Back to Brussels

Family friendly top stops

Visiting this city was more about us, the adults, than the kids. You see, we made the mistake of going to Brussels at the end of a month on the road, and the kids were more excited to lay by the pool at the home we’d rented in Tervuren than wandering around to see yet more buildings or manicured parks. The rain killed that idea, and faced with being at the rental home, as nice as it was, got us out and about. We are glad we ventured to hit the top stops in the city; the others around we’d already been to and I’ve written up (see last paragraph).

One side of the Royal Palace: open July 21 through September
Warning to the out of towners (e.g. Americans)

The cell coverage is seriously intermittent in parts of the city, and after we’d seen our sites, found ourselves in a very unsafe area. Since the cell signal wasn’t picking up, my girls saw a few things that unfortunately, they can’t unsee. On one hand, it was seriously unsafe, and is a side effect of driving yourself. Yet, even as I write this, I must point out that this one really strange, scary detour is the thing we discuss most about Brussels because we saw the “real” city, as opposed to the beautifully manicured part visible to most tourists.


One of the unique characteristics of Brussels we loved were the flower trees built around light posts or trees. A street might be considered “shopping” caliber full of boutiques, or a bit more downtrodden, but the added touches around town meant an eye for detail we appreciated.
Better when done wet

From the moment we drove from Tervuren in to the city, we were so pleased with the relative emptiness of the streets and the speed at which everyone travels. It was positively invigorating to have Rog drive normal and not like the Swiss, who are restricted by the absurdly confining rules of 45 miles an hour practically everywhere. I fear I left permanent nail imprint marks on the passenger door as a way of releasing my frustration. But I digress.

No such issues plagued me in this “beautiful but boring” city as my nine-year-old dubbed it. Entering the city is majestic, the thoroughfair providing the perfect photo of the arch, power lines aside. (As an aside, regular readers know I don’t photoshop my work, firstly because I don’t have the software, the desire to purchase or learn how to use it, nor do I have the time. What you get is what a visitor will actually see, cloud cover and all).

Yeah, I know. Me and “my thing” for colorful doors. I can’t help myself

Being most recently from Seattle, we are used to clouds, but I’ll admit I was wholly unprepared for all  dark grey and rain in late July. After we’d returned to Tervuren, I asked the owner of the home, a flight attendant, about the weather.

“I’ve heard it’s a lot like Seattle, Washington,” he remarked. “This is standard July weather.” Huh. Maybe that’s why the five-bedroom, beautifully appointed home with the pool sitting right beside the Empress’s Palace was so inexpensive, for who, in their right mind would ever come to Brussels in July?

Unwitting American tourists, that’s who. Still, it was a fabulous bargain, we did use the pool one day out of eight (if you count two hours between storms as using it) and it forced us to explore the surrounding countries with more vigor that we might have if the weather had been good.

Shopping and wandering in to cafes (or chocolate shops) is the best
Check the calendar

The Royal Palace in downtown Brussels is great, well, from the outside. It was no wonder we found street parking because we came the day before it opens to the public. ARGGGG!!!. We’d failed to read the fine print on the website (or our phones) that identified in black and white that the Palace opens for tours starting the 21 of July through September. We literally missed it by a single day.

You can zip through the photos that identify exactly what I’d wanted to see…the grand ballroom, the small and large white rooms, the Empire Room, the antechamber…man, all those will remain, for me, things I have only seen in photos on line.

So. Depressing.

You are now saying: “Who cares? You can see it when you go back.” The truth table here is that we aren’t hitting Brussels in our upcoming trip and I can’t see us going back for a while. Compared to the exotic nature of other places to see and things to do, it’s unlikely. I console myself that the digital pics on the internet are far better than what I could take in any case.

For those of you with children, I wish I’d seen this site for kids on the monarchy prior to going. At least it would have been educational, informational and fun for them in the car.

The Cinquantenaire Park is awesome (for the adults) because the majesty of the structure got no more than a gnat-like look from our girls.

We meandered the park as long as it took to get our kids to pose for some photos then piled back in to the car at made it to the Aboretum. This Aboretum is another word for Park Tervuren, which I covered in another blog. Then it was the Antomium, which deserved its own write-up as well.

Feature picture: a view of the street from the Royal Palace

Top castles around Prague

Close and far, Karlstejn and Cesky are not to be missed

When we were visiting the Karlstejn Castle outside Prague, I had roughly ten minutes of wait-time while Roger waited in the ticket line with the girls. Me being me, I’m scoping the scene before me, immediately zoning in on a tall man with a slobbering bull mastiff by his side. I wander over, dropping down to my knees, asking if I can pet his beautiful male mastiff. His eyebrows raised, and then it occurred to me I was awfully arrogant thinking the man could speak English.

“Of course, you may,” he replied in perfect English albeit with a Czech accent.

We get to talking because I’m an author, I ask questions, and learn the dogs name is Saffron, as in the herb. The reason he was outside the castle instead of in, was because it has a no dogs allowed policy, which he didn’t know. I learn he’s a contractor who specializes in private homes, and was a wealth of information what to see and visit.

The wonderful man who told us about Czesky and let me pet his beautiful mastiff Saffron!

“Have you been to Cesky Krumlov?” he asked me. Before I could answer, he told me I definitely need to go. “It’s the best thing you’ll see in the Republic.”

That was quite a statement, especially since we’d been in and around Prague, but he was so fervent I told Rog about it, and after we finished with our day at Karlstejn Castle, we cleared the deck for the next day and went.

KarlstejnCastle

This is a castle on the smaller side compared to Czesky Krumlov and the Prague Castle, but it has features we enjoyed. The 30-minute walk up on the white stones, and the tour takes less than an hour. The services are quite limited in terms of food and gifts, but the views are lovely. Because of its convenience to Prague, and it’s Gothic structure, it’s considered one of the top tourists’ destinations. You might think it would be really busy, but it wasn’t. We walked right up, and twenty minutes later we were in.

The walk up to Karlstejn almost resembles this rocky terrain–kidding–not kidding. It’s the opposite of Cesky

A few of my favorite snapshot memories are the small gardens below the walkways connecting the two buildings that were used for the ladies of the castle. The tour was also fantastic. We were incredibly grateful the majority of our small group of 12 spoke English (we were with a group of Australians) or we would have had to hear the tour in German and their rules is majority rules.

The original walkways connecting the buildings and the outer gardens below

What struck us most about this building were the size of the rooms, which are all compact, but we understood why when we got to the staterooms. The original, wooden beds where the King slept was sooo small!! And the height of the doorways was also very small. Back then, the people overall, were quite a bit shorter than we are today. The paintings were amazing, and we were most struck by the room where all the portraits of the royals hung around the room. The chapel stands out, and above all, near the end of the tour, we saw the replicas of all the tiaras and jewels. The real ones had long since been replaced with fakes, but they were still pretty neat to see (boy, those real jewels are HUGE).


Cesky Krumlov and the town of Cesky

According the history, the town of Krumlov was created around the castle by the Lords of Krumlov. Over 300 medieval buildings surround the town, along with the Vltava River. The grounds are large, the river wandering around the base of the castle goes through the town and beyond. We parked probably ten minutes from the castle, and walked through the town to get to the castle. Unlike the short tour of Karlstejn, this castle and town requires a day trip.

An original lower entrance for Cesky, and the Vltava River where you can boat, canoe or swim alongside

Forty buildings reside in the castle complex, with galleries, towers, churches, most open to the public. We thought one of the greatest parts was walking up the long entry way used by the previous Lords of the castle. Imagine being in a horse-drawn carriage and entering a long, stone laid driveway that’s 100% covered, the ground treatment perfectly laid and matched in the color of muted yellow. As I mentioned to Rog, it was the medieval version of the Batcave entrance except above ground.

The drive for those in the carriage might have been a few minutes, but to walk, it was about twenty. You go up, and up, and up, and I regret not taking pictures, but I was working hard!

Sorry about the iPhone pics but this was the best I could do! Left: the restaurant we ended up eating at (where they were nice–keep reading), right: walking from town to the Castle.

Then the levels and options within the castle are many, as are the perches, each providing unobstructed views down to the town. The original Lords knew how to position the castle, but we didn’t see a single view which wasn’t magnificent.

Almost lost a daughter

One of the things we love about Europe is the general lack of rules, restrictions and sometimes, guardrails. If you see a dangerous animal and want to put your hand it, no second line of protection stops you. It’s more like the universal DNA test of nature; if you are dumb enough to stick your hand in, then you deserve to lose it.

Colorful and quaint is the town

So, it was with Cesky Krumlov. No long-fanged carnivores, but multiple ledges without protective rails. My precocious six-year-old jumped up on one ledge and nearly toppled over the edge, which would have been a 700-foot drop to their death. I’d been partially turned to Rog when she leapt up, turned just in time to grab her foot while my other daughter caught her waist. We were able to stop her forward momentum, my oldest daughter at nine and myself just held her tight, and then I pretty much lost it. Never before or since have I ever gotten that close to death, and all I can say is this: watch your kids because it’s Europe, and I’m pretty sure I was the one who’d have been arrested for not being mindful.

A pic of the town of Cesky through a peek-hole, and the embrace after our youngest almost fell off the ledge….still shaking.

The trip is going to take you roughly 4-5 hours, because we kept to the speed limit and it was 4.5. We arrived around eleven, just as it started to sprinkle, but it stopped as we were inside, and we thought the grey clouds totally romantic. The tour we took was in English and completely worth it.

We then went down in to town for dinner, taking our time to walk up and down the streets. From the small, original bridges covering the brooks and streams to the bistros, cafes and restaurants, we were enchanted.

We had only one unfortunate experience during our time in Cesky, and this actually was relatively common in our journeys: it’s what I call kid-discrimination. The fact is that not all destinations, restaurants or eateries welcome kids, even those who are quiet and well-mannered. We entered to two restaurants—not bars, mind you, but actual eateries, and at the first, the hostess said: “We don’t serve children.” As we saw teens probably 13 and above, we were perplexed, but left. We walked a few doors down and although the male host scowled when he saw our girls, he sat us anyway, but get this, not on the main floor, next to the water, where four tables sat open (picture the windows open, the stream going by—enchanting), but he put us upstairs, in the far corner where the windows were closed and no air conditioning. Again, we were perplexed but went with it, right up until others were being served and we weren’t-water or menus. Finally, after about ten minutes, we just got up and left.

On the way out, Roger had a word with the host, and he straight up told Roger that restaurants are for adults and we should have known better. Well, then!

Culture is culture, and we weren’t delusional enough to think that we could change opinions and attitudes, so we adjusted our approach. Very politely, we approached the next restaurant, also by the Vltava River and still in town, asking the host if they minded children. He smiled and said “Of course! Come in!” We proceeded to have the most glorious, authentic dinner of pork, potatoes, noodles, soups and my favorite, hot chocolate that was more like thick, hazelnut mousse.

This is how happy I am when the chocolate hazelnut mousse is as thick as pudding. Yum!

Cesky was, and still is, hands down, our favorite town outside a castle, and we have another full day booked for our upcoming trip this summer.

Couldn’t help myself–I’d taken another selfie with Saffron just to show how big he was and how much he slobbered. LOVE that dawg

Feature photo: taken from one of the decks at the Karlstejn Castle

Prague Zoo is a Must do

Bring the spray bottle and wear comfortable shoes

When it comes to zoobies (those whom I lovingly refer to zoo-snobs), most refer to San Diego if you are from the States, the Bejing Zoo if the far east, or Moscow. Very rarely does someone throw out “the Prague Zoo”, even though it’s in the top five zoo’s in the world if you are into counting the number of species (650) and acreage (100ish). My pictures from what we saw are few–I was so enthralled I lived in the moment instead of capturing it to look at later. Oh well.

Another lazy afternoon
East and West, endangered and not

On the last trip, we didn’t plan a full day, and were only able to see the ‘east’ side of the park. This time around, we are going to make sure it’s the ‘west’ side, and not just because our girls have continued to bring it up. They are expecting to see wonders akin to the big cat exhibit, the giant tortoises, the aviary and the giant salamander of the east.

When I’m talking giant, these creatures are massive, especially the Salamanders. I mean, what other zoo has a section devoted to the Komodo dragon like creatures? None that I can think of, but then, I’ve only been to a dozen, not sixty, so feel free to correct me on that one.

We arrived late afternoon and three hours was hardly enough to even see a majority of one side. We got in the massive aviary, two rides on the gondola (which we almost failed to take because we barely had enough coinage, which was required) and it was so hot we were practically passing out (late July is hot hot hot).

So big and tough it needs a gondola

Not kidding. My feet were so grateful I could have cried when we stumbled upon it. The gondola splits the huge zoo in half, which saves the long trek up the rocky terrain to reach half the exhibits. This place is going to make you sweat, so bring a water bottle that sprays, and be glad they were smart enough to place misting stations all around the park.

These chair lifts (what they call the gondola) are definitely not US approved, but do the job (keeping your feet from swelling)

Another unique attribute of the zoo is it has the highest count we’ve ever found of endangered species, at 175. That’s awesome but sad at the same time. It’s always hard for us to see beautiful creatures confined, but at the same time, pragmatism rules: we’d rather of one or two of one species than none at all.

Family playground

Let’s face it: sometimes kids aren’t all that fascinated with big cats, salamanders or flamingos. For this, the Czech’s have a solution and it’s called a wonderful Robinson Cruso island like play area. Wooden boardwalks, neandrethal-size alligators to crawl in, on and around. A swimming area also exists, but we were unprepared for this and didn’t want the kids to get soaked in their only set of clothes.

Aside the family area are other activities like a train which was great. (Who doesn’t like trains, really?)

Family playground area is lovely and diverse–and has a train!
What to bring

Your stroller for kids, but understand they aren’t allowed on the gondola, because it’s more like a ski chair lift, and if you are used to the ones in States, which are uber safe, this is more like–hey, here’s a seat buckle, get on and get in. I was seriously panicked with our girls, who were 6 and 9 at the time, but I just held on tight and prayed. Halfway up I chilled out and enjoyed the landscape below.

Change for tokens, because the gondola requires change or tokens (at least the last time we visited that was the case). This is also a Crone area–not Euros, so be ready to do the conversion. Ticket prices for 2019 is here.

Never fear (well, fear a little)…some shade does exist around the park–these huge tress are down by the aviary

The spray bottle. We picked these up in the US and brought them over–you can drink from the top and spray out a separate nozzle. That said, spray stations are located throughout the park, so you won’t completely die of heat stroke. Only partially…because our water ran out and the lines for free water were super long.

Swimming suits, just in case you want to cool off.

Feature picture: Prague Zoo large cat exhibit

Perfectly Prague

For solo-travelers, couples in a blissful state of romance or families looking for affordable fun, Prague is truly perfect

Do you like castles and paddling in your own boat on the river? What about cheap food and luxury clothes for 10% of regular cost? Are you a fan of the Triple XXX movie with Vin Diesel? What about seeing the remains of Lucy, the 4M yr old artifact, or an Andy Warhol painting in person? I answered yes to all of the above after I’d been there, but I’ll be the first to admit that when we book Prague as one of our home bases for a month-long trip, I picked it mostly out of convenience. Throw stones if you will, but my glass house is now bullet proof, because we keep going back, and in a mere six weeks, will be there once again.

This is the first of a multi-part series on the city and the surrounding areas, because it’s perfect for solo-travelers, couples in a blissful state of romance or families looking for affordable good times.

Book your stay and get ready to walk

Prague is one of the most popular destinations in Europe; and for good reason. Old town is walking distance to some of the most famed sites in the country; The Prague Castle, the Astronomical Clock, the old town main square and museums. The town attracts the visitors by the thousands because compared to so many other countries because it’s so unique and blissfully inexpensive. In a single day, you can hit the major hot spots in town, take your selfie and go. Here’s what you can do:

Park in Old Town, (or take the metro), and walk to St. Charles Bridge. The best times or morning or early afternoon, because during the summer, when the sun goes down, it’s a wall-to-wall visitor’s and pretty tough to take a picture. That said, in June, the crowds are quite sparse, so if you have the chance, go between now and mid-July and it’s not so bad.

This is a backward view when you are on the famed St. Charles Bridge. Old Town is in the distance, the tightly stacked buildings narrowing the crowds walking to the bridge.

Walk up one side of the river (river name) cross anyone of the many bridges and walk down the other side. Doing so gives you lots of pictures of both sides of the waterfront.

Paddle boats afford great photo opps that are impossible unless you have a long lense

Stop and rent a paddle boat on the Vltava River. This sounds cheesy, but it’s great fun. You paddle and pause to take a photo of the waterfront or colorful buildings, then stop at any of the sidewalk eateries for a long sausage and drink. Do you need to reserve in advance? Absolutely NOT. The site I referenced shows a great picture of the main rental area on Zofin Island, right across from the National Theatre. You can’t miss it. During our time, we rented a boat three times, and two out of the three, we just walked up, chose the type of boat we wanted and hopped right in. The single instance we needed to wait, it was sunset on a very hot day, and stood for 30 minutes until a boat became available. The time is limited (you can choose 30 min, an hour or more), but it’s long enough to go all the way up and one side of the river and down the other. FYI- barriers prevent you from going too far in either way.

If you’re going to be eccentric, let your choice of paddle boats say it all for you.

Don’t be shy—jump in the gerbil balls, releasing your inner child. I wasn’t going to get into a rubber ball, floating on the river while it was tethered to the side until after I saw my own kids. I didn’t notice or care about the heat wave of 100+ temperatures because I was racing along the bottom, trying to bump into my kids!

Put the pride aside and zip yourself into a gerbil ball. It’s hilariously terrifying.

Walk up to the Prague Castle. It’s going to take about 20-25 minutes from the opposite side of the river, but it’s not difficult; flat, then the rise at the end as you walk up the incline. To our slight disgust, the first thing you see at the top is a portable Starbuck’s, which we thought was the tragic commercialization of a castle, but alas. What can you do? There’s a McDonald’s in plain view of the Duomo Cathedral in Milan, so we just ignored it and moved on.

A view from the Prague Castle

During two visits, filmmakers were making major motion pictures (no, Vin wasn’t in site) but the handsome polize were. They laughed at the blond American asking in terrible Czech if they’d mind posing, but were more than happy to do so.

Cajoling the security squad from the movie to take a snap

After you tour the outside and surrounding areas, you’ll probably be in it about 5-6 hours. Now’s the time to let the sun go down, pick a spot within the main square of Old Town and eat a casual meal The reason? Because the best pictures of the clock are taken during the evening. Of course, you’re not the only person who knows this, so be prepared for a lots of people. Tours are interesting, and we did one, but I don’t think it’s required. Just standing in the square, watching the performers and planning where you’re going to eat your next meal.

When you take a cab, these are the images you miss…looking over the edge of a bridge to the water as you walk up (or down) to Prague Castle.

Alternatively, if you’re not tired, and ready to do a bit more walking, then head in the opposite direction, away from the Castle. Across the bridge, through the shopping areas of Old Town, and up the long boulevard that leads to what is known as Wenceslas Square. Believe it or not, we found parking spots right on the main street-so it’s possible! Treat it just like Los Angeles parking and you’ll be completely fine!

Luxury for less: finding the best accomodations

Call me crazy, but I love a good deal, and for those who know me, a good deal doesn’t equate to going on the cheap. When I say I got a good deal, that’s code for “I got the luxury I want without paying triple.” In other words, I want the Four Seasons experience without the overhead, both financial and mental. (Can you hear the glee in my voice as I type this?)

This article is the first of what will be an on-going, detailed account of our accommodations. I do realize that by exposing our secrets, they will be secrets no more, but that’s my gift to you, the reader, traveler and explorer. If more people know travel can be both luxurious and economical, they’d do it more!

Our criteria: location, cost and convenience

When we travel for two weeks, we find a “home base” from which we can drive to lots of destinations. This allows us to get a major cost break for staying more than five days. We have found one pays a lot more when the stays are minimum, such as 2-3 days. Anything over five days can usually be negotiated down quite dramatically. 7-10 days is optimum.

For instance, during a four-week vacation, we picked Belgium, and specifically, Tervuren, for eight days. From this location, we visited many destinations in Brussels, the Netherlands and France. Using VRBO, we found a 5-bedroom, four bath, two story home with an in-ground pool. It was road off Park Tervuren, also known as the Empress’s Park. That meant it was also a ten-minute walk from the quaint downtown. It had garage parking for two spaces, and all the facilities one expects in a lovely home.

Luxury on Lake Cuomo: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, private elevator and rooftop terrace. Every door opening to a private terrace

The price? $1,200 US. That’s right. All that for $150/night. A comparable location in Brussels central (twenty minutes away) first off, wasn’t even available. Homes don’t have pools, and aren’t for rent unless you are paying diplomat fees, which are about $10K/month, or $2,500 a week. Hotel rooms are about $400/night, and a family needs two. (Our family does anyway. Don’t know about you, but we believe in intimacy while on vaca).

To provide another example, in Vienna, we found a 2-story, 3-bedroom downtown apartment near the Palace. It was $1,400 for a week. In Prague, it was a 2-story, 3-bedroom modern apartment about three blocks from old town for $800. Both places were penthouses, with decks, by the way. Where did we find such deals? VRBO. Don’t worry, I’ll be posting more in-depth reviews with more pics on each in that country section.

Two-story penthouse in Prague, modern, private decks and triple security (inner/outer doors)
VRBO and Airbnb

Generally speaking, hate mail doesn’t resonate with my soul, but on this topic, I’m going there, no matter what comes. In our experience (underline, bold and with emphasis), VRBO is the only way to go for travel, for the following reasons, each one vital to the safety and security of our family.

  1. Vetting. VRBO seems to have a process for background checks/screening, credit/reputation, management of the property and overall, quality listings. Compare this to Airbnb, where anyone looking to sublet out a room, couch or whatever can just throw it up and list it. It’s sort of like buyer-be-ware.
  2. Quality. Along the lines of the above, you can rent chalets, mansions, apartments, flats and just about everything in between. The next time I want to entertain 40 of my best friends, I’ll snap up that lakeside mansion on Lake Cuomo for $10K for 2 weeks, but until then, I’m super happy I got the two-story, 3-bedroom penthouse with it’s private elevator on the waterfront of Bellagio (which sits on a peninsula Lake Cuomo) for $1,100 for eight days. The accommodations, whatever they may be, must be true to representation, or risk getting a bad review, which results in the owner (and associated location) being banned from VRBO. This accountability really is fantastic for us travelers.
  3. Management and payment. On VRBO, most of the locations have an on-line calendar for direct booking. Depending on the location, direct communication is required with the owner and/or manager of the site. A small deposit is usually required, but we have learned over the years that negotiation is always possible—e.g. small deposit, part cash when we arrive if all is in order, and then the remainder of the cash when we check out. This makes it a 1/3, 1/3, 1/3, reducing the risk of the site being awful and us getting stiffed.

    On that note, we have read horror stories about travelers paying half and showing up to find that the place doesn’t exist, the reviews were fake and someone took their money and ran. These were 100% Airbnb, never VRBO. Still, one can never take chances. If the owner/manager doesn’t get back promptly, the dates show up then disappear on the calendar, or other anomalies, they are red flags. Nothing is worth the risk of standing on foreign land without a place to stay
View off the deck of the 5th story penthouse on Lake Zurich. Most buildings are modern with natural treatment for roofs. Down the cobblestone lane (beside this building) is the waterfront. The apartment, waterfront and surrounding yoga studio and eateries are all featured in the Danielle Grant trilogy.
More on Parking

It’s not always possible to get a place with its own parking spot, so in those cases, we use a local garage. In Vienna and Prague both, the $10 daily fee (for a week rate) was nominal. Day rates can be higher, but we never paid more than $20/day. If your location doesn’t offer parking, ask your contact about local parking availability so you come prepared.

Final notes on rentals

When locating a home base for our travels, we look for laundry facilities and air conditioning. For Americans, many are shocked to learn that the majority of non-hotel accommodations (and even quite a few hotels) around Europe lack air conditioning. One must look, double and triple check these things or else you will be in for a nasty surprise. It’s usually in the ‘details’ section of the listing, along with things not allowed—think dogs, and quite a few places don’t allow children. On that note, we’ve found that if we identify the ages of our children, and that they are girls, we’ve had pretty good luck. Sorry to say that discrimination against young boys does exist, and there’s not a darn thing you can do about it but look elsewhere.

Feature image: taken from the balcony of the penthouse villa in Lake Cuomo