Paris & a Fab Way to See a Big City in a Weekend

Planning a short trip to a new and epic city is always a bit daunting. NYC, London, Rome… PARIS… I want to see as many of the iconic sites as possible, but also spend time away from tourists, mingling with the locals and experiencing their favorite corners of the busy streets. Finding this balance in a short trip is challenging, and my list of must-sees in Paris was much longer than I could tackle in 2 days. But we managed to see a lot for almost no money thanks to one simple decision. We rented bikes!!

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Biking at the Louvre

Budget friendly, efficient, scenic… biking in Paris was so so fun!!

We used the bike sharing scheme called VĂ©lib’ which has more than 14k bicycles available for grab and go rides. A 24-hour pass for unlimited bike rentals was about €1.70. Crazy cheap! Type in your user code at one of the machines, pick out a bike, and it’s yours for free for the next 30 minutes. Every time you check out a bike, the first 30 minutes are free, and you can do this as many times as you want. We used VĂ©lib’ constantly and it was so simple and easy. It was also the only time we felt a breeze while in Paris. Try it and you’ll be amazed at all the ground you can cover!

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Biking at the Louvre

We woke up very early on Saturday to see some of the big stuff before the other tourists were awake and swarming. Despite our lack of sleep, this was definitely a good choice. We biked along the Seine and stopped to return the bikes and wander whenever we saw something we wanted to check out. It was early enough that the sun hadn’t baked the city to a crisp and the only cars were delivery trucks and a few taxis. We visited Notre Dame, the Louvre & Jardin des Tuileries, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-ÉlysĂ©es and the Petit Palais all before lunch. The city is gorgeous and packed with fabulous buildings, and I know we biked by other significant things that in my ignorance I can’t name. We had second breakfast at a cafe, grabbed lunch to go, and enjoyed a midday siesta at our Airbnb. The joke’s on all those other tourists gritting it out in the sweltering sun, dodging elbows and dudes selling tchotchkes.

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Unknown Beautiful Building #1. I think it’s a library.
The Louvre
the Louvre
Eiffel Tower and Champ de Mars
Eiffel Tower from Champ de Mars
Arc de Triumph
Arc de Triomphe
Avenue des Champs-Élysées
Avenue des Champs-Élysées
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Louvre and Jardin des Tuileries

After a nap, another cup of coffee, and a shower, we went to Saturday evening Mass at Notre Dame. Confession: this was one of those “pinch me” moments that was so moving and overwhelming that I’m really at a loss for words. I had some kind of a “moment” and I should probably take some time to process whatever it is that went down, because I just couldn’t keep it together once we were inside the cathedral. It’s like I stepped through the door into a cloud of emotion that was completely unexpected and overwhelming in its intensity. I was not PMSing, drunk, or tired, thankyouverymuch. I just felt this profound sense of gratitude… for my life, faith, wonderful husband, the many eye opening experiences of the past year, my sister’s recent engagement, the fact that I was basically standing in the World Headquarters of Mary, Inc., and so much more. It’s like the realization of this crazy beautiful life I’m living hit me in the face. Each time I think back on that evening I can’t help but tear up all over again.

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In John XXIII Square before Mass
Inside Notre Dame
Interior of Notre Dame
Notre Dame
Notre Dame de Paris

So that happened. Then we had dinner on the Seine at a great place Connor found that was a secret little local hangout. It took forever to find, and was completely worth the trouble. We shared a table with another couple and enjoyed a mini jazz concert going on in the background. After dinner and some wandering we plunked down on the Seine like everyone else and feasted on wine, Camembert, apples and crackers.

Ready for our picnic
Picnic on the Seine
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Dusk

We ended the day with a walk back to Le Marais where we were staying (fab neighborhood, Jewish Quarter, straddles the 3rd and 4th arrondissements) and saw the glittering Eiffel Tower from a bridge. The little dude knows how to sparkle, let me tell you.

Sunday morning we walked around Place des Vosges, a beautiful little square around the corner from our apartment, also former home of Victor Hugo and a bunch of fancy Frenchmen whose names do not ring a bell.

Place des Vosges
Place des Vosges
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Place des Vosges

We biked over to MusĂ©e d’Orsay and guess what!? No line! Fun fact about me: I can’t stand lines. Or queues, as I’ve learned to call them. There are very few things that I consider worth queuing for. Museums and tourist things are generally no where close to being on that list.

Musee d'Orsay - Sunday morning adventure
MusĂ©e d’Orsay

I do, however, have a soft spot for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art so I’m glad my patience wasn’t tested that morning. (Before you feel sorry for Connor, he enjoys this genre, too. Also, he didn’t suggest any alternatives…) MusĂ©e d’Orsay has a really robust collection and to say we were impressed is an understatement. I’ve never seen so many Degas sculptures in one place in my life! And the Monets on display were so diverse. The more I check out the work of Impressionists in the cities we visit, the more I love them. (RE: the Louvre. I couldn’t spend half our trip in a single museum. Maybe next time.) We narrowed our museum options down to the MusĂ©e de l’Orangerie and the MusĂ©e d’Orsay. l’Orangerie is the smaller museum famous for the oval rooms designed by Monet and covered in his waterlily murals. I’d love to see that someday, too.

We visited some shops that afternoon including the legendary English bookstore Shakespeare and Co. that I think every English major has on her bucket list. The current store is a descendant of the one Sylvia Beach opened on Paris’ left bank that was a haven for writers and would-be-writers that closed during the Nazi occupation. The eccentric George Whitman opened the existing store that is now run by his daughter, Sylvia, and it continues the tradition of providing a home for Tumbleweeds in exchange for help at the store. I fully intended to purchase something here but they marked up the prices so drastically I couldn’t justify it. Instead, I bought a paintbrush from Charvin Arts. I hoped to make it to Sennelier where Picasso, CĂ©zanne, and others shopped for supplies, but again, next time!

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Shakespeare and Co

We mostly wandered little streets for the rest of the day, ate macaroons, relaxed in some gardens, saw the Louvre one last time, and had a delicious dinner.

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Sunset at the Louvre

Be forewarned if you visit Paris in August; you need to be flexible because August Closures are a real thing! But don’t avoid the city because of this. More than enough is open that you could stay busy for months!

Paris & a Fab Way to See a Big City in a Weekend

Quick Trip to Amsterdam

We spent less than 36 hours in Amsterdam and that was all it took for me to fall in love. Such an underrated city!! We didn’t visit the Red Light District nor did we smoke any weed, so let’s just get that out of the way. But while we’re on the topic, why do we only talk about Amsterdam’s Red Light District? That’s like ignoring the Rocky Mountains and judging the merits of Colorado solely on it’s marijuana laws. Crazy.

There is so much more to Amsterdam! I left feeling like I had found my peeps and that I would love to live there. Maybe my subconscious was picking up faint similarities between locals in Amsterdam and the Dutch back home in West Michigan. Entirely possible. I have no idea. Everyone was very friendly, English was widely spoken (without an ounce of resentment), and we never really found ourselves in a crowd of tourists. It felt very residential and neighborhoody, very relaxed. There is a casual atmosphere, but you also pick up on an entrepreneurial vibe. Streets are full of quirky independent shops, and the owners/makers staffing the store are the farthest thing from haughty. The women were stylish yet undoubtedly comfortable, and I envied them as I silently cursed my skinny jeans. Another bonus: with so many canals and houseboats, it seems like the majority of residents have waterfront property.

Connor and I spent a great afternoon wandering the old Jordaan neighborhood, popping in and out of little shops, visiting the cheese museum, and eating far too many delicious samples (truffle cheese omg). We sat outside on a canal patio at ‘t Smalle CafĂ© and later visited CafĂ© Gollum, two small places that we loved and wholeheartedly recommend. These “bruin cafĂ©s” or “brown cafĂ©s” are old, traditional, Dutch pubs named for the cozy wooden interiors. They’re the best places to go if you’re looking for a local crowd rather than other tourists. We walked by the beautiful Rijksmuseum, saw the IAmsterdam letters, and ordered a delicious takeout pizza before calling it a night.

Amsterdam
Exploring Amsterdam
t'Smalle Bruin Bar
‘t Smalle CafĂ©
Rijksmuseum
Rijksmuseum
I Amsterdam letters
E for Erin

The next day Connor had to work so I spent the morning visiting Rembrandt’s former home and studio, now the Rembrandthuis Museum. Seriously cool. Rembrandt lived and worked in this building from 1639-1656 and you can tour all the rooms, including his multiple studios. I knew very little about the famous painter, and had no idea he was known during his lifetime for his etchings rather than his paintings. Today it’s the opposite, and this museum has the largest collection of his etchings in the world. I watched a few demonstrations and learned about etching, which was used as a kind of print making process in the 17th century. They also had a really cool demonstration on pigments and the process of making oil paint during Rembrandt’s time. The museum has a sizable room devoted to Rembrandt’s collection: skulls, Greek and Roman busts, turtle shells, seashells, bones, feathers, coins, pottery, giant books, statues, weapons. Super cool. However, if you want to see more of his paintings you’re better off visiting the Rijksmuseum.

Rembrandt's Collection
Part of Rembrandt’s collection
Shelves in Rembrandt's House
Shelves in Rembrandthuis
Rembrandt's Large Studio
Rembrandt’s painting studio

That afternoon I wandered around the city checking out more shops and enjoying the canals before heading to the airport around dinner time.

Amsterdam iPhone
Beautiful buildings
Amsterdam
Sitting on the canal watching the boats go by
Amsterdam iPhone
Super cute shops
Amsterdam
Canals!

Not too shabby for only a day and a half! Things we pointedly skipped that we didn’t regret: big museums, canal cruise (since we did that in Bruges), walking tour (we didn’t want to go to the Red Light District), Dutch food (not that different from Belgium). If we had more time we would have rented bikes and seen more of the neighborhoods outside the central canal ring. Go to Amsterdam! Great place to spend a weekend!

 

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Quick Trip to Amsterdam

Climbing Kinder Scout from Edale

We overdid it a bit last week. Too much adventure. Too little rest. Not enough healthy food. And when I say “we” I mean me and Penny. Connor escaped unscathed.

A week ago Saturday we climbed (what we believe was) Kinder Scout, one of the highest peaks in the Peak District. Monday we left for Amsterdam. Flew back late Tuesday night. Picked up Penny from her doggie hotel on Wednesday morning. She immediately started barfing. I cleaned up dog puke all day. Friday we left Paris and hoped our dog would be alive when we returned. Great weekend in Paris – biking and walking all over the place and wearing ourselves out. Sunday night I felt a bit queasy – hot sun, too much bread and cheese, 40,000 steps in one day, not enough sleep. No surprise. Monday we woke up at the crack for our flight and I was not. well. I collapsed on the couch with the flu and have been here ever since, binge watching Netflix. Penny and I are both on the BRAT diet.

I’m a sprinter, not a marathoner. Endurance is not my strong point. I do things quickly and intensely and need ample recovery time. My adrenaline reserve was depleted before we even left for Amsterdam and my body just can’t handle it. Lesson learned. Also, many happy returns to the person who gave me the flu. Bastard.

So while Penny and I continue our pity party and finish whatever season of New Girl we’ve made it to, here are some pictures of Kinder Scout in the Peaks. Stay tuned next week for fun bits and bobs about Amsterdam and Paris.

Kinder Scout was gorgeous! The hike was incredible and the day was perfect, one of the warmest we’ve had yet. I could sit and look at the sprawling views all day. Purple heather was everywhere. Bliss.

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iPhone kinder scout hike

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Climbing Kinder Scout from Edale

5 Ways England Surprised Us

Monday marked the one year anniversary of our move to England. Craaazyyyyy!

We’ve been rather reflective lately, thinking back on the places visited and lessons learned, what we miss about America and which British customs we plan to bring home. Overall, we have been pleasantly surprised by many aspects of life in the UK. We both feel that the biggest surprise was Wales. We knew absolutely nothing about Wales before moving here, and it is gorgeous! Sparsely inhabited, very reachable from Birmingham, and an outdoor lover’s dream.

1. Walking TRAILS

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Despite her finicky and often unpredictable weather, England is a hiker’s heaven. The country maintains a vast network of trails that as far as I can tell, mainly traverse private property and farmland. There’s a distinct walkers etiquette and dutiful adherence to the “leave no trace” rule. The relationship between trusting landowner and respectful walker is impressive. Gates are closed to prevent livestock from wandering, I haven’t noticed any trash on the trails, nor have I seen signs discouraging walkers from approaching. On the contrary, roads are peppered with signs pointing out the public footpaths. Every region of the country is covered in beautiful trails. This leads me to my second surprising item…

2. Varied Topography

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Durdle Door, Jurassic Coast
Samphire Hoe, Dover
Samphire Hoe, Dover
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View from Orrest Head over Lake Windermere, Lake District

I had no idea the UK was so beautiful. I think I assumed England was a lot like Ireland, but the topography is significantly more varied here and thanks to those public footpaths, we have plenty of territory left to explore. Highlights from little mini trips over the last year include the cliffs and coves of North Devon, the Mediterranean looking Jurassic Coast with its fossils and rock formations, the white cliffs in Dover, the rolling dales in Yorkshire, the hills and lakes in the Lake District, peaks in the Peak District (also here) and flat golden fields in Norwich. There’s a saying “When you’re tired of London you’re tired of life,” a popular maxim that may be partially responsible for the fact that no one is talking about the other 95% of the country. And they should really talk about it more often! Visitors need to get out and see the rural areas, too!

3. Well-preserved and accessible history

England has done an astonishing job in this department. London has over 20 free and excellent museums alone (it could be 40… I’m not about to start counting). The English Heritage cares for over 400 historic buildings, monuments, and sites throughout the UK, and the National Trust cares for over 500. Think Downton Abbey when the family realized they could no longer afford the upkeep of such a grand estate. These trusts now care for tons of old manor homes and country houses, many of which still act as family residences. Because of these partnerships many magnificent buildings and iconic sites have been preserved. Both organizations offer year-long memberships at very affordable prices that grant you free access to all their sites. If you visit one place each month your membership is more than paid for.

Wollaton Hall
Wollaton Hall outside Nottingham. 1580s Elizabethan House. Also, Batman.
Warwick Castle
12th century Warwick Castle
An afternoon at Kedleston Hall near Derby, England
Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire, from 1759
Coughton Court
Coughton Court from 1530
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York Minster Cathedral
Allerton Castle
Allerton Castle, Yorkshire, from 1843

Aside from these grand buildings and iconic sites (like Stonehenge – English Heritage), individual villages, towns, and their many churches are well-cared for. Conservation and repair is taken seriously. The British Geological Survey formed in 1839 is responsible for identifying and archiving the more than 1,000 different stones used in buildings throughout the country. The geological diversity has become very apparent as we’ve explored different corners of the country. We’ve seen the famous Cotswold stone, a type of limestone that yellows with age; highly textured buildings and walls in the county of Norwich made of pebbles and cobbles; the blue shale-like stones in Wales, and so many others. I love that the British focus on conservation over tearing down and modernizing. Yes, this means country roads are ridiculously narrow because the towns were created before cars were even thought of. So what. If we weren’t forced to slow down, we would miss the gorgeous little villages.

One final thought: The Blue Plaque project that started in London and expanded from there is one of my favorite little history nuggets. Buildings that housed notable people are given a circular blue plaque to commemorate the moment. It’s a fun little treasure hunt. I stumbled upon Graham Greene’s house in the Cotswolds, the building where Guy Fawkes was born in York, and there’s one on our church in Birmingham where John Henry Cardinal Newman lived. Tolkien also lived in the Oratory rectory for years after his mother passed away, and I’m sure there’s a plaque hiding somewhere on the premises.

4. Extremely Dog Friendly

Outside London, you can basically bring your dog anywhere and apologize in surprise if reprimanded. Pubs generally admit dogs, especially if you’re somewhere in the countryside. There’s no such thing as a pub needing a permit to have a patio and then a second permit to admit dogs on the patio, which can never be granted if your patio/beer garden doesn’t have a separate entrance than the entrance serving the main part of the building. Good grief. People here just do what they want. Chicago, are you listening?

5. Amusing Names of Cities and Pubs

Apparently the early British settlers who moved to America had little to no sense of humor. They named their new towns after the ones back in England, but didn’t choose any of the good ones! I expected Cambridge, York, Boston, etc. But where in America is Little Snoring and Great Snoring? What about Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter? Stow-on-the-Wold, Giggleswick, Lickey End, Broadbottom, Bootle, Upton Snodsbury, Blubber Houses, Kirby Grindalythe… Bitchfield… pan around England on Google Maps for awhile. City names are fabulously creative.

Pubs are equally fascinating. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. The Prince of Wales Feathers. Also, every town has either The Kings Head, The Queens Head, The Kings Arms, or The Queens Arms. Or, if they’re being creative, they’ll make it The Dukes Head.

Love it.

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5 Ways England Surprised Us