Tag Archives: Eurostar

A Christmas Market Weekend in Ghent : Part ii.

(Hold your horses! Have you read Part i?)

Bee Says: Although Ghent had been kind to us so far, the weather unfortunately hadn’t. So imagine our surprise when we woke up on Saturday morning to clear blue skies and dazzling winter sunshine. As this was our only full day for exploring, it made the drizzly start and finish completely worth it. We had quite the packed agenda which took in the really diverse offerings Ghent has in bucketloads. Firstly we wanted to take a walk to the tourist information office, just to double check they didn’t have any top tips that we had missed with our Google researching.

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If you are heading off to Ghent, one of my tips would be… don’t bother with the Tourist Information office! Talk about the opposite of helpful; it has recently had a make-over and inside is so slick and swanky that actually there is barely any information, there were no leaflets in English that we could see (!) and the staff were the least friendly people we met in all of Ghent (when everyone on the whole was SO friendly) so yeah, not a exactly helpful on the tourist or information front. We decided to stick to our planned schedule and hunted out the part of Ghent we were most excited about… the castle! Having already visited the magnificent Kalmar castle during my Swedish summer adventure I had high hopes. It was looking pretty good from the outside though…

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Another top tip about Ghent, is that if you are under 25 you get cheap tickets EVERYWHERE. So make sure you mention it, and milk it! I only know this fact because every time I tried to go somewhere or eat something I’d be asked my age. I was left entirely baffled by this (is there an age limit for this castle? What kind of castle IS this?!) until I realised that I was actually receiving the best Christmas present of all. Multiple people were thinking I was under 25! And I wasn’t even wearing make up for the whole trip! Thanks Ghent, having turned the dreaded 3-0 this year, you were a huge confidence boost to this old face.

The castle was in its Winter Wonderland phase, which seemed to just be the average castle lay out but with the odd jarring sight; such as an unexpected giant polar bear statue that took up an entire room and a huge Christmas tree with cushions underneath for kids to sit on… right next to a room of torture instruments. There were a few rooms filled with armour, maps, guns and various bits of military before we followed signs to a windy narrow spiral stone staircase that felt like it went on forever. Luckily there were little slits so you could judge that solid ground was creeping further and further away, otherwise it might have started to feel a bit Groundhog Day. Eventually we burst out into the sunshine again and were at the top of the castle; where we took in gorgeous birds eye views of Ghent; the rivers and stacked higgeldy-piggeldy buildings. I’d be roaming around taking photos and craning my neck over the top of the battlements, when I realised I had been stood on a rickety looking plank of wood with absolutely nothing beneath it. So I snapped another shot of my death-defying moment and hurried back towards the safety of the long stroll back down.

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IMG_1591Being King (or Queen Bee!) of the castle at the top was definitely the highlight, but if you are into the grizzlier aspects of history then a treat awaits.The main exhibition in the castle gives detailed accounts of the various forms of torture that was committed there; with demonstrations, detailed graphic drawings and models. It felt a bit of a shame that here everything was translated into perfect English, whereas that wasn’t the case in the rest of the castle! So I can tell you far more about the torture than any of the actual history. The main thing that I picked up was that the fancy folk who it was initially built for quickly pronounced it was TOO COLD, moved out, and it became mainly used for fighting and torture. I can sympathise with the cold thing. When George R R Martin wrote this, I swear he was talking about Ghent in winter…

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After our jaunt in the castle it was time to hoover up some lunch, so we decided to go graze on some festive fare. The day before at the market I had seen a quirky looking stall that sold something called a potato Twizzler. They had this nifty contraption where the lads on the stall stick a potato through what looks like a Play-Doh factory, and it spirals the potato onto a wooden stick. That’s then fried and covered in whatever spice/herb combo takes your fancy. We opted for their recommended house mixed spice and paprika, wish lashing of mayo.

IMG_1588The result it a hybrid of crisps and fried potato, and insanely tasty. We asked the boys on the stall a million questions; which resulted in them very sincerely informing us that their boss had patented the contraption and you couldn’t get these Twizzlers in London or even ENGLAND yet. So I had to laugh when last week I went to Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, London and saw a stall selling the exact same thing under a different name! At least it meant Nick got to taste them too. The Twizzlers were handily positioned right next to a stall selling my all time favourite dessert of the sugar, cinnamony, deep fried variety. With added Nutella. Ah… it would have been rude not to.

IMG_1568With warm bellies, we set off on a less historical mission. Let’s gloss over the fact I was a wannabe graffiti artist as a teen (true story, but you have to buy me mulled wine to hear the cringy details and just how legal it all was!) That aside, I’ve always been a huge street art admirer and Nick’s elder brother Chris had told me there was some nice art here to scope out. It turns out that there is an actual street art heaven in the form of Werregarenstraat that is a long stretch of alley, entirely legal and constantly changing with new pieces and paste ups. Definitely worth a detour, for a contemporary taste of Belgium.

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Next on the Ghent tour was a BOAT ride! It felt like time to give our numb toes a rest from pounding the cobbles, and there is always something extra to gain from viewing a city from a new, watery angle. There seemed to be two main tour operators running from just outside the Marriott along Korenlei, they were the same price and the only difference was that one side had open top boats, the other closed. Despite the chill, we wanted a decent view so opted for the open top boat. We had to wait about 20 minutes, but were soon boarding and setting off for the tour which was a generous 30 minutes. I was too busy gazing and listening to take too many snaps, but the tour took us to every corner of Ghent and offered us a look at places we wouldn’t have had time to walk to. The tour guide did a great job of translating into 4 languages, although my ear muffs might have prevented me hearing quite all the details to report back here. It was enjoyable all the same, and I’d definitely recommend taking the tour to learn alot of facts in a small amount of time.

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After all that it was time to retreat for some more cloud-bed reading (I had my nose stuck in a particularly gripping Tana French novel and was itching to read some more). Earlier in the day we had made an executive decision which is quite unusual for us. Usually we sample as many different restaurants and cafes as possible… but the meal at Monopol the night before had been so amazingly good, and the service so perfect (aka left alone to natter a million miles a minute without disruption!) we booked a table again! I also had a case of serious unfinished business. Remember my massive case of food envy? Well I fixed that by ordering myself the mysterious delicious cuckoo dish. Oh! But prior to that we built up our appetite with one last look at the market and a go on the carousel. I know, we are far too old for carousels, but they are about the bravest either of us gets at the fairground and we can never resist going on; if we are together we share the embarrassment.

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After another incredible nights sleep, we woke feeling really sad that it was our last day in Ghent. The weather mimicked our mood; and the sleety ice rain was back. We had a lazy morning, getting breakfast in the hotel before one last mission… a tour around St Nicholas’ church! In the centre of Ghent there are three beautiful churches laid out in a line. St Nicholas’ is the middle, and in my opinion, most impressive. Am I biased because my fiance is called Nicholas and encouraged us to go and see his namesake? Yes, yes I am!

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I’m not usually too into churches, but this one really had something about it.The huge stone pillars, intricate wood carvings depicting all sorts of fruit, fauna, cherubs and heavenly goings ons. There was a real sense of calm and freedom as we walked around; both particularly noting the organ that was set way up in the top of the church; which must be quite something to see when it’s being played. It was a lovely place to hide from the damp outdoors and definitely worth popping in; it’s free!

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All that was left before catching our train was to potter through a few more streets en route to the tram that would whisk us back to the train station. We felt like we’d really only scratched the surface of Ghent, slightly due to weather and slightly due to the Marriott luring us into spending so much time lazing there! I am so glad we did though, as for once I returned to work refreshed rather than needing another break from my break. It also means there is a lot of reasons to return, which I’d really like to do but perhaps in summer to explore the parks and outdoor space, and slurp a fruit beer on the river side.

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Nick Says: Hello! I’ve been missing in action the last few entries, forgive me! While Bee was off gallivanting around Europe’s most underrated country, I wasn’t just sitting around in my boxers watching films and drinking beer (I was). I also returned to the West Country, scene of Bee’s birthday surprise  and more recently the beginning of my epic British road-trip.I spent the weekend with my brother, my sister-in-law, and my adorable nephew and niece. My nephew Riley is 4, and has just realised how amazing Christmas is. He woke me at 7am one morning with the rapid-fire, no pausing for breath sentence, ‘It’s 19 days to Christmas. Do you know it’s 19 days to Christmas? I love Christmas. Do you love Christmas?’. He also asked me how Father Christmas knew where to find me and Bee last year (as we were in Colombia), so I told the tiny true believer that my Mum & Dad (aka Nanny & Da) wrote him a letter. I have a feeling he’s going to be one excited little boy in a few days. Anyway, I then returned to find a tired but happy Bee, laden with delicious Belgian chocolates for me. Win!

Bee Says: Thanks again to Eurostar for the generous covering of my travel, and enabling me to discover the Marriott with the saved pennies; a new home from home. Thanks mum for being a fantastic travel companion and giving me such a lovely excursion from London rat racing; and quite a different trip to the tropical ones I was taking this time last year. Ghent really does have something for everyone, and I think it’s time it stepped out of Bruges shadows. I enjoyed it just as much, if not more.

A Christmas Market Weekend in Ghent : Part i. (in Association with Eurostar)

Bee Says: I had barely stepped foot back onto English soil from gallivanting around Paris (read all about it here and here) when I was packing my suitcase and heading back onto my new favourite form of transport; the Eurostar! My mum and I have a tradition of going on a weekend city break every year. We’ve been known to pack ourselves off to chic European locations like Paris… Bruges… Liverpool… Manchester… Nottingham (it honestly is chic! more here) and Lille (more here). This trip was an extra special one for us, because we’ve been planning it since before Nick & I went off backpacking around the world and it was sort of an anchor in the future where we knew we’d be reunited and have some real quality time.

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Our criteria for this trip was:

  • Somewhere we could reach on the Eurostar (it’s faster & greener than flying, and as this blog reveals; I have clocked up way too many air-miles in the last year)
  • Not too far to travel / easy connections
  • Something festive!
  • Walk-able once there
  • Delicious Food / Wine

I was fortunate enough to be approached by Eurostar who told me all about their “Any Belgian Station” deal as we got to planning our trip, and it seemed to be the perfect solution. “Any Belgian Station” tickets start at £79 return and the offer includes Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges and stations along the Belgian Coast. So all we had to do was pick one! In the end we selected Ghent because we have already been to Bruges and when we did, we passed through Ghent on the train and had both noted how beautiful it looked. Plus… we knew that Ghent could easily tick off the something festive criteria, as it is famous for the traditional Christmas market.

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Soon enough the first weekend in December rolled around and we were up at the crack of dawn to escape London before the rush hour crush. On the journey over we were in the standard premier coach which was lovely; spacious, with plush leather seats, those fancy little table lights, free magazines (in three languages; if you fancy testing your skills) and breakfast consisting of oodles of tea/coffee, fresh bread, croissants and jam. The staff were so friendly and it made for a really pleasant experience as we zoomed out to Brussels. The Any Belgian Station ticket means you can swiftly change at Brussels onto your connecting train; a top tip is to work out online what the final destination of the train you need might be; as with our train Ghent wasn’t the last stop. The clouds gathered and swirled as we set off towards Ghent, and by the time we arrived we were met with pouring rain. This made navigating our way to our hotel slightly tricky, as I held a map my mum had smartly printed out in one hand and tried to connect to Google maps in the other. The train station is a 45 minute walk out of the town centre, and our grand plans for walking along to canal into town were soggily spoilt as we admitted defeat after becoming lost within 5 minutes! We did stumble across the most bikes I have ever seen in one place though. Ghent is all about the cycling, I don’t think I saw one taxi, and barely any buses, the whole time I was there.

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Damp and disorientated we spotted a very swanky looking opticians and felt so self concious as we rolled our suitcase in; creating puddles in the lovely shop and clearly not looking to buy a new set of specs! But immediately a very dapper Belgian map swept us inside, printed off non-rain-soaked maps and set us off in the way of the tram that would take us almost right to the door of our hotel. He was so kind and generous; and it really turned our spirits around! It turned out that getting into central Ghent was super easy; there’s a #1 tram that runs into town about every 5 minutes and leaves from right outside the train station. We were soon in eyesight of our hotel; which we didn’t know when we booked was on the most photographed street in all of Ghent; Korenlei. You can see why!

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Because Eurostar had kindly covered my travel costs, we decided to use the money saved there and treat ourself to a more upmarket hotel than we might usually opt for. The Marriott in Ghent is their flagship hotel, and you can absolutely see why. I wouldn’t say either my mum or I know much about hotels and chains and brands; or have a preference. In fact, our standard choice is a Premier Inn! But after being thoroughly spoilt in our Marriott experience I think we have both been utterly convinced by this trip that we would seek out a Marriott wherever we go in future! Firstly it helped that on arrival we could hardly believe our eyes that we were staying on the most picturesque, stunning strip of Ghent. Then the welcome we received was so genuine, and nothing was too much trouble for the staff who checked us in (between us we managed to have a lot of questions!) and the hotel itself is SO cool. A combination of authentic old stone and modern glass structure; the lobby area was home to a huge Christmas tree and a cosy bar and restaurant area. At night there were carol singers around a piano, which was an unexpected festive touch. That’s not to mention our room. Despite being a standard room it was mammoth, with two huge beds as soft and magical as sleeping on an actual cloud and a bath for us to rest weary legs after days pounding the cobbles. The atmosphere in the hotel was so homely that it was very tempting just to stay lazing in our room reading (we did that a lot) or sitting underneath the tree drinking coffee, that always came with a shot of chocolate Jenever, a local Belgian liquor, in a glass filled with whipped cream. No matter what time of day! It worked a treat at thawing out numb toes and fingers; as it was barely above 0 degrees for our entire trip.

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Dry, rested and happy; we eventually bundled up in all our winter woollens and headed out to the Ghent Christmas Market, which fortunately was having its opening night on the exact day we arrived. The hotel was in perfect location for the market, which was taking place about a five minute walk away with chalets, fairground rides and bars winding their way from Korenmarkt up to Sint-Baafsplein. We explored about half of the market; taking in all the smells and sights of mulled-everything, local cheeses, chocolate and knitted bits and bobs. We happened across an ice rink in the centre and to celebrate the opening night there was a performance from some professional skaters, which was way more impressive than watching Londoners who’ve drunk too much mulled wine stumbling around clinging to the edges (my usual Christmas ice rink experience!)

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Unfortunately the rain from earlier had now turned in to some sort of ice rain that was seeping in through our hats and scarves. We set out towards Patershol; the historic restaurant quarter in the hope we could find some local delicacies. I blame our Jenever-addled brains as unfortunately we set off in entirely the wrong direction, managed to find ourselves on the only sketchy isolated street in all of Ghent (!) and then alongside a canal on the outskirts of town. By this point we were really cold and really wet; so we walked back to the lights of the big wheel in the distance and then decided to go to a restaurant called Monopol (Korenmarkt 37) that was just round the corner from our hotel. Most of the eating places near our hotel had been quite cookie-cutter looking places with tourist menus and outside eating areas covered in plastic (that I imagine are gorgeous in summer months). Monopol had stood out; set slightly back off the street with cosy candle-lit tables and an ambience you could pick up even from outside. As we blustered in from the wintry weather, we were seated next to a radiator where we laid out all our sorry soggy knitwear. The restaurant seemed to be run by just one chap who was doing everything and managing an amazing job of seeming attentive and calm, when it was quite bustling and there was a large rowdy-sounding group in a room upstairs.

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The food was AMAZING. I honestly don’t think we could have found anything better even if we had walked for hours, successfully located Patershol and tried every place we liked the look of. We shared cheese croquettes and shrimp in garlic for starter, then I had steak with Roquefort and my mum had something that had curiously been called “cuckoo” on the menu but was actually a local dish made up of chicken in a pastry en croute case with sausage meat and white sauce. I had instant uncontrollable food envy, despite my steak being perfect. Also please note the Everest-sized mountain of frites. I never thought I could be defeated by frites aka one of my favourite foods, but this portion left me shamefully sending some back un-devoured. We had a lovely rose wine, that was unlike any I have had before in that it was a little bit sparkling. I am kicking myself for not making a note of the name now.

On the walk back to our hotel we had chance to admire the Ghent light plan. As if Ghent could get any more beautiful than in daylight; the city has an award-winning lighting plan. When the sun sets, the city lights up again in a new way, as thousands of lights are switched on. It’s not a mishmash of styles, but a carefully crafted network of atmospheres and accents that make the most of light and shadows to create a totally different looking place to the one you’ve walked around all day. The concept was developed by the famous lighting designer Roland Jéol and I feel like this is something that gives Ghent the edge on anywhere else I have been in Europe; as it’s unusual to be able to explore a city in an entirely new way once darkness falls.

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Bee’s Mum Says: What an honour, and unexpected surprise, to be asked to write my thoughts about Ghent. I have read every Twenty Something Burn Out blog and loved sharing all the ‘armchair’ experiences over the last year; and now I am to make my own real life contribution – a bit scary, but fun too!

I don’t expect many readers of this blog are as old as me, but, like Bee, you might one day take an older relative to Ghent, so I will tell you a few relevant snippets that may be helpful. Firstly, we didn’t realise it but we went a month too soon for me – in Ghent Senior Concessions start at the age of 65, not 60 as is usual in the UK. Secondly, and this would apply to any age, but more so for older people, if you have a suitcase with a handle that usually seamlessly follows along behind you on our pavements, then think again before you go to Ghent. There are cobbled streets everywhere and it feels like you have to haul the suitcase over every join in the cobbles, to and from the hotel! Thirdly, and we were lucky that this wasn’t a factor on our visit, if it was at all icy then those cobbles would have been treacherous and I don’t think I would have dared go out at all. When we arrived it was damp and a kind fellow tourist grabbed our case and took it down some very slippery looking steps by a bridge – only one example of the friendliness that we found everywhere, from locals and tourists alike.

Having said all that I must say we had a brilliant weekend, and fell in love with Ghent. The weather, which is of course unpredictable, is the only other factor to take into consideration, and on our full day of exploring we were lucky enough to have sun and blue sky all day, which enhanced the whole experience for us. I will leave Bee to give you the low down of how we spent our time, and the wonderful hotel experience. I can’t wait for our next adventure!

Bee Says: Thanks Mum – a most VIP blogging guest!  I’ll leave you here for now; with part iicoming soon and taking us to the castle, a riverboat tour, back for Christmas Market the sequel and St Nicholas’ church. You will also have a sneak peek of how Nick spent his time, whilst we were getting festive without him. As I mentioned, Eurostar very kindly covered my tickets to Ghent in exchange for sharing the details of Any Belgian Station deal wide and far. I have to say that it took less time to get from London to Ghent (just under 3 hours) than it sometimes takes me to get home to Bradford! So it really is easily done for a weekend. Another perk of Eurostar is the baggage allowance in comparison to a plane, which I definitely needed once I had hit the chocolate shops on our last day. I also hadn’t previously known that Eurostar tickets give you 2 for 1 entry in some museums and galleries in Paris, Lille and Brussels which is a good excuse for me to go back to all three. If you fancy exploring Belgium then you can buy tickets here or by phoning 08432 186186. You even have a few days left to get over there and hit the Christmas markets if you’re behind on your shopping!

A Birthday Weekend in Paris: Part ii

Nick Says: Bonjour! We last left you drinking in Brewberry and eating midnight crepes. Sunday in Paris dawned bright, clear, but cold, and my day’s itinerary was revealed to me (Bee had planned everything meticulously). It was to be a true day of dreams, and started in the best way – by going to a nearby patisserie and grabbing some coffee and pastries. Near our hotel was the original Eric Kayser. Now a global chain spanning several continents, the first (and some say the best) is still open for business on rue Monge. Very patiently understanding our very, very, basic French, we were able to order hot drinks and delicious croissants (and maybe an extra pan au chocolat too) which we quickly wolfed down. Then it was off for a walk through the empty Sunday morning streets of Paris to the Jardin des Plantes, one of the finest parks in Paris. On the banks of the Seine, it houses many things, including an incredible Alpine garden with its own micro-climate. If you ever find yourself in this beautiful city I highly recommend an afternoon here – we barely scratched the surface.

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Our first stop-off here was to the Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes. The oldest civic zoological garden in the world, it houses mid to small sized rare animals. Zoos are always slightly controversial. It’s never nice to see animals caged for our amusement, but without them these species may well die out never to be seen again. For what it’s worth, I thought the facilities here were among the better ones I’ve seen, and in many ways preferable to London Zoo, which I’m not a fan of. Apart from a sad Orangutan, none of the animals looked in any sort of distress.

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As well as the 19th century architecture, highlights in the menagerie included some sort of mountain goat whose coat was a giant white afro (disco goat), the rare and giant cassowary (razor clawed flightless birds that love to charge and attack you), and a flock of pink flamingos, who were just as smelly and bad-tempered as their wild brethren we saw in the Altiplano of Bolivia. But the best thing we both saw had to be the panthers/leopards. We just happened to miss a big crowd of people who had been watching for any signs of movement, but got bored and left. With no-one around apart from me and Bee, the panthers emerged (they had been hiding in almost plain sight). One was a big man panther, and the other an almost as big lady panther. Suddenly the man panther leapt on the lady panther, roared, then ran off to sulk in a corner. The lady panther rolled around on her back a bit, then went over to see where her bad-tempered boyfriend was. Bee asked me if they had tried to mate. I told they had. It lasted seconds. ‘No wonder he’s gone off to sulk’ replied Bee. Nobody but else had seen it. It felt pretty voyeuristic.

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Bee Says: After seeing all these glorious living animals… what better way to extend the experience than by checking them all out again… but in skeletal form! The Galerie de paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée (Gallery of Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy) also sits in the stunning Jardin des Plants. Inaugurated in 1898 the collection consists of finds from collections the great expeditions of the traveller-naturalists of the 18th and 19th centuries as well as from the ménagerie that we had just visited. Through the power of Google I knew what to expect when we walked through the huge wooden front doors of the building. Nick on the other-hand had no idea, and just LOOK at his face!

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I’m not exaggerating when I say that despite seeing half of the world in the last year; this is one of the most incredible sights of them all. It’s absolutely mind boggling! To see almost every species in existance lined up amongst each other. Every bones, every vertebrae,every flipper, tail, horn and fin. From the teeny tiny birds right up to the towering elephant, whale and giraffe. There is just this in-describable atmosphere in the room; I guess from the hundreds of lives that occurred prior to becoming a gallery of Funny Bones. The museum was extremely educational; and even though it felt a bit ghoulish examining human skeletons and bones, I realised how little I knew about what I look like under all my padding. I loved the fact that the museum still feels like something from another century too; thick wood panelling and creaky floorboards and ancient labelling and phrasing. This is a real hidden treasure of Paris and one not to be missed. After taking a peek at every animal ever, there is another, quieter, floor packed with fossils and DINO bones; including a terrifying scale model of a wooly Mammoth. I am so happy those guys don’t roam around any more; they are unfathomably big (think 10 elephants stuck together – that’s the scientific description I’m sure)

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Nick Says: After all that animal time (alive and dead) it was time to cross Paris and discover more of its wonders. But this time we would be going from the almost secret, to its most famous – the Eiffel Tower. It was about an hours walk from our hotel to the tower, and a pretty nice one too – walking down the streets of Paris, imagining we lived there, popping into shops we discovered along the way and grabbing the odd coffee to warm us up and keep us going. But then before I knew it, we could spot the Eiffel Tower looming increasingly larger in the skyline. We were really about to see it! Like all iconic buildings and monuments, there’s something almost indescribable about seeing it with your own eyes. I had it the first time I saw the Sydney Opera House, Uluru, the Statue of Liberty,Michelangelo’s David, Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, Tikal, and even the Hollywood sign. A thrill that runs through you, the wondrous brought to life before your every eyes and made real. It looks exactly how you imagine it, but it’s more, so much more. It’s why being an armchair tourist and a real one can never compete. We need things to be made tangible to truly affect us I think. Why is tourism the biggest industry in the world? Because of moments like this. There was the Eiffel Tower, looking exactly how I expected it to, but being so much more.

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One of the best tips I’d been given about going to the top was from my brother Chris. He said not to take the lift, and instead to climb. It’s super easy, and also cheaper. It’s 15 euros to take the lift up, but you won’t have earned those views. Instead, pay 5 euros to hike up. The first benefit is that the queue to get in is a lot shorter than for the lifts, so you’ll have less time standing around on the ground and more time admiring the view. You can only climb to the second viewing platform, which for many is plenty high enough to get the incredible atmosphere and sights of Paris, but for those who do want to go all the way to the top you can buy lift tickets without the giant queues from here. Walking up to the first platform is surprisingly easy, and you can feel the workmanship of the 300ft tower all around (did I imagine that creaking?).

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After catching your breath and admiring the view, you can then tackle the second set of stairs, which is a lot harder than the first! You definitely feel the height you’re going up above the ground here, exposed to the air (if not the elements) as you are. But then you’ve made it, and Paris looks incredible! It really did blow me away up there. Here I was, the last day of my 20s, standing in one of the most iconic spots in the world. I didn’t know how else to commemorate it than buying an over-priced miniature version of the Eiffel Tower, from the gift-shop on the Eiffel Tower itself! Inception all over.

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Bee Says: We marched home from the Eiffel Tower, watching it glittering on the horizon as we walked further and further away from it and back towards the Latin Quarter. I think I mentioned last time that this is the best area to stay in to be close to the night life and so we were keen to head out to the streets where the local spend their time, around Rue Mouffetard, for Nick’s special birthday dinner. We eventually decided that the best possible dinner choice would be something involving lots of melted cheese so headed for a beautiful, rustic looking restaurant called l’assiette aux fromages. We figured if it had cheese in the title it must know its stuff! The place had such a lovely atmosphere; all gingham and Le Creuset (drool over their full range here!) and wood panelling, with a super friendly owner who greeted us like he knew it was a special occasion. We weren’t let down as we gobbled our way through French onion soup, pate and then a giant pot of molten boozy blue cheese fondue. Oh and a bottle of their best red wine.

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We snuck out into the freezing night with warm bellies full of cheese; but as some inspiring Brazilians taught us in Manaus “the night is a child!” (we think they meant the night is young, but this has become our favourite phrase to bust out when one of us wants to stay out late) And so it was on to another creperie; but we got bored of queuing, so we headed to the Arts Bar that sits along side a quaint little courtyard and fountain. It was there that I ordered a lovely raspberry beer. Nick ordered a local beer… only to discover it was 12%! Perhaps the hint was in the name (the beer of the devil!) and Nick spluttered and squirmed his way through this delicacy. On our early hour stroll back to the hotel, we were very grateful that our home for the night was only round the corner as I think we’d walked about 15 miles in total that day! Oh… and you know that Eiffel Tower miniature we bought on the actual Eiffel Tower that Nick was so proud about? Lets just say the wine and boozy fondue combo meant that someone left it it in its box and gift bag on the floor of the restaurant. WOOPS!

Nick Says: And so Monday came around. Our last day in Paris, and also my 30th birthday! After arranging me a delicious breakfast in bed (thanks to the hotel for being so accommodating with this), Bee then pointed us in the direction of Montmatre for a day of enjoying one of the more picturesque parts of the city. Once again we walked (taking an hour or so), and you really get to see how the city changes from arrondissement to arrondissement. We went via the Moulin Rouge, which as you can see from the photo below, is pretty shit. If you’re in Paris and want to specifically see this place, my advice would be not to bother. Honestly, all I’ve said about iconic places only truly coming alive when you visit them can be disregarded here. The Moulin Rouge is far more appealing and fulfilling in the history books and in movies…

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Speaking of movies though, we also managed to get some lunch in les Deux Moulins, known better as the cafe Amelie works in. Fortunately this lived up to the hype, as beyond a few posters, and a little shrine to the film featuring props in the toilet/telephone box, it’s still very much a cafe first, tourist destination second.

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Consuming yet more cheese and wine, we then slowly made our way up to the Sacre Cour, past the hundreds of tourists (Montmatre is definitely not a peaceful place to spend a Sunday afternoon).

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It was worth it though, as the view was spectacular up here. Then all we had to do was run the gauntlet of dodgy guys trying to tie bracelets onto us as we went down the hill (the only time something like this happened while we were here) and we could march back to the Latin Quarter. Our time in Paris was drawing to a close, but we still had to time to cram in one more amazing thing – Notre Dame Cathedral. Put off by the huge queues earlier in the day, we swung by around 5pm, when we were able to gain immediate entry. Before I go on though, the day before we had walked past the hulking Gothic cathedral, as the famous bells chimed. I couldn’t help but make the obvious, ‘the bells!’ comment, only to have Bee look at me in wonder and ask, ‘is this where the Hunchback of Notre Dame is set?!’. Sometimes, for a very clever person, Bee can still amaze me.

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Inside Notre Dame was incredible, Not a place for quiet contemplation by any means, as the sheer number of sight-seeing going on puts paid to that, but a place where you can truly be in awe about the commitment to make a building like this hundreds of years ago. It was an inspiring and intimidating place.

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But then all to soon, it was time to leave. We were back at gare du nord, and checking in to Eurostar. But there was one last birthday treat – upon finding out it was my 30th birthday the impeccably stylish Frechman at the check-in upgraded me to 1st Class! Almost made me leaving my 20s behind worth it. So we sped back to the UK fuelled by more cheese and wine, and looked back at Paris as perhaps the perfect weekend city break, especially for those based in the UK. Friendlier than you’re led to believe, easily walkable, and full of incredible sights and experiences around every corner, it’s a place I’m already looking forward to returning to. I’m making a list of places I didn’t get to see – and I think that says it all.

Bee Says: Paris really did have it all; and we are already itching to go back. The main take-away I had was how friendly the city is. I am really perturbed by the reputation the locals have; because as far as I can see it is completely incorrect. It was like any capital city in a foreign place in that you get out of it what you put in. We made effort to speak the language and smile a lot; and everyone we met made an effort to communicate back and welcome us. One final Parisian note… eagle eyed blog readers might spot that yes, I was that girl that spent 3 days in Paris and wore a different striped top every day and didn’t even realise until I was coming home. I clearly own WAY too many stripes! Paris, we loved you, thank you for giving Nick the best 30th possible and maybe, kinda, beating Machu Picchu!

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A Birthday Weekend In Paris : Part i.

Bee Says: Well, it’s time to ‘fess up and admit the fact that from this moment on both Nick and I are living a serious lie. We are no longer TwentySomething (Burnouts), as this weekend Nick turned the grand old 3-0, making us both very much ThirtySomethings which definitely does not have the same ring to it. We won’t be re-branding, we will continue to live a lie and clutch to our youth, and we’d appreciate you keeping our secret! Shh! So, the bar was set extremely high for Nick’s 30th for two reasons. The first being that he took great time and effort on my 30th back in May when we went adventuring in Exmoor and the second being that, well, we spent his last birthday climbing Machu Picchu mountain which is kind of hard to beat. I had known for a while that I wanted to take Nick to Paris because he has never been (despite seeing almost all of Europe and the world!) and I haven’t been since I was a teenager; and then I went with my marvellous mum and so I haven’t done the whole city of love romantic thing! I booked the trip in June and since then have had to live with the secret which had nearly finished me off before we even stepped foot into France. Anyone who knows us in real life will know that Nick hates not knowing something and that I am the biggest northern motor-mouth when it comes to secrets. These two character traits combined led to him incessantly questioning me; and me having to basically become a mute for months in order not to spill. Finally, 5.30am on Saturday rolled around and I could give Nick his first present and breathe a huge sigh of relief, before shuttling us out of the house and onto the Eurostar.

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Nick Says: I remember asking Bee to take me to Paris even when we racing about Latin America. Despite having been to a fair few places in France over the years, I’d never quite made it to the capital. It felt like a really classic place to spend your 30th birthday, but then I threw a spanner in the works and also asked Bee to make my birthday trip a surprise. Talk about demanding… And so it was that Bee completely managed to trick me. I thought I’d blown my chance to go to Paris (and ride the Eurostar there which is half the fun of going to Europe) and I clambered into the taxi bleary-eyed but raring to go. Bee had told me we were off to an airport. But instead we drove to St Pancras, and it was off to Paris! Perfect! But of course panic set it – I couldn’t speak the language (months of Spanish had driven any lingering Francais from my head) and I was worried that Paris had a reputation for not being welcoming to us English speakers. Would the Parisians mock me? What was there to do in Paris anyway? Beyond the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre I actually knew next to nothing about the city. Luckily Bee had provided me with a guidebook, so I could spend the 2 hour journey there frantically researching. But then suddenly we arrived. We were in Paris. And of course it was all so familiar and looked incredible.It has that similar feeling to New York. You may never have been there, but of course you know Paris. You’ve seen it a thousand times, in films, on adverts, in magazines, and online. All my doubts disappeared – I was ready to get out there and start exploring the city.

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Bee Says: After a speedy whoooosh from St Pancras to the Gare Du Nord, we arrived to crisp chilly air and a beautiful blue sky. We hopped in a taxi and had our first proper taste of Paris; with a driver who ranted, raved and beeped his horn wildly for the whole 15 minutes it took to reach our hotel. This did at least mean that we knew some French by the time we checked in… but only swear words. I wanted somewhere special to stay for such a special occasion, and after a lifetime of TripAdvisor stalking I opted for the boutique Hotel Atmospheres. The hotel was something I was concerned about; as I felt it could really make or break the whole weekend. Luckily any doubts were quashed with one look at the beaming receptionist who greeted us and exclaimed “Welcome to Paris!” The hotel room was chic and opulent (I now want golden glittery flocked tiles in my shower please) and nothing was ever too much trouble, with the staff endlessly going out of their way to make us feel comfortable. For such a hip hotel; it managed to maintain a sense of homeliness that we enjoyed in the better hostels on our big trip; whilst still delivering on the luxurious “treat” feeling of a really swanky establishment. It was honestly one of the best hotels either of us has ever stayed in. Jackpot! Hotel Atmosphere is in the heart of the Latin Quarter; the East London of Paris, which was the ideal location to walk to all the sights in the day but then stay close to home for the nightlife.

Having already been awake for 6 hours; we took advantage of the fluffy cloud bed for a power nap and then it was time to pound the pavements and really explore Paris! I had prepared an itinerary for each day (control freak!) which we loosely stuck to so that we could fit everything in. For our first foray into the city; we walked down to the river and across to the Marais area. This was a fantastic opportunity to start getting our bearings and a sense of how the city slots together. En route we walked past this beautiful art deco/nouveau department store which sadly seems to be sitting derelict but apparently will be renovated in the next year and revived to its former glory; which is already a good excuse to go back.

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As our bellies started grumbling, Nick used his burger-spidey-sense to lead us to Blend, Paris’ #1 Burger joint as tipped off to us by the delightful fellow burger-botherer Wish Wish Wish Carrie’s Paris City Guide. Don’t be put off if you arrive to a queue; we had three tables worth of French folk ahead of us and were still seated within ten minutes; and boy was it worth it. We both went for the signature which was a serious stack of burger, bacon, blue cheese and onion confit; with sides of sweet potato and FRENCH fries; it was a dreamy first dish and the perfect feed to set us on our way. The waitress also gave me a wink as she handed me my diet coke; I think she picked the name especially. Shucks!

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Le Marais is a stunning arts district of Paris; with historical haunts and ancient architecture around every corner. It is such a joy just to wander the cobbles and peer up, down and all around at the beautiful buildings where turrets, wooden shutters and stained glass are standard. There are plenty of original shopping arcades to potter through; now filled with independent artists, designers and fabric shops. We spent plenty of time peering in through windows of various art galleries and even watched an old-fashioned Parisian tailor creating a suit from scratch. This is still very much the artistic heart of Paris and there seemed to be an exhibition or gallery party in every other street; with the great and grand of the city spilled out onto the street sipping champagne. We weren’t bold enough (or good enough at French) to try and sneak into one! We did however pop into Merci (111 Boulevard Beaumarchais, 75003) which was sort of a French Ikea and a rabbit warren of everything from books to crockery to homeware to clothes and stationery.

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As the sun started to dip we needed to stop for a leg-rest and Nick was keen for his first French beer, so we popped into a rickety treasure trove with a cafe lurking beneath the nik-naks.

Nick Says: A weird occurrence happened to Bee and I in France. We could not stop talking Spanish! We figure that it must be because this time last year we were basically never speaking English and by this point both nearly fluent in Español. It’s almost like now our brains default click into “foreign country. must speak Spanish to be understood.” I found it frustrating not to just be able to get by as I have been used to and it was a real wake up call to how useful it is to speak the language and how improved my Spanish got in Latin America, as when we first arrived I was reliant on Bee for everything and by the end I could get by in pretty much any situation. Back to Paris and neither of us could even remember the word for WATER (agua? aqua?) and therefore we were forced to drink only alcohol until one of us remembered to Google it back at the hotel. Unfortunately the nik-nak cafe only had Carlsberg on offer for bier drinkers, which was a disappointing start.

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We thought dusk would be a fine time to visit the Louvre, and arrived just in time to see it glowing to life. Despite being nestled amongst some pretty mighty and majestic buildings, the Louvre pyramid was still enough to make you gasp at first sight.

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Bee Says: One final port of call was the Love Lock bridge; otherwise known as the Pont des Arts bridge where lovers attach a padlock with their names on to the walls and throw the key into the Seine, locking their love forever. This is one of the more controversial tourist traps, as some locals view the padlocks as vandalism and dislike the destruction of a historical monument. In fact, earlier this year the bridge had to be evacuated as parts of the bridge started to give way under the weight of the padlocks. I however am a sucker for anything that cerebrates the GOOD in the world; romance, love, hope. Hope is so important. I was surprised how moving I found the bridge; there is a really special hush and atmosphere as people gather to read the locks already hung, and then add their own romantic gesture. There are plenty of savvy salesman peddling padlocks on the bridge (and free marker pens to personalise them) so don’t worry about doing any pre-prep.

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Throwing the key into the river felt more permanent than our engagement! I can see all sides of the argument for and against the love lock bridge, but rather than feeling like a cheesy tick-the-box part of our trip it was actually really special and a memory I’ll definitely treasure. One slightly odd and frustrating for locals (I imagine) thing, is that the locks are spreading thick and fast. I noticed them on tons of the other non-official bridges, and actually wherever there was a piece of metal, be that a gate or a fence, there would be at least one or two locks. In fact, this is a different bridge entirely by Notre Dame and it’s also almost covered. Maybe at some point all the current padlocks will have to be clipped off and set free to make space for a new wave of lovers!

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Nick Says: We had grand plans to have a slap up meal out in the Latin Quarter to celebrate our first night in Paris. Instead I discovered Brewberry(18 rue du iron pot, 75005) which is a craft beer cave, serving up a list of over 50 brews from various heavy hitters such as Evil Twin, Hoppin’ Frog, Deck & Donahue and even Brewdog. We sat down at 7pm and by midnight we were still having “just one more for the road”, having been completely sucked in by the Brewberry charm and atmosphere. There was so much choice that it would have been rude not to keep sampling everything. I tried some local pale and blonde ales and Bee got stuck into the chocolatey porter and stouts. We came to a joint love-in over some Earl Grey infused pilsner. The bar was buzzy, they played every Queen song ever (what more could you ask for) and the “Brewberry Beer Geeks” took pity on our flailing Spanglish and spoke perfect English to us as they chatted knowledgeably about every brewery and showed us the best tactics for carrying up to 8 tankards at once. We even got chatting to various customers who came and went, which really gave us that back-on-the-road community feeling we have missed so desperately from travelling. All plans for food went out the window but luckily there are crepe sellers on every corner (why isn’t this a thing in London? Should I make it a thing?) so we could stagger back to our hotel with a nutella crepe in hand and a merry beery smile at our first day in Paris.

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Bee Says: Well that wraps up day one of the birthday weekend. I just want to mention a thank you to the team over at Caxton FX travel money card; who gifted us a Europe Traveller card (complete with £50 pre-loaded, which we drank most of in Brewberry – merci!) We met the Caxton team back at a blogger event in the summer and were instantly impressed by the concept. Caxon FX is a Visa card, which means you can top it up from your bank account before your trip; and then use it in as many places as you would with your usual card (anywhere with the Visa sign… so basically everywhere) and you can withdraw money as usual from ATMs. You link your bank account to the Caxton; meaning you can top up anywhere on the road at any point without actually needing to take your current / credit cards abroad. This is so appealing to us; as security is a massive issue when travelling and there would be nothing worse than having your cards stolen and your account emptied. This method of holiday currency means you only take as much as you need, and if it’s stolen it means the damage is seriously limited. It is also very handy for budgeting! Even better still is that Caxton have a snazzy app; so you can literally top-up within a minute at any time and in any place. I’ll definitely be using my Caxton any time I head away again, and will never ever take my bank cards or huge wedges of currency abroad with me again. There are enough things to stress about when it comes to travel; and now money and currency security won’t be one.

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