Everyone knows that Europeans rock the Christmas market. The question on this Sunday afternoon in December was precisely which “Winter Wonders” we would find at Brussels’ Plaisirs d’Hiver, and whether it would be worth trudging through nearly freezing rain with moderately cooperative and rather young children (ages five and two) to get there.
Soon enough we emerged onto the Grand Place, where the life-size nativity was lit up in gold and squatted in contrast to the imposing silver-strung evergreen ruling the center of the place. Sheep lolled in the stable, contentedly munching and pleasing all the kids.
We continued along the festival’s path, and as the rain paused so did we–for a parental mulled wine and a kids’ hot chocolate by the Church of Saint Nicolas, which seemed fitting. Lights twinkled over the streets and food booths lined the way, but the rain returned.
Spirits might have faded if not for the Place Sainte-Catherine and a fantastical Manège d’Andréa, one of the two famed steampunk Christmas carousels of Brussels. Its funky style and music charmed both our kids and us. Around the corner in a misty glow lay the heart of the Christmas market on the Marché aux Poissons, where dozens of “snow”-covered booths and a ferris wheel illuminated the dusk.
The air was finally clear and warmer, and we basked in the market’s abounding coziness. One of its best features was that almost every booth was selling a different product. From candles to toys to holiday lights to caribou hides, from local beers to corn on the cob to cotton candy to mussels, all had been vetted for variety and quality. The only repeat I saw was chocolate-making booths, and if one is going to complain about that, one is in the wrong country. For dinner, merry-makers can choose from the many restaurants along the Marché aux Poisson and the (temporary) Swiss Chateau in the middle of the market.
Also available with paid entry were an ice rink, Santa’s Village, ferris wheel with enclosed cars, giant slides, and an inflatable snow monster whose darkened, gaping maw kids were supposed to walk into willingly. Presumably a sort of obstacle course, it was, in my opinion, hilariously terrifying. I saw one boy go in willingly, and one girl refuse. Personally, I would have sided with the girl.
As night fell the lights around the city rose, and when we rounded the corner to the front of the Church of Saint Catherine we caught a delightful illumination. A fairy, accompanied by Tchaikovsky, magically constructed the church in light from the ground up. Back at the Grand Place, hundreds of people took in the sound and light show “Seasons.” We stood with mouths agape and ears tickled by grand music and audio effects, as every color danced across the facades. It was spectacular, but not too loud for the kids, and its understated ending left us with chills. It, like all of the Plaisirs d’Hiver, was a carefully composed work of art that left us craving a return trip. With all the things we did not reach–the Canadian square, outdoor ice skating, the parade on December 14th, and more—we may have to do just that.
Admission: Free, with extras like carousel rides starting at 2,50 euro. There is food available for every budget.
Where: Brussels’ Grand Place, Place Ste-Catherine, Marché aux Poissons, and connecting roads. We found it walkable from the Brussels Central train station. Map here. Parking lots and metro stops labeled on the event map.
When: Plaisirs d’Hiver runs daily until January 4th, with more special events on Fridays through Sundays.
For more details, see the excellent Plaisirs d’Hiver website