To Antwerp, by Eurostar

My brother, his wife, and their two boys (same ages as our girls) were vacationing in Amsterdam in September, and asked if we could come meet them for a weekend in Antwerp, Belgium. My friend Shelby was also visiting at the time, and knows them well too, so we decided we’d all go. We’d never been to Belgium before, so why not?

This was our first time taking the Eurostar train under the Chunnel to the continent, and it was great! We had so much more space than on a flight (especially on the budget airlines we usually fly from London to Europe). They gave us a meal, too, and you can also BYO.

We took a train from Clapham Junction, then transferred to the Tube, and then caught the Eurostar from King’s Cross St. Pancras International station.

Shelby and I lugged all the luggage and the kids from home to the station, and M came straight from work. This was literally everything he had with him:

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Beer for the train, bike socks, and house key. Guy knows how to pack light.

The train goes up to 186 mph, and before you know it, the French countryside is flying past your window. You go through both UK and French border control before you board, so when you arrive at your destination in France or Belgium, you don’t have to stand in another line for that.

Traveling with kids is the BEST!

There wasn’t a ton to do in Antwerp, as it’s a fairly small city, and we had four children under 5 with us. Someone was always hungry, or needed a nap, or needed to run around for a while, or was tired of walking. Such is travel with kids. So we mostly walked around, snapped photos, searched for playgrounds, and ate.

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The legend associated with Antwerp is about a man who cut off the hand of a giant and threw it in the river. The word Antwerp means “hand throwing.” There’s a statue of the mythical Silvius Brabo in front of City Hall, and there are plenty of other references to this, such as cookies and chocolates in the shape of a hand for sale in the souvenir shops or served alongside a coffee.

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We walked around the old city centre, took a ferry ride, and sampled plenty of Belgian beers, chocolates, waffles, mussels, and frites.

We went back more than once to this square that had outdoor seating around a playground, so the kids could run around and play while we waited for our food.

The breakfast portions were not small.

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More photos from the weekend:

After two days, it was back to England for our crew.

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And our final stop was this super cool swing outside King’s Cross station.

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Harry Potter Sights in Scotland

I wrote up our Scotland holiday recently (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), but here’s a little bonus post for the HP fangirls out there like myself.

I started writing this post in the bar of Edinburgh’s famous Balmoral Hotel, where J.K. Rowling lived while she wrote the final Harry Potter book.

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As I sat there with my laptop, propped up by a tartan-plaid pillow, sipping a very overpriced cocktail, the staff and other patrons were probably thinking, “Wow, she could be the next J.K. Rowling, writing the next big thing!”

Or… maybe not. Maybe she’s just writing a blog that only her parents read. Let’s give the poor girl some complimentary bar snacks.

Anyhow, in addition to the Balmoral Hotel, there are quite a few Harry Potter-related sights in Scotland, and M and I saw several of them on our trip:

Glencoe

The third movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, filmed the scenes outside Hagrid’s hut on location here. It’s stunningly gorgeous, and we had lunch here in the hikers’ inn/pub after our hike.

Jacobite Steam Train

The scenes of the Hogwarts Express with the train steaming its way north to Hogwarts along dramatic scenery and across the 21-arched Glenfinnan viaduct were filmed in Scotland. We didn’t actually go see this ourselves, as it’s a bit farther north than where we were, but you can actually take a ride on a steam train along the route (the train doesn’t look like the red Hogwarts Express, though; you can see that on the Warner Brothers Studio Tour.)

Edinburgh

Edinburgh is where J.K. Rowling primarily wrote the books, and we saw more than a few people walking around wearing their HP fan attire, from Chudley Cannons t-shirts to full-on wizard robes.

The Elephant House Cafe

The self-proclaimed “birthplace of Harry Potter,” this is the coffee shop where J.K. Rowling spent time writing the first book, back when she was penniless. Lots of fans flock here and there are now photos of her sitting there (posed, after she became famous) up in the restaurant, and supposedly there’s a lot of HP-themed fan graffiti on the walls of the loos (I didn’t actually go in to confirm this).

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Grey Friars Kirkyard

This is definitely one of the spookiest graveyards I’ve been to, and I can imagine Ms. Rowling wandering around here and drawing inspiration from the place. In fact, there’s a Thomas Riddell buried here. She’s confirmed that there could be a subconscious connection there, but hasn’t said outright that’s where she got the name for the most dastardly wizard of all time. (There’s also a McGonagall buried in here.)

Victoria Street

This curved, whimsical street was the inspiration for Diagon Alley—there’s even a joke shop. It now has a shop selling HP merch, called Diagon House, and a queue out front to get in.

J.K. Rowling’s Hand Prints

The City Chambers building along the Royal Mile features the bronze hand prints of winners of the prestigious Edinburgh Award, which Rowling won in 2008.

George Heriot’s School

This turreted, castle-like 17th-century school is said to be the inspiration for Hogwarts.

Balmoral Hotel

Finally, the Balmoral Hotel, where she lived while she wrote the last book. The suite she inhabited has been renamed in her honour, and now bears an owl-shaped door knocker and includes the writing desk she used during her stay. And costs somewhere around £1,000 a night. A £15 cocktail doesn’t seem quite so bad now.

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