SUNNY PICNICS AND FOOTBALL IN CAFES: A week in Paris

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We arrived for our week in Paris on 21 June, when the French celebrate the Fete de la Musique. Getting off the Eurostar and straight into the heart of the party in the Marais was a great start for our holiday!

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The Eiffel Tower

I’ve been to Paris lots of times, so I don’t spend much of my time in the top tourist attractions, but this time we decided to go up the Eiffel Tower. There was extra security because of the Euros, but otherwise it was relatively quiet.

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As ever, the views from the top are truly amazing (you can even buy a glass of champagne from the bar on the 3rd floor), so we spent a good amount of time admiring the views and taking photos (tickets to the summit for 17€, you can book online but advance tickets tend to sell out quickly).

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Arc du Triomphe and Champs Elysees

We spent an afternoon walking from the Arc du Triomphe to the Louvre via the Champs Elysees. This is a massive highlight of Paris, but it’s definitely one of the most beautiful thoroughfares in the world. So much history, sights and amazing architecture all in the same place! This is definitely where Paris is at its most grandiose, and I’m happy every time I go back there.

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Sainte Chapelle

Close to the Notre Dame but significantly less crowded, the Sainte Chapelle is a gothic church with the most amazing stained glass windows (tickets for 10€). We spend some time admiring all the little details and taking photos which don’t really do the place any justice.

We then walked to nearby Ile St Louis, a small island in the Seine full of nice cafes and shops.

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Parc de Sceaux

I went to Parc de Sceaux once 21 years ago! I have been to Paris many many times since, but I hadn’t been back to this beautiful park yet, so I thought it would be a good thing to go back and take a nice picnic.

This is a beautiful park with a castle and formal gardens, and it’s easily accessible from Paris (just take RER B to Parc de Sceaux). It was very hot when we visited, so it was a great day to lounge under trees and watch parakeets flying over.

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Tour Saint Jacques

Visiting Tour Saint Jacques was a massive highlight of this trip. You get amazing views over Paris in a very exclusive setting.

The guided visit (tickets for 10€) takes 50 minutes, half of which consist of looking over Paris in all its glory. The maximum group size is 17 people, so it’s a real privilege to be able to visit.

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Promenade Plantee

Like the High Line in New York, the Promenade Plantee is a suspended footpath which has been transformed into a park. It’s a beautiful and peaceful place, and a great way of seeing Paris in a different way, starting behind the Bastille.

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Louis Vuitton Foundation

I’ve been meaning to check out this new museum for a while, so I made sure to book tickets in advance this time around (14€) – although we probably needn’t have.

The Louis Vuitton Foundation is a modern art museum in the outskirts of Paris, right next to the Bois de Boulogne. The building by architect Frank Gehry is as much part of the display as it is part of the outside environment, and you get great views of Paris from there too.

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The Euros

We went to the Euros in Ukraine four years ago, and it was great. This time we had tickets for two games – Austria v. Iceland, and Italy v. Spain, at Stade de France. Both games were great, and as is usual in such tournaments, the crowd came from all over the world.

We also went to the Fanzone which was right next to the Eiffel Tower – an amazing view that really added to the atmosphere.

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From my experience with international tournaments (I also went to the World Cup two year ago), this was a bit different: because Paris is already such an amazing place, the football wasn’t such a central part of our trip – on the other hand, we had all of Paris to explore, which is always great.

The other consideration is that because of the terrorist attacks from November, there was a lot of security everywhere – you had to go through three security checks to get into the stadium or the Fanzone – but of course this was more than justified, and everything went really smoothly.

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HOW TO DO IT:

Go: The best way to get to Paris is by train. The Eurostar takes you to Paris in 2h30 and it’s just so convenient! You can leave after work and arrive just in time for dinner in Paris.

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When to go: Paris is always amazing, but summers are great as the days are really long and you get to enjoy lots of outdoor activities. We were really lucky this time as it wasn’t as crowded as peak season usually gets.

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Stay: We stayed in this perfect place in the Marais. It was a perfect home for one week – located right at the heart of the action in a bohemian neighbourhood, but in a nice and quiet area. Marais is a great place to stay, as you are centrally located while feeling that you’re living like a local.

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Food: We ate mostly at the flat where we stayed, but we also went to a couple nice restaurants. Le Potager du Marais is a popular vegan place which serves yummy food, including the best vegan cheese I’ve tried (lunch for two for 35€). Our favourite food place this time was Hank, a vegan burger place that had the best food (a meal deal with burger, side and beer for 13€) and it was very cheap for Paris prices.

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Drink: France is obviously great for wine, so I made the most of the 5€ bottles at the local supermarket. Drinks at bars and restaurants are not as cheap, although wine is fairly priced (about 5€ for a glass). Beer lovers end up paying more, with a pint costing 7-8€ at bars. We also ended up at a ridiculously touristy place at one point, because we were running late and wanted to watch a football match – we paid 30€ for two drinks (1l beer and a cocktail) which is exactly the kind of tourist trap that you should avoid. Lucky for us, this was a one-off.

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Transportation: Other than walking, the metro and local trains are great in Paris. Because we were staying for one week, it made sense to get a weekly pass (26€, and you need to bring a passport photo with you). Another good alternative is the carnet with 10 tickets which can be used within central Paris (14.40€).

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HANGING OUT WITH USAIN BOLT: A WEEKEND AT THE COMMONWEALTH GAMES

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We got tickets to see the final of the athletics at the Commonwealth Games, so we hopped on a plane to Glasgow.

I’ve been to Edinburgh many times, but this was my first time in Glasgow.

We have friends living nearby, so we met for lunch at Mono, a nice restaurant and music venue that serves delicious vegetarian food. We then spent the rest of the afternoon around some of the many bars in the city centre.

THE COMMONWEALTH GAMES

glasgow08_for webScottish summer weather meant the athletics session we saw was very wet. The women in the pole vault struggled to get any results, as did the men in the triple jump. But the atmosphere was great and we had lots of fun.

But the definite highlight was the men’s 4X100 relay. Not only did we get to see Usain Bolt competing, but he was right in front of us! We were immensely lucky with the tickets.

Bolt is extremely powerful, and I was really impressed at how he controlled the crowd. And he also seemed to have fun in the process, even dancing to Scottish classic ‘500 miles‘. The Jamaican team won as expected, and this was a climatic finish to a nice day.

 HOW TO DO IT:

  • Tickets: I’ve said this elsewhere, but the key to going to any major sporting event is planning in advance. We applied for a whole bunch of tickets and were lucky to get these.
  • Stay: Glasgow doesn’t actually have that many options, and because this was a busy time we ended up staying at a rented room we found through Airbnb. Aimee‘s flat was ideal for us – a spacious flat close to the stadium and with good links to the city centre.
  • Go: The main airlines fly to Glasgow, but for more options consider flying to (and staying at) Edinburgh, which is quite close and offers more choice.

2 WEEKS IN BRAZIL: THE WORLD CUP

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It was always going to be the case that the World Cup in Brazil was an event of a lifetime.

When we arrived in Manaus, the city was ready to welcome the tourists, with streets decorated in true Brazilian fashion. And before the shocking meltdown of the semi-finals, the atmosphere was very relaxed.

We watched the opening ceremony and first match in the main square in Manaus. The atmosphere was great, and the powerful sign-along of the national anthem set the scene for the rest of the tournament.

We then flew to Belo Horizonte, where we saw two games: Colombia v. Greece and Belgium v. Algeria.

Colombia v. Greece was great fun, with thousands of Colombia fans creating a loud party atmosphere at the stadium.

For Belgium v. Algeria we expected an easy Belgium win, but the Algerians went ahead to make the game more interesting – and slightly compensating for the fact that Belgium didn’t really deliver to everyone’s expectations.

There was lots of talk before the competition that Brazil wouldn’t be ready to receive the World Cup. But what we saw in the stadium was excellent – even the queues to get in were quick and organised.

The problem with anything in Brazil lies elsewhere: many people were unhappy with the political context and as ever, Brazilian infrastructure is appalling at the best of times. Being Brazilian, I can’t help to agree with musician Tom Jobim, who said “Brazil is not for beginners”.

But for us, our experience in the World Cup was great, we had a truly memorable time that lived up to the expectations.

HOW TO DO IT:

  • Tickets: All major sporting events require lots of planning. We applied for tickets through FIFA at the first possible opportunity and were lucky to get all the tickets we wanted.
  • Money: Again for any major event, you’re likely to pay premium prices for flights and accommodation. Plan and book everything months in advance – I’d say six months is the minimum to ensure you get your selected options at a reasonable price.
  • Do: Getting in the spirit of the event ensures a trip like this is really worthwhile. Check out what the locals are doing and join them – there’s no better introduction to Brazilian culture than watching football in a local bar!

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2 WEEKS IN BRAZIL: A STAY IN A JUNGLE HOTEL

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We were looking forward to this, so we started researching for accommodation in the Amazon months before our trip.

We ended up staying at Juma Lodge, and we were very pleased. The trip to the hotel takes about three hours (by car, boat, car then boat again) and then you’re in the middle of the jungle. We booked a two-day package, which was perfect for what we wanted.

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A WALK IN THE JUNGLE

After settling into our room and having a very nice lunch, we were off for a walk in the jungle. Our guide, Leon, would stop every now and then to explain everything about the local flora and fauna.

We learned about the medicinal property of some plants and spotted lots of little frogs and a massive tarantula!

For the jungle walk, we had to wear trousers and long sleeve shirts. Luckily, in the jungle itself it’s not as hot.

BOAT RIDES

Our hotel was just above the water, so everything was done by boat.

Apart from the jungle walk, all other activities that we did were boat rides at different times of the day and with different objectives. We went birdwatching in the afternoon, saw the sunrise and went looking for caymans at night.

All in all, the best thing about these activities was seeing the jungle and the river change throughout the day.

At sunrise, everything was very quiet and a mist covered the margins of the river. Riven dolphins came and went. At night, the sounds changed and the moonlight showed us the way. Snakes watched us from the top of the trees.

THE HOTEL

Our hotel was very nice. It was right in the middle of nowhere but extremely comfortable.

Every room was a bungalow built on stilts. Because we went at the end of the wet season, our room was pretty much floating on the water.

The place was very peaceful, with only the sound of birds and the occasional boat breaking the silence. We had our own little terrace with a hammock and amazing views of the river and the jungle. Amazonian luxury at its best.

But the most impressive thing about the Juma Lodge was the staff, who work around the clock to make sure everyone is happy. The guides were extremely well informed, speaking many different languages without thinking twice.

There are a few different options of jungle hotels, but booking in advance is essential to guarantee you get your first choice. Packages are not cheap, but are all inclusive and definitely worth it.

I discovered Juma Lodge through the Lonely Planet Traveller magazine and I definitely recommend it. We paid around £270 per person for a two day package, and although it’s expensive, it definitely delivered on quality.

Ariau Towers is the most famous jungle hotel in the Amazon, and should be really good as well.

2 WEEKS IN BRAZIL: A BOAT TRIP IN THE AMAZON

We were super spoiled in Manaus because my cousin lives there. She booked us on this private boat trip, which was an excellent way to start our Amazonian adventure.

We left early in the morning from a local port. Our first stop was a gas station – over the river:

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Then off we went. After a couple of hours we reached one of the most famous sights of the Amazon: the Meeting of Waters.

The Amazon river is formed by two rivers: the Negro is dark and warm, while the Solimoes is colder and muddy. These differences, as well as the sheer volume of these rivers, mean that the two flow alongside for about 7km before mixing completely to form the Amazon.

We got great views of the two rivers (much better than when we passed through the same place again in a smaller boat).

The next stop of the trip was swimming with the river dolphins. It was amazing how friendly they were, coming very close to everyone in the water.

This was a lovely and unique experience, but the set up is a bit weird, with tourist boats approaching frequently.

The rest of the day was spent leisurely in the boat, drinking beer and looking at the view. We finished our trip not long after sunset, feeling sunkissed and relaxed.

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HOW TO DO IT:

Travelling around the Amazon is mostly done by the river, and it’s incredible how these little boats cut through the river as if it was a road. Scary but fun.

There are many local tour organisers, but we were very lucky to have this arranged for us, as we got a whole boat and the local knowledge.

There are countless types of boats big and small, and prices can vary hugely as well.

For short day trips, some of the main attractions are: the Meeting of Waters, swimming with river dolphins and going through igapos (flooded forest).

2 WEEKS IN BRAZIL: MANAUS

We wanted to go to Brazil for the World Cup. Prices were expected to hike up during the tournament, so we decided to go a bit early and visit the Amazon.

MANAUS:

Manaus is the main city in the Amazon basin. It developed rapidly in the late 1800s, and nowadays it exists uneasily as a big city in the middle of the jungle.

There isn’t much to do in Manaus itself, but the city is the gateway to the Amazon.

TEATRO AMAZONAS:

manaus4_for webThe main highlight of the city is this theatre. It is an opulent building financed by the riches of the rubber boom of the 19th century.

The building is open to visit during the day, or for performances on most evenings.

This is the main sight to visit in the city centre.

INPA:

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This research institute is worth a visit because you get a chance to spot some of the local fauna (although if you’re lucky, you might spot a sloth or two around the local beaches).

HOW TO DO IT:

  • Getting there: TAP flies from Lisbon to Manaus directly, which is the cheapest and fastest option (being neither cheap or fast at over £600 and taking about 9h).
  • Weather: Manaus is extremely hot. There isn’t much difference between seasons this close to the Equator, so the fact that we went during Brazilian winter made little difference. There are two main seasons, dry and wet. Prefer the dry season, when it only rains every few days. Many shops and restaurants have air conditioning, which helps.
  • Food: Manaus is a great place to try a wide selection of fruit, which also makes for great ice cream. The local açaí is excellent. We went a few times to Tambaqui de Banda, a restaurant very close to the theatre (the only with air conditioning around that area). Service was friendly and the food was good. In doubt, order mandioca frita or tapioca.
  • Stay: There aren’t many options available, so book in advance and check for recommendations. We stayed at Hotel do Largo, which was a bit basic but well located.
  • Do: The best thing about Manaus is travelling around. There are lots of local tour operators, all offering similar options.

LOOKING BACK: 10 DAYS IN DONETSK

Today this blog got its very first comment – exciting! And this comment reminded me of an unusual trip from a couple of years ago…

We managed to get (relatively) cheap tickets to the Euros in 2012, which was held in Poland and Ukraine. But there was a catch: we got three tickets to games in Donetsk, which meant we had to spend 10 days there.

We didn’t know anything about Donetsk, but we knew it had a state of the art stadium, the home ground to Shaktar Donetsk. Being the adventurous people that we are, off we went!

Now this was one of those trips where not much goes according to plan:

  • There are no direct flights, so it takes about 8h to get there, with a lengthy stop in Turkey on both ways;
  • Because of the Euros, the very few options for accommodation were already booked. We managed to rent a slightly overpriced flat through Airbnb, in one of those traditional buildings from the Soviet era;
  • On the first night, torrential rain meant the very first match we went to see was postponed for about an hour or so. Not a massive deal, but we got back to our flat only to realise that power cuts are quite common in Ukraine;
  • Ukraine is a massive country, and we didn’t really have time to travel around since every three days we had to be back in Donetsk;
  • So the only thing to do was watch football and walk around the city centre…
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…but we had a great time!

I have no plans of going back, but spending 10 days in a place that not many tourists visit was a really fun experience.

  • People were really nice. We were stopped on the streets, photographed and even interviewed! Locals wanted to know what we thought about Ukraine, and loved when we said we lived in England – Donetsk is the industrial heart of Ukraine, and they are fascinated with anything English.
  • Everything was incredibly cheap. We spent our days sampling the local beers and vodka (at only £6 a bottle – in a restaurant).
  • This was the first time we travelled to a big sporting event, and now we do it as often as we can. We’ve travelled for hockey in Belgium and football in Sweden, and this year we’re going to the World Cup in Brazil.
  • We saw some good matches, including England v. Ukraine. The local fans were incredibly nice given that we were the only England supporters on that side of the stadium.
  • We watched one of the semi-finals in the lobby of a 5-star hotel. At home I probably wouldn’t even be allowed into a 5-star hotel, but in Donetsk we were very welcome. Who would have thought that they’d bring us free crisps with every pint?
  • On that very first night, after the power went out we decided to go to the local convenience store where people were watching the England match (being played in Kiev) on a tiny TV. We talked to local football fans, drank cheap beer, then went back to the flat. It turned out to be quite fun!