London: The Good, Bad & Ugly

To celebrate the 3 day weekend, the French family (Corinne, Jean-Paul, Veronique, Ludivine and Thomas) and I jetted off to London.  I was especially excited to be surrounded by English (aside from the 5 french people I was traveling with) and explore one of Europe’s most dynamic cities.

So, rather than to bore you with the every little detail of the trip, I’ll break it down for you like this:

  • Friday – Arrival. Amazing apartment with a view of Parliament and Big Ben. Beer. Fish & chips.
  • Marathon Saturday – Big English breakfast. Tower, London & Millenium Bridges. London Eye. Queens Walk. Big Ben, Parliament, Big Ben, Parliament, Big Ben, Parliament. Westminster Abbey. St. James Park. Buckingham Palace. Piccadilly Circus. Convent Gardens. My feet hurt.
  • Sunday – Big English breakfast. London Castle. St. Pauls Cathedral. Regents Park. Shopping. Beer. An orange cat wearing a leash and an Olympics t-shirt riding the metro. Yup, that really happened. I might need foot surgery.
  • Monday – Big English breakfast. Back to France. Foot soak.

So, let’s talk about the good, bad and ugly of “America’s truest friend.” (George Bush)

The Good:

  • Adorable accents and words. When asking if the kitchen was open one night the bartender responded, with a charming accent, “I’m afraid it’s not.” This only made me want to pinch her cheeks because it was so darn cute.
  • Perfect contrast of old and new. In many old European cities, you could never put a modern skyscraper next to an 17th century apartment building. Here, you find this all over the place, but it somehow works perfectly. Bravo, Urban Planners.

The Bad:

  • Service. Unfortunately, this was something we experienced several times throughout the weekend at restaurants and most specifically the airport (never fly with Ryan Air). Step it up London.
  • Prices. 10£ ($15) for a cup of Miso soup and a little bowl of Edamame. W.T.F.

The Ugly:

  • Fashion. To say the English are eccentric is an understatement. I couldn’t help but crack up when I saw a girl in hot pink spandex, 6 inch glossy blue platforms and a turquoise fish net tank top. Seriously, these kinds of crimes were happening all over town. Mind you, it was also 50 degrees and no one in London wears a jacket when it’s that balmy out.
  • Hair. True story – I saw a dreaded, mullet. For everyday of my life I will regret not taking a photo of this, but I couldn’t inconspicuously do it without blowing my cover because I was laugh hysterically.

Overall, a fab weekend with the Chevriers, but to my surprise, I was ready and happy to return to France. Could it be that the France is really starting to grow on me?

And for your viewing pleasure, here is a YouTube video (set to appropriate music).
Bonus points for those of you who get the song reference.

Paris Encore: Bateaux, Bones & Breathtaking Views

Now that classes have started, I have made some friends. (Yay, friends!!!) It’s funny to see our nationality clicks form almost instantly. Naturally, there are a few American girls I have bonded with – two from Detroit. By pure coincidence I have met one of them before, when Fabien and I picked up our marriage license.  Him presenting his passport and her recognizing where he is from prompted the conversation of her coming here in January. The world is so small.

After a couple of weeks in Orléans, we were all ready to get out of dodge and spend a few days in Paris. Yes, I know – I just wrote a blog about my visit there, but….IT’S PARIS and possibly the only city in the world deserving of two blog posts in one month.

Our Adorable Parisian Apartment (www.airbnb.com)

We used Airbnb and (again) had fantastic experience that included our very own adorable Parisian apartment avec a cat, named Terton.  (Please pronounce with a french accent, otherwise, he will not respond. Snobby french cats.)

Americans in Paris

In typical Parisian fashion, the weather did not cooperate, but it was still a fantastic weekend. We visited some usual suspects (The Eiffel Tower, Sacré Coeur, Arc de Triomphe, Moulin Rouge & Champs Elysees), but we also did a few new things, which were absolutely wonderful.

Friday night, we took a ‘Bateaux Mouches’ (translation, fly, as in the bug, boat) along the Seine. An amazing way to see the lights in the City of Lights. There are a couple of companies that do this and they are about the same price (approximately 12€, but we used the one near the Eiffel Tower – link here).

Catacombs

However, what I was most excited for was going down Saturday morning.  We woke up early only to descend below the sewers & metros to Paris’s world-famous Catacombs. If you’re not familiar and want to read the history, click here. But, basically, in the 17th century Paris had a sanitary problem because of all the dead bodies buried in the city. The solution was to move the remains into the quarries where they remain to this day. There are literally hundreds of miles of hallways underneath the city lined with bones. Rumor has it, there are currently people living in the Catacombs. Très creepy! We spent 2 hours walking through the tunnels, inspecting skulls, bones, carvings, tombs and wells. I know it’s quite morbid, but it was also really neat to see and hear the history.

Finally, Sunday morning we headed to Notre Dame to climb 387 stairs into the towers of the famous cathedral. Now, let me make a correction to my last Paris post (The Worst Tourist in Paris) – I still love the park, Buttes Chaumont, BUT Notre Dame has the best view (see below). Pourquoi, you ask? Well, you can see the Eiffel Tower, Sacré Coeur and the rest of the beautiful city, but what you get as an extra is a close up of Notre Dame’s iconic gargoyles and a breathtaking view of the Seine. What is more Parisian than all of those things? The answer is nothing. So, here is what I’m recommending…If the budget is tight, go to Buttes Chaumont. You’ll love it. But, if you’ve got a few euros in your pocket (maximum 8.50€) and it’s a clear day, go to the towers of Notre Dame. Do one of these two things or don’t even bother going to Paris. Kidding, but really, being atop Notre Dame was amazing.

Now, I’m going to cool-it on Paris until the weather is better. I’ll be back in early April to run a half-marathon, but until then….Paris, Je t’aime!

A few more pics have been added to the photo gallery.

The best view in Paris

Belgium – More Than Beer & Chocolate

Our original plan was to go to Strasbourg to see the world-famous Christmas Markets, but after we realized the journey was nearly 8 hours one way, it was time to implement “Plan B”elgium. Fabien has never been and I can’t say the country was on my list of places to see before I die, but no doubt there would be some fun things to do and see.

The Roadster

Therefore, the Thursday before Christmas we hopped in our little European roadster, “Papi Rene’s Clio” and headed north. After a quick stop in Lille to spend the afternoon, we were greeted in Brussels with Parisian style traffic. It took us 2 hours to go 3 miles. In typical European fashion, all of the metro, bus and tramway workers were on strike just in time to cause enough holiday chaos and have their demands met the next day. Our GPS joined them in the strike leaving us totally lost in the city. Fortunately, we were going so slow, there was enough time to stop and ask several people if we were headed in the right direction. A great test of my french speaking and listening skills!

Eventually, we found the apartment we rented through Airbnb. This was the first time we had used the service, but if you’re not familiar, you should definitely check it out. Basically, you rent a room or apartment from a person. It can be anything from pull out couch, a private room or your own apartment. This is a great way to travel in Europe as it helps keep costs low and gives you a chance to live like a local. In Brussels, a crappy downtown hotel room would have cost us at least $125 a night, but instead, we got our own, nice downtown apartment for $60. Not to mention, the host gave great recommendations on places to see and eat. All around, a win-win.

Saint Michael Cathedral

Our host alerted us that Brussels is more beautiful at night so we were eager to head out and visit immediately. We walked a few blocks and around every corner were surprised to find something more visually stunning than the previous block. The Belgians have the most architecturally beautiful cathedrals and know how to make a grand display of them with lights, music and sparkles. In Liz Broad’s, Travelogged website, she declares Brussels to have one of the most spectacular Christmas decoration displays in the world and so far it is the most mesmerizing I have ever seen. Here is a video of the show at La Grand Place. Honestly, I think it will go in one of my top 5 favorite travel moments.

After leisurely walking around La Grand Place and seeing other street spectacles, we popped into the restaurant our host recommended for a typical Belgian cuisine – mussels, fries and beer. I can’t say I’m in love with the combination, but “when in Rome…”

Post dinner we stumbled on an amazing Christmas Market. It was the biggest and best I have seen to date. The rhythm was gift shop, gift shop, bar, gift shop, gift shop, bar. Works for me.

Famous (and tiny) Manneken Pis. Translation – Pissing Man Statue

The next day, we woke up early and visited the city’s shopping street, the Manneken Pis and the spectacular Palace. From there we hopped in the car and drove an hour north to the picturesque city of Bruges. Famous for their canals, bridges and chocolate, being in the city is a tourists dream. All the buildings, streets and shops were perfectly cute and we spent the afternoon walking around with no destination or agenda. Before heading back to Brussels, we made another quick stop in Gents for a view of the square and their beautifully lit churches. I hate to say this, but the Belgians churches blow Frances out of the water. Sorry guys.

Bruges

 

 

All and all, my first impression of Belgium was fantastic. While I’m no expert on Europe, I view it as a laid back and underrated country. Also, a tad easier on the pocketbook than France, but what is saved will just end up spent on chocolate and beer.