Each year, I take a holiday with my 7-year-old daughter Esme so she gets quality time with Mama away from her (sometimes annoying) little brother. For February half-term we resolved to take the Eurostar to Belgium. And what a breeze it was!
We had never been to Belgium before but I sold the trip to her on the promise of chocolat, frites and gaufres (Belgian waffles). I also knew she wasn’t entirely adverse to a bit of sightseeing and history thrown into the mix. So, just 2 hours after leaving St Pancras, we arrived in Gare de Bruxelles-Midi. No queues, no hassle, and comfy seats with plenty of leg room; we are enthusiastic advocates for Eurostar!
From Bruxelles-Midi we took a quick Metro ride to our first hotel, Made in Louise, just to the south of the historic centre. Immaculately run by an engaging brother (Martin) and sister (Melanie) team, the hotel’s turn of the century exterior holds 48 rooms (ours had an original fireplace), an extensive honesty bar area, a pool table and clubby sofas beside a wood-burning stove.
Esme was immediately dragged out to sightsee. It was a Sunday and stunning weather so Martin recommended the flea market in the Place du Jeu de Balle, just inside the Petite Ceinture. I had no idea Brussels was such a mecca for retro wares, but to my delight a fabulous ’70s dress soon made itself known to me and a Dutch doll with clogs stole Esme’s heart!
Next, fortified by a chocolate waffle (pleasingly, there’s a yellow waffle van on every touristy corner), we roamed through wonderful side streets groaning with antique shops and Art Nouveau facades towards the UNESCO-listed Grand Place, the heart of the city. Voted Europe’s most beautiful square, for its somehow harmonious marriage of Gothic and Baroque buildings, medieval guilds and gilt, it really took our breath away. The sinking sun glinting on gold ornamentation, the hum and shuffle of tourists wielding their selfie sticks around us, the size of the space.
Nearby is the landmark sculpture of Brussels: the 17th-century bronze of a little naked boy peeing into a fountain – Manneken Pis. I had kept this as a surprise for Esme, just telling her we were going to see something funny. She thought it was quite funny.
Next day, following a dutiful visit to the suitably imposing and Gothic Cathedral, we took a taxi to see the Atomium. This space-age silver sphere construction is in the shape of an iron crystal many times magnified and was built for the 1958 World Fair, when all were looking to the future. Intended to be a temporary structure, it proved such a hit that it remains open to this day as a museum.
That night we ate at Le Chou de Bruxelles, a superb Belgian restaurant with no fewer than 30 varieties of moules-frites (book ahead!). Esme gamely ordered moules with her fettucine but decided against the flavour. Thankfully an enormous bowl of ice cream and chocolate sauce presented itself for dessert.
Next, we went to the Rene Magritte museum. Esme got the message that surrealism was invented to make you think, peering at peculiar associations sometimes with amusement, sometimes with incomprehension. Then we took a train south of the city to the university town of Louvain-la-Neuve, where the fabulous Hergé Museum is located. Purpose-built in 2007 to mark the centenary of the comic strip genius, we absolutely loved the place. You get an audio tour including an exploration of his early life, introduction to Tintin and his fellow characters, and a look at how cinema influenced Hergé. Displays also show how Hergé kept abreast of scientific progress and incorporated it into his drawings. Naturally we spent considerable time and Euros in the shop.
After a twilight farewell to the Grand Place (most photogenic), our final dinner was at the very delicious brasserie-style Le Comptoir des Galeries. It was a great hit with me (black pudding with pickled cauliflower followed by sole meunière), but less so with Esme. Luckily, she perked up in time for dessert, a vast waffle and chocolate tart.
The next day, we rolled our wheelies across cobbled streets back to the Eurostar, and London – our boxes of Belgian chocolates safely stowed, of course.