So….Cruise vs DIY?

So did we do it better than taking a cruise?

Well, if you take out having to lug our suitcases everywhere, on and off trains, to and from airports and up and down all the steps we ended up having to navigate, then we obviously would have had a better time of it on a cruise.

BUT, we were able to immerse ourselves a lot more in the cities we stayed in and this, to me, is invaluable.  We were under no time constraints when it came to most of the things we wanted to see and do (unless it was those imposed by ourselves when we chose to do guided tours).  It was particularly lovely in spots like Venice and Capri to enjoy the place once all the day trippers had left.  We ate what we wanted, where we wanted and when we wanted.  We could stop when and where we wanted.  We got to use all sorts of public transport and we got out of the cities too.  We saw so many more countries and sights on our itinerary than if we had been on a cruise.  And there’s nothing like staying in a place for a few nights to get into its groove.

I loved the fresh markets we came across – being able to buy and cook with fresh local produce was a great experience, not to mention being able to interact with the locals.

I’m not saying don’t go on a cruise, they definitely have their place and there are people who absolutely adore cruising, but for us and the way we travel, d.i.y is the way to go.  Maybe just with less luggage next time….

The main thing I learnt out of this trip was that while it was great to tick off some of the major icons of the world, I actually much prefer going to a place that is quieter and where you can appreciate it for being itself.  I much preferred Barcelona and Lisbon over Paris and Florence.  Those flag carrying big tour groups were so annoying and I got so sick of being harrassed by people trying to hawk me stuff whenever I came near a popular sight.  I hated having to line up for everything, although to be honest, we didn’t have to do very much of that, we just moved on if there was a huge queue.

Where would I go back to?  Lisbon and Barcelona.  For sure.

I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to my Laos trip in November.  Even more so, because I know it will be a much more intimate experience.

If you’re interested in any of the facts from our trip, here they are:

We stayed with:

Parkroyal on Pickering, Chinatown/CBD, Singapore

Citadines La Ramblas, La Ramblas, Barcelona

Hotel Convento do Salvador, Alfama, Lisbon

Villa Montmartre, Montmartre, Paris

Citadines Lyon Presquile, Lyon

Chateau de Trigance, Trigance

Private Residence (AirBNB), Vieille Ville, Nice

Locanda Ca’Amadi, Cannaregio,Venice

Villa Il Mosaico, Florence

B&B Antico Monastero di Anacapri, Anacapri, Capri

Casa Di Eddy, Termini Station, Rome

We flew with:

Singapore Airlines Perth to Barcelona and from Rome to Perth

TAP Airlines from Barcelona to Lisbon and from Lisbon to Paris

HOP Airlines from Nice to Venice

We took trains between all other cities, a waterbus in Venice and the high speed ferry between Naples and Capri

We drove with:

Sixt (between Aix en Provence and Nice)

We bought these city cards to help save us money – they included free public transport:

Lyon City Card

Lisboa Card

Roma Pass

We used these tour companies (everything else we did ourselves):

Urban Adventures in Barcelona (Tapas Walking Tour)

France Tourisme in Paris (Versailles)

Tour Azur in Nice (Monaco Evening Trip)

Florencetown in Florence (Pizza and Gelato Making)

Dark Rome in Rome (Vatican Tour)

Coop Culture in Rome (Domus Aurea)

If you have any questions about our trip though, please ask me!

A Nice Evening out of Nice

On our second last day in Nice, I awake to find that all the plane tree allergies and cigarette smoke (the French smoke everywhere and often one after the other) have taken a toll on my system and I’m not feeling crash hot, coughing and coughing for most of the night.  So we opt for a quiet day.  Fresh croissants from the bakery next door, a nice late start, a bit of shopping and a spot of pasta for lunch.

Nice has long had ties with Italy (in fact Nice only became part of France in 1860 when Italy reluctantly gave her up in order to repay France for their help in defending Italy against the Austrians) so there is a lot of traditional Italian cooking to be found.

And as the Italian restaurant we have chosen for lunch is right next door to Fennochio, it’s only fitting we have ice cream for desssert – this time ginger, vanilla meringue and rose pepper.

Our last night in France is to be spent checking out how the other half live in the town of Monaco.  We have a guided tour and end up being the only ones on it, once again.  Our guide is lovely and full of information.

Along the way, we stop at several points overlooking the marvellous coast between Nice and Monaco.

Monaco is the second smallest country in the world (first place goes to the Vatican City) and squeezes itself into just 2km².  It does well in this area though, housing not on the glitzy Monte Carlo Casino, but a grand prix racetrack, two harbours (filled with high end yachts), streets full of high end boutiques and loads more – in short, a playround for the rich and famous.

They speak Monégasque here – a mixture of French and Italian – and it’s citizens don’t pay income tax.  In fact, most of its citizens don’t even live here year round, but it’s not easy to become one of those.

One lady who did was the American actress Grace Kelly, who married Prince Rainier in 1956 and became the Princess of Monaco.  While the Prince was happy for her to continue her acting career after their marriage, the people of Monaco were not and she had to make adjustments to her new life.  She sadly passed away after a car accident in 1982.

About half an hour’s drive and we are back home in Nice.

Wrist Sniffing in Nice

We sat in the bar of the grand, historic Negresco Hotel, eagerly awaiting our cocktails, madly sniffing away at our wrists.  I love this scent!  “Mine’s better”, counteracted Mum.  In fact, I couldn’t stop sniffing and the reason was we were both wearing our brand new, self created perfumes to drinks this evening.  Well, how’d you do that, I hear you ask?  Go to Molinard.

Lucky for us Molinard is just around the corner.  They have been making perfumes since 1849, though not from this swish shop, rather from the town of Grasse which we drove through yesterday and for a small price, you can come and do a perfume workshop.

Selecting scents from a range of top, heart and base notes, based on what smells good to your nose, we create a collection of scent testing strips.  Then it’s a matter of picking them up and smelling them all together, removing or adding anything that seems out of place or missing.  Next, the assistant puts together the dosages of each scent to make up the bottle and voila – your own scent!

Mine has tangerine, orange and praline scents among others and I just love it.

We are staying in a great location here in Nice actually, right in the old town.  I’ve heard of people booking accommodation on Air B&B before, but I have never tried it myself.  When I saw Luke Nguyen (Vietnamese TV chef from Australia whose family runs the incredible Red Lantern restaurant) exploring the streets of old Nice, I wanted to stay somewhere like that – in a little apartment, perhaps with a balcony, right in the thick of things.  And that’s what we found when we went looking – Diane’s gorgeous apartment in Ville Vieux – ready and waiting for us.

We have a little grocery store on one side of us, a bakery on the other and we are not far from the Cours Saleya – the flower market, where we did our grocery shopping this morning.  We are also not far from a little ice cream shop called Fennochio that makes Beer flavoured ice cream.  They also have a bunch of equally as interesting ice cream flavours on offer and the only question is – how many times a day can I go there to make sure I tried all the obscure flavours without making myself look like an ice cream glutton?

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Disguises?  Pay some kid to go and get one for me?  Get someone different to serve me each time?  Turns out I needn’t have worried.  Because at Fenocchio, you can get as many flavours as you like stacked on that there old cone, as long as it doesn’t fall over in the process.

For my first visit, of course I tried the beer sorbet (which just tastes like beer really and not very refreshing), but better than the beer flavour was the cactus sorbet – unexpectedly sweet and not very cactussy at all!

Now it’s around midday and all of a sudden, a massive BOOM reverberates around Place de Palais – around the whole of Nice as well.  Don’t be scared, it’s a normal part of every day living in Nice and yes, it is the sound of a cannon.  Story goes that Sir Thomas Coventry-More, residing in Nice in 1861, had trouble making sure his wife came home for lunch.  She loved a bit of gossip and once she got out into the streets, there was no stopping her.  So he petitioned for permission to set off the cannon each day to call her home to lunch.  Even though the Coventry-More’s left Nice in 1866, the tradition continued as it does to this day.  The cannon is dispensed from Castle Hill but if you happen to be in the old town centre when it goes off, you could be forgiven for thinking it had been shot around the next corner – it’s that loud!

Boarding the little Nice tourist train along the Promenade de Anglais, we take a quick trip through the streets until we reach Colline de Chateau (Castle Hill).  Here we ditch the tram in order to stroll through the gardens and take in the amazing view of Nice from up high.

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And so it is we find ourselves sitting in the Negresco bar.  Our second drink comes around – complimentary because it has taken them 25 minutes to serve our six pieces of canapes -and we are still sniffing our wrists.

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Rendezvouz with Renoir

If yesterday’s drive was beautiful, today’s was simply stunning.  Unfortunately being the driver, most of the scenery will stay in my head, but let’s just say there were quite a few times when I was like wowa weewa!

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After a quick little visit to the village of Trigance, cut short by rain, we hit the windy roads again to travel towards our next destination, Nice.  Fog spread its hands protectively over the valleys and there was a vista like no other around every corner.

We meandered along enjoying every moment, stopping to buy preservative free perfume by the roadside and attempting to stop in towns along the way (driving here is not like driving in Australia AT ALL – in Aus, if you need to pull over or stop, there is plenty of places to do so, the bays are nice and wide and there’s just room.  Here, cars literally cram every little space on the roadsides, the bays are tiny and the drivers totally impatient – it can be quite panicking when you just want to stop to check directions or take a breather!).

Driving down through Grasse, the valleys and greenery give way to Tuscan style villas crammed on hillsides.  Somehow we missed the turnoff for the town centre of Grasse and continued on to Cagnes Sur Mer, where after circling the same set of streets for ages, we finally found the Renoir Museum.

Pierre Auguste Renoir settled down in this property known as Domaine des Collettes in 1908.  He was already suffering from rheumatic arthritis badly by this point, requiring his paint brushes to be strapped to his hands to allow him to continue painting.  From the Impressionist school of painters, his most famous works were Luncheon of the Boating Party (my favourite), the Ball at the Moulin de la Galette and La Loge.  He also took up sculpting when he moved to this property and continued his artistic ventures until his death in 1919 at the age of 78.

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It’s not far to Nice now, but I’ve somehow to got to find some petrol and return the hire car in the centre of Nice which is harder than it looks.  Finally we find petrol, but when you return the car, there’s no clear lots to drive into like back in Australia.  Instead you need to park in an underground car park and then lug all your luggage up some flights of stairs before you find a lift to get back up to the road.  I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed the last bit of today’s journey.

One more obstacle faces us before the day is out – to find our apartment (which we do without much struggle thanks to the directions of the Air BNB owner) and lug our suitcases up four flights of stairs, taking instructions about the apartment completely in French from the owner’s friend.  I hope we have understood everything correctly as she leaves, but my head is still spinning from the drive.  I need a drink.

Thank goodness we find that without much hassle and we sit overlooking a fairly quiet Place du Palais watching a drunk madman throw things around the square.  Ah, welcome to Nice.

Drive Time

Another fast train ride takes us to Aix En Provence where we pick up hire car to ‘indulge’ in a nice drive through the south of France.  ‘Have you driven a Peugot before?’ asks the friendly lady in the Sixt kiosk, her bright orange jacket emitting a glow around the office.  No, I say.  I’m sure now her friendly smirk should have been a warning in itself, because it seemed like an hour later I was still trying to get out of the carpark!  It must have seemed irrelevant to tell me how to set up the GPS which has trouble finding our destination when I play around with it.  It seemed even less relevant to tell me there is a small ring like bit of plastic around the manual (eek) gearstick that you need to lift up in order to reverse or that there is no hand brake to speak of, it’s automatic when you put the car in park (I think).  It’s a one way lane out of the carbay, with hire cars packed closely all around you and a constant stream of drivers who wish to go the wrong way down the lane.  Finally someone tells me about the reverse trick and the Sixt gentleman kindly gets the car out of the small space for me and we are on our way.

Kind of.

I have a lot to learn.  I do have a manual license and always prefer driving manual cars.  Though having had no car for the last year and a half, I haven’t done a lot of manual driving – this bit doesn’t bother me.  What does bother me is that I’m trying to get my gear driving memory back into seamless mode, while trying to learn how to drive on the wrong side of the road.  Indicate to go over, oops, no that’s the windscreen wipers.  The mirrors all seem like they are in the wrong place and to top it off, my route takes me straight onto the A8, where the speed limit is 130km/hr in the slow lane.

After a few mean beeps from other drivers who obviously believe the speed limit is just a guide and also that there’s no need for indicators, I get into my groove and am even surprised to find myself getting up to 140 at one stage.  Finally we get off the A8 and begin our crazy, windy ascent to Trigance.  The scenery is incredible, if you can take your eyes off the road for more than one second.  It’s a constant battle between, 2nd, 3rd and 4th gear, up/down, up/down as the car negotiates the corners and other drivers veering dangerously onto the wrong side of the road.

A few small villages appear along the route, gorgeous little places full of charm.

Finally we arrive in Trigance, to our home for the night, perched high on a high overlooking the Valley of Verdun.

We.  Are.  Staying.  In .  A.   Friggin.  Castle.  Tonight!

A true life castle.

Chateau de Trigance was “an ancient fortress for meditation built by the monks of the Saint Victor abbey from Marseille in the IXth century”.

Our bed is four poster, the restaurant is in a kind of a cellar with old suits of armour and there are friggin turrets on top!  Turrets!

Can you tell I’m excited!

Ahem, anyway….

Our room is set along a terrace overlooking the Verdun Valley.

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It’s getting nippy outside, so we head to the salon where we take part in a medieval aperitif called Hypocras which was a wine based drinks mixed with spices and cinnamon, occasionally served warm (but not in our case).  We read about the history of the castle and enjoy the space, nibbling on the pre-dinner snacks bought to us by our host.

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Then it’s time for dinner.  Our meals are mini medieval banquets!  Mum’s reads like this:

Castle surprise soup – not sure what it was – tasted almost like the zucchini and basil soup I make back home, but much creamier and just absolutely beautiful.

Petits farcis d’agneau du Haut Var, roquette a l’ail
(Different vegetables stuffed with ocal lamb and araomatic herbs, rocket salad with garlic)

Magret de canard a l’orange, legumes verts
(Duck breast and its orange sauce accompanied by green season’s vegetables)

Plateau de fromages affines
(Selection of fine cheeses, including some beautiful local artisanal ones)

Creme brulee pistahe et mangue rotie
(Roasted mango and pistachios ‘creme brulee’)

My menu also includes the Castle Surprise Soup, different vegetables and selection of cheeses, but with a main of Supreme de pigeon, sauce fruits rouges, cuisses confites et beignets de pleurotes (Roasted pigeon breast and its candied legs, red fruits sauce ‘peurotus’ mushrooms in pastry) and Biscuit coco, duo de mousses passion et cafe (Duet of passion fruits and coffee mousse on a coconut biscuit).

The food was amazing, the service really, really great and the experience just couldn’t be beat, but after all that hair-raising driving and a feast of mass proportions, there’s nothing more appropriate in store next than an early night.

Fourviere’s Treasures

With no particular agenda in store for today, a bus trip around the city is in order, and our first stop, was not really something I had an interest in seeing because I saw plenty of ruins in Europe on my last trip.  But we followed the other tourists who trudged off the bus and up the hill and we came to the ruins of a entertainment complex built by the Romans around 15BC and they were just incredible.

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The two complexes (a smaller and a larger ampitheatre) could hold 13,000 people all together and it was the heart of city life for almost three centuries.  From this point on Fourviere hill, you get an incredible view of the city of Lyon below.

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Once you reach the top of the ruins, you are a short walk away from the Fourviere Basilica.

When travelling in Europe, there are also a lot of churches.  You kind of get a bit blaise, thinking oh great, another church.  wow.  And, although it’s beautiful from the outside, like most other incredible churches, you could be forgiven for thinking this was yet another one of those churches, snap a photo and walk on by.

But then you make the choice to go inside…

…and it makes you so glad you didn’t dismiss it.  Fourviere was built between 1872 and 1884 on the site of what was once the Roman Forum of Trajan.  The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary who is attributed to the salvation of the city from the plague that swept Europe in the 1600’s and sits on the hill keeping watch over the city of Lyon and her people to this day.

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Lyon – City of Food

From Gare de Lyon, Paris, we board a train to Lyon, only a couple of hours away.  We are travelling by TGV or ‘train a grande vitesse’, which simply means…very fast train.  And that it is, there’s barely any time to grab a coffee from the food cart before you arrive at Lyon Part Dieu Station.

Lyon is a lovely city with clean, cobble-stoned streets, wide squares and beautiful period buildings.  It’s a very different feel from Paris, and for us, a most welcome change.

We are staying at another Citadines in Lyon and we are looking forward to cooking with some great local produce.  Which is exactly what we do the morning after we arrive.  The Marche Quai Saint-Antoine (Saint-Antoine Quay Market) occupies the banks of the Saone every day of the week, except Mondays, from early in the morning until around midday.  There’s an array of great provincial goods – sausages, cheeses, fruits and vegetables, flowers, breads, olives – all sorts.  And it’s such a lovely way to start the morning and practice a bit of French!  We stocked up on chicken, potatoes, salad greens, tomatoes, eggs, the most beautiful strawberries, cheese, a fresh loaf of bread and a sausage (mushroom flavoured).

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With that crusty fresh bread, we just had a very simple breakfast of bread with butter, but for lunch, we made a gorgeous ploughman’s style meal and it tasted amazing!

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Lyon built on a narrow peninsula flanked by the Saone and Rhone Rivers and the point at which these two rivers meet is called La Confluence.  At this exact point a set of train tracks head into the water.    The rails were once used by the Mulatiere’s dam lock in the 1950’s.  There was a workshop at the tip of the peninsula where rolling stock and maintenance equipment were kept and the rails transported tip trucks from the workshop to the dam.

La Confluence has always been the seedy part of town – home to prisons, slaughterhouses and the city’s red light district.  Recent redevelopment has occurred and this area once considered to be a wasteland is starting to flourish.  New museums (Musee des Confluences), the green and orange cubes (orange is the headquarters of a real estate developer and contemporary furniture showroom), the green is home to Euronews).

We see all of this on our free Lyon City Cruise of both the Rhone and Saone Rivers (which was free thanks to our Lyon City Card).

Mr Monet’s Incredible Garden

Day trips out of the city are a great way to go.  I’m not feeling so much in love with Paris as everyone else seems to – it’s such a huge city, dirty and smelly and full of cigarette smoke  a bit impersonal (except for yesterday when I managed to ask for a glass of white wine in French which delighted the waiter no end and for which he rewarded me with a massive smile).  So I’m glad that we are catching the train from Gare Saint Lazare to Vernon so we can visit Giverny – home to the gardens of Claude Monet.

Once we arrive in Vernon, we bypass the other train passengers, most of which are also visiting Giverny and heading for the Giverny shuttle bus, to the only waiting taxi.  As a result we arrive quite before everyone else and are third in the queue for entry.  Entering the grounds, we skirt around the back and make straight for the water lily pond (this way you can get some great photos without 70 million people in the background and enjoy the tranquility of the gardens!).  The pond was part of a Japanese Garden created by Claude, no doubt inspired by his love of Japanese wood block prints.

Claude Monet was the French Impressionist painter perhaps most well known for his painting ‘Water Lillies’.  Growing up I had a quilt on my bed fashioned after this painting, though cheaply purchased from Kmart or some other department store for a song.  The painting was taken from his water lily garden (photographed below).  I have always loved the beautiful pastel colours, soft blues, greens, pinks and mauves, a shimmering reflection of a pond covered in beautiful water plants.

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There’s a calmness to his paintings, like sitting in a park by yourself on a warm sunny day reading, the same kind of feeling that you get by strolling through his gardens.

Giverny in Spring is simply stunning.  There are tulips, ranunculus, daffodils, pansies, violas and beautiful flowering cherry trees.  They are arranged in plots, colours mixed brilliantly, but not so perfectly planted that it feels forced.

There are several areas to explore in the garden – the Japanese Garden, which I mentioned above and the Clois Normand (the Normandy garden) which sits in front of his beautiful salmon pink home, decorated with its bright green shutters.

And of course you can visit the brightly coloured interior of the Monet home.

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For lunch we stopped in at the local hotel restaurant and fed ourselves up with buckwheat crepes, whilst overlooking the gorgeous valleys surrounding Giverny and then caught a little train bus back to the centre of Vernon.

Macarons with Marie Antoinette

The Palace of Versailles (once the home of King Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette) is on the agenda for today and we are doing it the easy way by getting someone to pick us up, take us and drop us back (France Tourisme).  We had booked another Versailles Day Trip, which luckily for us got cancelled because while searching for a new tour, we realised that most tours don’t actually take in Marie Antoinette’s grounds!  Being a fan of the modern-take movie Marie Antoinette, starring Kirsten Dunst as Marie, and having seen them in the movie, I would have been sorry to have missed them.

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The journey takes about 45 minutes, not long by the time you finish winding your way through the streets of Paris.  And then you arrive, along with 100 other tour coaches and line up to get inside, bags checked on the way in.  Even without going inside, you can tell the grounds are absolutely massive.  In fact they once took up 7,800 hectares, but today it sits on just 800.

Married at the age of 15 to cement the relationship between Austria and France, Queen at the age of 19, Marie became known for her extravagant lifestyle.  Elaborate wigs, designer shoes, over the top gowns and not to mention the fabulous parties – she was the ‘It Girl’ of her day.

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Marie was nicknamed “Madam Deficit”.  The people of France blamed her for the country’s financial crisis.  She was a foreigner and if that wasn’t enough, her spending on elaborate costumes, gambling parties and affairs set tongues wagging.

Walking through the Palace, I’m not surprised the people were angry at the Royals.  It’s full of highly decorated ceilings, windows and furnishings – marble and gold trimming at every turn – and absolutely magnificently huge!

By far the most stunning part of the Palace for me, is the Hall of Mirrors.  The Hall of Mirrors (all 73 metres of it) was the passageway between the King and Queen’s quarters and was used for large receptions, royal weddings and ambassadorial presentations.

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The Storming of Versailles, also known as ‘The Women’s March’ signified the beginning of the end of Marie and Louis – the catalyst was the general shortage and high prices of bread (just so you know – Marie apparently never uttered the famous words ‘let them eat cake’, it was those nasty tabloids that made up the story).

About 2,000 women gathered at the market place on 5 October 1789 and formed a march on the royal palace.  The woman wanted to demand bread from the sovereign and walked 21km to Versailles in the pouring rain to do so.  Along the way, they were joined by women from different market places, armed with kitchen tools such as blades.  By the time they reached the outskirts of Paris ,the crowd had grown to almost 10,000 people with many man also having joined the march.

The National Guard tried to stop the march, but abandoned the task when it was discovered that most of the guardsmen supported the rioters and began to threaten desertion.  Instead, a messenger was dispatched to Versailles to warn the king.

The crowd was pretty angry by the time they reached Versailles 6 hours later, shouting out obscenities at Marie Anoinette.  They were met by members of the Assembly who invited them into a nearby hall.  A few of the women were invited to meet with the King and it was agreed that food from the royal stores would be distributed with more to follow.  Some of the women returned to Paris but a lot remained, and the atmosphere became hostile.

A small group of rioters discovered an unguarded palace entrance in the early hours of the next morning and came inside looking for the Queen’s bedchamber.  The palace guards panicked and fired at the crowd killing a young man, which caused the rest of the rioters to storm the palace.  One guard managed to alert Marie Antoinette about the encroaching crowd and she managed to escape through the secret door of her bedchamber.

The crowds were eventually calmed and the king made an appearance to the crowd, proclaiming his intention to travel back to Paris.  He returned inside the castle with the crowd demanding that Marie appear on the balcony.  She did so, and the crowd was impressed by her dignified appearance as she appeared with her arms crossed over her chest.

That afternoon a cortege escorted the royal family to Paris – there were now 60,000 in the crowd and they followed alongside the carriages, singing, surrounding the imprisoned royal family.  They never returned to Versailles and within three years, they were both dead.

Speaking of cake, there is a Laduree shop on the ground floor of the Palace (seller of the world’s best macarons), so we buy a small box to snack on – because Marie would have.

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After exploring the Palace, you can board les petits train to the other side of the grounds where you can find the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon.

Le Petit Trianon was a fairy tale village built for Marie at Versailles.  It was given to Marie by Louis with the words ‘Since you love flowers, I am giving you the entire bouquet‘.  It ncluded a hamlet with lakes, gardens, cottages, watermills and a farmhouse and it was her escape from the everyday protocols of the Palace.  The queen and her ladies-in-waiting dressed as peasants and pretended to be milkmaids and shepherdesses, whilst peasants in villages throughout France starved.

Lunch is taken outside the grounds of the Grand Trianon – which was the retreat of the King.  Although nothing as grand as what would ever have been served on these grounds, we very much enjoyed our Indian Curry Baked Potatoes from the Potato Man (La Parmentier de Versailles).

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The Grand Trianon is a palace of pink marble and was as full to the brim of excess and pomp as the Palace.

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It’s certainly worth spending the whole day here as there is a lot to do – down by the Grand Canal you can even take a rowboat ride – there is cycle hire, segway tours and loads of places to eat.  And of course, if the weather is beautiful, just sit and enjoy the magnificent gardens.

Exploration Day in Paris

The area of Montmartre is quite an arty little centre, though these days it’s more likely filled with artists trying to convince you to sit for a caricature of yourself.  Back in the good old days it was frequented by the likes of Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh and Dali.

From the beginning, Montmartre (mountain of martyrs) was a place of worship.  It’s no surprise then that at its peak sits the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris – better known as the Sacre Couer.  We have a beautiful view of it from our apartment window, but today we are making the hike up the hill to see it up close.

As we are staying in a street not far from the base, there are two ways to get to the top – the stairs (oh my god so many stairs) or the windy, more gentle pathway.  We opt for the pathway and begin our descent.  It’s good to be out and about early because it means that the grounds surrounding the Sacre Coeur and also the inside are really quiet.

You can’t take photos inside the Sacre Coeur for obvious reasons, but it’s worth a look.  Inside, apart from the main altar, there are a number of smaller altars in coves around the perimeter of the church.  The domed ceiling is covered in brilliant paintings and the stained glass windows are nice.  I can’t help comparing it to the incredible La Sagrada Familia and thinking how amazing it was for Gaudi to create such a beautiful light and colour filled temple of worship, where the Sacre Coeur is quite a dark, sombre affair inside.

Once finished at the Sacre Coeur, we jump on the funicular down the hill to catch the L’Open Tour bus so we can tick off a few more of the sights of Paris.  On the way down though is the mots beautiful carousel – not working while I was there because  would have LOVED a ride.

It must be noted that Paris is a massive city and any time you go into the centre, there is traffic chaos.  I can’t see any rhyme or reason to how the Parisians drive – there are no lines on the road and it appears that you just drive anywhere you feel, sometimes minding the crosswalks and other traffic.

Our first stop on the bus is nearby to a street named Rue Cambon.  This street was home to the first boutique of none other than Coco Chanel.

Born Gabrielle Chanel in 1883 and raised in poverty after losing her mother and being abandoned by her father, she endured a lonely childhood in an orphanage in rural France.  Showed a natural flair for needlework and worked in a local draper’s store.

Coco also spent time as a singer and it’s believed this is where her nickname ‘Coco’ came from – two popular songs she used to sing ‘Qui qu’a vu Coco’ and ‘Ko Ko Ri Ko’.

She mixed in well to do circles, having affairs with textile heir Etienne Balsan (with whose help she set up her first business – she began her millinery business out of the ground floor of his apartment – and Arthur Capel – with a loan from which she started her millinery business.  From hats, she moved onto to clothing producing high-end leisure wear, including a one-piece swimming costume that came halfway down her thigh! Scandalous for the time!

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In 1918, she bought the entire building at 31 Rue Cambon, making it into an emporium of clothes, hats, accessories, make-up, beauty products, jewellery and fragrance.  The shop was opened with a spritz of Chanel No. 5 throughout the salon and changerooms each morning.

Despite having an apartment and design studio in the building, she slept across the road at the Hotel Ritz. Here she entertained the likes of Salvador Dali, Elizabeth Taylor and Pablo Picasso.

Coco never produced a ready to wear collection, but she changed the way women dressed forever.  She was the first to design women’s trousers, bought black from mourning dress to evening wear and introduced the use of jersey into luxury dress.  She created the dress we all know as ‘the little black dress’ in 1926 – the first version featured a round neckline, long sleeves and a skirt just below the knees.

“Chanel had the vision to turn black into a symbol of independence, freedom and strength for women.” Megan Hess.

Her signature style was tweed fabric, monochrome colours, gold chains, quilted leather and the interlocking C logo, and she was one of the first designers to capture the potential of advertising.

Coco had many famous clients – Jackie Kennedy made the tweed suit iconic in the 1960’s, but other clients included Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and of course Marilyn Monroe, who turned Coco’s Chanel No. 5 perfume into a ‘twentieth century obsession when she famously responded to the question ‘what do you wear to bed?’ with ‘just a few drops of Chanel No. 5’.

Passing away in 1971, the house of Chanel continues today under the leadership of Karl Lagerfeld, who has been at the helm since 1983.

Coco’s favourite café was ‘Angelina’, not far away from her shop in Rue de Rivoli, and she always sat at table 10 next to one of the mirrors.  Sounds like a perfect place to stop in for a cup of their famous hot chocolate!

The hot chocolate comes in a jug that you pour into  your tea cup, along with a small cup of cream, but in my opinion, not even the cream is enough to cut through the richness of the hot chocolate.  It is THAT rich.

Notre Dame cathedral is over 800 years old, dating from 1163.  Monstrous gargoyles watch over the church from the ballustrades.  Stained glass windows depict scenes from the New and Old Testament of the Bible.  A horrible smell invades the pavement below – I don’t know what it is – years of spit and urine? – but it’s off-putting enough to make me not wan to go inside.

We move on.

In Gare de Lyon, there is the most incredible restaurant you can imagine.  Recently having undergone a bit of a spruce up, you can’t miss it if you have the time.  It’s called Le Train Bleu and it sits right above the train lines, though you wouldn’t know it by the elegant surroundings once you step inside the rotating door.

We were full from that hot chocolate and dessert at Angelina, but forced ourselves to have a proper lunch here and at least sit for a while and experience France, so we ordered a round of club sandwiches and minced duck with potatoes.

Definitely worth the visit even if you just go into the bar for a drink to admire the building.

Last up for the day is the Eiffel tower.  Built in 1891, the Eiffel Tower was designed by Gustav Eiffel.  It is 340m high and is made of lattice wrought iron and it’s freezing cold at the top.

Down below, African men sell replica Eiffel Towers that hang on hug rings – illegally I assume, as they all make a run for it when the cops are spied.  It’s actually really annoying because they keep at you even if it’s clear you have no wallet on you!   It does ruin the atmosphere a little with tourists swatting them away left, right and centre.  Mum says they weren’t here like this when she had visited a year or so ago.

The view from the top is undeniably the best in the city, but I am ill prepared for the cold that has settled in and the chill that is rattling my bones – I just wanna take a quick snap and get outta here, but there are queues.  Queues everywhere.

We finally reach the bottom and luckily a cab is waiting right out front and we go straight home, ready to rest our weary heads and ready ourselves for another day of sights in this massive city.