A Birthday Weekend in Brussels

The plan had been to leave Rome as our last big hoorah of the season. I needed to get my house in Virginia on the market and save some money… and the COVID numbers are steadily increasing… so we decided to take a travel break until the Spring. But as Tristan’s birthday approached, I really wanted to do something exciting for him.

For a few weeks I’d been asking him what he wanted to do. I gave him one stipulation: it has to be within driving or train distance. We talked about Paris (I know, I know… but this kid loves crepes). We talked about Berlin and Munich and Switzerland. Finally, we settled on Brussels.

Brussels, Belgium is a mere 3.5 hours from our little home in Germany, making it easily drivable. We left after I’d slept for a few hours post night shift, and arrived close to 8pm. Our hotel was an awesome suggestion from a friend: Warwick Brussels. I was able to pay with my credit card points, which allowed me to splurge on more enjoyable things for my birthday boy.

The hotel was centrally located – only a couple of blocks to the Grand Place square where it all happens in Brussels. The walk to the square is on pedestrian roads, and absolutely adorable.

I loved the mesh of French and Dutch architecture and language. It’s the epitome of a bustling capital city charged with the festive holiday season – lit up with hanging lights lining the streets and the smells of vin chaud (mulled wine or glüwein) and waffles wafting from the nearby markets and food stands. The shelves of souvenir shops are lined with little figurines of the Mannekin Pis, coffee mugs covered with silhouettes the Grand Place and magnets with a variety of different scenes from around the city. We picked our usual magnet and figurine (not the Mannekin Pis), and carried on down to the Grand Place.


What is now the home of the European Union, including the European Parliament, Council of Ministers, and the European Commission, as well as the seat of NATO, Brussels dates back to at least the 7th century, though this date is widely debated. A chapel was constructed on an island in the River Seine by the Bishop of Cambrai in the 7th century. However, in 979, a fortress was constructed by the Duke of Lower Lorriane on behalf of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, which is commonly considered the “official founding” of the city. During the 11th and 12th centuries, another fortress was constructed, and the Duke of Brabant took it up as his residence. It’s during this time that the city began to grow, eventually becoming a bustling Commercial Center.

Reading about the history of Brussels, I found the Middle Ages to be a very interesting time in Brussels. Seven upper class families, known as Lineages, were given privileges in commercial and political decisions by the Duke of Brabant. These families had municipal power and the ability to chose an échevin (a municipal office) and jury each year. Though the yearly voting was meant to keep the families from fighting, the Van den Heetvelde and Van Lombeke families were especially known for their quarrels during the 15th century.

During the 14th century, an uprising of the lower classes lead to a municipal constitution being passed that allowed the power of the Lineages to be shared. Guilds among the artisans and tradespeople of Brussels were also permitted to form guilds. Later in the century, Brussels became the capital of the region after the County of Brabant and Duchy of Burgundy joined together. It then became a part of the Spanish Empire. It wasn’t until 1609 that northern United Provinces gained independence. Brussels became the capital of the Netherlands. In 1713, a treaty was signed and Brussels was given to Austria.

Some years later, the people revolted against Austria, and created the United Belgian States. This didn’t last long, though, as in 1795, the city was captured and annexed to France. When Napoleon was defeated, Brussels became part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands – but 15 years later, a revolution in Brussels gained the country independence.


Walking into the Grand Place

After settling into our hotel, Tristan and I were famished from our drive. We decided to see if we could find the Christmas market and in turn, find some delicious street food. We trekked down the pedestrian streets, until, as Europe truly knows how to do, the Grand Place capped the end of the street and exploded into jaw dropping view.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site was originally built between the 11th and 17th centuries, but destroyed during the Nine Years’ War by French troops. It was rebuilt in the baroque style you know see today.

The buildings the square is surrounded by are of the former Guilds of Brussels, the Town Hall, and the Kings House which is now the City Museum.

The Grote Markt, Dutch for “Big Market”, has seen many years of history. Not only has this square been the marketplace of many bread, meat, linen, and an exceptional amount of other wares, it’s also been the place of beheadings, revolts, and burnings by the Inquisition. It has seen many famous visitors like Victor Hugo and Karl Marx. The town hall has been a hospital during the First World War, and the square was bombed by the IRA in 1979. Now, the Grand Place is fully pedestrian, a beautiful sight towering over the people gathered in the center.


The MIM stands in the background with the turret.

Since it was Tristan’s birthday, I’d focused my research on activities and places that would pique his interest. I’d made a list of various museums and monuments, giving him the opportunity to make the game plan for the day. I allowed him to lead with gentle nudges for lunch and dinner. Saturday, he suggested we go back to the hotel room and have room service for lunch, then take a nap. I gladly obliged. It was a laid back trip with little stress and we had a wonderful time.

The first morning we had delightful breakfast at the hotel before walking through the city to our first of two museums: Musical Instruments Museum. The MIM is housed in one of the Old England art nouveau buildings, renovated beautifully to display the history of the building. Unfortunately, the only photo of the outside of the building I took is the one on the left.

Tristan listening to his favorite instrument: the piano.

The MIM houses an exceptional collection of musical instruments from around the world. When entering the museum, a device is given that allows for the viewer to be able to hear the sounds of the instrument they’re viewing. I think Tristan and I spent a good two hours wondering around the 4 floors of instruments. From prehistoric bone whistles, to the modern guitar, the MIM gave us the opportunity to hear the notes of instruments we’d never seen before. We travelled through Africa and the Far East, Europe, and South American by sound. It was exceptional.

I loved the sounds of the instruments from ancient China and Japan. Tristan loved the sounds of the various pianos, harpsichords, and organs. I absolutely loved the beauty of the intricate details painted on the piano fortes. I highly encourage you to visit if you’re ever in Brussels. You can also take a virtual tour of instruments here.

We visited a small comic strip museum and of course, the Lego store, before heading back to our hotel for lunch in bed and a lengthy nap. Tristan wanted to go out for dinner, so we went on the hunt for the bulk of the Christmas market. We enjoyed the beautiful lights and decorations on our walk, but didn’t enjoy the crowds, so we got our mugs of kinderpunch and glüwein, the trekked back to the The Grand Place to hit the Starbucks for my collectable mug and to hunt down a place for dinner.

The square was lit up as beautifully as ever as we enjoyed dinner before heading back to the hotel. The next morning, we’d had intention of making the short drive to Ghent to visit the castle, but, in the spirit of making it a laid back trip, we headed back home after breakfast in bed.

Tristan enjoyed his birthday weekend with a visit to our 5th new country of 2021. We agreed to return to visit other aspects of this bustling city.

2 responses to “A Birthday Weekend in Brussels”

  1. Happy Birthday Tristan and what a wonderful way to celebrate it. That musical museum is wonderful, thanks for sharing that with us all. I could never get tired of seeing beautiful old buildings (at least in my head). I know that you and Ashley had a fantastic Christmas because you live now where the best ideas of Christmas and winter solstice came from. Hope you both have a exciting new year.


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