'Wicked" is not a word I would associate with Brussels. Brussels is fashion-conscious but friendly - a bit like France without the Gallic arrogance. "Wicked", though? Never. But then, I am not an 11-year-old girl standing in the Gran' Place watching a four-tiered chocolate fountain pumping away like Old Faithful.
Belgium is a great place for a family weekend. As in most countries outside the UK, the locals seem to actually like children and not to mind, too much, if they run around the traffic-free Gran' Place like hyperactive hyenas. My wife and I had stopped for a beer outside Victor Hugo's house. It seemed a perfect way to take in draughts of culture and alcohol in equal measure and admire the unbroken roofline of the baroque guildhouses lining the square. Time to sit down, get out the guidebook and let the two kids off the leash. It wasn't long before they were back. "You've just got to see this!"
Right next to Hugo's house they'd found one of Brussels's many chocolate boutiques. This one belongs to Neuhaus, which has been seducing the world with its wares since 1857. Livvie and John had already barged in, been asked not to stick their fingers in the fountain, and gazed through the glass floor at a display of highly-polished, 19th-century chocolate-making machinery. Now they were on their way to Godiva, where a very beautiful young woman named Sophie was dipping strawberries with infinite grace into thick black chocolate.
"Are those free samples?" asked the ever-hopeful Liv. I ushered my offspring out, laughing with phoney heartiness, and gave them both a lecture. "We have not come here to buy chocolate." But we did, of course. With all the major Belgian chocolatiers represented around the Gran' Place, it's difficult to leave without a pile of giftboxes.
"That's enough," said my wife. "There's a Museum of Costume in Brussels, a Museum of Beaux Arts and a museum with Egyptian, Greek and Byzantine artefacts." "Boring," said John.
We always have this battle. Holidays with our children remind me of old episodes of Sergeant Bilko. Kate and I are Col John T Hall, setting out with the noblest of aspirations. Our kids are Bilko, effortlessly subverting all attempts to show them that there is more to foreign travel than shopping and McDonald's.
So we compromised on the Museum of Comic Strip Art in rue des Sables. Kate was disappointed. Tintin is hardly Breughel (whose work is well represented in Brussels) but at least it is indigenous Belgian culture.
Lost at first, we ended up outside the Museum of Costume in rue de Violette (I suspect Kate was deliberately misreading the map). On our way back we turned a corner and come face to face with Manneken Pis. "Gross," said Livvie.
Exhausted, we handed over the guidebook. "Ooh, Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate!" cried Livvie. "'Find out how cocoa is grown and watch a demonstration by a master chocolate-maker!' Or Planete Chocolat Tea Room, 'price includes hot chocolate and praline tasting!'"
We agreed on a taxi out to Brupark where the famous Atomium has just reopened and "Mini Europe" displays 300 replicas of the EU's most famous monuments. There we saw a little Big Ben, watched gondolas bobbing on the Grand Canal and activated a working model of Vesuvius. John's favourite was mini-Barcelona which, despite the city's history and rich cultural heritage, is commemorated in a working model of an oil refinery that catches fire when you press the button. Miniature fireboats squirted away until the blaze went out. There was even a model of the Gran' Place, right down to our shop with the chocolate fountain.
There is more to Belgium than chocolate. Honest.
The author travelled to Brussels with Rail Europe (08705 848848; rail europe.co.uk) which offers return fares from £59 and a flat rate for children of £50. Belgian Tourist Office (020-7531 0390; belgium theplaceto.be).Reuse content