Xander, Vaughn and Quinn had their first Magic Kingdom experience with a visit to the Disneyland and Walt Disney Studios Parks just outside of Paris and the long, expensive day was truly a memorable one.

We rushed out of the hotel first thing in the morning to undertake the forty-minute drive, intent on arriving as the park opened at 10 and staying until the last firework burst over Sleeping Beauty Castle at 11 p.m. We rode Le Carousel de Lancelot (1) and Dumbo the Flying Elephant (2) before rendezvousing with our friends Jeannine and Dylan Cavallo. 

The whole group first took a spin on Les Voyages de Pinocchio (3) and then, after a quick lunch, enjoyed the feel-good splendor of It’s a Small World (4). By that time, we were pushing 6 p.m. and decided to hit a couple of rides at Walt Disney Studios Park before that area closed at 7. There we were jostled by the Cars Quatre Rous Rallye (5) and thrilled by Crush’s Coaster (6).

Our friends bowed out at that point but we kept at it after dinner back at Disneyland Park by hitting Autopia (7) where the kids got to drive their own 50's-style race cars. As we left the ride and began figuring out where we were going to set up for the final fireworks extravaganza, we stumbled upon a perfect spot to take in the Fantasia Parade. Disney princesses, heroes, villains and supporting characters streamed by us on shimmering floats and all three kids beamed and shouted as their favorites waved back at them.  

As we headed back toward the central castle with twenty minutes to go before the ending show, I realized that I could get on Space Mountain 2 (which the kids were unfortunately all too short to ride) in just ten minutes - a far cry from the ninety minute wait we had to endure for everything else we rode that day. It was not your father's (my) Space Mountain. An opening blast-off followed by a glimpse of the park at the peak of the first hill, background music and sound effects in the headrests, three inversions, a laser tunnel and the infinite black star field that has always defined Space Mountain made it one of the coolest coasters I've ever ridden. 

If you've been keeping track, that made a whopping eight rides that at least one of us rode during our Disney experience. Combined with parking, lunch and dinner we shelled out about $500 for the day. Still, we were glad we did it - especially since we made it through the multimedia spectacle of the Showtime Spectacular Finale.  

On Friday we left Paris for good to head to the final stop of our odyssey; a seaside resort in De Haan, Belgium. On our way, we stopped in Giverny, France to visit the house and gardens of impressionist master Claude Monet.

The painter and his large family lived in Giverny from 1883 until his death in 1926 and the estate has has undergone few changes over the last hundred years. Monet was fond of painting controlled nature and produced countless works of his own gardens with its flowers of almost every color imaginable as well as the adjoining pond with its bridges and famous water lilies. 

The extensive garden was designed by Monet himself and is maintained to this day according to his wishes. Many of the stunning views we enjoyed were evident in paintings on display in the gallery/gift shop and it was worth the price of admission just to see the stunning array of flowers.

Visitors can also tour the house where photographs of Monet posing in some rooms are displayed next to the same furnishings and decorations by which he stands. Unfortunately, once again, no photographs were allowed of the interior but it was a perfect stop on our four-hour drive from Paris to De Haan.


On Tuesday we spent most of the day around the most iconic landmark of Paris…so the day's blog will consist primarily of pictures of us reveling around the Eiffel Tower. 

Erected in 1889 as the entrance arch to that year's World's Fair, the 1,063-foot structure was the tallest in the world until 1930 when the Chrysler Building in New York City was completed. Although the Eiffel Tower was to be dismantled in 1909, its usefulness as a communications transmitting tower saved it from becoming scrap metal - though con artist, Victor Lustig still "sold" it twice for that very purpose.    Many artists and writers expressed outrage over the design, though most ended their criticism when the tower was built. Others remained indignant. The popular writer Guy de Maupassant supposedly ate lunch in the tower's cafe every day. When asked why, he replied that it "was the one place in Paris where one could not see the structure."

The day was made even more memorable when we met up with newfound friends Jeannine Cavallo and her daughter, Dylan (like Quinn a gymnast at TAGS in Eden Prairie) and joined the ranks of the 250 million people who have visited the tower. 

We had a great time strolling and chatting with the Cavallos while the kids rode scooters on the walkways surrounding the tower. After a delectable Chinese lunch, we went to the nearby Trocadéro Fountain where we cooled off by dipping our feet into the water.

We considered joining some local boys who were sliding down the concrete embankment until one of them came out of the water clutching his leg; a piece of glass had sliced a two-inch gash on the bottom of his left foot. I whipped out my omnipresent and imminently useful Dr. Dad First-Aid Kit and was able to provide some assistance until an ambulance came and whisked him away. 

After a return to our hotel room to freshen up, we took the Metro back to the Eiffel Tower area for a sunset boat tour of the major sights along the Seine.

We enjoyed seeing the houseboats lining the banks of the river and listening to the recorded audio guide talk us through the history of the palaces, museums, cathedrals and overpasses. The ornate Alexandre III arch bridge, seen in the background below, is regarded as the most ornate, extravagant span in all of Paris and includes gilt-bronze statues, gilded masonry and wrought-iron accents.

We picked that night to enjoy some fine French cuisine and, ooh la la, enjoyed a very fancy meal and excellent service aboard a floating restaurant with a fantastic view of the Seine and the tower. We finished our Eiffel experience with another stroll over to the Trocadéro to capture some shots of the reflection of the tower in the water before settling on a spot along the river to take in the nightly show of shimmering lights that further accentuated the tower's grace and beauty.

Now that we had become underground travel experts in our third European city, we were determined to ride the rails to hit several must-see Parisian sights on Wednesday. We began by visiting the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, commonly known as Sacré-Cœur Basilica.

Unfortunately photography is not permitted in the interior of the Roman Catholic church, but intricate mosaics made with tiny shimmering tiles laid into the walls make up the stations of the cross and crests of the families that privately funded the building's construction which began in 1875 and was completed in 1914. The popular landmark is located at the summit of the butte Montmarte, the highest point in the city, and afforded an expansive view of the streets below.

Our next stop was the the Peré Lachaise cemetery, the largest and most famous in Paris. Reputed to be the world's most visited cemetery, it attracts visitors from around the globe to the graves of luminaries who lived or died in France over the last two hundred years.

The cemetery is a fascinating mix of very old and very modern memorials. Moss-covered graves with illegible markings are next to sleek, black marble headstones with etched photos of the recently deceased. Many stone slabs and posts have caved in or toppled over, making it appear as if the undead fought their way out or grave robbers pried them open. Row after row of vertical tombs with rusty metal doors, many slightly ajar, invite passers-by to peek in if they dare.

Like most others wandering the narrow passageways between crypts, our primary aim was finding the internment site of Doors lead singer Jim Morrison, who died in Paris in 1971. We also made sure to find Frédéric Chopin's final resting place where we sat and listened to the composer's Nocturne in Ebm Op. 9, No. 2, while we enjoyed the peace of the moment. 

Our last major goal was visiting the interior of Notre-Dame (Our Lady) de Paris, the historic Roman Catholic cathedral on which construction began in 1163. Completed in 1345, the building is one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture and is thought to be the most well-known church in the world. As we entered, we enjoyed looking at the statues of saints and biblical kings adorning the exterior walls, including that of the martyr Saint Denis holding his decapitated head.

The interior is, needless to say, a magnificent work of art that holds a variety of items of historical, religious and architectural significance. The stunning five-foot chandelier below had been lowered to the ground for cleaning.

The stations of the cross and other religious artwork on the walls are massive, morbidly-detailed wood carvings that shine with gilded paint.

Important religious men are entombed in the sanctuary and their crypts are marked with bejeweled stone replicas of their deceased bodies. I am unable to find out more information on this fellow but in all the cathedrals we've visited in Europe, none of the memorial statues had this much finery.

Our sightseeing complete for the day, we walked back to the hotel in search of some crêpes and found a stand near the Georges Pompidou building. We sat to rest our tired legs while we enjoyed our sweet snacks and watched street performers working for change on the busy square before calling it a day.


We started off Monday, our first full day in Paris, with an early lunch at McDonald's. Yes that's a Heineken next to the Royal With Cheese on our tray. C'est Tout Ce Que J'aime...which is the French way McDonald's should be paying me to say I'm lovin' it in my blog.

With our sponsor satisfied for the afternoon, we walked to one of the largest and most famous museums in the world, the Musée de Louvre. A palace was first founded on the site in 1190 while the first wing of the gargantuan edifice as it appears today was begun in 1546. You can see remnants of the original fortress' foundation in the lower depths of the basement.

Generations of kings made their marks with a series of additions and renovations to make the renowned palace the repository for art, archaeology, history and architecture it is today. The museum was first opened to the public during the French Revolution on November 8, 1793 and improvement to the facility is virtually ongoing. The latest major addition, the Crystal Pyramid entrance designed by I.M. Pei, was inaugurated in 1989.

Nearly 100,000 objects are displayed from prehistory to the 19th century in 652,300 square feet of exhibition space but, like most people, we headed straight for the Mona Lisa. The room in which the painting is displayed is always filled with a crowded mass of people jostling for a closer look.

After slowly barging our way through to the front, we were rewarded with a view of Leonardo DaVinci's 1503∼1506 magazine-sized masterpiece. We lingered taking photos as long as we could before we left to wander through the halls toward the Vénus de Milo. The famous statue of a goddess, perhaps Aphrodite, was sculpted around 100 B.C., then was discovered on a Greek island in 1820 and gained instant acclaim upon being placed in the Louvre a year later. How her arms were positioned and what she may have held are questions that hold the key to her identity and are points of endless speculation. 

Of course we saw many other stunning works of art such as this painting of Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814) by Jacques-Louis David. It shows the Spartan king and his soldiers preparing for battle in their uniquely Greek way. Apparently 300 could have been a way more historically accurate and titillating movie.

Speaking of titillating, this oft-photographed sculpture in a main foyer of the museum captures the metaphor of Roman charity in the image of a young woman giving her breast to an old man. Let's just say this piece of chiseled stone embodies the essence of the Louvre in our children's eyes. When Betsy asked them what they liked best about the museum, they each agreed it was "all the boobies." We're pretty sure they were kidding and that they really did enjoy the, um, exposure they received to the world of classic art.

Of course the visit was informative and inspirational and we enjoyed the opportunity to seriously contemplate the size and depth of the collection. The kids had many questions about what they saw and we enjoyed discussing the history and meanings behind the more provocative pieces. One of Betsy's favorites was another by Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon's official painter who, in 1807, completed The Coronation of Napoleon. The massive canvas is over 500 square feet and is an indulgent and servile commemoration of Napoleon's self-imposed ascension to power. Here's a fascinating history of the painting including details about how David had to change the pope's attitude and include Napoleon's mother among the onlookers to appease the new king.

After our fill of artwork, we enjoyed a snack and some refreshingly cool, intermittent rain around a fountain in the Jardin des Tuileries where we shared some of our cookies with the bold parisian pigeons.

Next we visited the Jardin du Luxembourg which is the second largest public park in Paris. Statues, fountains, play areas and a famously calm atmosphere made for a relaxing end to our busy day of sightseeing.

Finally, after dinner at a pizzeria across the street from our hotel, we settled in back at the room to watch Dark Shadows, an underrated Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movie that we all found funny and clever.

By the way, several fans of our blog may have noticed our tendency to place our treasured offspring smack in the middle of many of the photos showing the incredible locations we've been visiting.

Well a painting we saw in the "History of the Louvre" gallery proved that it's been going on for centuries...and it used to be a lot more expensive and time consuming than just pulling a camera phone out of dad's pocket!


For our last full day in Brussels, we hit two spots that were in our plans from the beginning but had never been squeezed into our busy schedule; The Hergé Museum and the National Botanic Garden of Belgium. The former opened in Louvain-la-Neuve in June, 2009 and was well worth the visit for fans of the local icon, comics writer and artist.

The museum is expansive and neatly organized and everyone gets a headset and iPod loaded with entertaining details and interactive activities that guide you through the archives of Hergé's work.

Visitors get closer to the characters and stories through biographical information, examples of Hergé's influences, lots of props, artifacts and artwork from the Hergé Studios as well as specimens of his work outside of the Tintin series. Some of the most interesting items were the original pencil sketches of familiar scenes such as this draft of the cover of The Castafiore Emerald.

After lunch, we drove to the Botanic Garden, or Plantentuin, in Meise and were glad we made time to do so. The garden covers 92 hectares through winding, shaded pathways and holds 18,000 varieties of plants.

The Plant Palace is the largest greenhouse in Belgium and comprises a series of rooms with vegetation from all over the world including edible tropical fruits, Mediterranean greenery, a Dry House full of cacti and the Victoria House with carnivorous plants and other marsh-dwellers such as the world's biggest water lilies. 

One of our favorite rooms was the Evolution House with examples of plants from the beginning of their evolution to land 500 million years ago through the Jurassic period to today's varied flora. Below you'll see two herbivorous dinosaurs munching on leaves and one carnivore on the prowl. 

In the tropical mountain rainforest room, the mist was so heavy that drops fell like rain from the canopy above.

And of course, since it was a European greenhouse, they also had some melons on display.

The grounds also contain the renovated 12th-century Castle of Bouchout which is unfortunately only open to the public during special exhibitions, and the day of our visit was not one of them.

The weekend was brutally hot and we stayed out as long as we could so we could ride around in the cool comfort of our rental car. Our flat, like many places in Belgium, doesn't have air-conditioning as it's not typically needed (though I think the climate change we're seeing will make it a lucrative business in the coming years). After dinner, Betsy was kind enough to send me off to the relative cool of our local movie theater where I saw The Dark Knight Rises. This one was in English with French and Dutch subtitles and was the first thing I've enjoyed watching besides Olympics on TV and Angels baseball online since we got here.


Sunday morning was spent packing, sweating and preparing to leave the flat once and for all to begin the Paris leg of our journey.  As excited as we were to explore the City of Light for five days, we may have been even more eager to check in to our air-conditioned hotel!

After an uneventful three-and-a-half hour drive, we made it to the Crowne Plaza on the Place de la République and got settled before an exploratory stroll. Our first order of business was introducing the kids to the world of French cuisine by hitting a KFC across the street. We then lingered at the Stravinski Fountain outside the Centre Pompidou and enjoyed the sixteen surreal structures that move and spray water.

Our main target was the Notre-Dame Cathedral. Since the day was winding down, a walk around the exterior and a plan to visit the interior in a couple of days were enough to keep us happy.

The bridge crossing from the cathedral to the left bank of the Seine, the Pont de l'Archêvché, is one of the "love lock" bridges on which people have fastened their symbolic tokens of love. Couples from around the world secure an engraved lock to the railing and then toss the key into the river as as symbol of their unbreakable bond.

Our sunset walk up the Seine gave us our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower before we grabbed some ice cream for the walk back to the hotel.