Month: September 2016

Top 5 Things To Do In Paris

Paris at night

Paris at night

Musee du Louvre at night

Musee du Louvre at night

view of Paris from the top of Eiffel Tower

view of Paris from the top of Eiffel Tower

sidewalk bookstore

sidewalk bookstore

Louvre Palace

Louvre Palace

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Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral

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a street musician

a street musician

The Louvre, Paris

1.) See the Eiffel Tower at night

Ditching my backpack at a graffiti-covered hostel with cracked front door glass, I rush out to catch a Metro to the Eiffel Tower. To see the iconic landmark, especially at night, has to be anyone’s first order of business in the City of Lights. As I step out of the carriage, the streets are in full swing. Chicly dressed tourists saunter on the sidewalk. Brasseries are filled with men and women deep in wine and conversation. Then I see it, a wondrous vision bathed in ethereal, golden light. The Eiffel Tower soars a thousand feet into the sky, looking like a sparkling rocket of iron lacework. I pause to admire its imposing presence. How on earth did I get lucky?

It is hard to imagine that Parisians were initially against it. In 1889, on the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, Engineer Gustave Alexandre Eiffel completed this elegant, 320-meter tall signature skyscraper as a temporary exhibit for the World Fair. It was publicly denounced as useless and monstrous by a group of artists and intellectuals, and was already scheduled for demolition in 1909 until the government saw its potential as a transmitter of telegraph and converted it into a grand science laboratory for radio communications and weather research. Over the years, research and innovations conducted at the Eiffel Tower have brought dramatic payoffs, saving it from becoming a pile of scrap. During World War I, for instance, the French Army used the tower to intercept the German communications, which led to the arrest of a notorious spy. Today, the Eiffel Tower attracts around seven million visitors each year, making it the most visited paid for attraction in the world.

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The Eiffel Tower, Paris

2.) Douse yourself in art at the Louvre Museum

The grandeur of Musee du Louvre is impossible to ignore. Lining up to enter the massive glass pyramid at the center of the courtyard, I let my eyes survey the palace buildings around the museum, moving across its ornate walls and intricately carved pediments inch by inch. Set into the stone facade high above the ground are statues of angels and noted French scholars, looking like stalwart guardians of the palace, which was originally built as a fortress by King Philippe-Auguste in 1190. In the 16th century, it was reconstructed into a royal residence, and was expanded many times to become the astounding palace that it is today. When King Louis XIV moved his household to Chateau Versailles in the 17th century, the Louvre became a grand museum that exhibited the royal collection and artifacts.

My predicament is that an entire day seems insufficient for the staggering collection inside the museum. Besides masterpieces from neighboring countries like Italy, Greece and Spain, the Louvre also houses artworks from Africa and the Middle East. When Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power in the 18th century, he demanded art pieces from the countries he conquered. Acclaimed paintings, Egyptian antiques, ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, each piece silently tells a story of the bygone era’s opulence and tragedy.

With strained eyes and aching feet, I follow the signs pointing to the mysterious lady who attracts nearly 10 million visitors each year. Deep into the endless labyrinth of paintings, Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” sits behind a bulletproof glass, flanked by guards. She is lovely; her enigmatic smile fades and reappears, depending on my viewpoint. She is much smaller than everyone thinks she is, only 21 by 30 inches, but inarguably the most famous among the 35,000 artworks displayed inside the world’s largest museum. I would pay much more to see her in solitude, but with a crowd constantly battling for a good photo with her, I know it is one hopeless wish.

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Louvre Palace

Louvre Palace

ornate facade of the Louvre Palace

ornate facade of the Louvre Palace

Louvre Palace

Louvre Palace

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The Mona Lisa is protected by a bullet proof glass

The Mona Lisa is protected by a bullet proof glass

inside the Louvre

inside the Louvre

inside the Louvre

inside the Louvre

inside the Louvre

inside the Louvre

Michaelangelo's masterpiece inside the Louvre

Michaelangelo’s masterpiece inside the Louvre

yours truly :)

yours truly 🙂

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3.) Climb the bell tower of the Notre-Dame Cathedral

Without blinking an eye, I try to figure out which biblical events are depicted by the intricate carvings on the three large portals of Notre-Dame Cathedral. I only recognize two: the resurrection of Jesus and the coronation of the Virgin Mary. The angry-looking gargoyles perched atop the bell towers seem displeased at my ignorance. At the center of the façade, a large rose forms a halo around the sculpture of the Holy Mother, who carries the baby Jesus and is flanked by two angels. I join the queue at the entrance, stealing glances at the statues of Israelite kings carved right above the portals.

Soaring 223 feet into the sky, the Notre-Dame Cathedral is considered one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture, a style that originated in France during the Middle Ages and is characterized by pointed arcs, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses. The construction of the edifice began in 1163, under the reign of Louis VII, and was completed in 1345. The grand Cathedral has played host to many religious ceremonies and historical events, such as the coronation of Emperor Napoleon I in 1804, the wedding of King Henry IV to Margaret of Valois in 1572 and the canonization of Joan of Arc in 1920.

Inside, I stroll along the pews, oftentimes pausing to admire the curves and contours of the vaulted ceilings and the elaborate carvings of the Stations of the Cross. In a rainbow burst of colors, the stained glass windows above filter the sunshine through images of Jesus, the Apostles, saints and martyrs.

Puffing heavy breaths as I climb up the tower, I somehow keep a lookout for a hunchbacked man moping in a dark corner near the 300-year old bell. The Cathedral’s imposing towers became legend because of 19th century novelist Victor Hugo, who wrote the classic “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” in 1829 with the intent of saving the gothic church from neglect and demolition. Of course, there is no monstrous man at the tower, just statues of grimacing demons and chimeras staring out into the city, petrified over time. Expecting a nice bird’s eye view of the city, I am not disappointed. The tower perhaps has the best view of Paris, and I can clearly see the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Pantheon, Arc de Triomphe and Sacre-Coeur Basilica in Montmartre.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral

ornate facade of Nore Dame Cathedral

ornate facade of Nore Dame Cathedral

yours truly

yours truly

inside Notre Dame Cathedral

inside Notre Dame Cathedral

inside Notre Dame Cathedral

inside Notre Dame Cathedral

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view of the city from the bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral

view of the city from the bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral

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4.) Indulge in some royal scandal at Chateau Versailles

“King Louis XIV and his wife Marie Therese were actually first cousins,” says a tour guide in her thick French accent, eliciting gasps of shock from a group of Asians. I run my fingers on the pink marble walls of the Grand Trianon, an elegantly proportioned single-storey mansion located near the main palace of Versailles. Outside, geometrically arranged beds of orange and purple flowers nod and sway in the light breeze. “King Louis XIV housed one of his mistresses, Madame de Montespan, here at the Grand Trianon. Rumor has it that he also had an affair with his brother’s wife!” the guide continues, raising a finger across her lips.

For the French peasants in the 17th and 18th century, the Chateau Versailles was an offensive display of opulence and power. In 1661, King Louis XIV transformed his father’s hunting lodge into a grand palace and gardens, with the intent of creating a place where his court could live under his watchful eye. So costly it nearly wiped out the treasury of France, the apartments of the palace are lavished with countless paintings and sculptures, velvet draperies, carpets, gilded bronze, chandeliers and large mirrors, which were staggeringly expensive back then. The Chateau Versailles was the seat of political power in the Kingdom of France from 1682, when King Louis XIV moved the royal court from the Louvre, until 1789, when the royal family was forced to return to central Paris at the beginning of the French Revolution. Three generations of self-glorifying kings lived here: Louis XIV, XV and XVI, each spinning their own brand of scandals that fueled the public hatred, which eventually led to the decapitation of the youngest Louis and his wife Marie Antoinette in 1793.

Chateau Versailles

Chateau Versailles

large fountain at the Versailles gardens

large fountain at the Versailles gardens

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Chateau Versailles

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Chateau Versailles

Hall of Mirrors inside the Versailles Palace

Hall of Mirrors inside the Versailles Palace

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ornate walls and ceiling inside the Chateau Versailles

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chapel inside the Versailles Palace

chapel inside the Versailles Palace

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royal portraits

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royal portraits

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royal portraits

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royal portraits

royal portraits

royal portraits

the Grand Trianon

the Grand Trianon

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Grand Trianon

Grand Trianon

inside the Grand Trianon

inside the Grand Trianon

inside the Grand Trianon

inside the Grand Trianon

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Versailles gardens

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outside the Versailles Palace

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5.) Retrace the steps of Hemingway and Picasso in Montmarte

Deftly moving the bow across the strings, a grizzly old violinist in a dirty beret serenades strollers on a crowded street in Montmartre. Tourists munching on overpriced crepes line the staircase that reaches up to the sparkling white Basilica of Sacre Couer, whose domes curve like women’s breasts pointing to the sky. I make my way up the hill to find Place du Tertre, a small square frequented by Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway during the decadent years of Post WWI Paris.

Montmartre is a large hill on the outskirts of Paris known for the white-domed basilica on its summit and as a nightclub district. At the beginning of the twentieth century, flocks of artists including Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Pablo Picasso had studios here because of the low rent and the congenial atmosphere. The neighborhood also fueled the creative fires of expatriate writers such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway, who was so enamored with Paris he wrote a few books about it.

Today, artists are banished to outdoor sheds because of skyrocketing rent. Art studios have been replaced with gaudy nightclubs, souvenir stores and sex shops that sell unimaginable things. Past a street of pimps who discreetly invite passersby for a “boom boom”, I find the legendary Moulin Rouge, a cabaret known for its extravagant circus-like shows and overflowing champagne. Here, courtesans in exotic feathered costumes popularized the can-can dance, a high-energy dance that involves high kicks, jump splits and cartwheels. The Moulin Rouge eventually became a symbol of Paris’ exciting nightlife during its most glorious years, when arts and festivities combined and life was all about beauty and pleasure.

Moulin Rouge

Moulin Rouge

Sacre Couer Basilica

Sacre Couer Basilica

Sacre Couer Basilica

Sacre Couer Basilica

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OTHER PLACES TO SEE IN PARIS:

St. Chapelle

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amazing stained glass windows inside St. Chapelle

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amazing stained glass windows inside St. Chapelle

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amazing stained glass windows inside St. Chapelle

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amazing stained glass windows inside St. Chapelle

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amazing stained glass windows inside St. Chapelle

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amazing stained glass windows inside St. Chapelle

St Chapelle's gate

St Chapelle’s gate

Arc De Triomphe

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Musee d’Orsay

Musee D'Orsay

Musee D’Orsay

outside Musee D'Orsay

outside Musee D’Orsay

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a Van Gogh painting

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a Van Gogh painting

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a Van Gogh painting

 

a Claude Monet painting

a Claude Monet painting

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Claude Monet’s

Claude Monet's painting

Claude Monet’s painting

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Roadtrip to Sahara

Sahara Desert

Sahara Desert

at the Sahara Desert

at the Sahara Desert

Ait Benhaddou (aka Yunkai in Game of Thrones)

Ait Benhaddou (aka Yunkai in Game of Thrones)

hilltop villages

hilltop villages

Glamping in Sahara Desert

Glamping in Sahara Desert

Innumerable stars scatter across the heavens like diamond dust on a blanket of total blackness. Some are dull, merely flickering into existence, but many are brilliant enough to illuminate the dark, moonless night. Occasionally across the quiet panorama, a meteor plummets; usually faint, glimpsed only from the eye’s periphery, gone before it registers in my brain. Suddenly, from the campfire in the middle of the desert echoes the deep and melodious plucking of the ginbri and the clashing of the qarqaba, blending with the soulful voices of our Africans guides. For a moment I am whisked away from reality by a magic carpet, which takes me on a whirlwind ride over the gigantic dunes of the Sahara Desert.

The Sahara, which is Arabic for “the greatest desert”, is indeed the world’s largest hot desert, covering 9 million square kilometers, or about 31% of Africa. It covers huge parts of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Sudan and Tunisia. The desert is one of the driest and hottest spots in the world, with temperature soaring as high as 58 degrees Celsius. Practically uninhabitable, although there is a small group of livestock-raising nomads called the Tuareg who lives on its outer edges.

Day 1

As the sweltering madness of Marrakech begins to wear me out, I hop into a van with ten other backpackers from different continents and set off for the Sahara. Tapping our fingers to the African beats on the radio, we drive through dusty roads that snake from imperial Marrakech to rusty red hillside villages that camouflage the mountains. The scenery mutates at every bend; one moment cliffs, the next vast landscape peppered with bald acacia trees and date palms. Quintessential Africa. Some twelve kilometers from Marrakech we reach the beginning of the Atlas Mountain chain, where we drive past biblical-looking Berbers pulling on the lead of their donkeys and tending to their sheep. Some are perched on the roadside, surrounded by shelves of tagines and brightly colored plates for sale. The Berbers, I find out, are the indigenous North Africans who were forced to move to the Atlas Mountains during the Arab invasion in the 7th century. Occasionally we pull over at roadside cliffs a thousand meters above the ground to stretch our legs and to oooh and aaah at the breathtaking sceneries.

Berber villages

Berber villages

scenic roadside view

scenic roadside view

scenic roadside view

scenic roadside view

roadside view

roadside view

roadside view

roadside view

roadside view

roadside view

Berber villages

Berber villages

Berber villages

Berber villages

The sun is hammering its fiery red fists on our head when we arrive in Ouarzazate, where we find a crumbling walled village that wouldn’t look out of place in Game of Thrones. And I am right, our guide Youssef confirms that the ancient village of Ait-Benhaddou, which layers its way up a hillside, indeed backdropped the popular TV show and a string of movies including Gladiator, Indiana Jones and The Mummy. Sweat is pouring from my head down into my eyes as I climb up the streets to the granary on the hilltop, but the view of the palmeraie, the stony desert that stretches out to infinity and the russet mud house village below is a breathtaking novelty (at least for me). Recognized as a UNESCO Heritage site and a striking example of Southern Moroccan architecture, Ait-Benhaddou is massive fortification which has six kasbahs (citadels)and around fifty ksours (mud houses), all built using local organic materials and covered with thick red mud plaster. It is believed that the village was founded in 757 AD when merchants from Sudan and the imperial cities of Morocco used the site as a trading post. The locals took advantage of the bustle along the trade route and earned a living by offering food and shelter to travelling merchants. The presence of valuable goods such as gold and spices attracted bandits, so high defensive walls were also built around the village. Today, only six families remain in Ait-Benhaddou as most of its inhabitants have moved to the modern town across the river.

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

the granary at Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

new village outside Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

new village outside Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Youssef then takes us to a house where his friend Ahmed delightfully receives us with sweet Moroccan mint tea, poured high above our cups in a streaming waterfall. “We call this the Berber whiskey,” he says with an ear-to-ear smile. I suddenly remember those aggressive merchants in Marrakesh, who try to hook their prospective customers with tea and sweet talk. Is Ahmed going to sell us rugs? Caftans? Or maybe there is no motive at all, just genuine hospitality. After a cheerful banter with the group, Ahmed asks his daughter to show us how to spin combed wool into yarn, which they use to weave carpets. I knew it! Halfway through our tea, brightly colored carpets made of camel and sheep wools come flying onto the floor. Ahmed spreads carpet after carpet for our perusal. “No obligation to buy. Just take a look,” he says. To be fair, the carpets have a topnotch quality- thick fibers, closely knitted and intricate designs. “Sometimes it takes almost a year to finish one,” he continues. There are two problems though: First, we’re all stringent “carry-on only” backpackers and second, the carpets are too expensive. I’d certainly feel terrible haggling for a gorgeous carpet, which took his poor daughter eight months to finish. So we politely decline, walk away before any on us succumb to his insistence and disappear into a roadside hostel to spend the night.

having tea with a Berber family

having tea with a Berber family

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a Moroccan hostel

a Moroccan hostel

a Moroccan hostel

a Moroccan hostel

Day 2

Early morning the following day, we are zig-zagging on the road and zooming past red adobe towns strewn with goats, sheep and donkeys. Vast farmlands dotted with pomegranate trees and olive groves roll up into red and mauve barren hills. Despite the wind whipping up clouds of dust that gets into my eyes, I do not dare blink and miss a roadside scenery. Soon, massive orange limestone cliffs push out of the ground toward the sky, engulfing us in every direction. Gravity-defying boulders stack up threateningly on the hillside, looking like they’ll crumble on us anytime. Arriving at Todra Gorge has me gawking in awe, with half my body out the window to make sure I absorb the details of this grand visual symphony. At the foot of the towering rock walls is the Todra River, which has now dried up a little and is crowded with partially submerged children trying to escape the blistering summer heat. It is said that the river and the harsh weather conditions have sculpted the rock walls into the landscape over time. Walking along the gorge, I see a man in a fedora bursting out of a crevice on a horse (cue in the Indiana Jones music). Some locals here actually offer horseback riding activities to reenact the adventures of Indiana Jones.

Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge

After soaking up on the glorious scenery, we drive a few more hours along a rugged terrain, which eventually smoothens out into fine sand. Then we see it! Wavering above the scorching desert horizon, as if yearning for rain, are the golden-orange peaks of the gigantic dunes, flawless and velvety against the brilliant blue sky. Finally, we have arrived at the legendary Sahara Desert! The Sahara Desert represents those exotic places that I only heard of from my father’s car stereo or read about in encyclopedias when I was a child, so actually seeing it is beyond surreal.

It is too hot to do anything other than sit in the shade and stare into the distance as we wait for the camels to take us to our camp. The wind sculpts Zen waves in the dunes, erasing bird and human footprints. We excitedly swath our heads with thick and colorful tagelmust (turbans), which the Tuaregs use to protect themselves from the blasts of biting sand during the day and for warmth when the temperature plunges at night. Soon, our Bedouin guides beckon us to hop on the camels, whose legs splay out in the sand like cars with flat tires. Our camel procession starts barely an hour before dusk when the sun, round and full like a giant yolk about to be pricked, casts a gorgeous pattern of dark shadows and golden highlights on the sand. Up and down the towering dunes we go, gripping on to the handlebars for our lives while trying to comprehend the size of the magnificent desert, which rolls out as far as the eyes can see.

Sahara Desert

Sahara Desert

Sahara Desert

Sahara Desert

The deep blue sky fades into soft mauve when we arrive at the campsite. Expecting only shabby tents to shelter us for the night, we are surprised to find large tents draped in lush fabrics and fully decked out with king-size beds, mattresses, Berber carpets, toilets and bathrooms. Shortly, we are served with chobbes (round Moroccan bread) and a piping hot buffet of couscous, vegetable salad and beef tagine. Chatter ceases and a gratified silence descends as we eat hungrily to the last morsel. Hardly do we know that the day is far from over. The Sahara may be breathtaking by day but by night, it is out of this world. A phenomenal blanket of stars bedecks the heavens and the Milky Way sweeps its arc across the center. Soon, our guides, who coax us to sing and clap with them, serenade us with their anthems. We gather around a bonfire and let the hypnotic beats of African music chase the silence away.

Glamping in Sahara desert

Glamping in Sahara desert

Glamping in Sahara desert

Glamping in Sahara desert

vegetable couscous for dinner

vegetable couscous for dinner

Getting There:

For arranged tours to Sahara Desert, please visit www.discovermorocco-tours.com.

 

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