Tag Archives: capital city

France – Christmas in Paris (mini-break Part 2)

<post continued from Paris Part 1 >

Day 3 – South of the River

Tired from our first two days exploring, we were late waking, having slept nearly 10 hours. We must have been properly exhausted, a body and mind overload. We walked south from the campsite, passing a hippodrome flanked by a closed tarmac road inundated by keen cyclists and runners. We caught the metro from Boulogne – Pont de Saint-Cloud to the end of the line at Gare d’Austerlitz and began the long walk back west. We first reached the Jardins des Plantes, adjacent to the Natural History Museum. The grounds were filled with large, wildly colourful and exuberant animal models that brought instant smiles to our faces. Walking here was such a different experience from other places in Paris, one of simple, childlike joy, a haven from the busy roads and towering architecture.

Paris (natural history museum)

Paris (garden bears)

Paris (giant turtle)

We lingered under the warm morning sky, enjoying each vibrant display. There were large groups of students being corralled into the museum as we passed, likely on a school outing. We passed through the inflated body of a huge shark marking the entrance to the adjacent zoo, it reminding us of silly sentences from learning French on DuoLingo such as “Le loup mange le requin”- when could I ever use that, really? We exited the park by a large brightly-tiled mosque and continued on to reach the impressive monolith of the Panthéon in the nearby Latin Quarter. We ate snacks amongst the chatting students lounging and lunching on elaborate timber benches. I eavesdropped on their loud conversations, catching less than a tenth of the words, making me wonder if I’ll ever get a proper hold on the language.

Paris (student area seating)

Paris (pantheon)

We dropped down a the hill towards Le Jardin du Luxembourg, but found ourselves distracted by a display of large, beautiful photos of polar regions that lined the boundary fencing to the park. We followed this exhibition right around the perimeter, loving the poignant quality of the work and dreaming of a return to the wilds of Greenland. Some day. We finally entered Le Jardin du Luxembourg adjacent to the palace, stopping first to glance at a formal pond and grotto. The sky was back to a glorious blue and it was warm in direct sun, so we sat a while at the edge of the gardens and enjoyed a bout of people-watching. It was a welcome oasis away from the crowded bustling streets, and these restful moments revived us for more exploring. We cut across the sparse gardens, heading north into the fray once more.

Paris (resting in Luxembourg gardens)

Paris (place saint sulpice)

Our route north took us through Place Saint-Sulpice to reach another pocket of colourful Christmas Markets in the plaza outside Saint Germain des Prés church. Here we bought some vin chaud to warm our hands as we lazily browsed the stalls. We returned to the banks of the Seine and walked along, passing the Musie d’Orsay, before reaching Passerelle Léopold Sédar Senghor, a bridge replete with love locks, conveniently sold by all the local hawkers. There were many thousands of locks, each with a name or message added to symbolise a thought, love or connection. The idea could be seen as either deeply symbolic and profound or as credulously trite, wasteful littering, depending on your given mood or perspective. But it certainly didn’t seem to be lessening in popularity over time.

Paris (louvre from bridge)

Paris (Wall of peace)

From here we crossed to Tuileries gardens and sat for lunch overlooking the manic traffic wildness of the Place de la Concorde. Huge numbers of blue flashing lights roared past, and we wondered if the Gilets Jaunes had begun protesting again nearby. We crossed back south of river, across stalled traffic, to reach Les Invalides and the École Militaire, and then approached the Tour Eiffel from the south. We made our way through the busy crowds to Trocadéro where we enjoyed the raised, expansive view as we awaited dusk falling and the turning on of lights. This was to be our last magnificent view of central Paris from this trip, a fitting memory for our short days here. Tired, we again caught the Metro back to Pont de Neuilly after dark, then undertook our now usual walk back to the campsite.

Paris (spproaching tour Eiffel)

Paris (eiffel tower panorama)

These two posts on Paris read like a Bret Easton Ellis novel, the long lists of places we visited like the detailed musings of Patrick Bateman. It’s difficult to step back and find a way to encapsulate the trip beyond the obvious linear diary approach. When you factor in the constant stimulation of culture, history, architecture, lights, smells and sounds, it takes a long time for the brain to fully process the experience and then recreate some order from the constant movement and delightful chaos. We walked 23km on our third day – it’s a huge city, and we only saw a small portion of it. Even utilising a pack of ten metro tickets (€14.90 for 10), we covered 64 kilometres on foot over the course of our three days. City breaks, at least the way we always seem to do them, are more exhausting than hiking mountains.

A&N x

France – Christmas in Paris (mini-break Part 1)

Day 1 – Arrival, La Défense & Tour Eiffel

After a hectic morning packing session, we left La Jourdanie in good spirits for our drive north.  We followed the A20 for hours, skirting around Châteauroux and Vierzon.  We swapped to the parallel D-road to avoid motorway tolls and later stopped briefly in an aire in Theillay for lunch. We swapped drivers and Nicky faced the first proper traffic as we reached the southern outskirts of Orléans.  We crawled through the centre, paying the price for avoiding tolls, and made our way to the town of Angerville to overnight by their stadium.  We were stopping an hour or so short of Paris so we could arrive early in the morning and have that day for exploring. We slowly walked around Angerville to stretch our legs.  A few late arriving lorries naughtily parked up near us, in a zone clearly marked as max. 3.5t, disrupting our otherwise quiet overnight stay.  We headed off early for the last hour or so into Paris.

Paris - (la defense display)

Paris - (approaching la defense)

We must credit Ju & Jay at OurTour for seeding the idea; we’d read their blog post on visiting Paris and we thought it would work for us to pop up for the Christmas markets.  Under six hours driving for a classic city break – why not?  We arrived in the Le Camping Paris (AKA Indigo Paris) campsite before 10am and had no hassles checking in early.  We arrived under blue skies but facing down a biting wind that whipped heat away from any exposed skin.  The only downside was that the usual navette was not running, so we had to walk directly from the campsite each day.  We headed first to La Défense, crossing a wide bridge to a long island and then on to the opposite side of the Seine.  On the main boulevard in the shadow of the Grande Arche we found a huge Christmas market with a vast array of stalls, incredibly busy with lunching workers.  We browsed the goods, smelled the foods and absorbed the atmosphere.

Paris - (nicky and grand arch)

Paris - (aaron at grand arch)

Paris - (la defense plaza and markets)

Security was tight, with intermittent bag checks and armed soldiers patrolling the perimeter.  It had only been a few days since the deadly attack at a Christmas market in Strasbourg, so the alert level was justifiably high.  Everyone seemed relaxed though, so the atmosphere was unaffected.  We ate lunch on the steps of the Grande Arche, sheltered a little from the wind and overlooking the lively markets, the vista stretching all the way to the distant Arc de Triomphe.  We watched runners threading themselves through the crowds and this seeded another idea for later. We returned through Puteaux, passing a cute kiddy Christmas display, then followed the western bank of the Seine south.  We saw the campsite across the river where we could spot Benny before reaching the next bridge to return.

Paris - (run into the city)

Paris - (riverside run)

With 10km of walking already in our legs, we sipped a cup of warming tea to recuperate.  Then we changed clothes and headed  back out to face the cold, this time for a run.  We headed through long stretches of woodland, crossing busy roads and along bustling city streets to reach the glorious sight of the iconic Eiffel Tower.  We approached along the river from the south, through a fairground and masses of tat-selling hawkers.  Here we were surprised to find new glass security barriers surrounding the perimeter of the tower that were not in place last time we visited (over 8 years ago, for my 35th birthday – time flies!)  A sad but likely necessary installation, reflective of the times we live in. There were long queues to enter the tower or the restaurant, with slow security checks, so we instead continued our run around the bare gardens.  More armed soldiers passed as we stopped to pose for obligatory tourist photographs.

Paris - (run past eiffel tower)

We happily walked a little, to better enjoy the crowds and buzzing atmosphere.  So many touts were selling the same tacky plastic pieces, flashing Eiffel Towers in all colours or gaudy keyrings, 5 for €1.  With our iconic jaunt complete, we returned through busy shopping streets, skipping past distracted shoppers and dodging a multitude of the powered scooters that seemed prevalent in the city.  Above us the skies dulled and clouded over as the sun dropped, sucking all the light from the day.  Light had faded to a low grey as we crossed the woodland to return to Benny.  We had completed a fully enjoyable 13km run, and just in time as the rains started for the night.  After long, wonderfully hot campsite showers, we wrapped up warmly and prepared a tasty dinner, contented with our first day in Paris.

Day 2 – North of the River

Paris - (louis vuitton foundation)

We awoke to the continued pitter-patter of rain on our roof, so indulged ourselves in a lazy breakfast of croissants and jam before leaving around 10.30am when the rains had stopped.  We walked north through the woodland, spotting flocks of bright green parrots in the bare trees, to reach the Louis Vuitton foundation.  This building was another Frank Gehry creation, and there were large crowds queueing at security checks to enter.  We walked around the perimeter, taking in the hypnotically constant flow of cascading waves that dropped down a long, wide staircase to a shallow reflecting pool.  We soon reached the metro station at Les Sablons and travelled 14 stops east to Bastille. The trains bore a strong similarity to London.  During the journey we did some back-of-a-napkin math and realised Nicky had sat on tube trains, from her days working in London, for more than a full month of her life.

Paris - (hotel de ville)

Paris - (notre dame)

We alighted and soon were walking through wide Parisian streets full of life, glittering Christmas lights and elegant people.  We passed a long line of nursery school kids, walking hand in hand, all adorned in fluorescent yellow bibs that made us think of the Gilets Jaunes and how they were starting their protesting young these days.   We followed side streets with attractive new shops and tiny stores hosting chaotic ancient trades, cobblers and tailors with shop interiors straight out of Harry Potter. We passed large groups of chattering students, looking much too young to be at university – we’re definitely getting old.  We soon arrived at the main Hôtel De Ville for Paris, a towering, decorative Neo-Classical building.  It was mostly inaccessible, surrounded by Christmas trees and tall metal fencing.

Paris - (notre dame and seine)

Paris - (shakesphere bookshop)

We crossed the Seine to Île de la Cité and joined the crowds admiring the façade of Notre Dame cathedral.  We watched over made-up girls take turns photographing each other, posing on tall bollards like catwalk models.  We crossed the river again to the south, to visit Shakespeare and Co. Bookshop, its aged shelves heavy with books.  The layout was all nooks and crannies and soft seating, indulgent and comfortable even when overcrowded with other bibliophiles; a wonderful place to browse.  We ate lunch back on the island, viewing Notre Dame and dodging pigeons, before heading back north then west along the Seine to Pont Neuf.   We slowly browsed the green market stalls that lined the banks selling books, art and tourist trinkets, considering a few sketches to decorate our walls.

Paris - (aaron at louvre)

Paris - (nicky at louvre)

We arrived at the rear elevation of the Louvre and sneaked through a small passage into a grand empty courtyard and then into the main plaza featuring  I.M.Pei’s iconic pyramidal entrance.  With no plans to enter we were simply enjoying the ambiance.  The reflection pools and dancing fountains had been drained for winter and the plaza was definitely worse for the loss.  We turned north to Palais Royal and along the diagonal to Opéra, it dripping with gold and colour.  We reached Place Vendôme, an impressive square bursting with expensive designer stores. All streets were full of top-end brands, with minimalist displays of pricey coveted goods, three staff members to each customer and private security on each door.  The roads were stuffed with chauffeured cars delivering rich patrons into roped off spaces.  We felt out of place in the lavish, almost vulgar, display of riches, so we dipped into a surprise find on the street – a Decathlon store – for quiet reflection.

Paris - (Opera house facade)

After, we sat on the steps of Madeleine church staring at the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde as we planned our next move.  We decided that would be a metro up to Montmartre and a visit to Sacre Coeur.  We soon alighted at Abbesses station and chose to climb the stairs over joining a queue for lifts, and 144 steps later my overused legs were not thanking me for that decision.  Outside we found cute timber market stalls, thick with wonderful Christmas smells, leading on to many more upward steps.  We shunned the funicular and walked up long flights to reach the first main platform, before turning for our reward – a stunning panorama over all of central Paris.  We stood and stared, picking out monuments and spotting buildings we’d visited.  It was a sharp, clear day, a perfect vista of Paris.

Paris - (view from sacre coeur)

After another security check to enter the Sacre Coeur, we sat a moment on hard wooden pews and absorbed the painted ceiling of the church’s domed ceiling in welcome quiet.  Then we continued into the heart of Montmartre, where we bought a small metal tray, just the right size for two cups of tea, that will act as a small daily reminder of our Paris trip.  We browsed the many artists’ varied work in a cobbled square lined with cafés and bars, enjoying the soulful ambience. We then picked out one restaurant from many and feasted on three courses alone in their warm interior, as all other customers felt compelled to shiver their way through their food at the outside tables.

Paris - (Nicky at Sacre coeur)

When we extracted ourselves, night had fallen and everything was lit up.  It began spitting with light rain as a talented busker sang Purple Rain to the crowds. The tat-hawkers were packing up, desperate for last sales. One guy follows me closely and, despite my polite but firm ‘non’ he continues to aggressively push his goods.  He then harshly grabs my wrist and refuses to let go, until I finally protest very loudly in colourful language. The possibility of drawing the attention of one of the nearby security guards leads him to scarper away, but also left me wondering what terrible, indentured slave-like contract he might be locked into to drive such desperation. It must be a miserable, sad life, and I immediately felt guilty for my dismissive impatience, even if his chosen sales technique was threatening and invasive.

Paris - (montmartre artists)

We fell downhill through more crowded markets and brightly lit shops to reach a large boulevard.  We followed this to Pigalle metro, where, before descending, we could see the lights of the Moulin Rouge beyond.  We caught the metro to Pont de Neuilly and walked the long road back to our campsite on low lit, very busy, urban roads, passing a large tent complex where Circus du Soliel were performing.   Even with liberal use of the metro we had walked over 18km around the Parisian streets  – an exhausting day.

A&N x

< Part 2 to follow >

Stockholm & Rosersberg Castle

An impulsive decision to rush off to see Stockholm in a fair-weather window, followed by some restful days around Rosersberg Castle north of the city.

We woke early up on a grey but brightening morning in the very comfortable free aire in Karlskoga. It would have been so easy to linger another night, enjoying the view and a few lake swims, but we conspired to make a change.  The forecast for the region suggested there would be only two good days of clear sunny weather in the next ten; today and tomorrow.  With some trepidation as we were still a long way west we decided, perhaps a little flippantly, to spend them in Sweden’s capital.  Decision made, we got packed up and organised, serviced Benny and hastily left all before our dashboard clock showed 8am.  There was a little over three hours driving between us and Stockholm.

Stockholm - (view from island)

Stockholm - (passing parade)

Stockholm - (moderna museum Skeppsholmen)

We had hoped to follow in OurTour’s footsteps and spend a few cheap days on the island of Skeppsholmen, but we found the marina area was closed for construction works.  The other nearby parking areas on the island had updated parking machines that explained in multiple languages that the still available 60 SEK overnight ticket was strictly for residents only and could only be purchased in conjunction with a separate residency card.  We could have chanced it, but they seemed to have gone to a lot of trouble to explain that we weren’t meant to.  Our hope of a few sneaky cheap nights in the city centre gone, we paid instead for several hours of day parking and set off to explore on foot.

Stockholm - (old town Main square)

Stockholm - (streetscape)

Stockholm - (Royal Palace)

The sun was shining from a clear blue sky, and the cityscape looked simply fantastic.  We were in no hurry to see anything specific and just doodled along in the warmth of the day, taking it all in.  Passing through the island park, we crossed the bridge from Skeppsholmen to the busy central promenade, following the curve of the water around to another bridge leading to the old town.  We were passed by a parade of military horsemen returning from the changing of the guard at the Royal Palace to their barracks, who collectively obeyed the red lights like normal traffic.  We wandered the streets of the Old town on Gamla Stan, dodging the colourfully-dressed zombies on walking tours.

Stockholm - (Riddarhuset)

Stockholm - (Radisson Blu hotel))

Stockholm - (Old town view)

We browsed the many shops in the busy side streets of the old town.  We ate ice cream on a bench outside the Royal Palace and watched the world go by.  We had arrived early into the city, the weather was terrific and the atmosphere relaxed and easy, so we simply switched off and lived in that simple moment.  Several kayakers slid by on the calm sea and we mused on whether a water-level view of the city would be interestingly different and if we should join them, but we were too infused in the lazy, sunny day to motivate ourselves to organise it.  Instead we crossed to Riddarhomlen, a small island on the west side of Galma Stan, where we ate our lunch early, on a wooden bench looking out over the harbour waters and facing towards the domineering Stadhuset, Stockholm’s city hall.

Stockholm - (stadhuset)

Stockholm - (stadhuset courtyard)

Stockholm - (town hall view of Galma Stan)

Sated, we traipsed across the noisy, narrow pedestrian portion of the railway bridge to the opposite quay front, reaching the dominantly funky Radisson Blu hotel.  Another short bridge led us to the side of the austere Stadhuset, and we turned through an archway into its wide Civic Court.  Over eight million bricks, known as munktegels (Monk’s bricks) due to their traditional use in monastery construction, made up the impressive building, its overall design inspired in part by Renaissance palaces in Western Europe.  It was constructed around two main colonnaded squares, and the mosaic-clad Golden Hall within the walls is famous as the site of the annual Nobel Prize banquet.

Stockholm - (side view Stadhuset)

Stockholm - (stadhuset facade)

Stockholm - (views across water)

We spent some time around the garden courtyards looking out over the shining waters of Riddarfjärden to the old town.  Scaling the corner tower, 106m or 365 steps high, was originally part of our plan, but the scheduled climbs, seemingly based around bell-ringing times, were booked out for the next few hours and we didn’t manage to return.  Instead we walked the gardens, enjoying the many sculptures and delicately arranged flowering arrangements.  The otherwise monolithic brick façade was delicately decorated, almost Venetian in style, with tall, playful turrets topped with moons and stars creating a more Eastern flavour.  It was an eclectic style, but distinctly Scandinavian.

Stockholm - (Galma Stan with boat)

Stockholm - (kayakers on water)

Stockholm - (Parliment)

We continued our rambling tour, crossing back to Gamla Stan before exiting the island again by a different bridge, to pass by the flag-lined avenue in front of the Parliament building.  We turned right along the waterfront, passing several lovely squares and the bright red St. Jacob’s Church, as we explored the more modern streets of Stockholm, lined with designer shops and familiar brands. We crossed the jutting peninsula of Blasieholmen to view the colourful cityscape of the opposite bank, then walked along this promenade with views across to the museum-heavy island of Djurgården.  We could clearly pick out the Nordic Museum and the Vasa museum from our vantage point, and made loose plans to visit the island on our next visit to the city centre, likely tomorrow.

Stockholm - (View of Vasa Museum)

Stockholm - (water view)

Stockholm - (Street facade)

Worn out from all our walking, we returned to Benny to formulate a plan, and decided to spend the night outside the city to the north.  We set off at 4pm, on a Friday afternoon, to head to Rosersberg Castle.  A rookie mistake, as we soon enmeshed ourselves fully in the mad traffic rush from the city.  We struggled for the best part of an hour to break free, finally reaching an open stretch of the E4 and cruising smoothly up to Rosersberg.  We parked in their large gravel car-park that doubled as an amenable free aire and finally relaxed.  We had a quick walk up to the castle, now a posh hotel, before returning to settle in for the night.   Surprisingly, we found we could pick up an open WiFi network from the hotel too, so were happy nestling in our little cocoon as darkness descended.

Stockholm - (Riksgatan)

Stockholm - (St Jacobs church)

The next morning we had planned to return to the city, but the weather had turned and our predicted two days of sun had been reduced to one.  It was grey and damp, and reading up on city activities, we noted there were several events that would greatly increase Saturday’s crowds, so with memories of Friday’s traffic still raw, we decided to spend another day locally in Rosersberg before revisiting Stockholm the following day to see a few of the special, internal attractions we’d studiously avoided due to the wonderful weather.  This gave us a lazy day to walk around the extensive castle lake and gardens with the bonus of free city parking on Sunday when we returned to the city.

Rosersberg - (Castle approach)

Rosersberg - (rest spot)

The next morning we had a very lazy start, sleeping long and only slowly emerging due to the invasive noise of spitting rain outside.  We sat it out and it dried up nicely around lunchtime, so we booted up and headed out for a walk around the lake shore and grounds.  We followed the easy paths through the forests, enjoying our fresh-air amble.  We discovered grottos decorated with carved runes, quiet bathing spots and clearings in the trees with fancy wooden houses.  We sat a while on a quiet quay, looking out over the large lake, before returning through the apple orchards at the rear of the hotel.  Our informal walk began and ended with the formal structures of Rosersberg Slott.

Rosersberg - (lake side)

Rosersberg - (Castle rear elevation)

We passed another quiet night in the grounds of Rosersberg, accompanied only by birdsong, as we made plans for our return visit to Stockholm.  Tomorrow was, we decided, to be a Vasa Museum day, come rain or come shine.