It’s the end of week 2 and this still feels like a normal holiday. The vertigo only sets in when we realise we have 24 more to go… We’ve been in and around Brussels all week and tomorrow pack up again (actually we have done most of the packing already having learnt a lesson last week when trying to leave Amsterdam), and head off to Rommerskirchen, which is as near as we could get to Cologne during Carnival week.
Here’s how this week was….
Where were we? What did we do?
On our first day in Brussels we got in our car, ducked our heads (driving a 191cm car in and out of, not to mention round, a 190cm car park is a true adrenaline experience), and left. This is no reflection on Brussels. We had tickets booked for the Van Eyck 2020 exhibition in Ghent, which we had read about back in November (and had paid for there and then on the basis that it was “So unlikely to be repeated that the museum might as well use ‘now or never’” Wall Street Journal). Of course the children are great afficionadoes of early 15th century masterpieces so they were terribly excited about this too.
It was well done and very informative (possibly to an over-venerating fault: thanks audio guide), but the things we noticed were the details – the angels’ wings, the hairs on Adam’s legs – panels from the Ghent altarpiece (more to come on this) are in the exhibition, allowing a really privileged close-up view – and the portrait that looks very much like one of the children’s teachers…
We then wandered along the river to Ghent’s medieval heart. Storm Denis was still puffing and blowing but that wasn’t enough to put us (inspired by Aurora) off climbing the 91m of the Belfry for a very blustery but exhilarating view from the top.
We were keen, too, to see the Van Eyck, the world- famous and recently restored Creepy Sheep (aka Mystic Lamb). This is in St Bavo’s Cathedral, which is rightly proud of it. Long queues inside the Cathedral leave you in no doubt which way to go, so we paid up, waited and – technical art critical terms coming up – it was rubbish.
Not the altarpiece itself, because we can’t tell you about that, because we effectively didn’t see it. Too many people not going anywhere meant even those of us who are more than 5’4″ gave up after about ten minutes of standing around. We got an impression of a very large altarpiece and a very small sheep, but that was about it. Time for a waffle.
About the third thing the children wrote on the Tweed to Tokyo whiteboard, which has been up in our kitchen since 2018, was “Chocolate”, so we knew some form of cocoa-based activity was non-negotiable. And where else to do that than Brussels?
A quick bit of internet research throws up many, many different chocolate tour options. So far, so easy. A little more research, however reveals prices generally at about €50 per person. Or €300 for all of us. Now I, (Harriet), like chocolate as much as (more than) the next person – separate theory, the world divides into those who would rather give up chocolate than alcohol and those who’d hang on to their last dairy milk while all the Dom Perignon gets flushed down the drain. I’m definitely in the latter camp (though am also partial to champagne, if anyone’s wondering) but even I draw the line at spending €300 on chocolate.
And the thing is, when you look at these tours, they’re mostly only walking and eating. These are two of our core skills. How hard could it be to do without help?
Not very, it turns out. Very loosely guided by this blog, we plotted out a circular route from our apartment to Grand Place and back and simply stopped in any chocolate shops that took our fancy along the way. One chocolate each, in each of six shops: Total cost €49 (including a couple of cuberdons we had failed to buy in Ghent).
It must be admitted though that the blood sugar high, and resulting low, were not something we had factored in. The children were possibly slightly less impressed by our final stop in Grand Place than we might have hoped….
Museum fatigue is, in our medical lexicon anyway, a real thing. We didn’t get the balance right in Brussels, and we will need to work on this, but we did visit the Musical Instrument Museum, the Magritte Museum, the Belgian Cartoon Museum, the Design Museum (it was free and we were there) and the Atomium (not actually a museum).
Aside: We need a new word. Museum provokes only groans among our travelling companions, yet it covers a multitude of experiences. What should we call it instead?
This felt (no, this is) important. The children wear poppies and participate in Remembrance events every year, and while in Belgium it seemed that we would be letting them down if we didn’t expose them to a little bit of “real” history.
Having met quite a bit of resistance (no pun intended) to museums in general in the preceding days we were, however, a bit nervous about this. A child who has a strop in a museum is just an unpleasant child; a child who has a strop in a World War One cemetery is being downright disrespectful. We didn’t want that child to be our child.
So we did some serious preparatory work: we sat them down and made them watch the last ever episode of Blackadder. This wasn’t our idea, but was shamelessly cribbed from an ex-history teacher of our acquaintance.
It was a good move. They laughed, a lot, (“wibble“), engaged with the characters and poetry (“Boom, boom, boom”) and afterwards, as I sat in a heap of snot and tears (the pathos is somehow worse if you know what’s coming), they were uncharacteristically silent.
And it gave us a real reference point. A trench stops being a long, thin, not-very-deep hole in the ground if you’ve seen a film of someone living in it. It’s much easier to imagine the mud (to be fair in February in Flanders not much imagination is required) if you’ve laughed at someone making coffee from it. You understand the utterly horrendous waste of life if you’ve heard Baldrick explain it, as only he can.
We planned quite carefully too. We were not going to overload them. One museum, one trench, two cemeteries. All in, or around Ieper (Ypres), about an hour and a half away.
The In Flanders Fields museum was excellent (less dull, said Sophie). Fully interactive, with lots of videos and lived testimony displayed in an engaging way. And a Belfry, for the exercise, the views of the Menin Gate, and to make Aurora and Sophie (and Ben) jump out of their skins when the bells suddenly rang above their heads.
The museum gave us more context before we visited the Menin Gate, where the names of 56,607 British and Commonwealth soldiers who have no known burial place are engraved. Then to the Yorkshire Trench. This is, literally, just a trench in an industrial park on the outskirts of Ypres. There’s no visitor centre or attempt at reconstruction. It just is what it is. It’s almost inconceivable to look around at the everyday 21st century mundanity of the surroundings and imagine what it must have been like a short century ago.
Then off through the flat, fertile fields, where none of the trees is over 100 years old, to Tyne Cot cemetery. We stopped in another small cemetery on the way, by request of the children. (Is it wrong to say we were delighted by that?) We looked at the ages of those who died: 19, 23, 27, 20, 22… , we wondered if any of them was from Kelso and we spotted, between two Brits, an unknown German. Perhaps he was called Falk.
What were our impressions? What surprised us?
Sophie: On the first day when we arrived I thought it was really busy, but it wasn’t actually. It is quite language-judgement-free which is nice. I knew the first world war was really serious but I didn’t realise how serious until we went there. I thought the houses in Brussels would be more modern, but they weren’t.
Ben: I was far more impressed with Brussels than I expected. I’d been here a couple of times on business some years ago, but it was much larger, more magisterial, than I remembered. It felt slightly shameful to be driving through in a British-registered vehicle, when our country has so pointlessly ejected itself from this place in particular.
Then it it felt quite scary driving a 1.91m car into the 1.90m car park. Harriet had done a phenomenal job booking our accommodation right in the centre of Brussels (about 200m from Grande Place) within budget and with parking. The parking was underground in the Place Monnaie parking, and I have only just learned to drive without ducking, while in the car park. It was rammed on a Saturday afternoon too. Definitely needed a beer after that…
The beers were, funnily enough, ubiquitous and very Belgian (yeasty and strong, in the main). I think I shall write a beery post a little later, after Cologne carnival has done its worst.
Lucy: I was surprised that we were staying so close to the centre. I thought it was a really nice city. I liked noticing the completely random people – like the man on the unicycle today. I think it was very multi-cultural.
Aurora: There are more people around during the night than the day. The manneken pis was everywhere even though it was just a weird fountain.
Harriet: Arguments aside I have loved being in Brussels. We have been right in the centre and I enjoyed the hustle of a big city. It feels very prosperous here, and I have enjoyed the multi-cultural, and multi-liguistic feel. I am both surprised and simultaneously not at how relieved I have felt to be on a country where I properly speak (one of) the language(s).
Magnus: There are lots of chocolate and waffle shops. Lots of Tintin, which is not bad because I like Tintin. There are lots of souvenirs with the statue of the boy weeing.
What were the highlights?
Lucy: I really enjoyed our first night meal. I enjoyed doing the touristy things like eating too much chocolate and waffles. The food generally. I enjoyed the Atomium today because it’s an amazing thing. I have enjoyed the funny museums we’ve been to. They’ve all been slightly weird: Magritte was obviously Magritte. The Design museum was a bit random but in a good way; I liked it. The cartoon museum – some of the cartoons they had there were, just, why? I really enjoyed trying new food, mainly the mussels.
Sophie: I liked the chocolate tour. I liked climbing the Belfries. I preferred the one in Ghent, because you could take really cool photos from there. I liked our meal out.
Harriet: I have loved waking up to the sound of bells from Brussels’ many churches – they sound so un-English (no peals here) but also very familiar and welcoming. Our day visiting the Battlefields will stay with me for a long time. The musical instrument museum, where they gave you a little audio machine that allowed you to hear the sound of all the individual instruments, made me very happy. There was an amazing wind instrument, from central Europe somewhere, that made quite the most beautiful noise I have heard in a long time. To my shame I have no idea what it was called.
Aurora: Waffles and our meal out. It was really nice. I liked taking photos with the graffiti.
Ben: Being right in the middle was great. Lots of food-related highlights, the fantastic musical instrument museum (an ondes-martenot up close, several lovely bassoons and dulcians, and a whole floor dedicated to traditional – non-western orchestral – musical instruments, yet again challenging me to look beyond western music – of any sort – as the “best”). The Van Eyck exhibition was brilliant. The In Flanders Fields Museum was pitched perfectly.
Magnus: Chocolate, tintin, waffles. The atomium, it’s massive and I like it.
What was the weather like?
As you’d expect for Februrary. Cold, wet, windy and sunny intermittently. Often all four.
Any bad bits? Did we fight?
This week being away from home definitely kicked in for Aurora and Sophie, both of whom had moments of really missing their friends, despite (it seems to their parents) being constantly (and often simultaneously) on the phone/facetime/WhatsApp/instagram/messenger to them. The sadness, for all that it was and is doubtless compounded by tiredness, hormones and any one of the other myriad reasons that can make an eleven-year-old teary, nonetheless real, and made us, as parents aware, once again, that this is an adventure they had no choice about….
Lucy: I didn’t enjoy it when Sophie and Aurora missed out. I know it was their choice to stay at home. I didn’t like it when one of us wouldn’t eat the food.
Aurora: Fighting. The weird sheep was weird and boring.
Sophie: Fighting. When we all got scratchy when we were bored. Exercise when we’ve just got up. I didn’t like missing out on the comic museum.
Ben: The Lamb of God in Ghent was a bunfight, this time not Campbell-related, however awesome it should have been.
Any hints and tips?
Magnus: Atomium. Maybe mini-Europe. We didn’t go because it was shut. Comic museum.
Lucy: if you see something in the street, a shop or a museum, just try it out. It might be rubbish, but it never really has been. Definitely do a self-guided chocolate tour.
Aurora: Have more waffles than we did: we were here for a week and we only had three.
Harriet: Don’t bother with the Mystic Lamb, but do visit Ghent. Children are surprisingly enthusiastic about anything with lots of steps and a view.
Sophie: Try the Gaufrerie waffle shop. Eat at Chez Leon. Self guided chocolate tour.
Ben: Get a listening thing in the Musical Instrument Museum. Budget a lot for waffles, and choose your waffle shop wisely.
We leave tomorrow for four days outside Cologne where they will be celebrating Carnival. We are told it will be quite an experience. We have our fancy dress ready.