A Perfect Walk Through Paris

IMG_6428

Sunrise over Marais.

John Baxer’s ‘The Most Beautiful Walk in the World’ paints a gorgeous visual of some of his favorite neighborhoods in Paris. In each chapter, mixed with snapshot tales of his life living on the Left Bank, he captures the true wonder of experiencing this city—on foot. As an urban hiker, I’m no stranger to street wandering in new cities, but when considering my most beautiful walk, it was hard to pick just one.

A more recent favorite walk though took place on a Saturday, and finally adjusted to the time zone, I was up early and feeling refreshed from a week of heavy train travel. Unlike most of my trip so far, this day was set aside simply for wandering—I had no tours booked, just a list of must-sees and a plan to knock off as many as I could in one day.

A travel tip—if you are an early riser (or more so, become and early riser!), plan to visit one of your must-see spots first, right when it opens. Not only will this give you ample time to see everything, but because you are there first you are gifted with smaller crowds, and many times, especially in museums, you get to experience parts all by yourself.

img_6435.jpgSuch was the case on this perfect walk, where I arrived in Paris’ Marais district just as the morning sun was rising over the buildings. Most stores were still closed, leaving me to wander the pastel streets alone, arriving at the Musee Picasso in time for opening. Here, you can view thousands of paintings, sculptures, drawings, and photographs from the Spanish artist’s life. The building itself is a work of art as well, providing brilliant curves and corners that frame the galleries, offering a glimpse into the life of its former owners.

Leaving the museum, life on the streets of Marais had started to emerge—storefronts were opening for the day, cafes were bustling with patrons, families heading out for the day’s activities. It was October, and while still warm in the sun, I was desperate for a thicker sweater as I passed in and out of cooler buildings. Luckily, Marais offers adorable boutiques for the more shopping-centric travelers, and I was able to find exactly what I was looking for—chic, warm, but not too overpriced.

I’ve written before about the different characters the Right and Left Banks of Paris have. My morning was spent mostly along the Right Bank, starting with the more traditional Marais, then quickly turning to modern as I came upon the Pompidou Centre. The lively square is open to the public, but on this day was also playing home to the long line of tourists trying to get into the Modern Art museum inside. While intrigued by the architecture of Renzo Piano, the museum itself wasn’t high on my list and with such a long line (even with my Museum Pass), it was not worth my time. This is the beauty of solo travel, and one of my favorite things—you can change your list regularly, and make decisions on where to go and what to see easily, without compromise.

IMG_6444

It is difficult to fit the whole Pompidou Centre in one shot!

From the Pompidou Centre, I turned towards Rue de Rivoli, which as a former New Yorker, I could only compare to Herald Square. The streets are grungy, with modern superstores and chains like H&M and pop up stands selling sunglasses and scarves lining the sidewalks. It’s a fun experience, but unless you are there to shop, it doesn’t offer too much for travelers. Realizing this, I opened my trusty map and found that just a block over was the bank of the Seine, and headed that way, onto the Jardins des Touleries and Musee de Orangerie.

IMG_6451

One of eight full length Water Lily paintings by Monet at the Musee de Orangerie. 

It was my love of the film ‘Midnight in Paris’ that drew me to the Musee de Orangerie. Smaller than the Louvre or Orsay just down the street, this museum really has one (very) big highlight—Monet’s Water Lilies. While Monet was known for painting the same landscapes over and over (at different points of the day to capture light, atmosphere, etc.) it is his many series of water lilies that he is most known for. The eight canvasses housed at the Orangerie span two rooms, and are some of Monet’s largest. A fun fact—Monet painted these later in life when he was nearly blind, yet still captures the impressionist portrayal of the subject as he has done time and again. You experience the paintings at two perspectives—first, standing up close, where you can marvel at the intricacies of Monet’s brushstrokes, of the layers of blues and greens and yellows that swirl together to create a seemingly abstract picture, then, stepping back, you watch the colors merge together to create the landscape. Once you take your time to explore these paintings, head to the other rooms for glimpses at works by Cezanne, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso and more.

My walk continued through the National Assembly, where I desperately tried to find an open café for lunch. This area, which I am sure is busy on weekdays, was a near ghost town on a Saturday. It reminds me now, of my advice to plan your urban hikes around neighborhoods and times of day, so when you are ready to eat, you don’t find yourself in an area with minimal options (on weekends, look for popular shopping areas where lunch spots will more likely be open).

IMG_6494

Rodin’s Le Cathedral

Once I managed to grab a bite to eat, I headed to the Musee Rodin, located in the 7th arrondissement. This museum was created in a former home of Rodin, with his authentic sculptures displayed within the house, and replicas placed throughout the property gardens. Here, you can see his famous The Thinker, The Kiss, as well as many studies for his Gates of Hell. Of the thousands of pieces on display (including some works by other artists, ie. Van Gogh), my favorite was Le Cathedral, two hands twisted together to create a pointed arch, mirroring the design of many of Paris’ gothic cathedrals.

Earlier, I mentioned the Paris Museum Pass. If you plan to spend more than two days exploring the museums and monuments in Paris, this is a wonderful steal. It does require a bit of planning, as once you activate your pass you can use it only for consecutive days—two, four or six. I purchased the two-day pass, so tried to cram in as many museums as possible, which proves easy when the pass gets you free admission to over 50 of Paris’ best spots. And, it gives you a chance to see museums you may have not considered. It was thanks to this museum pass that I was able to stop over to the Hotel des Invalids, a lavish church and former veteran’s hospital that now towers over the tomb of Napoleon—even in death he is over the top with décor.

IMG_6507

Even in death, Napoleon loves to make a statement.

 

According to my cell phone’s tracker, I walked about 12 miles this day. By 4 p.m. or so, I had hit most of this already, and while too early for dinner, I was in need of a place to sit and rest. My Rick Steves guidebook mentioned visiting the Rue Cler, a small, pedestrian-only street famous for its markets. Here, you can see shellfish, fruits, cheeses and meats, all on display for residents and tourists alike, looking for some of the most delicious samples Paris has to offer. While I didn’t buy anything, I sampled a few slices of cheese before a rainstorm started. Not bothered by the raindrops, the cafes along this street activated their awnings over the outdoor seats, beckoning me inside for a glass of wine, providing me with the perfect ending to my most beautiful walk in Paris.

IMG_6520

Seafood for sale on Rue Cler.

Advertisements

Five Tips for the Solo Traveler

IMG_6065

Coffee: The solo traveler’s best friend.

I was sitting in a restaurant one evening in Paris—the dining room was snug, with tables packed in to fit as many people as possible. I was alone, jotting down details of my day in my journal and slowly sipping a glass of red wine. In the time it took me to go through my meal, I conversed briefly with three couples who came and went from the tables to either side of me. And with each conversation, there was one comment that all three made about my travels.

“You are traveling by yourself? How brave!”

Traveling by yourself isn’t that scary though, especially when in a big city. To me, solo travel offers me a chance to unwind and catch up on thing I love, all on my own time. Paris was a place that was high on my list, and to be able to experience it in a way that was perfectly catered to me, it made my experience that much more memorable.

Of course, there are times that traveling alone gets tough—eating on your own can get lonely, but you can also push yourself to be more outgoing (something I often struggle to do in my day to day routine) and make friends with other travelers. Solo travel gives you a chance to make an experience that is all your own, but it helps to have a few tips before you head out there.

1. Take Some Extra Time to Plan

When traveling alone, especially as a woman, I find it gives my family some peace of mind if I put together an itinerary so they know where I will be on my travels. This means including any hotel addresses and phone numbers, tour company information (if you plan to do a tour), and any train/plane information as you move from one place to another. Beyond that, when traveling solo you have a chance to see and do exactly what you want so researching your destination ahead of time and making plans makes the anticipation that much more fun.

2. Learn to Read a Map

I still travel like it’s 2008 (pre-iPhone, reliant on paper maps and the occasional Internet café). Technology has definitely made traveling easier, especially since now you can buy temporary international plans to use maps, text, post to Instagram, etc., and WiFi access in most hotels makes it easier to keep in touch with friends and family at home, but I still find it so appealing to switch my phone to airplane mode and use a paper map and guidebook to travel around a new city. This does require a moment of letting go—once you switch that phone over to ‘might as well be dead’ mode, you have to rely on your skills to navigate the old-fashioned way. Same goes if your phone dies while out for the day—it’s important to always know where you are, so learn the basics.

IMG_6207

Solo trips take you places you never expected. I fell in love with Bayeux on my last trip to France. 

3. Make New Friends

You’re traveling solo, but you don’t have to be alone. For younger travelers, hostels are a great way to make new friends and meet fellow solo travelers. Taking a day tour is another great way to interact with people. For me, in my day to day life I tend to be more introverted, but when traveling alone I have to force myself to be more social. Surprisingly, that little push has led to some lifelong friendships, and it makes my travel experiences so rewarding.

4. Reach Out to Old Friends

Even if you haven’t spoken in years, when traveling to a city where you know someone, take the moment to reach out. I guarantee 95 percent of the time they will be thrilled to meet up. Whether they live there, or in some cases, happen to be traveling there at the same time as you, it gives you a chance to catch up and get some good advice for when you are exploring the city later on.

5. Enjoy Your Time Alone

Solo travel isn’t for everyone, but if you decide to take a trip on your own, you will learn more about yourself than you ever thought possible. Take advantage of the time alone to see and do what you love—this trip is just for you, so make the most of it.

IMG_6062

A rare photo of the author, jet lagged but excited to be here 😀

Bergen Weekend: Winter Edition

As someone who thrives on the healing powers that hiking and nature can provide, it was no surprise to me that Norway was high on my list. Did I plan to make my first visit in the dead of winter? No, but then again life loves to throw unpredictable curve balls (and very cheap flights!) my way, so my first taste of Norway was a chilly one.

IMG_3489 2

Our hike up to Fløyen quickly became snowy and icy–could have used some microspikes for this trek!

I stayed in Bergen, which is a hiker’s dream paradise. With the peaks of Ulriken and Fløyen towering over the homes built into the cliffsides overlooking the harbor, residents and visitors can be on a hiking trail in a short amount of time. (NOTE: For those travelers who don’t enjoy long and steep walks in new cities, Bergen can be pretty rough. But then again, you are reading a blog about urban hiking, so you have to expect that our featured destinations will involve some uphill climbs.). It’s also important to mention that for residents, the work-life balance was based more on the weather versus the hours of the day. If, for example, the weather on a Tuesday provides perfect ski conditions, it is acceptable to slip out early, especially if the rest of the week looks dreary (my kind of lifestyle!). And on the weekends? Forget seeing people in the town, everyone will be out in the mountains.

IMG_9456 2

View of Bergen from the top of Fløyen.

On this particular visit, I managed to knock a few big wanderings off the list. Day one we climbed to the top of Fløyen and rode the cable car down. This was my first adventure after landing in the morning, so it not only gave me a chance to explore the city, but it also got my blood pumping as I fought jet lag fatigue. The hike took a few hours, with minimal stops except to veer off the trail to certain lookout points for a bird’s eye view of the city below. One difficulty we faced was as we got higher above the city, the trails became quite icy. In January, weather can be unpredictable—while I was visiting, Bergen temperatures remained just above freezing, so it made for wet and icy hiking. A few days after I left, the city was hit with a few strong snow storms, making any hikes up the mountain into a snow shoe excursion. So be prepared for all types of weather if you plan to still hike in the winter.

IMG_2692 2

Bryggen is a great starting point for any walk through Bergen, and you can easily spot it once you get into the mountains.

For a little less stress on our knees, we took advantage of some free time to wander the streets of Bergen, which is a great afternoon trek for urban hikers. Start at Bryggen, an UNESCO World Heritage site dating as far back as the 14th century. You’ve probably seen photos of these pointed, colorful houses that during the week offer tourists pricey shopping and plenty of Instagram opportunities. From here, head southwest, circling the harbor and popping into the Fjellskål fish market to get a glimpse of the local catches of the day. From there, head northeast up to the aquarium, stopping finally at the Nordnesparken to take in the spectacular views of the fjords.

IMG_4770 2

Bergen has so many cute little side streets that take you back in time. Be sure to pause for moment like this. 

If you’re into creepy, abandoned old towns (like me), then visiting the Old Bergen Museum in the winter is perfect for you. Located in the northern coastal hills of Bergen, this area is designed to look like the city’s original fishing homes centuries ago. In peak tourism season, these little homes provide tourists with shops, restaurants and historical exhibits they can explore, but in the winter, it is nothing more than closed doors and empty streets.

While visiting Bergen in the winter does mean that some of the main city attractions will be closed, it’s important to take that opportunity to ‘do as the locals do’ and get out of the city. Even without a car, you can easily take a bus to skiing out in Kvamskogen or horse riding in the mountains, making the most of your snowy visit.

Basilica Hopping in Florence

As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence has become a destination for art lovers, foodies, and the religious alike. With so much history around every corner, it’s easy to miss something when wandering the city’s cobble stone streets. But you don’t have to be a person of faith to appreciate the wonders of Florence’s many basilicas—with so many grandiose structures in a small footprint of the city, it’s easy to dedicate a day to see them all (with stops for gelato of course!). For this tour, we start at the Santa Maria Novella, located right by Florence’s main train station.

215522_1742054391274_5968351_n

Florence renovated the courtyard in front of Santa Maria Novella, creating the perfect spot for a picnic lunch.

Santa Maria Novella: ‘Novella’ translates literally to ‘New,’ identifying this church as the first true great basilica of Florence. Commissioned by the wealthy textile merchant Rucellai family, this basilica was designed by architect Leon Battista Alberti and constructed between 1448 and 1470. It’s most prominent feature is of course the elaborate facade design that overlooks the courtyard, but be sure to visit inside to spectate Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, an early Renaissance fresco that brought perspective back in vogue.

Basilica di San Lorenzo: Our next stop takes us down Via Sant’Antonio and then turning towards Via de’ Gori, right to the façade of the Basilica de San Lorenzo, a final resting place for some of Florence’s most powerful patrons. What detail the outside of this church lacks is made up for inside, with its iconic white and gold ceiling. While much of the church’s design is credited Filippo Brunelleschi, it is not entirely of his doing. However, the true gem of this church and must-see for all visitors is the Cappelle Medicee (Medici Chapel), with Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florence’s golden child, designing the marble statues adorning the tombs of Guiliano di Lorenzo de’Medici and Lorenzo di Piero de’Medici.

216954_1742070671681_7395805_n

PIT STOP: For true Michelangelo fans, be sure to visit the Laurentian Library, an extension of San Lorenzo and a perfect example of Michelangelo’s renaissance architecture design with its oversized staircase and reading room.

LUNCH BREAK: Hungry and looking for something authentically Italian? Visit the Mercato Centrale, located on Via dell’Ariento, right around the corner from the Basilica de San Lorenzo. Here, you can eat at the take-out counters, or buy a variety of fresh fruit, meats, cheeses, and more to create a picnic. Staying at a place with a kitchen? Buy your ingredients here and cook at home!

208669_1742050551178_6953551_n

Walking along the streets of Florence, you can always catch a glimpse of Brunelleschi’s Dome.

Santa Maria del Fiore (The Duomo): As you walk the streets of Florence, there is one landmark you can always pick out. Whether you are hiking in the hills above the city, or catching glimpses of the great dome from Florence’s narrow streets, you can’t miss the city’s main attraction. Towering above the city, the most prominent feature of this basilica is of course its dome—designed by Filippo Brunelleschi after winning a contest to design it. The story goes, that while the Gothic Revival base of the church was built in the 1200s, it was left uncovered because the opening was too large for a traditional dome. And because the Florentines would rather die than see its beloved church supported by flying buttresses a la French Gothic design, they commissioned any eligible architect to find a solution. Thus comes in Brunelleschi, who designed a dome inside a dome (a double dome!) to top the structure. Today, you can climb the 463 steps and actually walk between the two domes to reach the top for spectacular views of the city and the surrounding hills of Tuscany.

ALTERNATE CLIMB: If the dome seems daunting, you can also climb the bell tower, designed by Renaissance heavyweight Giotto. It’s still quite a climb though, but at only 414 steps you’ll save that bit of energy for more walking later.

PIT STOP: All that dome climbing will absolutely make you hungry, so as you make your way over to the Santa Croce basilica, stop at famous gelateria Grom at the corner of Via del Campanile and Via delle Oche. It’s a popular spot, and once you have your first bite you’ll know exactly why.

216324_1742078431875_4107728_n

Santa Croche at sunset.

Basilica di Santa Croce di Firenze: You’ll have to pull your map out for this one—heading south towards the Arno River, take your time to explore the winding streets as you make our way to the smaller but dazzling Basilica di Santa Croce. Translated as “The Sacred Cross,” this church is a part of the Franciscan order and still has a functioning cloister. However, the true draw to this church is its collection of Renaissance history—here, you can view works by Giotto, Donatello, Cimabue, and Vasari, or pay respects at the tombs of famous Florentines including Michelangelo, Alberti, Galileo, Ghiberti, and Machiavelli.

San Minato Church: High above the city on a hill on the south bank of the Arno is the ever-popular Piazzale Michelangelo. For urban hikers, this is a true challenge as you climb the stairs up to the peak, but the view is worth it. From here, you get a full glimpse of the city, with the Santa Maria del Fiore watching over it. I love visiting this spot at sunset, but for the purpose of this walk, be sure to get there before 7 p.m. to visit the San Minato al Monte, a small Romanesque church near the Piazzale, and then venture over to the lookout point to watch the day end.

A Walk Along Paris’ Left Bank

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Ponte Alexandre III is a popular photo spot for travelers in Paris. Shown here from the right bank, you can capture all the highlights in one shot.

Essential to any trip to Paris, the classically romantic stroll along the Seine River offers travelers picturesque views of the city’s top attractions. During my travels in France earlier this year, I heard time and again a conversation comparing Paris’ left and right banks. Both have certain qualities to offer, the right contains a more upscale experience of the city with highlights including the Champs d’Elysees and the Louvre, while the left offers top attractions including the Eiffel Tower and the Musee d’Orsay. It’s a city-wide opinion similar to New York’s uptown vs. downtown—some simply prefer one more than the other.

I found myself wandering the Seine’s left bank regularly during my stay. Part of it was scheduling, as for a foot traveler, I tend to use walks to explore and to kill a bit of time, but overall I found that walking this strip of the city was most relaxing. For this tour, we start at the entrance to the Eiffel Tower, heading west where we will end at the Musee d’Orsay. We will walk along the riverside promenade, which includes dockside cafes, small parks, river cruise pick up locations, and bike paths–perfect for walking without ever having to cross the street. This offers travelers brilliant views of the Seine’s right bank, with exit points to visit some of the highlights along the left.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

If it’s photos of the tower you want, take a short detour to the Champ de Mars, the public green space behind the tower. Here, you can relax and have a picnic, share a glass of wine, or snap a selfie with the tower before heading back over to the river.

Eiffel Tower: We start our walk at the base of the Eiffel Tower. Built from 1887 to 1889 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, this structure has become an iconic symbol of the city with over 6 million visitors annually. For those interested in going up into the structure, I recommend making reservations online, and early, unless you don’t mind waiting in lines (TIP: Waiting in line is part of the journey. There are ways to avoid lines, including purchasing the Paris Museum Pass, but still expect that in some places you will deal with large crowds). Also, unless it is a must, taking the elevator to the very top isn’t necessary—you can actually get better views of the city from the second tier for a cheaper price.

Seine River Cruises: As you walk along the promenade, you will notice multiple starting points for river cruises along the Seine. This option is part for those who prefer a more leisurely experience of the river, with another part for the romantics. While most services are about the same, leaving from its starting point near the Eiffel Tower and looping past the Notre Dame Cathedral and back to the starting point, these cruises give travelers a view of the major sites in one hour. I recommend skipping this during the day if you intend to walk—you can still see everything without paying the ticket price. However, if it’s the experience you are looking for, then I recommend waiting until after the sun sets to see the city lit up. Most services run until 10 or 11 p.m., so you can easily squeeze in a long dinner before ending your day with the river cruise.

Bridges: As we continue along the promenade, you’ll cross under nine beautiful bridges connecting the two banks of the river. Each has become its own symbol in the city, with some gaining more attention over others. One of my favorites on this stroll was the Ponte Alexandre III, an ornate white and gold bridge connecting the Avenue W. Churchill to Avenue du Marechal, and leading onto the Hotel des Invalids. Here, you experience the true glamour of the city with the bridge’s over-the-top décor.

DETOUR: If you have a museum pass, I highly recommend stopping by the Hotel des Invalids to visit Napoleon’s extravagant tomb and to walk the grounds of this former veteran’s hospital-turned military museum. You can easily access the museum from the Seine by walking above the promenade towards the grandiose structure (you can’t miss it!).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Inside the Musee d’Orsay you get a glimpse of the former train station as you browse the extensive collection of impressionist art. It’s a must-see when in Paris!

Musee d’Orsay: The promenade roughly ends here at the entrance to a rail station-turned museum dedicated to the French art of the 1800s and 1900s, specifically housing the masterpieces of great impressionists including Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Degas and more. While viewing the exterior is part of the experience of this walk, I recommend dedicating at least a half day to exploring inside. (TIP: Keep an eye out for free museum days. If you don’t mind waiting in line and don’t already have a museum pass, this is an affordable way to see one of the city’s best museums. For the Orsay, the first Sunday of every month is free.).

A word of warning, this walk is not short. For me, strolling along the river from the Eiffel Tower to the Musee d’Orsay with minimal stops took about an hour. You may want to end your walk here, but if you are not pressed for time and looking for shopping or a café, then head down the Boulevard St. Germain and into the Latin Quarter.