The Balinese Experience day trip

The big adventure at the Firefly Resort was on Wednesday.

After breakfast we met our taxi to begin a tour day that included a local village, a school, a rice processing farm, and a local family compound and temple. Called “The Balinese Experience”, this was a definite highlight of the week.

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The school sign

We arrived at the school (ages 6-12) and while we were waiting for the guide to talk to us the students were on break and hovering around the courtyard watching this group of tourists with curiosity. A couple young girls came skipping up to me and tugged on my shirt. “Your name?” The smaller girl with her two front teeth missing asked. I told her my name was Sara and asked her what her name was.

She puffed out her chest and said “My name is Rosa.” And then the two girls giggled and backed up to join some others watching us at a safer distance.

We were told about Saraswati, the god of education. You can recognize her because she has four arms and is always holding a book (represents learning), a linked chain (representing connections), a string instrument (representing art and music), and has a peacock and a swan at her feet (representing travel and learning from other cultures).

Behind the statue was the courtyard in between all the classroom buildings, the library, and the office.

(There was actually a change to the school system while I was in Bali. The students used to have school six days a week, Monday-Friday 9am-2pm; on Saturdays they would focus on a hobby like art or dance. But then the school system changed and school is now only Monday-Friday from 8am-3pm, with optional classes incorporated into some of the days.)

The students clearly enjoy this tourist intrusion that must happen pretty regularly, and they enthusiastically belted out a couple of Balinese songs for us when we came to say hi at a couple of the classrooms.

We then wandered further through the village and came to a rice processing area with some farmers raking out rice on slightly sloped concrete ground. If it rains they pile the rice up at the highest point and throw a tarp over top.

The rice was drying in the sun before the husks would be removed (by machine) in a nearby building.

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Balinese eat so much of the rice they produce, none of it is exported; it is all made for local consumption. img_7516-1img_7515

We then met up with a traditional procession including women with offerings balanced on their heads, men playing instruments, and Barong dancers. The Barong is the good spirit that protects against evil spirits, and in these parades two people are inside the head and back of the Barong, creating a dance that would be most similar to a Chinese Lion dance. Like the Korean Heatch, a sculpture of the Barong is often placed on either side of the entrances or gates of homes and temples for protection.

We were given sarongs to wear and we followed the parade, where we all got the chance to try and balance the tall ‘banten’ offerings on our heads.

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When we arrived at the front gate of the house we had garlands of frangipane flowers placed around our necks and had flower petals tossed as a blessing over our heads.

Three generations of a family lived here. Grandparents, parents, and sons lived in three different bedroom buildings, and they shared several other buildings in the compound. The buildings all have separate uses. Three of them here are bedrooms.

This one is where they play music or relax, and store the family’s rice up above where it is dry and away from animals.

This ornate space is for celebrations as well as religious ceremonies like funeral ceremonies.

The youngest son of the household gave us a tour and talked to us about Balinese home life.

For example, the head of the beds always points north or east only because the head is considered holy. In a similar fashion, in Bali you do not touch the head of another person; especially if they are older than you, out of respect.

Two friendly family dogs followed us around the entire time.

The family has their family temple in the compound, and worship here every day. In a temple (family or village or public) there are 3-10 ‘sanga’ (3 is a small temple, 5 is a medium, etc. The largest temple would have up to 10).

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The grandmother blessing us with holy water before going into the temple.

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A sanga

We were also welcomed to the family home by being given a gift of a bracelet called Tridatu; made of red, white, and black yarn and tied on the right wrist.

The colours represent the 3 gods Brahma, Wishnu, and Siwa.

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They tie it on your right wrist because Balinese give and receive with their right hand only as a sign of respect.

We were all handed those conical hats you often see rice farmers wear, and we went for a walk to local rice fields and a village temple nearby. It had a moat around it and two huge Banyan trees nearby that were wrapped in black and white and gold fabric sarongs in respect/gratitude to the trees for the fresh water they store for times of drought.

The hats kept us so cool under the hot sun. The top part of the hat actually sits above your head over a ring that sits snug to your head, so air can flow underneath.

When we returned to the family compound we were offered coconuts and watched a woman building a banten (headpiece) offering with fresh fruit and flowers. We were told that the fruit is brought to the temple as part of worship/offering, and then brought back home and shared among the family. This is a modern version with rimmed levels that hold the fruit in place. The traditional style was a vertical banana stem in the middle and fruit would be held to it with bamboo skewers pushed through the fruit into the banana stem.

It was here that we were invited to share mandarin oranges, mango, and my new favourite fruit: Mangostee!!!!

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This is a very soft, sweet fruit that is unlike anything I have ever tried. And yes, it does look like giant white garlic cloves in real life, too. It’s delicious. The bitter fushia peel is soft and breaks open easily, and is often dried and made into delicious herbal tea.

We went into the family cooking area where they showed us all the ingredients and preparation involved in making chicken skewers and a spicy tomato sate sauce. They use fresh garlic, ginger, turmeric, coriander seeds, peppercorns, fresh chilis and shallots, regular and aromatic ginger, lemongrass, and lime juice. It was enuk(delicious)!

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Chicken skewers waiting to be eaten!

They also were making canang offerings and had premade the baskets and were adding the gorgeous flowers to them.

We got to try the dessert called Kalpon- a boiled dumpling of sorts made with rice powder and pandan leaf for colour. They are filled with sugar syrup and boiled. When they float they are put in an ice bath and then rolled in shredded coconut.

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You pop the whole thing in your mouth before you bite it or else the sugar syrup will burst out. They are delicious cold or warm, we discovered!

A few of us even made a couple ourselves.

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After that we were able to visit the stable they have where they keep their cows and pigs. They brought the two cows out to the field to show us how they prepare a new plot to plant rice, and I got to try guiding the cows around as they pulled a wooden beam behind them along the top of the mud, as well as try my hand at planting new rice shoots in the field. The mud was warm from the sun and surprisingly easy to manouever through.

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Folding palm leaf mats
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Opening coconut husks

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Grinding roasted coffee beans

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We were served the most incredible meal with the best rice I have ever tasted, and an assortment of almost-tapas style items; pork sausage, tofu, tempeh, dried fish, chicken sate, omelet, potato and corn fritters, and jackfruit and long bean salads. We also each got our own basket of seasonings and spices. img_7487img_5095img_5093

We each got a personal basket of seasonings including hot chilies, garlic, chilli, and shallots minced together, peanuts, toasted coconut, and the saté sauce made earlier
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This chicken noodle soup was delicious

We were treated to traditional music while we ate.

Then down the pathway came these 4 young Balinese dancers dressed in traditional lace tops, sashes, and sarongs. The music shifted and the girls posed and prepared to dance. They were incredibly articulate in their movements right down to head tilts and eye movement.

The music never really stopped and the little girls bowed and then dance-exited off down the pathway back to the main house. Then an older girl wearing a more ornate costume and carrying a had fan entered and performed for us. She was smiling mischieviously the entire time, and for a good portion of the dance she often made eye contact with me as I was crouched closest to her in front of everyone else. I almost felt like I was in on some wonderful secret.

At one point she stopped dancing and pulled me up to dance with her, tying a scarf around my waist and handing me the fan to dance with. There were about 20 people watching.

No pressure. 😳

After I danced with her, my friend Rachel went up, and then a young girl was pushed up by her older sister. She was clearly shy and pretty reluctant to dance so her dad went up with her and tried out the moves too, which was adorable. Her sister joined them and then an American girl jumped up and then a tall German guy (who was sort of shoved up there) started dancing too. Rachel and I joined and it became a nice little Balinese dance party. Not that we had any idea of what we were doing, but we were having a good time faking it. 😁

The music seemed like it would never end so we dance-exited off like the little girls did earlier.

We went back to the resort absolutely elated about our day. How do you top this?! 

L to R: Me, Aneta, Ange, Kaska

 

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!

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!

Museums and rainy days… A perfect combo.

The family vacation has begun! My mum and sister arrived on Saturday afternoon, and after their first fresh croissants of the trip and a jet-lag induced snooze, we had a relaxing evening with a short walk around the 5th Arrondissement around the Pantheon, down by the Sorbonne, and complete with crêpes on our way home.

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It was a beautiful night, as it often is, but we didn’t stay out too late as we planned a free-museum Sunday packed with plans.
Our apartment is awesome, but if you don’t have earplugs, and aren’t a heavy sleeper, you are hooped. There was some sort of event at the bar below that went later than the usual patio restaurant din that lasts till 1 or 2am, and the noise and celebration went on past 3am. As well, first thing the next morning there were some sort of renovations happening in our building above us, so needless to say it was a rough first-night sleep for the travelers, and they slept in while I went down the street to pick up some breakfast pastries.

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We ended up not doing a museum day after all as the adjustment to Paris time was harder than expected. 😉 That was fine, as we chatted about our plans for the rest of the trip, researched museums we hadn’t been to before, and my sister and I went on a walk down to and along the Seine. We discovered several spots along the Seine with groups of people dancing, so we watched for a while.

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I  had seen this one group before from the other side of the river on a walk a few weeks ago. They just have a small speaker set up and couples practice various styles of ballroom dance. It’s a little semicircle of steps to the edge of the wall, which makes it a perfect place to sit and watch, or join in.

 

That was the end of the clear skies for a while. And now: for the weeks’ activities! Time sure flies. 🙂 Especially when it rains for almost an entire week in Paris! 🙂

We had to get our mum to see the Eiffel Tower, and there were rumors the rain was letting up, so we headed to Trocadero metro station for the fantastic best first view. Unfortunately the rumors were wrong and it rained a lot. All that really means is that most of our photos include umbrellas! (And perhaps, the reason we decided to wear pants the next day….)

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We needed a warm up and lunch so headed to a small spot on the south side of the river. We had quiche and tea, and my sister had her first chocolate chaud, which was not as thick as the melted chocolate bars I spoke of earlier, and she only added a bit of milk. I was impressed. 🙂 And then we had our first macarons of the family time trip: pistachio, raspberry, and coffee.

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We then headed to the Musee D’Orsay.

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I have really noticed a huge surge in the number of people everywhere in Paris. Parisians are on summer vacation, and all the tourists from Europe and elsewhere have now arrived. And it is busy! Lines are way longer and museums are quite congested, and on top of that, there are all sorts of outdoor venues being set up for Bastille Day (July 14). The line for the Orsay was gargantuan, but it still moved surprisingly quickly, and we were only in line for about 30 minutes. Inside was packed, but we were still able to enjoy an afternoon snack in the Cafe D’Ours (The Bear Cafe) on the main floor, explore my favourite Impressionist paintings and sculptures on the 5th floor, and marvel at all the incredible marble figures and the Post-Impressionist gallery before heading back out into the rain.

imageWe then spent the good part of a day at the Louvre, with our main focus in the Egypt exhibit. That place is so huge we stayed primarily in the Sully Wing and we were there for hours!

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It was pouring outside, so we were content to spend the day in such a fantastic place.

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I think it was this night we walked across the street from our apartment (and when I say ‘across the street’, I mean, a few steps away from our front door) and had a delicious fondue dinner.

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Next up: L’Orangerie! I was thrilled to go back, and would be happy to go often if I lived here year round… 🙂

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The Jardin Du Tuilleries, L’Orangerie in the background on the left, and a cloudy sky around the Tour Eiffel. 🙂

And like the others, this museum was busy, so much busier than when I was there last, and unfortunately the quiet atmosphere of the last time I was there wasn’t the case this time. The “silence please” signs were entirely ignored, and there were loud conversations, noisy kids running around and even one woman chatting on a cellphone (who was thankfully asked to take her conversation outside by a security guard) and it was a lot less calm than it had been a month earlier. Luckily, the waterlillies paintings still had a magic effect on us, and we all loved our visit. I did not take a single photo here, so you’ll just have to come and see for yourself. No really. Come to this place. It’s at the top of my must-see list.

Thursday spot: the Musee D’Arts et Métiers – a museum full of inventions and design in the Marais. They were open late on Thursday which was perfect for us again, as we had a late lunch and were happy to spend the evening there.

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Our favourite room was the Automaton Theatre, full of animatronics, from toys to clocks to music boxes, it was filled with amazing and detailed work dating as far back as the 18th century.
We went to the Arts and Métiers Museum, which was fantastic! Inventions and design, industry and innovation, for practical or entertainment reasons, this place touched on it all. We actually discovered that the main exhibit wad free, and only the temporary exhibit on the history of cinema cost money to get it. We decided we would come back for that as we arrived three hours before the late-night museum hours ended. We saw all sorts of amazing things from ancient sun dials, gears and prints machines to hidden cameras and space station robotics.

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We truly were part of the last few people escorted out of the museum as they closed, so we felt we made the best bang of our buck… Oh wait- it was free admission. Even better! We may head back for the media exhibit there later this week if time permits…

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Friday we went to Notre Dame, figuring if there was a good time to visit an ancient Gothic Church it would be on a gloomy rainy afternoon. Apparently, most of Paris had this idea, so this meant more long lines in the rain.

We walked through the lovely Marché aux Fleurs on our way.

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(oh yes, and also, we discovered a cream puff shop. )

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We were prepared with rain jackets and umbrellas but it was remarkably chilly and all of us felt we could have brought warmer clothes for July (?!) weather in Paris. No 30 degree weather, here, Canada!

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It it was after standing for about 20 minutes in pouring rain in yet another line to climb to the top that we decided to instead go for dessert and tea in the Marais. (We learned the wait was over an hour, and thought- “another time!”) We walked along the the south side of the building through the park, and I showed them the bridge of locks before we went on our way.

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Back at the Loire dans La Théière, we found a cozy table with mis-matched chairs on one side, and a couch on the other. Tea and dessert (and a decaf cappuccino for mum) were just perfect.

Dessert options: we went with the lemon meringue tart, of course.

Dessert options: we went with the lemon meringue tart, of course.

We also walked by the Carnavalet Museum I had been to before, and since it was free, we decided to venture in.

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Friday night the skies cleared up a bit and we went to the Jardin Du Luxembourg to enjoy it when it is a bit quieter.

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Saturday we had a break from the rain at about 3pm, so after a lazy morning  we packed a picnic lunch to bring to the Parc Floral to take in a free jazz concert. The good news is, we pack excellent picnics. The bad news is, the concert was way less ‘jazz’ and way more ‘new music’, or as I like to call it, noise.

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All in all, we got in some great museum action, saw the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and spent time in gardens here, as well as having some great meals. Week one down, bring on week two!! (And maybe some sunshine and hot days?) 😀

My sister took this photo and I love it. She has a blog too, and if I did this right, you should be able to get to her page by the link from this photo!