This post is sponsored by Delta Air Lines
Our most recent family adventure was about more than just jet-setting to fabulous destinations, though that was certainly part of it! Visiting Belgium and France reminded me of the power of travel to connect us to our heritage. Allow me to explain: I actually lived in Belgium for a couple years as a kid because my father was Belgian. He died a few years ago, and was estranged from his family for decades before that. I myself hadn’t been back to the country in 15 years before this trip and wanted to reconnect. Since we’ve already taken the girls to Hong Kong, where my mom is from, we thought it was important to bring them to Belgium, too, as that’s where my dad is from. While we were in Europe, it only made sense to scratch Paris off Sean’s destination bucket list, and if we were going there, why not check out Disneyland Paris, too?! So our whirlwind vacation ended up being the perfect combination of fun and family, lighthearted joy and deep rootedness all at once.
Getting to Brussels
We flew Delta One and it was fantastic! We were treated like celebrities from the time we entered the airport. We had access to the Delta Sky Club and accelerated check-in, security and baggage handling service. When it was time to board, we were able to board early. Our seats easily adjusted for dining, working, and resting. The 180-degree flatbed seat with Westin Heavenly In-Flight bedding is one of the best features. The food, served on extra-large tray tables, was fantastic, as was the wine selection. The girls especially loved the ice cream sundaes that the flight attendants made from scratch! The TUMI amenity kit allowed us to freshen up mid-flight, and the noise-cancelling headsets made the in-flight entertainment extra enjoyable.
24 Hours in Paris
From Brussels, we took the high-speed Thalys train to Paris, where we spent the next 24 hours. Bringing the girls to see the Eiffel Tower sparkling at night on our first evening was our magic! We had some great meals at bistros and brasseries, and dined on plenty of our favorite French foods, like escargots, baguettes, crepes, croissants, steak tartare, and foie gras.
Getting to Disneyland Paris
While visitors can take a train to Disneyland Paris, we skipped the hassle and took a car there. The roughly hour-long drive is about $110 by taxi and about $80 by rideshare. We stayed at The Radisson Blu Hotel Paris, Marne-la-Vallée, which is inexpensive but still has a pretty sophisticated vibe. We especially appreciated the hotel’s direct shuttle service to the parks. Many other off-site hotels have shuttles, but they stop at multiple properties, so it takes a lot longer to get there.
Exploring Disney Village
We spent the first evening exploring Disney Village, which is sort of like Paris’s version of Disney Springs. Expect lots of shopping and dining options. Out of all the restaurants, we decided to try Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and ended up having a great time! The concept is just what it sounds like: diners can see for themselves how the West was won in a gun-slinging, live arena show with lots of horses and covered wagons. We watched as Buffalo Bill, Chief Sitting Bull, Annie Oakley and the Rough Riders, re-enacted legendary moments from the frontier . Mickey and friends are on-hand to help you cheer on the action! We’re veterans of Medieval Times, so we’re not shy about cheering for our team and booing the opposing teams. Yes, it is totally cheesy, but if you get into the spirit, it’s a really fun family outing!
Our Day at Disneyland Paris
It rained the entire day we had earmarked for the parks, but we had expected that, having checked the weather as the trip was approaching. And as Walt Disney World veterans, we came with rain ponchos and made the best of it. The Ratatouille-themed area is unique to Paris (though the ride is coming to Epcot soon), so we headed there first. The girls loved the ride, and we had lunch at Bistrot Chez Rémy. To be honest, the food is nothing to write home about, but the theming in the restaurant is brilliant. It feels like you’re the size of a mouse because you’re surrounded by oversized plates and cutlery. It’s adorable! We had dinner at Yacht Club, an elegant seafood restaurant at Disney’s Newport Bay Club restaurant, which is a great choice if you want to incorporate a fine dining experience into your Disneyland Paris trip.
Traveling Back to Brussels
We took another rideshare from Marne-la-Vallée to the train station in Paris, and then took the high-speed Thalys train from Paris to Brussels. We checked into a gorgeous 3-bedroom apartment provided by Sweet Inn. The company combines the best of both worlds when it comes to rental homes and hotel suites. Stylish vacation apartments are offered in 15 European cities, each with in-person check-in at a street-level lobby, complete with a full concierge and business center. Thanks to Sweet Inn for hosting us!
First, we had a fantastic traditional Belgian lunch at Le Bistro with a couple different kinds of stew. The dishes reminded me of a childhood memory, which I shared with the girls. Every Sunday my family and my aunt’s family would go over to my Belgian grandparents’ house. I really enjoyed going there because they had a mini-farm in their backyard, and I loved playing with the many bunnies and rabbits they raised. My grandmother would whip up the same delicious stew for lunch each time we went. When I asked my parents what kind of stew it was, they would tell me it was “wild chicken.” One day, my cousin Serge (yes, coincidentally the same name as my now-husband) was mad at me about something. Over lunch, he suddenly blurted out, “It’s not wild chicken! It’s rabbit! Why do you think they have so many rabbits?” I was devastated to learn the truth about my beloved stew, and vowed never to eat it again. But the next week, I was overcome by the delicious aroma of that stew and couldn’t resist eating it again. So apparently, I got over it pretty quickly! At the restaurant in Brussels we enjoyed both stoofvlees (Belgian beef stew) and rabbit stew. It wasn’t as good as my grandmother’s, of course, but it was still a very enjoyable meal.
After lunch we went to see Manneken Pis, the famous bronze statue of a naked little boy urinating, which was just as underwhelming as I remembered from my childhood! We then walked around Grande Place and explored the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, which is a covered shopping mall with lots of great chocolate shops.
Then it was time to meet up with a friend from kindergarten and first grade, if you can believe it! My friend, An, and I only see each other once every 15 years, but our visits are always as if no time has passed. When I moved to Belgium as a 6-year-old, I didn’t speak a word of Dutch, but she was one of the kids who befriended me immediately and I’ll always appreciate her for that. We enjoyed a fantastic dinner at the Mediterranean restaurant Strofilia.
A Day in Antwerp
The following day, we took the train into Antwerp. My father is from the Flemish side of Belgium, so I have more memories and more of a connection to this area of Belgium than I do to the French-speaking Brussels. Seeing the Antwerpen-Centraal Station is a must-do! It was recently nominated as one of the world’s most beautiful train stations, and it’s not hard to see why. We met with Lucy, who’s been a friend of my family since I was a kindergartener. Her family owned a Chinese restaurant in our hometown of Sint Niklaas, and as one of the few Chinese people in that town, our families grew close. We had dim sum in Chinatown, just a block from the train station, and spent the day exploring Antwerp. We went to the Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp, which brought back fond memories of my lighting candles in cathedrals while traveling throughout European during my childhood. It was really special to see the girls continue that family tradition by lighting a candle and saying a prayer for a friend of ours currently battling an illness. The girls were very taken with the sculpture of the young boy Nello and his dog Patrasche, based on the popular children’s book A Dog of Flanders. Later, we saw the Brabo statue, which has an interesting backstory, and then it was time for delicious waffles!
Visiting My Old Hometown
The next morning, Lucy took us to see my aunt, whom I haven’t seen since I was 13. She lives in Lokeren, which is the town where my father grew up. When the door opened, I was surprised to see my cousin Serge – the same cousin who told me about the rabbit stew! I had no idea he would be there, so it was a very pleasant surprise. We had a wonderful visit, and it was great for them to meet my family. I think they were all surprised to see how different Sean and Ella were from me as a child. I was a quiet, shy child who always had my nose in a book. Quite the opposite from the girls, who chatted a mile a minute and reveled in demonstrating their gymnastics and karate moves to my aunt, uncle and cousin! After all the hurt and conflict my family has been been through, this felt like a first step towards healing some of those old wounds. It was a profound moment for me, and I felt very grateful that I could share it with Serge and the girls.
After that, Lucy took us around Sint Niklaas, the town I lived in as a child, and it was really fun to see how everything looks now. I saw my old apartment building, my Catholic school, and even the music school where I took piano lessons! I was flooded with warm feelings and really enjoyed sharing this moment with the girls.
Flying Out of Brussels
As Delta One customers, we received access to the Fast Lane security screening, which greatly reduced the amount of time we spent standing in line. While there is no Delta Sky Club in the Brussels airport, we were able to access the British Airways lounge. This lounge was spacious, modern and comfortable, and had a selection of breads, pastries, fruit and cereal available for breakfast.
This trip was full of both Disney magic and the kind of magic that only nostalgia can bring. We all have complicated backstories, which actually make up rich and colorful tapestries worth sharing. It’s easy to get caught up in the new lives we’re living, and to forget where we came from. Our trip to Paris and Belgium was about sightseeing, reconnecting, and healing. Travel has this tremendous power to build bridges, after all. As a kid, I didn’t have a say in where we went or when, but now, I am in charge of the narrative I tell my children. And I’m grateful to have so many beautiful chapters to share with them.
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About Carmen Sognonvi
Carmen Sognonvi is a luxury family travel content creator at Top Flight Family, named a top 10 family travel Instagram account by Time Out New York and Brit + Co. Her insights on travel have been featured in The Washington Post, INSIDER, Huffington Post, Wanderlust Travel Magazine, TravelPulse, HOTELS Magazine, and more. Carmen firmly believes that you can (and should) travel with your kids from a young age. She offers families practical solutions for travel, as well as tips on how to travel in luxury for less. She lives in New York City with her multiracial and multicultural family of four. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
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