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!

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.

A higgledy piggledy lucky day

I’m standing in line at Lisbon airport, rather sad to be leaving this beautiful city.  Blip, blip, blip…goes the scanner as it registers the boarding passes of those standing before me.  Bah, bah, bah goes mine.  Oh crap – what’s happened?  Why is my ticket going bah, bah, bah instead of blip?  Have they found something in my luggage they don’t like?  Have they oversold the flight and we have to stay?  Oh, you have an upgrade to business class Mrs Keller! (there’s no Miss to be selected on the TAP Portugal website – maybe ‘misses’ don’t fly?).  It takes a moment to register.  Really? I ask, not quite believing that this could be happening to me. Does that include my Mum’s seat?  I ask while the steward checks her ticket also.  Yes, it does.  Don’t get too excited Mum, remember the business class on the last flight still had three seats across and the meal on that flight was only half a sandwich.  This flight is around the same amount off time, so it’s probably just like that but we’ll have a little more leg room.

We bus out to where the plane is standing on the tarmac and climb up the steps.  Yes business class does in fact still have three seats across, but we are lucky that the row of seats we are both seated on (me on one side and Mum on the other aisle seat) has only two persons across the three seats.  While I’m dining on my meal of salt cod confit and green salad, ricotta bauletti with bechamel sauce and pistachio and chestnut pudding with anise-flavoured yogurt cream (more than just a sandwich you’ll note!), I sip my sparkling wine and think, yeah this is the life.  This never happens to me and I’m so glad Mum got to share in the excitement, grinning happily to herself, pleased as punch with the experience.  We also managed to score two little bottles of vinegrette to add to our collection of cooking condiments!!

Touching down in Paris, we arrive into Orly airport and after waiting a stupid amount of time for our luggage, try to find out way to the shuttle bus service (Super Shuttle).  Wrong location, wrong floor – what a schemozzle, but we eventually find our driver, well at least his van, and start chatting to a gentleman also standing by the van.   We’re not really clear who this guy is, but we chat back giving him our details thinking he is with the shuttle company.  No, he’s not.  Just another passenger, but our driver is found and we are soon on our way.

Unfortunately today is a) the end of student study break b) a day of strikes in the centre of Paris and c) a beautiful day, which means EVERYONE is on the road in their cars and it takes forever to get where we need to go.  Our new friend chats to us about this and that – he has been in Corsica for the last week, but hears the weather has been great the last couple of days in Paris.  Upon exiting the van, he hands us his business card and tells us to call him if we have any problems.

Back on the road it’s just after 8pm when we reach Villa Montmartre, our home for the next four nights.  Next problem – they close at 7pm.  Our driver calls the owner and we have a quick chat.  He’s in the centre of Paris, but tells us to wait because he’ll be 20-30 minutes away.  When he arrives he is very apologetic that his staff never bothered to follow up our contact details.  He notices my Pasteis de Belem bag and says proudly he is from Lisbon!  He shows us how to use the after hours access and is excited to show us two surprises.  The first is they have upgraded our room so we now have a bedroom and a pull out sofa in the living room of the apartment (YES!  No more listening to Mum snore for the next four nights) and the second is that we have a beautiful balcony with a great view not only of the streets of Paris and its setting sun, but the beautiful Sacre Couer.

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Wow, what a day.  All we manage to explore tonight is the lift (tiny, think two persons max and you have to do a funny jump after the doors close to get it to go up) and the bar across the road.  Can’t wait to see what tomorrow holds, but for now, I’m heading off to bed on my sofa bed looking out at the Sacre Couer.