They Say French Women Don’t Get Fat…

…but with all the delicious and seriously tasty food Paris has to offer, I can’t imagine how French women stay slim. It must be all that walking to get to and from train stations. I wouldn’t mind walking either if I have views of the Seine and old buildings to keep me company.

Our first meal in Paris kicked off a gastronomic feast that was to last almost three weeks. We arrived a little after two in the afternoon at our pretty little apartment at the Rue du Pont Neuf and were too hungry to venture too far. Luckily, there were rows of cafes and bistros nearby and we quickly settled at Le Mimosa.

I normally order ala carte since I don’t eat much, but I was so famished that I decided to order the set menu, which consisted of an appetizer, a main dish, and dessert. That translated to egg salad, steak and fries, and lychee panna cotta. The salad alone would have satisfied me: the eggs were perfectly boiled and the dressing was creamy, sweet, sour, and salty in equal degrees. My friends got some liver pate which was so rich we couldn’t stop gushing about it.

Egg Salad.

Egg Salad.

The steak was also great – I ordered it medium and it was a delight that the meat wasn’t rubbery or too thick, or hard to bite. Plus, it was spicy enough to satisfy my affinity for all things spicy, yet mild enough that I didn’t need to guzzle a liter of water. Oh, and did I mention the wine we ordered with it? The wine was so cheap! I think wine in Europe is cheaper than water which was why we ended up having wine with practically every meal while we were in Europe.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Steak and fries, baby.

The French take their time eating food, and so, we did as the French did. We had a couple of hours to spare before the malls closed so we decided to rush to Galeries Lafayette for some retail therapy (yes, on our first day!). True enough, we were again hungry by the time we got home a couple of hours later and flopped straight into the waiting seats at La Creperie, at the corner of Rue de Pont Neuf and Rue Saint Honore.

It was a no-brainer what to order – I forgot the name of the crepe I got but it was big it filled my entire plate (which was twice as big as my face), and had ham and a big sunny side up in the middle. I loved every morsel of it!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe also met a wonderful and handsome French/Vietnamese guy at the restaurant who ended up serving our table for the day. It got me thinking – why are the French so good-looking? I guess that means the not so gorgeous people are the ones who stand out coz in a sea of gorgeous people, they’re not used to plain looks? Hahaha. That means I have a shot then. 😛

There are cafes just about everywhere in Paris which is one of the things I love most about the city of lights. I am a big breakfast person and my favorite meal consists of croissants with lots of butter and jelly, or a croque madame if I am hungry, a cup of hot chocolate, and a glass of orange juice which are quite standard fare in Paris.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A typical cafe in Paris. People-watching is a serious sport here which is why tables and seats facing the street are always the first ones to be occupied.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Carbo-loading in preparation for our Giverny/Orangerie tour.

IMG_4028

Happy me.Dining al fresco with a crisp, cool breeze from the Seine is hard to top.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

If not for that McCafe written on the mug, you would never have thought we were eating at McDonald’s, would you?

And well, for those of you in a tight budget, or are having anxiety attacks or homesickness, there’s always a friendly McDonald’s around the corner as well. But again, I am beyond amazed that even their McDonald’s looks so chic? Must be the air!

Again, I say… they say French women don’t get fat; why, oh why? Life can be unfair sometimes. 😛

The Louvre (Part II) and the Tuileries

Our itinerary in Paris pretty much revolved around shopping but I made sure I at least get to revisit the Louvre and sneak in a church or two. There is so much to see at the Louvre and I’m sure you’ve all heard the quote that even if you spend just a few minutes looking at each artifact, it would take you at least three months to finish the Louvre. And you have to agree with me that a minute is definitely not enough when you are looking at something as massive and as intricate as Ramesses III’s sarcophagus!

Grey skies greeted us but nothing can dull the beauty of the Louvre.

Grey skies greeted us but nothing can dull the beauty of the Louvre.

The Louvre, which was built in the 12th century for use as a fortress, used to be the royal residence of the French monarchy until 1682 when Louis XIV moved to Versailles. It housed various offices and academies, until in 1793, it opened the doors of its museum, with mostly paintings from the royal collection on display.

We only had half a day to tour the museum before we had to rush to the stores again, and as it was my friends’ first time, I gamely took on the role of tour guide, making sure to take them to the classics such as Venus de Milo, the whole Egyptian antiquities, and of course, the Mona Lisa.

Navigating the Louvre can be tricky since there are many wings, levels, and sublevels – sometimes, you think you are on the second floor and when you go out a door, you’re in a level between two floors. Confusing! Make sure you have a map with you; if all else fails, the museum personnel are very friendly and helpful. Just pray you get an English-speaking one. My love of all things Egyptian notwithstanding, we still got lost in that particular wing more than once and spent a good thirty minutes walking around in circles around Ramsesses’ red granite sarcophagus (which looks more pink in pictures). I think the “gods” and the mummy might have been playing with us that day. Hahaha (okay, I’ll stop now before I scare myself).

Don't forget to look up; even the ceiling of the Louvre was not spared. It is gorgeous!

Don’t forget to look up; even the ceiling of the Louvre was not spared. It is gorgeous!

There are so many limestone, clay, and alabaster sculpture in the Egyptian wing. Apart from the ancient accessories and the mummy which I wrote about here, I also love the lapiz lazuli and gold statues and statuettes of gods and goddesses that the ancients were so fond of. Ahh, makes me wish I can go to Egypt right now. It has been my #1 destination since I was a young girl; people say Egypt is a place in love with death but I am in love with Egypt so maybe I have a morbid fascination.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Gold and lapiz lazuli. I never really paid attention to the blue material until it gained extensive usage in the Vampire DIaries book (and later on, the TV series). Now, I am also obsessed with it.

After tiring ourselves getting lost, we went next to the Mona Lisa. It’s the one attraction you couldn’t possibly not see – just follow everyone and you’ll find it. And be ready to brave a sea of angry tourists, elbowing their way to get the best shot of the Mona Lisa. I would have wanted to see it up close but I get nauseous in a crowd, so I just stayed a safe distance away.

Nothing can beat the mystery that is Mona Lisa's smile.

Nothing can beat the mystery that is Mona Lisa’s smile. I didn’t think it possible, but there were even more tourists during my 2nd visit than my 1st.

After that, we went on a hunt of the famous sculptures scattered all over the museum, such as the Winged Victory of Samothrace and Venus de Milo, and headed off to find two other famous sculptures I missed during my first visit.

The Dying Slave by Michaelangelo.

The Dying Slave by Michaelangelo.

Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss by Antonio Canova.

Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss by Antonio Canova.

Psyche and Cupid’s love story is one of the first great love stories I am to learn. Psyche’s beauty and how men offered prayer and worship to her instead of Venus, made the goddess of love and beauty so jealous that she sent her son Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with the worst of men. However, as fate would have it, Cupid himself fell in love with Psyche. The story doesn’t end there and I wouldn’t spoil it all for you; trust though that after several trials, Psyche and Cupid got their happily ever after.

Just a few steps across from the Louvre is the Jardin de Tuileries, separated from each other by the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel (located in the Place du Carrousel). This arc commemorates the victories of Napoleon’s army. This is different from the more popular Arc de Triomphe de l’etoile at the Champs Elysees.

Portion of the palace as seen from the Tuileries.

Portion of the palace as seen from the Tuileries.

Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel

Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, which separates the Louvre from the Tuileries Garden.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The garden was commissioned by Catherine de Medici in the 16th century when she decided to move to the Louvre with her son, the new king Francois II. She had a palace and a garden built near the Louvre, modeled after her native Florence, and the garden was said to be the largest and most beautiful garden in Paris at the time. It was later redesigned by Andre Le Notre, a grandson of one of Catherine’s own gardeners, and the man who also designed the gardens at Versailles.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Various marble and bronze sculptures are strewn about the garden; walking in it is almost akin to walking in a museum. Even though the palace has been destroyed, what remains of the garden is still beautiful and I can only imagine what it must have looked like during Catherine’s time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There is a cafe and gelato stall in the garden, near the Orangerie, where visitors can relax after a stroll – a not so easy feat considering the park is half a kilometer long and almost as wide. If only I could teleport myself to France. Sigh.

Zug

I’ve always associated Switzerland with watches and chocolates, which are primarily my reasons for wanting to visit. After all, my favorite chocolate, Lindt, is a Swiss product and so was my first watch as a kid, Swatch.

Getting there was easy. I was coming from Milan, a mere three-hours away by high-speed train, so on my first day there, I set about getting roundtrip tickets to Zug. I would have gotten a window seat since I was traveling alone but apparently, there was a music festival in Zurich that weekend and the trains were pretty much booked. I was actually quite scared on the train ride to Zug because I was seated with a bunch of very good-looking but very drunk teenagers. The group brought bottles of beer on the train and the guy across me had drunk five bottles already (I was counting) when he got up and started dancing right in the middle. It’s a good thing he didn’t get rowdier than that or tried to hurt anyone.

Noisy teenagers aside, the view was to die for. All train rides I’ve taken in Europe have been scenic, but this one just took my breath away. Hands-down the most beautiful sight. Switzerland is a land-locked country, bordered by France, Italy, Germany, Austria, and Liechtenstein. Majority of its territory is occupied by the Alps (southern portion), with the remaining parts divided into plateaus (where most of its citizens live) and the Jura mountains. From the Alps originate the waters that feed major rivers in Europe such as the Rhine. As if that’s not enough, there are also more than 1,500 lakes in Switzerland. Imagine how picturesque this country is with the abundance of natural wonders.

I had to pick up my jaw and pinch myself when I looked outside my train window for my first glimpse of Switzerland: it was like a fairy tale – snow-capped mountains, alternating emerald green/turquoise blue lakes, foaming white streams, log houses dotting the mountainside… Remember those picture calendars which were so popular back in the 80s and 90s? Well, the scene outside my window was a hundred times better than that. It was perfect.

It was lunch when I got there and I was a little hungry by the time I met up with my childhood friend Joy and her hubby. Unfortunately, I was having a very bad allergy attack (my face looked like a horde of bees stung me, I had to wear sunglasses ALL THE TIME) so we decided to just get food from McDonald’s. I mean, I can’t be allergic to fries and burgers, right?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The hills are very much alive…

You might say there’s nothing fancy about McDonald’s (although it cost an arm and a leg in Switzerland, much more expensive than in Japan; in case you didn’t know, this is the most expensive country in the world to live in) but my friends took me to the top of Mt. Zuggerberg where we had an impromptu lunch overlooking Lake Zug. It was the best cheeseburger meal I have ever had in my entire life. Ever.

IMG_4111

Picnic on Mt. Zuggerberg

After our picnic, we had to rush off to Chocolat Frey’s factory for our workshop (my friend Joy had asked me what I wanted to do during my visit and I said I only want to visit a chocolate factory and I’d be happy) – this is the number one chocolate in Switzerland so I was really excited to get a taste.

For our workshop, our instructor gave us two plastic molds each, and asked us to select the mixin’s we want in our chocolate bars. I picked pistachios, almonds, and strawberry drops for my first bar, and chili and almonds for my second bar.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our instructor explaining the process to us. Obviously, I wasn’t listening coz I was too busy oggling and inhaling the chocolatey aroma. Hahaha!

I had a hard time picking.

I had a hard time choosing.

We were also given a bowl for our chocolate mixture – I got white and milk chocolate. After that, I just mixed the nuts and other toppings and poured into the molds. Silly me didn’t think to make the white chocolate bar before the milk chocolate one, so what was supposed to be a white bar ended up as beige with flecks of brown. Oh well, at least I can say it’s a flecked chocolate bar? 😀

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hmm… I can’t even get pouring into the mold right.

Tada! Sorry dear hubby. I could only make two so it had to be the boys.

Almost there! Sorry dear hubby. I could only make two so it had to be the boys.

IMG_4145

How cute that he logo of Chocolat Frey is a unicorn head? The unicorn, along with the phoenix, is one of my favorite mythical animals.

After that, we went on a tour around the compound where we learned about the history of the company, as well as how their chocolates are made.

The wrappers of the different products of Chocolat Frey. One of their most popular is the Easter Bunny. Too bad though as I think Frey chocolates are limited here in Manila.

The wrappers of the different products of Chocolat Frey. One of their most popular is the Easter Bunny. Too bad though as I think Frey chocolates are limited here in Manila.

Very informative but the best part of the tour? May I present – a conveyor belt chocolate buffet!

Genius. THIS officially made Switzerland the best part of my trip.

Genius. Don’t ask me how many chocolates I ate.

I think I ate one piece out of every plate.  Or make that two out of every plate.

I think I ate one piece out of every plate.
Or make that two out of every plate.

We were supposed to go up Mt. Pilatus (or was it Rigi?) to see the Alps but it was cloudy up in the mountains and we knew there was a big chance of rain which would have rendered the trip quite useless so we decided to just have another picnic, this time by Lake Zug.

I was expecting nothing more than just a body of water but it was more than that: you have a view of the mountains and the Alps in the distance, trees everywhere, and even a family of ducks swimming, barely making ripples on the placid surface of the lake. A lot of families were having picnics as well, some even camping out for the night, with their barbecue grills all set-up. It was a bit chilly for a swim but I saw a couple of people in their swimsuits.

Can I just stay here forever?

Can I just stay here forever?

If Chocolat Frey didn’t do it, this one decided it for me – my sojourn in Switzerland is the highlight of my trip, and it was less than 24 hours! I didn’t get to see any old towns or museums, but seeing all that nature has to offer more than reinforced the idea that nothing man can make can defeat the wonders of nature.

My day ended with a wonderful meal at perhaps one of the best Indian restaurant I’ve been to, and in Switzerland of all places!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI had to leave early the next morning since I had to check out of our apartment in Milan by 12nn but I will definitely be back and stay longer.

PS: Switzerland, while a member of the Schengen area, is not a member of the EU or the European Economic Area, so euros are not used here. You’d have to change your money for Swiss francs (or withdraw from the ATM). I only realized that when I got there and was about to buy coffee at Starbucks. 🙂

Disneyland Paris

I have this personal goal of visiting Disneyland across three continents. I knew there was one in Paris but I was too pregnant to visit last year (that and the fact that the hubby refused to go with me) so I made sure to squeeze it in our itinerary this year. I even told my friends that I would go to Disneyland by myself in case we didn’t have enough time (fortunately, we were able to finish all we set out to do that day).

IMG_4052

Getting to the park was a breeze – we did get lost twice because we initially took the wrong train but from Paris, it’s just one train ride away, about thirty minutes or so, getting off at the Marnee-La Vallee station. You can’t miss it – just follow the parents with their excited kids when they get off the train. Hahaha!

Anyway, the park itself was smaller than I thought – and much less crowded than the ones in HK and in Orlando, Florida. There are two parks: Disneyland Park and Walt Disney Studios Park. Knowing that the first one is more or less similar to the Magic Kingdom with its iconic castle, we opted to visit the Studios instead.

We had limited time in the park since we still had to shop at the outlet store so we headed first to watch Cinemagique, a show I enjoyed because of how they added two modern actors into several old movies. It started off with a seemingly innocent member of the audience stumbling off onto the stage while having a loud cellphone conversation and accidentally falling into the silver screen. Everything happened so fast I still haven’t figured out how he disappeared into the screen. Hahaha. And I was only too happy that his onscreen leading lady was Julie Delpy.

Of course, what visit to Disneyland would be complete without some character sighting? Too bad I wasn’t able to have my photos taken with them. Boo! 😦

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

They have Cars!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Toy Storyland was also a familiar attraction – I was able to visit the one in HK a few weeks after it opened and it’s one of my favorite parts of the park because of how pretty everything looked (shallow, I know).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

They have the Parachute Drop!

There was one attraction my friends and I wanted to see since it was our first time to see this one – a 3D Ratatouille ride where you run around a restaurant and its kitchen while avoiding getting stepped on or bumped by carts, etc. There was a long queue and some technical problems but after an hour or so of waiting, we finally made it in! It was rather short though.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Food was pretty much what you’d get in other Disney parks which was surprisingly reassuring to me. There weren’t many stores to shop in which was well and good – otherwise, I would have ended up again with loads of Disney stuff. I seriously wanted to buy some dainty Tinkerbell earrings but they weren’t made in Europe; I wanted to buy those castle shaped chocolate bars but Paris was our first city and we still had four more to go – those chocolates would have just melted. So, I ended up with no purchases at all.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One item off my bucket list – I can now say I have been to Disneyland on three continents (Asia, North America and Europe). This may sound trivial to some but I love everything Disney and would decorate my house with Mickey and his friends if I could (as it is, I am sticking to picture frames and clothes for now). Nevertheless, I think I’d still visit Disneyland Paris when I go back. 😀

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Giverny

It’s said that Claude Monet was on a train when he looked out, saw this village and decided that he wanted to live here:  amidst all the lush greenery and hills, where it was so serene and laid-back, like nothing bad can ever happen. He didn’t have enough money to buy the house but he wanted it so he rented and saved up until he had the funds to purchase not just the house but the surrounding land. He lived here with his family from 1883 until his death in 1926. His son later donated the property to the Acedemie des Beau-Arts in the 60s, and after restoration works, it was opened to the public in the 80s.

The house with the green shutters and pink walls.

The house with the green shutters and pink walls.

There are no more original artworks by Monet in the property (his famous works are in various museums in Paris, most notably the Musee l’Orangerie – I’ll dedicate a separate post for that), but replicas and reprints hang on the walls in their original locations, so that visitors can get an idea of what the house looked like during his time. Picture-taking isn’t allowed inside though, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: I fell in love with the vividly painted rooms, with one even in yellow!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m quite fond of gardens and anything that has to do with nature so I didn’t pass up the chance to get lost in the garden. What can I say? I loved it. I loved that nothing felt contrived, you know, overly manicured and painstakingly-maintained gardens so common with mansions. In Monet’s property, every bush, every tree felt natural, like they all just sprang from the ground, like it wasn’t at all weird to see a Japanese garden in the middle of the French countryside.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEven the tendrils and small blossoms from vines made perfect frames for the scenery. I could imagine myself staying here for hours and just letting my mind wander off… Or sit and read a book until the mosquitoes force me back to the house.

IMG_4035

The famous water lilies that inspired Monet to paint his masterpiece, aptly and simply called “Water Lilies.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI would have loved to explore the village itself but our tour was limited to the house (and the drive to/from Paris already took quite some time). I’d love to go back there sometime and just wander around.

Schonbrunn Palace

Ever since our friends Gizelle and Harold moved to Austria and started posting all those wonderful photos, I’ve slowly fallen in love with this country without even setting foot on it. But I think my love affair started even before that – after all, I grew up watching The Sound of Music and all those snow-capped mountains just made me want to pack my bags and live there. Unfortunately, Salzburg wasn’t part of our agenda as it would have been a day-trip from Vienna, where we were based, and we only had three short days in Austria. So I just settled for the Schonbrunn Palace.

Schonbrunn, literally beautiful spring after an artesian well found in its gardens, was the summer residence of the Austrian imperial family (the Habsburgs). It has around 1,441 rooms, a magnificent garden, its own zoo (which is also the oldest in the world!), and even its own Roman ruins. It is huge, as all palaces in Europe are, and it again made me wonder, how in the world did the royal families keep track of each other? I mean, it’s not impossible for the king to actually hide a mistress or two within the same palace without the queen running into her.

Facade of the Schonbrunn. So many people at 10am in the morning.

Facade of the Schonbrunn. So many people at 10am in the morning.

The back of the palace is more breathtaking than the front, IMHO. Maybe it's because of the garden where colorful flowers are all abloom.

The back of the palace is more breathtaking than the front, IMHO. Maybe it’s because of the garden where colorful flowers are all abloom.

The beautiful spring where the palace got its name.

The beautiful spring where the palace got its name.

We took a horse-drawn carriage ride around the garden which made the experience even more fun then hiked up to the Gloriette which overlooks the palace, the garden, and has sweeping views of the city from its lofty perch on top of a hill.

Where to go? Love these colorful signs.

Where to go? Love these colorful signs.

TheGloriette of the Schonbrunn.

TheGloriette of the Schonbrunn.

It was past noon by the time we reached the Gloriette so we had our lunch at the cafe there. I don’t know if I ever mentioned it before but I am a big fan of flavor and spices from that part of the planet – I love paprika to bits – so I shared a goulash and sachertorte with my friend.

Herrengulasch mit Knodel, Wurstel und Ei. In plain English, beef goulash with dumpling and egg.

Herrengulasch mit Knodel, Wurstel und Ei. In plain English, beef goulash with dumpling and egg.

The goulash was okay. It actually reminded us of mechado but I could not figure out what that big lump called a dumpling was supposed to be. I know it was supposed to be a dumpling but I’ve always thought a dumpling was something with meat (or veggies) inside, wrapped up in some flour-based mixture before either being fried or boiled. This one was neither and tasted meh. I think it ruined the meal for me. Hahaha.

Sachertorte, the chocolate cake that Vienna is know for. It's good, but for those accustomed to sweet, gooey, chocolatey cakes, well, this would probably disappoint you as it's quite the opposite. It's hardly sweet, it's dry (even flaky), and it doesn't ooze chocolatey flavors. But it kind of grows on you.

Sachertorte, the chocolate cake that Vienna is know for. It’s good, but for those accustomed to sweet, gooey, chocolatey cakes, well, this would probably disappoint you as it’s quite the opposite. It’s hardly sweet, it’s dry (even flaky), and it doesn’t ooze chocolatey flavors. But it kind of grows on you.

As I said a couple of paragraphs earlier, there is also a Roman ruin in the garden, which was designed and put there sometime in the 18th century during the Romantic movement. Well, I almost thought it was really from Roman times but realized too soon that it looked too perfect where it was (though it pretended to be in ruins) that it couldn’t have dated as far back as that.

Roman Ruins

Roman Ruins

Schonbrunn isn’t as extravagant as Versailles (which, as the world know, is a symbol of French excess) – it’s smaller in scale and at first glance didn’t blow me away with all that bling (whereas Versailles had all this gold greeting you even before you crossed its gates), but it is magnificent in its own way. We didn’t have much time or energy to visit the zoo or go from room to room after hiking up and down the palace grounds so I guess that will be all the more reason to visit Austria again, soon.

Only in Paris

Paris is such a beautiful city that just about every corner is worthy of being photographed. I for one, would be perfectly happy getting lost and just wandering around the city.

I wouldn’t mind having this setup for breakfast everyday. Perfect start!

However, Paris is also a big city and there are simply so many places to visit, not just within the city but also in nearby cities and provinces. We only had four whole days and five nights (we arrived on the 1st night via the Thalys from Brussels) and we decided to maximize it by going to the farther/bigger places like Versailles and the Louvre first and just work our way back to the city.
After we visited the Louvre, we headed back to Saint Michel to wander around and look for a place to eat before hearing mass at the Notre Dame. Honestly, I didn’t understand much since it was in French; they gave us missalettes but they were also in French so… I just prayed and hummed along. 
The Notre Dame from across the Seine River
Intricate carvings above the main entrance.
Curiously, the mass goers were so few, considering it was a Sunday, and this was the Notre Dame. I guess it’s true that the number of practicing Catholics is dwindling. But those we did meet at the church were so nice; most of them sang enthusiastically and smiled warmly at one another, even to us and I was just touched and sad that there were so few of them to take care of the church. So touched I think I actually gave 50 euros to the collection basket (or 20?).

I am again reminded of the dwarf and elf dwellings from the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, what with those columns and high ceilings.

The exterior of the church, for me, is even grander. Intricate carvings, gables, and a beautiful garden – I would gladly spend my Sundays in its gardens.

Tree-lined avenue at the garden at the back of the church.

Reminds me of THE rose from Beauty and the Beast. If this pretty flower had been growing in one of the churches here in Manila, someone would have picked it already. Just saying.

Square Rene-Viviani, just across the street from the Notre Dame. I just love that just about every free space you see in the city has a garden.
 
I haven’t seen any of the “Before” trilogy of films prior to our trip but hubby watched Midnight in Paris and wanted to see for himself the bookstore that was featured there. Only later did I realize (as I was watching the trilogy over the Christmas holidays) it was the same bookstore where Ethan Hawke met Julie Delpy after nine long years, in the second film Before Sunset.
Similar to the vibe in the film, the place is a gathering of sorts for the artsy crowd – there was even a live performance when we were there, and I suppose a couple of poetry readings and discussions among the coffee-drinking crowd seated around the place.  
On the eve of my birthday, we went for a walk along the Champs Elysees, with the goal of reaching the Arc de Triomphe by night time. We started off at the Pont du Alexander, named after Tsar Alexander III of Russia, which was simply the most marvellous bridge I have ever seen, with gold cherubs and nymphs and a view to die for – the Grand Palais and the Eiffel Tower, among other monuments. 
Pardon the haggard face – this was almost 10PM and I was simply exhausted.

I wasn’t able to take many photos though, since it was already past 9PM when we got there, and I was tired from the whole day of walking. We had gone to the Saint Germain area earlier to visit the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous medal and attend a meeting at a French journalism school(okay, just the boys – I spent that time getting lost around the area and looking for the Repetto boutique nearby which was unfortunately closed).  
I wish we had bridges this wide and this pretty in our country – but then, thieves would likely steal the sculptures.
General Charles de Gaulle in front of the Grand Palais, which was built in 1897, is now one of the few surviving glass-covered exhibition places from the 19th century. Most of these structures are torn down after the exhibitions are finished.
Close up
Petit Palais
It isn’t every day I get to see a car like this.

A lot of the shops at the Champs Elysees were closed by the time we came traipsing down its path (there goes that hidden agenda to shop at LV) and I was only able to enter the Disney store. I wasn’t able to go to Disneyland Paris – so I just made up for it by shopping at their store.


Our goal was to see the Arc de Triomphe at night and since it was summer, it didn’t get dark until almost midnight.

This is what you would call a buwis-buhay (life-threatening) shot. We literally had to stand in the middle of the street, sandwich by the fast moving traffic just to get this (and endured angry horns blasting on both sides).
This was as close as I could get. Hubby took this shot for me since I was too tired (I was sitting stubbornly on a bench nearby until the boys relented and hailed a taxi) and there was no way I would have dragged myself to go up that tower. Maybe when we go back, someday.

I woke up the next day with creaking bones and a slight fever so I opted to stay in bed and let the boys wander around on their own – too bad because I missed the Sacre Couer. To make up for it, hubby just took pictures of it and gave me a detailed description (he’d been there on a previous visit as well, so he made comparisons between his first visit and this recent one).
You might have seen a similar church in my Brussels post – and you’re not mistaken. But this one in Paris is the real deal. It’s the original Sacre Couer which so inspired King Leopold of Belgium that he had one built in his own capital!

The minor basilica, located on top of the Montmartre, the highest point in Paris. So yeah, you do get a sweeping view of the city from here.
The church,completed at the start of the 20th century, is made of travertine stone, a type quarried from the Chateau Landon. When it rains, the stones have a chemical reaction and secrete calcite, which acts as a bleacher and keeps the facade white, despite the passage of time and pollution.

Later that day, hubby and I decided to do something romantic and go on a cruise down the Seine river (translation: I nagged and twisted his arm until he agreed; a small price to pay considering I missed a chance to see the Loire Valley because of his schedule). Plus, come on, it was my birthday!
Taken on the bridge near the Notre Dame

I think of the river cruise as seeing a lot of the magnificent structures of Paris in a short time – might be useful to if you take this at the start of your trip, since it can help you map out your route as you go from one palace/museum to another. It also offered us a different angle to the buildings as opposed to seeing them at ground level.


The Musee d’Orsay, which used to be a train station converted into a museum, now houses the largest collection of impressionist  and post-impressionist paintings. I still can’t get over the fact that this was a train station.

Look at the graffiti painting along the river banks – now I wouldn’t mind vandals if they make something as beautiful as this.
The river is very wide (in fact, there are two islets in the middle) and of course, this necessitates a lot of bridges. And I am sure you all know the practice in Paris where lovers put locks on the bridges with their names on it, and throw away the key into the Seine. I kind of missed what it was supposed to guarantee though – that you’d both be back to the same place in the future, or that you’d stay together forever, or both. I would have put a lock but I didn’t bring any and I didn’t want to just buy so I just gawked at the number of bridges and the number of locks and wondered just how many couples have pinned their dreams on these bridges.
One of the bridges overflowing with locks. I spy a couple looking at the locks up there.
This is the starting point of our cruise – this is just one dry patch of land in the middle of the river which the Parisians have converted into a mini garden. Complete with lots of PDA from the couples having dates there that day.
This was supposed to be an OOTD shot but hubby doesn’t know how to take those kinds of shots (which explains the lack of OOTDs in this supposedly fashion blog turned travel/food/movie blog).

And that concludes my European travel posts! I can’t wait to go on my next trip.

* All shots taken by me except for the Sacre Couer, Notre Dame interior ones which were taken by the hubby – hubby complains I never give him proper credit. So there. Oh, and shots of me and hubby were taken by our friend.

Martin’s Patershof

Whenever I travel, I make it a point to choose a nice hotel. It doesn’t have to be five-star, although I do require a queen-sized bed, an en-suite hot shower and clean restroom, and enough space for my luggage. But one other thing I look for is that the hotel itself should be worth the trip.

Hubby was all for booking the cheapest hotel but as soon as I saw Martin’s Patershof from the list of hotels in Mechelen, I was sold (and there goes hubby again, accusing me of splurging on hotel stays).

 
Martin’s Patershof used to a be a church, built by the Friar Minors (a Franciscan order) in the latter part of the 18th century. However, in the late 1990s, the order decided to sell the building and it was finally deconsecrated in 1999 and converted into a residential area. How can I not stay in this hotel?

The nice thing about the conversion is that the old church was not torn down to make way for a new structure. Instead, the church was retained and almost all of the church’s elements were incorporated into the new hotel: the altar now serves as the focal point of the main dining hall, the patio is the reception, the stained glass windows and wooden beams make for interesting interior design in most of the suites.   

The church doors turned hotel entrance
I also liked the fact that the reception area had a subdued atmosphere, not unlike the feeling you get when inside a church. It was very quiet and the lighting was dim which rendered the place all the more classy. And I must say the staff were very accommodating, allowing us early check-in (we were six hours too early for check-in since we came from Paris that day and had taken the 5am train to Brussels), and even drawing a map for me so I can decide if I wanted to walk from the hotel to the train station (which I happily did) the following day.

Lounge area near the reception.

I didn’t get to enjoy the breakfast very much though, since I woke up too late on our first day, and we left too early on our third and last day. But I did get to try it on our second day. It wasn’t as grand as the buffet spreads I’ve grown accustomed to (offering different cuisines which I don’t eat anyway) but the food was very good and all the must haves in a breakfast buffet were there – a wide selection of fresh fruit juice, cold cuts and cheese, and various types of bread, cereals, and fruits – so who am I to complain? I was more than happy and satisfied.
And the ambience was just unbeatable. How often do you get to have your breakfast inside a church? It was sooo quiet inside the dining hall and everyone looked so serious I almost felt guilty snapping these photos – I had to do some serious ninja moves to take them without being seen, hahaha!

The dining hall.

I miss having freshly baked croissants for breakfast.
The spread may look spartan but they refill them whenever each plate is almost half-empty.
Stuffed myself with smoked salmon.
Since we were staying at the hotel for the duration of the conference, I think we didn’t have any options on the room type that we were allowed to book and use our discount codes on. But I honestly didn’t bother asking as I was only too happy to stay at this hotel.
It was love at first sight when I opened our door and saw the inviting bed – comfy mattress, comfy (and many!) pillows, a nice desk, and a big bathroom (I had been dreading miniscule bathrooms since our hotel mishap in Paris – which made me swear I will never ever let hubby book our hotels again).
In fact, I loved staying in our room so much I stayed there the entire day and didn’t go out until dinner time! Fortunately, it was summer and the sun sets much later at around 11PM so I still had plenty of time to roam around.

I’ve stayed in about 15 hotels across three continents for both work and pleasure in the last 10 months before this trip but I must say, this hotel is one I would willingly choose again. I guess I’ll see you again then! 😀 

Dazzling Versailles

Since it was my first time in France, I made sure to cross off my list the touristy stuff – and of course, Versailles ranks high up on that list. I mean, come on, right? 😀
Again, we got our tickets from this trusty travel agency we discovered along Saint Michel, and got the one including entrance to the fountain show. The fountain shows are not done every day but since it was a Saturday, we were required to get it if we wanted to enter the palace gardens (which is a must!).
Versailles is about 20 kilometers from Paris. Fortunately, traffic in Europe isn’t as horrendous as in Asia (and Manila in particular) so it took our bus less than an hour to get there. Oh, and bonus points because the bus passed the Eiffel Tower.
Entrance to the palace. Look at all that gold.

So beautiful it doesn’t even look real, no? Tip: there are lots of tourists taking the trains from other cities and they usually get to Versailles in the afternoon around 1-2pm. So if you want to avoid the long lines (trust me, they might say you have skip the line tix, but just about everyone does so that means you still have to line up!), go there in the morning 

There’s a restoration project going on which is why some of the windows and cornices are bright gold while the others so-so. 
A marble (?) sculpture guarding the gates to the palace.
Versailles is probably famous for being a symbol of the excesses of the French monarchy in the 17th century. Just think about it – they already had a huge little palace called the Louvre in the heart of the city but they just had to have another somewhere in the suburbs. It was initially a hunting lodge which was refurbished and expanded into a marvelous chateau to which the royal family formally moved into around 1682. They ultimately abandoned the palace and returned to the capital during the French revolution.
A statue of Louis XIV in one of the parlors in the ground floor
The palace is H-U-G-E and I think only portions of it is open to the public, judging from the size of the structure outside and the actual tour we had and rooms we visited.
On the second level are several apartments, most striking of which, of course, are the Grand Appartement du Roi (King’s Apartment) and the Grand Appartement de la Reine (Queen’s Apartment).Personally, I liked the Queen’s and the Prince’s apartments more than the King’s, although the latter had several function rooms.
Opulent. I can’t even imagine what sleeping on a bed like that feels like.

I told you, I have a thing for chandeliers and lampposts.

Where the King conducts business and receives visitors.

Fit for a queen. Of course, they change the beddings to suit the season but I have a feeling the likes of Marie Antoinette had a thing for pastel and spring themed ones like this. 😛
A little trivia: During the revolution, Marie Antoinette escaped the mob through a “secret” door on her bedrom wall that connects to the King’s chamber.
Silver. I used to dream of having real silver at home but of course, that would probably cost me an arm and a leg. My grandmother has a partial set at her home though (but last I heard, some of them had gotten lost or stolen – I probably should have just asked for them hahaha!)

One of the highlights of Versailles is the Hall of Mirrors or Galerie des Glaces, which I’m sure most of you have heard of. And yes, it is as breathtaking as all those who’ve seen it before me have said. Perhaps even more in person. The seventeen arched windows overlook the famed gardens (which I’ll show later) and are reflected in the seventeen arched mirrors opposite them. The partitions of each window are covered in marble depictions of French symbols such as the fleur de lys. Any space left on the walls are covered in gilded sculptures and paintings and from the ceiling hang crystal chandeliers. 
Oh, and yeah, I believe the main purpose of this hall was to connect the King’s and Queen’s apartments and for the King (and members of the royal family) to reach the chapel chapel? And while on that daily walk, members of the court can gather on the sides to watch them and probably try to catch their attention? (Sorry, images from The Tudors are playing on my mind as I type this). Those walks were probably very distracting, to say the least.

This probably isn’t the best angle for taking a photo of the Hall of Mirrors – I wanted to go down on my knees but there were too many people and my protruding belly quite prevented me, so this will have to do.
The Hall of Mirrors reminds me of an ice palace, not that I’ve been to any; maybe because of the way the light streaming from the huge windows are reflected on the mirrors and chandeliers. I still have a soft spot for the Galerie d’ Apollon at the Louvre, though (nothing beats the original).

There is a restaurant inside Versailles although we didn’t go there because it was a) too expensive, b) full and c) we didn’t want to waste our half day eating there and d) I probably wasn’t too hungry then coz had I been, I would have dragged my two male companions with me. Teehee. Oh, and there is a huge souvenir shop on the ground floor and a Laduree shop – the first one I was to find in Paris (I spotted another one near the Champs Elysee but it was already around 1am and closed for the day) so of course, I had to have my fill of THE macarons.
Enjoying Laduree while walking around the gardens of Versailles. They are so good, even hubby (who doesn’t share my love of macarons) had to agree.
After having our fill of the opulent indoors, we headed outside to the sprawling gardens of the palace. And I do mean 800 hectares kind of sprawling! There are hundreds of thousands of trees and more than four dozen water fountains which are in full display during weekends of spring and autumn. These fountains still use the same water network from the reign of the kings! I tell you, the oldies know more about these stuff than we do in modern times.

Steps leading from the garden to the palace.
Cherubs in one of the fountains.
View of one side of the palace from the garden.

Okay, I just had to include this sculpture. They really have a thing for nudity.  😀
We didn’t get to roam around too much in the garden as it was simply too huge and I was too pregnant to walk which is too bad (the three inch wedges I was wearing didn’t help either) – we did find a sort of hidden garden within the garden which has a cafe (for those willing to shell out around 40 euros for a meal) and a food stall (for those who are on a tighter budget). We didn’t eat since our tour bus would be coming in about 15 minutes so we just took photos.

View from the “hidden” garden within the garden.

I would love to have a little garden like this – just trees and flowering shrubs and green tables and chairs. Someday.
Unfortunately, the Bassin du Latone (below) was being repaired at the time of our visit so it was all boarded up. The fountains were nice but I was expecting some light show or musical fountain (demanding much?) so I was kind of disappointed that it was just that. Still, the garden is worth a visit on its own.

One other item crossed off my to do/visit list!

Birthday Foodtrip: Le Procope

For our last day in Paris, which also happened to be my 32nd birthday, I managed to convince the hubby to celebrate with me at Le Procope in the 6th arrondissement near the Saint Germain area. Established in 1686, it is said to be the oldest restaurant in Paris (and the oldest cafe in the world) in continuous operation which is precisely why I wanted to eat there. After all, it’s not everyday you get to eat in the same restaurant where Voltaire, Hugo and Rousseau used to dine in their heyday.
I honestly don’t remember how we got there though. Hubby and I were just walking aimlessly about in Paris (the city has that ability to just make you wander around – every corner is beautiful so it’s not like you lose anything by doing nothing) with the goal of eventually finding our way to this restaurant (he didn’t want to, so I purposely got lost this side of the city). So the only information I can give you as to direction is to go to the Latin Quarter, and look for the street where the Comedie Francaise was located. 
Oh, as a bonus for making this trip – the street is lined with quaint shops selling everything from costume jewelry to tailored suits.
It looks like your typical French cafe from across the street.

Outside, the place is not that remarkable, just your typical French cafe. They didn’t even have tables for al fresco dining. I would have missed it if not for the waving flags. But inside? What can I say? The place is just old-world gorgeous. Its walls are a rich mixture of  reds, browns, and gold, while the ceiling is fully decked in chandeliers reminiscent of the 18th and 19th centuries. And for history lovers (ie, me), there are crumbling old books right by the entrance which you can gawk at, a testament to its long and varied history as a meeting place for the intellectuals from the 17th to the 20th centuries.
The place is so hauntingly beautiful they are actually open to tourists just wanting to visit the place during off-peak hours. We did come in around 3PM that day but we were also famished, so we decided to not just look around but also have late lunch there. Normally, reservations are needed but I guess my bulging baby bump again paved the way to two fine seats in one of their parlours. 

Heck, even the comfort rooms were not spared – this is the first and only place I’ve been too where the toilet bowl covers are freaking gold! 
Just look at that gleaming gold toilet seat and cover!

I don’t normally take photos in comfort rooms but I had to make an exception for this one.
Dishes are quite expensive (think hotel prices in Manila) but the trick is to NOT convert the euros to pesos in your mind (now I know why I used up all my pocket money without realizing it, hahaha!) – our set meal set us back around forty euros each.
 
Now, on to our meal. I got the duck breast with wedge potatoes which I found really good. The meat was so soft, it was falling from the bone as I sliced my way through it and the sauce complemented the duck meat perfectly (I forgot if it was tomato based or something – all I know is that it was very rich). I usually find duck tricky because it has a tendency to make me a bit nauseous but I finished this dish to the last morsel. I even used the leftover sauce as a dip for my French bread.

The hubby got himself braised beef… which he didn’t particularly liked. I didn’t get to taste much of it and while he did say it was better than his 20-euro steak from two nights ago, it still paled in comparison to the other steaks we’ve tried. He said it was quite hard and stringy. But again, the sauce was good and at least he got a glass of red wine to go with it (he wouldn’t let me have just a sip even just to celebrate my birthday so I ended up with just coffee!).

For dessert, we got the strawberry sorbet and cheese. By this time though, we were both full but they both looked so yummy that we still ended up finishing them off in one go. 😀

Our food binging didn’t end at lunch though. As I said, it was our last full day in Paris (we were leaving for Belgium early the next day) and we haven’t had a single escargot yet so again, I dragged hubby to the first decent traditional French restaurant we could find after our Seine river cruise. I would have loved to go back to Le Procope but we forgot to make dinner reservations; plus, I wanted to try some other restaurant. 
Our cruise ended around 8PM (although you couldn’t tell – and the sun was still shining brightly since it was summer), and since we would be taking the Metro back to our hotel, we decided to eat around the Saint Michel area.

Hubby has high-blood and gout so he only ate a piece and I got the rest of this plate of escargot with pesto. Yummy.

Cheese something for the hubby. Pasta?

I ordered lamb chops with salad and fries.

Chocolate finally!

My bad though. I was recovering from a slight fever the day before (in fact, our day started late – we got out of the hotel at 2PM coz I wasn’t feeling up to it) that I totally forgot to jot down the name of this place. In any case, the fare wasn’t something to write home about. Ambience was okay, price was okay (for reference: our dinner cost us about 25 euros each), service kind of so-so (I had to ask the servers several times to serve our food and give us water), and the food not so special. So, I guess you can take this one out of your list of restos to try in Paris. 
Still, I can say my birthday was nothing short of magical. 🙂 I think after 30 years of depriving myself of a proper birthday celebration, I am finally making up for it. Each year just keeps getting better. I wonder where my next birthday will find me.