9 spheres to look like an atom. In 2013 CNN named it Europe’s most bizarre building.
Inside you can travel between the spheres, learn about Belgian aeronautics history and even have a sleepover in these little pod things they use for school trips:
and, of course, you can admire the view from the top.
Next on the list was the Harry Potter exhibition. It had real props and costumes from the movies and it was wonderful.
There was ice skating as advertised. I was just about to get kick-ass good when we had to go home, but I was the one taking the photos so you’ll just have to take my word for my mad skating skillz.
The Belgians invented French fries (but they don’t like you calling them that) and they have to be fried first at 150° then at 175°, then covered in stuff, preferably mayonnaise. So we thought we’d better give that a go too.
The Christmas market had a really big tree
mulled wine, hot roasted chestnuts and edible insects.
There were horses
big beautiful buildings with gold bits
and more food.
We saw the manneken pis
and then we saw him again, and again, and again.
The manneken pis (‘Little man pee’ in the original Dutch) is a statue of a little boy peeing into the fountain’s basin. It was designed by a man with the splendiferous name of Hiëronymus Duquesnoy the Elder in 1618, although it keeps getting stolen and the current one dates from 1965. The original is in a museum. For such an iconic landmark it’s very small, only 61cm. Not that it was designed as a landmark; it was intended simply as a place for villagers to be able to collect fresh water. I guess Hiëronymus had a sense of humour. For such a little dude, though, he has a very big wardrobe and is dressed up several times a week, often according to whatever’s going on in the world at the time:
There was a really big toy soldier
and Tintin and Captain Haddock running down a fire escape.
When night fell, the centre of town got even prettier and my camera skills got even worse
It didn’t snow (we didn’t really expect it to) but there was a decent frost one morning and everyone was happy with that.
We found some nature to play with
and some more nice food establishments
and we were all happy.
Where does the discerning traveller accommodate him/herself in Brussels? At a place with a train sticking out of the roof, of course.
It was called the Train Hostel and it was indeed as trainy as you could want. It was also comfortable and friendly and very close to the train stop.
The kids slept on triple-level bunks where they had their own reading lights and were held in by straps. They thought it was extremely cool. There was a dining room with pastries (and other things, but, priorities) and a pool table and Cassia made friends with a wee French girl, also called Cassie. This caused me some confusion to begin with, as I dusted off my schoolgirl French to try and establish her name so they would know at least one thing about each other. She was visiting our room and the convo went like this:
Me (pointing): Elle s’appelle Cassia. Comment t’appelle tu?
Me (much pointing): Oui, elle s’appelle Cassie. Et tu?
Her (speaking politely, if bemused, while thinking that I’m either a bit thick or a bit nuts): Cassie.
Me: Hmmm. Okay. Clearly my French is so sucky that even a five-year-old can’t get the drift.
Only later, in the dining room, when I heard her mother calling her, did it fall into place. Without a word in common they spent many happy hours rampaging around the pool table, piano, long corridors and bits of re-purposed train. Every now and then Cassia wistfully asks when we’re going back to Belgium so she can see her friend Cassie. Who obviously lives full-time in a tourist hostel.
If you left the hostel, turned right and walked for thirty seconds you arrived in this little park in front of a train museum which looks more like a church:
and it housed this, which you’ve seen before in miniature in a photo, up there somewhere, of Cassia in the Tintin museum:
The whisky tanker was a prop in the Tintin movie and was gifted to the city afterwards as a sort of decoration. And a great job it does too.
Brussels was lovely. It was pretty and the weather was great and it was easy to get around and everyone was kind and there was food of all types of wondrousness (including cheap, the best wondrousness of all). When I booked it all I had forgotten that less than a year before, people died there in terrorist attacks on the train line (which we used a lot) and the airport (also used). It’s just as well I hadn’t thought of that before we got there because I might not have wanted to go and that would have been a shame. After being in Paris and Milan last summer we’re now kind of used to seeing soldiers with very big guns wandering around tourist attractions and city centres. I’m not exactly comfortable with it – these are not happy friendly soldiers, they mean business – but I sort of figure that in a world full of uncertainty, going to places after they’ve been attacked is probably the best we can do.
So if you’re in the neighbourhood you should consider dropping in to Belgium. It has waffles and what more do you need?