Belgium - March 2002

1. Low expectations...

Grand Place, Brussels

A couple of years ago my Grandma (then 84) decided to take my mother on a voyage of discovery to Belgium. Now some of you might be thinking that the words "voyage of discovery" and "Belgium" do not make comfortable drinking partners.  At least this is what I thought when the same trip was suggested to me.

Belgium's not really the sort of place I'd ever been very desperate to visit.  Having been born in London, then travelled round most of north-western Europe as a young girl, Grandma had finally been able to settle down and grow up in Antwerp.  (My great-grandfather was a bit of a wheeler-dealer who managed to convince his family that travelling was just part of the great adventure that is life.  This continued for several years until my great-grandma drew the line at a move to Ireland, but that's a whole other story...)

Grandma met my Grandpa at school, they both went out with other people for a bit, and then eventually got together.  Everything was going swimmingly until 1939 when the Nazis occupied Belgium and Grandma dug out her UK passport and came home, taking my Belgian Grandpa with her...and all the family

We took a Eurostar over to Brussels, where we'd decided to stay. Grandma thought that it'd be more fun* (*this was deemed a relative term before we arrived.) We stayed at the nice new Meridian hotel, which was right opposite the exit from the station; although we got a bit lost and ended up round the back of the station in a area with no pavement and lots of gravel.  Strangely, once we'd found our way out, we never found this place again during the entire long weekend.

2. My first shock - Brussels is really cool!

The one thing that I only do on holiday with my family is actually unpack the suitcase and hang stuff up in the hotel.  I don't know if that's because I'm suddenly in a pseudo-home situation where I'll get told off for leaving my clothes in a pile at the end of the bed or painting the walls my room with gloss paint.

After settling in at the hotel, we had a bit of a wander round the main part of Brussels City Centre.  Interesting note (a) Many, many, MANY chocolate shops.  Interesting note (b) - many, many, MANY bars.  Interesting the second item was the one not lost at all by Grandma.  I should have had an inkling that behind the innocent expression and Aquascutum suit and pearls beat the heart of an Amazon (who likes drinking beer...)


Note to self.  Next time I go on holiday with Grandma get fit(ter) before I go.  She may be 86 at the time of writing, and she may have been two weeks away from a (subsequently successful) knee replacement operation (the bionic woman of the family) but she can totally knacker out a 29 year old no problem even with a funny knee.  This was particularly the case when we got to Antwerp (see section 3.)

Having marched around for about 2 hours and by this time having had some dinner, I needed a rest, so we ordered a movie from the pay-per-view.  I skilfully managed to flick past the Belgian porn whilst Grandma was in the loo - fairly wise as I later found out when she was chatting up 25 year old waiters in French AND Flemish (show off!)  Might have given Grandma ideas! So we watched Moulin Rouge, which we both enjoyed, and I can highly recommend providing you're not a big fan of existential minimalism.

3. It's a good job Antwerp's fairly flat...

Antwerp Cathedral

Walking.  We did a lot of it on this particular, but none so much as the estimated seven mile hike around the hotspots of Antwerp.

Summary of Antwerp:

1. It has a very decent shopping centre

2. It has a very pretty town hall

3. It has *extremely* good mussels...

4. ...and chips...

5...and chocolate...

6.  It's changed a lot since 1999...

7....let alone 1939...

8. ...but it has a very nice cathedral

Antwerp Cathedral

I heartily recommend Antwerp for a trip.  I don't think we really got to spend enough time there.  The shopping is excellent, as well as good value for money, and the are a lot of place to see and eat at.

Here are some more images from Antwerp. 

The scene on the left is "Glove Market" - which used to be a, yes, glove market, although I believe they also sold other, similar goods at the time.

On the right is the incredible town hall. I can only stress that this photo does not do it any kind of justice at all. It has a beautiful fountain, and gold-leaf covered carvings.

4. Back to Brussels...

After our day trip to Flanders, we decided to do some more touristy things in Brussels, so it was off to the Atomium, Mannekin Pis and Model Europe exhibitions.

Hmmm, should you bother to go and see Mannekin Pis?  You could just go and stand around in Leicester Square late on a Saturday night (boom boom...)

Seriously though, He is really tiny - and I'm not being personal here - he stands at all of about 18 inches tall (and I'm talking head to toe here before anyone gets the wrong idea.)  The first time we walked past him on a stroll around town, there were a bunch English rugby players (go figure) who had managed to get him to pee beer out instead of water.

The locals have over 500 costumes for him, and he gets dressed up for various holidays and saints days through the year.

However, despite any disappointment about size (blimey, the entrendres are really rolling out now) is tempered by the fact that you are looking at one of Brussels' most famous sons.  There is even a little girl version nearby, although I can't remember seeing it.


Here is the slightly surreal sight of the Atomium next to the Model Europe exhibition.  This area is a few miles outside the centre of Brussels.

I can honestly say that it looks pretty impressive from the outside but apart from a pleasant but unremarkable view from the top, it's not worth a visit inside. The problem is that it combines being too far away and not tall enough to see anything much from the top, other than part of the equally unremarkable Belgian royal family estate.

The best way to view the Atomium is by looking upwards at it (like the picture above in section 2).

And so finally to the Model-Europe exhibition.  It does have a proper name, except right now I can't remember whet it's called.  If anyone over the age of 25 remembers Tucktonia near Bournemouth, it's sort of like they transplanted the models over.  I must say the detail was very good, although one or two of the models look a bit twee.

Le Sacre-Coeur

The quietest you're ever likely to see the Arc de Triomphe!

The Brandenberg Gate

Slightly difficult to make out (even up close) but it is the Royal Crescent in Bath.