Visiting Belgium with a baby

We got our little one’s passport sorted and booked her first trip to Belgium to properly welcome her into the family! She was just under 3 months old and we headed off to Ghent, a city we are fairly familiar with. Like my article on travelling while pregnant, I found very little info on the internet about travelling with a very young baby (other than information specific to flying). Maybe most parents don’t have the same Belgium withdrawal symptoms that we do!

Our trip was actually really successful, despite me being really nervous beforehand. We had a great time, as did the little one (we assume… I mean she didn’t cry the entire time so that’s a start!)

Before I get into the swing of things, I just want to say we found it really simple to get our baby’s passport sorted, although we do find it funny that her baby photo will stay with her until she’s five! There’s a link to the government website for passport applications at the bottom of this article.

Luggage

Babies are pretty simple in terms of luggage- they need to poo, eat and sleep. Pack accordingly!

Essentials

Nappies and wipes are important, but just as easy to find in Belgium as they are in England! You should have an idea of how many you get through a day, so just pack what you need and don’t go overboard. Don’t forget any medication your baby needs and suncream if it’s going to be hot.

I breastfeed. Having mooched the internet a little I found that breastfeeding rates are pretty low in Belgium. Legally, women do have the right to breastfeed in public anytime, anywhere like we do in the UK. At the same time I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about breastfeeding in public in a foreign country where it wasn’t so common (and is it even that common in the UK?) so we packed all of the formula stuff, and I even ordered a special bottle warmer. As it turned out, I felt completely fine feeding her in public. It was an excuse to have a sit down in a bar every couple of hours! I got no odd looks or comments and even spotted another lady breastfeeding. So we didn’t even unpack the formula equipment from the car when it came to it. But I was glad we took our formula so we had the option.

Make sure you pack a lightweight pushchair- if you’re walking around on cobbled streets for a whole day you really don’t want to be lugging your big Silver Cross travel system around. We invested in a lie-flat stroller with a pull-down sunshade. It was great- not a hassle at all, easy to manoeuvre around and because it was lie-flat our newborn was comfortable and able to nap in it. She actually napped really well during the day as the cobbled streets jiggled her to sleep! If it’s going to be dry but not too hot a baby carrier or sling would also be good.

An extra tip- if you need a kettle for sterilising or making up formula, make sure your hotel room will have one! We stayed in the Ibis in Ghent, where we had stayed before. We had a feeling there hadn’t been a kettle and tripadvisor reviews confirmed that. So we did bring our own as we use it to sterilize her dummy. It’s one of those things you might not think of but could be really important and if you’re travelling in a car it doesn’t take up much of your space.

Clothing

With a baby, it’s easy to get through a few outfits a day with sickiness and poo and all sorts of other possibilities. Baby clothes are also unsurprisingly small so pack a couple of spare outfits, but remember that if you’re travelling to a city like we did there are lots of shops with baby clothes at reasonable prices, so there’s no need to overpack! (Also, what a cute momento for your baby’s first trip abroad). Keep in mind the weather… if you’re travelling from the UK it’s usually a similar temperature so pack accordingly. We travelled in late May and the predictions were warm but wet so we just packed lots of sleepsuits and vests, and then a couple of extra blankets. Easy, small and versatile. Suitable for daytime or nighttime. Lots of layering possibilities if needed.

Remember also how a little vomit can ruin not only your baby’s outfit but also your own, so pack an extra outfit for yourself too!

Just in case you do need to buy a baby outfit, be aware that the sizing can be confusing! It’s measured by the baby’s height in centimeters and goes up in 6s. Here’s a quick rough guide:

UK Size                    European Size

Newborn                 50
0-3 months             56
3-6 months             62
6-9 months             68
9-12 months            74
12-18 months          80
18-24 months         86
2 years                     92

Sleeping

We brought our baby’s Moses basket with us. Having the car with us, and it being her first trip away we wanted somewhere familiar for her to sleep in case she struggled. The hotel had put up a travel cot for us anyway but we chose not to use it. I was a bit nervous about a hotel travel cot and had visions of a dirty or unsafe rickety old cot… unlikely when you think about how serious the implications of anything less than perfect could be! In reality, we were really impressed by the cot we were provided with and have since used hotel supplied travel cots with no problems. We do bring her sleeping bag though so she at least has something that smells familiar to her. But for Ghent I needed the security knowing she had a familiar space to sleep in.

Accommodation

Belgian hotels are generally family friendly, and often have really nice family rooms. Having a central hotel is handy so you always have somewhere local to retreat to if baby needs some time out. The best options, we thought, are either a self-contained self catering place or a large anonymous chain hotel. The former is handy if you want to be able to put baby to bed and then sit up in a different room drinking, eating, chatting etc. We went for the latter which meant come baby’s bedtime around 7pm we were confined to the hotel room. We tended to buy a couple of beers from the local Carrefour Express or the hotel bar and drink them in the room while chatting and watching the TV (in our Ibis we had access to about 4 English speaking TV channels including BBC 1).

Travelling

I’ve already written about how to get to Belgium here, but when travelling with a baby there are a few extra things to consider. Things to consider:

  • Continuous time in the carseat for the baby. Current guidelines are that a baby has a break from the carseat every two hours. We drove from Leicestershire to a Premier Inn half an hour away from the Channel Tunnel, stopped over the night and then took an early train over to France in the morning. That way she had a break and there were no pressures on us to get to the Tunnel by a certain time. I also got to breastfeed under the sea which was something I’d been excited to do! (and change a pooey nappy, which I was less excited about!)
  • The law. A baby in a car must be in a child seat or child restraint. The only vehicle a baby doesn’t need to be in some sort of restraint is a taxi.
  • Eurostar (as a foot passenger) have baby changing facilities on board, as well as family carriages with more tables and luggage space for pushchairs etc.
  • If flying, remember that baby food and formula milk may not make it through security!
  • Parking. Parent and child spaces are available in larger public car parks. Otherwise, car park spaces tend to be a little larger than in the UK. Most hotels are happy for you to pull up outside the front if that’s possible so you can get the baby out before parking up.
  • Make sure you have a window shade, especially if it’s going to be hot.
  • If you like to bring a lot of beer back and find your baby is taking up too much valuable car space, invest in a roof box. I’m partially joking, but we got offered one to borrow over whatsapp JUST AFTER we’d set off so it was too late. Carl was gutted!

Eating and drinking

Most restaurants and bars in Belgium are family friendly, especially in warm weather when you can sit outside. We managed to eat out every evening without any problems. The only thing we did differently was book a table for early evening instead of around 8 or 9pm. It’s important to know that traditionally Belgians don’t eat the evening meal until quite late compared to Brits, but a lot of restaurants in tourist destinations and cities are still open early enough for families with young children. Just check opening times if you want to eat in a particular restaurant and book if you need to.

Baby Facilities

Baby changing facilities in Belgium are much less common than in the UK. It would be worth googling- for example- “Ghent baby changing” if you’re going to Ghent so you can find out the location of some. We found one in our whole stay, although I’ll admit we weren’t looking as we had a central hotel and so just took her back to the room to change her. HEMA is a shop similar to Wilkinsons I suppose in terms of what they stock and they usually will have a disabled toilet with a pull down changing table. You can usually find a HEMA on the main shopping street of a city. They also sell cute baby clothes pretty cheaply as well as general baby supplies like nappies, wipes etc.

For peace of mind…

Because new parents are prone to panic, the following bits of info are good to know in case of an emergency:

  • The generic emergency services telephone number in Belgium, as across Europe, is 112. There are always English speakers. There’s a link below to a map of all hospitals in Belgium.
  • Emergency telephones for an S.O.S. line are installed every 2km along motorways.
  • Medicines are generally not available from supermarkets, you have to go to a pharmacy. There are always plenty in cities.

Things to do

There’s plenty to do with a baby in Belgium. We mostly just walked, took in the beauty of the place, ate good food and drank good beer. You probably don’t want to be lugging baby up a Belfry, and might want to avoid a museum around feeding time… but generally babies don’t mind what they do so long as you smile and chatter to them.

Links

Federal Public Health, Safety and Environment Service website on breastfeeding

RAC website on driving in Belgium

Guide and online application form for UK child passport

Interractive map of hospitals in Belgium

Visiting Belgium while pregnant

In December-January we travelled over to Bruges to celebrate my 30th birthday when I was heavily pregnant (I was exactly 30 weeks on my 30th birthday!). I looked all over the web for tips for pregnant women but couldn’t find anything at all… maybe it’s too much of a niche subject, but I would have found some information useful so here’s my experience, tips and advice… Obviously my article focusses on travelling to Bruges and Winter time, but most of it would apply to all of Belgium all year round.

Luggage

What to pack when pregnant? Pretty much the same stuff, just be a bit more thoughtful when you’re planning. Comfy shoes are vital. Forget your stilettos, no one wears them around the cobbled streets of medieval Belgium anyway. Layers are useful too, as you never know when you might suddenly start sweating or feel incredibly chilly. Bring at least one comfy but pretty outfit or dress too, it’s too easy to just write yourself off as a lump when you’re pregnant and not bother much with your appearance… you deserve to look and feel attractive! I wore a ridiculously overly dressy dress for lunch on my birthday. I even shed some tears while deciding whether to wear it. Then I thought, stuff ’em, it’s my birthday, I’m pregnant and I want to feel like I’m having some sort of a party. So I wore it, while everyone else was in jeans, and I loved it.

Don’t forget to tuck your maternity notes in with your luggage somewhere. Its highly unlikely you’d need them, but if something were to happen when you’d need medical attention it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Travelling

I’ve already written about how to get to Belgium here, but when pregnant there are a few extra things to consider. Most importantly… the toilet! Things to consider:

  • The amount of waiting around you have to do, and whether there is comfortable seating
  • Accessibilty, reliability and cleanliness of toilets
  • The policies of the company you book with (most airlines and ferries say no later than 36 weeks, train-based transport have no restrictions)
  • Possible motion sickness, especially seasickness

Eating

Most typical Belgian food is fine to eat while pregnant, just remember to get your steaks well done (boo hoo!). Its useful to remember that the European “well done” is often less cooked than the British version, so stress that you want it cooked through. Beer- especially the strong Belgian beers- is obviously off limits. Cheeses and cured meats are popular offerings, especially at the breakfast table. Most restaurants in touristy places have good English menus so you can see exactly what you’re ordering, and if you’re not sure the staff usually have a good enough grasp of English to talk you through the ingredients.

Things to do

This was something that really worried me about visiting Bruges while pregnant- what was I going to do?! A typical break for us involves wandering aimlessly for hours, stopping for regular beers and occasionally going up a tower, round a brewery or on a boat trip. None of this particularly appealed to me as a preggo and with my racing hormones in the run up to our trip it really did stress me out quite a bit.

When we were there I actually had a really good time and got to see a different side of Belgium than I’m used to. Bars were replaced by tea rooms. I found a lovely easy viewpoint of the Markt while everyone else climbed the Belfry. Things in Bruges that I found were definitely off-limits:

  • The Belfry- too many narrow steep steps. I’d done if before so didn’t mind too much. I went for a drink in the Duvel Bar above the Historium and people watched while the rest of my group went up.
  • The Halve Maan brewery tour- not only is it beer-focussed, but there are also a lot of steep steps. I went for a mooch in the local tourist shops, picking up a really cute baby vest and some chocolate! Then I waited for the rest of the group in the restaurant, where we’d booked a table for lunch.
  • Alcohol and late nights! Loving my Belgian beer this was a tough one, but I developed a pretty strong taste for sparkling water. And when I was too tired to stay up late at night I’d retire to bed then get up earlier in the morning. I got to see a whole different side of Bruges- the quiet, peaceful time before all the tourists descend. As it was New Year it was quite eerie walking around the Christmas market before any of the stalls were open.
  • “Free” tours. This is something I always wanted to take but never seem to have in Bruges. I researched them, thinking I might be able to tag along to one, but they’re typically a good two hour long walk and for me I just thought that was a bit too long to be standing.

I still managed to fill the days somehow. Here are some of the things I could do:

  • Waffle tasting!
  • Museums. We discovered the new Torture Museum which, although small, was cheap, interesting, unusual and quirky.
  • Churches. Belgium has some gorgeous churches. We didn’t actually visit any as we’d seen most of them before, but it was something I could have done if we hadn’t.
  • Wandering the streets. Still fine, I just had to make sure I had some comfy shoes on. We walked slowly and took regular breaks. There are plenty of benches in Bruges. I became very familiar with a lot of them.
  • Shopping/mooching. I’m usually one to avoid most of the touristy shops in these sort of cities, and ALWAYS avoid the High Street shopping (I never really understand people who go to a foreign city and then go into the local branch of, say, New Look. Why would you go abroad just to go shopping for clothes you can get at home?). But being pregnant and officially slow moving, there were times when I quite enjoyed just following the slow moving crowd and staring at the pretty window displays.
  • The park. Nice and quiet, peaceful. Particularly special to us as Minnewater Park is where we got engaged. But always a lovely place to visit regardless.
  • One late night- I managed to stay up well past 12 on New Year’s Eve, though I was a bit grumpy standing outside a crowded bar while my co-travellers drank (they were standing outside too, I hadn’t just been abandoned or tied up like a pet dog!) Once the karaoke on t’Zand started up I had a fab night. It’s so family friendly it doesn’t really matter whether you’re drinking or not, you can still have a dance and a good time. We stayed towards the edge of the crowd so I didn’t get squished! And I had a glass of cheap fizz from the supermarket.

Any more ideas, suggestions or questions you have let me know and I’ll do my best to answer them!

Seeking out the Westvleteren Brewery at Saint Sixtus Abbey

westie

The Sint Sixtus Abbey in Vleteren was founded in 1838 is one of the eleven Trappist breweries worldwide, and one of the six located in Belgium. Brewing only 3 different beers, it has a worldwide reputation for taste and quality. In particular, we were seeking out the Westvleteren 12: supposed to be one of the best beers in the world.

The abbey produces one of the lowest volumes of beer at under 5,000 US gallons. This is because the beer is not brewed for financial gain, but purely to keep the Abbey going. Therefore only a small amount is brewed, just enough to make ends meet. This is then sold directly from the Abbey to individuals who have reserved their beer weeks in advance. A small amount is also available from the gift shop in the form of boxed sets including glasses- although there is no guarantee of which beer, or how much, will be available.

As well as the Westvleteren 12 (or “Westie 12” to those of us who try, but fail, to pronounce the whole word correctly) at 10.5% with a yellow cap, the Sint Sixtus Abbey also makes the Westvleteren 8 at 8% with a blue cap and Westvleteren Blonde at 5.8% with a green cap. Bottles come unlabelled, the only indication of the brewery other than the cap being the word Westvleteren embossed in glass around the neck of the bottle. All legally required information is printed on the caps, although some US importers will add a label to comply with local regulations.

We decided to seek out the brewery as a bit of an adventure. We were hoping to get our hands on the legendary Westie 12. As it was around Christmas there was no convenient date for us to book and pick a crate up through the regular procedure, so we had to take our chances on In de Vrede: the on-site café and gift shop.

To get to In de Verde you have to follow a series of local country roads. We found the signage to be fine but others have said there isn’t enough. We did have the GPS on too so maybe we’d have found it harder if we had been relying on maps and signs. It was a pleasant enough journey: we were on our way from the Eurotunnel to Ghent and it was vaguely on the way with a bit of a diversion. From the Eurotunnel it took about an hour to get there along the A16 through France into Belgium, then exiting the E40 at J1a onto the N8 until you reach Vleteren, then following signs for Sint-Sixtusabdij along local streets until you find the Abbey.

In de Verde is not what you expect from a monastery. It is large and modern, with a clean, open-plan, cafeteria style layout. The small gift shop in the corner has an un-reliably stocked selection of beer gift sets, as well as other products of the Abbey such as cheeses and pates. We were lucky enough to get our hands on 4 Westie 12 giftboxes- as there were only 2 of us we didn’t fancy carrying more- although there were others who were unashamedly packing their cars full of as many boxes as they could get their hands on. We stopped for a beer (Carl was driving so he could only have a blonde: I had an 8) and a sandwich for lunch, all of which was really good. It’s worth noting that even when there are no boxes available in the giftshop, the café usually has all 3 beers in stock. Full and (me at least!) feeling a little tipsy, we left after around an hour, clutching our prizes giftboxes and grinning like two Cheshire cats.

All round I’d say the trip was well worth the detour which added about 40 minutes on to our total driving time. One day we’d like to have a go at ordering a crate to bring home but fate just meant that wasn’t the time for us to do so.

Getting to Belgium from the UK

Eurostar
All information in this article assumes you are travelling from Britain. Even still, there may be some information of interest to travellers moving within Belgium.

There are several choices of travel when planning a trip to Belgium – here is an overview. Prices do fluctuate so take them as a guide for comparison. Prices in this article are based on Spring 2015 pricing.

Aeroplane

  • Cost for a couple: from €84 return
  • Cost for a family of 4: from €160 return
  • Time: 1.5 hours from UK to Brussels
  • Advantages: quick, simple and cheap. Cheapest option for a couple.
  • Disadvantages: limited luggage if you want to return with some Belgian “refreshments”.

For such a small country, Belgium has a surprisingly high number of public airports. The airports that serve flights to and from the UK are Brussels and Antwerp (London airports only). Unsurprisingly Brussels is the most used airport- with flights to/from Manchester, London, Nottingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Newcastle, Birmingham and Norwich. Prices are low: during my quick search a flight from Manchester to Brussels on a random date in the middle of the summer holiday 2015 cost €21 one way. The flight takes around 1.5 hours.

Brussels -or Bruxelles airport is a huge international airport, accommodating nearly 22,000 passengers in 2014. Once landed, passengers can easily rent a car, take a bus to the local vicinity (terminal located just below the arrivals hall), catch a train to the wider area (station located below the terminal in the basement). There are also taxis readily available- a taxi into Brussels city centre will set you back about €45 and most local hotels run a free shuttle service.

Bus in Brussels

Using buses around Brussels

The buses can be found in Brussels airport using the escalator from the arrivals hall down to level 0. Buses run into Brussels, which will take about an hour and require a change, as well as local towns (€2 for one trip onboard- tickets for one day or for several trips also available). There are also express services to the European Quarter of Brussels which takes 30 minutes (€6 onboard) as well as to Antwerp (€10).

You don’t need to buy a ticket in advance to get on these buses- just get on the front and pay the driver. Most have a “working knowledge” of English. It is useful to note that most bus services are slightly cheaper if paid for before you board by using a machine on the platform. Buses can get very busy but are very easy to use once you are on- there is usually a small monitor visible which shows you the name of the upcoming stop and changes you can make there. The same goes for trams.

Tickets usually take the form of a plastic chip card which you hold up against a red machine to validate it. Sounds a bit confusing but you’ll see a lot of people doing this so you just copy their lead.

Using trains within Belgium

For travellers arriving in Brussels and wishing to go further afield, the train system is a great way to get about. The Bruxelles-Nat-Aeroport train station runs 6 trains an hour into Brussels North, Brussels Central and Brussels Midi which take under 20 minutes. There are also services direct from the Airport to:

  • Bruges – 90 minutes – approx €15 per person
  • Ghent – 55 minutes –  €9
  • Leuven – 15 minutes –  €5
  • Antwerp -35 minutes –  €7

And these are to just name a few well known places. There are further towns and cities to explore which require changes, such as Ypres (2 hours 30 mins, change at Kortrijk, €25) Liege (1 hour, change in Leuven, €30) etc.

Tickets are available on the internet, from machines and booths at the stations or onboard the trains themselves. Buying your ticket onboard now automatically costs  €7 on top of the normal price so beware! There are several family-orientated schemes: free and reduced price tickets for children and people with certain disabilities plus their carers, as well as first class upgrades for pregnant women. Interestingly, there are also reduced prices for journalists, jobseekers, the military, military veterans and widows and police officers in uniform. The rail system really supports patriotism!

City train stations are usually pretty central and well connected to the local area with buses. A lot of staff speak good English and there are always lots of clear signposts telling you where to go for everything.

Eurotunnel

Eurotunnel – driving

  • Cost for a couple: from €150 per vehicle return, plus petrol
  • Cost for a family of 4: from €150 per vehicle return, plus petrol
  • Time: 30 minutes onboard, 1 hour+ drive from Calais
  • Advantages: only luggage limit is the size of your boot! Take advantage and stock up on beer! Flat rate no matter how many passengers. Freedom and convenience of having a car is always a bonus.
  • Disadvantages: Slower than other methods (although not the slowest).

Our favourite way to get to Belgium is driving our way down to the Eurotunnel in Folkestone then making our way on to our destination. Advance tickets in the summer cost from €75 each way for a short stay (5 days or less) and from €100 each way for longer trips. There are often special offers so keep a look out, and if you’re a Tesco clubcard user save those vouchers up for big discounts!

The drive from the Eurotunnel terminal in Calais to Belgium is easy: you get on the E40 towards Dunkirk and Ostend and just keep going for an hour. French and Belgian motorways are pleasant enough to use, with regular roadside picnic spots and services.

You can get to any city or town in Belgium by car, obviously, but here is a quick guide of times and distances from Calais:

  • Bruges – 1 hour 30 – 70 miles – follow E40 to exit 7A for Brugge.
  • Ghent – 1 hours 45 – 90 miles – follow E40 to exit 13 for Gent.
  • Brussels – 2 hours – 125 miles – follow E40 past exit 20 and into Brussel.
  • Antwerp – 2 hours 25 – 130 miles – follow E40 past exit 14 to E17. Take exit 5a from E17 to Antwerpen-Centrum.
  • Ypres – 1 hour – 60 miles – follow E40 to exit 57 (still in France) to E42. Take exit 14 to D948.
  • Liege – 3 hours – 190 miles – follow E40 for 180 miles.

Eurostar – passenger

  • Cost for a couple: from €144 return.
  • Cost for a family of 4:  from €330 return.
  • Time: 3 hours
  • Advantages: Can move around freely during the journey. Probably most convenient. Children under 4 free if they sit on parent’s lap.
  • Disadvantages: Journey time and price will be higher if travelling further afield (details given for London to Brussels), limited luggage. One of the slowest options.

I used the Eurostar as a walk-on passenger when I was 16, travelling without an adult from London to the south of France with no trouble and I thought it was great. I haven’t used it since but can’t imagine it to have got any less convenient so

Ferry

  • Cost for a couple: from €105 per vehicle return, plus petrol
  • Cost for a family of 4: from €105 per vehicle return, plus petrol
  • Time: 1 hour 30 minutes onboard, 1 hour+ drive from Calais
  • Advantages: Cheapest option for a family of 4 (not taking into consideration petrol costs). Flat price no matter how many passengers. Unlimited luggage.
  • Disadvantages: Probably the slowest option. Can be weather-dependent.

The first time we went to Belgium I insisted on using the ferry instead of the Eurotunnel for the nostalgia (summer holidays in the south of France with my parents). What a mistake! It was New Year, the weather was horrendous, there were delays, and let’s say it wasn’t the smoothest of crossings. If you’re crossing during the summer, you’ve got to consider it because of the price. During the winter, personally, I’d stick to the tunnel.