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.


Today we successfully used a Metro day pass, taking three different jaunts and only hopping on one wrong train!  

Thanks to Betsy's French and some helpful passers-by, our first train took us to the far north side of the main loop where we walked one short block to the Canal of Brussels and the tenth edition of the city's temporary summer "beach." 

There were no swimming opportunities but plenty of sand and a few other kid-friendly activity areas. The best features were the international food and drink stands all the way up and down the strip. That day, however, we chose to pack our usual lunch of french bread, ham and cheese so we mostly just enjoyed the smells...except for the mojito I sipped on while the kids frolicked in the sand.

After our second foray underground, we emerged at the Botanical Gardens of Brussels. The six-hectacre gardens, originally opened in 1829 to great fanfare, includes a central domed rotunda and numerous sculptures which were added in the late 1890's. 

In 1938 most of the botanical resources were removed to the National Botanic Garden of Belgium on the grounds of Bouchout Castle just north of the city - a spot we hope to visit soon. The original site we saw Wednesday now stands as a cultural center while the historical statues and much of the garden is still intact.

We found the building, fountains and walkways quite run down but one did get a sense of what a gathering place the garden must have been in its heyday. The trees, hedges and flowers were mostly well maintained and there was still a cafe in the rotunda serving food and drinks (of course) as well as a museum displaying historical photographs.

We stayed aboveground to walk a few blocks south to what appeared to be a very grand cathedral on our map of Brussels and passed by a striking monument known as the Congress Column. The monument, completed in 1859, memorializes several different stages of Belgian history from the statue of King Leopold I atop the column to the tomb of the unknown soldiers of the World Wars at the base. It also commemorates the founding of Belgium in 1830 and the statues at the foot of the structure symbolize the various liberties guaranteed under the country's constitution.

We weren't disappointed as we turned the corner and first saw La Cathedrale des Saints Michel-et-Gudule. Of all of the places of worship we've visited thus far, this was the most awe-inspiring.

The stations of the cross were sculptures carved into alcoves along the outer walls, twelve of the columns lining the main aisle of the sanctuary were adorned with large statues of the apostles, the woodwork on the pulpits and confessionals were remarkably intricate and the modern pipe organ soared up to the ceiling. The cathedral in its current form was built between 1226 and 1276 and the facade was completed in the mid-fifteenth century.

The site is even older, however, as a chapel dedicated to St. Michael was built here as early as the 9th century. Visitors can walk underneath the main floor to see the foundations of the church built around 1047 that replaced the first one. You can touch the actual walls at ground-level from Romanesque times and see graffiti that was scratched into the stone hundreds of years ago. The picture below was on a display underground and shows how they excavated the original site. The two squares at lower left were crypts that are still open for viewing and bones were visible inside them.

We made it home despite getting on the wrong subway line for our last leg of the journey. I realized it quickly so we switched trains and got to the flat in time for the evening Olympic coverage. Betsy enjoyed a special night out when she and her good friend from work, Els Dedobeleer, shared a wonderful meal at Cook and Book. Their evening concluded with an elegant tea serving and a photo-bomber.

We brought along plenty of art supplies and the kids have enjoyed expressing their excitement about their adventures on paper. Below are Quinn's rendition of the gargantuan Palace of Justice and Vaughn's map of one our most frequently-travelled routes through the city.  

A few new thoughts and observations about living here...

Some Europeans, upon visiting the U.S., comment that Americans are so friendly. Well it's not that we're necessarily friendlier, it's just that we acknowledge one another in public. I'm used to passing by someone or sharing an elevator and exchanging a smile or a nod of the head. Here, I notice that if I do happen to make eye contact with someone, their countenance typically doesn't change from a distracted frown. It's not a big deal, but perhaps as a parent who's usually accompanied by three energetic youngsters I suppose I've become accustomed to a little more geniality. I'll just keep smiling and saying hello to people and maybe it'll rub off.

I've been struggling to decipher the worn-out pictograms on our combination oven/microwave appliance in our flat. I was unable to find any use guides online so I sought the help of our landlord. A day later, he was kind enough to send over a manual...in Dutch. Unfortunately, I'm still not entirely certain how to properly use the bedeiningspaneel for regelmatig schoonmaken but at least I can make things hot.

We've learned that every time we leave the flat, we'd each better have two things; a full bottle of water and an empty bladder. Water fountains are almost nowhere to be seen and you have to pay to use the toilet just about anywhere you go. Unless, of course, you're male and able to let go in public at one of the open urinal stands we've come across from time to time.

Finally, it had been way too long since we came across some statuesque mammaries so we were delighted to find this young colossal couple in a nude embrace outside a financial building near the Botanical Gardens.