Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Worry-Free Day in Ghent, Belgium with Kids

Are you sitting down? I'm going to make two big confessions in this post.

CONFESSION #1: Despite how often we travel, I still get a little nervous before each trip, and sometimes each morning if we're heading out on a day trip somewhere.

I tend to be a bit of a worrier anyway. Will the weather be awful? Will the kids meltdown? Will we sleep ok? What if our rental isn't very nice? Car problems, flight delays, etc. There's no shortage of things that make me a bit apprehensive about traveling with kids. But it never stops us, thankfully.

We woke up on our third morning in Belgium, planning to spend the day in nearby Ghent. And like usual, I was worried. Concerned the kids were already getting burned out on sightseeing (have spent the entire previous day walking around Bruges). That there wouldn't be much to entertain them. And that it would feel too similar to Bruges, and thus seem like a waste of time.

And as is always the case, I went ahead anyway and we had such a great day there.

Ghent is much different than Bruges. It is larger and moves at a faster pace. Less tourist-centric (although there are still plenty). It has more of an urban feel, yet it is still decidedly historic and charming. After leaving the train station there, we spent our first hour just wandering around and letting the kids burn off some energy. (They will chase pigeons the world over, it appears.)

CONFESSION #2: We often only see attractions from the outside, and don't venture inside. Cathedrals, castles, manors, estates... there's no shortage of places that we have admired, but not set foot inside since moving to England. Sometimes this is because there just isn't enough time, but usually, it's because doing so would be an exercise in keeping our boys quiet, well-behaved, and physically contained. And with a hefty admission price for the privilege of doing so. I'm not complaining about this in the least. Just gawking at these amazing places from the grounds is often enough for me.

But I'm happy to say in Ghent, we made an exception and stepped inside the medieval walls of the Castle of the Counts. It helped that I had read a couple of blog posts saying that it was pretty manageable with kids. This gave us just enough to confidence to venture inside.

And true enough, it was actually pretty ideal for guests with young kids. There was a particular order in which you were encouraged to visit rooms or areas, but you could easily move about on your own. It seemed like for every 2-3 rooms we stepped into, the recommended route would then lead us outdoors for a bit. (We always find it more family-friendly to be outside, as long as the weather cooperates!) And because there's no personal guide, you can move at your own pace. We skipped a few rooms toward the end when the attention span of our kids was waning.

Two things I loved about the castle?

1) It was more dark and spooky than fussy and fancy. Think fierce knights, not pretty princesses. Perfect for engaging two little boys. (And yet they were oblivious to the fact that some of the weapons on display are actually quite scary.)

2) The views of Ghent itself from the outdoor areas was stunning. The boys kept asking us to lift them so they could see over the walls because they were equally as enamored with it.

Two things I disliked?

1) There's a path that runs around the interior of the castle that is unavoidable when touring the castle. It has no railing along one side, and it's a steep drop down from there. I was terrified Little Arrow would fall. (And I already worry plenty, see above.)

2) We asked at the entrance for a map or brochure, and the staff told us to just follow the numbers for the tour. The numbers were easy enough to follow, so a map wasn't necessary, but we didn't feel like we had much appreciation for what we were seeing.

Feeling confident after a successful family invasion of a castle's interior, we were even brave enough to have lunch at a sit-down restaurant. If you go to Ghent, promise me you'll find Restaurant Aspendos, a Turkish restaurant not far from the Castle of the Counts. They were friendly, the food was delicious, and my kids were moderately well behaved.

Turns out there was nothing to worry about in Ghent after all. Don't I look relaxed?