STREETS OF PARIS

Phoebe in France
8 months of adventure
15 July - 22 February

ONE FINAL ODE.

Coming Home. Capital C. Capital H.

This particular concept that I consciously delayed for months is lovely. Melbourne is stinking hot. Accio-pool,-aircon-on-like-a-Mariah-video,-lather-the-DO-type hot. My brother got cool: he puts potions in his hair and wears ironic tees. My parents remain as awesome and gorgeous as ever. My friends, as always, have my heart. Mum’s cooking should be Michelin starred. And my new niece? Well, she’s already a thousand times more beautiful than Paris.

Still, it’s no understatement to admit that I am currently waist-deep in what is commonly referred to as PTD: Post Travel Depression. Official definition: the post-vacation blues. A mood some experience after a lengthy trip. Tiredness, boredom and feelings of nostalgia is common. That is to say, the mundane routine of life has caught up with me- university expectations, job searching, the 201 bus- and I already dream of finding higher ground abroad; of returning to that rickety rowboat on dream-like Lake Bled. I’m not going to lie. I put off writing this final post for an age. I didn’t want to face that this blog is over. That this adventure is over. Ended. Finito. Dunzo.

When catching up with old pals and new acquaintances; how do you express the wonder of your overseas travels in a short conversation? You can’t. Case closed. ”How was the trip?” “Great!” “Favourite place?” “Too many, can’t say!” has to suffice. You don’t want to bore people with endless stories. You don’t want to rub it in the faces. To be brutally honest, you’re pretty sure they’re not actually even that super keen to listen. How do you tell somebody over a coffee that the past 8 months have changed your life and you’re scared that now nothing will ever compare? Visiting some of the most unique cultures and jaw-droppingly stunning sights of the world alongside selfishly hoarding so much time to ponder my existence, I went in to this sure that by February 22, it would all be figured out. But just like Vicky from Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I came back from my adventures certain only of what I didn’t want.

It seems ludicrous to end this with a top ten list of my favourite places. This isn’t a Lonely Planet guide. For some reason, it’s not so much specific locations but certain feelings that I will always cherish. Gasping at the hundreds of mosques in Istanbul, and hearing the call to prayer echo on a rooftop overlooking the Marmara Sea. Visiting the bombed remains of Belgrade’s state library, hours after sleeping on the creepiest night train. Dreaming of Scott Fitzgerald and Louis XVI in class at Sciences Po after a leisurely walk in the Marais, a huge nerdy grin on my face. Exhilarated beyond comprehension at New York’s ‘Sleep No More’. Dancing on Michael’s shoulders to Paolo Nutini at Budapest’s Sziget festival, my spirits higher than the fairy lights on the trees above. Nearly crying with admiration at Cordoba’s Mezquita. Definitely crying at Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie. Celebrating New Year at Hogmanay. The pasta in Rome. Berthillon’s raspberry gelato. Porto’s port. That moment of bone-chilling frost arriving in Krakow and Montreal. Skiing with Michael down the world-class slopes of Banff. Exploring the gardens of Giverny, clothed in dappled light, with some of the most interesting and inspiring women I’ve ever met in my life. Most of all, just while walking to uni- be it past Notre Dame or past a Monoprix supermarket- it was a pride I’ve never really felt before. Not a boasting sentiment by any means, but a quiet feeling of self-worth. That self-help book style moment of inner confidence knowing that this is good- that you’re really living. Okay, sorry. Pass the bucket. Stepping into get-a-grip preachy here. Slap me into shape, will ya?!

Everybody has an opinion on Paris. Whether you’ve visited for a year or for one Contiki day, everyone tells you to do this, to do that, to go here, to skip there… it’s overwhelming. Mum oohed and aahed over living on Ile-St Louis (ok, so I did too). Dad expected me to become a fromage connaisseur. Michael wanted to see the Louvre. My best galpals just made me watch ‘Taken’. At the end of it all, Paree is a dirty, bustling city. It’s not student-friendly, wallet-friendly or even super tourist-friendly (okay, let’s face it. Unless you stumble upon the elusive rosy-cheeked market goer, it’s not friendly at all). Too long in the center and sometimes this ginormous groaning metropolis can swallow you up. Regardless, I miss Paris everyday. The carousel at Abbesses. The love locks on Ile de la Cite. Sunday’s ritual Bastille market. The ritzy high-flyers waltzing down Boulevard St Germain. The wallabies at the Jardin des Plantes. The petit enfants on scooters in the Marais. I love Paris because it is everything to everyone and anyone. It’s the searching lights of the Eiffel Tower, it’s the zing in a particularly tasty wine, it’s Carla Bruni in Vogue. But to me, Paris is stepping out of the Cite metro at midnight after an evening of homemade carrot soup, fresh baguette and future travel planning with my gals in Republique, passing Notre Dame- completely deserted and dimly lit but for a few revellers’ cigarette butts- continuing on over the bridge to Ile-St-Louis, where an old man without his two front teeth is joyously playing the accordion to the ducks in the Seine down below. 

I come home from this trip with a mismatched slab of new clothes, a patch-covered backpack, a very empty bank account, and a croissant-pillowed tummy. I come home with friendships from beautiful individuals all over the globe, more photos than Facebook can deal with, and with, somehow (!!) my relationship with Michael still very much intact (haha). But most of all, as corny as it sounds, I return knowing that home is no longer a place or a concept- it’s the people you love.

I hope to travel far and wide for the rest of my life. Living is about adventures and the surface has only just been scraped. I’m so lucky to have visited so many countries, and this thirst for wanderlust is only greatening. But, as Henry Miller famously wrote, “one’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” And for now and for always, my heart lies with Melbourne. It deserves to be loved and marvelled at just as much as any other city on Earth. I can’t wait to live Melbourne the way I lived Paris- fully and freely and fearlessly. And you know what? It too deserves its own blog. 

THE MAPLE LEAF RAG

Oh Caaanada! Flying into the land of Michael Buble and basketball (fun fact: it’s not American) we were warmly welcomed by lovely new friends and a ginormous dumping of snow. Nothing says “Welcome to Canada, ay?” like a blizzard and some icicles. First stop was Toronto, where we bunked in with Michael’s gorgeous camp friend Andie and her boyfriend Matt in Mississauga. We spent the days perving on Beyonce at the SuperBowl (and dominating Monopoly), wandering through Toronto city center and China Town, and making the trip up to the iconic Niagara Falls.

Michael outside Ontario’s parliament

Fantastic Kensington near Chinatown. Very New-Yorky!

Strangely known as the honeymoon capital of Canada, Niagara Falls is an intriguingly eclectic mix of natural wonder and well, tourist tack. Next to the waterfalls themselves lies a mini-Vegas complete with neon signs, casinos, bowling alleys, huge hotels, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and a gazillion fast-food joints. The falls themselves are breathtaking, but weren’t quite as magnificent as I had perceived them to be (or as they appear in that wedding episode of The Office). This could also be due to the wintry weather and hence closure of the Maid of the Mist and massively subzero temperatures. Still- another sight ticked off the to-do list, and so nice of Andie and Matt to take us!

We soon farewelled Toronto in sights of Montreal. As a Francophone myself, I was super excited to get amongst the Quebecois culture I’d heard so much about. It’s bizarre just how quickly the mood changes. The moment we boarded our train, the lunch-trolley man greeted us with a “Qu’est-ce que vous voulez?” and from then on: total French. There’s not pressure to refrain from English so much as a sentiment of polite courtesy, but with my god awful Parisian accent I knew better than to provoke Francophone rivalry with my language attempts! But Montreal is a ridiculously fantastic city. It’s one of the few places we’ve travelled to I can honestly see myself living in. Quirky and student-focused, it’s bursting with culture and charm that doesn’t take itself too seriously. We had the best time ever staying with the beyond beautiful Harper, a theatre student at Concordia University and her roommates, costume designer to the stars Veronica and animator Hamish. I kind of just wanted to do a life transplant with Harper, in such a fab apartment in the coolest city! Averaging a toasty -25 degrees Celsius most days, Michael and I loved exploring Montreal in the snow and checking out some of its cool cultural hotspots and parties with Harper. Sometimes a little too chilly to even venture outside, it was just as nice to lie in and hang out.

PS- it was literally too cold for even snap-happy Michael to take photos..

So sorry for lack of appropriate photographic documentation!!! .. To make up for it, here is me looking super sexy and fabulous in my Montreal summer bikini. Ha! Givin’ da people what they want.

From Montreal came a quick flight over to stunning Calgary, Alberta, home to YMCA Camp Chief Hector where Michael spent his gap year in 2009. We were very lucky to bunk in at Gregg’s great place. While still full of cafes, shops and a cool Chinatown, Calgary itself isn’t a super exciting place- When it comes to Alberta, it’s all about the mountains. But we did manage to still have some tea and Kodak moments along the Bow River!

We also managed to sneak in a cheeky day at Calgary Zoo with the lovely Alecia- zebras in snow, who knew?!

But craving the mountain life, we literally ran for the hills… to the ridiculously beautiful Banff! Starting out with a day on the slopes at Sunshine. Woah- Mt Buller you have a bit of competition, that’s for sure ! Never seen, or skiied for that matter, on something that stunning. We got caught in a bit of a blizzard halfway through- but nothing us skiing superstars (or my amazing $9 Value Village pink ski pants) couldn’t handle! 

Banff is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous town. No other way to describe it. And full of wildlife- cougars and coyotes and bears, OH MY!!

Spot the deer on the tracks!

Michael loving playing on the frozen river.

On our last day in Banff, Michael’s awesome friend Ellen drove up to show us Lake Louise. Cloaked in perfect blanket snow, making snow angels on the actual frozen lake was completely surreal.

Sadly farewelling Calgary goodbye, we hopped on the overnight Greyhound, arriving bright and early in Vancouver to some Chinese New Year celebratory parades in China Town. 

Vancouver has a pretty cool street vibe to it, reminding us both of Melbourne, with lots of hipster graffiti and great bike paths. I will say that we both concluded it was without a doubt one of the grungiest cities we’d ever been to- meaning I think I saw more drug addicts and homeless people than I did in Paris, there were medical marijuana stations everywhere, and I really did not feel safe wandering down Granville St after dark.

Granville Island is a fantastic Brooklyn-like alternative. Taking it all in, we wandered in and out of the public market’s organic stalls, along the waterfront and munched on Vancouver salmon and chips for lunch.

The Gaslight area is also new and improved, with a bunch of jazzy restaurants to boot.

Treating ourselves to the ritzy L’Hermitage for our final 48 hours abroad (ahh!!) we made the most of the free bike rental service and lapped up the sunshine bike riding through the vast Stanley Park.

Our last night spent enjoying the outside heated pool and some Vancouver/Thai cuisine we soon stuffed our backpacks for the last time and  headed to the airport. After 7.5 months, 18 countries, far too many cities to list, and the time of our lives- Michael and I finally bid the overseas life adieu and began the lengthy journey home to sunshine, reality, and the ones we love.

THE CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS

As Alicia Keys famously crooned, “There’s nothing you can’t do, now you’re in New York.” While I wouldn’t usually turn to a Jay-Z song for travel advice, as it turns out, there really is NOTHING you can’t do in New York. Touche, Alicia Keys. Touche. Michael and I just spent an incredible, jam-packed 2 weeks exploring the world’s most famous concrete jungle with the gorgeous Jemma, Darcy and Oliver, and yet there was just so much to see and visit it sometimes feels as if we didn’t even scratch the surface.

But if there’s one thing I discovered about this city during my short stay, it’s that I’m not alone in this sentiment. Nobody’s scratched the surface. Woody Allen may compose video love letters and Sinatra may croon its name so lovingly, but the truth is, New York City isn’t a home for anybody. It’s a hotel. Author Tom Wolfe once wrote that ‘one belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years..’ and I find this to be inherently true. People flock to Manhattan and Brooklyn like flies to honey for work, for fashion, for wild dreams, for art, for better lives. The streets are more crowded than ever and people appear content; the whole world is in New York. Yet it seems that unless you are the haughty spawn of a millionaire or a member of the Gossip Girl cast, it’s no one’s real home town. Nobody really belongs, and perhaps that’s why it’s the city of second chances. As Truman Capote lamented, “I love New York, even though it isn’t mine.”

I love New York, and it is certainly not mine, but it was nice to loan for a few days. Times Square, MOMA, Empire State and the World Trade Center Memorial were all completely surreal, as was living metres from the bright lights of Broadway. There is still something so giddy about meandering through Central Park with the knowledge that Louis Armstrong, John Lennon, Jackie Kennedy and yes, Carrie Bradshaw (come on, how could you forget Carrie?!) have all done the same. 

Much like slamming a revolving door (or pinning jelly to a tree), it is virtually impossible to condense every minute of the beyond brilliant attractions and adventures we experienced into one comprehensive blogpost. So, without further ado, here are the highlights of our two weeks in the city that never sleeps.

THE ROCKEFELLER CENTER (AND 30 ROCK!): Home to architectural history, ice skating, Liz Lemon, and some spectacular skyline views. There’s a lovely permanent security guard at the very top of the Rock, who told us that thinks he has the best job in New York, admiring the world from above. I think he’s right.

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CENTRAL PARK: Probably needs no introduction. 843 acres of luscious parkland where the rich and famous (ok, Adrien Brody- our first celeb sighting) run laps, sight squirrels, and admire the lakes, hills, and never-ending greenery with a mandatory Starbucks coffee in hand and incredible urban sprawl border to boot. Also fairly sure its boathouse serves as the backdrop of about a billion Katherine Heigl movies (yes, that is a certified statistic).

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DINNER AT FAT RADISH + HOME SWEET HOME

On Jemma’s suggestion we treated ourselves to a night of wining and dining at this spectacular Lower East Side eatery just off Canal St. We feasted on everything from monkfish curry with eggplant and beans, oysters, and avocado salad, to cheeseburgers with duck fat fries, pork chops with cider-flavoured cabbages, and Michael and my own personal ‘Sunday Roast’. Oh man get in my belly all over again! We continued the night at hotspot Home Sweet Home around the corner with some sweet r’n’b tunezzz.

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WORLD TRADE CENTER MEMORIAL: The emotions of walking towards Ground Zero are unexplainable. After years of viewing the September 11 footage over and over again, one same terrifying shot bordered by blue skies and urban surrounds so drilled into my memory, it was beyond surreal to be staring at that exact same picture- only this time without the horrors of terrorism- just at a construction site with the eeriest feel about it. Police still remain, which is a welcome calming presence, but inside the 9/11 memorial we were honestly quite upset to find the staff really rude and hostile- eg- literally the moment we walked in, a loud staff member actually physically yelled to us that it was $15 to enter, that if we didn’t pay we would have to leave, and that there were no free toilets. The insensitivity was pretty shocking to us, but the memorial itself was really poignant and well done. Actual pieces of one of the planes, video footage pre-2001, photographs of those lost lining the walls- I think we mutually felt like crying. Freedom Tower and the memorial remain under construction, but we were all still allowed to enter the area and grieve.

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GRAND CENTRAL STATION: Actually way cooler and more interesting than I was expecting. There’s a rather galactic-looking Apple Store in the main hall, a great fresh food market, and while we were there, an international squash tournament going on indoors. Not bad for a train station! So apparently Flinders St has some work to do… 

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NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY: Another surprise hit. Only known to me as where Jake Gyllenhaal hides in ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ (By the way-great movie), but a really gorgeous old building steeped in history and paired with a fascinating free exhibition on New York street food.

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BROOKLYN: A die-hard ‘Girls’ fan, I was mega keen to check out the much-hyped Brooklyn area. And just as I expected, it was massive hipsterville, more canvas bags, vintage Ray Bans and vegan muffins than you could poke a stick at. We ventured out there twice- once walking all around the old warehouses and shipping yards, up to Bushwick and Greenpoint (home of Lena Dunham!!), where we even visited the coffee shop in “Girls” (!!!!), and then again for the Brooklyn Flea markets where Ollie and Michael continued on to check out Dumbo and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.

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Grumpy’s from “Girls”! “COME BACK WITH A SLIM LEG, HANNAH! A SLIM LEG!” (Note: me outside performing the ‘slim leg’ action.)

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NBA AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN: As a Christmas/birthday present to Michael, I treated him, Ollie and Darcy to a night of boy time at the NBA at Madison Square Garden, where they saw the New York Knicks v Atlanta Hawks. The only thing I learned was that the Knicks won but by the photos and happy dispositions after the game I’m gathering they had fun! Jemma and I instead got a #divamani and saw Les Miserables- best ever. 

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NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM: Oh my gosh, this is the greatest place in the history of humanity. Literally. We learned about the history of Earth and the world and humanity and everything ever, and conclusion: this museum is definitely the best thing ever. Okay, they have DINOSAURS. Loads and loads of dinosaurs. And they are PHENOMENAL. And ridiculously unbelievable windows with stuffed animals of every kind in recreations of natural habitats, and reptiles, and a planetarium… Man, I see why Ross from ‘Friends’ worked here. 

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Walking through snowy Central Park on the way to the museum!

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THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART: Before the day, it was known merely to me as the place where Blair Waldorf and her minions ate yoghurt on the steps. Turns out it’s the biggest art museum in America, housing over 2 million works in its permanent collection with everything from Ancient Egypt, to Oceania, to special features on Matisse and Photoshopped works, to modern art, to whole recreations of rooms in Viennese palaces. We all split up to explore and only occasionally bumped into each other- it was just ginormous. 

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THE HIGH-LINE: This was a truly genius idea to replace the unused exterior freight train railway lines with a public walkway and green space. Awesome views of the Meatpacking District too… and just a nice place to hang.

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TIMES SQUARE: We were lucky enough to live between 9th and 10th ave in the centre of Hells Kitchen, metres away from Broadway and Times Square, so passing through this iconic hub of flashy lights and mind-blowingly expensive advertising (oh hey Beyonce!) was a daily task. Our eyes had a seizure every time, but again, so surreal.

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WASHINGTON SQUARE & SOHO: Home to NYU, exploring this area Sunday morning we found it bustling with buskers, families, and ridiculously good shopping around Bleecker Street.

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MOMA: Complete modern art-gasm. From Warhol to Monet, to Van Gogh to Lichtenstein.. to many more we had never heard of but still marvelled at.. this was another big highlight. 

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STATUE OF LIBERTY: Due to Hurricane Sandy, a lot of the areas both on and surrounding Ellis Island were completely destroyed. So instead of paying the same price with tour companies to just mosey around the statue on a boat, we hopped on the free ferry to Staten Island to a)be shameful tourists and take loads of pictures of Liberty, b) admire Manhattan from afar, and c)to get completely mauled by the wind.

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(Yes, I call this the “NY Winter Perm of Liberty”)

WALL ST: Ok, so really just the famous bull and his just as famous golden balls. Michael wrangled it (oh how symbolic) and was then yelled at by a police officer. Oh and all that financial stuff was fairly awesome too. :)

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NIGHTTIME: So many adventures, so few pieces of photographic evidence! We saw Mary Poppins on Broadway, visited a Comedy Club where Michael was finally officially labelled as a ‘Hipster Guy’ and Judah Friedman from 30 Rock featured, and went to an awesome Vaccines + San Cisco gig at Terminal 8. We also took the plunge and went to Sleep No More, an extraordinary experimental theatre experience loosely based on Macbeth where essentially you put on a mask and, in complete silence for the whole three hours, wander around this haunted hotel full of crazy rooms like deserted scary hospitals and rainforests and raves, all while amazing actors (they refer to themselves as dancers) act around you in these astonishing performances. It’s very hard to explain so here’s a good ol’ Wikipedia link if you want to learn more! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep_No_More_(2011_play)

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(Yes the masks are extremely creepy)

..AND NOW FOR THE LITTLE PLEASURES

A visit to the mouthwatering Magnolia Bakery for a world-famous red velvet cupcake. Nom nom nom!

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Iceskating at Central Park..

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A casual trip to the U.N. Building, thinking of my gorgeous friend El the entire time (El don’t forget me when you’re famous!!)

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The Apple Store..

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The Soup Man from Seinfeld..

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Columbia University

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A meander through Harlem and the Apollo theatre

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Aaand the famous Tom’s diner featured in Seinfeld and favourite of Obama’s.

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PHEW! So if you’re still here after that long ramble- a) congratulations and b) thanks for reading! Essentially, we had the time of our lives in New York and while there is still so much to do, I’d say we made a fair dent. New York, I love you- you are definitely not bringing me down, and I can’t wait to once again wake up in the city that never sleeps (thanks, Sinatra). UNTIL THE NEXT VISIT!

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DRUNK ON PORT..O

Our classiness knowing no bounds, we arrived in Porto bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and 22nd birthday-ed (well, Michael at least!) to the home of ze famous alcoholic beverage, port. Not that we knew this, of course…although the name of the town doesn’t exactly hide it. To us, Porto appeared to be a lively hilltown steeped in history; sort of reminding us of a gorgeous mash of Florence and Venice. 

UNESCO World Heritage-ed in 1996 (yes, that’s totally a verb), Porto is the second largest city in Portugal, lying along the lengthy Douro river. This river is particularly well known because port was usually exported via gondola-like boats along it- very classy! The port transporters still float riverside today, although I’m pretty sure it’s just for the touristic camera shots. Not that we’re complaining.

Another fun fact: After learning that the urban center on the right hand side of the dividing river is named Porto, we joked that the other part must be named ‘Ugal’. (Seriously, someone book us a spot at the Comedy Festival). Turns out, it’s named Gaia, which is actually not that far away from Ugal. Ha. Well played, Portuguese town-namers. Well played.

We started our first of three days with a walking tour around all the main sights, before exploring all the old street lanes ourselves. Like Lisbon there were hills- but only a few- and allowed us to burn off the beyond delicious custard tarts Porto is so well known for!

Stunningly tiled 18th century Carmo church

Clerigo’s tower built in 1763- yes we climbed all the steep 240 steps to the top..

Porto also loves to bring up the Dom Luis bridge, which is famous because it was designed by Gustav Eiffel. Guessing you can probably guess what other famous monument he dreamt up. ;) 

The next day we paid a visit to the famed Livraria Lello & Irmao, widely recognized as one of the top most beautiful bookstores in the world. Following my love of Shakespeare & Co, this was an absolute must-see. Those few books are very lucky to be housed there! Although hipster all over, the staircase is particularly magical- JK Rowling apparently sought inspiration for Harry Potter and Diagon Alley from there whilst living in the city. You’re not allowed to take photos inside and the staff are extremely strict about it- you should have seen the greasies the man at the counter gave us- but Michael managed to sneak one for this blog’s viewing pleasure.. Thank gosh!

Another travel pilgrimage Michael particularly embraced was a sampling of Porto’s local dish- Francesinha, which translates to ‘Little Frenchie’ in Portuguese, because it is basically a much more intense version of a Croque Monsieur. Let me talk you through it. Take a big slice of buttered white bread, add a layer of ham, a layer of cheese, a layer of bacon, a whole steak, pork sausage, a little more ham, a little more cheese, another piece of bread, then, why not, covered in some more melted cheese.. and, to top it off, soaked in a bowl of spiced tomato soup. Feel your arteries clog yet? This was all accompanied, naturally, by the local beer, SUPER BOCK! (Awesome name). Michael’s face below pretty much summarises the anticipation, naming it a ‘dodgy version of lasagne’, but after a few bites he said it was actually very tasty.  As our walking tour guide summarised- loads of travellers love Porto, but eat too much Francesinha and you could literally leave your heart there. A ‘sometimes’ food if we ever saw one!

Once again relishing the deserted streets and laid-back atmosphere we relaxed with long coffee breaks, catching up on blogging, meandering the lanes and sitting by the riverside. Porto is a fantastic place for a breather, and the blue skies certainly do no harm. The new town is packed with students and very vibrant which we adored… Michael also very nearly got bitten by a dog after throwing undies back up to an old washer woman… just to mix it up! One night we drank wine by the Douro with the lovely Jess from Melbourne, another we enjoyed a little too much sangria to celebrate Michael’s 23rd year, another we rewatched the entire first season of ‘Girls’… everyone needs a chance to hang.

On our last day we thought we’d better do as the Romans do (well, the Portuguese.. ok, well probably just the tourists) and go on a port tasting tour. Both of us probably couldn’t distinguish the stuff from any other form of dark liquid on our parent’s liquor cabinets and seeing as we refused to spend more than about 5 euro on beer/wine we weren’t really sure what we were in for, but with all of the biggest names just lounging around by the Cais de Gaia we were spoilt for choice! Browsing through famous labels such as Porto Cruz and Sandeman (by the way- creepiest logo- just sayin’) we settled on Calem’s caves. The short tour was extremely informative for students like us who aren’t exactly fancy alcohol buffs, such as the difference between rubies and tawney’s, and seeing the big barrels was pretty awesome, but we were mostly excited to do a tasting. Michael said the red reminded him of Christmas… but I liked the fruity notes of the white. Wow, we sound so sophisticated. Don’t worry, the tour concluded with lunch at Subway… nothing too high-brow going on here!

Before too long, we were back on another screaming baby-filled Ryanair flight, this time bound for London. We’ve had a fantastic 48 hours visiting my sister Polly again; with trips to the V & A museum, Natural History museum (DINOSAURS!), Science museum, scone eating, pub visiting, and a couple of cheeky trips up to Topshop and Primark. Last night we popped Michael’s musical cherry and saw the Lion King at the Lyceum theatre (belated 21st present from M)… THERE ARE NO WORDS! What a mind-blowingly spectacular show with costumes that put top fashion designers to shame. Still can’t stop singing ‘The Circle of Life’…

And now, sitting here at the White Ferry pub below our hostel sipping cider we bid Europe a farewell for now after 186 unbelievably incredible days! Nothing can possibly summarise how unfathomably fantastic my time has been in here Europe and I can’t really comprehend just how fast it all has flown but I’ll save the reminiscing and final reflections for a later day (and post). Although we are admittedly loving be backing in English-speaking countries and can’t wait to be reunited with friends and family soon, I already miss being a 2 hour train away from another country (and a 2 minute walk away from piping hot croissants!!)

But, tonight we once more hitch up our backpacks and set sights on new unexplored plains- the concrete jungle (“where dreams are made of”!!)… NEW YORK! I’ve heard it’s the city that never sleeps, so hopefully with all that extra time of not-sleeping I’ll have a chance to blog. ;)

LIS-BOA CONSTRICTOR.

Huge title bonus points to Michael for coming up with that amazing pun. I would’ve attempted something in Portuguese but in all honesty, we have picked nothing up.. The language may resemble Spanish but it sounds like someone is drunk rambling in Russian. Okay, drunk Russians aside, HI LISBON! With Michael’s 22nd birthday on the horizon I lashed out and booked us in at the hoity-toity America Diamonds hotel for a welcome change from noisy hostel dorms and shared toilets. And, after hearing many great things about Lisbon from family and friends, we were keen to check out what the city had to offer. 

When visiting Lisbon, the first thing that really hits you (or, quite frankly, your calves) is the hills. We’ve all fallen victim to stair-masters, high cathedral steps and the like, but holy wow, this city is STEEP. And as gorgeous as it all may be, the hills unfortunately do make some things seem a little less approachable and difficult to explore. Lucky the skyline is so fabulous, making the puffy climbs to viewpoints always worth it (not to mention a good way to work off all that sangria!). Quaint trams hobbling up the sides add to the ambience too.

Now, while this blog may be brimming with adjectives like “gorgeous” and “pretty” and “amazing’, obviously not all of the travelling is fine and dandy. So to be journalistically true and report the city as we saw it, I’ll be honest- we weren’t really a fan of Lisbon. There’s no doubt the rambling alleyways and isolated side streets have charm and charisma- washer women hanging out laundry, beautifully tiled old apartments, stray dogs relaxing in the sun… but with a population of 3 million overflowing the center everything just seemed a little too crowded and hectic. The urban zone (the “Bairro Alto”) is a mishmash of old, new, and dilapidated, while the trams practically scrape the sides of the streets as they hurry down hills. We didn’t feel uncomfortable or unsafe or anything- the city just in general leaves you feeling a bit… stressed. That’s not to say we didn’t have a good time. Exploring a new city is always fun, and we particularly enjoyed meandering down to the river. Like I said, not many cities can boast such a diversely stunning skyline. There are some incredible sights to attract you to the capital. 

Okay, so clearly Lisbon is pretty beautiful. To be fair, we were also well into long bus journeys and needing a little bit of R&R, so just chilling in the hotel was lovely too. 24 hours in Lisbon was nice, but man, Porto blew it all out of the water. WOW. But that’s for the next post!

DON’T YOU STEP ON MY BLUE SUEDE SHOES

24 hour stop-over in Elvas. Cue insane amounts of Elvis puns and jokes. Michael booked a night here for us to break up a long bus ride to Lisbon as it’s 15km from the Spanish border, but what we didn’t know was that this tiny little town is also a UNESCO protected FORTRESS. Yes, that’s right, Portugal too just randomly houses zillions of unidentified casual fortresses. Europe, you are ridiculous. Conveniently, we happened to stay right opposite this unbelievable aqueduct, stretching further than the eye can see at 6km in length. We got majorly excited thinking we’d stumbled across an ancient Roman treasure- alas, it’s 15th century pretty much because the mayor of Elvas decided the city could use a little tzuj up- but still, wow!

The cemetery up the top of the hill was creepy yet strangely fascinating, in a kitsch Portuguese way. Like something out of ‘The Virgin Suicides’. Michael loved the hungry cat following us around- perhaps a slight Max doppelganger?

With nightfall upon us and fatigued from travel we wandered around the fortress town’s windy streets and soaked up the very authentic Portuguese atmosphere before dinner, bus preparations and an early night to gear up for Lisbon and Porto.. on the roooooad again..

QUICK FLASHBACK TO EDINBURGH:

Alex’s photos from Hogmanay. Could our smiles be wider? Not slightly delirious at all, no, not at all! Take me back!

MEZQUITA BITE

After Seville, it seemed Andalucia could get no prettier. And then we met Cordoba. 

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Alright Spain, we get it. YOU ARE GORGEOUS. Time to stop showing off now. But seriously. What kind of city’s main street looks like this? Swanston St, take a few notes (oh, and maybe chuck in 500 years of Islamic occupation). 

Like greedy kids in a lolly shop we jumped straight in and sped by all the other sights  to find ourselves at the holy grail of travellers- Cordoba’s famed Mezquita. Both a mosque and a cathedral at different periods (currently a Catholic cathedral), the UNESCO World Heritage site is known as one of the most accomplished feats of the Renaissance and Moorish architecture and began construction in a ridiculous 600 AD (cheers to you once again, Wikipedia). Regardless of all those fancy Lonely Planet descriptions, it’s really just one of the most unique buildings I have ever seen, smack bang in what can only be described as a splendiferous garden. We were mesmerized. 

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Egged on to go by my lovely Mum, what I really didn’t expect was just how bizarre the mezquita is inside. I preempted Islamic architecture of course, and the exterior certainly reinforced my beliefs, but nothing really prepares you for the shock of seeing a Catholic altar just randomly in the middle of a huge mosque. It’s actually kind of weird! My travels have spurred this intense obsession with Moorish architecture, so honestly I just wanted to walk through the huge space drooling over its beauty for hours.

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Okay, so just a couple of Kodak moments, or a hundred. Holyyyyyyyy cathedral! Quite honestly one of the highlights of the entire 8 months for me. Next up we wandered down to the Roman bridge of Cordoba (just casually built in early 1st century BC) and lapped up the sunshine.

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Afternoon and night was spent wandering through the gorgeous white-walled streets before retiring to a good dose of sangria and Cordoban cuisine. Omnomnom!

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Thoroughly enjoying the solitude of tourist-free lanes and quiet evenings, we spent the next day relaxing. We paid a visit to Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, another medieval Alcazar just casually hanging out in Andalucia. French Revolution nerd Phoebe found it fascinating that Napoleonic troops were housed here during the invasion in 1810, while Michael perfected his already basically perfect camera skills. We also liked posing for some incredibly cheesy photos in front of pretty bodies of water and/or flowers. Typical tourists, guilty as charged!

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Another win for being lone tourists in isolated regional Spanish towns? Low off-peak prices. Cue early evening of an arabic bath, hot oil massage with orange blossom, sauna, steam rooms and general indulgent pampering in a beyond beautiful Moorish-style building. Followed, of course, by mandatory glasses of wine and seafood tapas nearby. Ahh, it’s a tough life.

THE THREE KINGS

The difference a bus ride can make is ridiculous. In the space of 2.5 hours between Faro and Seville, we saw bluer skies, greener pastures, felt the warmth of the Spanish sun- and noticed extreme changes in regular infrastructure in comparison to Portugal.  Stopping off briefly in the town of Huelva to join up with Michael’s friend from Mannheim, Lorenzo, we soon arrived in gorgeous Seville; a lively city just bursting with Spanish joie de vivre and orange trees lining cobblestoned streets. Dumping our backpacks at the hostel we lunged for the famous Cathedral only to discover it was closed due to 3 Reyes festivities. Usually this would dampen our spirits, but if anything it got us more excited, because that meant the 3 Kings festival was on, and that meant one thing- PARTY TIME!

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But first, a hint of mandatory sight-seeing. Lorenzo, Michael and I stopped by the Real Alcazar, a palace built in the 10th century that was once a Moorish fort and apparently still occasionally houses the royal family today. Reminding me of Morocco, the Islamic-inspired interiors were just exquisite; filled with intricate detail, colour and welcome sunlight. The gardens were pretty spectacular too- because every good palace should house a peacock. ;)

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After a lunch of cheap tapas and cervezas, we were more than ready to join in the Seville festivities. A mammoth three day national holiday celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany (when the 3 Kings arrived in Bethlehem), the Festival is bigger than Christmas in Spain; allowing for gift-giving, gigantic feasts, religious celebration and of course, having a party (or fifty) with the family. Although continuing to party while everyone else in the world sleeps off their December 25 food comas is awesome enough, the best part of the 3 Kings is the parade. Locals line the city streets to watch tens of floats zoom by with hundreds of schoolkids on board, all dressed up, singing… and throwing literally BILLIONS of hard boiled lollies into the crowds! People bring huge bags to fill, they turn their umbrellas upside down to catch more, they hang baskets from their balconies, they put plastic covers on their shoes to prevent lolly damage….. it really is extraordinary. I was lucky enough to discover the parade in January 2010 with my family and it was basically the highlight of our trip so I made sure we were back to see it again this year. Lorenzo seemed pretty used to the whole ‘being pelted with candy by kids in Aladdin costumes’ thing but from the look on Michael’s face and amount of photos he took.. Thousands of free lollies? Sure, why not!

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Lorenzo and Michael with their little stash.. aaand then the clean up below!

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As the afternoon sun began to set we munched on our little haul while wandering up to the Plaza de Espana- known to some as the set of a scene in Star Wars (apparently..). 

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Walking along the river at dusk we said a sad ‘hasta la vista’ to Lorenzo before stumbling upon.. that’s right.. the parade again, having made its way eventually into the city center. Well, it just wouldn’t be fair to ignore it again, right?!.. Ha! Either way, an excuse to lap up the crazy fiesta atmosphere once more and enjoy the festivities probably a little too much, this time crammed against walls in tiny little alleyways while horses and marching bands celebrated the epiphany.

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Spanish kids hanging out the balconies for their favourite time of year..

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Umbrellas!

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The next day brought more ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the Moorish style streets of the Jewish district as we meandered through the city after embarking on one of our mandatory free walking tours. One of our favourite cities so far, Seville was not just a ridiculously stunning city with more history and royal splendour than you could dream of, but a secret escape to the European sun following news of the Aussie heatwave. We may not be tanned and terrific, but hey, we get our kicks where we can. :)

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SO FAR-O WAY..

Stepping off an always entertaining Ryanair flight with 20 degrees and sunshine immediately greeted our pasty selves, Michael and I were definitely ready to thaw out a little upon landing in Faro, southern Portugal. Hopping on a local bus and arriving in the city centre in under 15 minutes, it was clear to us this was a tiny town that bursts with sunburnt drunk English tourists in the summertime yet is virtually deserted the moment winter- well, temperatures below 20 degs anyway- rolls around. Still, to us, Faro was a haven of coat-less travelling and crowd-free sightseeing. Dumping our backpacks and grabbing some lunch, we loved nothing more than enjoying the tranquility of silent old alleyways and walking the city walls beneath the sun’s welcome rays.

In need of a little R&R, we sat beside the train tracks (headed to Lagos) and watched the sun go down over the marshes, breathing in the salty air that reminded us of home.

Waking to yet more sunshine (maybe normal to scorching Melbourne right now but a welcome surprise to ghosts here!!) we visited the quiet monuments scattered throughout Faro.

First up was a slightly creepy bone church built in 1816 and housing around 1245 monks skulls. As you do.

Exploring the various quarters of the seaside town, every alley led to another dilapidated, beautiful house or a fascinating tiny monument. Under Moorish rule for around 500 years way back when, Faro is such a interesting mix of old and new- intricate minaret-like buildings contrasted with a rundown 80s style flat, contrasted with a McDonalds. This seems to be quite characteristic of Portugal itself; I can’t wait to discover more.

We wandered up the rooftop of an old church and took in the perfect scenery.

Then after a quick lunch, hopped on a ferry to Ilha Deserta (Desert Island). It was literally what the name suggests- a deserted island. In the summer I can imagine it’d be party central with beach bonfires and music, but when we went.. we were one of only 5 people on the entire island and, after quickly losing sight of everybody, genuinely got a bit scared we’d miss the ferry back in an hour’s time and get stuck out there overnight!!

Still, the beach was a sight for sore eyes and there was nothing more beautiful than once more watching the sun set over Portuguese terrain. Michael’s photography skills just keep getting better and better- I’ve had trouble narrowing down the amazing sunset snaps! We headed back to firmer ground eventually, soaking up the tranquility (“how’s the serenity?”) and bracing ourselves for the next destination- Seville.

EDIN-BRRR AND HOGMAN-YAY

Ohh yes, arriving in a town where the potential for word play was so strong I just couldn’t stop at one title pun. Another thing I can’t stop doing? Um, LOVING SCOTLAND. Friends and family all over raving about the place, we were jumping out of our skins to skip over the channel. Now, this is going to sound blaringly stupid, but here goes my genius assertion having spent a few days in the land of William Wallace (no signs of Mel Gibson unfortunately..) Scotland is just so.. well.. Scottish. Cosy pubs, cobblestoned lanes, stunning hilly terrain, men in kilts, ridiculous accents, unbelievable availability of haggis, friendly dispositions, icy chills, bagpipes humming in the background… Edinburgh exceeded everything I stereotypically imagined, and then exceeded everything all over again. Upon escalating out of the train station we were immediately greeted with Christmas carnivals, festive lights, majestic buildings and of course, the unforgettable Edinburgh castle. This set the tone for the rest of the trip. What a magnificent city.

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Like most of our European sejours, we started with a standard free walking tour beginning at the Royal Mile. Trekking from sight to sight we braved the icy rain to learn all about Scottish history, parliament, important buildings, writers, and the gruesome weird folk tales that run throughout the city. For example, the story of a woman named Maggie who was sentenced to be hung for hiding a pregnancy, then didn’t actually die during the hanging (?), and because the punishment was for one hanging she was let off free. Apparently she then ran a pub giving a free beer to everyone condemned to hangings to tell them it wasn’t always that bad. Only in Scotland..

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A dedication to Greyfriar’s Bobby, the dog of the Scottish night watchman who apparently stayed loyal on his grave for years after the man’s death.

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Needing some warm sustenance to fight off the pneumonia..

We began to notice people of all types carrying what we thought were swords throughout the streets and had no idea what was going on. Before too long we discovered they were huge candlesticks in preparation for a traditional Hogmanay torchlight procession through the streets. As night fell (ok, about 4pm for Scotland, ha) we made our way down and managed to score ourselves 2 free sticks despite it all being sold out. Waiting in line for yonks and becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of fire safety (huge crazy inflatable fishes whacking everybody combined with naked flames- really, Edinburgh?!) we eventually lit our sticks alongside 40,000 other Scots, carrying them down the city centre up to the National Monument. Witnessing thousands of flames all around you, families celebrating, festivities in the air and finishing with a fireworks display over the main hill- it was extraordinary; one of those Kodak “I can’t believe this is happening” travel moments.

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^Aforementioned fire hazard….. 

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Aaaand we’re off!

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The next day was castle day- time to get our medieval on! Clambering up just in time for the 1pm cannon, Michael and I loved the views over Edinburgh from Castle Rock and had a cheeky sneak peek at the NYE fireworks for that night. A royal palace from at least the 12th century, the Castle was fascinating and in great condition considering its rather manic history. I found it particularly interesting that Scotland’s crown jewels were housed in the castle during WW2- not an exactly inconspicuous location?!

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Aim.. fire!

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Afternoon was naptime before hitting the crazy Hogmanay celebrations for New Years Eve. We had a great time meeting up with my friend Alex from Melbourne currently studying in Edinburgh (lucky girl) and her buddies, catching up, dancing in the street, enjoying the local bevs, and of course, the fireworks! There are so many different activities that comprise Hogmanay- concerts with headliners such as Simple Minds, intense raves, carnival rides, dog sledding, jumping into the freezing water- we stuck to the famous street party, brimming with fellow revellers ready to party into the new year. Michael’s photos are quite blurry so looking forward to Alex’s uploads-here’s one pretty awful attempt, so the evidence from NYE is to be continued. Happy 2013 everybody!

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Recovering the next morning, we eventually dragged ourselves out of the bed for a street wander before retiring to watch Leo DiCaprio movies in the hostel beanbag cinema (yes you read right- Scotland hostels I love you) and then having a super dinner with our other friend Alex who we met in Budapest. Our final day was a little more productive, climbing up to the National Monument for spectacular views over the city.

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Stopped by Queen Lizzy’s Scottish holiday house Holyrood Palace for a quick cuppa tea and play with the corgis…

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Then climbed the ginormous Arthur’s Seat for yet another set of postcard-perfect views.

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Heading back up towards the National Museum for lunch at culinary institution Mum’s, I was apparently slightly more at home than first thought. Reppin’ da saintz.

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Relishing the gorgeous city streets once more (likening it to a friendlier smaller London) we kissed Edinburgh goodbye far too soon and jumped on a Ryanair flight in search of brighter skies and warmer air..

TIS THE SEASON TO BE PARISIAN

Fa la la la laa, la la la laaa. 

Sitting here on top of our hostel’s rooftop in the impressively warm Seville sunshine catching up on emails, postcards and blog posts, Christmas feels like an age ago. After Madrid, Michael and I returned chez moi one last time to spend the silly season with Neha, Karen, Bec and Amanda, alongside ticking off the final few boxes of my Parisian bucket list. 

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Christmas Eve was spent slightly freaking out about cooking dinner the next night for everybody knowing that everything would be closed as the French celebrate Noel on the eve of the 24th (turns out you can successively reheat a roast chicken in a tiny microwave, who knew?). We also went on the hunt for a Christmas tree- and at about 50 euros a pop- returned home with a tiny tree branch that battled on to become an awesome petit sapin. Somehow we managed to just casually squeeze in a trip to the Marais’ L’As du Falafel with the girls (aka- famous falafel place I have mentioned about a squillion times on this blog) and then a hurried visit to the Louvre with Neha. Of course firstly running in to say the obligatory ‘bonjour’ to Miss M. Lisa, we then ventured onto Ancient Egypt, Renaissance sculptures, Aztecs, Napoleon’s apartments… I know it takes about 8 months to see everything in the Louvre, but man, you can fit a lot in 2 hours! 

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Tourists going a little ‘paparazzi’ on Da Vinci..

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Aaaand big tour groups completely bypassing the incredible painting behind it, ha!

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We then wandered down through the Tuileries, Concorde, along the Seine, into Shakespeare and Co etc. admiring the Christmas lights as we went, before ending up at, where else, but stunning Notre Dame for evening mass. The service may have awkwardly been in French (sorry everyone) but it was pretty spectacular to be sitting in such a gorgeous building amidst all the festivities. Didn’t see the Hunchback though… Disappointing! ;)

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Christmas morning was spent, of course, with cheesy carols, presents and lovely Skype sessions with the family. Somehow Santa still found us! Although feeling a little lonely so far away from Oz, the wonders of video calls basically meant I could smell my grandpa’s Christmas pudding all the way to Paris :) Plus we wore amazing Christmas beanies, which of course made us all the more jolly.

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Next up was the typical touristy trip we had still yet to complete, a whiz up the Eiffel Tower! Alongside the gorgeous girls again, we hauled ourselves to the Champ de Mars and waited it out in the lengthy queues trying to stop all the sneaky line-jumpers only to have the top floor closed due to wind (baby, it really was cold outside..), but that didn’t really matter. The views from the 2nd level are almost definitely superior in my opinion, because you can actually identify buildings and see Parisians down below. Then again, I’ve also got a pretty strong phobia of heights soooooo that may have something to do with it, haha. Regardless, there’s something magical about gazing from Trocadero all the way up to the butte of Montmartre; views so spectacular they cornily do take your breath away, even if just for a split second.

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Zipping up to Sacre Coeur, we meandered through Michael and my favourite spots of Abbesses and Place de Tertre before leaving les filles to go home and prepare our feast for the night. And happy to report that our Christmas dinner was a brilliant success- all six of us crammed round my tiny little table in the shoebox apartment munching on vegies and roast, drinking wine, chatting away and getting far too into the game Michael got me for Christmas, ‘Cards Against Humanity.’ With festivities not ending til about 2.30am, safe to say we were not feeling quite as merry the next morning! Also herewith lies The Famous Picard Cake. Caramel, meringue, chocolate mousse, nougat, almond biscuit… no photo could do it justice.

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Boxing Day we hit Eurodisney- but that is for another post- so, jumping to the 27th, we spent a lovely last day in Paris wandering up to the Luxembourg Gardens and the Pantheon, across to St Sulpice, and eventually ending up at the Orangerie to see Monet’s Waterlilies.

Midway through a quick dinner before bracing ourselves for a 21-hour bus ride to Edinburgh, we realized we had accidentally booked tickets for NOVEMBER, not for the date in December… Needless to say, therefore ensued a mad dash home to try rebook tickets, failing, and ending up with very sore wallets yet two hastily purchased shiny new Eurostar tickets. Oooops. All that trouble aside, I couldn’t quite believe that after four beyond incredible months it was finally my last couple of hours in Paris. Tried not to go all soppy but did have a tiny tear crossing the bridge to Ile St Louis, passing the gorgeous streets and landmarks for the last time, heading up to my apartment to say au revoir. I’ll save the reflections for the end of February, but Paris- It’s just a bientot. This exchange has undoubtedly been the best experience of my life so far and I can’t wait to return to relive such wonderful memories and revisit all of my amazing friends (ok, sorry, sounding like a Hallmark card here!!) .. Next up- get out the kilts and Haggis… finally a place where my red hair is socially acceptable.. SCOTLAND! 

THE RAIN IN SPAIN

Audrey may have so eloquently pronounced that the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain, but for Michael and I, it wasn’t so much rain as much as pretty horrific food poisoning that fell into our Spanish plains. Dear everybody visiting Barcelona: Avoid dodgy-looking paella. Juuust avoid it. That is, of course, unless you want to spend the majority of your time in ze gorgeous Catalonian city either doubled over the toilet or like a zombie in bed with Spanish daytime soapies slowly driving you insane. Ok, ok, I realise I’m painting our time in Spain rather negatively- we still had fun! Mainly because my two very best friends Neha and Karen made the long-haul flight over from Melbourne to Europa.. OH HOLA BEAUTIFUL GALS! Reunited at last.

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After a post-landing late night rendez-vous with the girls over tapas and cervezas, the big group of us (Karen, Neha, their two gorgeous travel buddies Amanda and Bec, Michael and I) headed out on a free walking tour of Barcelona.

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Refreshingly sunny and full of Spanish charm, we loved wandering through the back streets of the Gothic quarter, but the actual tour itself wasn’t exactly mindblowing. For example: When referring to Franco’s military coup d’etat and authoritarian regime in Spain, our tour guide literally just said “So then this guy called Franco put his hand up in parliament and said, ‘Fascism is what’s up, doc!’”….. As a history major, I basically died. Anyway, we loved passing government buildings, old Roman pillars and the Cathedral, and stopped for lunch where we had the infamous paella…. HERE IS THE DEVIL ITSELF. 

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Delicious, yet deadly. But not just yet. After getting slightly merry after a couple of sangrias we trudged up to the top of Montjuic to watch the sun set over stunning Barcelona and its beaches. Home to the Barcelona Olympics once upon a time, it’s now a great place to walk around and take in some green fresh air. The views don’t exactly hurt either.

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Nighttime was spent with hilarious and probably inappropriate conversations over pizzas at a great Italian restaurant and after-dark ramblings around Casa Batillo. Unfortunately I woke up feeling absolutely rotten- I’ll leave the symptoms to the imagination- and was totally bedridden. By about 12pm Michael was the same, so while the other girls went out to marvel over incredible Gaudi structures we were curled up in the foetal position watching makeover shows in Spanish. In 48 hours, I managed to consume only a tiny bite of a bread roll- that probably demonstrates the extent of our sickness as I think we all know just how much I love my food! Although seriously considering extending our stay in Barcelona to try and recover, we managed to drag ourselves out the next morning to head off on a 8 hour bus ride to Madrid. Not first though without seeing the Sagrada Familia. While we unfortunately missed a few highlights due to aforementioned paella, you just can’t leave Barcelona without seeing at least a hint of Gaudi!

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Building commenced in 1882 and yet this awe-inspiring cathedral is still under construction. Constantly changing, this Gaudi creation really did take my breath away. I went here with my family in December 2009 and while it was gorgeous, construction inside meant you had to follow barriers around the inside of the cathedral and a lot was blocked by works in progress. Now, while the exterior is still being perfected, the inside is totally finished. My gosh, Gaudi, I don’t know what on earth you were drinking but man, you were onto a good thing. Light streaming in and pillars like trees, there’s something very earthy and natural about this place. I particularly loved the stained glass windows, amazingly modern for their time.

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^Michael struggling to stand with sickness but still appreciating the beauty!

We took the lift up one of the towers and got some speccy views over the city before heading back down to the bus station to catch our 8 hour bus.

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The bus was … interesting. Used to night trains and long hauls we were pretty okay with the length, but what we didn’t consider was the other company on the ride. Very suss looking Moroccan men loitering at the back with even susser looking cigarettes and continuous phone calls, crying babies, old sleepy nonnas, and .. our personal favourite.. a woman who literally looked like she’d just walked off the set of Jersey Shore (awful hair extensions, fake tan, disgusting falling-off fake nails, smelling like a lolly shop gone wrong), her boyfriend and her tiny little white yappy dog sitting directly in front of us. After taking lots of selfies and sort of throwing around the dog, by the first stop an hour in they decided they’d had enough of little pup and THREW HIM UNDERNEATH THE BUS, in the hold, not in a cage or anything- in a tiny sports bag tote with no restraint or safety measures, letting him just fall around in there amongst all the huge heavy suitcases.. and didn’t check him for the remaining 7 hours! We nearly died. Oh the Spanish…………. Then we arrived late in Madrid and were immediately welcomed into the crazy nightlife directly outside our cute little hostel where nobody spoke English and us feeling as though we’d almost definitely accidentally crashed their family Christmas after bumping into a few too many definite relatives in the hallway.. Ha!  

Anyway, we met the girls bright and early at the huge Royal Palace of Madrid the next morning. Embarrassingly, I wasn’t even aware Spain even had a remaining monarchy so it was fascinating learning all about King Juan Carlos (also, could you get a more Spanish name?!) and his palace, which was constructed in 1738. According to a later walking tour it’s the biggest in Europe, which I found weird considering the size of Versailles, but with 3,418 rooms I wasn’t exactly going to argue. How many rooms can a family possibly need?! Neha cheekily snuck in a few phone pics of the incredible painted rooms, one entirely made out of porcelain, and the huge chandeliers, so I’ll have to grab them off her soon.

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We stopped for lunch at Madrid’s famous food market, brimming with delicious foodgasms such as seafood tapas, sangria, churros, sushi, plates of jamon, kilos of fresh olives, cheese, exotic chocolates and fruit, bottles of wine… heavenly! M and I were still way too sick to face any sort of food with flavour so we just kind of lived through the others and saved the delish meals for a few days later. But the Spanish joie de vivre is so enviable- love those long spreads over lunchtime, siestas, then back out for more tapas and a bit of dancing at nighttime- could definitely get into that lifestyle!

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We meandered back via Plaza Mayor, one of Spain’s main plaza home to everything from executions to bull fights in the past. Nowadays it’s kind of crammed with creepy street performers, tacky street sellers and homeless people.. oh and a whole lot of tourists.. but it’s still worth a visit to check out the surrounding architecture. Karen particularly bonded with the street performers…. haha, how terrifying.

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M and I got an early night to try and end the paella fiasco and got up early the next morning for a walking tour around the city while the girls slept in, visiting the Madrid cathedral and Puerta de Sol, among other landmarks. 

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Wandering down near the Prado museum we stumbled across the Caixa Forum, a free modern art gallery with a giant garden wall outside and full of these surprisingly really fascinating exhibitions- one on contemporary maps (sounds boring, but it was basically just modern art) and another on the evolution of skyscrapers which was particularly a hit for Michael, learning all about humanity’s graduation from high cathedrals and the Eiffel Tower to monstrosities like the Empire State building and that new one in Dubai. 

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We met Neha, Karen and Bec for dinner at a yum Italian place near the Palace to hear all about their crazy night out in Madrid and to say ‘adieu’ until Paris. The next day was spent sleeping in, wandering in and out of Zara, exploring some backstreets and catching ‘The Hobbit’ in 3D. Decent flick, except I fell asleep (but that’s basically a given for me nowadays.. Mum I’m turning into you!). Then it was back on ye olde jet plane bound one last time back to Paris for a final few Christmassy days…

POLE DANCING

KRAKOW [Khr-aak-ow]

Definition A: Capital of Poland from 1038 to 1569 with a population of 759,137 and a UNESCO protected Old Town.

Definition B: Extremely cold yet incredible city for a spontaneous girls adventure.

Once upon a ritual Monday Night Supper Club meeting, Ciara, Grace, Judith and I decided we were a little fatigued from the hazy crazy days of Paris and found ourselves booking tickets to the land of pierogies, Polanski, an awesomely named currency (the ZLOTY) and beyond bitterly cold weather temperatures- POLAND! Despite the fact we arrived to a -16 degree morning and the announcement of the pilot that he “probably can’t see the runway as he lands” (uhhh oh), happy to report that Krakow made an amazing first impression. Snow lightly falling over pine trees, gorgeous old buildings, friendly-faced people… We just couldn’t wait to snap, Krakow-le, and pop!

Rugged up as though I was visiting ice caves in northern Siberia, Grace, Judith, Ciara and I wandered down to the Market Square, the biggest in Europe. Filled with festive Christmas markets and gorgeous elderly Polish women swamped in enormous fur coats, we stumbled upon this hilarious nativity scene musical thing. As always, these cultural events are the highlight of my trip. Nothing better than seeing a moustached Cracovian man belting out Silent Night in Polish. The famous ‘Cloth Market’ is also in the centre of the square. My guidebook told me it was filled with “holograms and audiovisual wizardry” so naturally, we got ridiculously excited probably expecting something out of Harry Potter… but none was to be seen! Only tacky tourist gifts and the occasional traditional Polish peasant top. Alas, I remain unsure yet intrigued as to what “audiovisual wizardry” actually means.

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Excited by the new city, lack of tourists and impressive availability of gluhwein yet basically developing frostbite on our feet, we sought refuge in the unbelievably stunning St Mary’s Basilica across the square, a gothic 14th century church that blew our minds. We weren’t allowed to take photos and I find it disrespectful to disobey that so I’ve uploaded a photo of St Mary’s interior from the web instead. 

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What is particularly special about St Mary’s is that every hour on the hour, a trumpeter sounds the “Hejnal Mariacki”, a five-note traditional Polish anthem played successively four times by a trumpeter on the highest tower of the church (this is also transmitted at noon each day on national radio). The legend goes that during a 1241 Mongol invasion of Poland, a sentry sounded alarm by playing this anthem yet was shot in the throat before finishing, and hence this is commemorated each hour. It was pretty incredible to hear.

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^ Judith, Ciara and I dramatically listening in on the trumpeter!

From here the girls and I explored the Old Town, particularly the Church of Peter and Paul which as of September this year is also Krakow’s national Pantheon. The building was beautiful, but we particularly enjoyed the sassy sculptures out the front.

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A little tired from our 4am wake ups and almost developing icicles on our eyelids, we then feasted on pierogies and vegie soup before warming up with a few beers and chats at various pubs in the Jewish area, continuing on into the frosty Polish night.

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The next morning we frolicked around in the snow for a while. I just couldn’t get over the fact the river was entirely frozen over. Is this real life?

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We then visited the Schindler’s factory museum, which is situated in the old Jewish ghetto and was most well-known as being the factory featured in the movie “Schindler’s List”. It ended up being one of the best museums of the trip so far- extremely well done and so fascinating. Poland’s had a pretty rough history, particularly during World War Two, and the museum displayed that with great care and poignancy.

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With the days significantly shortened by the 4pm sunsets and arctic temperature, we meandered in and out of Krakow’s windy streets and cute little shops in the snow before settling down for more pierogies (cannot emphasise their deliciousness more. Tastebud heaven) and a spontaneous detour to not 1 but 2 shisha bars (although 1 was probably an underground drug den.. the other much more preferable). Another night of fun times over cheap alcohol (“alkohole” in Polish, much to our amusement) and bonding this time in ze toasty warm hostel.

Inside the shisha bar that probably doubled as a human trafficking centre..

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Our final morning we ventured off to the Wawel Castle, built for Casimir III the Great in the 14th century and beyond beautiful situated up high on the hill of the Old Town. The State Rooms were ridiculously pretty and well-maintained in their medieval decor, and also visited Wawel Cathedral (no photos allowed in there either unfortunately)….. but we were frankly just as entertained mucking around in the snow singing 90s songs and discussing Shania Twain. Haha. Judith, Ciara and Grace, you gals are brilliant.

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Soon we found ourselves back at Krakow International Airport reluctant to leave such a friendly and interesting city. Grace and I apparently really didn’t want to go: at the RyanAir boarding gate we were told with 10mins until the plane left that our tickets weren’t valid unless we got them visa checked back at the check in gate. Not only did we run faster than lightning back to the opening desks, but then, upon returning to the gate area and realising we’d have to wait in the huge half-hour long security queues again and almost definitely therefore miss our flight, I had a bit of a James Bond moment, grabbed Grace, and we actually jumped the gate and literally ran past through security setting off buzzers and catching the security lady’s attention… International criminals!!! But we still got on the flight, Catwoman-like adrenalin pumping through our veins. Not sure what that really says about the Polish airport security system but hey, we made it back to Paris after having a Krak-ing time in one of my favourite cities so far.

gracetatter:

Out of the all things we ate yesterday, Ana declared only the chocolate soufflé at Bistrot Paul Bert (one of the best reviewed restaurants à Paris) “life changing.”

It was definitely my favorite too. But I also enjoyed:

  • the crêpes we had at the charming Little Breizh Café for lunch, and how they served cider in a teacup
  • the TRUFFLE FLAVORED macaron I tried at Pierre Hermé’s (Ok, I don’t know if “enjoy” is the right word for mushroom flavored dessert items, but it was really interesting)
  • My tuna carpaccio and plat at the bistrot — some fish with delicious chanterelles on the side
  • The fries that I stole from Phoebe, Dave, and Ana that came with their steaks
  • The fact that we sat at the restaurant for hours. Just like Lenoir, y’all, except for without the cookies.

Good thing I’m going to Krakow at the KRAK of dawn tomorrow…I’m sure Poland is super low-cal.

Incroyable blogpost from the gorgeous Grace, who I went to dinner with last night at delish Bistrot Paul Robert alongside her friends Ana and Dave. I wasn’t there for the crepes or the soup or the truffle macaron. But I was there for the other parts (salad, beef and frites, chocolate souffle, Paris Brest…. nomnomnom). Haha. Also the food looks so good how can I cannot repost?

PS- Note bottom photo. I got a haircut and actually don’t hate it. For the first time ever!