Paris favorites

Paris is one of those over hyped cities that I never think will be able to live up to the extremely high expectations I put on it. But, the city manages to be charming, romantic, delicious and different every time I go.

In part, I think that’s because I haven’t been trying to “do everything” when I’ve visited Paris recently. This is almost the opposite of how I often approach other cities that I visit for a weekend – feeling like I need to cram it all in, never knowing when I’ll be back again. But because Paris is such a quick train ride from London, my mentality was shifted during the two weekend trips that I took this year. I always felt like I’d be back again soon.  For me, that meant there was no need to re-visit the classic sights like the Eiffel tower, Louvre, and Champs-Élysées.

This opened up new possibilities. On a trip with my aunt and mom in the fall, we spent hours walking (and shopping) our way around the Marais and St. Germaine. I tasted macaroons from at least 5 different cafes over the span of 3 days, and we had leisurely dinners that were heavy on the wine and catching up. On a gorgeous April weekend, I went back with my fiancé. This time, all our time was spent outdoors – walking tours, bike rides, picnics and trips to the park were the perfect way to enjoy springtime Paris.

(more after the jump)

Louvre view from Musee D'Orsay

{ louvre view from musee d’orsay }

top 3

1. Have brunch in Montmarte

The term “le bobo” originated in Montmarte – it is an abbreviation of bourgeois bohemian. To be a le bobo, you would have come from a wealthy class (bourgeois) but chosen to live as a bohemian artist, probably with the intent of pissing off your parents. The artists and le bobos made Montmarte famous in the 1800s and early 1900s, but the hipster chic Parisian vibe carries on. It is filled with boutiques, street side cafes, teeny food stands and street performers. Since it gets crowded with tourists, head up to Montmarte in the morning, and grab a table at one of the outdoor cafes before the mad rush. Set yourself up with a croissant and an espresso – the modern day bobos will provide entertaining people watching for at least an hour or two.

2. Do a walking tour around Notre Dame

I’ve seen Notre Dame and knew the gist of the history – although, admittedly, this was partially informed by Victor Hugo’s novel (and the Disney movie adaptation) about the hunchback. A walking tour took my understanding to a new level. I thought that we’d get bored spending an hour walking around one church. I was wrong – and this is all due to the delivery of Flora, our guide. She described the intricacies of the statues and explained how the carvings were intended to tell the story of the Bible to illiterate worshipers. This gave us an entirely different appreciation of the minute details and care put into the sculpture work. I can’t recommend Flora from Discover Walks enough – I’ve done other walking tours and am convinced it’s all about the guide

3. Have a long, boozy meal at a bistro in the Marais

Two of my favorite meals in recent memory were dinners near Bastille/Marais. From my understanding, the resurgence of the Marais neighborhood is a response to St. Germaine becoming overly popularized. Much like the East Village in Manhattan has become the destination for those who find the West Village overly saturated, the Marais offers a trendy, but less touristy version of St. Germaine. Go to Chez Janou for the biggest chocolate mousse ever – you’ll get to scoop out whatever portion you can manage. This bistro treats a meal like revelry. The waiters seem to have about 10 friends each in the restaurant at a time, taking shots and partying their way through the meal.  At Le Din Don en Laisse, the owner carefully plans seating arrangements each evening, putting you elbow-to-elbow with other patrons he thinks you’ll enjoy. By the time they brought us a bottle of whiskey at the end of the meal to share, we were already long lost friends with our neighbors.  Don’t miss the risotto.

P.S. Special thanks to my friends/gillys, Dayna & Ali, for the recommendations for these 2 restaurants.

Breakfast in Montmarte - espresso and cigarettes

{ in montmarte, the table next to us was brunching on espresso and cigarettes }

Sailboats in Luxembourg Gardens

{ sailboats in luxembourg gardens }

Bicycle and a baguette in Paris

{ feeling parisian on a bicycle with a baguette }

Carousel in view of the Sacre Coeur

{ carousel in view of the sacre coeur }

Macaroon tour in Paris

{ a self guided macaroon tour }

Intricate Details on Notre Dame

{ intricate details on notre dame }

Picnic on River Seine

{ picnic by the weeping willows along the seine }

Luxembourg Gardens in Springtime Paris

{ springtime paris in the luxembourg gardens }

Barcelona weekends

I made it to Barcelona for a quick 48 hours back when I was doing a semester abroad, in college. It was November, and cold. I liked the city, and I remember being impressed by the museums and the architecture that we visited. But truthfully, one of the main things I remember from that trip was that my roommate’s purse was stolen and, along with it, the digital camera that stored most of our memories. (Ah, the days before iPhones). I’m not sure I even saw the beaches.

In May, I made it back there with my parents and my fiance for a long weekend. It always blows me away how much of an impact the weather can have on my perception of a city. This time, 70 degree temperatures and sunny skies greeted us. When you have weather like that, it means that just sitting at a sidewalk café, playing cards, in view of Sagrada Familia, becomes picture perfect. We were so infatuated by the city that my father’s catch phrase became “I’ll make it back to Barcelona in this lifetime”.

The city was not just one that we loved visiting, it seemed so live-able too. I was daydreaming about moving there, living in a quaint apartment in the old city and biking down to the beaches on the weekends. I can’t wait to get back.

{ more after the break }

placa reail in barcelona

{ palms and arches in placa reial }

top 3

1. Check out Gaudi’s work

We took a hop on, hop off bus around the city which allowed us to see most of his work, and took us out to Park Güell. The park is a “can’t miss” destination but there are flocks of tourists almost any time of day. If you wait patiently by one of the benches, you’ll eventually get a coveted spot with views of Gaudi’s work in the park, and the whole city behind it.

2. Bike the boardwalk

The beaches were one of the biggest surprises on my return trip to Barcelona. I normally think of city beaches the way I think of cold pizza – disappointing, but with a weird appeal.  Not so with Barcelona’s beaches. These were all appeal, and no weirdness (unless you have an aversion to nudity).  Close to the city, you’ll find more of a scene. The restaurants on this prime real estate offer cabanas and bottle service.  But gorgeous, white sand beaches stretched for miles. We biked to the end of the boardwalk, where there was barely another soul in sight. Try Bike Rental Barcelona (+34 666 057 655) for reasonably priced beach cruisers.

3. Beers at sundown, in the Plaça Reial

One of the best things we did was spend hours walking around Barri Gotic – the historic neighborhood off of La Rambla. There’s something magical about Spanish street life.  Day or night, you feel like the city is vibrating with life. Plaça Reial was one of the most striking plazas with its tall palms and symmetrical architecture surrounding you. There are many tapas restaurants where you can sit and enjoy the evening life.  Or, act like a local and perch on the edge of the fountain right in the middle of the plaza. You can buy cold beers from the vendors milling around for about 1 euro a piece.

Beach Cruisers Barcelona

{ what’s cooler than my mint colored beach cruiser? }

Gaudi Architecture Barcelona

{ street view of gaudi’s work }

Inside Park Guell Barcelona

{ up close view of gaudi’s work at park guell }

Beaches in Barcelona

{ not your average city beach }

Sand Castles in Barcelona

{ intricate sand castle work on the beach, barcelona }

Placa Reail Barcelona

{ another view of placa reial }

Barcelona Boardwalk, Palm Trees

{ palm lined boardwalk in barca }

View from Park Guell in Barcelona

{ gaudi’s work and city views }

Marrakech

Before visiting Marrakech, I had a few disparate perceptions of the place that I couldn’t quite gel into one vision. Was it how I’d always pictured Morocco–  a place where you can ride a camel into an Arabian night, with sand dunes as far as the eye can see? Or was it a destination taken over by Anglo European tourists, who are there because of the cheap EasyJet flights? Or was it like a crowded city scene from the movie Aladdin, complete with monkeys jumping around in the markets?

Turns out, Marrakech is all of the above. There are monkeys in the markets, but their owners charge tourists a few euros if they pose in a picture with you. The rolling hills of sand are there, but you have to get out of the city to see them. There are pushing crowds, delicious mint teas, smelly donkeys and luscious gardens. The city is an assault on your senses, but its one I’d consider a “don’t miss”.

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{ donkey in a souk – a snapshot of marrakech }

top 3

1. Hire a driver for the day

Our hotel linked us up with a kind, low key, local man who drove us around in a vintage Mercedes Benz for the whole day. Total cost? About 40 euros. We visited the Jardin Majorelle (aka Yves St Laurent’s gardens), the Bahia Palace and the Saadian Tombs, stopped for pictures with camels, and got a tour of the leather tanneries all at a leisurely pace. He would give us advice when he dropped us off, such as holding bundles of fresh mint to our nose to fend off the stench as we perused the tanneries.  And as we left each place, he’d be waiting nearby. When you walk out of any of tourist destinations, you will be harassed by 5-10 different drivers jockeying to offer you a special deal. This is exhausting. So however you do it, find someone who you can trust, and stick with them.

2. Visit the leather souks

This is a given. Another given? That you’ll find yourself haggling with a vendor over 10 euros to a level that you’d never have expected of yourself. I’d recommend going at dusk.  At this time, the souks will be slightly less crowded and slightly less hectic. Plus, you might shave a few pennies off of that leather jacket simply because the vendor wants to move some more inventory before he closes. Then head to the the Jamaa el Fnaa – in the evening, the main square turns into a food stall explosion offering everything from escargot to kebabs.

3. Stay at the Kenzi Menara Palace

Many will recommend staying in Riads (the traditional Moroccan homes that have been converted to hotels), and we enjoyed doing this in Essaouira. I don’t want to over emphasize the frantic and overwhelming nature of Marrakech as a city, and scare anyone away from visiting. But, for me, being able to escape the heat, the crowds and the haggling was a godsend and the Kenzi Menara Palace was an oasis from the city. The pool is gorgeous, the snow covered mountains are in view, and the concierge and staff are some of the most accommodating and friendly people I’ve met. In fact, the hotel staff were some of the only locals I could converse with who didn’t immediately ask me for a small fee for acting as my “guide”. Make sure to leave enough time for 2nds or 3rds of breakfast – I think they make a version of English breakfast, Moroccan breakfast, American breakfast, and everything in between.

Kenzi Menara Palace in MArrakech

{ kenzi menara hotel – an oasis in marrakech } 

Camels in Morocco

{ camels and palms }

Souks in Marrakech

{ sniffing mint at the souks }

Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech

{ jardin majorelle }

Food stalls at Jemaa el-Fnaa

{ food stalls at jemaa el-fnaa }

Whip for the day in Marrakech

{ whipping around marrakech }

Donkey In Marrakech

{ donkey drive by }

Marrakech camels

{ posing in marrakech, morocco }

Levanto

As my first blog post, it only feels right to pay tribute to Levanto – the town that makes up ½ of my blog’s name.

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{ colorful houses and rooftops }

 

If you make it to Levanto, its almost inevitable that you’ll visit the nearby towns of the Cinque Terre. I’ll save those towns for another day, since there’s charm-a-plenty in Levanto.

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly makes Levanto so special to me. It’s partially the Italian Riviera veneer that is the stuff of dreams – a long black sand beach, lined with boats and colored houses. It’s also the quintessential small town Italy feel that hasn’t been taken over by tourists (every single shop closes for siesta from 130pm to 400pm every day). But even more so, it’s the people. The locals walking and chatting down the main drag while they pick up their morning focaccia and the lady behind the gelato counter who seems to know every kid’s name and favorite flavor.

top 3

1. Boating Trips. Take a kayak out for a couple hours to explore the caves nearby, venture further in your own mini motorboat that rents for 20 euros/hour, or go all the way and hire a skipper to take you on a full tour. I recommend Marco, the sea captain who runs Rosa dei Venti and whose catch phrase is “I live free”. Ask at the tourism office and they’ll point you to him.

2. Pizza to go. I usually opt for the very thin variety that is dripping with stracchino or ricotta cheese and nothing else. Or try one with pesto, which originated in Liguria (the region of Italy that Levanto is in). There are many focaccerias lining the streets in Levanto and you can’t really go wrong with any of them. You’re in luck if you find one taking trays out of the oven right as you walk in.

3. Explore the area. The hiking trails that link the 5 towns of the Cinque Terre to one another are well known (perhaps too well know, as there has been erosion from the amount of foot traffic). Consider doing the 2 hour hike from Levanto to Monterosso instead, which offers views of the ocean and goes up through hills covered in vegetation that is unique to this part of the world. For a lighter excursion, take a bike ride out of town, through the tunnels along the water. You’ll soon wind up in the next town North, called Bonassola. You’ll be glad not to have a car when you realize how easily you can get between the towns without one.

image_1

{ the main beach }

image_2

{ out on a boat }

image_3

{ italy flag by the beach }

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{ boats along the shore }

image_5

{ gorgeous beachside real estate }

Have you visited Levanto, or the Cinque Terre?