Today's flight takes us up the north coast of Europe as far as the city of Brussels, Belgium. But first, we fly over one of the world's great cities, Paris. As the French would say, prepare to depart toute suite!
On our way to Paris, let's look at French, the first widely spoken foreign language we've encountered on our trip so far. French is an official language of 28 nations, including Canada, where it's spoken in the Province of Quebec, just north of New Hampshire. For centuries, French served as the primary language of the European aristocracy and international diplomacy. Although English is now more common around the globe, to this day your passport still contains French translations of all important text. In terms of usage, French is spoken by about 229 million people across the globe, making it the 10th most popular language on the planet. English is second, with 983 million speakers; Chinese is No. 1 at 1.1 billion.
Also: French is often called a "romance" language, but that's not because it's used by people in love. (Although that's sometimes the case!) It means French is part of the "Romance" family of languages, so named because it's a direct descendant of Latin, the language of Ancient Rome spoken 2,000 years ago and spread throughout Europe as the Roman Empire expanded. Other romance languages are Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian. Studying Latin can provide a good foundation for learning these other languages because of how closely related they are.
Paris, one of the world's great cities, is the capital of France and the international center of French culture. Located on the Seine River, it's famous for its art, history, culture, food, and for people who know how to savor the finer things in life. Although a vibrant and contemporary city, Paris has ancient roots: like London, it developed around a convenient river crossing, in this case at the Île de la Cité, the island where the Cathedral of Notre Dame stands today.
Unusual for world capitals, Paris has never been destroyed by invasion or natural catastrophe. But it's seen its share of conflict over the centuries; the violent Revolution of 1789 saw the overthrow of the French monarchy and the execution in 1793 of King Louis XVI and his bride, Marie Antoinette, via the guillotine.
Our first site over Paris is the Palace of Versailles, originally a hunting lodge but expanded enormously by King Louis XIV starting in the 1660s. The sprawling and ornate complex eventually became the royal family's permanent home, and its incredible opulence help fuel resentment that led to the French Revolution. Although the monarchy didn't survive, Versailles did, and today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a source of great national pride.
The Eiffel Tower, once the world's tallest structure, is an internatonal symbol of Paris. Built along the Seine by engineer Gustave Eiffel for an 1889 exhibition, it was meant to be temporary, but remains standing today, as popular as ever: in fact, with 7 million visitors each year, it's the world's busiest paid admission attraction. Eiffel, a pioneering engineer, also designed the structural support system for the Statue of Liberty, which the French presented to the United States in 1886.
Further up the Seine River stands Notre Dame, the iconic cathedral and another symbol of Paris. Located at the center of prehistoric and medieval Paris, a church has stood at this site since Roman days, when a temple to the Roman God Jupiter was built here. Other churches followed the arrival of Christianity; the current Gothic-style cathedral was begun in 1160 and has endured through centuries of Parisian change and growth.
Notre Dame is famous for its flying buttresses (exterior supporting arches that allow for a more dramatic interior) and also its massive bells. The latter played a key role in Victor Hugo's literary masterpiece 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame,' published in 1838. Notre Dame was severely damaged by a spectacular roof fire in 2019 that caused the central spire to collapse; it's hoped that the cathedral can be restored and reopened in time for Paris to host the 2024 Summer Olympics.
We'll now fly northeast to Belgium and the Netherlands, two nations that (with Luxembourg) are often called the "Low Countries." This is because much of their territory is flat and at or below sea level. In fact, about 33 percent of the Netherlands, sometimes called "Holland" in English, is below sea level, and 17 percent of land reclaimed from the sea, which is held back by dikes.
But first we'll fly over two cities in Belgium, a small nation that's about the size of Maryland. But it's home to two language groups: residents of the south (closest to France) speak a form of French called Walloon, while people in the northern half (close to the Netherlands) speak a form of Dutch called Flemish. Such language situations will become more common as we travel about Europe. Switzerland has four official languages!
Every nation has its early aviation heroes, and Belgium is no exception. Local flying lore here includes the exploits of Hélène Marguerite Dutrieu, a bicycle racer, stunt driver and pioneer female aviator. Among her claims to fame: in 1910, she became Belgium's first licensed female pilot (and the fourth in the world), the first female pilot to stay aloft an entire hour, and reputedly the first woman pilot to fly with a passenger. Nicknamed the "Girl Hawk," Dutrieu wore the first known high fashion pilot suit, designed by the Paris couturier Bernard, and caused a minor scandal when it was revealed she flew without wearing a corset!
First we'll see Bruges, a coastal city that in medieval times served as a major port and trading center, complete with canals that led it to be called "the Venice of the North." But the channel connecting the city's harbor to the North Sea began silting up around 1500, causing business in Bruges to come to a standstill. Due to lack of development, the city's central core has remained virtually unchanged for five centuries, which means visiting Bruges today is like taking a time machine to the late middle ages.
Now we fly over Brussels, Belgium's major city and also home to the European Parliament. As such, it's the administrative center of the European Union, which consists of 27 countries. (It was 28 until the United Kingdom left last year after a prolonged debate over departure that became known as Brexit.) The European Union grew out of efforts following World War II for all the various nations to work together to prevent war and promote economic cooperation. Today, the European Union has its own flag and many member states use a common currency, called the Euro, which was introduced in 1999.
Brussels itself boasts a long history as a center of business and commerce. Among its attractions are the city's original main square, called the 'Grand Place,' as well as a water fountain featuring a small statue of a naked young boy continously peeing. Known as the "Manneken Pis," the origins of this beloved monument aren't clear; one story says it memorializes a boy who put out a fire by urinating on it, saving a royal palace. No one knows for sure, but today people of Brussels celebrate the statue by dressing him in a continuous parade of outfits, turning the Mannekin Pis into everyone from Count Dracula for Halloween to Belgian inventor and musician Adolphe Sax, who invented (and gave his name to) the instrument known as the saxophone.
Equally strange is a landmark north of the city: the "Atomium," a 335-foot-high model of the structure of an iron crystal magnified about 165 billion times. Erected as part of the European Expo in 1958, it was meant to be temporary but like the Eiffel Tower, it became a symbol of the city and has remained in place. Today visitors can explore the connected globes, which contain a restaurant, exhibits, and facilities for students to sleep over.
We're landing at Brussels Charleroi Airport, the city's general aviation field, located about 20 miles south of the town. Have fun exploring Brussels, but don't be late for our next departure, when we fly further up the coast to a place where people have been ranked the world's happiest. See you then!
Resources to learn more about today's flight: