My family recently took a day trip to one of the continent’s best-preserved medieval cities and spent almost the entire time in a refrigerated tent. It may sound like a tragedy, but in this instance it was not! We were visiting Bruges for its annual Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival; this year’s theme was “Land of the Hobs”, based on the J.R.R. Tolkien novel and movie The Hobbit. After purchasing tickets and waiting in line for 10 minutes, we entered a sparkling and frigid wonderland.
Swelling music and spotlights that flowed from blue to magenta put us in a questing mood as we shuffled into the cold darkness of the tent. The great wizard Gandalf greeted us, and then we were in the Shire with hobbits, hobbit-holes, and scenes of peaceful farm life.
Soon things took an adventurous turn with wargs, orcs, and Sauron himself—those are essentially giant wolves, troll-like monsters, and the baddest bad guy for the uninitiated. There was enough to look at that we were able to steer our sensitive kids away from the scariest sculptures, and there was no ominous music or surprises.
The path wound through sculptures for about twenty minutes. Every favorite character and some bonus displays appeared, from elves to goblins to rock giants to a fur-lined ice bedroom and fairies. At the end, kids were rewarded with a maze, a tower to climb into, and a slide alongside Smaug the dragon (with whom the dwarves were preparing to do battle). Adults were rewarded with an ice bar serving all manner of libations—and Merry and Pippin egging them on.
For those whose toes were too cold to linger in the frozen fantasy, the exit led directly into a cozy restaurant tent, complete with a small carousel and animatronic polar bears.
My expectations for the festival had been, frankly, a little low; before kids, our travel style was more in the vein of sitting at a café, soaking in the ambience, and wandering back alleys. But this was an artful display of impressive skill; it was a step into the unusual which we were very glad to have taken. We can’t wait to see what they carve up for next year.
Walking (with 5-year-old and stroller) into Bruges’ medieval area from the festival, we easily made it to some picturesque alleys and Christmas market stalls. I would add an extra two or three hours onto your trip if you wish to wander all the way to the Grote Markt and enjoy the heart of the city. Watch your children carefully on the narrow sidewalks away from the main tourist path, as some drivers don’t seem inclined to slow down despite the holiday crowds.
Note: Average temperature in the ice tent is -6 degrees Celsius. Dress very warmly! Hats and gloves are for sale at the entrance. The festival is stroller-friendly, but with the moderate crowds our two-year-old could see better walking or being carried.
When: Daily until January 4th 2015, 10:00-18:00
Location & parking: Stationsplein Bruges 8000 – We drove and got stuck in traffic just outside the city center. In retrospect, we would have taken the train or parked farther out. We parked at the train station garage, which was right next to the festival.
Admission: 15 euro for adults, 12 euro for ages 4-12, free for 3 and under. If you know when you’re going, buy a Fastline ticket online and skip the entrance line.