One of the best things about getting older is how old friends become dispersed around the world and give you an extra reason to go visit someplace that might not have initially made a vacation bucket list. Such was the case with our trip to Brussels, Belgium to hangout with an old friend that had recently swung through Shanghai and catch up with other acquaintances that all happen to live near Brussels. We came to find Brussels to be a brilliant city that was beautiful, easy to navigate and surrounded with wonderful things to do.
Train to Brussels
As we found a good deal on a direct flight from Shanghai to Amsterdam, we headed there first for a couple days to wander around one of our favorite European cities. The Hotel Pulitzer concierge helped us to book the train and away we went. As we were getting our things together to jump in a taxi, I had the strangest sense of deja vu as I watched a couple checking in next to me.
They looked so familiar but I couldn’t place it so I asked Lauren if she recognized them thinking maybe they were celebrities of some kind but then it dawned on me that I’d taken a week long sailboat tour with them from Zanzibar to the island of Pemba off the coast of Tanzania nearly 20 years ago! What an amazingly small world! Here is a picture of them, Thomas and Clauda, on the right and what I looked like back when I had hair. I’ll have to do a separate post on this amazing trip to Tanzania another time as it is still my all time favorite travel adventure.
After catching up for a while with them, we headed off to the train station and since I’m always paranoid about figuring out a new train station in terms of where to get tickets, how to get in, where will the elevator be for the stroller or if there even is one… I insisted we hurry up and get there. Luckily my concerns were unnecessary at the train station in Amsterdam as it was really easy to navigate. It was a relatively quick train to Brussels and Charlie loved seeing all the scenery pass by outside the window. Once we arrived in Brussels we went across from the exit to a small pub to meet Lauren’s friend Kate who just happened to also be sending off some former co-workers at Target that were now in town for their work at Method and heading back home. Once they were off we piled into Kate’s little Audi and back to her place.
We were enchanted by the neighborhood that Kate lives in as it has a number of embassies and diplomatic or otherwise historic residences. She lived near the top floor of her building, which despite its age, thankfully had an elevator, allbeit so small that our massive Uppababy would not fit. It was all good though as the building was quite secure so we didn’t have any issue leaving the stroller downstairs out of the way.
I loved how much natural light her home received as there were large windows on either side of the main living room with amazing views of both the nearby buildings down the street or outside in the backyards of the neighboring residences. Charlie would enjoy standing up on the windowsill and looking outside at street below and the view across the adjacent roofs. It was so beautiful I couldn’t help but get this picture of him sitting there with the beautiful blue morning sky.
This was actually a consistent theme for this trip as we were really lucky with the amount of great weather that we had in Brussels as it is more normal to be gray and raining this time of year. It definitely made exploring the city via public transport much easier to not need to deal with the rain.
Parks! Parks! Parks!
We took advantage of the wonderful weather to explore a number of the parks that were in walking distance from Kate’s. While the trails were somewhat muddy from the rains they had recently received prior to our arrival, the landscape was a vibrant green with little meadows interspersed between more heavily wooded areas. There was a little swing set tucked back next to a theatre that we stopped at to let Charlie have a quick swing and he absolutely loved it.
We weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the wonderful weather as you can see in the photo below of the long line in front of Brussel’s version of an ice cream truck, the waffle van! We couldn’t help but have one ourselves and it was absolutely delicious.
Since the main reason we went to Brussels was to see Kate, we tried to make the most of the evenings we could spend with her once she was back from work. One night she made a phenomenal roast chicken dinner that was perfectly crisp with succulent meat and delicious vegetables. After that night though we decided it was best to make it easier on all of us and relax at one of her favorite local establishments, O Liban. It was a bit of a walk but worth every step as the service was fantastic, very accommodating for the three of us and little Charlie, along with phenomenal Lebanese food. The seating was quite limited but made for a more cozy feeling that brought us back another time to eat and yet another time take food back to eat in. Definitely need to get reservations if you want to make sure to have a seat.
The other benefit of taking a vacation to Europe during the Chinese New Year is the chance to get some medical care for Charlie that isn’t available in China. One of the challenges we face in China is getting reliable vaccine supply both in terms of safety of the supply chain as well as purely availability since clinics will randomly run out of certain vaccines or some aren’t even available at all in China. So whenever possible we will try to make arrangements to get Charlie in to see a doctor if we are traveling. While it took a while to find a hospital willing to accept an international patient that didn’t speak French, once we did it was really quite easy. Experiences like this one continue to reinforce how broken the medical system is in the US. I was able to make an appointment a few weeks prior to our trip, arrive on time and see the doctor within 15 minutes and know exactly how much I would need to pay for the vaccination. Charlie cried a bit but handled it much better than previous shots so that helped too!
Viva Brussels Tours
While the main purpose of the trip was to visit Kate, another friend of mine from my previous work at P&G, Herwig, had just moved back to Brussels from Shanghai so we wanted to find time to meet up with him and his family if possible. Since his kids had grown up for much of their lives outside of Brussels, Herwig was already looking for tours to take them on as the week we were there happened to also be a public school holiday. He had heard good things about Viva Brussels Tours so we signed up to do a couple of the tours they offered on the weekdays while Kate was at work. The concept is really quite good as in theory you could pay nothing but with an enthusiastic guide and a healthy dose of peer pressure most everyone on our tours paid 10-20 Euros at the conclusion of the tour. Plus the amount you feel you need to pay really is a direct result of the quality of the guide as we only gave our first guide 10 Euros since they really didn’t seem so passionate or knowledgable while we gave our second guide 20 Euros since they not only made the tour interesting but entertaining as well.
Day Trips outside Brussels
In between the organized tours we did in Brussels, we went out to a small town called Mechelen (read the dedicated blog post here) that is to the north of Brussels and about 45 minutes away by train. We also as went to a city called Ghent that was a bit further away that Kate drove us to on the weekend. (read the dedicated blog post here) Both of these were surprisingly easy to get to with a lot of cool churches, town squares and architecture to admire as you wander around the streets. These side trips along with all the sights in Brussels left us really pleasantly surprised by how much there was to see and do around Brussels.
Favorite Snapshots from Brussels