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.


Since we slept in until noon on Sunday, we decided to change our plans a little and swap the day's planned trip to Cologne for a closer excursion to Dinant, just over an hour southeast of Brussels by car. The steep cliffs and rolling hills on the bank of the river made the town a strategic fortification in the past and a charming tourist destination today. This rock, le rocher Bayard, stands completely separated from the main rock and was separated with an explosion to provide passage for the French troops of Louis XIV after they took Dinant. Legend says that a giant Bayard horse split the rock with its hoof as it jumped from here over the river. It's a tight squeeze and probably yet another reason we haven't seen any Escalades or Suburbans around here.

Populated since neolithic times, the name Dinant was first recorded about 800 BC. Located on the Muese River, the town is famous for the Collegiate Church of Notre Dame and the fortified cliff-top Citadel overlooking the entire valley. 

The church, originally completed in the 10th century, was damaged by rocks falling from the cliff in 1227 and was rebuilt in Gothic style on the existing foundation. Though it has undergone several reconstructions and renovations due to various battles, some of the stained glass windows date from the late 15th century. The detail and storytelling in this giant example were captivating.

The signature pear-shaped dome was originally completed in 1566 and the tomb of Gérard de Blanmostier in the left transept is dated 1356. The interior is filled with artwork and relics, including the first genuine crown any of us had ever seen!

We declined to climb the 408-step staircase - which was built in 1577 - for the modern convince of the steepest cable car ascent in the world to get to the top of the cliff for a tour of the citadel.

The fortress has been a central point for some very dramatic clashes throughout history. In 1466, Charles the Bold sacked Dinant. The town and castle were destroyed and he ordered 800 workers to be tied together in pairs and tossed into the river. The citadel was rebuilt in 1523 and the town flourished until Louis XIV's army invaded and took control. He and his engineers made many improvements to the castle but what we see today is a product of the Dutch who rebuilt it after it was destroyed between 1818 and 1821. We really enjoyed seeing the archers windows and imagining firing arrows down on advancing marauders as well as looking out cannon openings like this one defending the bridge below.

Most of the artifacts inside were from the early 19th century as the fortress housed WWI-era soldiers and their supplies. Below is a guardroom in the prison section of the fortress. 

The prisoners weren't captured enemies. Rather, they were soldiers or villagers who were being punished for various misdeeds. It wasn't clear if the guillotine we saw in the torture room was ever used here but the axe and chopping block "used to cut off the right hand of people who murdered their parents" definitely was.

The fortress was demilitarized in 1868 to allow tourists to visit the area for views like this from the terrifying observation deck.

However, violent conflicts were fought within the walls during both World Wars, including a harrowing account of almost 100 soldiers cornered in a narrow passage and fighting each other hand-to-hand with bayonets to the death in August, 1914. Here's the effect of German shells on the town in WWI.

Dinant is also the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, a flautist and clarinetist who, in 1844, introduced the saxophone to the world.

There's no doubt we were among the only Americans in town even though it was a busy Sunday afternoon. While Dinant is a tourist destination for Europeans, it's a rare stop for US visitors. Fortunately we were able to blend in nicely by making like the locals.