Category Archives: Travel

Paris Je T’Aime: Day 6 – Exit Via Musée d’Orsay

We woke this morning to a worrying message from Eurostar, the strikes were still ongoing and there was likely to be huge customs queues and delays for our journey home this evening… which due to cancellations was now the final train back to London this evening. Not a pleasant way to start the day.

But we are nothing if not adaptable, so we checked out of our great hotel in Les Halles and started walking along the Seine towards the Musée D’Orsay… after picking up some breakfast to go. After all, we didn’t exactly have time to waste if we wanted to do the museum justice and I don’t think either of us really fancied the coffee and croissant schtick this morning. A rustic looking sandwich of speck and Comte cheese on levant bread was just the ticket, even if it was a bit challenging to the teeth.

For the most part, the Musee D’Orsay is an art museum that picks up where the Louvre leaves off. The pieces are mostly paintings and sculpture, but there is also a significant collection of art nouveau furniture and fittings. All of it is set inside a renovated railway station, that was built back in the days where all the big train companies tried setting up their own.

By being set in a former railway terminus, the Musee D’Orsay has plenty of space to display the works. It also has the chance to do some cool things with the existing fixtures. For example, they have kept the grand room of the formerly attached hotel – which is as gilded and beautiful as anything in Versailles. They’ve also made great use of the station clocks which make some great photographs.

We started our trip off by heading straight to the top floor with their collection of Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist works. I pretty much fell in love with the first painting I saw when entering the floor (Le Cirque by Georges Seurat) so I knew that this would be a promising group of paintings. I also think I might be becoming a bit of a fan of Monet and Renoir after seeing more great works of theirs on this top floor.

The next few floors down after this group were full of furniture, which isn’t exactly my thing, but I did manage to find some cool pieces. I mean furniture that doubles as art is not my typical taste but there were some lovely pieces of stained class work and some really beautiful fixtures that I can appreciate an aesthetic level.

After this it really is a case of diving in and out of different rooms dedicated to different artists and/or movements to see what you can see. This is a gallery that has some incredibly famous pieces, so you are likely to come across something either interesting or recognisable no matter where you venture. There’s a famous paintings by hugely famous painters by Van Gogh, Degas, Gaugin and Manet – but then there are also some really great paintings by artists not quite on that level, such as Dante and Virgil by William Bougereau and The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet.

There is also this huge sculpture of a very happy looking polar bear. I know nothing of the backstory, but it’s one of those art pieces that you remember just because it really made you smile. They had little statues of him at the gift shop, but I don’t think I could justify the cost given that my home is so full of animals by now.

We finished our visit by going through the temporary exhibition that looks at paintings of the last two centuries that featured models who were black. It was interesting to read up on the history of the more famous models, the stories behind some of the paintings and to see some early video taped performances by the likes of Josephine Baker. Also, the fact that one of the final pieces in this special exhibition depicts a black woman performing aerial acrobatics made for a nice bookend with the first circus-themed painting that I saw in this gallery.

So that’s it for Paris. We went to Gare du Nord super early to make sure we wouldn’t miss our train and were able to exchange our tickets for a train that left three hours earlier, so we’re home at around the time we would have left. It’s a bit of a shame to cut the visit short by a few hours, but it will be nice to have a regular evening at home before work tomorrow.

I think most people who watch QI or browse Reddit will have heard of “Paris Syndrome” – a type of depression unique to Japanese tourists who feel like they have been let down by their Paris experience. There’s a part of me that wonders that, with this at the back of my mind, I came into this trip with expectations that have just been drastically exceeded.

From this trip, Paris went from a holiday that I did out of an almost obligation (I mean with the Eurostar on my doorstep, it’s stupid to not go) to a destination where I know I’ll be revisiting in order to mop up anything I missed. Whilst I still don’t understand the whole thing about Paris being the city of love, it is definitely a city to fall in love with. Au revoir Paris, I’ll be back again soon.

Paris Je T’Aime: Day 5 – The Palace and Park of Versailles

So today is the last full day that I have in Paris and it really is time to cross off the final big ticket item from this wonderful city. It’s a bit far out from where I am staying at Les Halles, so before getting in queue it was time for breakfast.

I have eaten so much bread on this trip, and for good reason. France knows what they are doing with all things bread and, by extension, they know what to put in a great sandwich. This morning’s breakfast was a goat cheese, walnut, rocket, mustard mayonnaise and bacon baguette – I made a special note of this because I will be making this once I get home. Anyway, time to get into the insanely long queue so we can get to…

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 88/100Sight: Chateau De Versailles
Location: Paris, France
Position: #29

So many tour groups. I mean it’s to be expected as this is one of the big hints to do in Paris, but wow I cannot begin to fathom how many people I saw at Versailles today just in the line for the security check. Good thing we didn’t have a time window for our ticket, otherwise we would have been incredibly late.

Like most people we started on the main house before exploring the rest of the area. Probably meant we had to deal with more crowding that way, but it was standing right there looking so huge and impressive – how could we not go inside.

By this point I have been to a lot of royal palaces, including Herrenchiemsee which was King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s copy of Versailles, so a lot of these rooms and antechambers are really beginning to blend together. There is no doubt that the rooms at Versailles are incredibly lavish and contain some amazing pieces of furniture, but there is one main reason to go into the Palace of Versailles.

The Hall of Mirrors. Often imitated and easily one of the most famous rooms in the world. The whole thing feels like something out of a role playing game. The room is huge, and the placement of all the mirrors being opposite windows makes everything feel even larger. One thing that I didn’t expect was that the mirrors are not single sheets of glass, but a collection of smaller mirrors all put together, must have been a technology or a cost thing at the time.

We toured the rest of the palace and learned a bunch of history about the French royal family. I do wish that we could see the attached opera house as part of the tour, but I guess that would be difficult to do when there are events on and they suddenly have to divert tour groups away from there. However I really cannot complain, as the tour around the available house was really interesting.

By the time we finished with the main house it was lunch time. Rather than eat in the (probably) expensive restaurant we grabbed a hot dog from the takeaway kiosk and began our exploration of the gardens. One thing to note, as it was March during our visit they hadn’t switched on any of the water features. This obviously takes away a substantial element of what makes these gardens so grand, but it allows you to see the fountains as pieces of art without the distraction of water jets. So swings and roundabouts.

After taking way too many photos at the stairs to the palace (which I saw years ago as a panoramic painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) we wandered along the grand canal and made a turn towards the Trainon section of the Versailles Domain. Originally Trainon was a village that bordered the palace gardens, but the land was purchased by the royal family so they could have a summer getaway from life at Versailles. I guess that would be the fancier version of spending your summers by decamping to a house two streets away.

The first place you go there is the Grand Trainon, the bigger of the two main buildings. It has been set up as how Napoleon had it kept, but after all the rooms at Versailles proper I was beginning to have a bit of palatial fatigue. Also, this doesn’t really have as much of the wow factor of what I saw earlier in the day. The same was true of the Petit Trainon, that I saw at the end of the day – although that pretty much stands bare.

In between these main buildings we came across what might be my favourite oar tif the day – the replica of a British hamlet that Marie Antoinette had built at this end of the gardens. Truly this is such a batshit crazy idea because she had a number of buildings constructed to look like an idealised version of a rustic British hamlet so she would have somewhere else to get away too.

Even more nuts is that, as part of her hamlet fantasy, this had a fully working farm which is maintained to this day. You turn a corner and, boom, there are cows, sheep, pigs and a ridiculous number of goats. It would also appear that lambing season has occurred as there were some cute fur puddles on the lawn that were hiding kids and a lamb. Not what I expected to find in the grounds at Versailles, but a lamb and a chicken with an afro are always appreciated.

We wandered a bit more around the gardens, taking in the various gazebos and the water features that were now just art pieces in their own right. However time marches on and it was time to leave to ensure we got to our next destination on time.

There was, of course, time for a quick snack of a saucisson and cornichon sandwich – especially as I have been hunting for one of these for days and this is the first time I’ve actually been able to purchase one. It was worth the wait.

Anyway, our final destination of the day was Montparnasse Tower. It’s the only high rise building in Paris (because it was so hated that they out rules in to prevent more form being built) which means it has unequaled views from its 56th and 59th floors. It’s also one of the few buildings that I’ve been in that offers actual 360 degree views from their top-most open air floor. It’s a real must visit and I don’t think many visitors to Paris even know it exists.

Looking out of these windows was like a clip show of everywhere I’ve been in the last few days. With the exception of Versailles and the catacombs, you can literally see every landmark I’ve visited – even the minaret of Grand Mosque. Despite not being as high as other observation towers, the fact they landmarks are so recognisable makes this one of the best.

We took up a place in the 59th floor so that we could watch the sun set over Paris. Sure the wind was cold, but watching the area of Paris surrounding the Eiffel Tower fall into nighttime just felt like the perfect way to end our final full day in this wonderful city. We stuck around on the 56th floor for a while to see Paris at night form up high, but it was getting late and we hadn’t had any dinner.

Luckily for us, not too far away from Montparnasse Tower is a street that seems to just be full of creperies. We ended up visiting one that was themed around Brittany and had such an amazing meal with excellent service. I ended up having a buckwheat crepe with blue cheese, ham and walnuts for my main then, for desert, a regular crepe with apples, calvados (which was flambéed in front of me) and a scoop of apple sorbet. I wish I had another one of these crepes right now I must say.

And that is the end of the final fully day. Tomorrow is a late departure, so there’s time for more Paris before I head back to the real world. Again I’ve gone on writing until well past midnight, so it’s time for me to say goodnight and get ready for the last day.

Paris Je T’Aime: Day 4 – The Louvre

Yesterday, I got a bit of a taste of what a trio to a Parisian museum was like with my trip to the Orangery. Today, it was time to tackle to big one – but not before we had a good breakfast.

Much like our visit to Montmartre, we started the day with what this particular café called the ‘Frenchy’ breakfast. So that was tartine, jam, croissant, hot chocolate and a juice. For some reason I assumed that the lemon juice would be more like a ‘lemon juice drink’ than straight lemon juice. No amount of follow-up jam could take the sourness out of my mouth for a good while.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 87/100Sight: The Louvre
Location: Paris, France
Position: #37

At 9:30 we arrived at the iconic pyramid, right at the beginning of our allotted window. Since this is one of the biggest museums in the world with some of the most famous pieces of artwork, we wanted to ensure that we had the maximum time there. We ended up leaving at 5:30, just as they started to sweep the rooms to get visitors out. Over the course of 8 hours we were able to hit up pretty much everything that was available.

So join me, won’t you, on a whistlestop trip around The Louvre.

To start, as a general thing to encompass the whole day, there are times where it becomes unclear whether you should be focusing more on the room itself rather than the pieces that are being displayed. What I hadn’t realised before getting to Paris was that the Louvre was formally a palace, which means that so many rooms have beautiful ceiling paintings and other such ornamentation. As with the rest of Paris, the Louvre is a place where it pays to look up.

The first collection we arrived at were some of the museums more modern French paintings. As soon as you enter the room, it is impossible to not notice Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’. It’s one of those iconic pieces that, as the first thing I really saw, helped to set the time for the rest of the day. Other interesting paintings were in this section, but none quite matched that – although Gericault’s ‘Raft of the Medusa’ is definitely noteworthy.

In order to get it out of the way, and hopefully have minimal crowds, we went a few rooms down to see the Mona Lisa in person. Despite not being open for long, the crowds had already begun to swell with many posing for selfies in front of the piece. Now that I’ve seen it in person, I can honestly spray that I don’t get the fuss. ‘Lady with an Ermine’ is so much better, at least for me, but I guess that’s why I never took art history classes,

Next to the Mona Lisa is, rather aptly the Italian paintings collection. So many of the great Italian paintings of this era are in Florence, but the Louvre really do have an exceptional collection. Raphael’s savage depiction of St Michael slaying a devil is stunning (although, really, who takes a selfie in front of this). Arcimboldo’s quartet of profiles made of seasonal produce are weird and so very cleverly done. It was also cool to see the other version of Da Vinci’s ‘Virgin of the Rocks’.

We did a tour of the Spanish paintings before seeing, what ended up being, my favourite piece in the gallery: Winged Victory of Samothrace. So much of what made this a spectacle was how well the statue had been positioned. However, that doesn’t detract from what an amazing piece of sculpture work this is. In a weird way, the missing head and arms makes it all the more remarkable. The asymmetrical folds of the cloth and the detail in the wings have such a sense of movement, that it feels like the statue was designed to have these pieces missing. I could have stared at this for so much longer if it had not been for the throngs of people.

A quick mosey through the decorative arts sections led us to the Northern European paintings. There were a few weird ones here – like the above featuring two naked sisters, one pinching the others bar nipple – but the coolest one featured an entire room containing paintings by Rubens. These had all been commissioned by Marie de’ Medici to mythologize her life and are both utterly brilliant and completely hyperbolic.

Next on the list was the vast Egyptian collection. As with most things Egyptian it’s hard to reconcile just how old a lot of these things are. Statues here, like the red man, are so much better preserved than things from less than 100 years ago… despite being 3000 years old. Stone heads and inscriptions from 4000 years ago just standing there looking amazing, which really makes me want to return to Cairo as an adult to re-visit their Egyptology museum.

No Egyptology section would be complete without some sarcophagi, and boy The Louvre has some amazing ones. There’s one almost in the basement where they must have needed a stepladder in order to deposit the smaller nested sections inside. There was also a single mummy, which I felt a bit weird photographing (a bit rich considering I was happily snapping away in the catacombs just two days earlier).

There was so much in the Egyptian sections that I love, but I realise that time is marching on – as it was in the actual museum – so after a lunch of a surprisingly good ham and cheese baguette we went off to the newly(ish) opened Islamic Arts section via some of the Greek antiquities (where I got to see more of the Cycladean statues that I so fell I love with during my visit to Athens).

I love that more museums seem to be getting collections of Islamic art together. Geographically it is so close by and yet, because I wasn’t raised seeing much of it, it always feels fresh and interesting to me. I especially loved some of the jugs and incense burners that they had on display. Similarly, some of the ceramics and tilework was so beautiful and used palates that you just don’t see in other cultures.

Sadly the Near Eastern art section was closed off, although some Roman-influenced Egyptian art was on display, which meant the next stop was the very crowded Venus De Milo (although you wouldn’t know it from the picture) and the rooms full of the remaining Greek and Roman antiquities. Honestly, I felt rather underwhelmed by the Venus De Milo. It feels like, if the arms were still in fact, it wouldn’t be as highly photographed as there would be no mystery to it.

When you consider that nearby are dynamic works like this man lacing his sandle or this gorgeous statue of Artemis in motion, it makes you winded how it is decided that certain pieces are given pride of place over others. In the end it’s all taste and the snowballing of fame, I guess, and this way I got Artemis to myself. So there’s that.

Next on the list was the Near Eastern art. It’s rooms like this that make me wish that Iran was semi-gay friendly, because I would love to see their collections of art in a proper context. Until then I shall enjoy the drinks and drabs that we have in the West, such as these amazing man-animal hybrids and this jolly looking man with the heavy eye makeup. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll see Persepolis for myself.

The final big collection of the day were the French sculptures. As we’re actually in France, the number that they have on display is huge – to the point they they take up multiple courtyards and those are mostly modern ones… although they are mostly still using classical motifs like the death of Dido and the labours of Heracles. Among the classical marble it was really interesting statues of bronze and lead mixed in as a way to provide some colour contrasts.

Then there are the older French sculptures that seemed to focus mainly on Christian symbolism or were made to adorn tombs. There was a fantastically intricate alter piece carved out of stone on display, and then two rooms over is a delightfully macabre piece containing eight mourning pall-bearers decked out in flowing black garments. I can’t quite believe how well the colours have lasted until this day.

We rounded off the visit with a visit to the recently added galley dedicated to art form Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. The name paints some pretty broad stokes there as it contains nothing from China, Japan or Korea. I guess they were going for something along the lines of indigenous art, but it’s hard to go there without dredging up a lot of politics around colonialism. In any event, this being our end point provided some really cool contrasts to the other art we’d seen during the day, hopefully this collection will be expanded further.

Right, so that was my eight hours in the Louvre. Writing it all down really brings home just how much I actually got to see. No wonder my feet were crying by the time we reached the end and demanded a long sit down before heading out for food.

For dinner I found a place that specialised in Alsace cuisine, the which meant flammekueche. We shared a flammekueche with creme fraiche, onions, Munster cheese, cumin and sauerkraut, as well as a delicious salad containing Alscace sausage. We really could have gone for dessert here, but we had another idea.

We’ve had a number of sandwiches, but until tonight we hadn’t grabbed anything sweet from a French bakery. Tonight we rectified this by finding a bakery about 10 minutes from closing and buying two eclairs and two sables (think chunky shortbread cookies). My sable was pistachio-praline-rose and was superior to my husbands one.

This post took a lot longer to write than I expected, especially as I stayed in one place all day. Goes to show how amazing the Louvre is. I’ll be back one day to see the parts that were closed off during my visit.

Paris Je T’Aime: Day 3 – Tourist Day

So here it is, the big tourist day where we were able to cover a lot of ground without fear of the yellow vest protests. Since we’re the sort of people that enjoy walking around the city and only take metros when we really have to, we ended up walking about 19 kilometres today – which my legs are really feeling as I write this post whilst quaffing some raspberry cola.

To get things started we left the hotel in search of breakfast. Seeing that it was Sunday, we decided to make our way to the Bastille Market – one of the largest food markets in Paris. The route took us past the Victor Hugo house, where we stood outside for a bit before waltzing off again, and soon enough we were there.

The Bastille Market really has all the hallmarks of a great outdoor market. Good number of stands for breakfast, the smell of freshly roasted chicken, displays containing mammoth sized pieces of tuna and an old man on an organ grinder with his chihuahua. For breakfast we ended up sharing a butter-sugar crepe and a sausage-cheese galette. Probably could have had two of these galettes to myself, especially as I’ve never had one made of buckwheat before.

Having purchased some walnuts, to be eaten when I get back to the UK, we walked the 15-20 minutes to our first big stop of the day.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 86/100Sight: Cimetière Du Père Lachaise
Location: Paris, France
Position: #96

Yesterday I had a bit of a glimpse of what a Parisian cemetery was like with the one at Montparnasse, but that could not prepare me for how big (and quite frankly over the top) this one would be. This isn’t just a cemetery, this is an actual city of the dead complete with houses and the occasional gazebo… although I guess these would technically be called mausoleums.

Like most tourists, we picked out a few key graves to find and used those as an excuse to take a roundabout tour of the cemetery. We ended up finding Oscar Wilde, Fredric Chopin, Edith Piaf, Balzac, Jim Morrison and Marcel Proust. However, with the exception of Chopin and Oscar Wilde, the most interesting graves belonged to other people.

Some of them had statues of weeping women, one had an accompanying West Highland terrier statue perched on top, many had their own stained glass panels – but the most ostentatious of them all belongs to the man who build a 20 metre tall chimney as part of his grave marker. That is a man who clearly has the money, big dick energy and social standing to burn, because it takes nerve to have a gave marker this big.

After being suitably graved out, we took the metro all the way across town to reach the Arc de Triomphe. No visit to Paris would be complete without seeing this huge stone monument, but I had no intention of paying the 12€ to gain admittance to stand underneath it. I see why they’ve done this, because after all it’s on a roundabout, but this feels a bit steep.

We then took the opportunity to engage in one of the most touristy activities possible – a walk down the Champs-Élysées. Compared to how it was in Breathless, the top half of this avenue has so many more tourist traps and fewer actual cafes; a bit disappointing when you hear it described as the world’s most beautiful avenue.

The lower half is so much better. There are parks on either side and the architecture is far more palatial. It felt like a more heightened version of The Mall back in London and I was definitely here for it. We were loving it so much that we grabbed a salami baguette from one of the stands and just took some time to enjoy the surroundings.

At the bottom of the Champs-Élysées is the Place de la Concorde, which is a huge and ridiculously beautiful square with fountains and ornate street lamps. At the centre is the Luxor Obelisk, which was given as a gift by the government of Egypt. Weirdly, this is one of three such gifts and I have now seen all three (the other two can be found in New York’s Central Park and the other is at Embankment in London), which feels like a bit of a mini achievement.

Since we were making good time, we decided to pop into the Musée d’Orangerie. With our Eurostar tickets we were able to get half-priced entry, which made this an absolute bargain even though this is a museum you are unlikely to spend more than two hours in.

The big ticket item in this museum are the two oval rooms featuring panoramic views of Monet’s Water Lilies. It’s impossible to take a photograph to properly show how these rooms are laid out as it is such a 360 degree experience, but these rooms are worth the price of admission alone. Sitting here and staring at his large canvas of impressionist water lilies really does help to bring a refreshing sense of calm after having spent most of the day on your feet.

On the other other floor of the building are a collection of paintings by other French artists like Cezanne, Picasso, Renoir, Rousseau and Marie Laurencin. These were all part of a previously private collection which makes for some interesting paintings, even though they may not be the most renowned by these painters.

An hour or so of the museum later and we were back outside and crossing the scenic Alexandre III bridge to make our way to Les Invalides. We had no interest, or enough time, in going in the actual museums but still wanted to have a look at some of the buildings in this museum complex. We were able to gain free entry to the Cathedral at Les Invalides, but sadly Napoleon’s tomb is ticket along with the rest of the museum and 12€ felt a bit steep for 10-15 minutes of tomb viewing.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: N/A – A repeat visitSight: Eiffel Tower
Location: Paris, France
Position: #40

15 or so minutes of walking later and we made it to our final big sight of the day. I have photographic evidence of seeing the Eiffel Tower more than 20 years ago, but I really have no recollection of this. I actually expected to be a bit cynical about properly seeing the Eiffel Tower in person – nope I was amazed about how much taller in real life than I had expected it to be (a stark contrast to how I felt seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time).

As cool as it is to see the Eiffel Tower it’s sad just how the surrounding areas have become with all the bootleg souvenir sellers and a bunch of women who are part of the same pickpocketing scam that we came across yesterday at the Sacre Cœur (one of them literally grabbed my husband by the arm). It actually made parts of the visit feel a bit stressful, because who wants to have their wallet stolen.

Things felt better at the top of the Place de Trocadero, where you could enjoy the view of the Eiffel Tower that you tend to see in publications. The sun was also getting low in the sky, so it really was getting the benefit of the golden hour light.

Seeing how we hadn’t had much to eat, we figured it would be worth staying in the area to have an early dinner. Tonight it was steak-frites (where the steak came with smouldering thyme stalks, which helped to give a smokey taste) with a shared cheese plate for desert. It definitely scratched the food itch and I’m interested to see what I end up eating tomorrow… as I will be tacking the mammoth of the Louvre.

Paris Je T’Aime: Day 2 – Dodging the Yellow Vests

When we booked this trip to Paris we hadn’t banked on the continuing Saturday protest by the yellow vests. However, in mid-March they began escalating activities to the point where a number of attractions that we’d want to visit were either closed or no-go areas. So, today is made up of the ‘non-vest’ activities whilst tomorrow is filled with things we couldn’t do today. All in all, it made for a bit of a messy day.

So the day started with a long trip on the metro up to Montmartre. To be honest, and I can’t believe I am saying this, but I think I’ve finally found an underground system that makes me view London’s in a positive light. I guess it’s because it’s one of the older systems out there, but it really could be a lot better.

Anyway, first stop of the day was the Sacre Cœur right at the top of Montmartre. I hadn’t realised just how steep this hill was, but a work out before breakfast is a good thing I guess. The basilica itself is so much bigger than I had expected and, on a clear sunny day, I can imagine this huge white church shines like a real beacon (like I saw when in Helsinki).

The insides are more modern and arguably more beautiful than Notre Dame, but I guess it doesn’t quite have the big pop culture presence. Technically no photos are meant to be taken inside, but about halfway around the church thus rule seemed to go out the window and everyone had their cameras out. The only guard on duty was so preoccupied with shushing people that he didn’t really have time to enforce the camera rules, which was good for us.

After this we went down through the adjoining park and garden (where we were accosted and had to push our way past some very pushy women with clipboards asking for email addresses, which it turns out is part of a pickpocketing scam) in order to procure some breakfast. The hub really wanted to go for something more French than grabbing one of the many attractive filed baguettes…

…and he was right. A hot drink, an orange juice, a tartine and a croissant. Really a great way to kick start the day, plus the chance to have hot chocolate in the morning and not be judged too harshly is fantastic. We took the opportunity to roam around the nearby streets (where a lot of shell games were going on with many a tourist being fleeced) before getting back onto the metro in order to make our way south.

The best laid plans still didn’t mean that we couldn’t completely escape the yellow vest protests. Then again, there doesn’t seem to be a central organisation, so it’s little wonder that there are pockets of these people all over the city. Anyway, we had made our way south in order to visit The Paris Catacombs.

It feels a bit glib to call a place like this ‘a bit mad’, but this is an underground system containing neatly piled bones from nearly 2 million people. It’s an interesting solution to the overcrowding of the Parisian cemeteries, as well as finding a use for the network of abandoned limestone quarries. Doesn’t stop this entire attraction form being a bit weird… and I loved it.

About half of the attractions tunnels contain the bones, the entrance to that section having a sign that says ‘Stop, this is death’s empire’. For the most part the bones are stacked in a similar way with mostly femurs on the bottom and the top being mostly skulls. It is when this pattern is broken that you really notice it. There’s a group where skulls have been arranged to make a heart shape, but the biggest anomaly is the “barrel” formation where them bones have been organised around one of the support pillars. If you are not comfortable being surrounded by old skeletons them maybe this isn’t the attraction for you, otherwise it’s really interesting.

The exit is quite far from the entrance, so we browsed our way through a number of beautifully arranged food shops in order to get to Montparnasse Cemetery. It keeps with the morbid theme, but this came recommended so why not. We roamed around a bit to find some names we recognised. Thanks to the map we managed to find the graves of Jean Seberg, Samuel Beckett and Camille Saint-Saens, but some of the most interesting were those of people who weren’t on the map and just had the money to have some really interesting gravestones.

I’m going to take a bit of a time jump here. We did a lot of walking back and forth thanks to some things being closed that we hadn’t expected to be closed, so we pick up later in the afternoon when we reached the Panthéon. I’ve actually been to the one in Rome already, but this one in Paris takes the cake when it comes to audacity.

Much like the Sacre Cœur the outside is stunning to look at, but the insides are truly something else. Floor to ceiling paintings depict scenes from the life of people like Joan of Arc and Charlemagne as well as other saints and kings. Large statues at various ends of the interior provide interesting accents and the many domes of the ceilings keep drawing your eyes upwards. It’s a real site to behold.

Then there’s the crypt, which is done in the mindset of glorifying French citizens that have had great achievements for their country, in the name of their country or had brought fame to their country. Aside from the many generals and politicians down there you can find Marie and Pierre Curie (which got me so excited, even if no one else seemed to be paying any attention to them) as well as Louis Braille and Alexandre Dumas.

A short walk from here brought us to Paris Grand Mosque. This was listed in the hubs’ book of interesting buildings so thought it would be worth seeking out. It’s been nearly 20 years since I was last in a mosque, so I did feel a bit self-conscious about doing something wrong that might be taken the wrong way.

The blue tiling on the inside was lovely, but the thing I liked the most was the garden in the central courtyard. Here you can see the minaret and walk around the greenery. I’m guessing from the empty pools that there is some water here in the summer, but since we’re still in early spring it makes sense that these have been turned off.

Time for another fast forward as we have another walk through the botanical gardens in order to reach Gare de Lyon, that would enable me to reach…

List Item: Visit a town twinned with your hometown
Status: Completed

Right so this is one of the weirder items on my bucket list. The borough of London that I’ve spent that bulk of my life is twinned with three places. One is in the suburbs of Melbourne, one is slightly awkwardly positioned in Germany – this one is 40 minutes outside of Paris and so makes for an interesting way to fill an evening.


I don’t know why, but it felt a bit surreal walking around here knowing that it’s twinned with where I currently live. Compared to my hometown there are fewer restaurants, but where it lacks in restaurants Evry makes up with a very weird looking cathedral and a sizeable shopping centre. The plan was to roam around and grab some dinner, but instead we bought a bunch of things from the huge Carrefour to bring back to our respective offices and then headed back to central Paris.

For dinner I could have gone for steak, but I wanted to have something that felt more French – so I went for a Croque Madame. It’s been a lot of bread today, but this Croque Madame really did hit the spot.

List Item: Try as many of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die as possibleFood item: Tarte Tatin
Progress: 776/1001

After a long drought, I’ve finally been to cross off another thing from the food list. For the most part I’ve been thinking of putting this on ice as it’s becoming very hard to do without some specific international journeys. However, when I come across it there is no reason to not eat it, especially when it’s as delicious as this little personal tarte tatin. Those apples were so warm, sweet and melty – perfect with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

Tomorrow will be the big tourist day with some of the big icons of Paris being visited. It’s another late one today, so it’s time to end this post before I fall asleep at my tablet.

Paris Je T’Aime: Day 1 – Arrival

Spring has truly sprung, which can only mean one thing – a holiday in the middle of March so I can use my carried over vacation days before they lapse. Previous destinations of this weird happenstance have included Singapore, Barcelona and now Paris. Despite it basically being on the doorstep thanks to the Eurostar, I’ve not done a proper Paris trip since I was 6 or 7… even then I think it was just one day I actual Paris (then again I don’t actually remember this trip). Seeing how myself and the hub recently hit 10 years together, now felt like the perfect time to do Paris properly.

An early and breakfastless trip on the Eurostar (thanks lack of food at Ebbsfleet station) can leave you feeling a little blue and a bit jittery. Boy, can those feeling be alleviated by that first glimpse of Paris as you come out of the metro. Now, I, staying near Les Halles station, so this is one of the nicer parts of the city, but damn this is a beautiful neighbourhood. Blue skies and sunshine lighting up the distinctive Parisian limestone buildings help too.

We freshened up at the hotel and started making our way towards Île de la Cité, but first it was time for lunch.

Nothing quite says ‘welcome to Paris’ like sitting on a table of a Seine-adjacent restaurant with a faint vision of the Eiffel Tower in the distance. For my first Parisian meal I had steak hache (which my French teacher used to describe as “poor man’s steak, rich man’s hamburger”) with frites and for dessert, a caramel custard.

Living in the UK, I always forget that free bread is a standard in many European nations. Of course, this is France, which means that the free bread is really nice French bread that is better than most of the bread you get in the UK. Then again, I do find it hard to think of food that the UK does best, so bemoaning the bread is probably a moot point by now.

From here we crossed over to Île de la Cité, spied our first protest (after all, this is France) and got to crossing off the first of five Lonely Planet sights off of the list.

Note: This post was originally written at the end of March, a few weeks before the fire that destroyed large sections of Notre Dame. Looking back, I can’t quite believe I managed to see it before this happened. Goes to show that you should visit these places of interest, even if they are close by, as they may not be there forever.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 85/100Sight: Notre Dame
Location: Paris, France
Position: #55

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Notre Dame in media. It’s everything from Quasimodo’s home to the place where Amelie’s mother dies in a freak accident involving a suicidal tourist. As much as I was wowed by the massive double bell towers, what I was not prepared for was the incredible wealth of detail in the carvings and sculpture on the exterior.

Of course we went inside, it’s free and is one of the essential Parisian sites. Sadly, being a Friday in Lent, we were there during a Mass. This meant that we couldn’t get a proper look at the main Rose window because of all the worshippers lining up to receive a blessing, but we still had access to all the other areas of the church. It really is a beautiful and huge Gothic building with some beautiful pieces of stained glass. The way that the light shined through the glass and began to colour the interior really reminded me of a less audacious version of the Sagrada Familia.

Whilst Notre Dame was beautiful, it did not take my breath away like the Saint-Chapelle did. It’s a 13th century church built within the Palace of Justice that may rank as one of the most awe inspiring places of worship that I have ever been inside. The lower chapel has beautiful blue and gold ceilings with painted columns and some stipend glass. This alone made me think that the Saint-Chapelle was a must-recommend. Then you go upstairs…

I have never seen so much stained glass in my life. The only phrase that I can think to describe it is “a splashgasm of stained glass”, which is kinda gross and I don’t think ‘splashgasm’ is a word. So often you spend money to enter a church and it feels a bit like a write-off because these buildings need to be supported – but the 10€ I spent on these tickets was definitely worth it. Go here!

Once I recovered from the splashgasm, we went north and circled round so that we could cross the Seine using the iconic Pont Neuf – so famous because of just how old it is. Also, it’s a pretty bridge that gives you some beautiful views of the Conciergerie and other buildings along the river.

We walked a bit more around the island, where we came across a lot if locals playing pétanque, and made our way to the southern bank of the river. Because of how lovely the weather was, we had a nice long walk along the river before having a nice sit and chat as we watched the boats go by. I guess things are a cliche for a reason, like the seemingly impromptu tango dancing group that were having fun on one of the riverside outcrops.

Around the Austerlitz bridge, we left the riverside to have a brief walk through the Jardin Des Plantes. It’s a lovely free garden next to the Natural History Museum and the Menagerie. Not a lot of the garden was in bloom, but the small bits that were had crowds of excited Parisians around them taking photos. Considering some of the stereotypes people have of Parisians, this was such a cute thing to see… then again I started acting like them when I saw the beautiful poppies that were blooming.

This brought an end to the main part of the day because we had tickets to see an opera out in the suburb of Bobigny. We grabbed some Orangina and a ham-cheese croissant for a quick dinner to eat in the nearby park… which was nice until someone came over and asked if we were in the market for some cocaine or some meth. Takes all sorts I guess.

Since the opera is part of the classical list, I am going to cover it in a separate post like I did with Spartacus. This, therefore brings me to the end of the first day in Paris. Aside from being offered drugs, this has been a really great first day and I am so looks forward to seeing what the next five days are going to bring. It’s nearly 1 am, so it’s time to sign off.

The Great EU Quest: Latvia – Exit Via The Art Gallery

It’s become a tradition now for me to sign off the final night post of one of these travelogues with stuff about how I’ll miss the country and that I won’t be doing enough on the following day to warrant a post – and then have enough to make an additional ‘final day’ post. Guess that’s the hazard of writing these each evening, you never really know how the rest of a trip will turn out.

The day began with a final breakfast in the hotel and packing away the toiletries after my last minute panic last night ended up with a midnight packing session. Since we had about two and half hours before we needed to be at the bus stop I figured that it would be worth the Latvian National Museum of Art. I mean, the art museum we saw two days ago was nice enough, but it didn’t give an indication of what Latvian art was.

In the various walks around the Old Town and Christmas markets we’d passed the museum building a number of times already. It’s a grand and gorgeous looking building, like many of the others I have already come across in a Riga that has recently had a renovation – so we’d arguably be getting the best experience that we could. Still, I went into this thinking that it would be a good way to kill time and that, if worse comes to worse, there’s a café to eat up any extra time.

We ran out of time. And it was a bloody shame.

I’ve seen a lot of regional galleries and they border from the okay to rather interesting. This one in Riga was extraordinary and has opened my eyes to how great Latvian art can be – keeping in mind that the oldest piece that they have here is from the late 18th century.

Since the whole museum runs the gamut of older to modern art, you get a really interesting quick tour of various styles and how the rise and fall of these are linked to Latvia’s history. I’ve come away with a list of Latvian artists that I need to learn more about (including Ludolfs Liberts, Uga Skulme and Janis Rozentāls whose works spanned multiple movements) because there were things here that I would love to grab prints of.

Until then I took a lot of pictures of my favourite pictures and I can get some joy of having these on stored on a hard disk so I can have a flick through from time to time.

As if the art wasn’t good enough, but the setting was exemplary. The top floor, rafters and all, was kitted out with speakers playing bird calls and nature sounds to compliment the pictures of dead birds. Also, the staircases and adjacent hallways were brightly coloured and covered in gorgeous landscapes.

It’s such a pity that we ran out of time that we didn’t manage to have a good nose around the basement ‘great exhibition hall’ galleries, but we did have a chance to sprint through and even see a display of where some of the non-exhibited paintings are stored. The mind boggles at how many paintings are acquired by galleries and museums to just have them stored away to not be seen again. Reminds me a bit of the song ‘All The Rowboats’ by Regina Spektor and makes me grateful for places like Taipei’s National Palace Museum that actually rotate their piece.

Right that’s enough of my soapbox. We’d spent so long in the museum that we didn’t have enough time in the gift shop or to really say goodbye to Riga’s old town before collecting our bags and getting to the airport. Good thing we did that last night went there was still snow on the ground and the Christmas lights were illuminated.

Lunch was at the airport at a local chain that I went to last year in Tallinn. If any Latvians are reading this they’re probably going to roll their eyes at my enjoyment of Lido. We don’t really have anything quite like it in the UK, other than the restaurants than the semi-self service places you get in department stores. However, because this serves regional food and had a large number of reasonably priced options in a setting with wood carvings and themed decor… I’m a bit of a fan. Also, the soup and filled pancakes that I had were pretty delicious.

Now that’s really it for my trip to Riga. The clouds outside the aircraft look like cotton candy since we’re chasing the sunset and I’m enjoying the generous legroom provided by Air Baltic. I don’t think I have been so pleasantly surprised by a city since Vilnius and even then I knew I had the Hill of Crosses and Trakai castle coming. Thanks again Riga, maybe I’ll see you again when it’s warmer.

The Great EU Quest: Latvia – Snow In The Forest

For those who may note be aware, being a tourist in Riga on a Monday is being a tourist in a city where the majority of museums and other sites are closed. I’d already cottoned onto this, so made sure that today’s itinerary would reflect that.

Starting off was a trip to Riga’s Central Market as we did not have time to fit it in. However, we first went back to the Blackheads’ House. Last night, having read up on the building, I found out about there being some sort of monument to the site of the first Christmas tree from 1510. Being that we are in advent, the city have put up a little model Christmas tree to ensure that people are aware of the history. Coming back to this building again really reminds me just how beautiful it is.

The Central Market was a bit of a blustery walk away down the riverfront, which might be the coldest that I have felt all holiday. The market itself is situated in a number of large warehouses where it seems that different warehouses lend themselves to different food types. For example, we found ourselves in a huge building where nearly everyone was selling meat. Some of the sausages looked and smelled amazing, if I was a native I wonder how often I would end up buying things here.

This wasn’t the longest trip, as there wasn’t really anything we could buy, so it was time to find the bus stop that would take us to the Latvian Ethnographic Open Air Museum. A bit of a stress because the bus we were looking for (the 6822) isn’t listed on any bus stops, so it’s a bit of a miracle that we found it at all.

So, what is the Latvian Ethnographic Open Air Museum? Well, this is a place that was inspired by Skansen in Stockholm and contains a large number of preserved buildings in a natural setting. For this particular one on the outskirts of Riga, the setting is in a forest on the edge of Lake Jugla and the buildings were gathered to preserve homesteads from four cultural areas of Latvia.

As you can tell from the photos, this open air museum was practically deserted. Also, the lack of footprints in some of the snow mean that there hadn’t been many visitors here in the last few days, which really did make us feel like we had this vast park of abandoned homesteads all to ourselves. Being winter there were only two buildings that were open for entry, but that worked out fine as we still spent nearly 3 hours here.

Seeing how today was the first time in a while that the temperature was due to go above freezing, Lake Jugla was frozen solid. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a frozen lake and this really did add the beautiful bleakness of the snow covered surroundings. Oh, and I’ll mention this before I forget, it started to snow heavily when we were in the park and it seemed to stop the moment that we left. That was cool, a bit weird and like something out of The Truman Show (so, thank you television overlords I guess).

The crunch of fresh snow beneath my feet, whistling of wind through the trees and the tapping of what sounded like a curious woodpecker made this whole experience in the park a bit otherworldly – especially when you factor in over 100 empty historical buildings.

Seeing the buildings of these previous generations of potters, fishermen and farmers really does make you appreciate how we live today – although I wonder how many houses built today will still be standing after 2-300 years. The most interesting buildings, however, were the old churches and windmills that came up periodically (especially the little Orthodox Church) as well as an unusual two story granary that stood near the lake and a warehouse from the 1600s.

If I ever find myself in Riga in spring or summer I think it would be great to come back to this museum. The experience in warmer weather with more of the buildings open would be entirely different to the snowy ‘last humans alive’ vibe that I felt today.

A long bus ride later (as the more express bus just drove right by the station without stopping) and we were back in central Riga to get a really late lunch. After our folk restaurant yesterday (as well as some pretty sodden boots) having some hearty traditional Latvian fare felt like the right way to go. So, we went into a restaurant called Province and had a delicious filling meal – what you’re seeing is pork and vegetables with cheese in a pot, which I really want to learn how to make.

After a rest and a drink in the hotel room it was time for a final browse of the Christmas markets… the first stop being the bunny village in the park market. Seriously, I know I have been there every day, but this weird little showcase has so enchanted me whilst staying in Riga. If it wasn’t for the time, weather and some remnants of self-respect I could see myself as having accumulated a few hours over the last few days.

Instead of dinner there was a quick snack of a crepe from a market stall – mine contained cheese and sunflower seeds. Perfect market food to eat as you look up at the Christmas tree and marvel that 0 degrees is feeling perfectly mild after the freezing weather in the previous few days.

That basically it for Riga. There’s some time in the morning tomorrow so am going to see if we can fit in a museum before leaving for the airport. Have to say that Riga has certainly surpassed my expectations. Really made me wonder if I need to be back here in the summer so I can see more of the country than the capital city – then again I feel the same way about Estonia, Lithuania and Poland so a bit of a line is forming.

The Great EU Quest: Latvia – Exploring The Old Town

It’s weird to have a day where the temperature is the coldest in the morning and steadily warms up all evening to the point where it is the warmest as you turn in for the night. Weird, but that’s precisely what happened today as we went from -8 in the morning to a relatively balmy -4 at 9 in the evening. Even weirder is that, apart from when the wind began to blow, I still haven’t felt too much of the cold. Not even put on my gloves.

So after a good breakfast at the hotel (so much variation… although not too sure who’s having Caesar salad this early in the morning) we set out on our self guided tour of Riga’s Old Town. We started at the Freedom Monument, built to commemorate when Latvia declared independence in 1918 and fought for their right, only to have it stripped from them not too long afterwards. An impressive looking Art Deco monument symbolising the three historical regions of Latvia breaking free of Russian rule.

Down the road from here, past the McDonald’s, you can find the Rigan plaque to the 1989 Baltic Line protest. With us spotting this granite set of footprints we have now seen the plaques in Vilnius, Tallinn and now Riga. I wonder how many Brits can say that they have visited all three of these monuments? Kinda makes me weirdly proud to have sought all three of these out.

From here we walked down the road to Līvu laukums, one of the bigger squares and a host of one of the three Christmas markets in Riga. The architecture surrounding this square is beautiful, but the eyes do stray in the direction of the Cat House (whose forms have become the source of many a souvenir here in Riga). Weird to think how these cats have become a city landmark after being erected as a sign of protest for not being allowed in a guild (as part of the protest, he had the anuses of the cats facing the guild hall; the turning around of the cats being a condition of his admittance into the guild).

Since the Cathedral was closed for services (it’s a Sunday after all) we went across the road to the Riga Bourse Art Museum, which is housed in the former stock exchange building whose clock can still be heard chiming in the nearby Doma Square. Rather than this being a collection of Latvian art, the items on display are from all over the world and seem to have mostly come from the private collections of Latvian citizens.

There are a lot of interesting pieces, most of the interesting ones from the Western collections being porcelains and sculptures – although it was a treat to find a random Monet painting here. Also, amongst the Oriental art, I found another ivory piece carved into concentric spheres – like the one from the National Palace Museum – which was a real treat.

The temperature had gone up by 1 degree during our time in the museum to -6, which was appreciated as we made our way over to the Blackheads’ House. This impressive building was once the home of the Blackheads Guild – so-called because of their use of St Maurice as a symbol. The outside is chock-full of reliefs and sculptures and begs for you to come in. Sadly the only original section of this building left is they cellar, after the German bombing laid waste to most of it… only to have the Soviets blow up anything that remained.

The cellars help to tell the story of the Blackhead Guild – whist membership was composed of bachelor merchants who liked to get drunk. It is alleged that it was outside this house that the members of the Blackheads decorated the first Christmas tree in the 1500s, before burning it to the ground because japery.

Of the restored/newly built areas the real highlight is the Conference Hall, which is vast and contains a wonderful ceiling painting. There is also some exquisite silver-work on the ground floor – in a room next to the temporary headquarters of the Latvian president (back when they were renovating the president’s usual place of work).

Next on the list was St Peter’s Church, whose tower seems to make up most of the height. We didn’t go up the tower, because cold and cost, but we did have a look inside. It’s a Lutheran church, meaning not a lot to really see – but we did luck out and catch the rehearsal of a local music group. It was a nice unexpected treat to be able to listen to some live music.

We were hungry after this visit, so we went for a late lunch at Folk Club Ala. This restaurant is underground and serves traditional Latvian food in a fun and folksy surrounding. The service is a bit on the slow side, but the restaurant is very long so what can you do. The atmosphere really helped to make up for this.

Since it was on the menu I had the grey peas and bacon, the national dish of Latvia. Served in a large hollowed out chunk of dark rye bread – this is exactly the sort of warming food that you would want on a cold day like today. Might be something that I want to make when doing Latvia for my world cooking challenge, but I’ll need to find a way to source or substitute the grey peas.

By this time the cathedral was definitely open so it was time to look around what is said to be the largest medieval cathedral in the Baltic States. This is an evangelical Lutheran place of worship, so the inside isn’t exactly full of ornate design. What there is, however, is one of the most interesting organs that I have ever seen with its light blue and black colouring. We also came across the pew build for the Blackheads, which is cool considering that I now know a bit of the background.

There was also some cloisters open for walking through, which was made all the more atmospheric with the fallen snow on the ground and the dark sky post-sunset. For renovation reasons there were a bunch of statues standing freely in the central courtyard with orange tape on them. Made the whole thing look like a modern art take on Michelangelo’s Prisoners.

 

My visit to this cathedral marks the first time where I have been chased out of a place of worship because it was closing for the day (they did this by turning out the lights until I got out). No matter though as just next door was the main Christmas market in Doma Square – tonight being the night that the tree was officially being turned on.

Picture the scene: a bell choir playing ‘Carol of the Bells’, snow beginning to fall and a weird (yet awesome) light and sound ceremony to light up their beautiful tree. Everything combined just made it one of those great holiday moments and for a long time afterwards there was live children’s choirs singing Latvian Christmas songs.

We temporarily took leave of this market to go around and explore the other markets (including a repeat visit to the Christmas Bunny village) where we bought some ornaments and other souvenirs – as well as taking some pictures of the markets now in full swing.

Dinner was sausage and sauerkraut from the main market with a chocolate banana for dessert – like with the cathedral the market started to close around us, so we took a stroll through Kronvalda Park and a local shopping mall (open until 9pm eve on a Sunday, marvellous) before heading back to the hotel.

Tomorrow the main sight is further afield, which will be great to see – especially as it is forecast to be snowing when we get there. It’s getting ridiculously late so I should be heading to bed. Looking forward to breakfast already.

The Great EU Quest: Latvia – Minus 9 and Feeling Fine

If it looks like I have been on a ridiculous amount of trips recently… it’s probably because I have. It’s currently December 1st and I am rounding off the year by crossing off another EU country by going on a long weekend to…

List Item: Visit all EU countries
Progress: 21/28

I am getting so close to finishing off this ‘visit all the EU countries challenge’ that I have real ideas about the ways I want to cross off the remaining nations as they have entries in the Lonely Planet list. Unlike Latvia, which is the only EU country with nothing in that Top 500. But you know what, I travelled around long before this list help point me in interesting directions so I can just do it again.

Country: Latvia
Year first visited: 2018

The reason for coming to Latvia at this time of year is obvious: Christmas markets. Did I book this thinking that the weather we’d be getting would end up being -9 (-14 with windchill) on our first night? No, because who does that. Cue a bad night’s sleep before flying out and that would explain why I am so tired as I’m writing this.

Anyway, we arrived in Riga in the late afternoon after a surprisingly comfortable flight with Air Baltic (seriously, their legroom is unparalleled) and was presented with a carpet of almost fresh snow. At no point did we see in the forecast that we would be arriving to snow, which really is a tonic for many a cold weather blues. Unless you’re commuting to work, then snow is the work of the devil.

Our hotel for this short trip is in the Old Town and our room came with a pretty spectacular view of Riga Cathedral. Tomorrow will be the time for a proper exploration for this area, but as we hadn’t exactly had any lunch – an early dinner was imperative. I’d found a place in Riga called Zivju Lete that would net me a food item, so this felt like a good choice.

List Item: Try as many of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die as possibleFood item: Lamprey
Progress: 767/1001

Right, so this wasn’t the food item I was talking about. When we got the menus, and had taken off three layers of clothing to prevent heat exhaustion, I noticed that this place offered lampreys as a starter. To be honest, as hungry as I was, I hadn’t come here with the intention of having a starter.

If you know what a lamprey is then you might have felt slightly apprehensive at trying out these blood sucking eel-like fish once favoured by British kings. I probably should have been more squeamish, but it’s amazing what some good dark rye bread can help with.

The lamprey, as presented in jelly, flaked really easily and had a spine that had become somewhat jellified in the preparation process. The taste was somewhere between freshwater eel and tinned salmon. Meaty and worked well with the dark rye bread. Makes me wonder what they’d be like in a Henry VIII style pie.

List Item: Try as many of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die as possibleFood item: Sterlet
Progress: 768/1001

This impressive looking fish was what I was after. It’s a type of sturgeon and is on the smaller side, although try saying that to me after presenting me with this plate. It kinda feels like whole fish is how I’m going to be seeing a lot of the remaining fish from the food list – I guess it helps to ensure that I give it a proper try

So yea this fish was giant and had some impressively scales skin on its backbone. The flesh itself was plentiful and was a whole lot milder than I’d expected, with a mineral aftertaste which makes me wonder whether this was from the sea or had been seasoned well.

One issue with having a fish like this is the diminishing returns on the taste. Luckily this place put tomato, basil and lemon on the plate which meant I could play around with the flavour profile. I also had some of the sour cream that my mums herring, which went wonderfully – which I guess shows how flexible sterlet is.

The temperature had dropped by the time we left the restaurant to the point that I needed to put my hat on, but not to the point where I needed my gloves. Either I’ve become more robust, or I’ve dealt with worse temperatures in Vienna and not been aware of it. In any case the weather was cold and crisp, perfect for late night Christmas decoration explorations.

We first came to Esplanade Park, which features a small Christmas market… But that’s not why I was here. I was here for the bunny village. That right, there is a recent tradition in Riga that the Christmas market in this park set up a giant rabbit pen containing small lit buildings and a lot of rabbits. Sounds like something form a bad sitcom, but it’s one of the cutest things I’ve seen in a very long time. Rabbits were sleeping in the small churches, chasing each other around the replica castle and nibbling on carrots provided by onlookers. I circled the entire thing a few times, taking notes a lot of pictures, before heading off. So cute.

One block of walking away is Kronvalda Park, a large urban park centred on a (currently frozen) canal that has been impeccably decorated. There were moments walking through here where I felt so overcome with the magical Christmas feeling that I was awash with goosebumps. The star decorations in the trees, the blue lit up bridge, the volume of snow on the ground. It all adds up to something truly beautiful when seen at night.

We climbed up Bastion Hill to get a better view of the surrounding park and all the lights. It was a little bit icy, but if the locals can make it up with their fluffy Pomeranian dogs then you know it’s fine. It was lovely to look down and get a slightly better vantage point of the nearby buildings (more on those tomorrow – but Riga old town has some pretty dramatic looking buildings that look so cool lit up and surrounded by snow).

We finished the evening at the main Christmas market (of the advertised three) which happens to be just down the road from the hotel. Technically the markets are being properly opened tomorrow, making tonight a bit of a test run, but the main one near Riga Cathedral was already giving me the feels. Hopefully we can be there tomorrow when they turn their Christmas tree on and declare the markets properly open.

Walking around with a hot blackcurrant in my hands, I’m not sure if I can see much in the way of decorations or Christmas goods to buy… but that might be different tomorrow. There were, however, some nice looking pieces of food – so that’s dinner tomorrow sorted.

Not bad for a first evening with some pretty low temperatures. Its not set to climb out of the minuses tomorrow, but at least the sun will be on our side as its forecast to be clear for our walk around the old town. Ending this now as I am exhausted, see you tomorrow!