15 December 2017

Because leaf fall down

Forget Christmas for a moment:  Fall is by far my favorite time of year.  The lack of major change in seasonal weather has definitely been perplexing for me since I've moved to France; I do sometimes miss the crisp, cool midwest days, even if they don't last for long.

I was happy that we experienced a mild autumn season here in the north of France this year before the winter rain (and - spoiler alert - snow) began.  In addition to enjoying Starbucks' pumpkin spice latte multiple times, I was able to venture just outside of Lille for an afternoon to the Ferme du Paradis with friends to pick apples and buy other local produce.

And autumn in Paris?  Dana and I got to spend a perfect weekend there; we went for a Boyce Avenue concert that Dana had suggested months earlier at La Cigale - a nice and comfortable venue in Montmartre - videos 1, 2, and 3 will take you there for a moment.

That same weekend, we walked a lot (as one does in Paris), stopped at la Gare de Lyon for Halloween Vampire Frappuccinos, and then (feeling so fall-ish and basic) posed shamelessly on rue Crémieux, one of the most-Instagrammed places in the world.

From there, we continued walking along the Seine and eventually up to the Galerie Lafayette to see their Christmas display.  Despite visiting a couple of months early for the Christmas season, it was the first time I'd seen the inside of the mall and it was well worth it; I'd recommend it even if you're a grinch and/or hate malls and/or Christmas!  After, take the elevator or stairs all the way up to the open rooftop for a view and a drink, as Dana and I did.

View from the rooftop of Galerie Lafayette

The new Paris Philharmonic building
About a month later, I returned to Paris for a conference for English teachers, one that I've attended every year since I've moved to France.  This year, I took a risk and in the middle of it booked a Saturday evening ticket - well, all-night ticket - to Max Richter's Sleep at the Philharmonie de Paris.  Max Richter is a living German composer whose works never fail to impress me.  Sleep is a unique piece in that it lasts eight hours and is neurologically composed in order to help you sleep, and a series of concerts in Madrid, Amsterdam, and Paris allowed you to attend (pajamas recommended) and sleep while listening to the music live.  As you can imagine, it was a unique experience falling asleep and waking up (and then having breakfast) with a group of a hundred strangers.  But I slept better in a room of hundreds than I sometimes sleep in my own bed, so here's the major question answered:

It actually works!  At least, it does for me, the best solution I've found yet for irregular sleep, even when I turn off the lights but my brain won't shut off.  If you're having trouble sleeping and want to try, here is the link for the entire eight-hour playlist.  Open up your laptop, get comfortable, and press play eight hours before you want to wake up (but do set an alarm if you really need to get up at a certain time!).  The music should seem a little too loud for sleeping at first; just focus on the sound; it will get quieter and lull you to sleep.  The last movement, in contrast, should be a gentle "alarm" to help you wake up gradually.  At the Philharmonie, the lights gradually changed color to mimic a sunrise during the last hour.

JEH rehearsal
For me, fall was also a time to reconnect with music and flute playing.  I learned, for maybe the third time in my life, that good things happen when I walk into a Conservatoire in France and awkwardly introduce myself.  This time, I first got myself into a conservatory flute choir (made up mostly of very motivated middle- and high-school students and a few adults) which is often even pushing me beyond what I did in college in the U.S. - we have weekly rehearsals which can be stressful, but I'm also thrilled to have a new challenge.

One of my fellow flute choir members, a Portuguese flutist, connected me with a community band called the Jeune Ensemble Harmonique (JEH) in Villeneuve d'Ascq, a suburb of Lille.  It has nothing to do with being jeune (young); the band is mostly made up of adults in a very relaxed atmosphere, and they are the perfect example of the north-of-France stereotype: people are warm, friendly, and easy to get to know.

Through that Jeune Ensemble Harmonique (JEH), I met another American (bassoonist) who connected me with a group of Americans (+ international friends) in Lille.  It's thanks to that unlikely chain of events that I spent Thanksgiving #1 with the lovely group of people to the left (two Americans, two Indians, one Hungarian, one Brit, and a French family of four), and we had a wonderful time and exchange.

Marché de Noël à Paris
Thanksgiving #2 was much cozier at my friend Sylvia's house in a small nearby village with her family and friends, a mix of American, French, Swedish, Japanese, and Canadian people, many of whom are classically-trained musicians.

After Thanksgiving, I kicked off the Christmas season with some snow, sleet, and ice in Lille and a day trip to Paris to see my high school friends Kirsten and Devon who finally made it to visit Europe!  I tagged along with them to Versailles in the morning; after lunch we visited Notre Dame and then took a long walk complete with window shopping and a Christmas market in the square next to Les Halles mall.  It was a nice surprise to run into as the large market along the Champs-Élysées has apparently been shut down for good, but there are a few smaller markets here and there throughout Paris.  We enjoyed piping mugs of vin chaud and sampled plenty of fromage and foie gras, as we had apparently run into the Swiss/Alps-themed market.

With that, it seems winter has arrived in the north of France.

Petit retour aux Balkans

When I'm in a pinch and up against yet another French school holiday (sigh) with no plans, Skyscanner has become my new best friend.  Though there are so many places left on my travel list, I've ticked off a lot of "must-visit" destinations and I'm finding a new affinity for letting the wind (well, the internet) decide where I go.  This time around, I snagged a 20€ round-trip plane ticket to Bulgaria...because pourquoi pas?

Tour group at the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
I had read a lot of mixed reviews about various Bulgarian cities and finally decided to make Sofia, the capital, my homebase for my short stay.  I had heard that Sofia can be seen in a day and that there wasn't a lot to do there so maybe my expectations were low, but upon arriving, I instantly felt comfortable and felt I could have stayed longer to just relax and enjoy the ambiance.  It's true that Sofia is quite small and walkable, and most landmarks can be seen and appreciated from the outside.  I saw most of them on my own during my first afternoon there, but then decided to take a free evening walking tour:  I cannot recommend this enough!  It was a great way to meet people from all around the world, but also to take in a plethora of history and culture without spending hours indoors at a museum on a beautiful day.

Russian Orthodox Church
Not far from the cathedral pictured above is St. Sofia Church, the origin of the city's name.  Sofia itself is 7000 years old, and like many other places in the Balkans, has a rich and mixed history.  It was first settled by Thracian tribes (who originally named the town "Serdica"), overtaken by the Celts and later by the Romans around 29 B.C.  Serdica was the main residence of several Roman rulers who accepted and legalized Christianity, setting the "religious tolerance" precedent that continues even today and makes Sofia quite unique.  In addition to an incredible mixture of architecture types (Roman, Byzantine, Medieval, Ottoman, etc.) that are still preserved and displayed throughout Sofia, you can find mosques, synagogues, Catholic and Orthodox churches, and places of worship from several other denominations on the same street or block, and sometimes literally right next to each other.

Around the year 800, the Bulgarian Empire overtook Sofia but lost it to the Byzantine Empire in 1018, and then promptly regained it...only to lose it again to the Ottoman Empire in 1382.  The Ottoman Empire was responsible for installing mosques and baths, though only a few remain today - most were destroyed in the Russian-Turkish War of 1877 and 1878 following about thirty years of Russian ownership of Sofia.  One of my favorite city views is the mosque (above) and ancient Roman ruins in the foreground which were discovered not too long ago when they started digging in an attempt to construct the subway.

Another example of the ancient/modern mix is the St. George Rotunda chapel surrounding by Roman ruins and modern buildings:

Today, probably the most important structure in Sofia is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (above), the second-largest in the Balkans.  It is a Bulgarian Orthodox church built in the early 1900s, especially beautiful if you catch it right at sunset.  I was amused by the typical tourist merchandise nearby - stands upon stands of medieval religious art.

During WWII, Bulgaria had a very passive alliance with the Axis Powers, and much of the passivity had to do with the country's open attitude toward religion.  When ordered to send its Jewish population to concentration camps, Tsar Boris III managed to prolong the deportation procrastination until the war was over, essentially saving Sofia's Jewish citizens.

Palace of Culture
While the history was definitely a highlight, a huge part of the charm of Sofia for me was the blend of ambiances:  it's a small, historic city complete with lots of parks, trees, and green spaces, but at the same time feels like an international capital.  There are a couple of pedestrian-only streets lined with modern stores and chic restaurants next to markets with antiques and second-hand goods.

Dining is quite inexpensive in Bulgaria, which is on the Lev (1 Lev is about 0,50€).  Street food is popular and you can get a full meal for only 2 or 3€.  Sitting down at a restaurant for a long meal, I struggled to spend the equivalent of 15€ and only managed to do so because I ordered a lamb dish (actually a canoe: see left) that may have been intended for multiple people to share.  I definitely recommend Хаджидрагановите изби (Hadjidraganovite Izbi), a traditional Bulgarian restaurant in the heart of Sofia with live music in the evening.  In addition to the lamb canoe, I tried a homemade sweet red wine and yogurt with blueberry jam, a traditional dessert.

If you're not prepared, it can cause minor panic as a traveler to realize that Bulgaria uses the cyrillic alphabet as its written language; in Sofia and other large cities, most signs are marked in English as well, but I'd advise being able to recognize city and place names in cyrillic as train and bus stations do not always have both.  For example:

Sofia - София
Plovdiv - Пловдив

Speaking of Пловдив, because I'd heard so many people rave about it, I took my third and final day to visit the town, which is about two hours from Sofia by bus.  It's the second-largest city in Bulgaria and definitely more romantic and touristy.  I was less impressed by Plovdiv than I was by Sofia, maybe because the artist quarter that I imagined I'd have loved was all torn up due to construction.  The old town had some beautiful buildings and nice views, though it's set at the top of a nearly-impossible-to-walk cobblestone hill, one of several surrounding the town.

Ancient theatre
Other must-sees include the ancient theatre (above) and the Roman amphitheater (below), around which was built a modern pedestrian shopping area.

Not far from the bus station, I found the Singing Fountains in a large park which didn't sing as far as I could tell, but they did light up in various colors after dark.

Singing Fountains
On the culinary side, I found some delicious baklava for dessert at Terzo Mondo, an international restaurant:

Backing up one day, the last Bulgarian destination I can speak for (for now) is Rila Monastery.  It certainly deserves its UNESCO World Heritage title.  My hostel took groups there on full day trips each day because of its popularity; about twelve of us drove the hour and a half to visit the monastery.

Entrance to the cave
Exit from the cave
Since it was a beautiful sunny day, we stopped about five kilometers from the monastery to do a fifteen-minute hike up to the cave and tomb of Saint Ivan, a hermit.  The cave is one we literally had to crawl through with phone flashlights ablaze; inside is a shrine and room for about three people to fit, though about a dozen crammed inside.  Then you need to crawl up a small ladder and climb up through a tiny hole in the rocks to reach solid ground and fresh air.

Bear paw and potatoes

After enjoying a delicious bear paw for lunch at a nearby rustic local restaurant, we moved on to the monastery visit.  It's an Eastern Orthodox monastery nestled deep in the picturesque Rila Mountains that dates back to the 10th century when founded by Ivan of Rila and actually built by his students.  The residential areas include about three hundred rooms, though it didn't sound like many monks still live there.  While there's not a lot of written information to take in during the visit, your eyes have enough unique architecture, artwork, and colors to admire for hours, and the mountains themselves create a perfect backdrop.

Bulgaria maybe isn't the most obvious or flashy European tourist destination, but like the other Balkans destinations I've visited, it's a hidden gem full of culture, tradition, welcoming people, and a blossoming tourist industry.  If I go back, I'd like to spend a couple more days in Sofia, do some hiking, and maybe visit some of its quieter eastern beaches.  On verra bien!

06 October 2017

Tutti i giorni

With the start of September came la rentrée (back-to-school time) and another tradition that I experienced for the first time: la braderie de Lille.  Lille's braderie dates all the way back to the 12th century and began as a simple trade fair; it grew more or less into a massive "yard" sale spilling out across every street in the city and attracting 2-3 million people on the first weekend of September each year.  Starting last year, the festivities were downsized and restricted due to security concerns, but plenty of sellers still showed up as well as street bands and performers.  Typical braderie food specialties include moules frites (mussels and fries) and Belgian-style bière.

Midway through the month, I took advantage of my current three-and-a-half day weekends and a direct flight out of Lille to embark on a sunny 48-hour getaway south to Lisbon.

Inside the cloister
Ambiance-wise, Lisbon really is both a colorful and relaxed capital city.  Once you get a grip on the various neighborhoods, you start to feel the unique flavor of each quarter.  On my first sunny morning, I took a bus out to Belém, one of Lisbon's more touristy districts, to finally visit the inside of the Jerónimos Monastery.  The monastery is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most-visited places in Lisbon.  Its origins go back to the mid 1400s but it was progessively renovated over several hundred years into what is now known as a Manueline architecture style, distinguished by intricate carvings.

Anyone can walk in and visit the church, but a ticket will get you inside the cloister and up into the church's choir loft for a better view of the altar and interior architecture.

By the time I got back to the center of town, I was starving without any idea of what I wanted to eat; I wandered into the second restaurant I came across in the Baixa-Chiado quarter.  Fábulas had the best lunch I didn't know I was craving.  It's a hole-in-the-wall place and while its interior is basically a cave, it opens up to a pleasant and quiet outdoor courtyard terrace.  The dish I tried was a goat cheese and (so-fresh) vegetable risotto rolled into a thin flaky shell with jam.

Friday evening brought the highlight of the weekend: a concert by Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi, who played the last of his 2017 Europe tour at the Campo Pequeno bull ring.  It's a really neat venue with a partially open roof; here and here and here are videos of the action.  Outside of the handful of albums he's produced, you may recognize Ludovico Einaudi's music from the Intouchables movie soundtrack or the 2002 Doctor Zhivago TV miniseries.

I had most of Saturday in town as well before my flight to Brussels; there are a couple of museums I'd still like to visit in Lisbon, but I couldn't bring myself to spend time inside with such beautiful weather.  Instead, I filled my time soaking up the sun sitting at outdoor cafés with my Kindle, enjoying music by the water, and walking the streets of Alfama, the oldest district of Lisbon.

24 September 2017

Day trips à la belge

As Lille had more or less emptied out for the August summer holiday, I decided on a day-long getaway to my neighbor to the north, Belgium.  Belgian cities are cute and most are small enough to explore in one day, so busing the three-hour round trip from Lille to Ghent and back on a Sunday isn't a nuisance.

Ghent sits in the Flemish region of Belgium, in the province of East Flanders.  They speak mostly Dutch in this half of the country - English for tourists - and I was promptly told off by a server for defaulting into French at a café.

When I visited mid-August, the place was overflowing with American tourists.  The city center is very walkable (the largest car-free space in Belgium) with a few canals here and there...but for me, the most striking part of Ghent was its architecture.  Structures like the beautiful old post office, churches and cathedrals, belfry, and Flemish-style row houses pop up one after another in very close proximity.

I visited St. Bavo's Cathedral but didn't make it back during the day to see the famous Ghent Altarpiece, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, which is supposed to be one of the main artistic treasures of Belgium.  Just outside, I walked into this piano party and listened to the live music for quite awhile.

Not far from the cathedral is one of everyone's favorite spots in Ghent: the Graslei, a quay along the Leie river.  While sitting along the bank or at one of the many cafés, you can admire the architecture on either side of the river.  Though they've been modified, most buildings date back to the Middle Ages.

A few blocks from the Graslei sits the Gravensteen castle (as I said, Belgian cities are small), moat and all.  I toured the crusader-style castle built in 1180, which served as the seat of the Count of Flandres for about three hundred years before trying on a few new hats: prison, courthouse, cotton mill...  While the inside itself is quite plain, a couple of rooms have been converted to display guillotines and a plethora of shudder-inducing torture devices.  When you can't take any more of that, you can climb up the top tower for a gorgeous view of Ghent.

If you want to try beer brewed in Ghent, I recommend Stadsbrouwerij Gruut, or the Gruut Brewery.  It's a little bit off the beaten path, but has a neat ambiance and a quiet outdoor terrace for nice weather days.

Grand Place de Bruxelles
Fast-forwarding about a month to mid-September, I had a Saturday night flight into Brussels coming back from a long weekend and took the opportunity to tack on a Sunday visit to the Belgian capital.  Brussels was never a top priority for me because I had had several so-so recommendations of the city from friends; maybe it was because of my low expectations that I actually really liked Brussels.  Again, you won't find the abundance of things to do that you would in Paris or Berlin, but I do think I could go back for a solid weekend or two.

Your first stop should be the Grand Place, a UNESCO World Heritage site that you really do just have to see to believe.  It's not a very large square, which makes the surrounding buildings all the more impressive.  I had a difficult time getting decent pictures later in the day due to some sort of a cyclist festival overtake, but the morning sunshine and blue sky against the gold architectural highlights was stunning.

Brussels ended up offering something I didn't even know I was craving until I stumbled upon it:  all-day brunch.  A side street away from the Grand Place, the restaurant Peck 47 has it all - breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner.  I had a savory waffle with chorizo and goat cheese baked into the batter as well as eggs and spicy sauce on top.

Passage du Nord
They also made my all-time favorite coffee drink, which I've never before dared to order outside of the USA as it includes modifications that I'd probably be judged for in France - a "dirty hippie": chai latte with soy milk and espresso.  I carried it out shamelessly in a to-go cup and it was quite satisfying.

Caffeine in hand and feeling like I owned the world, I briefly visited the Passage du Nord, an upscale indoor shopping passageway.  There wasn't much open that early on a Sunday, but the handful of cafés inside bustled with activity and the passageway itself is beautiful.

In the afternoon, I ventured a little ways outside of the city center by metro to the park which houses the Atomium.  The landmark was created for the 1958 World's Fair and was intended to be temporary...but due to its popularity, it's undergone restorations and is now a permanent site in Brussels.  It is made up of stainless steel spheres and connecting rods that magnify an iron crystal cell by 165 billion.  Some of the spheres are made up of rooms, exhibitions, or restaurants; inside the rods are elevators, escalators, or staircases.  A ticket to enter will get you the elevator to the top sphere for a panoramic view (and the restaurant if you're hungry).  Afterwards, you'll go through the history of Atomium's construction and of the World's Fair inside other spheres.  One of the last escalators is particularly iconic with colorful flashing lights.

It's something unique to see, and the Atomium is surrounded by a massive park where you can walk, bike, or picnic before or after your visit.

Stay tuned - I'm sure there will be more Belgian adventures to come!