Monthly Archives: June 2016

Fabulous France! Oh la la!

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*Disclaimer: My husband ran out of vacation days this year, and I had the summer off, so I was thrilled to take  girls’ trip to Europe with one of my best pals, Lynnsey! Here is the story of our girls’ adventure.*

To begin I will say this: Paris on a budget is EXTREMELY difficult. After traveling to Istanbul, Beijing, and Prague this year, the overall price-tag on, well…everything, was a bit of a shock. Food/shopping/tourism are generally very expensive, but there are some things travelers can do to cut costs. That being said, I would not recommend Paris if you are on a tight budget – it will be stressful.

My uncle and his family live in a hamlet (Ecques) in the Nord pas de Calais region. I wanted to see the family even though our trip to France was short, so my uncle picked Lynnsey and I up from Charles de Gaulle airport and brought us to his home about two hours away. Looking back, I wish we would have spent more time in the countryside, but this will have to be a trip for Kevin and I sometime in the future. We enjoyed some sightseeing in St. Omer (town nearby) and a home-cooked meal. The weather was chilly for June – I had to wear a jacket, so make sure to check the weather as France’s temp can be unpredictable.

The next day, my uncle brought us into Paris to help us get settled and do some sightseeing. He suggested getting a week-long metro pass (basically unlimited metro travel for seven days). The cost was about 22 Euro (plus the cost of a passport-sized photo), but I am SO glad we did this. The Paris Metro was extremely navigable, and we never worried about how much it would cost to get from place to place. Do not waste money on taxis – take the metro, especially during the day. It is easy to buy tickets – most folks speak English. *Tip: Don’t assume everyone speaks English, but just say, “Parlez-Vous Anglais?” which means, Do you speak English? – most Parisians appreciate the effort.*

After getting our train passes, we spent the day walking (probably about 12 miles throughout the day) to see some places like the Arc de Triomph, grounds of the Louvre, and Notre Dame Cathedral.

Another way we cut costs for this trip was with lodging. I did my research to find a good Air B&B. A studio apartment ended up being $140 a night (so splitting with a friend was about $70 each). We weren’t in city center, but the apartment was located in a residential neighborhood in Paris (Louis Michel) right across the street from a metro stop. It was quiet, and I felt safe walking around. We found out VERY quickly that restaurant food is pricey, so we tried to save some money by buying some food items from the grocery store around the corner from our apartment.

Once Lynnsey and I were on our own the next day, we went to Euro Disney! We got there on the train using our week-long passes. Ticket prices were a STEAL since we got them in advance before we left the states AND we went before European summer holidays (which take place in July/August). We paid $60 each for a joint ticket to Disneyland Park & Walt Disney Studios. Lines were pretty short, and we made some new friends, like Aladdin! Highlights of the day included the Ratatouille ride (it’s France, duh!), Crush’s Coaster, meeting Minnie Mouse, and Pirates of the Caribbean.

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Our third morning in Paris was spent on the Seine. Paying for a boat cruise (about $35) was money well spent! We got some amazing pictures of the Eiffel Tower and other structures along the Seine. We were unable to go into the heart of the city on the river because of security concerns during the Euro Cup, but it was still a great morning.

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In the afternoon, we went on a quest for macaroons! We did some research, and the place with the best reviews was Laduree. Macaroons (or macarons) are not cheap (about $4 each), so we considered this a splurge. They were beautiful, delicious and worth every penny.

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I can’t wait to spend more time in France when I have more time (and money!). I would like to spend some time at Versailles & the Louvre in Paris and visit the countryside (including wine country!). Until next time…

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Prost, Prague!

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Prost, Prague!

Prague in the Czech Republic is such a delightful place. Why, you ask?

Maybe it’s because the locals drink more beer (per capita) than any other country in the world. Or maybe it’s because of its amusing street vendors and quaint shops. Either way, Prague is a great city; one I’d recommend to folks that are new to visiting Europe. Here’s why:

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Looks just like a postcard!

*Compared to other big cities we’ve been like San Francisco or Hong Kong, Prague was relatively inexpensive – we could get a nice meal and beer (for two) for about $30.

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Goulash Stew in Rye Bread-Bowl from our favorite restaurant in Prague: Mlejnice

*English is all around – from the store owners, to the signage, to the tourists, but you still get a eastern European vibe.

*Public transportation (the tram) is relatively easy once you figure out where to buy tickets (go to the newspaper stand!). Walking is also a great option.

Kevin and I arrived in Prague after spending several days in the Middle East. We stayed at the Hotel Century Old Town – our room was clean and simple, and it was in a good location although it wasn’t the best hotel we’ve ever stayed at (which is Hotel Amira in Istanbul, in case you were wondering).

Our first full day we did a lot of walking. so I am glad I was wearing my Birkenstock sandals which happen to be my absolute favorite summer travel shoe! We started by taking the tram to Prague Castle – the largest castle in the world! One neat fact about the castle is that the President of the Czech Republic still lives there. Kevin and I paid the $15 for the audio tour, and I’m glad we had it because there was A LOT to see and hear. Sometimes it is nice to learn some new things while going at your own pace. A highlight within the castle walls was the St. Vitus Cathedral – the Gothic architecture was gorgeous, and it was interesting to see some of the preservation work they were doing there. One thing to prepare yourself for: visitors are charged a small fee if you want to take photographs inside the castle.

Kev and I also enjoyed walking around the gardens of the castle – it was a really nice day and wasn’t too hot for being early June.

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After spending the whole morning at the castle we walked around Old Town and walked across the Charles Bridge. It was extremely crowded, but it was good people watching and we eventually came across a great happy hour deal – only a couple Euro for a half liter of Pilsner Urquell!

Our next full day was spent in the Jewish Quarter, also known as Josefov. If you are a history/culture nerd like me, this part of Prague cannot be missed.  Entrance to the Jewish Museum, Cemetery and Synagogues was about $20 a person, and it was walking distance from Old Town. Kev and I learned so much about Jewish life and history, and we really admired the ornate decor of the Spanish Synagogue.

Many of Czechoslovakia’s Jews were killed during the Holocaust, and the Jewish Museum in Prague does a beautiful job of honoring the victims. We did not go, but I really wish we had carved out some time to take a day trip to the Terezin Concentration Camp.

We spent our afternoon taking a boat tour on the Vltava. The trip wasn’t far or long, but enjoying a beer and a mini-architectural tour of the city was an awesome way to spend a couple of hours! We also got some GREAT photographs.

All in all, Prague was a pleasure to visit. Three days was just enough time for us, but there is enough to do for people that wish to stay longer! Prost (Cheers), Prague!

 

Istanbul Not Constantinople!

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Istanbul Not Constantinople!

Quick history lesson: What IS the deal with Istanbul vs. Constantinople? To put it simply, Constantinople was the Christian name for the city, but the name changed to Istanbul when Islam became the predominant religion.

Istanbul, Turkey is the friendliest and most interesting place we have EVER been. I still can’t get over how amazing it was. While we did avoid group tours and large crowds, we felt safe walking around during the day and at night. The recent terror attacks are harming the economy of an INCREDIBLE city that depends on tourism, and our hearts go out to the Turkish people and all those in the world who are suffering at the hands of terrorism. Right now, we know Turkey is not the safest place to be, but if you EVER have the opportunity visit this city, go and you will have such an adventure.

Kevin and I stayed at the Hotel Amira in Sultanahamet (the old town). This hotel made our good Istanbul experience a GREAT one. Getting to the hotel from the airport was about 40 minutes and costed about $50. We arranged for transportation through the hotel. For $160 a night, we got free breakfast and afternoon tea, a rooftop terrace, and the best service we have ever had. The concierge (named AJ) who had perfect English sat with us on the terrace (after giving us a glass of wine) for 40 minutes to go over the city map and tips for our trip. Who does that?! So great. Our hotel room was spacious and they upgraded us to a balcony room. The hotel was also in walking distance to pretty much everything – 5 minutes from the Blue Mosque/city tram and 10 minutes to Hagia Sophia.

 

Like in the China post, I am going to post some must-sees/dos and some photographs underneath.

Hagia Sophia – Formerly a church turned mosque and now a museum. Get the museum pass if this is your first stop. If you go to at least 2 of the museums, it pretty much pays for itself.

Cisterns – This was a really unexpected, cool excursion. The cisterns are Roman-built and used to house the usable water underneath the city. This does not count as part of the museum pass, but is worth the money. This is right across the street from the Hagia Sophia.

Blue Mosque – This building is just beautiful, inside and out. If you are not wearing a long dress (females) or pants (males) the mosque will loan you clothing. Be prepared to take off your shoes inside. Wear socks.

Topaki Palace – This is included in your museum pass. It was so neat to see how the sultans lived. The tile-work is gorgeous. And the views from the palace are to-die for!

Grand Bazaar – You probably won’t get the best prices here unless you’re a master haggler, but it is definitely a fun experience and a must-see! It’s so cool to think that vendors have been selling there for centuries!

Bosphorus Cruise – This is the only “group” tour that we did. The cruise was amazing and probably our favorite part of the trip. We really liked seeing Asia on one side of the straight and Europe on the other! Our particular cruise also included a visit to the Yeni Cami Mosque and the Spice Market beforehand.

Restaurant Recommendations:

  • Babylonia in Sultanahamet
  • Fine Dine Istanbul – the view is the most incredible we’ve ever seen
  • Hamdi for kebabs

Some tips:

  • Turkey is still not part of the EU, so they do NOT use the Euro. Make sure you use Turkish Lira.
  • DO NOT take a taxi. Walk or use public transportation.
  • Be prepared to hear the Call to Prayer 5-6 times per day coming from the minarets of the mosques. Bring earplugs if you’re a light sleeper. It is such an eerie, beautiful sound.
  • Females, bring a scarf. Your head must be covered to enter mosques.
  • Dress conservatively. No tank tops. I wore short-sleeves and linen capris most of the time. Although Turkey is technically a secular country, it is predominantly Muslim in terms of population.

 

We hope to meet again, Istanbul.