Travel

Christmas in Paris

I recently came back from a whirlwind holiday trip from Brighton, to Paris, to Madrid, and finally, London. Lots of Metro riding, lots of walking, but it was to compensate for the lots of eating that occurred during this trip. I, and three other friends first stopped in Paris.

We booked our trip via the Eurostar which now comes equipped with WiFi, but be warned, the WiFi is not that great and goes in and out the entire trip.

Here are some of the highlights:

Les Catacombes de Paris

Metro line 4 or 6; Stop: Denfert-Rochereau

What says “Christmas” more than visiting a subterranean catacomb storing thousands and thousands of bones? In all seriousness, the catacombs are underground and an exhibit is also placed describing Paris’s rich history and how the Catacombs came to be. Full rates were 12€, but there are reduced prices for full time students aged 18-26 with valid I.D.

Shakespeare and Company

Metro line 4; Stop: Saint Michel Notre-Dame OR line 10; Stop: Cluny-La Sorbonne

If you are a book lover as I am, pay a visit to this long-standing independent bookstore right across from Notre Dame. It’s wonderfully cozy, has a café, and an antiquities section for all you who like to collect first edition or rare books.

Added bonus: a super friendly cat on the second level often found lounging on a chair. Fun Fact: You can also arrange a free stay at the bookstore in keeping with George Whitman’s “Tumbleweed” tradition. To learn more click here.

Musée du Louvre

Metro Line 1; Stop: Louvre-Rivoli

What’s a trip to Paris without visiting the Louvre? We purchased and printed our tickets prior to the trip (15€ for one single adult). I recommend arriving before opening (Opens at 9:00am), if you are interested in taking an unobstructed photo of the Mona Lisa, otherwise you’ll be clamouring with other tourists if you wait until the afternoon. However, while others may flock to Mona, my favourite at the Louvre is the Winged Victory of Samothrace. You’ll bump into her on the way to see Mona.

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Also, don’t forget to look up; the ceilings at the Louvre are so beautiful. Do pay a visit to the museum’s newest exhibit, which walks you through the history of the Louvre, prior to it becoming a museum. You’ll walk through original architecture and castle walls.

Jardin du Luxembourg

Numerous Metro lines, but we rode line 4; Stop: Saint-Sulpice

If it’s a sunny day, pay a visit to the Luxembourg Gardens, which are beautiful to walk through. Get a baguette, some cheese, and wine and relax. Note: Not sure of the legality of drinking at the Luxembourg Gardens so best do it on the low low. Legal or not, it’s never deterred me from enjoying a glass (or disposable cup) of wine at the park. (lol)

Christmas Mass at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame

Metro line 4; Stop: Cité or Saint Michel Notre-Dame

Myself, and two other friends attended midnight mass on Christmas Eve. The décor was beautiful and the choir was amazing. There were a lot of tourists there to take photos but seats do clear up throughout the mass when they’re done. Since I was actually there for the service I stayed the entire time. The only hiccup to this trip occurred on this night. After the Eucharist when everyone was sitting down, a group started shouting in French and waving an unknown flag, one individual even made his way to the Cardinal who was presiding over the mass. Needless to say, everyone ran out of mass real quick, especially because the terror warning was on a high level in Paris during the holidays. So as I’m running out of mass I thought, ‘Is this really happening?’ However, in the end, and luckily, it turns out it was a group of protestors and no one was harmed. Whew! Anyone else out there attended this Midnight Mass & a Show?

Tips:

Take the metro as much as you can! It was super convenient and if you have a great sense of direction, it’s really easy to get around. If you do not have a great sense of direction, pay attention to the maps prior to deciding which platform you want to go to.

Want to get that great shot of the Eiffel Tower in the background? Take Metro line 6 or 9 to Trocadéro and head on up to the scenic view of the same name in order to get that worthwhile selfie.

My Way or Galway

In my previous post about Dublin, I mentioned I visited the city yet again in the summer of 2013. This time around it was a lot more sunny so I took advantage of the amazing weather.

Firstly, because Trinity College was closed for the Christmas holidays, I was unable to visit the Book of Kells. FYI, the university will usually close from 23 December until after New Years Day. Naturally I went this time around. I suggest going very early to avoid long lines. Visitors are obviously not allowed to take photos of this medieval manuscript, but you can definitely take photos along the way.

 

Glendalough, Wicklow, and Kilkenny

There are plenty of day tours offered that depart from Dublin. I booked my day trip with Collins Day Tours, but there’s also Wild Rover Tours, Paddy Wagon Tours, and Hilltop Treks. I can vouch for Collins Day which provided a great overview of the surrounding nature. If I was not part of the tour group, I would have hiked through Glendalough all day. This tour also includes walking through a world famous 6th century monastic site, more commonly known as Monastic City.

Galway

During my second trip to Ireland I discovered that there were frequent buses travelling to Galway. I purchased a ticket through Citylink, which picks up people along the River Liffey. Citylink also offers numerous destinations besides Galway and picks up from Dublin airport as well. Visit their site for a complete list.

Dublin –> Galway:

  • Standard Ticket: €11.50 departure and €11.50 return if purchased online
  • Student Ticket: €10.50 departure and €10.50 return if purchased online.
  • Duration to Galway: about 2 hour 30 min.

Galway is yet another beautiful and quaint town in Ireland and is the destination you want to make if you’d like to visit the original Claddaugh makers. Do pay a visit to Thomas Dillon Claddaugh Gold, which also houses a tiny museum of the claddaugh ring. There are some affordable pieces…and there’s also not so affordable pieces.

 

I also did the very touristy thing of booking an open-top city bus tour which leaves from the main coach station in Galway. I booked with Lally Tours whose first departure time is 10:30am and last is 3:00pm. Once you purchase a ticket, it will be good for all-day and you can hop on and off at any of its points.

  • Adult Ticket: €12
  • Student Ticket: €9
  • Stops (not a complete list): Courthouse and Town Hall Theatre, Galway Cathedral, View over the city, Salthill Promenade, and more

 

Double Dublin

“The world is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

– W.B. Yeats

The more I travel the more I discover those magical things. I see them in the people I meet, the wilderness I explore, the cultures I experience, and in the increasing realisation that the world is both large and small. Large in the sense there is so much of the world to see, and small in the sense you have the chance to build connections (however small and fleeting) while travelling.

I visited the country of Yeats, Wilde, Joyce, Stoker, and I fell in love with Ireland, so much so that I visited it twice: first, during Christmas in 2012, and again in the summer of 2013.

The Highlights

I stayed at Avalon House during Christmas, and at Kinlay House during the summer. Both were fairly decent places but Avalon had the better breakfast, hands down.

Visit

Guinness Storehouse

You can’t visit Dublin and not visit this national treasure. You get a free taster during your tour and a voucher for a free pint, which you can validate at their fabulous Gravity Bar. FYI children can actually attend the tour but don’t expect them to have a pint.

Howth

Howth is a small fishing town that lies east of Dublin and easily accessible by a €5 train ride via the DART (similar to San Francisco’s BART). It looks like prices may have increased slightly. Feel free to purchase a ticket at your nearest DART station on the day of your trip or online. I got by just fine purchasing it at the station same day as my trip.

Dublin Writers Museum

If you’re a fan of Irish literature and poetry, do visit this quaint museum.

Millstone – I literally followed my nose into this place and was not disappointed. It’s a place for carnivores and vegetarians alike. They have a beef tasting plate, if you can’t decide on a cut!

Temple Bar district – Do experience the musical nightlife of Temple Bar and the surrounding pubs.

The Brazen Head – Established in 1198 (what?!) and Ireland’s oldest pub. Serves traditional pub grub but it’s nice to cross off your list. By the way, if like me you thought to yourself that if this place had to specify it was the oldest pub in Ireland, what is the oldest pub in the world? Look Here.

Read my other post to learn about my second trip to Dublin and my first visit to Galway.

Beauty in Beijing

Whenever I travel solo I don’t always like to be restricted to having concrete plans. When I arrived in Beijing a week before my marathon, I ventured out of my hotel and fell in love with the beauty of everyday life. I walked along Dongsi W. Street until I arrived at the Forbidden City, which was a madhouse: lots of people, lots of tours. So I ventured across the street to Jingshan Park.

Families, tourists, and locals all congregated at this public park, which was about a 2 – 5 Yuan entry – super cheap! I was fascinated by how many locals arrive each weekend to meet with each other and sing, dance, or play music. No matter where you were in the park, you could hear drums beating in the distance, or the soft echo of a choir. These are locals who meet not for the amusement of tourists, but simply because it’s what they do for pleasure. An added bonus is the ‘Everlasting Spring Tower’ which is the highest point in the park, and will also provide you with a fantastic view of the Forbidden City.

The following week, I visited the Temple of Heaven as part of my tour group. Like Jingshan Park, people here also relaxed and played music:

I came across a few tourists who preferred Shanghai and other, more metropolitan cities, but there’s something special about exploring a new city, simply for discovery and immersing yourself in local culture.

An Art Fan?

Do visit the National Art Museum of China. It’s free entry as long as you show your passport at the ticket kiosk. My favourite exhibit was from Wen Lipeng, whose oil paintings were beautiful to say the least.

Where I Stayed

Tucked away in the Dongsi district is the Beijing Double Happiness Courtyard Hotel. The staff was super friendly and incredibly helpful. When you’re ready to leave, the staff will arrange for a taxi upon request.

For Potterheads Only – Hogwarts in the Snow

From 19 November 2016 to 29 January 2017, the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter is currently decked out for the holidays. I had the pleasure of visiting the studio, located north of London in Leavesden, in November. While I was able to schedule a tour through my university, those based in London can take a tour bus directly to the studio or you can head to Watford Junction and book a shuttle bus. You can book from Trip AdvisorGolden Tours, or through Visit London. Please be aware of any pick-up and/or drop-off points.

The first question I am asked when people I found out I visited the studio is “Was it worth it?” I have to say, as a huge Harry Potter fan, yes! Yes, it was worth it. I literally spent HOURS walking around the lot and saw original sets, original costumes, molds from the creatures which made Harry Potter magical, and I even took a few interactive photos. Imagine sitting on a broom in front of a green screen, because that’s exactly what happened. The sets and props that are outdoors are the Knight Bus (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), Lily and James Potter’s home in Godric’s Hollow, Hogwarts Bridge, Mr. Arthur Weasley’s Ford Anglia, and of course, Number 4 Privet Drive (prop). While there are two different food courts (at the beginning and the back lot), they only serve one version of Butterbeer, and unlike the Wizarding Worlds in Hollywood and Orlando, there is no Fire Whiskey.

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Post-Camp Breakfast

20160821_122730Please, if you ever find yourself in Big Bear, California (either camping in the summer or snowboarding/skiing in the winter), do yourself a favour and visit the Teddy Bear restaurant.

I first visited this delightful, tiny, and family-owned place, in August 2016 after a great weekend of camping at Hanna Flats. Expect a long wait, but I assure you, it’s worth it.

Lion Around

At the tail end of my Peace Corps service in the summer of 2012, I found myself in Pretoria and fellow volunteers were headed to the Lion and Safari Park, which is north of Johannesburg. Some of the park’s attractions: Hyenas, feeding giraffes, playing with lion cubs, and observing white lions. The park is not easily accessible for Peace Corps volunteers who have no car, so we rented one and drove ourselves.

You can book guided tours or take the more economically efficient option of self-driving. Which is what we did.

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Wine Me Up Before You Go-Go

Once upon a time I blew through the remainder of my student loans to take a quick trip around Europe after I completed my Master’s back in 2013 #NoRegrets. I started out in Paris, flew to Verona, then took a train to Florence, and finally Rome. The highlights of said trip were definitely an open air opera in Verona, a restaurant in Florence, and a wine tour in the breathtaking surroundings of Tuscany.

By some miracle, I looked at events in Verona prior to flying over and saw that the Arena di Verona was performing Romeo and Juliet. Can you say fate? I quickly purchased a ticket and it became my only planned activity, as I don’t always like to plan everything in advance. It was amazing! While Romeo and Juliet is no longer playing, I definitely recommend booking a ticket to see one of the Arena’s open air operas. And what do you know, they have a festival in the summer of 2017. Did I mention this Arena was built in the first century? Bring comfortable cushions to sit on!

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During the Romeo and Juliet Performance

After Verona, I took a train to Florence. Once I dropped off my things at the hostel (Ostello Santa Monaca), I quickly headed out to hunt for some food. I was walking in the rain so I stopped at the first restaurant I saw which happened to be Osteria Santo Spirito. I took a seat outside in their sheltered patio and began salivating as I saw and smelled all the dishes pass me by. This was, hands down, the best place I ate in all of Italy and all I had was a simple pasta pomodoro. I actually didn’t take photos of my food because I was too busy getting my culinary world rocked. But please, if you find yourself in Florence, eat at this restaurant!!!! (Multiple exclamation marks for emphasis)

When I returned to my hostel I looked at their tourist brochures (as one does), and saw they worked with a local travel company that organised day trips to Tuscany. Um yes please, sign me up! The hostel staff assisted with booking for the next day but feel free to do so on your own here. I opted for the San Gimignano, Siena, and Chianti tour. The tour included pick up and drop off at the main train station in Florence, a visit to medieval towns and monasteries, and of course wine tours, complete with grappa (the Italian tequila).

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