Ah, Belgium. This was our second time in Belgium and I’m putting that very lightly as we visited a museum in Bastogne before heading to Luxembourg last year (we also went to Luxembourg this year). This year we wanted to not only stop in Bastogne again to see a couple more stops, but also to see Brussels, Belgium. There are a couple of really pretty cities in Belgium (Utrecht and Brugge are the tops), but we decided on Brussels.
Before we get into Brussels though, I want to talk about our stops on the way to Belgium. Our first stop was the Bayeux Cathedral. The Bayeux Cathedral is easily one of the coolest and most unique cathedrals I think I have yet to see. Consecrated in the late 11th century, this church is not only neat on both the exterior and interior, but also was the original home of the Bayeux Tapestry.
Our second stop was in Bastogne. After leaving Bayeux, we headed to Bastogne to look at the Foxholes and stop at the Airborne Museum in Bastogne. The Foxholes are exactly what you think they would be, but something about it just felt like walking on sacred ground. I think because we all know the story, we’ve heard the names, there is a bit more of a personal note, that walking the forest just felt…different to walking other places.
From the foxholes we went over to the 101 Airborne Museum. The museum is located in the former officer’s mess building of the Belgian Army, which was also used by the German Army during the occupation. Once the war ended, it was used as a Red Cross Hospital. It has been transformed into a museum that displays a collection of items from the fighting as well as a basement that has been transformed into a bomb shelter.
The museum is incredible, BUT fair warning on going down to the basement area. I would not say that it is…kid friendly, but it is important to experience. Walking down the stairs you are taken to a small dark room where you experience what it would be like to live during the battle for Bastogne and that was just…something that was hard to do. I don’t even have the words for that experience, just that I cannot imagine. From there you then walk along hallways that show various scenes (recreated…with mannequins- again not necessarily suitable for kids, depending on your children’s level of coping and understanding) from the battle. This includes the men fighting through crevices in the defenses of the building, to surgery scenes, to items that were found in the nearby forests and on the streets above. It was something to see and experience and something I will not forget for a long time.
Brussels has long been a settlement, but it became fully known in the late 600’s when a chapel was built on the banks of the Senne River. The city was then officially founded about 300 years later and has been a place of rebellions, battles, and economic development. We spent most of our day in Brussels walking around the old town area, snacking on waffles, and absorbing the sights. Brussels was a really cool mix of old world and modern, with a hint of opulence and we enjoyed our day exploring. We stayed in a hotel called Hotel Noga and were very pleased with our room and the service.
We started off with a breakfast of…(drumroll please)…waffles. I mean, we couldn’t go all the way to Belgium and not have some waffles. We stopped at a spot in the National Galerie called Mokafe and had some delicious waffles, Strawberry for myself, chocolate for the boys, and berry variety for my husband. Absolutely delicious. Fun fact about the waffles, there are actually two varieties: Brussels and Liege. Brussels are hard rectangle and topped with powdered sugar and some variety of berry or chocolate. Liege waffles are more oval and tend to be more of your…grab and go waffle. The sugar in Liege waffles is also baked directly into the waffle.
After filling up on the delicious waffle and cappuccino breakfast, we headed out to wander. We started our day at the Church of St. Michael and St. Gudula.
This is a relatively “modern” cathedral and church, having only gained cathedral status in the early 1960’s. The church itself dates back to the 11th century, with completion in the 16th, and is currently used for ceremonies of national interest (it is host to royal family events). It was stunning, one of those churches you can’t help but admire.
From there we headed through more of the Altstadt and over to the Grand-Place of Brussels. This seemed to be a common stop for us throughout the day as we gravitated back here several times- which makes sense as it is the central square of Brussels.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the most important tourist destination of Brussels, with guildhalls, Museum of the City of Brussels, and the Town Hall rising up around the square itself. The buildings are displays of opulence with gold touches and gothic architecture. It was voted (at one point) the most beautiful square in Europe and I think I would agree. The square is opulent, but not overbearingly so. It’s definitely the heart and was full of life each time we were there.
We also managed to see Manneken Pis. Yep, you read that right. Manneken Pis is a fountain sculpture of a little boy peeing into the fountain. The first mention of the fountain was from the 15th century when it is mentioned about drinking water for the residents. The first bronze statue was placed in the 17th century, with the current statue replacing it in the mid 20th century. The Mannekin Pis has been the subject of several thefts (of which the punishment was severe) and several legends (which are all quite…interesting to read about). One of the Mannekin Pis traditions is to be dressed up in a variety of different costumes. These can range from famous individuals, to sport options, to holiday attire. Overall though, the Mannekin Pis is a symbol to the people of Brussels; a symbol of the sense of humor that they share and their independence of mind.
The final thing we attraction we saw in Brussels was The Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
First commissioned by Leopold II in the early part of the 20th century after being fascinated by Paris. His original intent was to model his church off of the Sacre Coeur in Parish (HERE) with a street similar to Champs Elysees (HERE) connecting it to the main city center. The Church was consecrate in 1951, awarded the designation of “Basilica Minor” in 1952, completed in 1969, and is now the 5th largest church in the world. This church also holds two museums, The Black Sisters Museum and the Museum of Modern Religious Art. You are also able to go up to a balcony right under the dome to get a bird’s eye view of Brussels.
Once again, this was incredible due to the sheer size. You can definitely feel the more sleek, modern (almost non frivolous, sparse look), art deco style of the church throughout, but the size is just a site to behold.
After finishing up with the Basilica, we wandered back towards the main center square, did a little shopping and picked up some dinner before heading to our hotel. We definitely did not see everything that Brussels has to offer, not even close, but I feel like we got a good amount in our one day there, and were able to get the “feel” of the city.