Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Parisian Spring

*I'll preface this post with an apology for its length. This is very much an outpouring of my growing nostalgia as the semester wraps up combined with procrastinating studying for finals. But if you're so inclined, read on!

I cannot believe that in less than two weeks, I will be back in the US. These past four months have flown by, especially the past month since we have returned from break.

Monet water-lilies at the Musée de l'Orangerie
Right after returning from spring break, my friend Elana from Cornell came to visit. She was studying abroad in London this semester, but her classes were done by the end of April so she came to Paris for a few days to visit. On Elana’s first day in Paris, we had crêpes at a Bretonne crêperie near the Pernety metro stop. We had savory galettes for lunch and shared a banana, salted butter caramel crêpe for dessert. Delicious! After that we headed to Place de la Concorde. I gave Elana the brief history of the area: used to be called Place de la Revolution, was where Marie Antoinette was executed by guillotine, Egyptian obelisk etc. and then we went to the Musée L’Orangerie. L’Orangerie is a small and simple museum, but definitely worth a visit. On the main floor there is just one gallery – a circular one, housing three magnificent Monet water lily panoramas.  The lower level of the museum has a handful of great and noteworthy impressionist works. It was great seeing this gallery right after returning from Aix-en-Provence, as I found a number of Cezanne’s Aix landscapes at L’Orangerie. It has also been awesome to visit these art museums while taking my French art history class - I have started recognizing the paintings, artistic styles and movements even more. After our short visit at the museum, we walked through the length of the Tuileries garden, stopping at the fountain on the Louvre side to ogle at some adorable newborn chicks. At the Louvre, we took some obligatory pictures of the glass pyramids and then went into the museum for the quickest tour anyone has ever had at the expansive palace. In about 20 minutes we saw the Mona Lisa, Winged Victory and Venus de Milo. Sure, there are tons of other great works to see there, but you could spend a week just at the Louvre and with Elana visiting for only a few days and wanting to do a lot, we figured we would aim for the most noteworthy of the museum’s collection. As we were leaving, the dry heat of the day was breaking and a sudden rainstorm began. We scurried off to the bus and made our way back to the 14th. We stopped to pick up some delights for 'grignoter' (snacking), which inevitably ended up as dinner. (Funny story on the word grignoter – there is a national campaign in France called “Manger-Bouger,” meaning “Eat-Move” that encourages people to eat well and get active. As a part of campaign, a warning message appears at the bottom of candy ads at the movies, much like health warnings on medications in the US. The ad discourages “grignoter entre repas,” snacking between meals, and it encourages you to look to their website for more info. A little taste of France public service announcements for you.) Anyways, rejecting this advice, we went to the Boursault fromagerie and got some delicious chèvre and we got a fresh baguette and tiramisu mille feuille at Dominique Saibron (definitely not part of the Manger-Bouger propaganda). We had our bread; cheese and dessert back in my room and then called it a night, both of us still exhausted from traveling.

The next day, we went to a market, which is held each Sunday on Alesia just a block away from Didot. They have a bunch of venders selling fresh produce, meats, cheeses, dried fruits, nuts, breads, flowers etc. We picked out a pain au chocolat and a chausson aux pommes (similar to an apple turnover) from the boulanger’s stand, and then some fresh strawberries and headed out for the day. We went to Versailles where we met up with Elana’s friends who had traveled with her to Paris. It was Easter Sunday and it was surprisingly not an original idea to spend the holiday at the château. We waited for hours to enter the château, but once we were inside it was totally worth it. 

The château was beautiful and enormous. Every piece of décor was so ornate and carefully planned out. 
The crowds were numerous and it was difficult to get through the château easily and take pictures without a million tourists in the shots. I did really enjoy seeing some of the youngest visitors in costume…a little Marie Antoinette seemed to be following us around everywhere. We took a lunch break at ‘Angelina’ within the mansion. Unfortunately it was too hot for chocolat chaud, but I introduced Elana to one of my other Angelina favorites – the Mont Blanc. Supposedly invented by ‘Angelina,’ this mountain-like pastry has a meringue base, a chantilly filling and is covered in a rich chestnut cream. Yum J We then went to Marie Antoinette’s farm and the Grand and Petite Trionons, Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette’s country escapes on the Versailles property. Marie’s farm was quite country-like and adorable. There were rabbits, chickens, goats and horses being kept on the farm. A sparkling lake, grassy fields and little cottages decorated her domain as well. We finished our visit back at the main château, exploring the planned gardens and huge fountains on the grounds.
Marie Antoinette's Estate
Fountain at Versailles
We headed back to Paris where we split from the group. We went to Montmartre that evening– my first time being there at night and boy was it magical. Sacre Cœur was illuminated, its bright white façade glowing against the darkened night sky. I could stare at it forever. The steps were lined with tourists and Parisians alike enjoying the music of street performers and the superb views of Paris, lit up below. We went into the basilica where an Easter mass was going on. We walked around the artist’s square behind Sacre Cœur and walked downhill catching a great view of the Eiffel Tower. Afterwards we went to dinner at ‘Au Refuge des Fondus,’ a kitschy fondue restaurant in Montmartre.  The tiny resto was packed and we waited outside until summoned to enter by the waiter. The restaurant had two long tables on opposite walls and as I entered, the waiter pulled out a chair, took my hand and assisted me to climb over the table to reach an empty seat on the other side. You had only two choices to make in the restaurant: meat or cheese fondue (we went for the cheese) and red or white wine. The wine was served up in a ‘biberot,’ the French word for baby bottle – rather bizarre, but it has come to be the trademark of this crazy niche and even the restaurant’s door handles were bottle shaped. We were served a plate of little appetizers: cubed meats, pickles, olives and cheese, and then were brought a huge pot of thick melted cheese and an overflowing basket of bread cubes. It was hot, gooey, cheesy and delicious. We even made friends with the couple next to us who let us try their meat fondue, in which you dipped a morsel of raw steak into bubbling hot oil, let it cook for a few minutes, added some mustard or other sauce of choice and enjoyed. It was interesting to try it, but I think the cheese was the better choice. After quite the dining experience, we headed out and completed our visit to Montmartre with a walk around Pigalle ending at the infamous Moulin Rouge.
Sacre Coeur
Dinner at Refuge des Fondus
The next day, we headed to Trocadero to get Paris’s best views of the Eiffel Tower. We settled down on the grass down the steps from Trocadero and ate a picnic lunch in the tower’s shadow.  We then ascended the great tower after a bit of waiting in line – I swear, it turned April and a million tourists swarmed Paris. From the second level we got some great views of Paris, on a beautiful, clear day. After basking in the sun on the tower and getting our fill of the sky high Paris views, we headed back down to the ground. Next we explored the Centre Pompidou. We perused the modern art gallery for some time, before heading to the Arc de Triomphe. We watched a military ceremony (which apparently happens every night at 6:30, who knew?) at the base of the arc, and then meandered down the Champs Elysée.  We stopped at one of my favorite Paris destinations – Ladurée – and scored a half dozen macarons to share between the two of us. We each agreed that our favorite was the vanilla. I had been there three times prior and always gone for the more interesting sounding combinations, but the French really excel at the most basic and simple combinations, so in France even vanilla is never “vanilla.” We continued our zigzagging around Paris and headed to the Marais where we had dinner on an outside patio in the buzzing neighborhood. We ended the night visiting the Foyer Internationale, where I have class and where some of my friends live. They have a beautiful rooftop terrace with magnificent, unobstructed views of the city. We waited on the rooftop until the Eiffel Tower sparkled on the hour. The next day, I was back in classes and Elana was headed back to London. It was an awesome few days and completely reaffirmed my love and passion for this wonderful city after a few weeks of traveling.

Eiffel Tower!
Since then, it has been a marathon to the end. Time has been flying by, and in efforts to make the most of it; I’ve been trying to do and experience as much as possible. I feel like this next chapter of my Parisian life could be labeled: “Paris Parks and Good Eats.”

Parc des Buttes-Chaumont
One day shortly after Elana’s visit, I continued my sightseeing spree around Paris. I headed to a street that I had heard about near Les Halles called Rue Montorgueil. This has quickly become one of my favorite streets in Paris and I’m sad I didn’t find it sooner. The street is bustling with restaurants, boulangeries, fromageries and boucheries. On this particular day I collected picnic supplies stopping to get a mini pointue, fresh chèvre and some noisettes (chocolate dipped hazelnuts) from ‘À la mère de famille’, the oldest candy company in Paris. I took my picnic fixings and headed to Parc Butte Chaumont. This park is a little out of the way, situated up in the 19th, but it is undeniably worth the visit. The park is absolutely gorgeous and makes it easy to forget that you are in a major city. The park has lush green, rolling hills and an expansive lake where the park’s iconic gazebo is located on an island in the center. I was even surprised to find a roaring waterfall in a cave with stalagmites, surely manmade but still magnificent to find in the middle of this city park.  I ate my picnic lunch near the lake, did some bird watching (so many chicks this time of year!) and wandered a bit before heading back to centre-ville, for my afternoon class.

Promenade Plantée
Continuing in my park adventures, I spent one Saturday at the Promenade Plantée with my friend Vanessa. We took a delicious picnic lunch with us to the park (complete with miniature cakes from Gerard Mulot pastry shop), which was built up on old elevated railroad tracks, much like the ‘Highline’ in New York City. The park starts by Bastille, close to the Bastille Opera House (we’d previously been there to see Madama Butterfly with our class) and a huge circle intersection where protests frequently occur. This day was no exception, as a score of people were putting on an anti-nuclear energy rally. We made our way to the park and walked its entirety, about a 3-mile stretch, which landed us at Paris perimeters on the edge of the 12th. The park was magnificent and we visited at just the right time. Its wrought-iron trellises were covered with the most beautiful roses of all different colors. We walked along the peaceful promenade stopping to take pictures of each type of flower, each more beautiful than the last. This same day, we joined our friends for dinner at a crepe restaurant and then visited the Eiffel Tower at night. The Champs de Mars, the fields in front of the Eiffel Tower are quite bustling at night (though a little sketchy), and it was rather an experience to relax there at night with some friends, sipping pastis and watching the tower sparkle. It seems silly to say, but these are the moments when it hits you, “I’m in Paris.” And isn't it wonderful.

One Sunday I headed back to the Marais with some friends. This is really the most hopping part of the city on Sundays almost to the point that you can’t walk down the street. My Portuguese friend confessed that she had never tried falafel so of course we had to go to 'L’As du Falafel.' Needless to say, she is now a big fan.  After poking our heads into a few vintage shops and wandering, we headed to Île St Louis for some Berthillion ice cream.  That day they were serving up a fraise de Bois (wild strawberry) sorbet, which was probably one of the greatest things I have ever tasted. We took our ice cream and walked back along the Seine, enjoying the view of Notre Dame at dusk. 

And then another week of classes came and passed.
On classes: I have a French grammar class that meets for two hours everyday and every other week we have a phonetics component for an additional hour each day. The grammar class is quite interesting as my classmates are of all different nationalities. There are a couple other Americans, but there are also students from England, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, China, Japan, Thailand, Mexico and Chile in my class. It’s the first time I’ve been in a class where I can’t default to English because the only language we all have in common is French. My teacher is this zany, energetic French woman who takes great interest in our different origins, pokes fun at our foreign accents and shares with us her love for cats and chocolate on a daily basis. We study grammar, read some texts of the French greats (Baudelaire and Sartre seem to be favorites), work on comprehension (learning about slang and more colloquial phrases) and work on more complex forms of oral expression, like critique. The teacher often asks us to do exercises in grammar that I’d rarely do even in English. Lately we have been working on restructuring sentences, transforming the nominal group into a subordinate proposition. Oy vey.  

The other class component, phonetics, is rather laughable to an observer. It is exactly how you might picture a class of this sort. Our teacher, a young French native knowledgeable in linguistics, stands at the front of the class writes words on the board and we repeat after her. Half of the class time is spent in a language lab in which we wear headphones with microphones and we repeat after the teacher and listen to ourselves to notice our own mistakes. It has been enormously helpful, but there’s no denying the humor of the whole process. In addition to the language classes, I have two conference classes each week taught in French. One afternoon, I have an art history class. The teacher is a fabulous speaker and clearly passionate about the subject. My other conference class is on gastronomy. Over the course of the semester we have studied alcohol, cheese, meat, grains, produce, desserts, current cuisine trends and cultural influences in French cuisine. These classes are all a part of the Cours de la Civilization Français de la Sorbonne, a small sector (~2000 students/semester) of the Sorbonne, also known as Paris IV (the schools in the French university system are all numbered). In addition to these classes, I have a class with our program director twice a week. The first part of this class focused on French history starting in 1900 and going up to modern day politics. Post midterm, our class has focused on modern France and comparisons to the US.

There are some differences between the French and American school systems that are worth noting. The French grading system is rather bizarre and everything is graded on a scale of 20. A perfect score is quite rare and it seems as if the high end of this scale doesn’t even exist. I’ve been told that a 16 can be considered an A and a 10 a C, but it’s still concerning to get back a paper with a 12/20 and think that I have failed. Another notable difference is the practice of “exposés.” My understanding of the function of an exposé in the French school system is somewhat educational and somewhat to save the teacher some effort. Students are assigned topics to present to the class. This wouldn’t be so hard, except for it being completely in French. For my grammar class, each person was responsible for one exposé over the course of the semester. The teacher has been encouraging us to read the French newspapers, so she asked us to present an article each to the class. Of course I had to go and pick a difficult topic to explain in French – European satellite findings on the differences in Earth topography and gravity. Luckily I did ok – just making some minor mistakes and throwing in some English “uh’s” instead of the French “euh’s” and the like. In my director’s class, the majority of the class has been taught through a series of student exposés with the teacher picking up on the parts that people left out. We also had to prepare a more significant exposé on a topic of our choosing. I figured if I was going to have to research anything, I might as well pick something interesting (and tasty), so I did my exposé on French pastry. I brought in some examples for the class -  needless to say, the class loved it. I think I got the teacher’s nod of approval as well – she seemed impressed with my knowledge of various pastries…little does she know I’ve been “researching” for the past four months J.  

The last main difference with the French school system has to do with books and required work. Take for example my art history class. At the beginning of the semester, the teacher handed out a packet contained a list of a few dozen books that he personally found interesting on the topics that would be discussed in the class. There was no particular book that was required, no assigned reading, nothing. There is just this sense of doing your own research on the topic, whatever works for you, and perhaps these suggestions of the professor will prove useful. The teacher also provided us with a list of museums and their exhibitions that would occur throughout our semester. If all I did with my time was go to museums, I probably still wouldn’t be able to complete his list. I think that the French system tries to cultivate a more independent style of learning, whereas the American system keeps you on track, holds your hand a bit and helps you more easily reach the desirable educational end. I prefer the American method, but in a country of famous philosophers, I’m not one to argue with their teaching philosophy. This week our classes are finishing up. My conference and director’s class finals are this week in class, and my grammar class final is on Saturday, with an oral exam on Monday. Then I'm done!

In more exciting news (finals are such a bore), last week was my 21st birthday! Though not quite as exciting as the “coming of age” event it is in the US, I had nothing to complain about celebrating in Paris and all. On my birthday, I let myself sleep in for a change (I avoid early morning classes like the plague at Cornell…here it was not an option) and then met up with two of my good friends Maeghan and Vanessa for lunch in the Latin Quarter. I finally got my hands on French onion soup, which made little sense considering it was 75°F, but it was delicious and was followed by chicken with mushroom sauce and crème caramel. I played hooky and went shopping at Les Halles, picking up a skirt and cheap flats. I met up with Maeghan again later and we went to happy hour at a café on blvd Saint Germain, where had I been in the US, I would have had my first legal drink: a pink lady (I think that’s quite suitable for me). Later that night my friends from the program and in the dorm met up at the foyer to celebrate. My friends know me all too well – my presents included a bouquet of roses AND a jar of speculoos. THANK YOU! The next day, we continued the celebration and had lunch out at the 'Happy Days Diner,' a 50s style American diner right behind the St Michel fountain. It was great and so funny to watch the French cutting up their hamburgers with forks and knives. The menu included burgers, mozzarella sticks and a handful of different bagel sandwiches. I ordered the “Greenwich bagel” – I pronounced it, well the way it should be pronounced, and the waiter questioningly repeated back to me something like “grrawnweesh?” Um yeah, that. I’m not sure if I would call Parisian “bagels” bagels, but nonetheless, my roll with a hole in the middle with veggies and cheese was quite good.
Parc Monceau
That afternoon, we met up with some of our dorm gang at Parc Monceau, a small but lovely park in the 8th. The park layout reminded us a great deal of Park Retiro in Madrid. It had a little pond with Romanesque columns surrounding it. We attempted to play Frisbee in the park and basked in the sun for a bit, enjoying the wonderful May weather in Paris. We went to Montmartre that night. We watched the musicians and performances (some sort of weird biblical puppet show) in front of Sacre Cœur, walked around for a bit and then had pizza for dinner not too far from the Moulin Rouge by Place de Clichy. Sunday, we took a picnic and a soccer ball to Park Montsouris, a large park not too far from our foyer. We walked around the beautiful park crowded with Parisian families, but also crowded with turtles, swans and ducks. We situated ourselves near the park’s large pond, eating and people watching throughout the afternoon. Our soccer attempts in the park largely failed because of the hilly terrain, the nearby pond and the scores of people, so we headed to some fields on the Cité Universitaire campus. Our friend Maeghan and a few other kids in our program live at Cité Universitaire, an international campus of dorms made up of buildings each home to students of a different nationality. While Maeghan is not a huge fan of the Fondation des États-Unis for a number reasons, to me, the campus generally seems like an interesting place to live and it has plenty of fields and courts, so we easily found a good place to play soccer. When it started to get dark, we headed home. Vanessa and I cooked dinner in the scummy Didot kitchen, using our odd assortment of cheap cooking supplies – a wok, plastic silverware and miniature pasta strainer - praying the rats wouldn’t come out until after we finished cooking; ah, dorm life. And that brings me up to this week.

The weather has been great and I love being able to ditch my jacket and wear dresses and skirts again. In between classes, I continue to try and explore the city. One evening during this past week, we went to La Défense. La Défense is the Paris business district, located right outside the city boundaries to the North. La Défense is incredibly interesting; it is brimming with modernity and contrasts greatly with old, beautiful, historic Paris. The main attraction is the Grande Arche, so grand you can see if from many spots within Paris, mainly the Eiffel tower and the top of the Arc of Triomphe, with which it is perfectly aligned. From the Grande Arche, you can look clear down the Champs Elysée. From La Défense, we watched the sunset (gorgeous!) from a boardwalk extending out from the Grande Arche. We had such a good time that the next night we went to watch the sunset from another part of the city – the tip of Île de la Cité. There is a park at the end of the island that come twilight gets packed with young people, sipping wine and watching night descend on Paris and the city lights reflect in the silver Seine.
La Grande Arche
In the daytime, I continued my exploration of green spaces. I happened to have a huge break in classes one day, so I headed to the Bois (woods) de Vincennes. On the periphery of this forest, is a medieval castle, the Château de Vincennes. I walked around the castle grounds and went to the Parc Floral de Paris. This Paris botanical garden has beautiful gardens and again sent me on a photograph spree, capturing each flowerbed, more beautiful than the next. There were some interesting beds – one dedicated to flowers with distinctive smells (roses and peonies) and an adjacent with medicinal plants. The flowers were buzzing with bees, which had me wondering if the park had brought in their own hives.  Also buzzing, were the scores of children playing on the park grounds, which had ropes courses, slides, swings, a ball pit and lots of space for little kids to run around. In my wandering around a garden of all different colored irises, I encountered a peacock. I was rather surprised and I think the bird was too. The creature squawked at me and fanned its feathers – clearly startled, or trying to flirt. The château and the Parc Floral only make up a small portion of the Bois de Vincennes. I’ll definitely have to go back someday to see the rest.
Peacock in the Parc Floral de Paris
Another day after class, I went with some friends to visit Parc André Citroën, a relatively new park in the 15th built on the former site of a Citroën plant. The park’s main green, surrounded by a moat-like river, has a tethered hot air balloon that you can go up in to get a view of the city. Jutting off the central green are gardens of different themes and green houses home to trees and plants from other continents. Also found in the garden is a large fountain. A number of jets skirt water up from the ground, attracting frolicking children, making a sport out of running through the dancing waters.
Parc André Citroën
Friday, I returned to Rue Montorgueil with my friend and fellow foodie, Sarah. We went to a baking supply store G. Detou, a play on words, as the French pronunciation is the same as the expression for “I have everything.” We picked out a handful of different items from their fascinating selection, everything from mustards to spices to crystallized flower petals. We then had lunch at a little bistro where we had a delicious meal. We feasted on “label rouge” chicken (our teacher tried to explain this to us one day – it’s some sort of label of quality and this is the best) and fried potato slices, a house specialty.  Our lovely lunch combined with a strike by RER workers made us late to class, but I’d say it was worth it. Later that day we went to the Conciergerie, the famous Île de la Cité prison where Marie Antoinette resided until she met her fate on Place de la Concord. The small museum was interesting, but it seemed that they were guessing a lot on the history of what was where in the building, though I can sort of understand the confusion a few hundred years later. Sadly I left without a Marie Antoinette figurine or paper dress up doll.

That night Vanessa and I went to see “Midnight in Paris,” which was incredibly surreal to see in the film’s namesake city. The city is so familiar and has come to feels like home, so seeing it in the background of this movie was rather incredible and made up for the weak plot. Also of note was the theater itself. We went to a movie theater at the Francois Mitterand library, a huge new complex by the Seine in the 13th. The theater is modeled after the large American cinemas. As such, they have a gift shop selling a whole plethora of items, including a subset of distinctly American items. For example, they were selling the combined peanut butter and jelly in a jar, Reese’s cups, 3 Musketeers, Dr. Pepper and for the low, low price of 15 euros, boxes of Lucky Charms.
Bois de Boulogne
Saturday was another wonderful day spent in a park. This time we headed to the northwest of Paris to the immense Bois de Boulogne. Once again, we feasted on a picnic lunch by a lake, but this one in the midst of a large forest. The park was really beautiful, lush and green – a lovely respite from city life. There was a large lake full of people gliding by on rowboats that you could rent. We also encountered a number of birds with chicks and my camera quickly filled up with pictures of adorable ducklings, goslings and some unidentified orange bird babies being fed by mom in their lakeside nest. As dusk approached, we headed home. And then on Sunday, it was time to study. With four finals this week, it was inevitable. We broke from our studying to go out for Vietnamese food. A gang of kids from the dorm and some visitors tagged along to get pho at Pho 14 in the Asian neighborhood of the 13th. The restaurant was packed and is a favorite of our program director and the girls in our program who live at the nearby Foyer Tolbiac. Pho is a large bowl of broth with noodles and meat (cooked or raw beef, or chicken). On the side a number of toppings were served which could be added to the soup: basil, greens, onions, lemon, sprouts, hot pepper slices, sweet sauce and hot sauce. I also tried a sugary drink concocted from coconut milk and soy and some things I can’t really explain (green sugary squiggle type additions). We got a ton of food for very little money and now I’m dying to go back and try the nems, Vietnamese spring rolls that looked and smelled amazing. It was great to finally try one of the Parisian ethnic restaurants and it offered a totally different view on the city’s cuisine, reflecting France’s history in southern Asia. And now I'm back in the school week and swamped with finals, but looking forward to this weekend!
Ducklings in Bois de Boulogne

Monday, May 9, 2011

Spring Break Wrap-Up!

I had a wonderful two weeks of spring break travels, blessed by good weather, great sites and a lovely traveling companion. My friend Alexandra and I visited Spain (Barcelona & Madrid), southern France (Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, Cannes, Nice & Eze Village), Monaco and Italy, and its taken a few weeks of recovery to get me back to blogging!

The first stop of what came to be termed "Eurotrip 2011" was Barcelona. This marked the first of 3 RyanAir flights during this trip - which is an experience in and of itself. Flights offered at 15 euros seem unreal...but then you fly RyanAir and you understand. One issue perhaps is that they don't fly out of many major airports. So while Paris boosts two international airports just outside the city, RyanAir instead flies out of Beauvais, a hardy 1.5 hour bus trip from Paris' perimeters. The only mode of transport to get to middle-of-nowhere Beauvais is a bus run by the airport for 15 euros each way and they don't seem to run on any regular schedule. Leaving Paris, we had trouble catching the bus intended for our flight, but once we finally got a bus and arrived at the airport we discovered our flight had been delayed a few hours anyway (apparently the majority of passengers hadn't shown up on time...). The tickets for the flight guarantee a space, but not a reserved seat. So when they begin boarding, there is a mad dash across the terminal as all of the passengers on the flight line up to get their choice of seats. Mayhem. Once we were all packed on the plane, tight as a sardine can, we were off. Not too long after, we arrived in Barcelona. The first night at our hostel quickly taught us that we don't know Spanish (or Catalan) and that French with a Spanish accent is really not the same. Through charades and sign language, we were able to check-in and pay and get directions for some sightseeing the following day.

Sagrada Família
Barcelona is full of interesting architecture, mostly designed by Antoni Gaudi. We saw the Gaudi apartments - Casa Mila and Casa Battlo - and Gaudi's masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, which still has about 40 years left until it will be completed. The exterior of the church had a modern facade with Star Wars like depictions of biblical characters, and a more classic nativity scene on the other side of the building. The inside of the church is incredibly gorgeous. Gaudi was inspired by the structure and beauty of trees, so the interior columns resembled a forest, with their canopies panning out to form the rooftop. Boldly colored stained glass windows decorated the walls, which were a stark white color giving the basilica an airy feel.  After we toured the basilica and its adjacent Gaudi Museum, we headed to lunch at a wonderful little vegetarian restaurant, where we were able to speak French to the chef and had several delicious veggie dishes. Later on we walked down one of the most famed Barcelona boulevards, La Rambla. The street was lined with people in costumes and venders selling everything from postcards to noisemakers to bunnies and ducklings. Our stroll on La Rambla ended at the port, where we walked around the harbor to arrive at the beach on the other side. The beautiful beach was packed with Spaniards soaking up the sun on one of the hottest days they had had so far. We had paella for dinner on La Rambla and later on we met up with our friends Katie and Emmet who we shared a hostel room with for the night. We ventured out to the water again to see the Mediterranean in the moonlight, before calling it a night. The next day we wandered around the city's adorable Gothic quarter and walked through some gorgeous fresh fruit markets. We gathered supplies for a picnic and headed to Park Guell. Park Guell was on a huge hilltop overlooking the city and there was an escalator you took to get up to the park from street level. We walked up a structure at the top of the park which offered great views of the city, the coastline and nearby Montjuic. We ate our picnic lunch and then followed the sound of music to a pavilion in the park, where musicians were performing and bounds of tourists were dancing and singing along to the Bob Marley tunes. Later that day we met up with my friend Rhea from Cornell and tried to get tickets for that night's FC Barcelona game. Failing, we went to watch the game at a bar near the stadium and it was still quite an experience with fans cheering and yelling at every goal and good or bad call. The next day we headed off early in the morning to Madrid!
St Josep Mercat, Barcelona
Sunday morning, we arrived in Spain's capital city, Madrid. We checked into our hostel and then walked around in the heart of the city - an area called Sol. We met up with my friend Paige for ice cream and she  took us on a walking tour around the city. We saw an Egyptian temple in a hilltop park, the royal palace, a wonderful indoor market and beautiful Park Retiro. We spent the afternoon in the park, napping in the sun by a waterfall. That evening we ate dinner at an Indian restaurant, which was surprisingly good! The next day, we started with breakfast in a little pastry shop where we were spoiled with coffee, pastry and some of the best and freshest orange juice we'd ever had. Then we spent a few hours at the Museum Reina Sofia, a famous modern art museum in Madrid. The museum's prized possession is Picasso's 'Guernica' which was rather impressive and there were many other interesting works by Picasso, Dali, Miro and others. We later returned to Park Retiro, which we had enjoyed so much the day before, and we went row boating! We ended our stay in Madrid with dinner at a Spanish restaurant with live dancing. And the next day we were off to Marseille!
Row boating in Retiro Park
View from Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseille
After a several hour delay on our flight to Marseille, we finally arrived back in France. It was great to return to a country where we could actually communicate with people! On our first day there, we walked along the coastline battling the strongest winds I've ever experienced. We walked from the Vieux Port to a beach from which we could see Chateau d'If, the famous prison from 'The Count of Monte Cristo.' We continued along the rocky coast and made our way up to the highest point in the city, the basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde. By the time we had made it up the kilometer of steps to the mount, the basilica was closed. We sat at the gates and watched the sunset over the Mediterranean before heading back to our hostel by the port.

On the hike to the Calanque of Sugiton
The next day we took a bus to the perimeter of the town near Cassis and took a hike down to the Calanque de Sugiton. Between Marseille and Cassis is an area called the 'Massif des Calanqus' in which there are 12 calanques, inlets in the coast formed as valleys with steep, limestone, mountainous sides. Sugiton was beautiful. The water was still and green in the inlet, and then a fierce blue where it opened up to the sea. In the late afternoon we went to Aix-en-Provence. Aix was adorable and much more of a village then Marseille. The narrow streets were lined with shops and restaurants and opened up onto large squares adorned with bubbling fountains. This town was a favorite of many painters, the most celebrated being Cezanne. We walked to a terraced garden called 'Terrain des Peintres,' where Cezanne was said to have spent time painting the view of the Sainte Victoire Mountain. After dinner in Aix, we returned to Marseille, achy from our morning hike. The next day we discovered some of Marseille's cultural diversity. We wandered along a street full of North African shops that sold a great variety of spices, tea, ceramics and soaps. After purchasing some souvenirs, we headed to the train for Cannes. The train's route was gorgeous as it followed the Mediterranean coast.

View of Ste Victoire from the Terrain des Peintres
Our stay in Cannes was a nice break in the middle of our trip. In our two days there we walked around the tiny town, wandered the sandy beach, shopped and ate, of course. The town is most known for hosting the annual Cannes Film Festival. Surrounding the building where the event is held, the Palais des Festivals, are actors' handprints on the sidewalk, expensive shops and giant yachts in the port.
View of Cannes from The Suquet, Cannes' old quarter
Our next destination was Nice. Nice was exactly what I pictured of the French Riviera. The beach was expansive and along it ran the Promenade des Anglais, a palm-tree lined boardwalk full of strolling couples and rollerblading teens. The city's old town was full of pastel colored buildings, old churches, little shops, and large squares with book and antique markets. The harbor was full of fishing boats and yachts, and off-shore we saw cruise ships and ferries, offering transport to Corsica. One day while we were staying in Nice, we took a bus to nearby Monaco. The hour-long bus trip took us along the coast and it was a beautiful ride. In Monaco (weird to think it was a different country) we saw the casino in Monte Carlo and walked along the coast, passing by expensive cars and fancy boats. We ate lunch by the port, fighting off a hungry seagull and watching the fish swim past yachts docked nearby. In the old town we saw the royal palace with its silly clad guards marching around outside, and we wandered the city streets, much resembling those of Nice. 
Monaco harbor with Alexandra

Monte Carlo Casino
Harbor in Monaco
On our way home from Monaco, we took a detour to a Medieval hilltop town called Eze Village. The bus ride to Eze Village snaked along tiny mountain roads that you would never have imagined a bus could fit on. In Eze there was an old chateau built on this mountaintop with its own roads, shops and residences, still used today. This used to be a retreat for the Swedish Royalty, but now most of it is a fancy hotel called the Chevre d'Or (golden goat). Eze was also a favorite spot of Nietche. There was a long trail along the mountain to the sea called the Nietche trail, which he used to frequent while writing 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra'. Eze was great and totally different in feel than the rest of the Riviera we visited. 
Eze Village
View from Eze Village
The next morning we took an early train (actually 3 trains) to get us to Florence. While in Florence we spoiled ourselves with the best gelato ever and wandered the beautiful old city streets. One day we climbed to the top of the Duomo. The views were magnificent from the top - you could see all of the city's terra cotta rooftops and surrounding the city, the Tuscan countryside. We also walked through open air markets near the Duomo. We haggled for purses in a leather market and collected some more souvenirs to bring home. While we were in Florence, Passover was just beginning. The first night, we attended a Chabad seder with friends of Alexandra's college roommate (who we were staying with). The second night, we went to a seder at one her friend's apartments, which was really nice and a great way to celebrate the holiday. There was even an Italian flare - we ate bruschetta on matzoh to start off the meal! While we were in Florence the MTV Italia's TRL Award show was held. The show/concert was being filmed in the square in front of a church called Santa Croce. We went to the concert of all Italian artists, which was crowded with rowdy Florentine teens. We kept holding out for a surprise American star to perform, but we had no such luck. Regardless, it was quite an experience. And after that, as we did nearly each night we were in Florence, we visited what was referred to as the "Secret Bakery." A small hoard of people gathered around a non-conspicuous doorway off an alley. This was the door of a bakery that bakes throughout the night to produce goods for restaurants in the city. One by one, each person knocked on the door, told the baker what they wanted and the door was closed. Moments later, the baker would return with paper bags, passing off each bag in exchange for a euro. Fresh Italian baked goods - delicious!
Il Duomo
The Ponte Vecchio
During our stay in Florence, we took a day trip to the Cinque Terre - five adorable little towns in the Italian Riviera. The first town we visited was Monterosso, which was along the sea and had a beautiful beach. We ate lunch on the beach - feasting on the local specialty, pesto, in the form of pesto lasagna. We tried to swim in the icy waters, but instead retreated to the sand and napped in the sun. With limited time we had to miss two of the towns, but next we made our way to Manerola. This little town had an array of colorful buildings that were built on rocks which descended down to the water. We ended our trip in Cinque Terre in Riomaggiore. We walked there from Manerola along a path called Via dell'Amore. The path offered astounding view of the sea and the sun as it was beginning to set. And as implied by the name, the path was rather romantic - couples had attached love locks nearly everywhere possible and the path's gates were adorned with hearts. In Riomaggiore we stopped in little stores in the colorful village, picking up some homemade pasta and focaccia. We headed back to Florence, packed up, said our goodbyes and then had to leave for the airport to catch an early morning flight back to Paris. A few hours later, we were back in France. While sad to be done with Spring break, there was nothing sad about returning to Paris. It was a wonderful two weeks and full of experiences I'll never forget!
View of the other 4 towns from Montarossa
Sunset from Cinque Terre