Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Travels with Martina Day 4 - A weekend in Lourdes

With so many places to see and things to do in Paris and just two weeks to cram everything in, you may wonder --  why even go away for a week-end then?  But I had planned a very special getaway, out of the city, on our first week-end in Paris.  We would travel nearly 700 kilometres to the pilgrimage town of Lourdes, in the south of France. 

The fast and direct train to Lourdes still takes a good five hours and it leaves from 
Gare Montparnasse, located in the 14th arrondisement.  The station, set inside a block long
concrete building  is squat and ungainly and utterly charmless.   It is right across
Tour Montparnasse, the modern and also charmless skyscraper that every Parisian loves to hate. 

Trains depart from tracks located in Hall 1, one escalator ride up from street level.
We took the 6:25 a.m. train and arrived well ahead of time.  Gare Montparnasse serves the southwestern region of France so it was not a surprise to find a good number of early birds,
all rushing for their trains.  Aside from Lourdes, trains go to Bordeaux, Brittany, Biarritz  and 
one can even travel all the way to the French-Spanish border where there are connections to
San Sebastian and even Lisbon.

The Lourdes week-end was definitely not a spur of the moment plan -- I had booked our train tickets months in advance so we were able to secure first class tickets that were even cheaper than second class fares.  

All aboard the TGV INOUI 8571!  Wide and comfortable seats with charging docks, more than
ample legroom, even wifi -- it was a long ride but a most comfortable one! Thank you SNCF!

The SNCF high speed trains run just as fast as Japan's shinkansen -- at top speeds of more than 300 kilometres per hour.   Five hours passed in a literal blur of countryside vistas and glimpses of urban stations and soon,  we arrived at Gare de Lourdes.  To get into town, take a taxi or shuttle van, there are many just waiting outside the station.

For our one night in Lourdes, we stayed at the Hotel Angelic Myriam along Rue du Calvaire.  
Located on a higher portion of the town,  it is a ten minute walk down to the Grotto
An outdoor lift  makes going to and from the hotel a whole lot easier and quicker. 

We arrived in Lourdes  at lunchtime and there was no doubt where I wanted to have my first meal ... at Asian Delices along Rue Saint Marie.  This is a Filipino restaurant that has been in Lourdes for over a decade, bringing Pinoy cuisine to this quite distant part of France.

Madame Gina Lat Rousset is the chef and proprietress.    You will be happily surprised to see that her restaurant is full of non-Pinoys enjoying  chicken pork adobo, lumpia (vegetarian version available), pancit, sinigang, bisteklechon kawali atbp Gina's warm and welcoming personality makes everyone, regardless of nationality, feel right at home in her spacious and comfortable restaurant. 

After lunch, time to head to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, a sprawling 51-hectare complex that includes the Basilicas, the baths, the Grotto and several churches and buildings.  Here are Jay and Martina in Rosary Square in front of the Rosary Basilica.

The Grotto of Massabielle is where Our Lady appeared to St Bernadette.  Compared to the grandeur of the other buildings in the Sanctuary, the Grotto is very simple and has been left  untouched as much as possible.  The only additions are a plain stone altar and pews.   
There is always a long line of pilgrims at the Grotto but despite the crowds, it  retains its air of solemnity and spirituality. 

We wanted to take the baths at Lourdes -- something that I had not been able to do in my previous visits.  The people at the information office were not very encouraging, they said that if the lines were too long,  we may not be able to get in as the sick and disabled were given priority. 
But we discovered that there was a line,  much shorter,  specifically for children and their guardians so Martina and I were able to experience the baths after a not too long wait.

After our time at the baths --  thanks to the many volunteers from all nationalities who 
made us feel welcome and comfortable -- we visited the Rosary Basilica.  We also bought
votive candles to offer in thanksgiving and for intentions of  family and friends. 

It had been a long and tiring day and the excitement, the long train ride and the intense summer heat only worsened Martina's sore throat -- she was down for the count at the end of the day.  
But we both agreed that the highlight of the trip was our amazing bath at the holy waters of Lourdes.  
Being able to do so despite the extremely long queues and the peak season crowds was a gift -- bestowed on us by Our Lady of Lourdes

Traveling with Kids Tip #4

A religious pilgrimage may not be what an 8 year old would look forward to.  But we made sure that even before we left,  Martina knew about how Our Lady appeared to this young French girl -- only fourteen years old and not much older than her.   If put in terms that they can relate to and understand,  children will gladly embrace experiences they would normally not be interested in. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Travels with Martina Day 3 - Ile de la Cite, Notre Dame and Ile Saint Louis

On our first full day in Paris, we were still jet lagged and somewhat bleary eyed from our 24 hour journey.  But still, we managed to drag ourselves out of the apartment to visit a few sites to give Martina her first real glimpse of our favourite city in the whole wide world. 

You run into such interesting finds around the neighborhood  -- Papier Tigre is a stationary shop in the Marais with such cool and distinctive items, all of them drool-worthy for stationary addicts (thank goodness I'm not one of them).   Sadly, no photos inside please  but anyone can pose beside the giant pencil outside. 

Paris' Metro system is efficient and affordable (one fixed fare to go all around the city).  The apartment was just a few hundred meters from the Filles du Calvaire station on line 8.

Jay's favourite metro station happens to be Cite which is right in front of the marche aux fleurs (also one of his must see, must go to spots).  This flower marker dates all the way back to 1830
There are open air displays and covered arcades selling potted plants, flowers, gardening supplies, small antiques and all sorts of curiosities.  

Photos at the marche are no longer allowed -- there are big NO PHOTOS signs all over the place.  Most likely due to the crowds of non-customers, all taking selfies and perhaps knocking down some merchandise in the process. 
So that you can see how charming and quaint the marche is, here is an old photo taken some winters ago, on one of our Christmas holidays in Paris.  There are a number of these covered iron pavilions, built during the early 1900s. Crowded with all kinds of vintage and irresistible knick knacks -- we could never leave here empty handed. 

The only photo I could take was of this stone statue -- is it a bench, a planter?  It was adorable and one of a kind but definitely too heavy to bring home.

Aside from the marche aux fleurs,  the Cite Metro stop takes you right out to Place Louis Lepine, named after a former prefect of the Paris Police.  The Police headquarters used to be in a building
by the Seine, very near here but they moved out two years ago.  Across the square is the Palais de Justice  and beside it is  the amazing 14th century royal chapel of St. Chappelle.  

From the Place Louis Lepine, it is just a hop and a skip to Notre Dame.  Miraculously surviving the horrific fire in April, it was amazing to see that from certain angles (and with wishful thinking)   you could actually imagine that the fire never happened. 
Here's Martina holding a mini figure of the cathedral.  Before we left, we had bought her a book that came with figures of the different landmarks of Paris -- we tried to visit as much of them as we could.

When you cross the bridge and look beyond the trees -- you will see the fire's extensive damage. 
It is a truly a miracle that the Cathedral is still standing.  The entire roof is gone. 
Seeing Notre Dame was a reaffirmation of faith ... she has stood for more than 850 years and I know she will be restored. 

We took the steps down to Quai de Montebello to walk by the Seine
In the background is the Pont au Double, a cast iron bridge dating back to the 1800s. 
It used to be a connecting bridge between two parts of the Hotel Dieu, which is located beside 
Notre Dame.  The Hotel Dieu is one of the oldest hospitals in Europe and  is still used to this day.
The bridge gets its name from the two silver coins that were levied as toll for those who crossed the bridge,  hence the name Pont Au Double
No toll is exacted these days but the bridge is closed due to the reconstruction work at the Cathedral. 

Behind the Notre Dame is the Pont de l' Archeveche, a  bridge that links Ile de la Cite with the 5th arrondissement. A few years back it was most famous for the sheer number of  "love locks" tied to its metal railings.  At some point in time,  part of the bridge's rails collapsed due to the weight of all the metal locks. 
Good-bye locks and good bye pledges of eternal love!  Now, glass panels cover the railings -- no one can attach love locks anymore.  Is romance dead in the City of Love and Romance?

At the end of the bridge, a small memorial to all the locks (and love) lost has been set up.  Note though that this portion is fenced off, to prevent any lovestruck couples from attaching any more locks. 

Paris was in the middle of the canicule or heat wave -- what better reward after traipsing under the hot sun than a pit stop at the city's best glacier ... Berthillon!  You can't miss it, it's right end of
Pont Saint Louis, the pedestrian-only bridge that connects the Ile de la Cite with
Ile Saint Louis.

Berthillon's creme glacee is sure to bring a smile to anyone's face.  They may not have 31 flavours but what they do have is some of the best ice cream in Paris

From Ile Saint Louis it is 2 kilometres more or less to the Marais and back to the apartment. 
We crossed the Pont Louis Philippe which gave us a good view of the Pont Marie, one of three bridges that connects the island to the rive droit or right bank. 
Blue skies, the Seine flowing calmly beneath ... c'est parfait!  Paris ... you never disappoint.

Traveling with Kids Tip #3

A long flight through different time zones is bound to hit anyone with jet lag.  Take it slow on the 
first full day in a new place.  While you may want to cram as many sights and sites as you can in the short time that you're on vacation, kids need to acclimatise too.  A short but productive excursion 
of a few hours followed by an early bedtime will help them recover and adapt quicker. 

Monday, August 12, 2019

Travels with Martina Day 2 - Apartment-ing in the Marais

After a 4 hour breather in Schiphol (where we stretched our legs and exercised our stomach muscles) we were soon on a plane again, this time headed for our real destination -- Paris.  

Martina surprised me -- this was her first long haul flight and what a looonnngg haul it was.  Two hours to Taipei then twelve and a half hours to Amsterdam.  While she did get a good night's sleep on KLM's comfortable lie-flat beds, she had been travelling for almost 24 hours when we finally boarded our flight to Charles de Gaulle airport.

"Where is the Eiffel Tower, lola?  I thought Paris was a city, why are there farms?"  I had to explain that the airport was somewhat out of the city and the view from her window was not yet Paris.

"Paris Vous Aime" -- Paris loves you.  Yes she really does! And we love her right back. 

We had contracted  a van  for our airport transfers.  Our apartment, home for two weeks  was strategically and conveniently located along a main street in  the upper Marais area. 

Located on the 3rd floor of one of the many old buildings you'll see all over Paris, the apartment has two large windows which let the breezes in.  Perfect for this summer when Paris was in the middle of a record shattering heat wave.  The apartment had no air conditioning --  having one would deface the facade, something that apparently the government has a say on.  Old structures are protected and owners are not allowed to add anything that will affect the building's look, they can only improve the interiors. 

And so we opened the curtains and looked out onto more residential buildings across the way --
all of them seemingly without the advantages of air-conditioning too.  

While the apartment was relatively small -- 34 square meters all in all, it did come with a complete and compact kitchen.  A four burner induction range, microwave, coffee maker, refrigerator ... there was even an automatic washer and dryer.   We would make good use of this kitchen and the laundry facilities during our 14 night stay in this apartment.

The apartment was small and the building was definitely old but the bathroom was spotless and clean -- a big plus in my book.

Sleep quality was good too - we didn't miss the air conditioning as we opened the windows wide at night -- and would have to close them during the cooler early dawn hours. 

Here's Martina standing in front our building.  Her first impression was of the ubiquitous graffiti --
" why is Paris so dirty, lola? "  But then she said in the same breath "but it's so beautiful too!"  

Traveling with Kids Tip #2

Get the child adjusted and comfortable in the new environment as soon as possible.   Whether you're staying in a hotel or a rental apartment, take her on a tour of the place, explain what to do, what not to do, how things work and just how much like home it is (or isn't).  If there's time, take a quick walk around the neighbourhood to show the child that this is a friendly and hospitable place. 

Travels with Martina Day 1 - A long day's journey into night and day again with KLM

It started off as our 40th wedding anniversary gift to ourselves.  We would commemorate the milestone by travelling to favourite places and making new memories.  What could be better than that?  Well, we could bring along our one and only grandchild -- Martina, at 8 was  at that age where she would remember the places she'd see and the things she would do.  And at 8 she would still be willing (and unembarrassed) to hang out with her grandparents.

We planned this for a number of months and everything just fell into place.  There were no hiccups with visas, affidavits, DSWD permits (necessary for children below 12 travelling without their parents) -- the Universe certainly wanted Martina to have this one big adventure.  Before we knew it, we were in the lounge at NAIA 3 waiting for our flight. 

We have always flown to Europe on one airline only -- flying blue on KLM.    But it had been quite a few years since we last flew to Europe so we were all excited to see how the newer planes were fitted out.  KLM has just one daily flight out of Manila and it leaves at 8 p.m. -- past Martina's usual bedtime but the excitement kept her up and energised.

The spacious business class seats would certainly make the long haul flight much more comfortable. 

Martina had a list of shows she wanted to see -- I was almost worried that she would be glued to the video all the way to Amsterdam!  Please note that the glass of champagne was mine.  
Just a little bubbly to celebrate the start of our big vacation!

Because the plane leaves Manila at dinner time, a light supper is served.  But don't eat too much because they'll feed you again in a few hours. 

There is an hour's brief stop in Taipei -- at past 10 pm some stores were still open, catering to those taking late night flights.  

The lie-flat beds of KLM made for a restful night.  Martina had at least 8 hours of  uninterrupted sleep.

The crew woke us up about an hour before landing.  Breakfast was served --  you can't go wrong with croissant and scrambled eggs.  

Our first glimpse of Amsterdam!  Land, ho!

Thank you KLM for a safe and pleasant ride!  

We had a few hours to wait until our flight to Paris -- Schiphol Airport was busy and bustling even 
at 7 a.m!

We cooled our heels in comfort,  with free flowing drinks and food at the Crown Lounge.  Second and third breakfasts, anyone?

As we got ready to board our plane for Paris,  I saw this timely and apt message.
Yes, hopefully we would be able to make this an inspired and truly unforgettable trip!

Traveling with Kids Tip #1

Long plane rides are a bane to families traveling with children.  Babies, toddlers, pre schoolers and even in-betweeners can be restless and irritable.  To prepare our 8 year old for the 23 hour (total traveling time) journey ahead, we made sure to inform her weeks ahead, dividing the chunks of time into understandable segments e.g. dinner, free time, bedtime, etc. She also brought along a book of puzzles, her favorite toy and of course KLM's in-flight entertainment helped pass the time.