Paris is always a good idea (or, how to spend a week in the Marais)

For anyone who has read this little travel diary over the past 8 years or so, it’s no surprise that I love Paris – from my first visits while a dumb little baby student living in Dijon, the summer of 2005, up to now, it’s continued to be one of my favorite cities in the world. (And you can read about a few of those trips here and here and here if you want to. But like…no pressure, I get it).

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And this summer was no different! I was once again taking the ever-impressive EuroStar to Gare du Nord, but this time Jon and I were going to meet up with my friend Lindsey and her boyfriend. We’ve all been to the city before, and that meant we had a lot of flexibility in our trip – time to revisit favorite places, try some new things, and just travel slowly. No rush. No pressure. 

The weather for the week we were there was pretty spectacular. Thank goodness! I’m always happy to get some real heat on my skin – these damp English summers don’t really do it for me. It was hot for the first several days, followed by a big rainstorm on the second to last day/night (we even got separated from our friends for awhile because the intense rain meant we couldn’t make the run for it from the restaurant we were eating at to the bar we were all meeting at! Jon and I ended up getting a taxi to take us a full two blocks and we still arrived soaking wet just from sprinting to the cab and out again).

Of course a lot of cheese and bread was consumed, and wine was drank. How could we not?

A new experience for this trip was booking in a tour of the Palais Garnier, the stunning opera house in the center of Paris. The tour was okay – our tour guide went off on a lot of tangents and didn’t explain as much about the architecture as I would have liked – but it was still amazing, and just being inside was wonderful. Next life goal – actually go to see a performance here! (And if you want to tour the building, I’d suggest going in for the self-guided tour with audio guide).

The four of us spent a humid Sunday morning wandering around Pere-Lechaise Cemetary, checking out all the tombstones of residents both famous and not.

And Jon and I had some of the best cheese and wine of our lives when we spent an evening doing a tasting at Les Petits Crus, a little restaurant just a few blocks away from our hotel in the Marais. 

Another new thing on the list was a tour of Victor Hugo’s former home in Place des Vosges. It’s free, so for that alone I’d recommend popping in! The rooms are renovated/recreated in the way that they were when he was living there, and it was a really interesting way to spend an hour or so.

Besides those few new experiences, we spent most of our trip wandering, specifically around the Marais. This is half laziness and half just wanting a chill holiday! Plus, the Marais is a really wonderful neighborhood, with lots of interesting nooks and cranies to keep it exciting. 

Of course we also did two things that are essentials as far as I’m concerned – a trip to the Musee d’Orsay (because I love it and it’s the best) and a sunset picnic on the banks of the Seine, specifically near the Ile de la Cite, where Notre Dame is. Gorgeous. It seemed that all of Paris was out there on this specific Friday night. No surprise! 

Let’s see, what am I forgetting – we fit in some fantastic vintage shopping (if that’s your bag, check out FreeP’Star and Kilo Shop Kawaii, which has two locations), a visit to the L’Orangerie museum, which houses eight huge Monet paintings, and mostly just got to enjoy the privilege of being in Paris for a beautiful week in July. Dreamy! 

On our last day in Paris, Jon and I were left to our own devices as our friends had already left for their flight back to the States. We checked in our backpacks at the Gare du Nord luggage lockers, then walked north to Montmartre. It ended up being a jam-packed afternoon, as during our walk around the formerly bohemian paradise we saw a guy filming a video for his rap song, and an entire film crew doing a scene for what looked like a period drama. This alongside the regular hustle and bustle of the area made it a little more exciting than usual. 

Eventually though, our feet were tired. We made the 20 minute walk back to the station, camped out at the bistro across the street with two very large (possibly too large, if I’m being honest) glasses of red wine, and people watched until it was time to go through security and get our evening train back to a very wet and miserable England. It had to happen that way, of course, just to make sure we truly appreciated our time away. 

Good thing we did. (And if you’re looking for a lovely hotel in the Marais, I’d highly recommend the Bastille de Launay. It was perfect in every way).

Orchids and greenhouses at Kew Gardens

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Kew Gardens is an expanse of lush greenery on the western edge of London, a section of the city that I haven’t spent much time in due to it being full of more residential neighborhoods and not much “stuff”. I recently read a breakdown of London’s regions that described them like this: “east is poor, west is posh, south is rough, and north is intellectual”. That sounds like a crazily broad brush, because it is, but west = posh seems about right. It’s definitely fancy over there.

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The whole point of making the drive up to Kew Gardens was to check out the Orchid Festival, a yearly celebration in the Princess of Wales Conservatory in the gardens that celebrates the plant life of India. There are literally thousands of orchids (plus cacti, succulents, and all sorts of other plants) across ten different ecosystems in different rooms, all blooming simultaneously. It is stunning.

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Jon and I spent an hour or so in the orchid conservatory, wandering from room to room, battling the crowds – a beautiful Saturday in London, no surprise there – and then headed back outside for more general Kew Gardens exploration. The grounds themselves are so expansive that I think crowds would be impossible, so our walk around in the dying winter evening light was very calming and just plain nice.

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We also spent some time in the Palm House, a Victorian-era glass greenhouse that is as hot as the sun. I was melting, and it would be an amazing place to go on an actual cold day in winter to escape the chill. However, we were there on the warmest day of the year so far. It’s a lovely building though. My research tells me that experts consider the Kew Palm House to be one of the most important surviving iron and glass structures in the world. Pretty nifty!

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Jon and I also took in The Hive, an art installation in the gardens that is actually inspired by scientific research into the health of bees – it’s made form thousands of pieces of aluminium to form a huge metal hive that hums and buzzes like a real hive does. And in fact the Hive is responding to real-time activity of the bees in the Kew Gardens.

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And that was that. We left the gardens and found a cute little pub across from the cricket grounds to have a refreshing beverage, then it was back in the car for a few hours’ drive back to our fluffy dog and some dinner. I’d like to go back sometime in the spring or summer, when more has come to life and everything is in bloom. But if you have the chance – go check out the Orchid Festival before it’s too late!

2016 year in review

Allow me to join the bandwagon of saying that 2016 as a year was just a big ol’ thumbs down. But personally, 2016 was a big year. I finally registered as self-employed and joined the masses as a full-time freelancer and all that that entails. It’s been hard, but fruitful, and satisfying, and I still very much enjoy working for myself. And in terms of travel, well – it was probably my best year yet in that regard too. Jon and I ticked several places off our collective travel bucket list, including a country that I’d been wanting to go for absolute ages. I think 2017 may be a bit slower (I say, when I’m getting on a plane again next week…) but we’ll see how long I can hold off on making a plan to head somewhere new and beautiful.

So in the tradition of my yearly look-back – some of my travels and personal highlights from the past 12 months.

 

January – Playing tourist in London with my friend Joe. I know I go there all the time, but I hadn’t had the chance to play tour guide for anyone in a while, and it was so good to explore one of my favorite cities with one of my favorite people.

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February – For Jon’s birthday I treated him to a fancy weekend away at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. We had an amazing time, which included lounging in the spa, watching the Eurostar trains come in, and indulging in a truly decadent meal (which was quickly followed by a very luxurious and sensual food coma).

juniors chamber st pancras renaissance hotel

We also had a little weekend away in Bristol to surprise a friend for his birthday. A gorgeous city!

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Also Jon took this picture in February, and it still makes me laugh, so here it shall be.

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March – we didn’t go anywhere, but I did buy a paddleboard and made good use of it on the river as the weather slowly (so…so….slowly) warmed up.

paddleboarding in shoreham by sea

April – Jon and I went to Barcelona with some friends of ours to celebrate a few different things – new jobs mostly! We rented bikes and cycled all over the city and ate our weight in tapas.

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barcelona tapas

May – Jon’s Christmas present to me was a weekend away in Cornwall at a gorgeous historic hotel that had great food, fantastic outdoor space, and also happened to be dog-friendly. We already can’t wait to go back. And on the way we stopped off at Tintagel to see King Arthur’s “castle”, and everything was gorgeous in every way.

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June – Phew…June was crazy. A three-week road trip of the States can be pretty intense! We did New York City New OrleansAustin – San Antonio (realising I never got around to blogging about it…oops!) – then finally Ohio before heading back to England, much poorer and fatter.

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July – I took a quick jaunt to Paris for a long weekend with some lady friends of mine. The trip was…not the best, for a few different reasons, but it was wonderful for other reasons. And Paris is always a good idea, particularly Paris in summertime.

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August – Finally, a month with nowhere to go! Some friends came down for the bank holiday weekend, we spent time on the beach and went to a cider festival, and English summer was in full, glorious swing!

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September – Another month with no place to go, but this is also the month we got a car, which was intensely exciting. We broke it in by exploring beautiful nature further afield. The Seven Sisters Cliffs were first up.

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OctoberMorocco, a country I’d long wanted to visit. Hot, vibrant, completely bonkers and a great way to spend one’s 32nd birthday.

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November – The year began to wind down, us with it. Things took a turn for the deeply melancholy. Beach walks and outdoorsy goodness happened while the weather cooperated, and many expat Thanksgiving celebrations took place at the end of the month.

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December – Nowhere to go, but lots to do, including finally making it to the ice rink in front of the Brighton Pavilion, and taking what has become an annual walk along the South Downs Way on the last day of the year, followed by a pub lunch.

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Here’s hoping for a better 2017, in all realms.

What to wear in Oman : Lady Travel

Having been unable to find the information before we went on holiday to Oman last year, and having friends who live there who weren’t overly specific in the way that I was looking for (TELL ME EXACTLY WHAT I SHOULD BE WEARING GUYS. FEED MY NEUROSES.), it seemed like a good idea to write the post I would have liked to read before hopping on a plane to the Middle East. So how should you dress if you’re a lady heading to the Middle East- specifically, Oman- on holiday and you want to be a) respectful, b) comfortable, and c) cute? Allow me to do what I can to shed some light on the situation.

A lot of it will come down to fabrics. When we were in Oman, the average daily temperature was around 100F/40C and cotton or denim aren’t really the go-to fabrics for such climes. Linen or loose knit cotton would have been ideal. Everywhere in Oman has very strong air conditioning, so do keep in mind that a lot of the time will be spent braving the heat just to get in a car with air conditioning, to drive to a place with air conditioning. This is how one gets away with wearing skinny jeans and a tank top with cardigan for a night out – but if you’re planning on wandering around markets or heading to the desert, I wouldn’t make that your go-to outfit.

While our trip was just a little over a week, this is my takeaway on what I’m glad I took, what I wish I’d taken, and what I’d recommend for anyone going on a little Omani holiday.

Things I’m glad I took

Floaty wide leg trousers. I had two pair, one in a cotton/linen blend with a fun print, and the other in a black satin. The satin ones got a bit sticky and wrinkly, but were still good – especially nice for evenings out. So floaty! They were, in fact, so lovely that I left them with my friend in Oman because she could get far more use out of them in day to day life. Highly recommend.

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Lightweight scarf. For mosque visits, mostly. You’ll need to cover every bit of your hair, and it’ll be hot, so the lighter the scarf, the better (go for silk if you can, cotton is too heavy)! You can pick these up for very cheap anywhere in the Middle East anyway – and they make beautiful gifts for people back home, or a souvenir for yourself. Prepare to haggle in the markets to buy a few of your own in bulk.

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This was a gorgeous scarf that I picked up in Istanbul. It was fine for mosque visits there, but probably not big enough for its needs in Oman. You can see the difference between the two scarves – the one above is big enough and opaque enough for head, neck and shoulders, and that’s what you need.

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Not-too-tight jeans: Mostly good for going out for meals or a night out in the crazy air conditioning of a “western” or more relaxed restaurant or night club. The nightlife in Muscat is very open and forgiving, particularly if you are at a place that serves alcohol. Definitely wouldn’t be great for heading to the markets or being out in the day time though – much too uncomfortable. Much like I was in the picture below (despite how happy I look to be in the middle of a resort in the Omani desert).

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Below the knee dresses. Another picture from Istanbul, but the dress still stands! Long sleeves, and even the slit is still below the knee. The darker color wasn’t great – go lighter whenever you can to beat the heat.
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Loose t-shirts: You can get by with short sleeved shirts in a fair few places, but not with truly short sleeves – no cap sleeves or anything like that. Just to the top of the elbow is good, although mid upper arm is usually fine. Make sure they don’t hang too close to the armpit to avoid pitstains, and make sure they’re long enough that nothing shows if you bend over. In the t-shirt I’m wearing in the picture below, I still had to cover up when going in and out of the restaurant, but it was fine inside.

shisha in oman

Bikini: Private hotels are just like their less-conservative counterparts around the world, and you can wear whatever you want, so don’t leave yours at home thinking it won’t be of use. You’ll be sorely disappointed when you get to the very chill hotel with an actual pool!

 

Losers of the trip

-Literally every cotton cardigan I brought. I wish I’d had a loose-knit cardigan that a) didn’t touch my armpits b) went to at least elbow-length (but no need to cover up to the wrist unless you’re at the mosque), and c) wasn’t in a dark color. (See the black and white cardigan in the mosque picture above – it covered everything but I was absolutely melting. I ripped it off the second we got back in the car with the air conditioning, panting like a dog.

-White. Cotton. Maxi dress. Too heavy, too hot, too see through. The worst of all worlds really. Would not bother with again.

 

Things I wish I’d brought

As mentioned, a 3/4 sleeve, loose-knit cardigan in a light color would have been ideal.

Long shorts. Especially if you plan on going out in the desert. I’m talking all the way to the knee here!

Capri pants. I hate them in my day to day life, but they would have suited so well!

Peasant tops – again, loose, floaty, 3/4 sleeved.


Have I missed anything? I know that the rules for dressing as a female in the Middle East and other conservative countires can vary dramatically depending on exactly where you find yourself (for more on that, read my post on what to pack for visiting Marrakech), but hopefully this serves as useful for any of you heading to Oman any time soon.

 

Places to drink alcohol in Marrakech

Visiting a majority Muslim country can offer unique challenges for those of us who like to end a day of exploring with a relaxing glass of wine or two. When Jon and I were visiting Marrakech in early October, we spent a little bit too much time trying to find WiFi to Google a place to have dinner that also would serve us alcohol. No regrets! Fortunately, our searches led us to some great places – and some not so great places too.  I thought it’d be nice to share them here, and save you all the trouble.

 

Kechmara

3 Rue de la Liberte | Gueliz, Marrakech 40000, Morocco

This place is located in the hip “new area” of Marrakech and had a quiet, spacious rooftop terrace that was cordoned off to prevent visibility from the street. You won’t get much in the way of views here due to that. The food wasn’t spectacular, but they had some very nice Moroccan wines on offer and the staff was sweet. The tapas looked great, and I immediately wished we’d gone that route instead of the main dishes we ordered!

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Hotel La Renaissance Marrakech

Also located in Gueliz, Sky Bar is at the top of the Hotel La Renaissance, just a 10 minute taxi away from the Jardin Majorelle. You just walk into the hotel and they’ll send you straight up. We were all alone up on the rooftop for quite a while, which was strange, and you have to ask if you’d like ice in your cocktails (which aren’t particularly cheap and without ice they get warm pretty quickly….gross). However, because it’s on top of a massive hotel, the views are stunning. We went up to watch the sunset, although it got a bit hazy by sunset-time. Eventually a few more people showed up for drinks and it seemed that the employees were setting up some things for a more lively night club scene once the sun went down. Not a place I would suggest hanging out for hours, but if you’d like a drink and a view, this ticks all the boxes.

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Le Salama

40 Rue de Banques | just off Djema el Fnaa, Marrakech, Morocco

Down a quiet street just off the Jemaa elFna square, Le Salama was one of my favorite places in the city during our short stay. It’s done up in a colonial style, so strangely it’s like being in 1950s Havana. The bar is all the way upstairs, past the restaurant, and they offer up very nice cocktails with a 2 for 1 deal. Jon and I couldn’t stop laughing about that since the places that usually do that sort of deal are much slummier than this place, but we weren’t complaining. I’ve read mixed reviews from others about Le Salama, but the staff were attentive, the drinks were tasty, and the ambience was calm and collected after escaping the craziness of the square. Loved it.

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KosyBar

47, Place des Ferblantiers, Marrakech 40000, Morocco
Another place with a great assortment of roof terraces – this time with amazing views of the quietly bustling Place des Ferblantiers. The staff are very nice, they serve delicious Moroccan wine and tasty olives, and you can see stork nests from the terraces, which is very cool in my opinion.

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Le Marrakchi

52, rue des Banques, Marrakech 40000, Morocco

This place gets all the buzz due to it’s placement right on the corner of the Jemaa elFna. If you’re hoping for a table overlooking the square, however, you’ll need to book it well in advance. Otherwise, you’ll be seated wherever there’s room when you get in. It’s a restaurant, and there is a bit of a push to order food if you stick around. The wine is really nice, if a bit expensive, and the small plates are worth the money – they do traditional Moroccan cuisine. There was a very charming band of three older Moroccan gents playing traditional music in the early evening during our visit, but they were replaced with some very cringey belly dancers as it got later. (That’s when we left…but whatever floats your boat). It’s one of only two restaurants off the square that serve alcohol, so you’ll probably end up here at one point or another.

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Restaurant Le Foundouk

55, Souk Hal Fassi | Kaat Ben Nahid – Médina, Marrakech 40000, Morocco

I was disappointed with our meal here, but in terms of a place where you can have a nice drink, I can’t fault it at all. And I’ve heard great things about their (say it with me now) roof terrace! Sadly, we sat inside. It’s very much a tourist trap, but I’m not surprised since every suggested list of places to eat includes it. It’s chock full of tourists! So come earlier in the evening, have a drink or two on the roof, then head off somewhere cheaper and more authentic for dinner.

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Adventures in Sussex: Autumn colors in Sheffield Park and Garden

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Sheffield Park October Autumn

Autumn colors can be hard to come by in England, but my cold Midwest American heart just isn’t really happy unless I find some vibrant reds, oranges and yellows in the landscape! Being new car owners, this year is the first time that we’ve been able to just…GO and hunt down the best foliage around. In a car! It’s practically witchcraft!

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Over the weekend we drove up and over to East Sussex to spend our Sunday afternoon wandering around Sheffield Park and Garden. The entrance was packed! It seems everyone did the same research that I did. But it was worth it, as the park is one of the few places in the area that actually has a big spread of trees with a variety of colors all thanks to the old rich guy who lived there 100 years ago and planted it as such. Thanks, fella.

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I actually was a little underwhelmed (only a little though!) by the density of colors, if you could call it that. There are still a LOT of green trees in the vicinity, but it’s a beautiful area nonetheless, with loads of trails circling and crossing over four different lakes. The red, orange and yellow can be found in patches, interspersed with all that green.

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Of course I’ll love the green come winter – one of the best things about England is how verdant it remains year round. It’s just this time of year when I want a little more jazziness in my landscape, you know?

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I’d love to come back in the winter to walk around in the snow. Assuming there’s any snow this year (fingers crossed for that too!) I’m destined to always be hoping that my part of England will start to take on the weather characteristics of my part of America. Keep dreaming.

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Jon and I waited to go to the park until the afternoon – dogs aren’t allowed until after 1:30 for some reason, and of course we wanted to take Bruce! The trails were full of other dogs and lots of families with little ones. Picnics were happening under trees and along the waterside, and many a photoshoot could be seen taking place with toddlers tossing leaves. It reminded me of my time in South Korea during cherry blossom season – the best trees would have a little queue in front of people waiting to get in and take pictures. The weather was perfect. Definitely cold, but the sun stayed out just until we left, then it became perfectly gloomy.

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I’m hoping we get the chance to fit in a little more “leaf peeping” before it’s too late. Maybe next weekend, somewhere new! The weather has been so idyllic and without the rain that we normally have this time of year that knocks any bits of color off the trees before it even has the chance to develop. I’ll keep my fingers crossed and let the National Trust page on “where to go on in autumn” be my guide. Country walks first, and pub dinners after? Best time of year, hands down.

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