March 2018: A Much Needed Tropical Trip

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I decided in January that I was overdue for a tropical vacation, and after one of the snowiest, coldest winters I have experienced in my entire life in Calgary, I needed OUT!

I decided to try somewhere new for a seven-day escape.

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t too difficult to convince my mom to join me. 🙂

Our route to Belize from Calgary made for a long day; three flights, three airlines, and an arrival 12 hours after first take off. We left for the airport at 3:30am, and were on the plane at 6:00am headed for Texas. From Houston we flew to Belize City. From there we walked to the local airline and flew 45 minutes (with one stopover) to arrive at the south end of the Belizean peninsula: Placencia.

We stepped off the plane along with one other gentleman who was greeted by a big enthusiastic group of American ex-pats. My mum said “well, you folks seem like a lot of fun! Can we come home with you?” to which one gentleman replied “Sure! Welcome to Belize! Wanna beer?” and preceeded to walk straight over to his golf cart and crack two Belekin Beers and hand them to us without waiting for a reply.

He introduced himself as Eugene, and he and his wife own the Pickled Parrot in Placencia, a bar ‘with the best burgers in town’! He invited us to the bar that evening for dinner and live music by a buddy of his visiting from the U.S.

We arrived at the Serenade Hotel and met the hotel manager Anna, who became our go-to lady for all things local. She showed us to our room that came complete with microwave, mini fridge, and air conditioner. The A/C was quite the pleasant surprise as in previous vacations we were used to having only a ceiling fan (if we were lucky).

The humidity and warm evening was perfect for a little exploring, and after spraying our ankles with Deep Woods Off (in perhaps a too-optimistic, attempted defense of the inevitable sand-flea bites), we took off down the boardwalk behind the hotel. This pathway is poured concrete faux-finished to look like wood, and goes all through Placencia to the south end at the pier.

Lots of local artists carve conch shells, calabash and coconut shells, and natural wood into jewelry, serving dishes, and beautiful art.

The forecast here was 28 degrees celcius. Every day. (The LOW was 23 or 24 degrees.) Magical. We never needed a sweater in the evening and the days were sunny at best and partially cloudy at ‘worst’- in the way you actually don’t mind when a few clouds roll over and give you a little reprieve from the heat.

We found the Pickled Parrot and were welcomed first by Eugene’s two dogs and later a cat as we found a seat at a picnic table on the side of the bar. This place was busy! We had our first pina coladas of the trip and ordered burgers, fries, and onion rings.

The Belizean dollar is worth half the American Dollar, so our original thought of a $20 burger being a bit pricey turned into the realization that it was closer to $12 CAD which was totally reasonable. The Pickled Parrot is cash only, and we were told that it is pretty common for places in town to only accept cash (both American and Belizean currency.)

The music was great, the burgers were excellent, and Eugene made us feel very welcome, introducing us to some regulars sitting nearby who quickly gave us the rundown of must-see and must-do things for our week on the peninsula.

We were walking back to our hotel when the sound of drumming pulled us further up the boardwalk and we found ourselves at the Tipsy Tuna and a performance of drumming that we later learned was Garifuna (also spelled Garafina) traditional music, and dancing. It was mostly kids, dressed in traditional Garifuna costume, and tourists and locals were enjoying the rhythm on the dance floor. Although we were too tired to join in, we couldn’t help but bounce along to the music. This is a weekly event at the Tipsy Tuna, so we felt fortunate to catch it on our first night in town.

One of the things we always love about the Caribbean is that the sound of the waves and the wind in the palm trees feel like they immediately lower our heart rates. ❤️

We also noticed that over the week we were there, our walking pace definitely slowed.

Plancencia has some of the nicest people I have met in the Caribbean, and people always said hello and good morning and good night as you passed on the boardwalk or on the main road. It felt even safer than Nassau!

Our first morning found us over at a tiny little building that was no more than a counter that seats about 5 people, a stove with two burners, a sink , and a fridge. And the best burritos I have ever had for $4 each! Anna told us they had the best fresh juice in town, and we ordered orange and watermelon to go with our breakfast. (This was another place that only took cash- and exact change only!)

We were anxious to get to the beach, and as we were told the ocean side of the peninsula was too hard to swim at due to all the seaweed, we headed down to the south end next to the pier and found a good patch of sand to throw down our towels and summer dresses and we leapt into the water.

To give you an idea of the ocean here, these are views of the Belizeans shoreline from the tiny plane we took to and from Placencia.

I’m pretty sure the ocean around Belize is more shallow for further out than anywhere I have been in the Caribbean, and the temperature reflected that. It was practically warm! We were slightly constrained as to how far out we could swim as the boats coming in and out of the harbor are constant (and the harbor master on the pier will yell at you, we quickly learned!).

There wasn’t much to see using our snorkels in this spot, but we had been assured by Anna that the real beautiful water and snorkeling was out off the mainland at reefs. It requires the hiring of a boat, and she knew just who to call. She phoned her friend Rudy as we chatted with her at the hotel and told him “Get over here right away! I know I know, but you are only five minutes away, so you can spare a little time to come and talk to these ladies!”

Rudy and Rudy Jr. arrived and we were informed that Rudy Jr is a certified boat operator who can take us out for either a half-day or full-day excursion. We opted for a full day trip which would include lunch and a stop on an island that had a natural pool and hammocks. We booked for the next day.

Rudy & Rudy Jr.

After a full lazy afternoon of sunbathing and swimming in looped repetition, we decided to try the Tipsy Tuna for dinner, and ordered wings and conch fritters and iced tea. We shared a big table with a couple from Lake Tahoe who were quick to chat us up and tell us about their road trip adventures exploring Belize and Venezuela over the past 12 days; this was the end of their trip. Theresa and Joey had two days in Placencia, and were considering taking a boat out to go snorkeling, so we suggested they join us the next day, hoping our guides would have room for two more.

Friday morning we got all our snorkeling gear together (yes, we bring our own snorkeling gear) and headed to the meeting spot for our day on the water. Our plans were quickly kai-boshed as the wind was strong that day and the ocean was choppy with white caps. We all agreed that the 30-minute ride out would be too rough and likely the water cloudy from all the waves, so we post-poned until Monday, as the Rudy’s were already booked Saturday and Sunday.

We decided to have another lazy beach day, and wandered along the main street and stopped into the Above Grounds coffee shop – which truly felt like a treehouse – and was a perfect spot to have an iced latte and enjoy the breeze. (They also make delicious baked goods and sell local coffee you can take home as a souvenir.)

Most of the houses in Placencia are on stilts, and we learned that the reasoning behind this was three-fold:

1) The higher you go, the better ocean breeze you get, and since most people cannot afford air conditioning, opening windows and letting the wind blow through was the best way to stay cool.

2) When they get sudden heavy rainstorms there is often flooding, so having your home off the ground means less damage/stress when this happens several times a year.

3) Sand fleas (or ‘no-see-ums’) and other bugs are only active a few feet off the ground so to be a floor above them makes it easier to avoid bug bites.

Friday night we went to Nic’s Restaurant, another recommended spot. We arrived to a pretty full, tiny wrap-around porch where we took a seat at a small table so close to the couple next to us we joked we were joining them for dinner. We ended up ordering a Greek Pizza and Caesar salad to share, and learned that our almost-table-mates ordered a similar meal; they got a Cobb salad and a Belezean Pizza (think: Hawaiian pizza with jalapeno peppers and red onions).

Pete and Sandy were from Missouri and were back in Belize after 12 years, and had just spent one week on a sailboat cruise swimming and snorkeling out along the islands and reefs off the Belizean coast. They were lovely company and we had a great time getting to know them as we ate our respective meals, and then ended up exchanging pizza slices! How often do you share/swap your meal with people at another table?! The magic of Belize. 🙂

We had been told about Taste Belize Tours  and as soon as we saw “Chocolate Waterfall Tour”, we knew what our Saturday plans were. Our tour guide/tour company owner was Lyra, a born-and-raised Belizean who was raised on a cacao farm outside Toledo Belize, and had gone to university in the US to get her doctorate in Anthropology and Food Studies. She was full of information about Belize’s history, the various cultural influences, the indigenous people, and I was lucky enough to sit in the front seat (or, alternatively, be unlucky enough to have the worst motion sickness in the group). There were 12 of us total; my mum and I, a couple from Ontario, and two American couples who were on vacation together with their 3 kids.

It was a two-hour drive to the chocolate farm and along the way we drove past more and less touristy areas, through the a Garifuna town of Barranco- the birthplace of the most famous Belizean musician Andy Palacio. We went past many tiny villages, saw several banana plantations, and drove past large sections of land that are currently being developed into resorts. There is a big boom in real estate in Belize right now, in Placencia specifically.

We also drove through the tropical part of Belize and then suddenly, like a switch had been hit, we were driving through a savanah with dry grasses and tropical pine trees. Apparently the soil quality changes over a few meters to make this huge environment change. And we also found out that we were visiting in the dry season, which meant that many plants were blooming that don’t normally have flowers, like the “Buttercup Flower” tree.

We were greeted at the Ixcacao Farm by Juan, who owns the land and factory with his wife, Abalina.

Juan showed us the cacao tree and we learned about the process of growing cacao in Belize, and things like how succeptible the cacao plants are to disease and fungus, how they require mixed sunlight and shade to prorperly mature and thrive, and how, like coffee and grapes used for wine, the soil and area and local plants influence the final flavor of the cacao.

Two varieties of cacao plants:

Also growing on their property were the calabash tree, which has these beautiful round fruits that are the traditional container (the shell is cut in half and dried) to drink hot chocolate. We also saw these shells carved and decorated as souvenirs you could purchase at various places in Belize.

We went upstairs to a beautiful patio and sat down to try traditional Mayan hot chocolate. When it was poured, it looked like a cloudy caramel-coloured coffee.

There is no milk or cream products in any traditional mayan chocolate, so the ingredients that make up hot chocolate is ground cacao nibs and hot water. It was slightly bitter and tasted like a watered down version of a dark chocolate hot drink without any sugar.

We were instructed to add a tiny pinch of crushed chili powder. Contrary to popular belief, the idea of ‘chili hot chocolate’ that I have known previously, the point is not to make the drink spicy. There is a reaction in the chemical compounds between chilis and cacao that cuts the bitterness so the cacao flavor can be deeper. It was remarkable.

After that we added a tiny bit of cinnamon; this is another ‘classic’ addition to Mayan hot chocolate but is also not traditional, as cinnamon is not naturally found in central American and was introduced by Indian/Middle Eastern influences.

Lastly we were offered sugar to add but we didn’t feel like it needed it.

Juan then opened up a cacao pod to show us the wet seeds and then took us step by step through the entire process of making chocolate.

He let us try the wet seeds straight from the pod and the exterior was a soft, slightly stringy, and sweet coating that tasted somewhat like soursop, or sort of a combo of sweet melon, citrus, and pineapple. And if you bit right through the cacao seed it was bright purple and had not even a hint of chocolate flavor!

They harvest the pods by hand, cut them open and scoop out the wet seeds, letting the sugars in the juice of the pulp ferment, and then they take that liquid to make chocolate liquer, and dry and then roast the remaining seeds.

Dried and roasted seeds:

We were given the roasted seeds and asked to shell them to collect caco nibs that we would then grind to make our own chocolate.

Shelled cacao nibs:

The two granite pieces on the table in front of us were over 150 years old and had matching granite grinding stones that they had used before the factory acquired machinery that could grind large quantities of beans 24 hours a day and increase their output exponentially. (We were informed that 32 cacao beans are required to make one ounce of chocolate. No wonder high quality chocolate is expensive!)

We got a chance to grind the cacao seeds ourselves, and it is hard work! Lyra told us that Abalina ground all the cacao seeds by hand for the first 5 years they owned this farm, which is one of the reasons she is called The Chocolate Queen. (She must have amazing biceps!)

Juan finished grinding the chocolate at a speed that made it look like his arms would fall off, and the emulsification of the cacao seeds and the cacao butter in them was so creamy, it almost looked like it could be scooped up and dropped in a swirl like thick Nutella icing.

We got to try samples of the many kinds of finished chocolate they produced, including orange, ginger, coconut, sea salt, cardamom, and milk chocolate.

We learned about the European discovery of adding powdered milk to chocolate to make it creamier, but that other stabilizing ingredients have to be added when milk is added, which is why the percentage of cacao drops so significantly when it is processed into chocolate products. (And how a Hershey or Nestle milk ‘chocolate’ bar contains less than 10% actual chocolate; artificial flavor and colour has to be added because the finished product no longer tastes or looks like chocolate!)

And then there was the lunch that was included with the tour. This was definitely one of the highlights of our vacation!!

Lunch was created by none other that Abalina; the Chocolate Queen herself. It was a phenomenal spread of the best food we had the entire trip, including chocolate chicken, hearts of palm, cooked greens, beans, tortillas, zucchini and squash, coconut rice, and fried plantain.

As we were leaving we heard a little tune playing on repeat and slowly getting louder. The source of it turned out to be a small truck that was driving by. My mom joked “it’s the local ice-cream truck” and we all chuckled because it had a similar sound. Lyra then looked over at the truck and said “Yes it is, actually!”

We could see a bunch of coolers in the bed of the truck as it went past, and she told us that many of the people in rural Belize do not have refrigeration so this man drives through all the villages and sells ice cream!

On the way back to Placencia, Lyra stopped on the side of the road and introduced us to a group of women who sold palm leaf woven products like baskets and trivets and art. They were kind enough to show us their kitchen where they were making green corn soup and smoking/drying chilis.

A few details-

Drying chilis:

Most rural buildings have these palm-branch roofs:

We loved the way this hinge had been attached to their shutter:

Baskets and trivets and placemats:

These girls were shy to talk to me but were happy to pose for a picture.

On to the waterfall!!

The Coxcomb Ridge is the largest collection of foothills through Belize and we drove up the side of the ridge to spend the afternoon on a private property at a set of three gorgeous jungle waterfalls.

You turn off the main road at the fake Mayan pyramid along the main highway, and you find yourself at a small gate where a man who doesn’t speak a word of English meets you and you hand him $20 per person and he will open the gate so you can drive up to the waterfall.

The Maya King Waterfall:

We drove through a rain storm on the way to the farm, another downfall happened while we were having lunch, but by the time we arrived at the waterfall the weather was perfect and we proceeded to swim in all three pools, sit under the waterfalls, and even try out the natural stone slide in the lower pool area.

Have you heard of the trend at some Asian spas where you can pay for a fish pedicure; tiny fish nibble off the dead skin from your feet? Well in the pools of this waterfall, you get that for free! #notjoking

We got back to the hotel just in time to change for dinner, as we met our Lake Tahoe friends at RumFish at 6pm! Both Mum and I couldn’t resist the special; sesame crusted tuna that had been caught that day! It was absolutely delicious, and we paired it with watermelon mojitos. Dessert was key lime pie and banana crème brulee.

Sunday morning we got a surprise phone call from the Rudys and were told that their day had opened up and the weather was PERFECT for snorkeling, so we dropped our plans to explore up the peninsula and the recommended Turtle Bay beach and Restaurant, and loaded up to take a boat out for the day.

We stopped at three different locations out on the reef, and Rudy Jr let me try my hand at spear-gun fishing. 😁😳

He and his dad went fishing while my mom and I explored the reefs and discovered jellyfish, many varieties of Parrot fish, Angel fish, grouper, conch, and even a couple of medium-sized Nurse Sharks sleeping in a cave of coral!

We arrived at Lark Cay and pulled up to this sweet island with a man-made natural pool on one side, hammocks, and a perfect place to lie in the sun and dry off.

You can actually rent a cabin on this island for $20 USD a night!

The Rudys had caught a grouper, a snapper, a jack fish, a pompineau, and conch for lunch, and proceeded to fillet and cook them up with okra, purple yams, plantain, tomatoes, pineapple, potatoes, shallots, and cilantro in a coconut and spiced broth. We drank water from coconuts they cut down for us while we waited for lunch, enjoyed some iced fruit punch, and then ate this amazing lunch. We even got to take home the leftovers for dinner that night!

By the time we took the boat back the wind had picked up and the water was choppier, so it was perfect timing to head home and apply after-sun aloe vera lotion….

Note to self for next time, bring way more sunscreen, and make sure it is waterproof! We were two cooked Canadians after that day.

Sunday night we stopped for dessert at the gelato place and heard amazing jazz music coming from Chachi’s, the bar upstairs. We made our way up there and got to watch the last hour of a phenomenal 8-piece band jamming out. Soprano and alto sax, flute, 2 guitars, piano, bass, and drums. It was phenomenal! We ended up meeting one of the owners of the bar on our last night there as he and a buddy practiced in the open area downstairs for a gig they had later that week. A couple of music majors from the US decided to come to Placencia, open a pizza restaurant that had a good space for live music.

Monday we enjoyed a shady beach day. Swimming in the salt water felt good on our more-than-sunkissed skin, but we hid under palm trees for most of the day, chasing the shadows as they inched over.

Tuesday we were brave enough to venture out in the sun again and for our last day we decided that some kayaking was in order. The ocean side of the peninsula was a bit rough when we went to pick up the kayak from the handsome Frenchman who ran Awesome Adventures rentals on the beach, so he suggested we start on the lagoon side (a 5 minute walk across the road to the other side of the peninsula).

We slathered on the last of our sunscreen and set about exploring the lagoon side of Placencia. A quieter side, there were properties on either side of us, as many long islands are inhabited in the lagoon. Sorry, no photos until the second half of the afternoon; we were too busy kayaking. 🙂

The water’s edge wherever it is left wild is like what I imagine mangroves to be. Viny roots with big tough leaves bend in and out of the water, and we moved out to the south end and into the open ocean water quite easily.

We pulled our kayak up on the shore at the pier and went for a swim before heading back around to the ocean side to complete our loop.


As we came into shore I realized our mistake in not returning to the lagoon. As I mentioned before, the west shoreline is covered in thick seaweed which makes it less than ideal for swimming, but it also happened to be covered in plastic garbage. Pop bottle and water bottle lids, straws, plastic juice containers and broken pieces of every colour man-made garbage you can imagine. We were told that “it is not normally like this”; apparently a recent flash flood in Guatemala washed all their garbage into their rivers and therefore into the ocean. It made my heart hurt to see this, as I have never seen such litter on such a grand scale, especially in such a beautiful, natural place.

(I took these photos later that day, when the waves weren’t as high and most of the garbage was held against the shore by the seaweed.)

We had an audience as we paddled up to the shoreline as a group of volunteers had just arrived that day to clean up the shoreline. As my mom stepped out of the kayak I realized what was coming and braced myself for the incoming wave. Let me tell you, there was a collective gasp and grimace on all the faces of the volunteers as garbage and seaweed washed up my shirt and across my back, not once, but twice before I could step out of the kayak properly. If that doesn’t make one seriously consider changing their plastic consumption, I’m not sure what else will. Imagining the wildlife affected and how this isn’t even the worst situation that exists in the world, it just makes my heart hurt.

After rinsing off (!) and some lunch, we took some fresh pineapple and made ourselves pina coladas, and headed to the beach at the pier for a final afternoon of swimming and sunning.

Our last treat that afternoon was finally trying Bakerman John’s famous cinnamon buns! Delicious.

When we walked by the “garbaged beach” later that night we saw bags piled and only seaweed along the water’s edge.

Our last dinner was pizza at Chachi’s, and a shot of homemade bitters with the owners! We then got to hang out while 2 of them practiced for a gig later that week. One played the cajon (box drum), and the other, a Charinga; a Peruvian ukulele! It was a perfect way to relax on our last night in this totally chill place.

The flight on the tiny plane to Belize City gave us great departing views of this tropical place.

So long Placencia!

Stopover adventures in Belgium!

A day in Brussels! Huzzah!

Well, an afternoon, to be more precise.

4 hours in Brussels! Huzzah! 😄


When I found out I had a long layover in Brussels I asked friends for advice on how to spend the time. I was given a list of must-sees/dos in the city, and I decided I would see what I could accomplish in an afternoon.


I couldn’t very well just hang out in the Brussels airport for 5 hours straight when I’ve never been to the city of Brussels before, now could I?

To make sure I wasn’t being crazy reckless leaving the airport, I asked the Brussels-Air staff at the information desk what time I needed to be back for my connecting flight from Brussels to Olbia, Sardinia. I had almost exactly 5 hours between landing and takeoff, and they said that I shouldn’t catch the train back any later than 5:00pm for my 6:10pm flight.
It was a simple purchases of a return train ticket costing about €15 (cheaper than a ticket one-way to the Lyon airport from Gare Part Dieu), and took 16 minutes (almost  exactly). I know, because I timed my whole afternoon. Just for fun. To see how long it took to reach all the “must-see” suggestions I was given.
At 1pm I jumped on the very busy train and it wasn’t until my ticket was being checked that I second-guessed myself and was worried I was heading in the wrong direction.  I casually asked the train agent if I was on the right train to head to the centre of town and without missing a beat he shook his head and said no.
I used every bit of energy to stay cool and calm in the moment and asked him how to turn around and fix my mistake (now that we had already spent 8 minutes zooming quickly away from the airport.) 
He then burst out laughing and said I was fine and could get off in two stops at the correct station. He proceeded to chat up and laugh with several of the passengers as he went through the train car speaking easily in English, French, and Dutch. 

In 16 minutes:

I had arrived at the second stop from the airport: Bruxelles-Centre.

I stepped outside and immediately noticed the architecture here is absolutely beautiful, with new and modern sleek glass buildings slowly filling the horizon beyond the old ornate silhouettes.


(This place is a shopper’s dream.)

At 21 minutes:

I had purchased my first Belgian waffle and chatted with the girl working the stand to get directions of where to go.


At 26 minutes:

I had eaten my first piece of Belgian chocolate, a sample offered at one of the dozens of chocolate shops I came across today. (And for the record it was a speculoos/almond filled drop of deliciousness 😁). 


It seems you can’t even trip in the centre part of town without falling into a chocolate shop. 🙂


As I walked into the centre square I was blown away by all the gold detail on the buildings. It was absolutely gorgeous, and it was immediately apparent there was a festival on! 


I could hear drumming and came around the corner to the main market square with a full jaw-drop reaction to the beauty of this place. 


These drums!! Feniks Taiko is a group of 7 people (3 men, 4 women), dressed in black with gold sashes, and playing huge Japanese Taiko drums with absolute delighted fury. It was powerful and mesmerizing!


I’m not going to lie – all plans do any exploring flew right out the window as I stood there for the better part of an hour watching them perform.  


This girl! So happy!

At 1 hour and 19 minutes:

I bought fries, on recommendation that I “must try them in Brussels”. They were right, and the fries were excellent! (I walked back with them to the market square and watched more of the drumming performance.)


It was at 1 hour and 49 minutes that I bought my first ever Belgian beer. And if you know me, you know I don’t drink beer. The closest I have ever got is drinking cider. This was real beer. Yes, it had fruit in it, but it was beer. Floris Kriek, to be exact. 
And served to me by a man with a pink elephant for a hat. 

And it was delicious.

2 hours and 15 minutes:

I went to see the statue of Mannekin Pis, and honestly don’t  understand the big draw, but it was a very busy corner fountain with people snapping selfies and group shots and silly photos of the tiny figure (currently dressed in a kimono). So I took a picture of them. 🙂

2 hours and 25 minutes:

I tried some traditional chocolate truffles at Leonidas Chocolates, and purchased some chocolate for souvenirs. Whether they make it home is another story… 😳😁

Chocolate chocolate, everywhere. And also lots of fancy candy.



I went into a couple of beautiful old churches (because, of course I did, that’s what I do ☺️), and enjoyed checking out some comic book stores and souvenir shops.




After that I enjoyed more drumming (they were still going!) in the main square, followed by regional music and dancing…


3 hours in: I bought a couple of postcards, stamps, and got them all ready to mail, even! (Let’s not dwell on the fact I then forgot to mail them and will possibly have to send them from Paris….)


Okay, so there’s a chance I had  another waffle… This time with chocolate.😊
On my way back to the train station I came across a street spray paint artist and found a gallery filled with vibrant French art and even ended up chatting with one of the artists for a bit (un peu en français 😁), before heading back to the airport.



I got to the station at 4:45 and with my luck the train arrived just as I got down the stairs. At 5:01 I was back at the airport. The security was extra thorough between the train and the airport so I’m glad I left extra time, and I even had time for an iced coffee before my flight. 
Voila! I spent a day in Brussels, participated in a festival, watched live music, ate waffles and chocolate and fries and drank beer, went to see Mannekin Pis, checked out the local shops and churches, and made it back to my second flight of the day without a hitch!! Huzzah!

A few summer days in Lausanne.

So this one time I went to Switzerland.

😁

One of my friends from my 2014 French class lives in Lausanne with her husband and their daughter. Chinatsu grew up in Japan and went to university (and learned English) in San Fransisco, where she met Stephane from France, and they ended up falling in love and moving to Paris. Stephane was offered a new job in Lausanne this year so they moved in the spring to Prilly, just next to the city of Lausanne. 


Chinatsu invited me to come visit her this summer, and since there was no direct train or bus from L’Isle Jourdain (or Poitiers or Limoges) to Lausanne, I booked trips with Blablacar. 
Blablacar is a ride-sharing travel option in Europe and I think it is BRILLIANT. I booked one trip from Limoges to Lyon, and the following trip from Lyon to Lausanne. Both drivers had excellent ratings and no actual cash has to exchange hands – it’s pre-paid, and the website you sign up on gives you a code to give them at the end of the trip so you get where you want to go.
The fun part was, my drivers were French. And spoke only French. So I got to put on my focus-and-concentrate face and really exercise my French communication skills for about 7 hours over the two trips. 😁😳


I arrived in Lausanne to beautiful weather and was picked up by Chinatzu at the downtown train station. It was excellent to catch up and meet her adorable 21-month old daughter Nanako.


Nanako was shy at first, but I soon won her over playing with a hand fan and some of her stuffed animals. We had the best time  playing together all week and Nanako is an absolute joy to be around because she gasps in delight at just about everything. Birds, people, planes, lightbulbs, dogs, the sky in general, the floor…..


I went off exploring on my own for a couple of days, and walked down to the Ouchy harbour, on the shores of Lake Geneva.


Seeing the mountains across the lake was wonderful. I have also never seen so many swans (and grey swans too; like ‘ugly ducklings’ that grew up to be swans, but kept their duckling colour).



Also, you can rent a paddle boat here, but not just any paddle boat: a paddle boat with a SLIDE! Amazing. 

There were a bunch of highschool students that just jumped into the lake as I was walking by.

I walked further down the shoreline and into the Olympic Museum, and it was really fun to see old Olympic torches, posters, team uniforms, costumes, and the current temporary exhibit all about Rio and the life and culture there. 


The old town centre has an animated clock that goes every hour during the day. I walked through this square 5 times while I was in Lausanne and the time was always 1:25, or 5:31, or 3:20, or 4:18…. Never near the hour, so I never saw it working! Whoops!


I walked the Market Steps up to find the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral at the top of the hill above the Old Town.




Oh yeah, there are a lot of stairs and hills in this city. Wow. 
Apparently the steepest existing metro track runs north from the bottom point of Ouchy-Olympic up to the main train station. Did I take it? No, I did not because apparently I’m deserving of some sort of punishment so I walked up the entire uphill length of Avenue D’Ouchy on this 28 degree day…. 😅


I arrived in St Paul’s square and had a look inside the large church. Then I sat outside and enjoyed some free wifi. 🙂


On Chinatsu’s suggestion, I went to the Musee D’Art Brut, where work is displayed by artists who were never famous or formally trained, and often they were outcasts or people in institutions. It was quite unique and there were some really amazing pieces.
My favourites included some beautiful pottery, driftwood sculptures, pen and ink detailed portraits of women, and found material miniature bus sculptures… 


I think the most memorable part was a small display of three eccentric and ornate costumes with an accompanying video about an Armenian 76-year old gentleman who would make elaborate hats, canes, and outfits out of everything from feather dusters to Christmas ornaments to lawn darts to shower curtain rings, then get dressed up and go on a one-man parade around his neighbourhood. 

There was also a room full of art by a man named Paul Amar who builds the most incredibly detailed sculptures entirely out of shells (clams, mussels, oysters….) and other pieces of shellfish, and paints them bright saturated colours with nail polish and paint and hot glues them to create under the sea scenes, or groups of animals, or dioramas of explorers and sailing ships.  

I wasn’t allowed photos inside or else I would show you a hint of some of the awesomeness. 

Postcards in the gift shop.


I came across a free exhibition that was part of the”Festival De Bande Dessine”, and it was titled “Migration”; and the subject surrounding immigration, emigration, war, and refugees. This particular exhibition had posters of short cartoons and images. Some had full stories and dialogue, while others were more abstract.



I made it to the Palais de Rumine, and the free (!) Archeology and  Zoology exhibits. 




Chinatsu and her family were wonderful hosts and treated me to some delicious homemade meals. The second night I was there she made us traditional Swiss fondue and we stuffed ourselves with cheese and bread and potatoes and vegetables. We also had a great Japanese dinner of miso and pan-seared pork with ginger and rice.  

Before I left at the end of the week we decided to go for a chocolat chaud at Le Barbare, just at the top of the Market Steps.

It was a rainy day and also the coolest weather since I’ve been in Europe, and a rich chocolat chaud was just perfect to warm us up before a walk around Old Town and down to the ‘new and modern’ area of Flon. (We had our chocolat chaud ‘nature’, which meant just the classic chocolate, without any added cream mixed in and whip cream on top. )

 




This city is beautiful and it’s wonderful to have friends here *that I absolutely plan to come back and visit*! After all, all it takes is a couple of blablacars to get here from France… 🙂


  

Taking a boat down the river to Avignon…

At Christmas last year, my mom surprised my sister and I with tickets for a Viking River Cruise in France as part of our summer adventure! It was a week-long journey down the Rhône river from Chalon-sur-Saône to Avignon. My sister and I had been on an ocean cruise with our grandparents when we were younger, but our mom had never been on one. We arrived in Chalon-sur-Saône on Saturday afternoon and we were greeted by a cruise ship representative to bring us to the bus that would take us to our new start point in Lyon. The river levels were so high this year that the boat could not get back up the river because it could not fit under the bridges. We collapsed onto our white-on-white deluxe beds in our cabins and delighted in the modern, clean, and stylish design of the ship that we discovered was brand new this year. Mum had her own room next to us, and we could peek around the balcony at each other when we were enjoying the sunshine along the way (which we barely had time to do because our schedule was packed).

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The majority of the guests on the ship were Americans, and there were a handful of Canadians and Brits for a total of 180 passengers. If you are familiar with Viking Cruises, you may already know this, but we counted on the first night that there were seven passengers on the ship under the age of 50.
Since we were hours down the river from where we started, we stayed in Lyon for the first couple of days and took bus trips out from there for the excursions. It was quite rainy at the start of the trip and we discovered after our first day that the giant red umbrellas with “Viking Cruises” were much better than the packable umbrellas we brought, and we already looked like über-tourists traveling in a large group of seniors and wearing little radio packs around our necks listening to our tour guide. To the girls who had worked so hard to blend in as Parisians, this was a little less than ideal for us, but worth it for the places we visited. It was also strange to have an entirely English-speaking crew and guests that made it completely unnecessary to speak French (though we would practice in all the small towns we went to as much as we could).

The daily schedule was a huge difference for us as we’d been living on the late-night/late-morning routine, and on the ship breakfast started at 6:30am and went until 9:30am, and most morning excursions started between 8:00am and 9:00am. I’m actually surprised we made it to all of them every day!

On the first day we did a walking tour of Lyon in the morning and it was raining the entire time.

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We went up to the highest point, where there is both a church and a small Eiffel Tower. It had a wonderful view of the city of Lyon, which reminded us of Florence, Italy.

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The church is called Le Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviére. We didn’t plan to go inside the church as a tour group because they were in the middle of mass, but mum peeked in just before we got back on the bus and waved us over to join her. I stepped inside and discovered the most beautiful interior of a church that I had ever seen in my entire life. I stood there completely speechless for about ten minutes, mesmerized by the sculptures, mosaics, and gold details. Not only that, but as we stepped inside a soloist started singing and if you have any idea about the acoustics of a large domed ceiling, it was the epitome of breathtaking. (Of course, no photos were allowed so I only have a couple exterior shots.)

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After lunch we took a bus out to the ancient city of Pérouge, built in the 15th century. We wandered along some of the most complicated/designed cobblestone streets and by beautiful ivy-covered homes and restaurants.

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No, that isn’t just interesting woodwork on the door, it has charred completely from some fire. Crazy.

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As part of the tour, we also got to try the local ‘gallettes’, a crepe-like baking made of butter, flour, and sugar.

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The meals on the ship were excellent, and we quickly found ourselves taking photos of them because the plating was so beautiful.

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Lobster and scallop cerviche in a vanilla sauce. We all agreed this was one of the best tasting dishes we have ever had.

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The “amuse-bouche” on our first night on the ship.

We discovered early on that the staff of the ship was exceptional, and the Program Director Susann (from Germany) and Hotel Manager Kornelia (from Austria) were fantastically friendly and personable hosts who we often chatted with on the boat and off.

Susann dressed up for the "Taste of Provence" dinner.

Susann dressed up for the “Taste of Provence” dinner.

On the second full day my sister and I got up early to go for a run before the boat made it’s departure to our next stop. It had stopped raining for the first time so far and we captured some photos along our run to remind us of Lyon before having breakfast on the deck. We would have liked to stay longer here.

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A pedestrian bridge to “Old Lyon”

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The mini Eiffel Tower was built taller than the church after the French Revolution to show that religion and the Catholic Church no longer was the most powerful force in Lyon.

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Breakfast! (Including some to bring back to surprise mum in her cabin)

The sun stayed out for the start of our trip down the river, and we enjoyed some sunshine on our balcony as the top deck was closed to fit under all the bridges.

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This is was our ‘view’ going through a lock:

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Our afternoon excursion was to Vienne, and this massive church called the Cathedral of St Maurice, in the ‘Flamboyant Gothic’ style.

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In the afternoon we went to Baune, and explored the “Hotel Dieu” which was once a free hospital for the poor and is now a museum.

The inner courtyard of the hospital. The roof tiles were redone in the original style, and are enamel-painted metal shingles

The old medicine bottles

The old medicine bottles

After some free time we were invited to the basement of a wine store to their 14th century cellar for a wine tasting, and we tried 4 kinds of wine (2 white, 2 red- can you tell I’m not a big wine drinker?! 😉 ) and a cassis liqueur used to make an aperatif wine that was created in Beaune called Kir.

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We met so many lovely people this week, and we almost wanted a longer cruise so we could spend more time in such excellent new-found company. When we got back on the ship in Vienne we started chatting with Michael and Eileen, a delightful couple from New Jersey. We sat with them for dinner, and quickly realized (without wanting to sound cliché) what marvellously kindred spirits they are. We enjoyed chatting with them on other excursions during the week and we hope to not only keep in touch but that our paths cross back on ‘the other side of the pond’.

It was partway through dinner leaving Vienne that we realized we had started travelling backwards. It turns out a crane on the top of the ship broke, and we couldn’t continue on without it working so we had to go back to Vienne to get it repaired. There was great apology for the delay by the crew, and they opened up the bar for the rest of the night. And let me tell you, the seniors on that ship were crazy partiers that evening into the wee hours! When the after dinner dance party began, and Dancing Queen started up (followed by the Macarena), we retreated back to our cabin and watched Kevin Kline and Meg Ryan in “French Kiss”. 🙂
The next day we went to Tournon, a city built in medieval times, and the chocolate capital of France. (Oh yes.)

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We started with a wine tasting at a beautiful vineyard where we tried several kinds of Shiraz, and afterwards we went into town for a chocolate tasting. Our tour guide said we could sample as much chocolate as we wanted at the chocolate shop we were heading to. We thought “Yeah, right. He means they will bring around a tray to the group and we will be able to take a piece of 3 or 4 kinds. He’s exaggerating”. Nope. I have never seen so many samples. They had over a dozen kinds of chocolate, with different names and descriptions (similar to wine), varying in cocoa percentage, and they had four main types: dark, milk, white, and blonde. Blonde was created here when a chocolatier over cooked the white chocolate and the sugar in it caramelized, and it turned caramel coloured. Long story short, we all sampled as much as we wanted just as our tour guide had said we could.

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Samples of every kind

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Everywhere you looked: samples

That night we arrived in Viviers and went on an evening walking tour at 9:00pm. It was a very small town with the narrowest cobblestone streets, and dark alleyways that make it easy to imagine a Jack-The-Ripper type story to have happened here over a century ago.

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A pretty door. 🙂

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We arrived in Arles early the next morning, and were given a couple options for the day. Our ship was sailing to Avignon after lunch so we could take the bus into town for the morning tour and either bus back for lunch and stay on the ship while it travels, or stay in Arles until the late afternoon and bus to Avignon for dinner. At this point in the week we were pretty tired of buses so we decided to stay in Arles for the day. On our tour we saw the amphitheatre, the town hall, and the hospital that Van Gough stayed in that has been turned into a museum. Our tour guide was so slow that we had time to do a little souvenir shopping in between stops on the tour. (Well, my sister bought things mostly. I’m great at encouraging others to buy things. I’m a souvenir enabler. 🙂 )

The amphitheatre:

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We came upon the Réattu Museum where we had heard there was some Picasso and other pieces. The museum was brilliantly set up, and apart from the numerous incredible pieces by Réattu, there were many great juxtapositions of old and new pieces, and we were thrilled we had the time to check it out.

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This was one of Réattu’s many gorgeous sketches

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This is a letter Van Gough wrote to Gaugin

This was a letter from Van Gough to Gaugin.

We waited for the bus at a park where a couple groups of elderly men were playing pétanque, and then headed by bus to meet our boat in Avignon. We arrived just as our ship was pulling up to the dock.

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That night was the Captains Dinner, where they introduced the entire staff one by one. It was cool to see each crew member recognized individually and we also heard what country they are all from (most: Bulgaria, Hungary, and Germany).

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The huge Ferris wheel outside the walled city of Avignon.

The next day we explored Avignon, which many crew members on the ship told us it was their favourite stop, and now we can see why. A walled city, Avignon has beautiful old architecture, and curving spiral streets. We started at the Papal Palace.

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The art installation inside the palace

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Some spices at the market

Some spices at the market

imageWe went to the Les Halles Market and got to walk through the most postered streets I have ever seen, as their gigantic annual theatre festival was going on. (It is about half the size of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but is made up of mostly French pieces, and over 1000 shows run for 4 weeks- each production has its show every day at the same time so you can easily organize your schedule.) As we walked down the street dozens of artists handed us their pamphlets advertising their production and they often went into enthusiastic explanation (in French, of course), about their show.

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Our placemats at lunch even advertised the festival… So many options

We picked up the phone-book-sized festival program and looked over the options at lunch. We decided we had time for three shows before dinner, and tried to pick shows that might be a bit more Anglophone-friendly, choosing to go see a magician, a one-woman show about Billy Holiday (a musical?), and a clown. We also caught a sneak peek at a commedia del arté version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that we would go to after dinner, but on our way to one of the afternoon shows we crossed paths with two men dressed formally and walking down the street carrying a coffin between them. I asked one which show they were doing and he handed me a pamphlet, and replied with a deadpan look “In the coffin is a man who saw our show last night. He died. From laughter.”

We decided to change our plans and at 10:00pm watched a two-man show with almost no words make us laugh until our faces hurt and I had tears streaming down my cheeks. It was brilliant. On the way home we took a ride on the Ferris wheel by the water, because, why not. 🙂

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We got back to the ship and finished packing, in order to be ready to leave the next morning after breakfast and pick up our rental car to head out of Avignon to our final week of family vacation in the heart of Provence. What a week!

A dessert that could feed a small country and a rant about chocolate.

This entry is about desserts.

Okay, so it’s about many things, and dessert happens to be a feature. 🙂 Because, to be honest, I started this post with the intention of writing about walking around Paris, but then I realized that walking is simply a means to an end in Paris. To eat. (Okay, okay, and also to get to cool places. True story.) 😉

I definitely recommend comfortable shoes to explore Paris. Seriously. If you want to eat all these crêpes and croissants and baguettes and cheese and desserts and whatever else is rich and delicious in France without having to buy drawstring-waist pants, ya gotta walk. A lot. On cobblestones. And if you want to keep up with Parisians during rush hour on the metro, you feel like you are training for a speed walk competition. (Although as a general rule I try to avoid rush hour on the metro; it’s just too many people, too little air, and too much stranger-body-contact-to-stranger-body-contact.) I have to admit, the footwear I brought are somewhat lacking in the ‘cushion’ department and there are mornings where I get up and feel like the soles of my feet have gone on strike and are violently protesting.

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On Friday night after class I decided to go for a walk (of course 😉 ) and revisit the 3rd Arrondissement (the Marais) , check out the Canal St Martin and scope out a couple cafés and restaurants that had been recommended to me. Not that I have to go very far for good restaurants- I walk by dozens of great places close to my apartment every day, and I passed three crêperies and two gelato places on the same small street on my way to the Marais. It’s fantastic and dangerously tempting at the same time.


It turned into a very ‘romantic night for one’ as I walked across the Seine and along the St Martin canal through rose gardens and ivy arches, passing numerous couples and several groups of friends hanging out under the arches, at the base of old twisted trees and on park benches and garden edges.

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This is the first sculpture I have seen in Paris with is much (or any...?) graffiti on it.

This is the first sculpture I have seen in Paris with this much (or even any) graffiti on it.

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A zig-zag stroll through the Marais brought me past many fancy boutiques, funky jewelry shops, art galleries, tea houses, bars, and as usual, so much amazing architecture. The perfect Paris evening sky made it a gorgeous walk, and the streets were decorated with rainbow flags and banners, along with crowds of people lined up outside the busy night clubs celebrating Pride weekend.

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Saturday was the rainiest day of the weekend, and after the parade I wanted to warm up with some tea and the famous tarte au limon meringue at Le Loir Dans La Théière (aka the Doormouse In The Tea Pot).

It is a very popular spot and there was a huge lineup to get in, but this ‘party of one’ was seated rather quickly at a shared table by the window. 🙂 They have a sign at the front door stating that laptops are not allowed in the establishment, and though my blogging heart would have been happy to move in for the afternoon and type away in a corner, I like the fact that they encourage people there to enjoy each other’s company over tea and dessert. (My table-mates and I didn’t talk too much more than a) marveling over each other’s dessert selections and b) laughing at the fact our table had one off kilter leg that made us spill each other’s tea any time we moved even slightly in our cozy corner of the place.)

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I ordered an Earl Grey tea which was brought over in a beautiful heavy silver teapot, and then was served the largest piece of lemon meringue pie that I have ever seen in my life. I believe that the meringue alone would feed several people. And really, you should have seen the size of the entire pie- it was gargantuan. It was deliciously luxurious and rich, and everything that is indulgent on this rainy afternoon. But I think I should not have eaten at all that day- in preparation. Or worked my way up to it -over several weeks…Is there training to prepare oneself for such an epic dessert? Alas, after my best efforts, I could not finish it. I tried. I really did. It hurt. In the best and yet saddest way. Next time I’m bringing a friend (or a hidden take-home container). 🙂

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Sunday was an excellent day with market shopping, more walking, company, and another delicious – um, we’ll call it ‘dessert’- that I couldn’t finish.

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In the morning (who am I kidding- late morning….so, at noon) I went to the outdoor market down the street from my apartment and got some great fresh produce- and possibly the best strawberries and cherries I have ever tasted. You know you are a little over-excited about your food when you have a mini photo-shoot about it.

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Yup. And now I wait for all the food magazines to start calling me.

It was a little rainy for a couple of hours, and I got to Skype with my pal Erin who is in Italy right now, which was fantastic. I then met up with my friend Hugo to go for a walk and possibly check out a cheap movie as it was the Fête du Cinéma on Sunday. The sun had come out at this point, so we started with a walk, but about five minutes in, charcoal clouds took over and rain sort of chased us along our route up past Notre Dame and along the Seine. (Yup, this girl still can’t get over the fact that on regular occasions she strolls past Notre Dame. *loooooove*). Even in the rainy weather, tourists were all over that place. It was the perfect day to explore inside a gargoyle-covered ornate ancient church, obviously. (And stand in line for a good long time beforehand, of course.)

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We went to a restaurant in the Odéon area called Le Hibou for something to drink, and both decided to try the Chocolat Chaud. Which turned out to be like eating an enormous dessert. It had been eight years since I’d had a chocolat chaud in Paris- with my sister at Le Chat Noir in Pigalle- and I will not forget again: a chocolat chaud is NOT like a hot chocolate. Unless you make your hot chocolate by melting down a giant Belgian chocolate bar and don’t add any milk. Or to be more accurate, you grind up your own cacao nibs and then melt them down and then pour that directly into a mug. It is likely the richest thing I have ever tasted. It is served with sugar sticks on the side, because, of course, you need to add sugar to your melted-chocolate-bar-in-a-mug. We asked for milk, and were brought a small creamer container, and we realized that we should have asked for a pitcher. Or a cow. I am certain that one chocolat chaud could easily be shared by four people (and a pitcher of milk). It was kind of ridiculous. And this girl loves chocolate, but come on, now. Hugo and I were beside ourselves, both bemused and considerably distressed at how on earth someone was actually expected to finish this ‘drink’ unless they were Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Neither of us could finish it for fear of being sick. Let that be a lesson to you all. And by all means, if you have had an entire chocolat chaud to yourself and lived to tell the tale, I want to know how you did it. End of chocolat chaud rant. 🙂

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We decided not to go see a movie, and as the sky brightened and that amazing Paris ‘evening magic’ happened again, I decided to explore Odéon, and see what the fuss was about with all the sales going on. The biggest sales in Paris happen twice a year: in February, and now. Danger danger: Paris fashion at 20-70% off…. I may end up shipping a box home…. 😀

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Window shopping in Odéon

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Many stores were closed because it was Sunday evening, so I ended up window shopping (and croissant buying), and finding my way around to my favourite place, the Jardin Luxembourg. Again, after a rainy day, it’s a fair bit quieter in terms of crowds, but diehard park lovers like myself were enjoying themselves on the metal chairs and around the fountains. With some Roquefort cheese, a demi baguette, and some fresh cherries, I had a lazy evening enjoying the delight of after-rain weather.

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Check out that sky!! (And the less-than-aesthetically-pleasing architecture of the Montparnasse building in the background.)

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Getting some evening sun!

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That’s all for now, but perhaps I will have a few more things to share before next weekend, when I will be joined by my mum and sister! I cannot wait to see them!!!

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