20 Years of Travel #18: Paris

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The 20 Years of Travel series continues by featuring the City of Love: Paris, France. I grew up watching old movies that were set in Paris: An American in Paris, Funny Face, Gigi, and many more. I dreamed of seeing this amazing city. I went for the first time in 2006. I was a bit disappointed with Paris at that time. I can now say that my disappointment was almost completely due to lack of planning on my part. I was traveling to Paris with a classmate of mine after we finished a graduate course in Geneva, Switzerland. As students, we had a tight travel budget. I was able to get a discount on a hotel in Paris through my job at home, but that unfortunately was located on the outskirts of the city. It ended up costing a lot of money and time to travel into the city center. We also were visiting in the middle of the summer tourist season and 100 degree heat. We waited in the heat for hours to get into Notre Dame (pictured above), which was worth it, but unpleasant. My most amateur mistake was waiting until our final day in Paris to go to the Louvre, which was a Tuesday, the day that the Louvre is closed. We decided to go visit Versailles instead, which was impressive but was under renovation and none of the fountains were turned on.

Luckily, almost ten years later, I decided to give Paris another try. I had a much better experience. We stayed in the city center, smallest hotel room ever, but worth it for the location. We also went in the middle of December which in my opinion is the best time to see Paris. There are minimal tourists and beautiful Christmas markets everywhere. I believe there is also a lot to be said about experiencing the same city at different points in one’s life as well.

Things to do and see:

Champs Elysees

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The Champs Elysees is one of the most famous avenues in the world, leading to the Arc de Triomphe.

Roue de Paris

This is a large ferris wheel off of the Champs Elysees, where you can experience amazing views of Paris.

The Seine

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There are walkways along the Seine, where you can take romantic strolls with views of the Eiffel Tower.

The Eiffel Tower

Of course you have to explore the Eiffel Tower. My friends and I went up to the top at sunset for the amazing views and then decided to walk down, which wasn’t as strenuous as I thought it would be. I only had a problem with my little fear of heights and the fact that you could feel the tower sway a bit.

Notre Dame Cathedral

This is the famous gothic-style cathedral in Paris. If you have an opportunity, do the gargoyle tour as well as exploring the inside of the cathedral.

Favorite Bookstore

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If you are a booklover like me, Shakespeare and Company Bookstore is a must!

The Louvre

This amazing art museum did not allude me on my second visit to Paris. December is a much better time to visit this museum anyway. I was there at opening time and got to stand alone in front of the Mona Lisa for twenty minutes.

Musee d’Orsay

Musee d'Orsay Collection

This is my favorite art museum in Paris as I love all things Degas, Renoir and Monet. The above picture shows just a few of my favorites.

Christmas Markets

If you find yourself in Paris around Christmastime, you can experience a plethora of amazing Christmas markets that are set up all over the city.

Sights I Still Want to See

Two trips to Paris were not enough to see everything I wanted to. I still have not gone to Sacre Couer and the catacombs. Hence, why they are not featured here. Those will just have to wait until my next visit.

Day Excursions:

Versailles

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Less than a hour train ride from Paris is the Palace of Versailles. Not only is Versailles featured prominently in history, but it contains beautiful art and expansive gardens. Many of my husband’s pictures are featured above as he recently got to see Versailles with minimal renovations and working fountains, unlike my original visit to Versailles.

Rouen

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Less than a two-hour train ride from Paris, Rouen is an idyllic French town. We visited because of our interest in Joan of Arc, but there was so much more to this town. Definitely one of my favorite places.

Excursion I Still Want to Make

As mentioned before, I really love Monet paintings. Monet’s home and where he found some of his inspiration is located less than an hour from Paris in the town of Giverny.

If you are looking for more excursions into Normandy from Paris, see my Normandy link below.

Related Posts:

PARIS, FRANCE (December 2013)

Normandy, France – October 2014

I am sure Paris and I will meet again soon!

Happy Travels!!!

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20 Years of Travel #13: Mediterranean Cruise

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The 20 Years of Travel series continues with a Mediterranean cruise that we took for our wedding anniversary in 2015. It was our first big cruise line cruise. We had done a river cruise in the USA, transportation cruise to the Bahamas, and an exploration cruise in the Galapagos, but never one like this. For beginners, I think we handled this learning experience really well and had a lot of fun along the way.

ITINERARY

Trieste, Italy

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Trieste was the port where the cruise would depart and return to. We lived in Italy at the time, so we just took a train to Trieste from our hometown but allowed plenty of time before and after the cruise to tour around the city for a bit. This town is the bridge between Western Europe and the Balkans. You can easily access Slovenia from here if you have time.

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Bari, Italy

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Our first stop on the cruise was the small coastal town of Bari in the Apulia region on the eastern side of Italy. It was a great walkable city, so we did not feel the need to take an excursion offered by the cruise line. There are forts to explore, a nice waterfront and the beautiful Cattedrale di San Sabino (Bari Cathedral).

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Corfu, Greece

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Our first stop in Greece was the island of Corfu. We again didn’t take a cruise line excursion, which you might want to consider doing if you want to get to the heart of the town in a timely fashion. However, we decided to just find a cafe, where we indulged in a drink and enjoyed the atmosphere of some locals.

Mykonos, Greece

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Mykonos was a highlight for me as I’ve been wanting to go there since I was a kid. It did not disappoint. We took a jeep tour of the island excursion, which was an amazing way to see most of the island. Plus, my husband loved driving around on the rough passageways. This excursion also included lunch on the island with an ouzo tasting, which is an alcoholic shot that looks cloudy and tastes like black licorice. After the excursion, we had time to clean up and catch sunset on Mykonos. The island lights up with amazing colors at sunset. We decided to eat a fancy dinner for our anniversary on the island, which I highly recommend. Though it is tempting to eat only the food that is included on the cruise you paid for, it is nice to give some money to the local businesses. Mykonos was just stunning!

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Santorini, Greece

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Our next island stop was Santorini, which was my favorite stop on the cruise. I had seen beautiful pictures, but pictures don’t seem to do it justice. We took the excursion transportation to Oia, which was 100% worth it. The guide gave us a great overview lesson of the island, its history and economics, and then we wandered around. We immediately found a cafe, where we could sit outside with coffees, enjoying an amazing view of the caldera. When you have finished viewing and taking pictures of the cliff-side architecture, I would do a wine tasting and purchase some bottles of wine if possible. Due to the eruption of the Santorini volcano many years ago, the soil on the island is rich for producing wine. You will have a lot of white wine choices, and Santorini’s specialty is the Vin Santo, which is a dessert wine. I loved everything about this island and especially Oia.

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Dubrovnik, Croatia

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This was not part of the original itinerary, but due to some bad weather, we stopped in Dubrovnik instead of Split, Croatia. Dubrovnik was the last stop before heading back to Trieste, Italy, where our cruising adventure would end. I went to Dubrovnik ten years prior to this trip (I’ll discuss further in an upcoming post about the Balkans), and it has remained very dear to my heart ever since. I was happy to revisit some of my favorite places, including the cafe that overlooks the Adriatic, where the owners gave us coffee and drinks even though they were not officially open. The weather was not great but we still got to walk in the ancient city walls and visit the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

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Lessons Learned

  • Make sure that you have a spare set of clothing (aka dress, underwear, shorts, etc) in the small bag that you carry on to the cruise boat. We had our luggage checked prior to getting onto the boat. The luggage check-in was located outdoors in the midst of a huge windy rainstorm. When we received our duffle bag full of clothes, everything was drenched. While the cruise line had all of our clothes dry cleaned for free, this took a couple of days, where we were wearing the same clothes.
  • The drink package is sooooo worth it! After finding out about our wet clothes and having my credit card canceled (even though they knew I was traveling – thank you Capital One), we wanted nothing more than to sit at the bar and have a drink or three. We decided to purchase the all-you-can-drink package, which we definitely utilized frequently. This includes water and coffee as well, so it is 100% worth it!
  • Pack multiple sets of dress clothes. Apparently dressing up for dinner on a cruise boat is sometimes mandatory. That bit of information can often be hidden on websites and can catch you completely by surprise if you have never been on a cruise before.
  • Find a good booking site. After getting frustrated on trying to figure out how to see some Greek islands on our own, without using an organized tour, I received an email from VacationsToGo, advertising a discount on a Mediterranean cruise for the time period we were looking to travel. It seemed like a sign, so I picked up my phone and called the 800 number on the website and within a few minutes an agent had us all booked on this cruise. It took barely any of my time to plan, cost a lot less than if I had set up travel to the islands on my own, and we even got our drink package for free as part of a special deal.
  • Plan excursions prior to being on the cruise. Before going on your cruise, check out the possible excursions and make a decisions on the ones you want to go on prior to being on the boat. We did not purchase excursions ahead of time and found at least one we wanted to do was fully booked.
  • Don’t be afraid to change dining tables. Cruises love to give you assigned dining seats, so you can meet new people. However, unfortunately we did not have a great experience with our dining table, and we waited too many days to change tables to sit with some friends. If after the first night, you do not enjoy your dining experience, talk to someone, so that you can be relocated.
  • Allow plenty of time before and after the cruise. Most people will travel to take cruises. If you are one of those people, make sure to leave a good cushion of time before and after your cruising experience. The cruise line took a long time returning passports to passengers at the end of the cruise (hours after we were docked) and madness erupted. Many passengers were furious, because they missed their schedule trains or planes home. While we had allowed plenty of time before and after the cruise to catch our transportation home, it was hard not to feel for every individual who had to suffer missed connections because of this delay.

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While I am not sure I would recommend Costa cruise lines as the best option for cruising, we enjoyed our cruising experience overall. So much so that we have decided to take another cruise at the end of this year. If you have done some cruising, please feel free to leave some tips and recommendations in the comment section below. I would greatly appreciate it. Until next time…

HAPPY TRAVELS!!!

20 Years of Travel #7: Dubai

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The 20 Years of Travel series continues with my trip to Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). This trip made my list simply because it was such a unique adventure for me that really took me out of my normal travel comfort zone. I decided to go visit a friend from grad school that lives and works in Dubai. I had never been to the UAE or anywhere in the Middle East, so I had a lot to learn about the culture. While I did travel there on my own, I was fortunate to have my friend with me for much of my time in Dubai.

Since Dubai has become a major trading and business hub between Europe and Asia, it has become an appealing travel destination for tourists because of its skyscrapers, theme parks and resorts. However, in reality Dubai is a location where women are treated as 12764762_185284661846101_4258686595052618337_oinferior to men and should always be accompanied by men. Luckily my friend informed me of this and gave me some tips for traveling by myself in Dubai, starting with my arrival at the airport. My friend was working, so I was on my own for the day and was going to be meeting her at the largest mall in the world: The Dubai Mall. I thought about taking a taxi, but my friend informed me that for my safety, to look for pink taxis. Pink taxis are for women with women drivers. I waited for a while for one to show, but didn’t see any so I decided to take their Metro train, which has a stop at the Mall. It was very convenient. At the Dubai Mall, I was able to find a baggage check on a lower level for my bag, so I could wander the mall without carrying any heavy luggage. I had a lovely meal too that afforded me the amazing view of the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world), which is pictured above.

When my friend and I met up, she had gotten us At the Top tickets to the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa. This was high on my bucket list, as I would truly be on top of the world. It was fantastic experience. When you get to the observation deck there is a lounge and waiters passing out juices, which was a good idea, since the altitude could definitely affect people and eventually started to make me a little sick. We went outside and realized quickly that that may not be a great idea, as there was a lightning storm and we were right below the spire. It was an amazing view though. At the base of the Burj Khalifa is the Dubai Fountain, which is worth a stop. It is similar to the fountain outside of the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas, where at certain times there is a water and light show that follows along to a song. The show was magnificent.

DSC3932If you are looking for an interesting meal to try while you are in Dubai, I would suggest having a camel burger. As a stereotypical American, I will try anything that might look like a hamburger. It was not bad at all. I would, however, not try the camel milkshake. That was pretty disgusting.

If you are looking for a good educational and cultural experience, I would check out Sheikh Mohammed Centre for DSC3947Cultural Centre for Cultural Understanding. It is a collection of museums that contain a wide variety of historical artifacts. There is a coin museum and a pottery museum. Here you can learn a lot about the history of Dubai. It was always a huge trading port. Abu Dhabi was the big oil city, but in the 1960s a smaller amount of oil was discovered in the waters near Dubai. Prior to the discovery of oil, one of Dubai’s biggest exports were pearls. Divers would comb the floor of the waters around Dubai for mollusks that would produce these pearls. Besides history and economics, you may also find some art galleries that are worth a stop.

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When you think of animals in Dubai, you may think only of camels, but there is a huge wildlife sanctuary near the downtown area called Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary. In this peaceful setting, you can view thousands of birds, including flamingos.

Another fun thing to do, which you will most likely experience if you are staying at the Atlantis Hotel on the Palm is to ride the _DSC3995Palm Jumeirah Monorail. The views are stunning as you head directly for the Atlantis Hotel. Even though we were not patrons of the Atlantis Hotel, we decided to stop there to have a look around, and so I could see my very first Gold ATM (pictured on the left). I really never believed that those existed, and stood there trying to figure out if I could get a gold bar home with me – I did not attempt this.

If you are looking for additional fun family things to do in Dubai, you should check out the waterparks and Ski Dubai. Ski Dubai is located in the Mall of the Emirates and is an indoor ski resort. Even if you do not ski, it is worth checking out.DSC3906

Nighttime is stunning in Dubai. Besides checking out the Dubai Fountain at night, you can view the unique, five-star hotel: Burj Al Arab (pictured on the right). Even if you are not staying at the Burj Al Arab, you can still try to get restaurant reservations there, but you should think of doing that well in advance of your visit to Dubai. Another good evening stop is the Global Village (pictured below). It is a large outdoor world market that is lit up at night. There are places to eat and of course….camels. At the end of the evening there is a lovely firework display.

I loved Dubai and can fully understand why my friend continues to call this her home. This is also an exciting time as the city prepares to host World Expo in 2020-2021. A few side notes to new travelers to the area:

  • Be careful what you take pictures of. You can get arrested for taking pictures of planes, accidents, and other people without their consent.
  • In some local eateries, men eat on the ground floor or a special area, where women and families eat in a different designated area.
  • The division in restaurants also is applied in other areas. For example, if you are taking a bus to Abu Dhabi, women and families stand in a different line from the men.
  • Wear respectful clothing.
  • Solo female travelers, heed my friend’s warning about taking taxis with male drivers. If you are assaulted in the vehicle, the courts would say that it is your fault for getting into a male-driven taxi without a male escort. This has been such a prevalent problem in the area that taxis in Abu Dhabi now have cameras installed in them.

Find more tips before you travel to Dubai here. Dubai was not like traveling around Europe or the US, and that is part of the reason I liked it. I think it is a special and unique place in the world.

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20 Years of Travel #6: Lucca, Italy

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The 20 Years of Travel series continues with an obvious location, as it was our home for 3 years: Lucca, Italy (in the Tuscany region). This is actually a difficult post to write, because how can I put down into words how much Lucca has meant to us.

I’m going to start with the obvious….
Food/Wine

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My husband and I loved starting every day by going to our local cafes for our cappuccini

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and pastries…normally a cornetto or sfloglia. We would frequent Piccola Soave during the week and Da Sara on the weekends. It is worth mentioning that food shopping can be a bit different there. If you want the best vegetables, you go to the vegetable stands; for the best meat, you go to your local butcher (pictured on the right – preparing our turkey for our Thanksgiving celebration); and for the best “unsalted” bread, you go to your local bakery. The food there is so flavorful and fresh.

You can’t visit or especially live in Tuscany without having some wine! It is really hard to

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find bad wine there. Plus, for €3 you can get a great local wine that would cost 5x that in the USA. The nearby hill-town of Montecarlo has its own wine festival and is home to the well-known Fattoria di Fubbiano winery. However, the hills around Lucca provide some of the best wineries. We enjoyed our trip to Fattoria Sardi, but our ultimate favorite place for wine is the Fabbrica di San Martino. We’ve been there many times and never leave without cases of wine. Even my friend, who is not a wine drinker, found a wine she loves there.13055839_10153604589492986_7423048710852422585_o (1)

Favorite eatery options:

  • Risto-Bar il Caffe on Corso Garibaldi – was a favorite spot for lunch. I BIG hello to the owners: Roberto and Sabrina. I miss your food and company so much!!!
  • Trattoria da Ubaldo – it is possible that you may find a local comic book series that features the owner of this restaurant. He is an interesting character and a favorite with the locals.
  • Ammodonostro – provides a great sharing meal that includes bistecca alla fiorentina.
  • Osteria Miranda – located in Piazza Santa Maria is one of the few restaurants around that serves our favorite San Martino wine.
  • Trattoria da Leo – a favorite restaurant of the locals. Make sure to have the table wine and the after dinner refreshment of limoncello and grappa that is offered to you before you leave.
  • L’isola Che Non C’era – a great place to take a lunch break while your shopping on Via Fillungo.
  • Le Bonta – everyone in Lucca has their favorite gelateria (gelato stand) and this is ours. It is located right outside the Lucchesi walls.

Our second favorite thing about Lucca are the festivals, holidays and celebrations…

Festivals

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During the summer and fall, it feels like Lucca has a festival or celebration almost every day. Drums and flag throwing are included in many holiday festivities. These are some of our favorite celebrations:

  • Luminaria di Santa Croce – a candlelit procession takes place from the Church San Frediano to the Cathedral of San Martino (Duomo – pictured above). This processional represents the miracle of the Volto Santo (holy face crucifix) relocating 17011_10153061958712986_8573529136269828547_nfrom San Frediano to the Duomo.
  • Lucca Summer Festival – a large summer music festival that has brought many bands and musicians. During my time in Lucca, I got to see Stevie Wonder, Elton John, the Eagles, Backstreet Boys, the Script, Gary Clark, John Legend and Lenny Kravitz (pictured on the right).
  • Effetto Cinema Notte – a celebration of cinema with musical performances all around the town from movies like Grease, Labyrinth, Chicago etc.
  • Verdemura Lucca – a portion of the Lucchesi wall is set up to sell plants and flowers and other organic products. It always made me wish I had more of a green thumb.
  • Lucca Film Festival – where directors are honored for their work and cinematic features. David Lynch and George Romero were previous honorees.
  • Il Desco – a market to sell local foods and wines.

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Favorite Highlights of Lucca

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So many wonderful things to see and do in Lucca. If you like churches, there are more than a hundred of those in this tiny walled-city. Here are some of our favorite things to see and do in Lucca:

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  • The Lucchesi Walls – Lucca is a walled-city. These walls are more than 500 years old.13407250_10153717328072986_8324403784892229909_n The top of the walls have been converted into a park for pedestrians, runners and bikers to wander around the city. My husband and I use to walk the walls almost every night. My friends and I would also take a walk around the wall after enjoying a hearty lunch.
  • Cattedrale di San Martino (Duomo) – the main catthedral of Lucca. This is also where you can view the Volto Santo (mentioned above).10516688_10152228726137986_4388737566867241416_n
  • Home of Giacomo Puccini – Lucca is the birthplace of the famous opera composer, Giacomo Puccini. Puccini created operas such as Madame Butterfly and La Boheme. I highly recommend seeing one of the daily Puccini performances. The singers are just amazing!
  • Museo di Arte Contemporanea Lu.C.C.A. – This is the Lucca Center of Contemporary Art. I got to see a display of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work, who was a famous French photographer. The museum did a good job displaying such a large collection.
  • Villas & Palaces – Within the city center, you can visit Palazzo Pfanner and Palazzo13466250_10153717336682986_5258876858347279934_n Orsetti. Outside of the city center, you can visit popular villas, such as Villa Mansi and Villa Torrigiani.
  • Torre Guinigi (pictured on the right) – This is a tower in the center of Lucca that has a botanical garden on the top. It is a bit of a climb but worth it.
  • Lucca Italian School – When I first moved to Lucca, I decided to take a two-week Italian course at the Lucca Italian School. While I was nervous at how intense the classes were, because I didn’t know any Italian at all, I was blessed with a great class filled with wonderful people that I still communicate with on occasion. This course includes classroom work in the morning and then an afternoon excursion (field trip to nearby location) or event (cooking class, movies, etc.). It was a great experience, 1932335_10151990359127986_922716397_nand one I would recommend even if you are just coming to visit for a few weeks. This is the best way to immerse yourself in the town and Italian culture.
  • The Anfiteatro (pictured on the right)- a piazza completely surrounded by apartments and restaurants.
  • Shopping on Via Fillungo – there are many popular and also boutique shops on Fillungo. However, my favorite place to shop is a leather store called Officina della Pella, located right off of Piazzo San Francesco.
  • Chiesa San Michele (see picture below) – This ornate church is located on what used to be the town square. It is nice to just sit in one of the nearby cafes that overlook this church, but on a side note: you will pay for the view.

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If you are looking to explore Tuscany a bit, I highly recommend using Lucca as your main hub, as much of Tuscany is accessible via train from Lucca. It is hard to really describe how much our time in Lucca meant to us, and I hope this post does it justice.

For more information about things to do and places to see around Lucca (mostly day excursions we took), see the following posts: