среда, 30 октября 2013 г.

Family Holidays: Belgian vacation (August 2013)

In August we decided to spend a long weekend with our daughter in Belgium. Our daughter was then five years old and this was the first time we would be taking her with us on an ‘adult’ trip to see Brussels, Bruges and other Belgian towns.
We agreed to compromise - we would include in our itinerary a range of activities to keep both us adults and our daughter entertained. While we planned, our daughter became more excited about the idea that we were going to the country of chocolate (this is how we referred to Belgium :).

My husband and I had planned this trip for a long time, having added to our list of places to see in Belgium after watching the movie ‘In Bruges.’ The city looked so very picturesque in the movie and we wanted to check it out for ourselves...

The flight from Vienna to Brussels was short and comfortable. At the airport we rented a car for the whole duration of our stay and set out immediately for Bruges. It took less than two hours to get to Bruges from Brussels by car – manageable for a small child. Our daughter occupied herself on the drive by watching cows and horses in the fields as we passed by.
If you don’t have a car, you can take a train from Brussels to Bruges. 

Through internet research I had found what seemed to be a suitable hotel: Hotel Aragon (4 stars). Before making a reservation, as always, I checked through plenty of recommendations and reviews, but one of our main criteria was the location of the hotel. Hotel Aragon is very close (just a five minute walk) to the central square. 

The hotel company actually owns two buildings: the hotel itself and a set of apartments next door which are, in my opinion, probably more suitable for families. We chose to stay in one of the apartments just a 2-3 minute walk from the main (hotel) building. 

Breakfast was served in the main building and it was no problem for us to talk there. The breakfasts were standard and typical for a 4-star hotel: croissants, ham, cheese, eggs...

The hotel has its own parking but space is at a premium and it costs 15 Euros a day. We reserved a parking place in advance and I’d recommend that you do the same if you are travelling by car. There is public parking available nearby but this is not always free and if you want to park your car on the street it can be difficult as the streets are narrow. There are also fewer parking spots available in the city center.

Our hotel room was spacious, with a large double bed and an extra bed for our daughter. There was even a small kitchen with everything you might need for your stay: oven, electric kettle, microwave, refrigerator, etc. If you wanted to cook for yourself or warm up food in the room then you could do so easily; very convenient when traveling with small children. 

The rest of the room’s amenities were pretty standard: TV, air-conditioning, a spacious bathroom with a toilet, and free (and very fast!) WIFI in the room. It seemed like the room had been recently renovated. 

When you are only in Bruges for a couple of days it makes sense to be closer to the center. So, the hotel’s main advantage is its central location!
The room cost 162 Euros per night, including breakfast. 

For a more detailed review of this hotel follow the link.

It’s worth noting that all of the hotels in Bruges are quite expensive (perhaps the city became more popular after the movie
:)?). We often heard American voices in the street so maybe the film was a good advertisement for tourism in the city.

Things to do in Bruges with children:
- Take a walk around the main square and climb the main tower Belfry/Belfort. Let me say first that there is no elevator… You have to go up 366 steps with a climb up some very narrow stairs at the top. I was a bit worried initially that our daughter would struggle to make it all the way to the top but she assured me that she would rise to the challenge... and she kept her word! The climb is actually not too tiring because there are places to stop at different levels to have a rest and enjoy the views from the tower. Of course, the most stunning views were from the upper observation deck with a panorama of 360°! All our efforts were repaid...

The main Square is very cute and fabulous, although not that big. There are many cafes and restaurants, but all of them are geared toward tourists and not frequented by the locals :).  
- Take a boat ride on the canals: Bruges is called ‘the Venice of the North’ and it really does look like Venice or Amsterdam even, but more cozy perhaps. Our daughter loved the boat ride and I would highly recommend you to include it in your activity program.

- Ride in a horse-drawn carriage: One for fans of horses :), perhaps. We preferred to walk slowly and soak in all the beautiful sights of Bruges.

- Take a look at the windmills: These can be found on the edge of the historic center along the canal in a beautiful park area. You can rent a bike or take a walk and have a picnic on the grass in the park. I'm sure the kids would love it!

- Visit a
Museum of Chocolate: While our daughter was happy with this museum visit, I wouldn’t say that us adults enjoyed it a great deal. Kids are given a task at the entrance which requires them to go through the whole exhibition and answer simple questions with the help of their parents. At the exit the kids got a reward - guess what? Of course, something sweet :). There are also demonstrations of how to make pralines and chocolate and you get a chance to taste such things. Although we didn’t go, there is also a museum of fries here.

- You can visit the cathedrals and churches: The
Basilica of the Holy Blood, for example, which maintains a quite unique relic that they display to the public only at certain times of the day. What kind of relic? The blood of Christ. 

You can also visit
The Church of Old Lady, but not every child is likely to be so eager to visit the churches...

- Take a walk through the ancient streets, rest in a cafe. Bruges itself is a museum in the open air: it is just nice to take a walk through the narrow streets and feel that you have been transported back to the Middle Ages... 

We were lucky enough to attend the city festival where we saw women and men dressed up in old-style clothes from previous centuries. Throughout the city there were organized shows with medieval performances and dances. It was very colorful, but quite crowded. 

Eating in Bruges: Prices are higher than those in Vienna. There are lots of cafes and restaurants and we particularly liked ‘Poules Moules’ where they offer delicious mussels (a famous Belgian dish) and, of course, fries! 

Despite my devotion to healthy eating, I could not resist having some Belgian fries
:)! The ‘french’ fries in Belgium are really great! They serve these as a side dish for almost all food. 

The restaurants usually had a children's menu but it seemed to me that everything was loaded with spices and pepper and so our daughter didn’t enjoy it much.

The thing that our daughter loved the best (and, admittedly, it wasn’t just her!) is the famous Belgian chocolate. No wonder it is considered to be the best in the world! In all of the smaller shops, everywhere in fact, you can not only buy but also try different pralines and chocolate. Paradise for choco lovers! During our short visit, we probably ate our annual (!) allowance of chocolate :); although our daughter probably still has room for more chocolate :). Don’t ask how much weight we gained on our visit. 

What we liked most of all was the little old shop Dumon Chocolatier (address: Eiermarkt 6, 8000 Brugge, Belgium). This is a family business that has been operating for several generations producing delicious chocolate, and all in a very pleasant atmosphere! 


The other chocolate shops seemed to us to be too touristy and commercial.

Bruges has lingered in our memories, like something from a fairytale. A charming town that has preserved the spirit of the Middle Ages... and you should definitely visit it at least once in your life...

From Bruges, we drove for half a day to the coast to a little town called De Haan (20km from Bruges). This is where Einstein lived for a while and there is even a monument here depicting the great thinker.

De Haan is a wonderful town. It differs from the warm south seaside as it has a strong wind, a low sky, bigger waves and a more northern climate in general... But it is also quite charming in its own way...

Our daughter spent a while just looking for shells and pebbles on the beach and we enjoyed walking around, taking in the views and breathing the sea air.

A word of warning: The waves on the coast here are very shallow and strong. Swimming in the sea was a bit uncomfortable as the wind was too strong; we even saw some people in wetsuits. However, the kids had fun even with the strong wind. Further out to sea we saw dozens of sailboats...

We noticed that many vacationers had, rather astutely, brought windbreakers/protection to the beach. There were a lot of houses, apartments and condos for rent here and we saw a lot of families with kids. This may be a good alternative beach vacation for those who do not like the heat... I’m not quite sure why but this town has fascinated us and we want to visit again...

After staying in Bruges we went on to Brussels. We stopped on the way at the wonderful town Ghent (Gent), where we had lunch and saw one of the town’s main attractions - Castle

Our daughter enjoyed this stop and in Ghent you can also take a boat trip on the canals, but we had already done this in Bruges so we resumed our journey to Brussels without taking the extra boat ride.
We spent two full days in Brussels, staying at the Hotel Novotel Brussels Grand Place because of its central location (a 5-7 minute walk to the central square). Find a full review of the hotel by following the link.

Our hotel room was modern, though a bit small, but with enough space for an extra bed for our daughter.

The hotel was good value for money (142 Euros per night, including breakfast) and we were satisfied with the quality of service. There is a large area for public parking near the hotel that costs 15 Euros per day.
On our first day in Brussels we visited the Grand Place (the central square) where our daughter took (and featured in!) many nice photos - the square is really amazing!

We found the famous fountain ‘Manneken Pis’ which is a statue of a naked little boy urinating into the fountain's basin. Our daughter was disappointed, it was too tiny (the statue) :). We decided to skip seeing the ‘Peeing girl’ :).

That evening we had a dinner of mussels and fries with Belgian waffles for dessert. We bought a lot of chocolate to take home with us and then retired to our hotel.

The next day’s program was devoted to entertaining our daughter. We visited the park ‘Mini-Europe’ where there are miniature-sized models of Europe’s main attractions, sometimes animated models. For example, there is a volcanic eruption and the launching of a space rocket.

This park, while still in Brussels, is not central - it took us about 15-20 minutes to reach Mini-Europe by car.
Our daughter asked us to take her to London, so we brought her there… this time in miniature :)
We spent half a day at the park and would highly recommend it for families with kids. The kids love it! And so do the adults…

There is an opportunity at the park’s exit for the kids to play interactive games on topics related to the European Union.

There are restaurants available at the park and in summer they have evening fireworks displays. We were so tired, unfortunately, that we couldn’t quite wait until these fireworks displays started… 

Near to the park there is a very interesting building, the Atomium, which represents a model of the atom magnified by billions of times. The reviews of the Atomium told me that you could take a tour inside to admire the views from the observation deck, but it seemed to us that it is more interesting to admire the view from outside rather than from inside :) We preferred taking some nice photos with this strange building in the background.

Besides Atomium and ‘Mini-Europe’, there are plenty of entertaining things for children to do in Brussels. There is
a water park ‘Oceade’ which caused my daughter to berate me: "Mom, why didn’t we bring our swimsuits?"… I think it would be possible to spend a happy half day or even the whole day in the water park.

There is also a
planetarium and an aquarium and you can even buy a combined ticket granting entry to the aquarium and ‘Mini-Europe.’
Bruparck is another great place to visit with the kids as there is a street with lots of restaurants and cafes perfect for a rest after our daughter enjoyed a ride on a carousel. There are also some rides here for smaller kids.

If you missed the chocolate museum in Bruges don’t worry, you can visit it in Brussels: Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate (9/11 Rue de la Tete d'Or, 1000 Brussels, Belgium). However, the reviews for this museum are mixed, ranging from good to downright frustrated: You’ll have to decide for yourselves how much you love chocolate :)

As an alternative to the museum you could simply go to the chocolate shop Planete Chocolat (address: 24 Rue du Lombard 1000 Bruss els). Here they have demonstrations (usually on weekends) of how to make pralines where you will learn a lot about different kinds of pralines and chocolate tastes. After the demonstrations you can try homemade hot chocolate and pralines

For lovers of exquisite and expensive chocolate I would recommend visiting Pierre Marcolini’s shop. He is considered a founder of the concept of chocolate ‘Haute Couture’. The chocolate there is really expensive but is of exceptional quality...

To keep the kids entertained you can also go to the Children's Museum (suitable for children 4-12 years old). Here they can play interactive games and carry out some experiments such as controlling a spaceship, growing plants, and farming, etc. The theme/exhbition of the museum is changed every four years. 

It would also interest lots of kids to visit the Belgian Museum of Natural Sciences where there is a large collection of dinosaurs.

Near Brussels (about 30km away) in Wavre you can visit Walibi, a large amusement park and water park. I'm sure the children will be very grateful if you took them for a trip here :).

Also near Brussels (about 60 km away) is ‘Pairi Daiza’ which has beautiful parks and exotic plants and birds, as well as a zoo.

In summary, our Belgian vacation leads me to recommend that you stay in Bruges for 2-3 days, plan for one day by the sea (as we did), and then spend one 1-2 days in Brussels. We didn’t like Brussels as much as the other places; it was too tourist-oriented and crowded, and we prefer smaller cities in the countryside.

Overall, the trip was a success and our daughter is eager to continue our ‘adult’ trips to other cities :)!
Bon voyage!
Look forward to getting your feedback upon your return!

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