Paris Guide: The Marais

The Marais (4th) district in Paris has changed a lot since I lived there 10 years ago, but it is still my favorite area of Paris. Known as the hipster hub, the gay neighborhood and the Jewish quarter, the Marais has so much to do and see that you could spend 4 months there (like I did) and still leave much to see.  I wanted to share with you some old haunts I still love, and a few new places I discovered on my latest trip.

 

Place des Vosges

20140307-IMG_9668This special place is the oldest planned square in Paris, and the model for countless other residential squares throughout Europe. Author of Les Miserables, Victor Hugo, lived at No. 6 in the square. The arcade is lined with fashionable cafes and restaurants, but I like to enjoy the square by sitting within the square on a bench, watching the most fashionable and hip of Parisians parade by.

 

 

 

 

L’as du Fallafel

lasdufallafelThere is so much hype surrounding this little falafel stand in the heart of the Jewish district, and there are many who say it is over-hyped, but as I see it, a constant line of people out the door (for decades!) can’t be completely wrong. Having stood many times in the line for a pita stuffed with falafel and other goodies, I can say first-hand that it is worth the wait, which, by the way, is shorter than it appears thanks to an efficient system of ordering and paying while you are in line. Once you get to the window, hand over your receipt and your made-to-order falafel sandwich is assembled swiftly. The crispy falafel, marinated eggplant, pickles and hummus pack a ton of flavor. You will probably want to eat it immediately while leaning up against a nearby wall like the locals do. Even with all of the fancy, gourmet restaurants in Paris, many remember this $5 sandwich as their best meal.

 

 

 

 

Mariage Freres

mariagefreresThough the company was opened by the Mariage brothers 160 years ago, the family had been in the tea business for centuries before opening an official shop, so let’s just say they know something about tea. Mariage Freres has 4 tearooms in Paris, with the original store located in the Marais. Over 600 types of tea are displayed apothecary-style in large metal tins in the salon decorated with vintage tea instruments and antique furniture. You can buy tea in the shop area and also sit for a delicious brunch of scones and tea. The tea menu is so massive it can be quite overwhelming, so rely on the expertise of your waiter for suggestions. The aromatic Marco Polo blend is a popular favorite, and one I have purchased many times.

 

 

 

 

L’artisan Parfumeur

lartisanNext door to Mariage Freres is a beautiful little perfume shop with unique scents inspired by nature. When I was living in the neighborhood 10 years ago, I’d always stop in to smell their famed Mure et Musc, a blend of blackberries and musk, of which I now finally own a bottle. I was also drawn to the romantic names of La Chasse aux Papillon (“chasing butterflies”), a beautiful white floral with tuberose and lime blossom, and Mechant Loup (“big bad wolf), a masculine scent of licorice and hazelnut. The most intriguing fragrance of their line, which I almost want to hold secret, is Safran Troublant, a milky saffron-rose-vanilla-sandalwood deliciousness that stops people on the street. Which reminds me, I need to restock.

 

 

Les Nereides

nereidesThis was a new find of mine. I had been following this jewelry company’s Instagram page for a while, after seeing a well known Parisian fashion blogger The Cherry Blossom Girl wear a ring from this company. Then, while walking through the Marais, on the way to Place des Vosges, to be exact, I happened upon their new boutique and spent nearly an hour admiring their romantic, playful jewelry. I had to buy a couple pieces of their Paris-inspired “Paris mon amour” collection so I’d remember that special day wandering through my old neighborhood reminiscing, while creating new memories.

 

 

Delitaly

20140307-IMG_9524Located on rue Rambuteau, Delitaly was my favorite restaurant when I lived in the Marais (though it had a different name back then and was half the size), and it is even more popular than ever now, a decade later. It’s the best Italian food I’ve had outside of Italy, and everyone recommends the tiramisu with gusto!

 

 

 

 

 

What are your favorite Marais spots?

Day Trip from Venice – Murano and Burano

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When Venice starts to fee a little congested, which is likely with the number of visitors the small island hosts every day, it might be time for a day trip to the nearby islands of Murano and Burano. The vaporetto (water bus) heads to Murano from the Fondamente Nove stop in Venice, making just one stop on the way at the cemetery island of San Michele. Since the vaporetto comes by every 20 minutes or so, you can hop off the boat to walk around the scenic cemetery island (Igor Stravinsky is buried here), then catch the next boat to Murano.

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Get off at the first stop in Murano (Colonna) and walk up the main street, Rio dei Vetral, along the canal. The street is lined with shops selling mainly glass souvenirs and charming restaurants. The slower pace here is Murano is such a nice break from the crowds of Venice.

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The opposite side of the canal from where the vaporetto drops people off is much less crowded, and one of the cafes or restaurants there would make a great spot for a lunch break or just to watch people and boats pass by. You can watch glass blowing demonstrations, visit the glass museum, or buy souvenirs to take home – there’s a little something for everyone here.

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Once you’ve followed the main canal to the other side of the island, take the 30-ish minute boat ride on to Burano. Many people visit only Murano since it’s closer to Venice, skipping the farther Burano island, but I think they are missing out on the best of the outer islands.

 

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Burano, also known for its lacework, is mainly known for its photogenic, brightly colored houses. As you can imagine, the house colors are carefully planned, and must be approved by the government because you wouldn’t want to see two blue houses next to each other, now would you?

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You could walk the entire island of Burano in about 20 minutes, but I spent hours here wandering off the main streets into residential areas that were deserted aside from me, a few locals, and their laundry hanging overhead. I live for these moments of solitude while traveling that allow me to really “feel” a place without any distractions.

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The 45 minute boat ride back to Venice is especially peaceful at sunset. You can easily explore both Murano and Burano in the greater part of a day, and get back to Venice for dinner and a late night walk through the crowded streets, while thinking of all the colorful sights you saw and wondering if your friends in Burano took their laundry down.

 

Insider Tip: There could be a long wait for the boat from Burano to Venice, so be prepared to wait up to an hour if you plan to head back to Venice toward the end of the day. You might consider a tour with a tour company that would take you to the islands – downsides are that these can be sales pitches for glass factories and you will be on a tight schedule with no wiggle room, but if you aren’t comfortable figuring out the vaporetto schedule or need to be back in Venice by a specific time, a tour could be a good option. If traveling in a group of 4+, a private water taxi might even be worth the cost to avoid potentially long waits.

I found Rick Steves’ Venice travel guide to be so useful, in particular about how to get to Murano and Burano. I would have been pretty lost without it, since most of the information I found online was so fragmented or confusing. I’m not normally a guide book carrying tourista, but as a testament to how useful this particular book was, I carried it everywhere in Venice!

 

Once (at least) in a Lifetime: Carnival in Venice, Italy

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For some reason, the magical little city of Venice, Italy has been in my daydreams lately. And then, I came across this article from the Huffington Post about the Top 50 Cities to See in Your Lifetime, and guess which city came in #1? Venice, of course! I have not seen anywhere near all 50 on the list, but of the many I have visited, Venice makes the top of my list, as well. I would add that visiting Venice during the annual Carnival festival makes the experience even more special.

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Something about seeing people in elaborate, colorful costumes with expressionless masks against the backdrop of Venetian architecture and canals is just a vision unmatched by anything else.

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The vibe when walking the streets of Venice at any time of year is mystical and romantic, and then Carnival adds on an extra layer of fun and revelry. You don’t know what surprise awaits you when you turn the corner.

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Back alleys are suddenly transformed into scenes from a movie.

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Venice during Carnival feels like a party all day, all night. People in costumes pose and preen near all of the well-known sights during the day, while at night they walk in droves toward one of the many galas around town.

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It’s not too early to start thinking about planning your trip to Venice during Carnival next year!

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Have you been to Carnival in Venice? Or experienced any Carnival festivals around the world? Rio is on my wish list, and I hear Tobago does it up big, too!

3 Unexpectedly Fun Things To Do in Scotland

It’s not hard to enjoy Scotland – there are castles everywhere, and of course those adorable sheep prancing on rolling green hills. But sometimes the best memories are made without direction from any guidebook, or even offering up that picturesque scenery so many of us long to capture. Here are three unexpectedly, surprisingly fun things to do in Scotland:

 

1. Watch Border Collies herd sheep

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Leault Farm in Kincraig is a working sheep farm that offers a herding demonstration a couple times per day. Neil, the man in charge (with a Scottish accent so thick I had to squint to understand even half of what he said) introduces his team of Border Collies, allows his herd of sheep to disperse across a large field, and then issues a series of whistled commands to the dogs to strategically herd them all back to us. Each dog has its own whistle call so Neil can direct them one at a time to run, crouch, crawl, and pop back up at the right moment to move the herd.

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We were lucky to visit when he had 3 puppies just beginning to learn to integrate with the working pack, and we saw how the herding instinct is so powerful that even without any training, the puppies knew how to crouch down and crawl toward the sheep so as not to scare them into running off.

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When a dog was not working at that point in the demo, they would come sit on the rocks with us in the audience, but they never took their eyes off the action. At one point, when the dogs seemed to be losing control over the herd, two of the experienced dogs bolted from their places next to us out to the field to assist their rookie brothers, even without being directed by Neil.

The demonstration is just for our viewing pleasure, but the place is actually a working farm where the sheep live and graze in peace for most of the year, except at shearing time, when the dogs are used to herd them in for their “haircuts.” After the demo, you get to bottle feed sheep and lambs. If you’re an animal lover like me, this place is heaven on Scottish soil.

Insider Tips:

  • The farm is hard to find so leave plenty of time to let GPS take you miles past the turn-off, then back again.
  • Catch the first demonstration and Neil will let you stay to watch the second immediately after for no extra charge.

 

2. Sit in a pub, order treacle and date pudding, and listen to the Scottish accent

20130819-_DSC5193A big part of traveling to a different country for me is to sit and absorb my surroundings – the sounds, the gestures, the accents. It helps me to feel grounded when I start to feel dizzy from all of the newness. One of my favorite memories of Scotland was sitting in a pub in the town of Inverness after a long day of chasing castles, listening to the especially thick Scottish accent in this area from a few groups of people nearby. That’s when I fell in love with that accent. And treacle and date pudding? Just the most intense explosion of flavor in dessert form.

Insider Tip:

Mums in Edinburgh has the best treacle and date pudding

 

3. Walk underneath the Royal Mile in Edinburgh

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The Real Mary King’s Close is a subterranean alley located directly under the Royal Mile that was the hub of Edinburgh between the 17th and 19th centuries. Eventually, the area was paved over to effectively “start fresh” with wider streets for better circulation and better quality of life, but much of the alleys and homes exist in their original conditions. Today you can explore these tenement alleys frozen in time on tours led by costumed guides who take on the character of a person who lived in the close centuries ago. You get a genuine feel of the claustrophobic conditions people lived in that also led to the spread of plagues and other desperate conditions. [Photo above is of the Royal Mile, as photos are not allowed on the tour]

Insider tip:

There are other underground / ghost tours heavily marketed in the area, but if you only have time for one, this one is the best because it has a richer story with more intact living spaces.

 

Have you gone to a place that was unexpectedly fun or memorable? I’d love to hear about it!