Giant balls of steel, and a European Odyssey – review of the Atomium and Mini Europe in Brussels

 

As we prepared for our Brussels visit I kept coming across images of this massive strange looking giant atom structure. At 102m tall, this atom is magnified to 165 billion times the size of an iron crystal. Constructed out of 24,000 tonnes of steel, the nine spheres house a range of different functions. The Atomium is an imposing and intriguing structure on the outskirts of Brussels. 

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Atomium in Brussels

Not quite as high as our summer visit to the Burj Khalifa,  but with specular views nonetheless across the city of Brussels and wider Belgian countryside. We took the lift (once the fastest lift in Europe) straight to the top to see the 360 degree view. Hard to believe that this time last year Miss 11 was pretty terrified of heights. The ‘exposure therapy’ at the top of the Empire State Building last Halloween has worked its magic, as without a blink she looked out at the beautiful views across the area. It felt surreal to gaze below at these balls of steel with the sun reflecting off them. 

A number of the spheres house an interactive museum on the history of the creation. Initially built for the 1958 World Expo, the first one after the World War,  but so loved by the Belgian people that it has become a permanent feature in the Brussels landscape the Atomium feels a bit like a national treasure.

Connecting each sphere is a total of twenty tubes, some with light filled elevators that make you feel you are blasting off to the moon on a futuristic space trip.

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Other spheres host temporary art galleries and we were invited to the opening weekend of the Bruegel- a poetic experience. This immersive and interactive exhibition celebrates the 450th anniversary of the death of Pieter Bruegel, the famous Renaissance painter.  We enjoyed exploring his paintings feeling like we were part of the oversized images. The temporary exhibition is open until September 2020, check it out if you are in the area. 

 

Miss 11’s favourite ball was the mini spheres within a sphere that allow school groups to come and stay for a night in the little sleeping pods.  She loved that idea, and thought it a good one for a school trip.

 

An unusual afternoon, but one that is worth a visit if you are visiting Brussels, it is incredible to see the scale and size of the Atomium. 

 

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Next door, is Mini Europe, an opportunity to travel around all of Europe in a few hours.  What more could a wanderlust like me and Miss 11 want? Spending our time reflecting on the adventures we have taken, and where next to explore in Europe. 

Mini Europe is a miniature homage to the 27 countries that make up the European Union at a scale of 1/25 the size of buildings. We loved it, if you like the miniland in Legoland this will be a perfect location.  It is educational as well as entertaining, and the adults seemed to be enjoying it as much as the children, sometimes more so with the miniature trains, planes, and automobiles. A family attraction in many ways. 

It opened in 1989, and has been added to over the years as the EU has expanded, now with 350 models. There is something to represent every country, no matter how small. We travelled through Belgium, explored the Brussels we had seen in our walking tour the day previous in miniature form, visited Denmark, Sweden, and checked out where we had recently been in Amsterdam.

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Crossing over water, we arrived at the United Kingdom, visiting the Houses of Parliament complete with placard waving Brexiters, both for and against!

A brief visit to Ireland, and we continued on through France, Spain and Portugal. As we wandered through Italy, Miss 11 began to plan future holidays, before experiencing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on a vibrating platform. We made our way to Eastern Europe, and I remembered that Athens is high on my bucket list! 

 

At the end of the visit, the indoor ‘Spirit of Europe’ exhibition provides interactive quizzes where you can test your European knowledge (vastly growing in this trip with our visit to the EU headquarters),  learn more about the history of the European Union and take part in the big screen movement game. It is an educational and fun visit for all the family.

Both locations are situated right beside each other at the Bruparck area of Brussels,  just beside line 6 on the metro at Heysel/ Heizel, our Brussels card (kindly gifted) took us right there. We were invited by Atomium, but paid for tickets with Mini Europe ourselves. There are options to buy a combined ticket for both locations and save yourself a few Euro. There’s a nice park right beside, a waterpark, and cinemas – a perfect location to spend a day. 

 

We were kindly hosted by the Atomium to visit, and were gifted a Brussels Card for museum and transport access during our weekend trip. 

A Chocolate Trail – walking tour of Brussels

The capital of Belgium may be known as the Capital of Europe, but it is also, at least as far as most chocolate aficionados are concerned, the World Capital of Chocolate. Ever since the praline was invented here over 100 years ago, the city has been at the forefront of the chocolate business. There are a million residents and some 500 chocolatiers, about one chocolatier for every 2,000 people, that’s a good ratio in my mind. The average Belgian consumes over 15 pounds of chocolate each year, one of the highest rates in the world, but they will be the first to tell you it is about quality not quantity.

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Over recent years, I’ve become a big fan of the city walking tour experience, especially if we only have a small window of time in a city. It’s a great way to get your bearings, and make markers of the places you want to spend more time. Gaining insight from a local is priceless too and I feel we get some great tips and suggestions so try to do them quickly after we arrive. I do however have not so pleasant memories when I was marched around Prague with my family in my teenage years for about 5 hours without a break, with my sugar levels dropping I was a shaky mess. (A situation the lovely siblings reminded me of for many a year). The promise of chocolate meant that no such a disaster would befall us. Home to fantastic beer, waffles, fries and famously chocolate you are never more than a few steps from some wonderful sustenance within Brussels. 

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Ready for some serious chocolate tasting

The Chocolate Walking Tour with Brussels Walking Tours promised great things to me and Miss 11 who was celebrating her birthday with a weekend furlong to the Belgian city. Up early and ready to walk, we meet our charming guide, Karla, in the UNESCO protected square, the stunning Grand Place, or Grote Markt. Outside the world’s first Godiva chocolate store we were ready for a taste, sight and sound adventure across the city gaining great insights into Brussels life. 

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Brussels Town Hall

We didn’t linger long — there was chocolate to be eaten, after all. As the only two guests on this morning adventure we were ready to go. 

Some history of the Grand Place to begin, we saw all the stallholders setting hope for the Festival of Folklore that would run all weekend. It was a busy hive of activity. We learnt the legend that the architect of the magnificent town hall was so disturbed when it was pointed out to him that the left and right side were not equal that he threw himself from the top. Legends abounding, under the eye, of St Michael with the slain dragon at his feet we headed off to explore Brussels chocolately goodness. 

Our first stop was at Corné, a pastissier turned chocolatier in one of Brussels’ grandest shopping arcades, of Royal standard nonetheless. Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert is an exquisite shopping mall, full of cafes, chocolate shops and much more, with many windows to peruse. Eyeing up the range of chocolates, we were told of the differences between white, milk and dark and begin to learn about the amazing cocoa bean. We commenced with a delectable white chocolate Manon blanc- packed full of vanilla cream and hazelnut on top. Delicious, apparently we were starting at the lower end and the quality would rise as the tour went on. Hard to believe! 

A few more steps down the exquisite shopping gallery, we came to Neuhaus, a pharmacist turned chocolatier. Apparently, Jean Neuhaus covered his medicines with a fine layer of chocolate, the early design of a praline . We learnt how pharmacies all have something sweet still across the city. I guess it helps the medicine go down – Mary Poppins had it right after all. 

Feeling a bit like Willy Wonka, we perused the range of chocolates in a variety of shops, tasting a range of samples as we went. Chocopolis, didn’t quite have the grand names of many other shops, but it was home to delicious mango flavoured chocolate. Here began our education into the production of chocolate, seeing the cocoa beans in action, and watching a short video on the production process- a world wide affair, with beans picked in South America, making there way to Amsterdam for roasting before coming to Belgium.

Another spike in the sugar levels, and on we walked, past a few bouncer manned doors, with the beats still pumping people were going to the party at 10am! I don’t think I would have ever managed that in my more youthful days. As we walked there was plenty of time to ask Karla all about the history of Belgium, we learnt about the two main languages – Flemish Dutch and French and the development and history of these. We learnt all about the painting and art on walls, and a range of museums as we went (some notes made for our further plans over the days ahead). 

 

Miss 11’s legs were starting to tire slightly, but we were ready for a pause of the choco-botique browsing for a immersive hands on chocolate making workshop. We arrived at the tour headquarters, took our seats at a long table covered in many goodies – chocolate, fruit, nuts, spices, and more, ready to be given a lesson in chocolate making. Welcoming the coffee, and the delicious hot chocolate , we listened intently as Karla began to introduce us to a range of different chocolates.

Next was over to us, we began to craft our own chocolate buttons and decorate them with a range of toppings. We met Mia, a chocolate expert, who demonstrated how to make pralines, and then we were able to create some wonders too. It was tricker than the experts made it look.

Mia created a spectacular chocolate birthday surprise (and didn’t forget the other two little adventurers back in Ireland who were delighted with the bags of chocolate!) and Miss 11 followed the Belgian custom of standing on a chair to have happy birthday sang to her. A birthday to remember indeed! 

 

And soon we were back on the streets, pounding the pavement in search of the most irresistible chocolate Belgium has to offer. I found it hard to believe that we were likely to top the morning so far, but onwards we continued. Unsurprisingly, we passed the Manneken Pis, and he was clothed in a Spanish number to celebrate the Folkore festival ongoing in the centre.

The next location really was a wonder, home to naturally pink chocolate. Yes, you’ve read that right, not artificially induced, but a product of the pink cocoa bean- ruby chocolate. A lighter taste, slightly berry like, ruby chocolate tasted sweet yet sour. The new fourth chocolate type apparently after dark, white and chocolate. Also home to delicious macaroons, our sugar high was certainly high as we continued on from BS40 on Butter Street (even the street names are food related!)

Onward exploring the streets of central Brussels, gaining many a recommendation for museum, restaurant and bar visits. We had a brief stop at an old bar and learn about the Monks beers (more of that in a separate post!) We arrived at Elisabeths, a flower covered  boutique shop full of more delectable chocolates (some even in the questionable style of our friend Manneken Pis). Priding themselves in promoting the artisan chocolates, Elisabeth will have chocolatiers featured every week, we enjoyed some rose and raspberry infused delicacies.

All too soon, we ended back were we started in the Grand Place at Mary’s. Mary’s is a delectable high end shop, home of the Royal Belgian chocolates. These pralines are made daily, so you are getting the freshest of the freshest. I feasted on a champagne filled wonder , while Miss 11 enjoyed the chocolate truffle.

Delicious and a perfect end to our morning with the wonderful Karla. Not only had my taste buds been on a sensory journey, our minds and bodies too as we took in the sights, sounds and learnt the history of Brussels and wider Belgium. Karla and I found some commonality in our study and work areas which provided wonderful conversation. I’d strongly recommend a Chocolate Walking Tour with Brussels Walking Tour. It’s the perfect way to experience all Brussels has to offer, and leaves you equipped for how to spend the rest of your time there, along with tasting and learning about the chocolate history.  They also offer a range of other tours  including  beer and food, culinarily, myths and legends, and sightseeing. If the chocolate one is anything to go by, they will be a wonderful, unique and special occasion. Go for it!

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Thank you to Brussels Walking Tour for the complimentary tour. We had a wonderful time, a perfect birthday treat for little miss.