Thursday, December 4, 2014

Lisboa

After staying with us and visiting Bordeaux for a few days my friends and I headed to Lisbon for their last weekend in Europe.  I was pretty excited about their choice of Lisbon for their final weekend because, of all the options I had given them, it was the only city I hadn't been to yet.  I like it when I get to travel somewhere new!

We got to the Bordeaux airport only to discover that our flight had been delayed 3 hours but surprisingly Easyjet was being very accommodating and handing out vouchers for free drinks to all their passengers.  Much more than I ever expected from a budget airline!  Unfortunately, the 3-hour delay meant that our first half-day in Lisbon was shot as we would be getting in much later than expected and just in time for dinner.  Wouldn't have been too big of a deal except we only had 2.5 days in Lisbon so we were counting on having that afternoon to do some exploring.  Instead, we had to cram everything into 2 days and we definitely kept ourselves busy!

When we got to Lisbon we hopped a bus from the airport straight to Rossio Square where our hotel was located.  We could have also taken the metro but my friend's suitcase broke over the course of the trip and she didn't feel like lugging a broken bag into and out of the underground metro when the bus was waiting for us only steps away.

Once we got into the city we stopped to check in at our hotel, which was only about 50 meters off of Rossio Square, then headed up into the Bairro Alto to explore a bit at night and then grab dinner.  Now, this also happened to be Halloween, and we were surprised to find out that they do celebrate Halloween in Lisbon.  If we had known in advance we certainly would have brought costumes!  Nonetheless, after dinner we hit up a few nearby bars that were all decorated for Halloween and then strolled along some of the narrow streets of Bairro Alto along with tons of revelers in costumes with drinks in hand.  A much nicer Halloween atmosphere than anything I have ever seen in France!

grabbing some Halloween drinks

 bar in Lisbon decorated for Halloween!

The next morning we got up early and grabbed the train from Rossio out to Sintra to visit some of the palaces.  We opted to visit only the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace and we were definitely happy with our choices.  When we got to Sintra train station we got on a tourist buses which took us straight up to the Moorish Castle.  I had originally been toying with the idea of hiking up, but seeing as we had lost our half day on Friday we decided the bus would save us time so that we could get back to Lisbon a little earlier for some more exploring.

When we got up to the Moorish Castle some crazy fog started rolling in from the sea obscuring our views of not only the walls of the Moorish Castle but also the Pena Palace and the entire region.  We were a little disappointed at first but in the end the foggy creepiness provided some really interesting photos and felt oddly appropriate in the ruins of an old castle right around Halloween.  Anyway, we walked the walls of the Moorish Castle and waited on one of the towers for the fog to clear a bit so we could get a few views of Pena Palace in the distance.  It was worth the wait!  Then we grabbed a sandwich at the cafeteria and walked the short distance between the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace.

visiting the Moorish Castle

view of the Moorish Castle obscured in fog

view of Pena Palace from the Moorish Castle as the fog started to roll out

taking the time to enjoy the view

the walls of the Moorish Castle

Pena Palace was incredible!  I have never seen anything like it and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Lisbon.  It felt like it could have come straight from a Disney story with its bright colors and turrets.  We spent much longer than we imagined visiting the palace, the courtyards and the patios but it was well worth it.  Plus, the fog finally started to clear out so we were able to enjoy the views over the Moorish Castle and the surrounding countryside.  Once we had finished visiting the castle we decided to hike the grounds a bit and headed off toward Cruz Alta, the highest location on the grounds and from which we were promised an incredible view of Pena Palace.  And that was not a lie.  The view was amazing and we enjoyed hiking around, visiting some of the other sites on the grounds and walking through what felt like an enchanted forest.  Once we finished at Cruz Alta we headed back down to the entrance to catch the bus back to Sintra train station and then the train back into Lisbon.

 
exploring the many courtyards and patios of Pena Palace

view of the Moorish Castle from Pena Palace

a courtyard in the palace

 hiking through the grounds

a close up of Pena Palace from Cruz Alta

 
enjoying the incredible view from Cruz Alta 

Since we took the bus we were able to get back to Lisbon early enough to go up the Elevador de Santa Justa  and walk around the Chiado before grabbing dinner again in the Bairro Alto.  After dinner we still had some energy left so we walked back down to Rossio Square and Praca Figueira then strolled through Baixa to the Praca do Comercio before deciding to call it a night.  Not too bad for our first full day in Lisbon!

Bairro Alto

view from the top of the Elevador de Santa Justa

view over the city from Bairro Alto

 a typical Lisbon tram

For our final day in Lisbon we spent the morning in Belem to see the Jeronimos monastery, the Discovery Monument and the Belem Tower.  We once again walked down to the Praca do Comercio where we caught the tram to Belem.  We planned to visit the monastery first and since it was the first Sunday of the month entry was free which meant there was quite a line!  But we waited and boy was it worth it.  The church was beautiful and the cloisters were incredible.  Afterwards we walked through a little market and over to the Discovery Monument before continuing on to Belem Tower.

Jeronimos monastery

the cloisters

Belem Tower

After Belem we took the tram back into Praca do Comercio and then headed off to spend the rest of our day exploring the Alfama area.  We knew we wanted to hit the cathedral and the castle but other than that we planned to spend our time getting lost in the narrow, steep and winding streets of the Alfama.  After wandering for a bit we made it to the cathedral and from there continued uphill in a meandering fashion until we got to the castle.  We took the time to really enjoy the views of the city from the castle grounds and when we saw a man selling wine from a cart we figured, why not?  I think he's got the right idea...it's called Wine With a View and he sells wine by the glass or the bottle to people visiting the castle.  Included in the price is a souvenir wine glass and then you can take your wine and enjoy it from anywhere in the castle grounds.  So we bought a bottle, sat along the walls, enjoyed the views and toasted a successful trip and my friends' last day in Europe.

Praca do Comercio

enjoying the view from the castle grounds

an incredible view over the city

Wine With a View!

visiting the walls and towers of the Castelo Sao Jorge

 wandering through the Alfama in the evening

Afterwards we finished up our visit of the castle and the nearby archeological site then headed back into the Alfama and slowly made our way back down towards Rossio Square.  We grabbed dinner at a little place right around the corner from our hotel then headed back to pack and get some sleep before my friends had to head to the airport for their 6 a.m. flight back to the US.  I left a few hours later for Bordeaux, impressed with Lisbon and sad about my friends' departure.  But I'm thrilled that they finally made it out to visit and that we had such a great time!  Can't wait till they decide to come again!  I also hope to return to Lisbon soon - I was surprised by how much I liked the city, much more than I expected.  I would love to have the opportunity to explore it more!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Bordeaux tourism - la visite de mes copines and my own personal rants

After our crazy weekend in Paris my friends and I hopped the train down to Bordeaux.  They had more sightseeing on their schedule and I planned on working for a few days before our trip to Lisbon.  So I had Lionel escort them around and we kept them quite busy over the course of their 3 days in Bordeaux.

The first day they drove all the way out to la Dordogne and visited Beynac-et-Cazenac, the Chateau de Castelnaud, the Chateau et jardins suspendus de Marqueyssac, La Roque Gageac and Sarlat-la-Caneda.  Even though it was a long drive they had enough time to fit everything in and the girls absolutely loved having the chance to see some of the French countryside.

The second day they spent the morning in Arcachon visiting the Dune de Pyla and enjoying oysters in one of the ports along the bassin.  Then they headed off to St. Emilion for the afternoon to visit the medieval town and do a wine tasting and a visit of the cellars of the Clos des Menuts. 

On their third and final day we gave Lionel a break and the girls went into Bordeaux on their own to spend the morning walking around the city to see some of the sights.  I provided them with a basic walking tour drawn out on a map.  After grabbing lunch they headed to the tourist office to meet up for a wine tour they had booked visiting some chateaux in the Médoc.  I met up with them in the evening and we grabbed drinks and did dinner out in the city before heading back to my place to get ready for our trip to Lisbon.

 visiting Bordeaux - the Pont de Pierre

 at the Porte de Bourgogne

Overall I think they really liked Bordeaux and the surrounding areas.  They were charmed by some of the small towns they visited and the overall scenery in the southwest of France.  And of course they loved the food and wine!

I, however, have some gripes about tourism in the Bordeaux area, based off of my research trying to plan stuff for my friends' visit as well as my parents' upcoming visit.  And this also ties into a link I saw on Facebook today.  Apparently Bordeaux was just selected for the listing of the "11 exceptional tourist destinations in France" and while I will agree that Bordeaux is a pretty city and that the Bordeaux region is nice, I am a little surprised.  Surprised that Bordeaux would want or even try to obtain such a distinction and surprised that it would be awarded considering the, in my opinion, overall lack of any attempt on behalf of the city of Bordeaux and nearby area to accommodate tourists or encourage tourism.  Why would I feel that way, you might ask?  Well, here is my reasoning:
  1. The inability of the fools running this city to come up with any sort of convenient mode of public transportation to get from the airport into the city center and vice versa.  Talk about not encouraging tourists right from the get go.  The tram A gets pretty close, why not just extend it the extra little difference and make tourists and residents lives a little simpler?
  2. The refusal to encourage, promote or even make available any sort of tourism outside of the wine industry.  Don't get me wrong.  I get it.  People come to Bordeaux for the wine.  But if you want them to stay for longer than a day you might want to advertise and open up some other options.  There is only so many times a sane person can listen to an explanation of the same wine making process in a short period before they inevitably can't take it any more.
  3. The apparently poor assumption that all tourism only occurs in the warmer months.  If you want to be a major tourist destination then your tourist attractions need to be open and available to visit at all times of the year.  It's not unheard of for a person to go on a winter city break after all.  Examples that I've stumbled across lately and that are really starting to frustrate me: 
    •  Did you know that, beyond wine chateaux, there are tons of historic chateaux in the area (within an 45 min-1 hour drive of the city center) and though most of them are open to the public, they are pretty much all closed from Oct/Nov-March/April?  Examples of this include, but are not limited to, the Chateau de Cazeneuve, Chateau de la Brède, Chateau de Vayres, etc and the few that are actually open at this time of year are only open weekends or for one visit one day a week, obviously in French.  That sure doesn't encourage tourism!
    • Did you know that it is possible to book boat cruises on the Garonne to admire Bordeaux from the river, to visit nearby sights including an island near Blaye, to go to wine tastings and for meals?  Well, unfortunately, the only ones available during the winter are a few dinner cruises.  Strange considering other places, including Paris, are able to maintain schedules for sightseeing cruises even in the winter.  Pretty sure the Garonne doesn't freeze over.  Just another example of not trying to encourage tourism.  
    • Did you know that there are the ruins of a Roman arena in Bordeaux?  Neither did I until recently and that is the kind of thing my brother loves.  I thought it would be perfect to include in their visits of Bordeaux...until I went to the website and discovered that even the ruins are closed in the winter.  Well, I thought, there are certainly other Roman ruins in the general Bordeaux area.  And yes there are.  But all closed in the winter.  
    • After extensive research into the subject it seems the options for touristic activities in the Bordeaux region in the winter are limited to walking around the city, a few guided tours of the city (including one in an open air bus...who wants to do that of all things in the cold!?!), the occasional more specialized guided tour (in French) though these seem to only be offered one or two days throughout the season so you have to be here at the right time and wine tours.  You can drive yourself out to the Dune de Pyla but the city doesn't provide guided tours out to visit the dune and the bassin in the winter (though in my personal opinion a visit of the bassin including Arcachon and the ville d'hiver would be entirely appropriate).  But who cares because there are tons and tons and tons of wine tours.  Because, clearly, that is all that Bordeaux seems to think is worthwhile in the area.  Sure makes things rough for me though, especially since my family are not big wine drinkers.  And like I said, certainly doesn't encourage tourists to stay longer in the area or promote anything more than oenological tourism.  I guess Bordeaux can't appeal to anyone who doesn't want to taste wine, or at least that seems to be the message the city is sending.   However, if anyone has any suggestions or knows of anything open during the week at this time of the year, please let me know!  I'm getting desperate!
 Anyway, all this to say that Bordeaux as a "tourist destination" is really starting to frustrate me and I don't agree that this city makes any effort to encourage any sort of tourism beyond wine tourism.  And I think that is a shame because the city and the surrounding area have a lot more to offer than just wine tastings.  I personally travel a lot during the winter months as flights and hotels are often much cheaper than during the high tourist season in the summer.  This is the first time I've encountered such difficulty in finding things open to the public at this time of the year, in any country.  Perhaps I have just gotten lucky, or perhaps this is another particularity of Bordeaux.

But, as it is, for my family's upcoming visit I am mostly having Lionel take them on day trips to other nearby areas of France, much as we did with my friends.  Already planning on them going to Le Pays Basque (especially Saint Jean de Luz), La Rochelle, perhaps Bergerac, we are planning a 3-day trip to La Dordogne, we are planning a 2-day trip to Toulouse and Carcassonne, and we will certainly take them out to the bassin at some point (though they have already been) as well as a some time in Bordeaux.  A lot of those places might be more of a drive than the immediate area around Bordeaux but at least there will be something to do and tourist sights are actually open in the winter.  And thankfully the holidays will also keep us busy.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Mes copines and an exhausting weekend in Paris

Ok, I admit it.  I have been sorely neglecting this blog.  I can't believe it has been a month since my last post!  My only excuse is I have been busy.  I haven't even seen the time go by.  I'm still struggling with the idea that we are in November and the month is nearly over!  Thanksgiving is nearly upon me and I haven't finalized my plans.  Then, before I know it, it will be Christmas and I have yet to give any thought to gifts and decorations.  Where has the time gone!?!

Anyway, enough of that tired old story of being too busy and not having enough time.  One of the many reasons for my extended blogging absence was the visit of 2 of my closest friends from high school.  They have never made it out to France to visit me before and this was pretty much their first trip to Europe, so I wanted everything to be perfect (you know, to entice them to want to come back and visit again soon!).  After much discussion and debate we finally decided on the itinerary - Paris with a day trip to Reims, Bordeaux, Lisbon - and then I dove into planning and organizing like a mad woman.  I was meeting them at CDG and then we were spending 4 days in Paris, one of which was filled with a day trip to Reims to visit Taittinger and Veuve Clicquot.  So, in the end, only 3 full days to visit Paris.  I had so much I wanted them to see and experience and it was not easy to plan it all into such a short time.  In the end some hard decisions had to be made in order to make the most of their time but I think it went quite well.  Since the weather was mostly going to be nice I opted to keep us outdoors as much as possible and mostly avoid museums which, with their lines and maze-like interiors can often be huge time killers. 

They arrived at 6am and I met them at the airport.  We headed straight to the apartment we had gotten from Airbnb (great deal and right in between Montparnasse and Denfert Rochereau) to drop off their stuff, take a short nap, have breakfast and coffee and then we were off for a whirlwind day of the Arc de Triomphe, Champs Elysee, Place de la Concorde, Tuileries complete with picnic lunch, the Louvre (after so many visitors over the years I have perfected my "highlights of the Louvre" 1-hour circuit for those with little time or little interest in seeing tons of paintings), the Eiffel Tower, Trocadero for a view of the tower lit up and sparkling at night, a nighttime trip on the Bateaux Mouches and then a late dinner in St. Michel at which I even got them to try escargot.  The girls were exhausted at the end of the day, but it was worth it.

Susan, Morgan and I at the Arc de Triomphe

enjoying the view of the Eiffel Tower from Trocadero

Saturday we grabbed an early train to Reims and visited the city and cathedral as well as doing tours of the Taittinger and Veuve Clicquot champagne houses.  It was my third trip out to Reims and I've done 4 or 5 champagne houses now, and I must say that at this point I firmly believe that Taittinger has the best cellars in Reims and is my number one recommendation of a champagne house to visit.  Plus, it's the only one that doesn't require reservations.

the Taittinger cellars

Morgan and Susan champagne tasting at Taittinger

Susan and Morgan ready to visit Veuve Clicquot

champagne tasting at Veuve

 the Veuve Clicquot cellars

After enjoying some champagne and an exhausting day in Reims we headed back to Paris and I took them for drinks at my favorite wine bar in Bercy Village.  Then we grabbed dinner and crashed back at the apartment.

Sunday was another busy day.  I had given them the choice of either doing the Catacombes or the Musee d'Orsay in the morning, then planned to spend the rest of the day doing Notre Dame and wandering the 5th and 6th.  However, when we walked to the Catacombes the line to get in went all the way around Place Denfert Rochereau so we opted to just hop the metro to Notre Dame and try again later.  We spent an obscene amount of time at Notre Dame because of the line to go into the cathedral (seriously...I have NEVER waited in line to get into Notre Dame and late October...not exactly tourist season...what's up with that!?!  Perhaps it was because of les vacances scolaires?) and then the line to go up the towers.  But the girls really liked it.  After that we wandered around the 5th and 6th, winding our way through St. Michel then up to the Pantheon, down to the Luxembourg Gardens and then over to St. Sulpice before deciding to hop the metro back to give the Catacombes one last try. 

walking around Notre Dame

 from the top of Notre Dame

We got to Denfert Rochereau and our hearts sank as we saw that there was still an impossibly long line to get in, but the girls had their hearts set on seeing the Catacombes so we made our way to the end of the line and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  We had no idea how long the wait would be and at one point an employee came by and told us we were taking a risk - we may not make it in before they closed the doors.  But at that point we had waited for so long that we decided to just see what happened.  And good thing we did because after an hour and minute wait we were the LAST people allowed in.  As the door closed behind us we saw the disappointed faces of the two guys standing in line behind us who arrived just 20 seconds after us and couldn't help but be thankful for our luck.  And this is where I need to go off on a little rant...since when have the Catacombes become so popular!?!  For some reason, with my friends and family, they have always been a popular site, and so I had literally been to the Catacombes 10 times prior to this (I know, I should get an award for patronage or something) in all seasons including high tourist season and have NEVER waited more than 10 minutes to get in.  But for months now their website has been announcing waits of up to two hours (I just didn't believe it).  What's up with that!?!

visiting the Catacombes

 Susan and Morgan freaked out by all the bones!

Anyway, the girls loved the Catacombes and were so happy to have gotten to see it, so in the end it was worth it.  After our visit we dragged our aching and sore bodies (because standing in line is a killer for the feet) back to the apartment because we had plans for Sunday night.  We needed to get changed, shove our miserable feet into heels and head to the north of Paris...we were going to see a show at the Moulin Rouge!  So off we went with our feet screaming in protest.  First we went to see the Sacre Coeur at night (and for the first time ever I took the funicular to the top...we were in too much pain to do the stairs).  We enjoyed the view with a little picnic for dinner then visited the inside of the church before heading back down to make our way to the Moulin Rouge for the 11pm show.  You see, I have a good friend who is the second meneuse de revue at the Moulin Rouge and she was able to get us a huge discount on tickets (otherwise I would never have gone and I had actually never been before).  So when I saw her in June she offered to get us tickets if my friends wanted to go and I thought it would be a pretty cool addition to their trip.  I had always heard good things and I'm happy we went.  The show was impressive (even if my friend wasn't dancing that night because she had family visiting for the weekend) and we really enjoyed it, even if it wasn't at all what my friends were expecting.  There were a few acts that were just jaw dropping and the champagne was flowing so no complaints other than the poor choice to wear heels.  After the show we very slowly made our way back to crash after another long day.

ready to head in for the show

 getting seated in the Moulin Rouge and waiting for the show to start

Finally, on Monday we started the day at the Chateau de Vincennes and then went back into the center to wander from Bastille to Chatelet.  On the way we stopped along the Seine to drink a bottle of wine (because who doesn't like day drinking), grabbed falafel at L'As du Falafel in the Marais and ate it picnic style in the Place des Vosges (and it was so, so good), then made our way past the Centre Pompidou, through Chatelet and Les Halles (ummm...Les Halles has changed quite a bit...I was shocked and disappointed when I saw the huge, ugly monstrosity that is taking the place of the remaining architecture of the old market), to St. Eustache then back down the Rue de Rivoli over to the Tour St. Jacques, L'Hotel de Ville, across the river and back to Ile de la Cite where we stopped again along the quais for another bottle of wine near Notre Dame.  Then we headed back to the apartment to pick up our stuff and catch our train to Bordeaux.  We arrived in Bordeaux late and Lionel picked us up at the train station and took us home.  We gave the girls a tour of the house, chatted a bit and then headed to bed, completely worn out after a busy and exhausting weekend in Paris.

Ok, let me get my rant over with first.  I turn the corner into Les Halles and this is the sight I see.  Definitely not what I was expecting!  I must admit, I liked the little architectural reminder of the old market much more than this horrific monstrosity. How did I not know about this...

And this is what it is supposed to look like when completed...a modern disaster in my opinion.  Such a shame!

Morgan and Susan enjoying some wine along the Seine

At L'Hotel de Ville

along the Seine

We had forgotten to take a pic in front of Notre Dame on Sunday so we stopped in for a quick shot

 One last view of Notre Dame before hopping on the metro to catch our train

Luckily the entire weekend in Paris went smoothly.  But it was a whirlwind, especially for my friends who were jet-lagged, had never visited Paris before, and were just utterly worn out from the lack of sleep, the time difference and the sheer amount of walking we did, which definitely is not part of their habitudes.

I must admit, sometimes I get tired of doing the tourist thing in Paris, having lived there and all.  Plus it kills me to spend so much money seeing the same sites over and over and over again.  But, it was a lot of fun to do it with these two girls and to be their guide for their first ever visit to Paris.  There was so much more I would have liked to have shown them but unfortunately there just wasn't enough time.  Hopefully they'll be back again soon cause despite the exhaustion and the time crunch we had a blast and it sure was a pleasure being in Paris with these girls!

Coming up next...Bordeaux.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Weekend explorations

In lieu of any sort of social life Lionel and I have been spending our weekends occupying ourselves by exploring the Bordeaux area and the southwest of France. While we both would certainty love to have heaps of friends to see over the weekend, we unfortunately don't. Nonetheless we've both really been enjoying our little weekend adventures and have made some interesting discoveries along the way. Areas we never would have even thought to visit have beckoned and we've been surprised by some of the incredible beauty, charming towns and breathtaking views we've come across.

Citadelle de Blaye:

the Citadelle de Blaye

entrance into the citadel

view over Blaye from the walls of the citadel

Bourg-sur-Gironde

exploring the small town of Bourg

homes on the cliffside in Bourg

wandering through Bourg

Royan and the Gironde estuary:

a funky-looking church in Royan

along the Gironde estuary on our way up to La Palmyre from Royan

cliffs along the coast in Meschers

the lighthouse at La Palmyre

shrimp shacks in Royan

a beach in Meschers

view from the dunes in La Palmyre

Bergerac and le pays de Bergerac:

exploring the city of Bergerac

a view of Bergerac from across the Dordogne

historic center of Bergerac

statue of Cyrano de Bergerac in the main square of Bergerac

view over the vineyards outside of Bergerac

a view of the Chateau de Monbazillac perched on a hill over vineyards

Chateau de Monbazillac

Chateau de la Bridoire

Bastide d'Eymet

the remains of the chateau in Eymet

Bastide d'Eymet

view over the surrounding countryside