Fire Dance, Turkey: In Pictures

I came across these fire dancers in Fethiye, Turkey. Walking home from dinner late one evening, we stopped to watch their performance. It was mesmerising to see as they moved with grace and precision, gently lit by the soft light of the flames in the darkness.
   

Playing with Fire

A little bit more about Poi…

A regular favourite of fire twirlers. Poi is a Maori word and the art of spinning poi originally comes from New Zealand, though it can be found throughout the world today.

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A fire poi is an arm-length chain with a handle attached to one end, and bundle of wicking material on the other. The wick is soaked in fuel, set on fire, and then spun with beautiful dramatic effect. Usually twirled in pairs, they create a beautiful circular fire trail about the fire dancer…

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If you’d like to read and see more about this region of Turkey, check out my other post Fethiye: Escape to the Old Town

Fethiye: Escape to the Old Town

It was a last minute, spur of the moment holiday to Turkey, a bargain package deal so I was expecting to end up somewhere really touristy and just spending my days lazing on the beach and eating lots of delicious local food, which I did do in good measure. But at heart I’m not really that much of a beach lounger and after a day or two I start to fidget and the need to explore takes over. So I headed out from our beach resort near Fethiye, in the well-known tourist region of Dalaman, with the famous resort of Oludeniz just down the road, and took a short ride by dolmus (shared taxi or minibus) to explore the Old Town.

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A great place to relax and watch the world go by sipping a strong turkish coffee or a deliciously fresh juice in a small cafe… Stroll along the harbour, haggle in the markets looking for bargains… Take a slow walk around the old town, with its little cobbled streets, traditional buildings and white-washed mosques.

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And don’t forget to visit the Fish Market (on Tuesdays), you can buy a fish of your choice from the middle of the Market and then get it filleted and cooked to your liking by any of the surrounding cafes. As we visited early in the holiday season in mid June, the locals welcomed us eagerly and I noticed at this time of year the majority of the tourists were Turkish and Lebanese holidaymakers.

A mix of the traditional and the touristy, but that’s fairly normal all over the world nowadays, there are some great finds here.

And a great place to just walk around with my camera, so here it is in pictures…

 

Sounds of the Deep South, Part One: Nashville

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I’ve often heard the Deep South described as a ‘musical landscape’, so when I chose to go on a tour of his region I knew I was heading out on a musical journey. Being a music lover (and a bit of a food lover too) I was looking forward to experiencing what the Deep South had to offer! And I have to say it delighted me in every way!

Nashville, Tennessee

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I began my journey in style in ‘Music City’, Nashville. This place is just brimming with musical talent. It’s on the streets, in the Honky-Tonks on Broadway, in the parks and even up on the bridge! Whatever your musical taste if you look hard enough you could probably find it here, or you could just embrace country music, it’s infectious! Nashville comes to life in the evenings, I spent my first night on Broadway dipping in and out of various venues, catching some great bands and singers, my favourite spots were ‘Tootsies’ and ‘The Second Fiddle’, which had a friendly atmosphere, down to earth vibe and great music.

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To get into my country groove, you might like to listen to my Nashville soundtrack here…

Honestly I wasn’t a huge country music fan when I left the UK but by day two in Nashville I was converted. I started my day at the amazing Johnny Cash museum, getting to know this American icon. Its a great collection of Cash memorabilia and personal items charting his life. There were music booths and films along with letters, scripts, lyrics and his guitars. It was a very honest and personal exhibit, and I felt I came away knowing the ‘Man in black’ a little better and loving his music even more!

At lunchtime I was trying on over-priced cowboy boots on Broadway. By mid-afternoon I was working my way through the Country Music Hall of Fame and by nightfall I was in my seat at the Grand Ole Opry, rocking out to some great country talent both young and old.

A night at the Opry

Often called “The Show that Made Country Music Famous” the Grand Ole Opry is an American icon in itself, a weekly country music show, broadcast live on the radio and famously known as one of the longest running radio broadcasts in history. It seemed a must do in Nashville, even though (as I might have mentioned before) I was not a huge country music fan, it wasn’t top of my list… but I’m so glad I went!

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Although it’s dedicated to country music, the Opry embraces a mix of musical genres from country to bluegrass, folk and gospel, there is something for everyone. I love live music and I always feel when you try something new, you can often be surprised at what you find and what you like!

And that’s exactly what happened that night at the Opry, I found a band called Needtobreathe. The final band of the night, which so far had been quite sedate (sitting in pews it does feel a bit like a church) suddenly became a One Direction concert with the band taking the stage and the girls in the row next to me going wild! A cross between country, bluegrass and Christian rock, they had a refreshing sound, a youthful vibe and their songs stayed with me on my travels in the Deep South….

More photos from Music City

Look out for Sounds of the Deep South Part Two: Next up Memphis!
Coming soon…

Cruising the Kerala Backwaters…

During my travels in Southern India a few years ago, my friends and I made our way down the Keralan Coast from Cochin to Kovalam. A week earlier we had been in Bangalore, a fast-paced city, noisy and chaotic. Before that we were in Coorg, a lush hill station surrounded by coffee and spice plantations. And now
we were in a tranquil state, a calming, laid-back paradise of little fishing ports and unspoilt beaches…
  

This is why I love India, every state is different, not just in its landscape or climate but in its culture, energy and lifeblood too. Each region welcomes you with its own personality, its language or dialect, quirks, customs, and way of life, and you soon get to know it.

  
The Kerala Backwaters
 
What makes Kerala unique to any other part of India, has to be the backwaters, a network of 5 large lakes, connected by canals, estuaries of forty-four rivers that drain into the Arabian Sea. The canals connect the villages together and are still used for local transport, and over 900km of this maze of water channels is navigable. The backwaters are also a self-supporting eco-system teeming with aquatic life (and a few mosquitos in the evening, in the summer months).
  
 

Our Traditional Houseboat (kettuvallam)

Although there are many resorts cropping up nowadays, I still think the traditional houseboats (kettuvallam) are the best way to experience the backwaters and take in the local way of life. Originally used to transport rice from the paddy fields to market towns these beautifully crafted boats; made of bamboo, rattan, coir and wood, usually about 80 feet (24m) in length; have been refashioned into floating cottages.
  
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You can spend anything from an afternoon to a week on a backwaters houseboat, though two-day trips are the most popular and in the end what we chose to do. The main spots to embark on a backwaters adventure are the cities or towns of Alappuzha, Kochi, Kollam and Kumarakom. If not booked in advance, like us, you could book a houseboat on arrival, if so here are a few tips:

Shop around  There will be a lot of choice so do some research, we rented our houseboat from Kollam and there were several agents selling packages, so its worth checking out a few different options to see what is on offer and the price ranges before booking.

Inspect your boat!  Most agents are happy for you to have a quick tour around a boat to help you decide, so its worth asking if not offered.

What’s included  The captain, a cook and all meals should be included and often drinks can also be factored into the package. A good agent will usually discuss the menu and your specific requirements with you beforehand. Excursions by canoe into smaller channels and swimming opportunities are usually included in the price too.

Agree on a price upfront  Its always worth getting everything agreed and a fair price negotiated and fixed beforehand, so you can just relax and enjoy your time on the water.

We began our journey from Kollam, heading out on to the Ashtamudi Lake,
the second largest of the five main lakes and considered the gateway to the backwaters.
  

Our journey through the Kerala Backwaters…

If you enjoyed this post you may also like my post on playing Holi in Hampi.

The Real Holi

In the last few years Holi has become huge, everyone is doing it. There are colour ‘runs’ and ‘festivals of colour’ taking place all over the world. I think its great as they are taking inspiration from such a happy festival.

         

So what’s it all about?

Holi is a festival of colours which generally falls on a full moon in March. It is a festival of love and unity and celebrates the triumph of good over evil and the welcoming of Spring. Everyone is invited to take to the streets to play, chase and colour each other with dry powder and coloured water.

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There are many legends behind the celebration of holi. Here is probably the most well-known and the one I always remember…

Long ago there was a powerful king named Hiranyakashyapu, he had a son, Prahlad – a holy spirit and devoted to God. But Prahlad’s devotion enraged Hiranyakashyapu and he planned to kill him. He asked his sister Holika, who was immune to fire, to sit in fire taking Prahlad in her lap. Fortunately Prahlad, who was blessed by God, was saved and Holika was burnt to ashes. This gave birth to the festival of holi.

Like most things nothing beats the original and I was lucky enough to experience the real thing and ‘play Holi’ in India, in the small village of Hampi…
 

The build up

Working as volunteers in Bangalore, my housemates and I had the weekend off and decided to escape the city for the Holi celebrations. Bonfires were already being lit on the eve of Holi as we travelled by overnight train (one of the best ways to travel across India) to the town of Hospet, in northern Karnataka. Arriving in early morning we made our way by rickshaw to the village of Hampi.

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Set in a surreal boulder-strewn landscape on the banks of the Tungabhadra river and surrounded by the ancient ruins and temples of the Hindu Kingdom of Vijayanagar, it seemed like the perfect place to experience the real Holi.

Holi-time!

We checked into our very basic hostel, no hot water (and no electricty that morning), unphased we were here for holi, nothing else seemed to matter. So we dumped our stuff in our rooms, got ready and headed out on to the street.

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A bit unsure which direction to head in, our first clue was a kitten, perched on a wall with a sprinkling of purple powder on its nose. And then we saw him, a little boy covered in an intense purple powder, he saw my friend Chris’ ridiculously white t-shirt and ran towards us and so it began!
Another boy and girl appeared and bestowed bright pink hand prints on all of us. As we turned on to the next street we were invited to buy our own little bags of colour.
Now fully ‘armed’ we joined the procession of colours through the narrow streets. It was fantastic! Music, chaos and mischief! A sea of people dancing and throwing colours and the occasional water balloon or bucket of coloured water showering us from the balconies above.
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Within 5 minutes I was purple, then I was pink, yellow, blue and then as all the colours mingled together a dark purplish brown. Some colours were stronger than others (the pinks and yellows especially took a few days to completely come off)!

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Our now muddy procession wove its way to the river where everyone was invited to wash away their colours, along with their worries and welcome the spring and new beginnings.

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It was a wonderful day and an experience I will never forget!

If you would like to experience the real Holi, here are my top tips:

1 Check your dates  Holi is a Spring festival, usually taking place at the end of February or March so its best to check for the exact dates each year.

2 Choose a good location  My advice is to join celebrations in a small town or village, for a welcoming, safe and friendly atmosphere. Unfortunately festivities in the big cities can get a bit rough and ready!

3 Know your colours  Depending on their ingredients, some colours will stain, I found the pink and yellow especially! I was still pink for atleast 2 days after but so was everybody else so it didn’t really matter! I learnt after it’s a good idea to rub hair oil or coconut oil into your skin beforehand, to prevent the color from absorbing.

4 Be prepared to get soaked  Every bit of you is going to get covered in coloured powder and water, so embrace it! Wear a light t-shirt like my friend Chris and take it home as a permanent reminder of a wonderful festival!

5 Watch out for the Bhang  Usually in the form of a sweet drink made from cannabis leaves and other herbs, its intoxicating and very popular with young men in India. So safety first – if you plan on going out into the streets on Holi, try to go early in the morning and be back in your hotel by midday, women especially – before the men get too inebriated.

In 2015, Holi will be celebrated on March 6, if you find yourself in India and take part in the celebrations, have an amazing time and I’d love to see some pictures, so tweet @NeesStar

Costa Rica: Pura Vida!

I’ve always been drawn to Costa Rica as it just seems so alive, with so much natural beauty packed into such a small region, I felt there would be so much to see and explore. A vibrant and colourful country of volcanoes, cloud forests and waterfalls! And then there is all the exotic wildlife all around you too, beautiful birds, monkeys, frogs and insects. So when the chance came up though my work,
I just knew I had to go.

I don’t think I can tell you just how beautiful this country is just in words.
So here are some highlights from my time in Costa Rica in pictures…
or 30 reasons why you must go!

If you’d like to read more about Costa Rica, please check out my series of posts on exploring this gorgeous country, video coming soon too!

Costa Rica – Walking in Paradise

I enjoy walking, I’m not a hardcore hiker (not yet!) but just thought it would really be the best way to experience a place like Costa Rica. So I booked myself on to an 8 day walking tour to explore this beautiful country! Here are some of my most memorable and rewarding hikes from my trip, which I hope will inspire anyone who wants to get out there and explore this wonderful country.

“EL Coloso”
Irazu Volcano National Park to the town of Pocayas

Thrown in at the deep end on the first day we were dropped at the summit of the mighty Irazu Volcano or “El Coloso” (The Colossus) the highest active volcano in Costa Rica.  The view of the Central Valley are best earlier in the day, so I would recommend visiting in the morning and hiking down.

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So we hiked 15km down to the town of Pocayas. We left the cool climate of the dusty crater at 3,432m and made our way through the misty, fertile fields that flank the slopes of the volcano.

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I’ve heard the slopes of Irazu often described as a ‘salad bowl’ and they totally are, everything grows here! We passed through fields of onions, cabbages, carrots and potatoes forming beautful patterns in the countryside.

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Our route was windy and steep and although the path was often firm the incline took its toll on my legs, by three-quarters of the way down they were turning to jelly! Fields turned to small villages and then to the relief of my legs the pretty little town of Pocayas!

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We spent a little time exploring the town with its traditional family run stores before a well-earned lunch and a rest for my legs! This is where I had my first Casado, a traditional Costa Rican dish of rice, black beans and fried plantain accompanied by a salad and usually a meat of your choice or fish.

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After a fresh pineapple juice from a local fruit stall, we left the town replenished and headed back to San José.

“Hike to the Emerald Crater”
Cerro Chato Volcano hike in Arenal National Park

The most enjoyable hike for me, was actually the one I found the most challenging. We hiked to the crater on Cerro Chatto (1,140m) which is a dormant sister volcano to the Arenal volcano, its hollow crater is now filled with an emerald lagoon of water.

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We began our hike from the Arenal Observatory Lodge hiking up the western slope through the dense rainforest up to the crater. The hike was muddy and steep at times and I really had to take it at my own pace. I often found I had to use my hands as well as my feet to get a good grip on the slippery and tangled surfaces of the forest.

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Our guides were amazing though and kept me going. When we got to the top, it was quite misty so we couldn’t see the crater very clearly at all, but I was just so happy to have made it to the top! Hiking around the crater was just as challenging but quite fun, as the terrain was soft, muddy and quite swamp-like in places, so one false step and you were ankle deep in mud.

The downhill was just as challenging as the uphill but by then as a group we were in high spirits! It was about a 5 hour hike in total, I was exhausted by the end but felt so proud of myself!

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That evening we treated ourselves and our legs to a well-earned visit to a natural volcanic hot springs, Eco Termales in the nearby town of La Fortuna, the perfect end to an amazing day!

“Walking in Paradise”
Hike to waterfalls in Rincón de la Vieja

I didn’t know quite what to expect this day but was pretty excited when our guides suggested we bring a packed lunch and our swimwear! This was a lovely days hike through lush forests, crossing hanging bridges, babbling streams, encountering some beautiful wildlife, plants and  two different species of monkeys. I had found my hiking legs now, walking with confidence I could enjoy and take in the beauty of my surroundings.

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Our reward today was a beautiful secluded waterfall, where we spent a few hours swimming, relaxing and eating our picnic lunch. This was one of my happiest memories of Costa Rica, it was like our own little paradise, we only encountered four other people during the whole hike and pretty much had the waterfalls to ourselves for a few hours.

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“Las Pailas Trail”
The Mud pots of Rincón de la Vieja

Later the same day, feeling rejuvenated from our swim and picnic, we took a shorter circular hike through “Las Pailas” or mud pots of Rincón de la Vieja, still an active volcano, since it has had some small eruptions around its crater as recently as 2011, its no longer possible. In complete contrast to the morning’s lush rainforest and inviting waters, we were now in a dry, volatile landscape, even the vegetation seemed hostile.

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We found ourselves walking through the volcanic elements. I’ll never forget the steam and sulphur fumes rising up from the ground, the frothing mud pots, the bubbling brown waters and of course the smell! This volcano was alive!

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Costa Rica has so much to offer, that I don’t feel I can cover it all in just one post! It’s bio-diversity and natural beauty make it a wildlife lover and photographers dream, its varied landscapes and climates make it a great hiking and adventure destination too.

So look out for future posts on my adventures in this amazing country!

Pura Vida!

Shoreditch Unseen

Street Art & Street Cred

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I’ve lived most of my life in London and there are some parts I think I know pretty well, yet there are still so many places that I don’t know that much about at all. So if I have free time on a weekend I love to go for a wander with my camera, often trying to find a new part of the city to explore and learn about.

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One weekend a friend of mine suggested we do a walking tour in Shoreditch and I realised that although I’ve been there many times for a bite or meet up with friends I’d never really stopped to look around or explore.

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This was going to be a tour with a difference, as our guide had a unique understanding and experience of the area, which he was going to share with us on the tour.

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So we met Henri outside Old Street Station on a Saturday afternoon, a lively, friendly character and our guide from Unseen Tours – alternative walking tours of London led by people who are or have recently been homeless. Being a guide gives them the opportunity to talk about the areas they know from their own unique perspective, as well as earning some money (they are paid 60% of the cost of the tour).

Henri gave us a brief introduction and history of the local area outside the station, having lived homeless there for a number of years. As we continued he pointed out both historical sites, such as William Blake’s grave in the Bunhill Fields Burial Grounds, or the secret location of a MI5 ‘detention’ centre, along with sites of personal significance to him. Sharing some parts of his own life, his stories and people he had encountered, made the tour so personal, like walking around with an old friend.

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Our tour took us from Old Street through to the streets of the hip and trendy Shoreditch. Once off the main streets Henri guided us through a labyrinth of side streets covered with some wonderful street art.

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This is where Henri was in his element, coming from an artistic background having studied sculpture at Art College himself, he spoke very animatedly about the artworks we were seeing and his own personal memories and encounters with some of the artists that made them.

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The tour was fantastic, I felt Henri gave us a good mix of history, local culture and his personal stories gave us an insight into a side of Shoreditch we wouldn’t normally see. Also the street art was incredible and some of the best I’ve seen in London.

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If you are thinking about doing an Unseen Tour I would definitely say go for it! I think I’ll be back to do the London bridge and Covent Garden tours myself soon!

If you would like to read more about Henri’s story or find out more about Unseen Tours and the great work they are doing visit: sockmobevents.org.uk

One city… two days… three friends and 2000 photos!

We had all been to Paris before on school trips as kids, work trips, or a weekend away, so we had already hit all the tourist spots. This time we just wanted to take the opportunity to relax and take it in. We wandered around the city revisiting some of our favourite spots and discovering a few new ones. We ate, we drank, we shopped, then we ate some more… and then we started taking photos, so many photos!

I love to take photos and looking through them afterwards is like reliving the moments all over again. I had so many this time I wanted to share them, so I put them together and made this stop motion video, 2000 photos of our trip in less than 3 minutes:

The thing I love about Paris is that it is one of those cities that are fun to visit at any time of year and there is always something new to discover. We visited in February this time and although the weather was wet and windy it didn’t really deter us in our plans! So here are a few highlights from our trip.

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Initially on our first day we just wanted to wander, eat macaroons and see where the day took us, so we walked through the centre of the city starting from our hotel close to the Gare du Nord then on to L’Opera, taking in the sights, getting lost, stopping for a fine lunch at a small bistro, then again for some giant raspberry macaroons (had to be done), un café and shopping (mostly of the window kind). Then making our way to the river and along to the Place du Concorde and last stop the Champs-Élysées. Then tired of walking we jumped on the Metro to one of my favourite places…

L'Arc de Triomphe Champs-Élysées

L’Arc de Triomphe Champs-Élysées

 

Le Marais

Le Marais is cool and will always be one of the hippest parts of the city for me. Set between the 3rd and 4th arrondissements it’s just as touristy as any other main area in the city but the beautiful architecture of it’s crooked little medieval streets, give it something special. Having being well-known for its gay scene, it has also now fast become a bit of a vintage lovers paradise too. These small lanes are alive with bars, restaurants, hotels, trendy shops, hip young designers, old fashioned bread shops, falafel, jewellery, wine, more falafel, fashionable art galleries and museums all crammed into one small area. I’d also recommend looking out for some great street art as you wander through its streets. It is this forever-changing scene that always makes me want to come back here and see what’s new!

Le Marais

We decided to spend the evening here with a leisurely meal in a quirky little restaurant called Les Philosophes, I highly recommend the tart au chocolat with a speculos base!

 

Basilica of Sacre-Coeur and Montmartre

Basilica of Sacre-Coeur

Basilica of Sacre-Coeur

Waking up in the morning, we left our hotel with the aim to find a nice spot for breakfast but before we new it we were already on the Boulevard de Clichy making the pilgrimage towards the place that nurtured so many great artists and writers. By the time we grabbed a coffee and some chouquettes we were already at the carousel staring up at the Basilica. For me Sacre-Coeur and the Eiffel Tour have the same effect, for I always feel happy just to see them, or catch a glimpse of them as I go about town.

Once up the hill we hit the Place du Tertre now filled with watercolours, portrait sketchers and caricaturists. You can’t blame them for trying to make a bit of money, and a few are actually good artists who need money, but for me the square is more of a reminder of the lost generation of artists who lived and worked here. Look out for wall plaques identifying buildings and cafes as historic, or places of note. “Hemmingway once peed in our bathroom…” was my personal favourite!

Monmartre view of the Eiffel Tour

Montmartre view of the Eiffel Tour

Thinking once again about food, our search continued for the Maison Rose or the “tiny pink house” as my friend called it, a quaint little restaurant she fondly remembered it as one of her best meals in Paris from here last trip. We found it – unfortunately it was closed that day, so it is on the list for my next trip to Paris!

 

Les Catacombes

From the heights of Sacre-Coeur and many beautiful views of Paris from above, we ventured into the labyrinth underneath the city to see Paris from a completely different stance! This is an amazing experience. If you have time I recommend reading beforehand on its history, as you will appreciate the Catacombes a lot more.

We entered through a humble gate in the western pavilion of the former Barrière d’Enfer city gate. After descending a narrow spiral stone stairwell of 19 meters and passing through about 1.5 km twisting hallway of mortared stone, we arrived at a stone doorway or portal, the ossuary entrance, with the inscription “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort”.

Les Catacombes

Les Catacombes

Then we were left to make our own way through this empire of the dead, endless caverns and walls of carefully arranged bones. Some arrangements were almost artistic, such as a heart-shaped outline in one wall formed with skulls embedded with neatly arranged tibia bones. Slightly eerie, I expected it to be a much more morbid and macabre experience but I came out feeling fascinated, not just by the sheer scale of it but with the new understanding of the city it gave me.

 

Musee de l’Orangerie

Musee de l'Orangerie

Musee de l’Orangerie

I abandoned my friends and took a break from macaroon eating to check out the Musee de l’Orangerie, which I’ve never quite made it to in the past, and was so glad I did. It’s a gem for several reasons: Firstly as it houses Monet’s Nympheas (water lilies) the size of which you cannot believe until you see them al around you and the best part – its set in a corner of the Jardin des Tuileries and not as crowded as the Louvre or Musee d’Orsay. So it was like a calm oasis in the hustle and bustle of the city!

 

Ladurée on Champs-Élysées

Ladurée Champs-Élysées

Ladurée Champs-Élysées

After L’Orangerie there was only left time for one more macaroon before we had to catch the Eurostar back to London, so we had to make it count. We headed to the place serving arguably the best macaroon in the world, Ladurée on the Champs Elysees! And we did it in style, no queuing for macaroons to go for us, we had our macaroons in the full grandeur of the salon du thé upstairs. It was pouring with rain outside, which made a our round table by the fireplace even more special. The only difficulty was choosing which macaroon to have, as the choice is overwhelming! Macaroons are always expensive so €18 for 4 mini macaroons of my choice and un chocolat chaud didn’t seem that bad. Laduree was beautiful and so were my macaroons, I highly recommend the orange blossom!

 

How we got there:

Eurostar London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord from £69 return, but look out for some great deals early in the year we paid £59 return in February.

 

Where we stayed:

BEST WESTERN Premier Opera Faubourg
49-51 rue Lafayette | 09 Arr., 75009 Paris, France (Montmartre)

Although it is now a Best Western, this hotel still has the feel of a boutique hotel with its maze of rooms and modern quirky design. The hotel was very clean and comfortable and in a good central location, we walked everywhere from here.

 

This is my first ever blog post so I hope you enjoyed it
and come back to read more!

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