Yes, we went to Brussels and yes, we had an actual toddler to explore with. The toddler was one of the Marias and we had a clutch of delightful other children to skip around with too. But first, let me talk you through how you do international travel with two schoolkids without taking any time off school.
Certainly keeping it relatively simple helps. Brussels is only two hours away on the Eurostar and it’s easy enough to get to Kings Cross for us so we left home straight after school – 4ish – and were in Brussels by nightfall. We were travelling light, by our standards, and it turns out the kids are now big enough to carry a rucksack and pull a suitcase:
They’re also big enough to sit around the terminal at Kings Cross for 45 minutes without complaining too much and to entertain themselves for two hours on the train. I knew there was a reason we didn’t do this sooner. Here are my boys both reading their way under the English Channel:
Roo was reading the BFG and that comfortably lasted him the whole trip. Eva looked through a magazine, drew some princesses and then made me talk about princesses. We had a brief visit to the buffet car, which bemused Eva a little. She asked “How did they get a cafe on a humongous boat?” and I must admit that bemused me a little too. Nathan got a beer, the kids got brownies, we looked out of the window at Lille station and then before long, we were in Brussels.
A sleep at Maria’s and some good coffee saw us out and ready to explore bright and early the next morning. Our first stop was Tervuren tram station, where we found a giant elephant opposite the African Museum:
That was quite exciting. The tram was quite exciting too and we got a good view of the Brussels suburbs – triangular houses, the dramatically rocky lake of Parc du Woluwe and a tram museum. All pleasingly foreign (look kids, we really are abroad!).
So, where to go to for the bleeding-heart-lefty-liberal parent in Brussels? Why, the EU of course!
Look kids, we really are still in Europe.
It was drizzling a little by this point, so we didn’t get to play in the nearby park. Instead we jumped on the metro and went for lunch at our next destination – the Comic Strip Museum. There was a brasserie just inside the museum which looked like it might be a bit fancy for us and our collective gaggle of children. But they had highchairs and pencils on the table and every place mat was a riot of smurfs:
Knowing as I do what a fusspot Eva is, you might be wondering what she would possibly eat in a Belgian brasserie. Well, she asked me before we travelled whether they had salt in Brussels and I’m happy to confirm that yes, they do. So she applied that to her frites, chased it with a bowl of salami chunks and she was happy. Roo had the meatballs and frites and he was pretty happy as well. Nathan had a Belgian beer and well…he thought it was “very Brussels” and “something of an acquired taste”. I gorged on creamy pasta, which was a taste I shouldn’t acquire if I have any respect for my arteries. The food was great, the service quick and friendly and the children relatively happy.
This all boded well for the Stripmuseum itself, which promised to be both child-friendly and geek-friendly. It was in a beautiful building for starters:
And the lobby was full of bright and colourful things, which delighted the kids:
Upstairs there were galleries of original comic art, which Nathan enjoyed, and a screening room which showed a Belgian cartoon I’m going say was called “Dickie” but I’m not entirely sure about that. This guy, anyway:
Dickie also had one of his strips on magnetic panels on the wall, which you had to rearrange into the right order. It was a custom job, I think, seeing as it was set in the Comic Strip Museum itself:
Upstairs from that, there were areas dedicated to those most famous Belgian comic exports – Tintin and the Smurfs. Reuben wasn’t really a Tintin fan before we went but he has a good working knowledge of the boy detective now, after reading through all the (trilingual) posters and laughing at the bowler hat with bird poo on it. He also liked the ancestral portrait:
The tiny blue people were better known and we all liked the model of the Smurf Village:
And a full-size Smurf House!
It was getting late by now and we still had more touristy stuff to do but we needed a small rest and the museum reading room was perfect – comics in English and big cushions to relax on. We even got all five children quiet and still at the same time for a few minutes. Reuben read Tintin and Eva asked me to read a Smurf book in Italian that I believe was about a magic egg. I had a good go at it.
Then we wandered through Brussels, Eva and N hand-in-hand, and walked through the gloriously ornate Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert:
This was where all the fanciest chocolate shops were and it was undoubtedly a tourist trap but hey, we were tourists. We browsed a few shops before choosing this one because they were giving out free samples:
The samples worked. Nathan and I bought some chunky chocolate letters to take back to our offices.
Next up was the very shiny Grand-Place where all the old trade guilds were, each trying to outdo the others in gilt and rooftop statues:
We didn’t linger, as we were all starting to flag. What could get us the energy to get home? Why, Belgian waffles of course!
We sat outside as it wasn’t yet raining, and gorged on waffle, cream, strawberries, chocolate and bananas. But then it started to rain and so we headed to the station, stopping only to watch some very entertaining buskers tap dancing and playing “In the Mood”.
I won’t review the hotel facilities at Casa Maria as you may not be able to just invite yourselves like we did. But trust me, they were excellent. The kids played together from early morn to bedtime, the boys talking nonsense about monsters and the girls trailing round in high heels. It was a dreamlike weekend and we only snapped out of it on the late-evening Victoria Line leg of the trip on Sunday evening. It was most definitely doable for two nights and Brussels is certainly a good destination for travelling with kids. And maybe if you’re super-lucky, the Marias will come along and act as your native guides…