The Best of Europe - In Miniature
Most holidays in Belgium start in Brussels, and after exploring the historic centre the natural haven for families is Brupark, the entertainments complex in the north-west of the city where boredom is not an option - whatever age you are.
The outstanding attraction is Mini-Europe - and if there is a better collection of miniature buildings anywhere in the continent, we have yet to find it. There are 350 structures from eighty cities on display, all exactly 1/25th of their actual size, which reduces Big Ben to a very modest four metres in height. It’s still pretty impressive though, and the chiming clocktower alongside the Houses of Parliament are among several British landmarks in the line-up, vying for attention with Europe’s most prestigious historical monuments, from the Acropolis to the Eiffel Tower. Don’t miss the magnificent model of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, which took 24,000 hours of intricate workmanship to complete.
But there’s more to Mini-Europe than a collection of lifeless scale models. The designers took the view that young people want to do more than walk around and look at static objects - they prefer to be both active and interactive: to touch things and make them move. So, they can press a button and the Berlin Wall falls down, just as it did in 1989; press another one and Mount Vesuvius erupts – just as it might do at any moment! There are moving trains, cable cars and gondolas, and you can even ride a miniature bike through the chaos of the Paris rush hour, or follow the TGV on its lightning journey through France.
On the educational side, the complex includes a special exhibition, ‘Spirit of Europe’, which explains how the EU came into being and how it’s grown to embrace 27 different countries, with a new currency and 20 official languages. Young visitors can brush up on their political history while enjoying a virtual game that shows them moving around the continent on a giant screen, and there’s plenty of English signage to help them find their way around.
One of the best times to visit Mini-Europe is on Saturday evening in summer, when there are musical fireworks displays that enhance the atmosphere of this unique and deservedly popular venue.
Bruparck’s other outstanding attraction is the Océade waterpark, where you’re sure to get wet but never cold – even on the chilliest days – because the water temperature is kept at a constant 29°C. There’s an ‘ordinary’ swimming pool with a wave-making machine, as well as a sauna and whirlpool area, but it’s Océade’s eleven giant waterslides, including the longest in Belgium, that set it apart from the rest. The two Cannonball slides launch you down the slope from a metre above the water, and the Hurricane projects you at a speed Ushain Bolt would be proud of: 80 metres in just seven seconds, with an electronic clock to check your time against all-comers. Younger children who can’t cope with these breakneck speeds can use four slides specially adapted to slow them down.
All that activity is bound to make you hungry, and it’s well known that the Belgians don’t hold anything back when it comes to food. Bruparck has just the recipe: an eating and drinking area the size of a shopping mall. The Village is a restaurant, café and bar complex catering for all tastes and budgets, from fast food to fine dining, and the venue is beautifully illuminated in the evening to create a setting as intimate the heart of historic Brussels.
Belgium's Space Age Icon
Presiding over Bruparc - and the whole of Brussels for that matter - is the astonishing Atomium, which looks as fresh and modern today as it did when it first appeared at the dawn of the Space Age to celebrate the World Fair held in Brussels in 1958.
Like the Eiffel Tower and the London Eye, the Atomium was originally intended to have only a limited shelf-life, but its prominent position on the Heysel Plateau, and its inspired design - based on what a molecule of iron would like when magnified 165 billion times - quickly established it as a visual icon of the city to rival the Manneken Pis and the Grand Place itself.
As it entered middle age the Atomium began to show signs of wear, but an extensive facelift completed four years ago has re-established its status as one of the most popular tourist attraction in Belgium.
Five of the nine giant spheres are open to the public, with temporary and permanent exhibitions linked by escalators and stairs, but whatever's showing at any given time, make a point of ascending to the highest sphere of all, where the excellent restaurant has unrivalled views of the capital and beyond, almost as far as the North Sea.
Comic Strip Route
Brussels' appreciation of the Ninth Art extends far beyond the Comic Strip Museum. Giant illustrations by some of the leading comic strip artists can be found on walls and gable ends throughout the city - often in the most unlikely places. You can see most of them by following the designated Comic Strip Route, with or without a guide. It measures about three miles, and is an excellent way of seeing the real Brussels, away from the established tourist haunts.
Artists commissioned to paint a wall are allowed a free hand to create whatever scene they like, as long as it contains one detail which is identifiably Belgian, and they do so with quirky humour you come to expect from the people. One cartoon shows a spectacular firework display - painted on the wall of an actual firework shop. In another, the features of the street shown in the cartoon are an exact copy of the street itself. You will find Tintin and Captain Haddocl near the Eurostar terminal at Gare du Midi, coming down the side of a real building - on a painted-on fire escape !
Comic Strip Museum
Aside from its monuments and museums, Brussels has a quirky, visually expressive pulse best illustrated by the Surrealist paintings of Magritte and the comic strip adventures of Hergé’s intrepid reporter, Tintin. In fact, Hergé is one of a sizeable troupe of comic strip artists who are household names in Belgium, but few of the others have made an impression abroad. Tintin, on the other hand, is so universally popular that you can read about his adventures in Swahili.
The comic strip, known as the Bande Desinée, appeals to something in the psyche of the Belgians that you don’t find in other countries: could it be an unwillingness to take themselves too seriously? Whatever it is, these exhaustively researched, politically conscious and superbly drawn cartoons are known in Belgium as the ‘Ninth Art’, and they’re responsible for half the nation’s publishing output over the last 50 years.
The art of the Belgian comic strip is celebrated in a fine Art Nouveau building in the Lower Town of Brussels. The first thing that catches your eye is a model of the rocket that took Tintin and his dog Snowy to the moon 16 years before the Americans got there for real. There are life-size models of Tintin, Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus in their lunar exploration suits. An interactive gallery shows how comic strips are produced, there’s a large reference library and a permanent exhibition of comic strips from around the world. And if you can’t get enough of Tintin, why not visit the Herge Museum for another fascinating place to visit, outside Brussels.
Natural Science Museum
For kids who can never get enough of dinosaurs (which goes for just about all of them) here’s a traditional style of museum that will produce more grins than groans from the younger fraternity. The star attractions were handed to the Institute on a plate: thirty fossilised Iguanodons discovered in nearby Wallonia 130 years ago. These, along with a host of other prehistoric skeletons, make up the biggest dinosaur gallery in Europe. Another major presentation shows how mammals have adapted to living at the earth’s two poles, and there are further galleries devoted to whales, dolphins and less eye-catching creatures such as molluscs and live insects, which turn out to be as fascinating as anything else on show. A perfect place to while away a rainy afternoon.
Don’t be put off by the fact that the Children’s Museum has been designated as one of the “official exhibition spaces in the world designed to give children the chance to know themselves and others better”. If that makes it sound like one of those places which sets out to educate rather than entertain - and drive everyone to the brink of boredom - think again. The Children’s Museum’s imaginative displays and sets encourage young visitors to role-play in the grown-up world. They can be an actor on a real stage, or pilot a bathyscape into the ocean depths, or drive a tram, sit in a space capsule, fight a fire and have a go at producing a TV programme. It’s so hands-on, they’ll discover skills and interests they never knew they had.
At first sight, this twenty-room mansion house stuffed with toys from the last two centuries seems a forbidding place, but the reverse is true: the outdated museum attitude of “Look, but don’t touch” simply doesn’t apply at the Brussels Toy Museum. Children are encouraged to play with anything that takes their fancy, jostle each other on the merry-go-round and race from one floor to another without someone in uniform telling them to behave. OK, there are no computer games to occupy them, but there are numerous animations and, besides, modern fads will soon be forgotten as they uncover a treasure trove of toys dating back beyond 1830, which makes the earliest exhibits older than Belgium itself. Roll back the years with a nostalgic look at primitive but ingenious mechanical toys, tin-plate train sets, teddy bears and china dolls from long ago – and the beauty of it is that parents and grandparents will be as captivated as the kids.
What can be more fun than to discover the world through the sensations it gives us. Sit down as a fakir, fly as a bird, take a picture of yourself in an impossible box, change your voice into that of an alien, whisper secrets from one parabola to another, dance with your gigantic and colourful shadows… Explore over 90 other scientific experiences and astonishing interactive discoveries.
The Aquarium Public de Bruxelles “Centre d’Aquariologie” is the only public aquarium of the capital. The only one of its kind, it mainly features small aquatic species that are bred, some of which no longer exist in their natural habitat. In 47 aquariums and terrariums, you can explore every continent and ocean: fish, amphibians and invertebrates from around the world. A permanent exhibition to observe, understand, learn, respect, render responsible and be sensitised to the environment.
At the automobile museum, cars are appreciated for their beauty or design or for the quality of their technology. Over 250 vehicles, retracing the evolution of the automobile between 1886 and 1970, are exhibited under the huge metallic structure of the ancient World Palace of the universal exhibition of 1880.
Situated just opposite the Autoworld, this free museum houses 10 centuries of history and military technology, from the Middle Ages to present days through fire arms, armour, uniforms, paintings, sculptures, tanks, planes and personal memorabilia.