Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Family-friendly Amsterdam and Brussels

Next year, (yes, I know you think it's too soon to be considering 2016 but the early bird will catch the worm), there are flights for as little as £19 return to Brussels Charleroi from the UK.  Even factoring in city-centre hotels and train fares, an ease-free double-city break to Brussels and Amsterdam is easily do-able for under £500 for a family of four. So, not your conventional 'sun, sea and sand' summer holiday, but a perfect cultural alternative and one which will definitely be remembered, even if only for the outlandish boobs and willies of the Amsterdam souvenir shops!

We flew into Brussels February half-term and were captivated by the city. The monumental architecture, the sheer scale of the square and the Mannekin Pis all served to be free entertainment for our family and a stroll through the cobbled streets was enough to satisfy the kids' interest.  Chocolate, moules-frites and Belgian beer (for mum and dad) were the perfect pick-me-up when tired little legs were flagging.  Even though it was February, the sun shone and the sightseeing kept us warm enough to take coats off and savour the weak winter sun of Belgium.

A little-known attraction of Brussels is the street art and this was a wonderful way to keep the children looking up and apprecaiting their surroundings.  The art is so much more than graffiti, featuring famous cartoon characters,
including home-grown Tintin.  With the quiffed boy-wonder in mind, it's worth mentioning that the new museum devoted to Herge and his creation is also a must-see for families.  At only 5 euros entry fee for children, it's a brilliant afternoon's worth of entertainment with amazing artwork and funky architecture. 

However, the most interesting activity is to take a tour around the European Parliament's Visitor Centre, known as The Parliamentarium.  Tours are free and very kid-friendly; there are specially devised one hour tours aimed at children aged 8-14 and it's a fascinating tour through the workings of the government.  Booked in advance, families can also have guided tours of the chamber and watch as European decisions are debated in the 24 offical languages of the EU.  We were all fascinated by the workings of a parliament in sitting and are now keen to visit our very own Houses of Parliament to compare how things are done!

A night in a city centre hotel was comfortable and, having only travelled with a small cabin-sized suitcase between us, we were easily transportable, having left the suitcase with the concierge as we explored.  A great feed-up in the morning at the breakfast buffet meant that we didn't need much lunch and a pizzeria in the evening was more than enough for the children to fill their tummies.  We left Brussels the next morning raring to go and compare The Netherlands with Belguim.

Only two hours away from Brussels, by train, is the mind-blowing city of Amsterdam.  Having been here several years ago as a single carefree woman, I was hesitant about bringing the kids but I needn't have worried.  As soon as we'd all had a good giggle at the 'interesting' souvenirs and had seen enough phallic symbols to last an eight year-old a lifetime, we were good to go! 

Amsterdam is stunning and it delivered much more than I expected.  We stepped off the train to be greeted by a sea of bikes and trams.  Such a unique city with a vibrant edge unlike no other - the kids were instantly captivated.

We spent hours following canals, waving to people on houseboats and jumping out of the way as tourists on hired bikes careered towards us from every direction.

A gem of a visit is The Van Gogh Museum.  Free to
0-17 year olds, it's exciting for children to see all the 'famous' pieces, such as "Starry Night" and "Sunflowers".  For my art-crazy daughter to see the actual brushtrokes and vibrancy of the colours was a joy.  Her little face lit up when she saw the painting of Van Gogh's bedroom in Arles and, subsequently, we had to spend what seemed like hours in the museum shop, spending holiday money on postcards and pencils.

The most poignant visit of our Amsterdam trip was, of course, Anne Frank's house.  Our eldest had read Anne's diary and was fully prepared for what he'd find and feel.  He found the whole experience incredibly moving and I was proud of his maturity and respect as he walked sombrely around the cramped living conditions endured by the Frank family.  To access Anne Frank's house and the secret annex, it is advisable to pre-book tickets.  Children under ten are free although I'd think carefully about taking very young children into the house.  Our eight year old understood the significance of the building and seemed honoured to visit but she chose not to linger in the exhibitions.  She was slightly bemused by the violence and destruction depicted in the exhibits and I think she was more than happy when I suggested we sit by the canal and wait for her big brother to take his time in reading the personal accounts of war-torn Amsterdam.

So, three days and two countries.  Exhausting?  Yes, definitely.  But this was an amazing opportunity to experience new cultures and to introduce the children to the splendour of our European neighbours.  Only an hour's flight away and the teaching comes alive.  No art poster, no history project and no PSHE book could have taught the children so much in such a few days.  To see real Van Goghs, to stand in Anne Frank's bedroom and to handle salt and pepper pots in the shape of genitalia really does make for a busy couple of days which will never be forgotten.

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