A reasonably short train ride away from Paris is the charming town of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. As soon as you exit from the RER A station, manicured gardens and the large mansion stand in front of you. The Chateau has now been turned into the national archaeological museum for France, but the exterior remains just as regal as ever.
The gardens are active – runners, football players, and stroller-walkers meander throughout the expansive green spaces. The edge of the gardens end in a cliff, providing a view to the rest of the city.
View of the Town, June 2016
Gardens of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, June 2016
After a tour of the Chateau and grounds, the little shops and cafes in the vicinity retain the historical atmosphere, with architecture similar to the Haussmannian buildings of Paris.
The journey to Amsterdam was… pretty much a disaster. It all started after our bus from Paris to Amsterdam was delayed three hours due to technical issues. We got on a later bus and confirmed with the driver that it was headed to Amsterdam. We climb aboard and six hours later find ourselves stopped in Brussels, Belgium. This was a planned stop for the route however the bus completely emptied out and we got the feeling this bus was not going anywhere soon. We disembark to ask the driver, who informs us this is the end of the route and there are no more buses going to Amsterdam tonight. We are frazzled but it is clear that this driver is not going to help us further so we grab our bags from the undercarriage compartment – only my friend Travis’s bag is nowhere to found, it had been stolen. Sometimes passengers take the wrong bag, but this was not the case seeing as there was no bag left behind and his bag was vibrant green (hard to mistake!).
Stranded in Brussels in the middle of the night, with nowhere to stay, no cell signal, and missing luggage. Basically as the nightmare of any traveler. Luckily we find a hostel with a free room and are able to book a bus ticket for tomorrow morning taking us to Amsterdam.
For here our trip was amazing, not to mention relaxing. We got to Amsterdam the following day, checked into our beautiful AirBNB and sighed in relief. We had finally made it – 18 hours later. After being slightly traumatized from the whole experience, we took the opportunity to just decompress. Instead of experiencing the city through an intense tourist itinerary, we just strolled along the beautiful streets.
This city is full of character, and it turns out it is true that there are bikes everywhere. Any fence or sidewalk is littered with parked bikes, and don’t forget to look both ways before crossing a bike lane. I have never seen such respect for bicyclists. In Paris, biking down the narrow streets shared with cars seems like a death wish.
I was particularly drawn to the houses running along the canals. They maintain a form of unity as they align along the street, however each has its own history and character.
While admiring these funky little houses I noticed these pulleys hanging off the tops of each one. I confirmed my suspicions that they were used to hoist items to the higher floors (thanks to the knowledge of Google). It turns out that there is a unique building logic to the houses of Amsterdam. The risk of flooding results in high buildings, but this means they must be built narrow to produce an affordable house. The narrow winding staircases make it difficult to move furniture, hence the installation of pulleys on the exterior! The buildings are purposefully built with a slight tilt forward so that while hoisting the furniture it won’t bash into wall or windows.
On our last night in Amsterdam, we happened to stumble into the Red Light District. No photos are allowed for obvious reasons, but it was a very interesting experience. It was a completely different atmosphere than Amsterdam during the day. We didn’t stay for long, but the brief glimpse into Amsterdam’s night life proved just how diverse of a city it is.
Located two hours southeast of Paris by train, Provins is a UNESCO heritage site due to the historical architecture dating back to medieval times.
Particularly impressive were the massive ramparts that stretched for kilometers around the city. It was interesting to think about the history of these walls, with archer’s holes every other step, it used to stand strong against attacks. Now greenery grows in the cracks, birds nest in the holes and stones crumble from the top with age. Let’s also consider that these walls were built way before they had the tools we do today.. I couldn’t help but wonder how many builders toppled off the edge of these high walls. Thank goodness for modern safety precautions!
Venturing into the heart of the medieval town, the experience becomes a little more tourist oriented. Small trains loaded with a handful of tourists on this mild Monday drove through the streets and the main square’s restaurants and souvenir shops were bustling. Nearby you will find the Église Saint Quiriace, dating back to the early 11th century, and the Tour César from the 12th century.
A little architectural history fact about the Tour Cesar: It is the only known medieval keep that uses an octagon on top of a square base (or so says the plaque at the base of the tower!). The Tour César was used as a watchtower and prison, but now houses the bells of the church.
This was a nice day trip from Paris – it provided an escape from the busy city to travel back to medieval times. It was interesting to just walk down any street of the medieval part of town and see layers of generations past in the old houses, although I did feel slightly awkward taking photos of houses because I had the sneaking suspension the homeowners were looking on from inside.
You know those classic charming small English towns described by Jane Austen? Well, they still exist. Every part of the town of Amberley, in the south of England, contributes to this old-fashioned feel right down to the street signs.
Each house has a name, based on its previous function in the town – from the bake house to the vine house. Every bit of the town is packed with history!
Located in the south of England, the quaint town of Arundel is distinguished by Arundel Castle. Dating back to the medieval ages, complete with extensive gardens and its own Catholic chapel, there is one aspect that trumps all others: this castle continues to be inhabited to this day.
The Duke of Norfolk and his family live in this castle, and it continues to be passed on generation to generation through the male line.
This castle has centuries of history, with The Keep being the oldest part. Ever since then it has been added to, lived in and making history. The fact that a family continues to live in the castle means that history continues to be created, with each dinner they host and guest that visits. That can’t be said for many historical castles.
The area of the castle that is open to the public does feel like a museum, documenting past events. One difference being that while walking down the halls with portraits depicting past dukes and duchesses they suddenly become modern, with painted portraits from this decade.
Visiting at the end of April meant that the massive tulips were in full bloom.
The chapel on the grounds actually remained Catholic; rare in Protestant England.
The front half of the building is used as a church and reserved for gatherings. The rear half is the burial place for previous dukes and duchesses.
After visiting this castle, I can see what all the fuss was about in those fairy tales. It wasn’t just about getting the prince, it was about living in a historical castle with endless gardens.
Burano is another island in the Venetian Lagoon, known for handmade lace and the brightly painted houses. A main industry of the island was fishing, and the houses were painted bright colours so they could be seen through thick fog. I was told different theories to explain the colour scheme, one being that each colour is associated with a particular family, and another saying that it is actually in accordance to a strict pattern enforced through government (although I failed to see any logic in this ‘pattern’).
As you approach Burano, there are smaller islands with crumbling ruins. While Burano continues to thrive, the monasteries of these islands have long been abandoned and the waves and wind erode what used to be. I would have loved to explore these islands, however I don’t believe it is particularly safe to trapeze through ruins, and I don’t think there is a way to access them without your own boat.
This past week I traveled to the islands of Venice to enjoy warm weather and an abundance of Italian gelato and pizza. The whole city feels like it is designed for the tourists with souvenir shops down every street, overpriced gondola rides, and the perpetuation of a historical and romantic atmosphere. And with that, swarms of crowds!
Despite the eerie feeling that this city has turned into a giant tourist attraction, I was still absorbed into it and loved walking along the narrow streets. Every detail of the city added to the character.
The charm of the city during the day continues past sunset when the dim reflection of the moonlight on the water turns into an entirely poetic experience. And it is through these little details that Venice is able to enchant you, and suddenly you realize that all of the great things people say about Venice are true. Despite the crowds and frequent smell of sewage, you fall in love with the city.