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.


With no plans today save for finding that first good glass of Belgian beer, the kids and I hit the town once again as Betsy drove to the office for another day of international success. We had noticed a skate park during our day-one stroll and decided to pack up the scooters and see if we could find it again. Xander, Vaughn and Quinn really enjoyed zipping around when I wasn't borrowing one of their scooters.

The skate park was right in the shadow of the Eglise Notre-Dame de la Chapelle, a church that has a posted roster of pastors dating back to 1278. 

Once again the paintings, sculptures and woodwork throughout the interior brought a quiet reverence to all three kids during our lengthy visit. The artwork, while often morbid and depressing, is nonetheless inspiring with its antiquity and stunning detail. This is a marble skeleton greeting visitors near the front of the sanctuary.    

After lunch at the flat, we ventured out with little in mind other than to check out a nearby Metro stop for next week's more distant explorations as well as a park and some sort of large castle-like structure we could see on a city map. The park turned out to be extremely cool, with a maze of little wooden shacks, ladders slides, climbing ropes and swings.

One of the shacks was labeled "Ale House" with a foaming beer mug sign over it and, unlike America's ridiculously safe playgrounds, this area was a lawsuit waiting to happen. We loved it and I'm sure we'll make it a frequent stop.

The park led to the Porte de Hal, a 14th century city gate from the second set of defensive walls that once enclosed Brussels. Most of the other gates were demolished but this one survived since it was used as a prison, customs house, grain silo and church over the years before it went through numerous renovations to become the historical site and museum it is today. At the bottom of the picture you can see the original 600-year old structures that housed a portcullis and drawbridge over a moat. We rolled up right at closing so will be back soon to visit the exhibitions inside.

The lights and sound of a local street carnival then attracted our attention. We rode the giant slide a couple of times and made our way down the strip to soak it in.

We got our first order of Belgian fries and dove in.

It was just like being on the midway at an American state fair but there was no spandex, everyone was smoking, several stands were selling escargot (didn't try it yet), the carnival game prizes included very realistic toy knives and guns and - finally! - there were boobs.

Once the hardworking breadwinner of the family returned to the flat and had a chance to unwind, we set out on foot to find a place to eat. We had heard about a nearby restaurant in Sablon that was full of Tintin stuff and we were delighted to come across it. The Comics Cafe was filled with tons of really cool artwork with an emphasis on the great Hergé. There were framed original Tintin sketches and way too many things that I want to go back and buy. But tonight was about enjoying our first real Belgian meal and it couldn't have been much better. Betsy and I shared a couple of Karmeliet beers and we dove in family-style to orders of beer-braised beef with fries, tandoori scallops and filet of sea bass. It was a very memorable meal and the upstairs reading and drawing area is a place the kids and I will quickly get back to.

A couple of notes after a few days:

I haven't inhaled as much second-hand tobacco smoke in the last five years in the U.S. as I have already here. I forgot how much I particularly hate smelling it while I eat and am delighted that our country has banned smoking from most public places. 

As the kids and I stroll around, we have been stopped several times by people asking for directions or chatted up by locals. I am pleased that we don't appear to be tourists and hope that we continue to blend in. Of course, as soon as I open my mouth, the deception is revealed. 

Cheers from the Comic City!


After Betsy left to drive to work solo in Europe for the first time, the kids and I set off to find the Palais Royale and adjoining Parc de Bruxelles. After getting a little turned around, we asked a local how to get to the palace. He laughed and asked us, "Which palace? There are palaces everywhere!" The man is right. Almost every street seems to end in a glorious edifice that seems to be or have been home to nobility. 

Below is the palace which is home to Albert II, the sixth and current King of the Belgians
and his family. We witnessed the changing of the guard but were unable to get too close as the grounds were being prepared for Saturday's big celebration. July 21 is the anniversary of the coronation of the first King (1831) and is accompanied by parades, displays, food and fireworks. We'll try to get in the middle of all the action in just a few days to see all the pomp and circumstance. We did manage to get in a free display in a side building that showed the history of dining at the palace. We saw lavish place settings and learned some interesting tidbits about the development of fine cuisine.

Before we made our way to the palace, we made a lunch of french bread, ham and cheese in the park. It's something I remember doing with my parents in France in 1979 and is something I've wanted to do ever since. Sculptures were dispersed throughout the grounds depicting all of the Belgian institutions; beer, fries, mussels, chocolate and brussels sprouts including this Borg version of the cruciferous bud.

Midway through our lunch I made the mistake of asking a passerby wearing a Yankees cap (I've seen several guys sporting Yankees gear but no other U.S. sports teams. Too easy, people.) and a USA sweatshirt if he was American. He wasn't, but he was only too happy to share his story. 

Over the course of about an hour as we ate and then strolled together, this man told me about ten years spent in a Soviet prison, warned me that Belgium is run by the mafia and asked me to contact John McCain on his behalf. He wrote down the number for McCain's office (and a lawyer in Santa Monica) from memory. I gave him an apple in exchange for a nice map of the city and we bade each other farewell.

Then we saw more boobs.

On the way home we entered the Eglise Notre Dame au Sablon. It's a chapel that was built in the 15th century with 50-foot stained glass windows and is a Dan Brown fantasy come to life. There are ancient inscriptions, crypts and displays throughout the sanctuary and the woodwork and statues are filled with detail and passion. The kids were all silently awestruck by what they saw and the visit led to a nice discussion about Jesus' life and death.

Of course, just because we're halfway across the world, we're not going to let the young 'uns off the hook from their piano, language and math studies. Our flat is already home away from home.