I had La Duree macaroons the last time we went to Paris and just knew we had to have some again this go round. They really are delicious and much different than even the French style ones we have here. They say it’s in the origins of the ingredients (ie French flour) and maybe they are right! Either way, I love them.

Not only are they pretty, but they are delicious too. There are La Duree locations all over Paris and even around the world, although the only one in the States is in New York.

It’s not just about the product either – their packaging is to delightful. Beautiful bags, tiny perfectly sized boxes for scrumptious treats, and pretty paper to accompany all of it. I wish I had stopped eating it so fast to take a few more photos :-)

The first time we went we bought macaroons and took them with us, and the second time we managed to squeeze in and get a table in the tea room. I really couldn’t get a good sense of whether it was only tourists that do that or not, but there was a lot of French going on around us so it didn’t seem that way. The tea selection was actually really wonderful and we enjoyed the one we had very much.

Have you ever had La Duree macaroons or been there? What’s your favorite flavor?

We really weren’t quite sure what to expect for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in Paris. Here in Charleston, Christmas day is usually a ghost town as everyone spends time with family and friends, but not so in Paris!

This is the Christmas tree at the Galeries Lafayette, which was not only open but appropriately chaotic for the last shopping day before Christmas. Since many museums and monuments were not open that day, we decided the best people watching was probably going to be in the department stores, and Paris has some neat ones. Definitely check out the Galeries Lafayette for the beautiful interior space.

After that, we headed to Le Bon Marche, which has a gourmet grocery store called La Grande Epicerie. We stocked up on food because we weren’t sure what would be open the next day.

I LOVE going to grocery stores in other countries and places – it’s so enlightening to see real people going about their day as well as what’s available product wise. On this grocery trip, I was rather astonished to actually witness a chicken getting its head cut off…you would never see that in an American grocery store. But in reality, you know it’s fresh and unprocessed that way, don’t you?!

We had planned to spend Christmas Eve at Notre Dame, thinking we would go to the midnight mass. While wandering around in Ile de la Cite that evening, we realized there was quite a line and crowd at the front of the cathedral, so on a whim we went in. Best. Decision. Ever.

If you think you’re going to get to Notre Dame even at 9PM for a midnight mass, think again. We attended the 8PM mass and barely got seats. Promptly after that was over, some people left but most people shuffled around looking for better seats. They then showed a movie about the cathedral and gave a choir performance. It was standing room only the entire time.

Logistics aside, it was an incredibly moving experience. The first time we went to Paris, we caught the tail end of an organ performance and I never forgot how beautiful it was. Since that, we have always tried to go to a mass or vespers service just for the beauty of the music, the smell of the incense and candlelight, and the quiet time to admire the beautiful space. Spending Christmas Eve there was an experience like no other.

And then, when we emerged from the Church, we realized just how lucky we were to have gotten in and gotten a seat…

We were just in time to welcome Christmas while crossing over the Seine. Incredible.

We indulged a bit in a late morning on Christmas and then headed out to see what the city had in store. Interestingly, the Eiffel Tower is actually open even on Christmas Day. We came up to it the long way, walking all the way up from the Champs de Mars, to get the full effect, and thoroughly enjoyed the people watching. There were lots of people out and about but it wasn’t unpleasantly crowded by any means.

The closer we got, the more the sun came out, which is a much rarer thing than you realize. It was probably the sunniest moment we had the whole trip.

We actually found quite a few restaurants open, so we had a quick bite, and then headed to the Champs Elysees.

THE PEOPLE.

We popped up near the Arc de Triomphe and were astonished to see the masses of people walking the Champs Elysees. That picture hardly does the crowds justice. Even more impressive, many of the stores were open! Coming from a Southern town in the US, it was quite unthinkable to be able to buy anything in a store on Christmas Day.

At this point, the weather had turned even colder, cloudier, and rainier, and the crowds were a bit overwhelming. I get tired of having to dodge people every time I take a step (another reason I love my little home town!). So we decided “Christmas dinner at home” was the best idea after we had people-watched ourselves out.

If you read last week’s post with tips for European travel, you’ll know what a huge fan of renting an apartment I am. This is a great example when it saved us a lot of money — for Christmas Eve & Christmas Day meals, most of the good restaurants in Paris had a prix fixe option that was in the 100E+ range. Of course, most of those also required reservations.

We had decided well in advance that we didn’t particularly want to do that, and I’m glad we did. It was a lot of fun to have a tasting meal of sorts with the cheeses, meats, desserts, and other items we’d gotten during our grocery store run. Try the restaurants on a day when they aren’t charging so much extra for the holiday.

So there you have it – Christmas in Paris! It wasn’t boring like many of the articles I read had warned – quite the opposite in fact. Don’t get me wrong, stuff was definitely closed, but the city was alive with people and festivities and plenty of places were still open.

What was your Christmas like?

Hello lovely blog readers and happy 2013! I’ve missed you and hope you all enjoyed a wonderful holiday season. I’m pretty exhausted after trekking around Europe, but I’m so glad we decided to do something a little different for the holidays this year. Nothing is so inspiring to me as new places and cultures, nor so refreshing to the spirit as time with loved ones.

I hardly know where to begin as there are so many things I want to share. Shall we start with a few travel tips?

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Five Tips for Far Away Travel

1. Rent an apartment.

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This has been a huge one for us. You generally have to be in one place for at least five days, but truly, you can’t get to know a place in less than that anyway so it shouldn’t be an issue.

The first time we traveled to Europe, we stayed in a hotel and it was fine. They made the beds up for us and had room service, but it was tiny and touristy. So next time, in our research, we came across the apartment option and decided to go for it. I wouldn’t do it any other way now. Why, you ask?

  • Kitchen: when you are gone for awhile, it can get really tiring to eat out every meal. Especially breakfast. Having a kitchen – even a teeny one – allows you to stock up some food items and unwind a bit in your PJ’s if you’d like. It’s a huge money saver.
  • Cultural immersion: these are usually in areas that are at least a little less touristy and where people actually live. It’s a great way to see the place as it really is.
  • Space: they are almost always at least a little bigger than a hotel room.
  • Privacy: ’nuff said. It’s just kind of nice.
  • Possible bonus: washer/dryer. Although I have always had a rough time with European models…they are very unlike our behemoth American models.

We have used a few companies before and I would highly recommend all three: Sleep in Italy, Vacations in Paris, and A La Carte Paris.

2. Coming back to the US takes awhile.

If you are flying back into the US and have to make a connection (i.e. New York to Charleston), plan a decent layover and plan on running. Coming into the States from a foreign country is quite cumbersome — you go through passport control, pick up your checked bags, go through customs lugging all your stuff, re-check your bags again, and then have to go BACK through TSA security, not to mention find the terminal your flight is going to be in (which will probably be miles away). Both times we’ve had to make a connection, we have found ourselves running at breakneck speed to make it, despite having a 2 hour layover.

3. Learn the city’s transportation systems.

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When we first went to Paris, we thought we would do one of those “hop on, hop off” bus tours as a way to get around. On a whim, we got brave the first day and gave the metro a try instead and never ended up doing a tour. Then, because we were in London for only a day, we decided to do the hop on/hop off, but we ended up spending more time in traffic than actually getting where we wanted to go.

If the city has a good system, like the Paris metro, it’s so much more freeing to feel confident that you know how to navigate the place in which you’re spending time. I always feel kind of nervous when I’m entirely dependent on some tour group and am worried I wouldn’t know my way without it. It’s such a better feeling to know you can handle the place on your own.

Not only that, but it’s another great cultural experience. Sure, there are plenty of tourists riding around too, but there are also lots of locals going about their day.

4. Pack light + smart.

Get over it and wear your jeans a few days on the trip. You won’t regret it when you’re lugging your bags through the airport.

Also, with all the rules they have nowadays, look that up ahead of time and make sure you put everything you will have to remove from your carryon (Ipad, camera, liquids), in an easy to grab spot. Wear easy to remove shoes too if you can manage it.

Psst….don’t forget to put an extra set of clothes in there too. I learned that one the hard way – it’s not a good feeling to find yourself in Mexico with nothing but a lousy carryon that has no change of clothes in it.

5. Slow down.

Returning to a city for another visit has major upsides – it’s not nearly so intimidating as it was the first time and there is so much less pressure. It’s really easy to fall into the sightseeing whirlwind the first time you visit because you don’t know when you’ll be back. The first time we came we definitely did that, so on our return trip I felt so much more able to soak in the culture and pass the time more naturally.

If you can possibly manage it, try not to spend the whole time monument hopping – it’s just as important to soak in the feel of the place as a whole.

bonus tip: ask friends!

Ask around – you never know who will have been there and have tips to share. New Life in Spain was kind enough to send me a lovely email with Belgium tips!

Have any to add?

I’d love to hear about your travel experiences and tips – share in the comments!

I wasn’t kidding when I said I’d be talking about the honeymoon trip for a long time! Today I popped into my pictures folder accidentally and realized I haven’t shared my favorite church with you in detail yet.

When we first went to Paris in 2009, I wasn’t prepared for how breathtakingly beautiful Saint Chapelle is. I think most people have a few other places in mind ahead of it when they think of Paris – the Louvre, Notre Dame, Champs Elysees, etc. But let me tell you, on our honeymoon last year, I was here at Sainte Chapelle the morning after we arrived.

The funny thing about is is that (A) it’s literally guarded by the gendarmerie and (B) the part you actually walk into (above) is rather underwhelming. Not that it’s not beautiful, but the ceilings are kind of low and it’s dark. The worst part is, like so many places in Europe, they gift-shopped it up. Nothing like an Eiffel Tower keychain to accent a centuries old monument.

But then, you walk upstairs. And not just any stairs – literally tiny, hole-in-the-wall type spiral stairs. and you arrive…

Two-thirds of the stained glass is original from the 13th century when the chapel was built by Louis IX. Can you imagine building something so well? And without the benefit of power tools or machinery? I have to doubt that any of our buildings and products today would stand that test.

I must give the hubs most of the credit for our photos, as I spent most of our visit seated in a chair on the sidelines, reading the history and admiring the art…

…which he also made sure to capture :-)

Have a wonderful Thursday!

I have a feeling I will be blogging about our trip for a long time.  There are just so many little pieces and experiences I could talk about.  I was going to do a giant “here’s a bunch of pictures from Paris post,” but then I thought it would be much more fun to share them more specifically than just a bunch of photos.

On a cloudy Sunday we strolled along the Seine towards Ile St. Louis with the intention of trying the famous Berthillon ice cream, even though it was quite cold. I didn’t realize that I was unwittingly taking us to the lock bridge I had seen on Pinterest not too long ago. It is CRAZY how many locks there are!

The story is that you and your significant other bring a lock to the bridge, often engraved with your name or something, lock it onto the bridge and throw the key into the Seine to express your undying and unbreakable bond. Amazing how many there are!

It’s one of those things I wonder how Parisians feel about it. I don’t remember seeing anything about it the first time we went to Paris a few years ago, and unless I’m much mistaken, I think it’s a relatively new thing as I didn’t see many locks that weren’t from the last couple years. I wonder if they’re thinking, “great, so now the tourists come and lock stuff on our bridge and then leave??”

But it made for some cool pictures.

Happy Thursday!