A Travellerspoint blog

The Golden City Of One Thousand Spires - PRAGUE

overcast 15 °C

At first sight the layout of Prague is definitely medieval - with its narrow-winding-cobblestone streets, tight imposing architecture and the gorgeous Charles Bridge straddling the Vltava river. Within an hour of walking through this city, it dawns on you that the buildings and history of this beautiful part of Europe is not simply years old, they are centuries old and I could only stand in awe and try to envision what it must have been like to live in a time and period far removed from today's modern times.

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Prague's layout comprises mainly of 4 sections which in the earlier days were 4 separate towns: The Castle Town which houses the Prague castle , the Old Town, the New town which holds the Wenceslas square and a section around the Castle Town called the Little town.

The Old Town seems to hold some sort of magnet, because whichever direction you walk in Prague, you're guaranteed to end up at this square. Once here, you tend to lose all sense of direction staring at the grand churches, castles, bell towers and clocks all around this beautiful square. I found that most people wander into the square single-mindedly to watch the astronomical clock put on its hourly show. The oldest working astronomical clock in the world is magnificent and forms a part of the southern wall of the Old Town City Hall in the Old Town Square. Do spend some time in between the hour change to just marvel at this amazing piece of history and art.

I would recommend going up the tower to take in the sight of the red roofed, spire filled view of Prague just as the sun dips over the horizon. The effort pays off grandly by providing you with opportunities to make gorgeous pictures like the one below.

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NOTE : There will be a 1000 cameras pointed up at the astronomical tower at the turn of every hour and you will be pushed and shoved by people in pursuit of a good picture or video. Mercifully, the entire spectacle lasts under a minute.

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Once you are done watching the show the astronomical clock puts up and take in the view of Prague from atop the tower, I recommend you stroll down to the square and take in the sounds of Prague, and spend the rest of the evening tasting the best of the local fare. The Old Town square buzzes with activity and the atmosphere in the evening with the street performers and cafe life is hard to miss. Walk the side streets off of the Old Town Square and grab some of the famous local beer which in my opinion is brewed to perfection and goes excellently when paired with some succulent ham straight from the source, as it roasts on a spit over an open fire.

The freshly made Trdelnik are a must try and a local favourite. The dough is rolled onto metal bars turning over hot glowing coal and pulled off the bars at just the right moment as they turn a golden brown colour and immediately rolled in a bed of sugar. The end result is a lightly sweetened pastry that smells like heaven and tastes divine and goes perfectly with coffee. There seem to be stalls everywhere selling them at a very affordable price of approximately 60 CZK.

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A short walk to the right of the Old Town's square, past the fashion street is the Old-New synagogue (which was unfortunately closed by the time I got there). Would have loved to pay a visit to Europe's oldest active synagogue that mercifully survived the bombs of WWII.

The maps and the locals say that the famous Charles bridge lies to the left of Old Town's square, but I got lost in the narrow streets only to realise that there are signs pointing in its direction on most major street corners. The only problem is that it is defined by its Czech name - Karluv Most on all those signs as well as on the map.

Karluv Most or more famously the Charles Bridge is a half a kilometer long pedestrian bridge that seems to be where all the action in Prague is. Artists, musicians, beautiful views that adorn postcards, nice picture opportunities and not to mention crazy tourists with selfie sticks pack the length of this bridge at all times. I quickly realised that to enjoy this city in its true splendour one has to make the effort and get to the bridge early in the morning whilst it is still quiet. As the sun gets higher in the sky the number of feet treading the length of this bridge keeps rising astronomically.

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You can get around just about anywhere in Prague by walking, without having to take the metro or the bus or even the tram – but they are such a lovely things that I did end up hopping onto a tram (ok just once - while going to the Prague Castle). To my lovely surprise, my cousins description of the experience fits to a T - they do shake and quake quite a bit as they go ;)

Spent some time exploring the Castle town which houses the Prague Castle. The steps leading up to the gates of the Prague Castle are in my opinion one of the most charming places in all of Prague and I guess its not much of a secret since it looks like it is the most frequently used access paths. I took the tram up to the castle but walked on my way back. The Prague Castle complex includes courtyards, churches, museums and is considered the city’s historical and political center. Located within the walls of the Prague Castle is the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral that seems to rise up above and dominate the skyline from the city below. The view of Prague from the Castle is something that leaves a permanent imprint on your mind - complete with red roofs, medieval architecture and incredible old world charm. You cannot help but be thankful that the city escaped major structural damage from World War II bombings therefore retaining its old world glory.

Side note : There are stores selling HOT WINE on the steps of the castle. I found one past the Toy Museum and it was the perfect accompaniment to the walk on a cold windy evening. If hot wine is not your thing, then I would recommend some delicious Grog ;)

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A 20 minute walk brought me back to familiar territory - under the the Charles Bridge where the 1000 or so swans were busy preening themselves or posing for pictures. There are lovely views of Prague from this point and is a great place to make pretty pictures, I clicked a few and headed back towards the Old Town. As I set foot on the bridge again, found myself amongst thousands of people taking pictures during the golden hour and even ended up getting thumped on the head by an enthusiastic selfie-stick waver in pursuit of the right angle.

Side note : I wish they had never invented selfie sticks. When you arrive at a gorgeous place that you've always dreamt of visiting, all that one wants to do is just take in the scenery and the atmosphere of the place. But instead, on almost every street, every square, in front of an old church, inside the old church, over the bridge, under the bridge and next to the nose of extremely irritated swans who just wanted to preen themselves in peace, there were people waving their selfie sticks. There were times I wished I could just yank it off their hands, break it in half and throw the bits in the Vltava.

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Found myself at Wenceslas Square which has seen many important events that have shaped Czech history. This boulevard - almost a kilometre long, was originally a horse market and I couldn't help but find it amusing that this section of Prague is known as the New Town - especially when you consider Wenceslas Square has history that pans 700 years!!
Flanked by the National Museum with the statute of St.Wenceslas in front on one side and the entrance to the Old Town on the other, the entire area holds great cafes, restaurants and places to shop. Made a few pictures and proceeded to rest my aching feet and the painful bump on my head after a long day spent exploring the sights, smells and sounds of this gorgeous city.

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As I did one last shot of Becherovka Lemond on this trip, I realized that this city is truly a postcard from any angle and couldn't help but hold tight to the memory of watching the sun come up over the horizon early in the morning while being the only person on the Charles bridge. What a wonderful thing to consider an achievement in this lifetime!!!

Prague to me was pure magic - especially when it was quiet.

Until next time,
Na zdraví!!

Sowmya CJ

Posted by Ceej 11:31 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged prague town red old morning wine sticks tourists hot roofs thousand spires wenceslas smoked postcard most ham selfie kurlov trdelnik karluv wencelas Comments (6)

A little town of breathtaking views

HALLSTATT

sunny 5 °C

Situated in the heart of the Austrian lake country, Hallstatt is the crown jewel of the Salzkammergut area and is home to the view that adorns every calendar or postcard featuring the Austrian Alps. Most people who visit Hallstatt make it a day trip from Salzburg as it is easily accessible by both the bus and the train. The buses take you directly to the village (after a change in Bad Ischl) whereas, the trains drops you off at the Hallstatt railway station, from where you can catch one of the the frequent ferries to the village.

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This remote village with its 7000 year old history dates back to a time in the past when salt was the most important of commodities, due to its use as a preservative and has an entire era dedicated to it in Austrian history. Its a small village nestled between the Austrian alps and the lakes and takes approximately 15 minutes to cover from one end to the other on foot, but can take a lifetime if you stop to explore its alleys and pathways that it has hidden within itself over many a millennium. When it is bathed in sunlight, Hallstatt resembles the elven cities described in "The Lord of the Rings" (or rather how they have been imagined within the confines of my imagination while reading "The Lord of the Rings").

On a beautiful warm sunny day - like the one I chose to pay a visit, the blue sky seems to perfectly compliment the cleanest blue lake imaginable. The air was a joy to breathe and I could almost feel my health being enhanced with each breath. The lake is filled with noisy ducks and a few elegant (but hungry) swans that keep you company and entertain you while you sit by the lake.

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The view from the water is something that can be only experienced and I don't think I'll do justice by even attempting to frame sentences to describe the experience. However, I highly recommend that you hire a boat and get on the lake by yourself for a bit for a fantastic opportunity to enjoy the perfect panorama view of the lake, the mountains and the village. There are electric or paddle boats for hire all around the place, that cost approximately 14 euros per hour.

You can pay a visit to the salt mine that involves almost an hour and a half of hiking up a hill and walking through tunnels. You can slide down a 60 meter wooden slide in a manner by which blocks of ice were transported through the ages once you finish the tour. I am slightly claustrophobic and decided to give this entire experience a pass.

There seemed to be thousands of people about when I paid a visit in the later part of September, that it came as a shock when I learnt that the original population of this town is less than a 1000. It gets tricky to walk around or even take photographs because of the tourists taking pictures everywhere and of everything or brandishing those repulsive selfie sticks. If it was this crowded in the early part of fall, I cannot imagine the volume of the crowd thronging these narrow streets during the summer months of June, July and August.

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All that walking helped build a world class appetite and I paid a visit to a lakeside restaurant to try the local fare. The salmon caught from the lake was fantastic and it was served with some baked and buttered potatoes on the side - a perfect meal for when the temperatures dips below 5 degrees celsius. Also tried the traditional potato soup which came in a super-sized bowl but was a bit too salty for my liking.

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The last of the ferries and the tour buses leave the village by 5:30 in the evening and Hallstatt emerges in all of its original splendor, as it falls back into its quiet and breathtaking ways. My taxi driver who also is an inn owner mentioned that even though she has lived here her entire life, she wouldn't live any place else.

Attended the morning service at church and while leaving noticed what a happy place they've made the final resting place of many. With flowers and names engraved beautifully on tombstones, the cemetery makes for a wonderful space for people to visit the final resting place of a loved one. The Ossuary of Hallstatt stores the skulls and bones of the departed inhabitants of this lovely little town. Because the cemetery was too small, the old graves are reopened and old bones exhumed to make way for the new ones. These bones are placed in the Ossuary, where they are painted with their names to mark their identity. The painted skulls were done beautifully, and it makes for a pretty unusual site.

There is a square in middle of the town area complete with a fountain in the middle and a waterfall in the background. The old quaint buildings surrounding the square are adorned with flowers on the balconies, each building different from the next. There are many cafes, restaurants, shops and hotels on this square, so during the day it's packed with people and gets quite busy.

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As I made my way back to the edge of the lake, I impulsively gave in to the temptation of getting on the lake again. Spent hours on the lake making pictures all the time wondering if all of this was a dream or did I just get that lucky.

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I am writing this sitting on a pier with my toes touching the lake water and I almost feel like I'm leaving my heart back here. A visit here has turned out to be many parts fantasy intermingled with some small parts of reality.

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So long, farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, good night.
I hate to go and leave this pretty sight. Good Bye.

- Sowmya CJ

Posted by Ceej 02:50 Archived in Austria Tagged night salzburg hallstatt austria ducks swans halstatt Comments (2)

Geneva

Home to the gorgeous Lac Leman

sunny 15 °C

Lake Geneva has got to be one of the most happy places in all of Europe.

The Jet d'Eau is the focal point of the lake but the setting of the lake flanked by picturesque hills makes the entire scene breathtaking. It looks like a postcard when the sun is shining with Mont Blanc in the background and swans and ducks glide about providing constant entertainment.

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Interesting bit of information - apparently the Germans and the English call it Lake Geneva and the Swiss and French people are very protective about the lake’s name and insist on it being called Lac Leman.

Please Note : Most of the hotels in Geneva offer you a transport card for the duration of stay with them. Using which you can get around the city for free using the trams, buses and even the yellow ferries to see the Jet d'eau up close. Switzerland is easily one of the most expensive countries to travel to and staying in Geneva is not exactly friendly on the pocket, so a free travel pass goes a long way.

The first time I crossed the Mont Blanc bridge I remembered a long forgotten fact about this bustling city - Geneva is headquarters to the largest number of international organisations because of its central position on the European map and more importantly due to its neutral standpoint on global issues. I almost passed out when I stood in front of the the United Nations office and saw the office of Red Cross. Countless banks, luxury watch makers and even the WTO and CERN are headquartered in this city!

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There are Dragon Boat races that are organised at the Lac de Joux in August and September and is a perfectly lovely way to spend the weekend with some friends while barbecuing and lazing on the grass by the lake. Another brilliant way to spend time if you find yourself in Geneva on a sunny weekend, is by paying a visit any of the flea markets along the lake-shore, because I don't know a better way to soak up some fresh air, encounter the locals and indulge my eyes on thousands of bits and baubles. Some seem to sell just food and produce(I've seen one such in the heart of Athens), others sell second hand baby clothes or used jewellery or antique photo frames, or other unique finds. I brought back a gorgeous swan and 3 little ducks for 2 euros and they occupy prime space on my desk today and a pretty necklace for 1 Euro sold by an elderly lady who was clearing out her daughters closet since she got married and moved to the US.

One of my favourite places to spend the evening in this city is around the Place du Molard , just walking in this street felt like I was walking on the star strewn sky. There are hundreds of glass cobblestones ingrained with greetings in various different languages that are lit from below. I heard from a friend that there was a NAMASTE in there somewhere and search as much as I did on two occasions, I couldn't find it.

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But the absolute perfect place to hang out with friends and enjoy some fun conversations around a fondue pot are one of those lovely restaurants along the shoreline of the lake, watching the water ebb and flow with enough strength to generate that beautiful relaxing sound that can only be produced by a large body of water.

Until next time,
Safe Travels.

Posted by Ceej 23:23 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)

Sri Lanka

An account of a week long road trip covering 1400 kilometers - through rolling hills and pristine beaches.

sunny 35 °C

If you thought that a week long trip to Sri Lanka can just be about the sun, the sea, and the beaches - THINK AGAIN. You can squeeze in mountains, tea plantations, culture and the opportunity to interact with the local people - all while indulging in delicious but spicy Sri Lankan cuisine.

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Lets start at the very beginning - We landed at the airport in Colombo early in the morning. After a quick stopover for breakfast and three interesting hours on the road without encountering traffic later we were driving through the hills of Kandy. Sitting atop a hill in a bunglow with a 270 degree view of KANDY, sipping an evening cup of tea and watching the onset of the South-West monsoon was an experience like no other. But a quick recap to the time of the day leading up to this magical evening saw me pay a visit to the renowned SACRED TOOTH RELIC TEMPLE. The heavily guarded room where the tooth of Buddha is housed is open to devotees and tourists. However, you don’t actually get to see the tooth and I heard that there is a festival once in 6 years when the tooth is displayed. Little known fact: Sri Lanka is predominantly a Buddhist country. I heard from a guide that since its official introduction in the 2nd century BC, Buddhism is followed by close to 70% of the total population of Sri Lanka.

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I would definitely suggest getting away from the bustle of KANDY and retiring to one of the bunglows on the hills. The bunglows are full of old world charm - spacious rooms, lovely large beds, bathrooms with old-time bath fittings, cozy family rooms, rolling lawns, fabulous views of the green expanse and home cooked sumptuous Sri Lankan food. There is little more to do here in the evenings apart from going for long walks and spending evenings in the company of other travellers over a drink around the campfire. It helps to carry a stole or a light sweater, it gets quite nippy in the evenings.

A long drive along winding roads brought us to our next destination – Tea Country – NUWARA ELIYA. The drive to get there is a bit challenging, especially for people like me who succumb to motion sickness. Once you are here, do take a tour of a Tea Factory. It is an experience by itself to walk between rows to Ceylon tea plants in a plantation and walk out of the factory with bags to tea, knowing exactly how that tea got into the bag. Unfortunately, once you visit the tea plantations and take a tour of the tea factory, there isn't much to see and do in Nuwara Eliya. I heard wonderful things about a Strawberry Farm but due to some political rally, the road leading up to this place was cordoned off on the day we were here.

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Along the drive from Nuwara Eliya to Bandarawale we stopped at the SITA TEMPLE which according to some locals has gained popularity in recent years, especially among Hindus since they are specifically making it a point to pay a visit when they are in this part of the country. The atmosphere made me transition to the days of my childhood listening to my mother telling my brother and me tales from the Ramayan. I saw with my eyes all the elements from a mythological story that I had heard her describe - the beautiful Ashok Vatika where Sita was held captive by Raavan, a stream flowing next to it where she performed her puja - the temple almost brings to life the story. I understand that everyone is entitled to believe what they choose to but, to a practising Hindu girl finding a connection to one of the greatest literary works of ancient India composed approximately during the 5th century BCE, is pretty mind-boggling. Fun Fact : The temple is overrun with monkeys.

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UDAWALAWE is home to a wonderful National Park which according to the information listed on Google spans 119 square miles. I didn't see a leopard here, but I did see plenty of elephants and other forms of wildlife - especially birds. The highlight of the safari was when we reached the river bank hoping to see a few animals quenching their thirst and saw no form of life for miles around. Just when we turned our jeep around, we saw 2 groups of elephants approaching from opposite directions, greeting each other like old friends and getting into the water together with a splash. I heard an elephant trumpet and it made me feel like as if it was saying goodbye.

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From the hills we drove straight to the beaches. The first day was spent lounging on the sands of Tangalle. The beach is gorgeous but a bit isolated so, didn’t venture out much. Next day we drove to Beruwala and spent as much time as possible on the beach which was lovely to wander along and even though not crowded, had enough people to make you not feel isolated. I noticed that the sea here was brown which I later figured was due to the sea churning up the sand constantly. The beach is full of shacks selling batik print clothes, local cuisine and things-you-would-catch-yourself-buying-only-when-you-are-on-a-beach-vacation.

BENTOTA.

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Bentota has a number of TURTLE FARMS which provide a unique insight into the turtle conservation project. You must see it to believe what an incredible sight baby turtles are as they benignly swim around in these tanks. I would highly recommend picking them up for a minute (if the caretakers allow it). The tour is fairly short but informative. I heard later that if you visit late in the night, you can watch baby turtles that are hardly 3 days old make their way down the beach and disappear into the ocean, hopefully to swim in the ocean for a few centuries.

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I am not one to sit by the pool all day but, in Bentota I was mesmerised by the dramatic landscape and the endless crashing of the waves against beautifully natural formed rocks that I stayed put in the same spot for hours. I distictly remember thinking in that moment that I will never have my fill of that view. The sound of the ocean rocking you to sleep is something I wish I could experience every single day. Without further gushing about the experience, I will just say this and then hold my peace - Bentota is one of those phenomenal places that you very rarely come across, and that you quite simply never want to leave.

But leave we eventually did, in order to spend a few delightful hours wandering around the inspiring gardens and estate of Geoffrey Bawa. A walk through the property lets you see the foresight with which these gardens were laid out by this genius architect. There is a gorgeous colonial style house on the property too which I heard from the guide was available for visitors to stay. The place filled me with endless ideas about designing my vacation home ;)

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A quick drive later I found myself back in Colombo where I spent the afternoon shopping until it was time to head to the airport and fly back home.

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Ayu Bowan. Until next time.
Sowmya CJ

Posted by Ceej 23:48 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (1)

Paris in spring

C'est Magnifique!

overcast 4 °C

There’s nothing quite like Paris on a day in spring. As I walked down cobbled streets looking at beautiful buildings dotted with a terrace here - a balcony there sporting beautiful flowers in bloom, I found myself falling in love with what is arguably called the most beautiful city in the world.

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As I sat on park benches in the warm sunlight that was still attempting to pierce through the last remnants of winter, watching the parade of Parisian life go by - it dawned on me that the only way to truly discover this city was by walk. I made it a point to stroll over the bridges that cut through the Seine especially at dusk most evening. I loved the sight of the wrought-iron lamps flicker to light and the way the streets look in that golden glow. Every single time I have gone for a walk back home after this holiday, and I mean EVERY TIME - the joy I felt walking on the cobblestone streets keeps coming back to me in waves. It never ceased to amaze me that everywhere you turn in gay Paree, there are two things in abundance - ART and BEAUTY. It is said that it will take several lifetimes to unravel all the things this city has to offer. I'm taking a shot by compiling some of the most famous places I visited during my stay at the City of Lights and the most beautiful sights I saw.

Louvre Museum

Standing in the courtyard you already get a sense of what to expect inside.

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If anyone ever wanted to understand the meaning of the term "a wealth of history", they need to just step into the Musee de Louvre. There are 3 wings at the Louvre - Richelieu , Denon and Sully. Denon (where the most expensive and famous residents are housed is easily the most visited). The description under all the works of art is written in French, so the Nintendo audio guide in English that we procured at the information counter was very helpful. I'm sure there are works of art and artefacts in this museum to keep any historian happy for years.

Most people have a tendency to make a bee-line to visit the Louvre's most famous resident - THE SMILING LADY, but in my opinion - there are so many other works of art displayed within the same walls which are breathtaking, especially in the French and the Italian Renaissance sections. Throughout my childhood I've been obsessed with Greek mythology and still remember reading about "Nike" and learning to my surprise that it is not only the name of a famous shoe brand but the name of the Greek Goddess of Victory. I believe the day I laid eyes on “The Winged Victory” was almost a moment that brought me a full circle.

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Before we move forward, let me describe my visit to the smiling lady's chamber. The Mona Lisa is tucked away in a distant corner of the Denon wing past the Da Vinci paintings in the Renaissance wing. My reaction upon seeing her for the first time was how small the painting is (atleast in comparison to all the other works of art housed at the Louvre). The section is partially cordoned off and the painting is housed behind enforced bullet proof glass.
A small bit of caution - You will never have a moment alone in peace with this famous lady. The Mona Lisa will always be crowded regardless of whatever time you choose to visit and you will definitely be pushed around.

After spending entire day wandering around the Denon wing we decided to spend the evening being Parisians, sipping wine accompanied by cheese and crackers and conversation. When we could absorb no more art, we left the Louvre and found ourselves at the closest Monoprix where we proceeded to pick up by some wine(bad!) and some cheese(yum!). We wandered back towards the Louvre and found ourselves a nice sunny spot in the Tuileries Gardens in front of the museum(yes sunny even at 8:30 PM!). Even here we could not escape ‘art’ as there are numerous statues and decorative touches throughout the garden and later in the evening we were treated to the sight of a distant Eiffel Tower flickering to light as we sat on the compound surrounding the Louvre which was also by then lit up and immediately reminded me of the setting from Dan Brown's DaVinci Code.

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Arc de triomphe

When you see this magnificent monument up close, you can only then fully appreciate its beauty and begin to understand why it has such a significant place in French history. The ornate carvings that adorn the walls and ceilings are intricate and makes one wonder at the depths of the artists talents who created this monument. It takes 284 steps to get to the top but I’ve heard that views over Paris are breathtaking from the top. It also forms the perfect setting for the most exclusive shopping destination in the world - Champs Elysées. Oh one walk through this entire street is enough to make you feel that there is not enough money in the world to buy everything that you little heart might desire.

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Notre-Dame

I finally found the peace to immerse myself in prayer at this 800 year old chapel. No matter what religion you follow, I'm sure at this cathedral you will experience emotions that touch the core of your being. The architecture of this cathedral is truly marvellous and the stained glassed windows are absolutely beautiful. Sitting in the courtyard listening to the church bells was an experience like no other and the memory of which I will carry in my heart for the rest of my days. We wanted to go up the tower to visit the famous gargoyles, but were told that it is only allowed at certain times before 4 PM.

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After long days spent on foot, I still found enough strength in my legs to explore these beautiful stalls filled with old books(most of them in French), near Pont Neuf on the banks of the Seine. There are postcards along with books and posters for sale. Some of them are used postcards and letters with addresses written in the most beautiful handwriting and posted decades earlier.

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Eiffel Tower

What can I say that’s not been said before about the Eiffel tower? It is afterall Paris's signature monument :) . I would highly recommend going here in the evening when there is still sunlight and have a small picnic on the lawns of the Eiffel tower and make pretty pictures. If you stay long enough, you get to see the lights come on "twinkling" and light up this beautiful monument.

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À tout à l'heure Paree!!! Looking forward to be back meandering around your cobblestone streets along the Seine to sit on the lawns of the Eiffel, laying in the grass, sharing a kiss, sipping some wine and reading a book. Hopefully to stay and explore whatever you have to offer for a full year :)

Wish You Safe Travels
Sowmya CJ

Posted by Ceej 14:28 Archived in France Tagged paris eiffel spring path cafe seine notre lamps cobblestone paree Comments (2)

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