Travel hands-free and safe

LogoEuropean cities are well known for pickpockets. They aren’t a new phenomenon. Charles Dickens wrote about them in Oliver Twist in the mid 1800s. Every year, thousands of tourists are victims of pickpockets. In the mind of a pickpocket, tourist equals money.

So, how did we protect ourselves on our recent trip to Europe? Richard has always carried his wallet in his front pocket which is one of the recommended strategies. This was a habit that his dad picked up while serving in Europe in WWII and taught his boys.

Before our trip, I decided to purchase a lightweight crossbody bag to allow for hands-free travel. That’s when I came across Pacsafe Anti-Theft Technology and purchased the Daysafe Anti-Theft Crossbody Bag. It isn’t glamorous, but it served its purpose very well.

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Though it comes in several other colours, I chose basic black because it looks good with everything.

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The main body of the Daysafe bag has pockets and dividers for easy organization. A secure zip clip essentially locks this compartment making it virtually impossible for a pickpocket to open it surreptitiously. There are outer pockets on both sides of the bag. One is open; easy to reach into but less secure than the rest of the purse. I used it for maps and brochures that I wanted easy access to while we were out and about. The other has a zipper that can be secured by slipping the zipper pull under and through a tab. That one was perfect for our travel documents when I needed to be able to access them at airports and train stations. In addition, there’s an elasticized pocket on one end of the bag for a water bottle, an essential travel companion. Though I didn’t worry about securing the zippers all the time, I made sure that they were safely fastened whenever we were in crowded situations whether on buses and subways or in busy tourist spots.

In addition, Pacsafe bags have a number of other safety features. Some pickpockets don’t bother trying to get into your bag. Instead, they’ll just slash it open. Pacsafe bags are made of a slashproof fabric that contains stainless steel mesh. Straps are also slashproof. In addition, the strap on the Daysafe bag has a turn and lock security hook that allows you to secure the bag to an immovable object such as your chair while sitting in a restaurant or your seat on a train.

High tech thieves don’t actually have to pick your pockets or steal your handbags anymore. With the right technology they can access credit card information wirelessly through radio frequency identification, or RFID. The research that I did seems to indicate that the likelihood of this actually happening is extremely slim, but like many crimes, it’s virtually impossible to track and a range of RFID blocking products such as credit card sleeves and travel bags are available on the market. The Daysafe bag includes a RFID safe inner pocket large enough to hold passports and credit cards.

Amazingly, all this extra security doesn’t add up to a lot of weight. In fact, the Daysafe bag weighs only about 11 ounces (320 grams). It’s slim shape rests comfortably against the body and yet I found it big enough to hold everything I needed including my camera.

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Considering the fact that all I was originally shopping for was a lightweight crossbody bag that would allow for hands-free traveling, I got much more than I was looking for and I definitely look forward to using it again on future trips.

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Sometimes a girl need her hands free. If you want to know why, check out this post.

Packing review… how did I do?

LogoWe’re home and Fashion Friday is back!

This was our very first carry-on only trip and I’ve decided that it’s definitely the way we’ll travel in the future. It was so easy! There were no baggage fees and no waiting around at airport luggage carousels wondering if our suitcases had made it onto the right plane. I had no trouble lifting my teeny tiny suitcase and stowing it in overhead bins on airplanes or racks on trains. It wheeled along easily, even on somewhat rough surfaces, and I could easily carry it up several flights of stairs in the guest houses that didn’t have elevators. Yes, it was easy!

But what about the contents of that little carry-on suitcase? Did I pack the right things? Enough of everything? First, let’s review what I took with me:

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  • 1 pair jeans
  • 2 pairs lightweight long pants
  • 1 pair capris
  • 1 pair leggings
  • 2 camisoles
  • 6 tops – 1 long sleeved, 3 with 3/4 length sleeves, 2 short sleeved
  • 1 little black dress
  • 1 dressy black jacket
  • 1 ultra light down vest
  • 1 scarf
  • 1 lightweight hoodie
  • 1 windbreaker jacket
  • 1 hat
  • 3 pairs of shoes
  • 1 swimsuit
  • sleepwear (2 sleep shorts, 1 short lightweight dressing gown)
  • socks, underwear, bras

All in all, I feel like I did a pretty good job of choosing what to put in the little suitcase. A bit of tweaking will make next time even better.

Good footwear is absolutely essential on a trip like the one we just took. The rose gold sneakers weren’t actually in the suitcase. Most of the time, they were on my feet and they were an excellent choice for this trip! We’re estimating that we walked somewhere in the neighbourhood of 200 km over the past three and a half weeks, many of them on rough cobblestone streets, and we climbed innumerable stairs. The sneakers stood up well and were amazingly comfortable.

Everywhere we went in Europe, locals and tourists alike dressed quite casually. I only wore the leggings, dress, dressy jacket, and black flat shoes once for an evening of fado (traditional Portuguese music) in a little pub in Lisbon, but I wouldn’t have needed to. I didn’t feel overdressed, but anything else in my suitcase would have done just as well. Depending on the nature of a future trip, I might leave those things at home and replace them with an additional pair of pants since pants are more difficult to wash in a sink than smaller items are.

Six tops was plenty. I could have managed with four or five, but it was nice to have a bit more variety. Surprisingly, I didn’t find that I got bored with the clothes I had with me. Perhaps I was just too busy enjoying the trip! The vest, hoodie, and windbreaker were a great combination that gave me layering options that worked well in a variety of weather conditions. There was also a tiny folding umbrella tucked into the suitcase that came in handy on a few occasions.

The swimsuit didn’t get used, but I anticipated that. I always carry one just in case though. Two pairs of sleep shorts was enough as they rinse out easily and dry in no time. Two bras was also enough. We each packed six pairs of socks and underwear for 24 days, but it felt like I was washing them continually, so I’d take a few more of those next time.

Let me finish with a couple of packing tips that I’ve learned:

  • If you use facecloths, take at least one with you. I learned to do this when we lived in Asia, but apparently Europe is no different. We stayed in seven different guest houses and hotels on this trip and not one of them provided a facecloth. Take a little ziploc bag with you to pack the cloth in if it isn’t completely dry when you pack up so that it doesn’t dampen anything else in your bag.
  • Take a flat rubber universal sink stopper with you. I didn’t think of this, but it’s on my shopping list and I won’t leave home without one again. Most of our sinks had plugs, but a couple of them didn’t which made doing laundry in the sink virtually impossible.

If you have any packing questions, leave them in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to answer them. The next two Fridays I plan to highlight a couple of excellent items that I purchased specifically for this trip.

 

 

Amsterdam by bus, boat, and on foot

Just like the other European cities that we’ve visited, Amsterdam has major museums and galleries, but for our last two days before heading home, we were looking for something more laid back. We spent most of the day yesterday touring the city via Hop On, Hop Off bus and boat. We didn’t hop off a lot. We just took in the sights and got a feel for the city.

Amsterdam is sometimes called “Venice of the North” and actually surpasses Venice for number of canals. In fact, it’s the most watery city in the world with over 100 kilometres of canals and more than 1500 bridges.

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The tall elegant canal houses with their many different gable styles are so picturesque.

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Did you notice the beams extending out from some of the gables? Because the houses are so tall and skinny, staircases are steep and narrow. Moving furniture up and down them is often impossible, so the beams have hooks on them and winches are used to lift heavy or bulky objects to the upper storeys. There are very few private canal homes anymore. Most either contain offices or have been divided up into apartments.

Houseboats also line the sides of many of the canals. Some were clearly built as floating homes while others are old canal boats that have been converted for the purpose.

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Watching canal bridges open to let larger boats through was interesting.

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After yesterday’s tour of the city we enjoyed supper at the very popular Pancake Bakery in what was once a 17th century warehouse owned by the Dutch East India Company. The restaurant is just 300 metres from the Anne Frank House where young Anne, her family, and four other Jewish people were hidden in a secret annex for 25 months before being discovered by the Gestapo on August 4, 1944. Only Otto Frank, Anne’s father, survived the war. Photography is not allowed inside the house, but I would urge anyone who visits Amsterdam to see it for themselves. It’s a sobering, but very worthwhile experience. Just be sure to book your tickets and time slot well in advance.

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In her diary, Anne wrote about hearing the bells of Westerkerk, this nearby church, from the hiding place.

Before arriving in Amsterdam, we learned that there would be a nation wide public transit strike today. Buses, trams, and trains would not be running. As our hotel is some distance from the central part of the city, that presented a challenge. We didn’t want to spend our last day in Europe holed up in our hotel and we knew that taxis are expensive and that waits would be long, so we walked. And walked. And walked! According to Google Maps, we walked approximately 10 km! Fortunately, Amsterdam is flat!

Our main goal was to get to Museum Ons’Lieve Heer Op Solder, also known as Our Lord in the Attic. Built in 1630, it looks like any other canal house from the outside, but inside it contains a hidden secret, a church in the attic! Roman Catholicism and other non Protestant faiths were banned in Amsterdam during the 17th century, so people turned to small house churches hidden from the public eye. The authorities knew that they existed, but looked away. Well-to-do merchant, Jan Hartman, came to Amsterdam from Germany in 1661 and bought not only the canal house on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal, but also the two houses behind it. He had the top floors of the three buildings connected and they became the spectacular attic church. The museum, complete with 17th century furnishings throughout the houses, provides an interesting and thought provoking glimpse into history.

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We saw some other interesting things on our long walk today. This statue is located just across the road from our hotel. The inscription, “de verdwenen boer” means the missing farmer. As Amsterdam grew during the last century, the city annexed surrounding villages. Families who had been farming here for generations were bought out or had their land expropriated and were forced to move. Children and grandchildren of these displaced farmers had the statue erected as a tribute to them.

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Windmills are almost synonymous with the Netherlands and there are still a few of them in the city. We saw one while on the bus tour yesterday, but I was able to get better photos of this one when we passed by this morning.

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While we enjoyed Amsterdam by bus, boat, and on foot, we didn’t try the most common form of transportation; bicycle. Everyone here seems to ride a bike. In fact, there are more bikes than people in Amsterdam and far more bikes than cars! There are fabulous bike lanes everywhere and there are even traffic lights for bicycles!

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Backroads of Belgium

At nine o’clock on Saturday morning the taxi dropped us off at the Avis car rental office in Bruges, Belgium where we picked up our wheels for the day, a brand new SEAT Ibiza with only 61 km on it!

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Sticking to smaller highways and backroads, we set off across country to the small community of Verrebroek, not far from Antwerp. It was from Verrebroek that Richard’s great grandfather, Joseph Leopold DeBock, emigrated to America as a young man. Here’s the very first thing we saw when we pulled into town!

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A bit of online research prior to our trip had taught me that there were large De Bock businesses in the area, but unfortunately they’re closed on Saturdays or we would have dropped in to say hello. Interestingly, the North American branches of the family that descended from Joseph Leopold spell DeBock without a space between the e and B while in Belgium it’s spelled with a space. We assume that, as often happened in the past, immigration officials probably made an error in recording Joseph’s surname when he arrived in the country.

We visited the Verrebroek cemetery and found a number of De Bock graves. Clearly, there must be an older cemetery somewhere in the area, but everyone we talked to directed us to the one we visited. One of the oldest graves there belonged to Leopold De Bock who was born in 1883 and died in 1960, no doubt a relative.

After eating lunch in a little sandwich shop in town, we set off again retracing our path partway back to Bruges and then turning toward the ocean and following the coastline. Just past Zeebrugge, we stopped to spend some time strolling on the wide expanse of sandy beach that seemed to go on forever. This misplaced coastal girl needs a bit of sea air once in awhile!

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Everywhere we went in Belgium, we saw bright red poppies blowing in the breeze. I took this picture beside the road where we parked when we visited the beach. As I walked the sandy beach trail, I recited bits of John McCrae’s famous poem, In Flanders Fields. Little did I know that within a couple of hours, I’d be standing by his grave!

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Just past Oostende we turned inland again and headed toward Ypres. Belgium is a beautiful country; a lush coastal plain where we saw sheep, goats, and dairy cattle and small fields in every stage of growth from recently seeded to approaching harvest. The easiest crop for us to recognize was the bright yellow canola in bloom. Belgium hasn’t always been so pastoral though. Our main purpose for visiting Ypres was to see the World War I cemetery there, a sober reminder that the beautiful countryside has been torn by war on more than one occasion. We weren’t sure how to find the cemetery, but suddenly before we reached the town, there it was.

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It would take hours to read every headstone and many of them are weathered to the point where it’s difficult to make out the names, but of the ones I read, there were some that stood out to me.

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“A Soldier of the Great War”

Like the other unidentified soldiers in the cemetery, the inscription at the bottom of the headstone says “Known Unto God”. All that is known for sure is that this young man was a member of the 72nd Canadian Infantry Battalion. Whose son was he? Whose brother? Which family was left wondering what had become of their loved one? Where his body lay?

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These three newer headstones stand separately at one side of the cemetery and don’t actually mark graves. They have names on them, but the one on the left says “Known to be buried in this cemetery” across the top and the other two say “Believed to be buried in this cemetery”.

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This one says “Ein Unbekannter Deutscher Krieger” (an unknown German warrior). He was the enemy, but he was also someone’s son, someone’s brother. In death they’re all the same.

Visiting the cemetery and seeing the graves of so many young men was sobering, but realizing that a kilometre or so down the road, there was another one with more than 1200 more graves in it was overwhelming. This was the Essex Farm cemetery and it was in this vicinity that Doctor John McCrae penned his famous poem while working at the medical station that had been set up there. It was also here that I found his grave.

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Just over the rise behind the Essex Farm cemetery is this beautiful scene, but notice the white sign on the nearest tree.

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Here’s what it says:

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When we left the second cemetery, we turned back toward Bruges. We returned the car 11 hours and 327.5 km after picking it up. With the help of a paper map and the vehicle’s navigation system which didn’t speak any English, we’d covered a significant portion of Belgium and managed not to get lost!

More of beautiful Bruges

When we set out to explore Bruges after arriving yesterday afternoon, we had the Market Square (Markt) in mind as our goal, but like most of the European cities that we’ve visited, it isn’t laid out on a grid, and even with a tourist map in hand, we got completely turned around! That didn’t matter at all because every time you turn a corner in Bruges, there’s something beautiful to see. We simply wandered the narrow cobblestoned streets with names like Katelijnestaat, Zuidzandstraat, and Zoonekemeers and eventually ended up back at our hotel.

Today, we finally figured out the map and spent several hours strolling at a very leisurely pace. This time we had no problem finding Market Square which is dominated by the 13th century Belfry of Bruges tower. We have no doubt that the view from the top would be astounding, but we decided to forgo the 366 steps it would take to get there and limit our views to ground level.

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Its many canals add to the beauty and charm of Bruges and we walked along many of them today.

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This bend in the canal is known as the Quay of the Rosary (Rozenhoedkaai) and is apparently the most photographed spot in Bruges. Though I can’t deny that it’s lovely with the belfry tower in the background, I think some of the other scenes I’ve photographed rival it for beauty.

As one who loves reflections on water, this spot was one of my absolute favourites.

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A visit to Bruges would be incomplete without taking one of the half hour boat tours of the canals. In addition to seeing this magnificent city from a different angle, the captain’s commentary was informative and interesting.

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The weather has been absolutely lovely since we arrived here and we’ve had little desire to spend time indoors. I did want to spend a little while in the Church of Our Lady though to see Michelangelo’s magnificent marble carving, Madonna With Child. Created in about 1503, it was the only one of his works that left Italy during the artist’s lifetime when it was brought to Bruges by a wealthy merchant. It was stolen for the first time by the French occupiers in 1794, but later returned after the defeat of Napoleon. It was removed a second time by the Germans toward the end of World War II, but once again it found its way home to Bruges where it is highly treasured.

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Bruges is known for chocolate, beer (there are two local breweries), lace, and the swans that have graced the canals since the 15th century.

If it’s Thursday, this must be Belgium!

If you’re of my generation, you probably remember the 1969 comedy, If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, about the humorous adventures of a group of American tourists taking an eighteen-day guided bus tour of nine European countries. Thankfully, our trip hasn’t been quite that frenetic, but today we took the train from Paris to Bruges, Belgium and had only twelve minutes to change trains in Brussels!

I’d been told how beautiful Bruges is and had seen lots of pictures, but nothing really prepared me for what I saw as we set out to explore. I felt as if I’d been dropped into a fairy tale! What an amazing place!

Come take a walk with me.

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I can hardly wait to go out again tomorrow, but first I’d better get some sleep!

 

Final day in Paris

After two very intensive days visiting the Louvre and the Palace of Versailles, we wanted our final day in Paris to be more laid back and relaxed; a day of exploring a couple of interesting parts of the city and soaking up the ambiance. We had the pleasure of doing some of that with one of my former students who’s been living in Paris for the past five years!

We met Crystal midmorning to tour Montmartre, one of her favourite areas of the city. In the 1870s, Montmartre became a centre of bohemian life inhabited by impoverished artists and poets and visited by Parisians who came for its cabarets, cafes, and dance halls. Today it is officially designated as a historic district with limited development allowed in order to maintain its historic character.

Crystal told us the stories behind a number of the district’s best known establishments like the cabaret, Moulin Rouge, and the little pink restaurant, La Maison Rose, that has been immortalized by many painters over the years.

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She told us Marcel Aymé’s tale about the man who could walk through walls. You can read an English translation here.

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We climbed the steep, narrow cobblestoned streets up the hill that is Montmartre to the beautiful Sacré-Cœur Basilica at the top. Visible from almost anywhere in Paris, it is one of the city’s most famous landmarks.

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Though there was a service going on inside, tourists were allowed to enter and walk around inside as long as we remained silent and didn’t disturb the worshippers!

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After leaving the church, we enjoyed a lovely lunch at a sidewalk cafe in nearby Place du Tertre, a large open market area where artists worked on portraits, caricatures, and paintings of Paris’ most famous landmarks.

On our way back down the hill, we enjoyed beautiful views of the city like this one from below the Bascilica.

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After saying good-bye to Crystal, we took the metro to the Latin Quarter, centre of university life and home to many bookshops and cafes. There we walked to the Luxembourg Gardens where we spent awhile simply sitting in the sunshine. The Luxembourg Palace overlooking the gardens was built between 1615 and 1645 as a royal residence for the mother of King Louis XIII. Today, it houses the French Senate.

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Before returning to our hotel to begin preparing for today’s departure, we stopped briefly at the Pantheon, the final resting place of some of France’s “great men” including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Victor Hugo.

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Burning the candle at both ends

Yesterday morning we got up at 6:30 AM to make our way by train to Versailles in time for our prebooked 10:00 AM entrance time. The Palace of Versailles was the principal royal residence of France from 1682, under Louis XIV, until the start of the French Revolution in 1789, under Louis XVI. The incredible opulence of the place, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is quite overwhelming! Is it any wonder that the populace rebelled when their royal family were living in such luxury while they struggled to get by?

At this time of year, visiting Versailles on a Tuesday has its pros and cons. It’s definitely one of the busiest days of the week due to the fact that the Musical Fountain Show in the palace garden takes place only on Tuesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. That’s one of the reasons that we chose to go yesterday.

Before we even entered the Palace, we were blown away by the grandiose exterior.

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Inside was no different. After spending some time in the first section which focused on the history of the palace, we moved on to the royal apartments. Many of these rooms are now a gallery of portraits and paintings, but we also caught glimpses of how the royal residents lived. We could only peer through the doorway of the two storey royal chapel, but imagine having this in your house!

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Of course, as king and queen, your bedrooms would also be extremely lavish.

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By far the most amazing room is the incredibly ostentatious Hall of Mirrors, clearly a place meant to impress visitors to the royal residence.

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After making our way through the extemely crowded halls of the palace, it was lovely to exit into the gardens, but again, we were amazed by the extravagance. Imagine that this was your backyard and that it extended well beyond what you can see here.

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In addition to the palace and the gardens, we also visited the Queen’s Hamlet, a quaint and rustic little village retreat commissioned by Queen Marie Antoinette as a place for her to get away from life at the palace. Apparently she would stroll around her perfect little world in simple peasant garb accompanied by her children totally out of touch with how the rest of the world lived.

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Nearby there’s also the Grand Trianon, a pink marble palace built as a retreat for King Louis XIV and his mistress.

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After spending most of the day at Versailles, we returned to our hotel and rested awhile before taking an after dark boat cruise on the Seine to see the city lights. Most remarkable was the Eiffel Tower. It sparkles for five minutes on the hour every hour so that was happening as our boat pulled away from the dock at 10:00 PM and again as our cruise ended an hour later. Definitely magical! Even when it’s not sparkling though, it’s something to behold all lit up at night.

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A day at the Louvre

We thought the Uffizi Gallery in Florence was big, but then we visited the Louvre in Paris! In addition to paintings and sculptures, the Louvre also displays historical objects and archeological finds. It contains more than 380 000 objects and 35 000 works of art. Assuming that I’ve done my math correctly, if a person spent one minute looking at each item on display, it would take 24 hours a day for more than nine months to see everything! We were there for five hours. Clearly it was necessary to plan ahead and choose the things we most wanted to see.

Of course, we had to see the Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in the world, but so did everyone else in the Louvre that day! We literally had to fight our way through the crowd of selfie takers to get a glimpse. It was impossible to get a good photo, but you probably already know what it looks like. Like many others, I really wonder what all the fuss is about. There were certainly paintings that I liked better.

Of all the paintings that we saw, the one that impressed me the most didn’t appear on any of the “must see” in the Louvre lists that I saw.

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At first glance, I saw an old man snoozing while a rooster crowed in the background, but then I read the description. I was looking at The Penitent Saint Peter, or The Tears of Saint Peter, painted in the 1620s by Flemish artist, Gerard Seghers, and based on the scriptural account of Peter denying Christ three times before the rooster crowed. I like the simplicity of it, but also the detail. Look at the way Seghers captured the softness of an old man’s hair. And then there are those hands!

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The Venus de Milo is considered one of history’s most significant sculptures. Again, I’m not really sure why.

My favourite sculpture was the highly acclaimed Winged Victory of Samothrace which was created in ancient Greece in about the second century BC. The flowing drapery conveys a sense of motion as the goddess, Nike, descends onto the prow of a ship in honour of a sea battle won.

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I also liked the Sleeping Faun carved by Edme Bouchardon in the 1700s.

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This is just a tiny sampling of what we saw in the Louvre on Monday, but it must also be said that the building itself, a former royal palace, is a work of art.

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My neck is getting stiff from craning to see all the amazing ceilings in the various churches, galleries, and museums we’ve been visiting!

After ensuring that we’d seen everything on my “must see” list, we strolled the length of the Avenue de l’Opera from the Louvre to the Palais Garnier stopping along the way to sip a glass of wine at a sidewalk cafe.

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Oh yes, we are definitely enjoying Paris!

Second day in Paris

Located on the Île de la Cité, just a stone’s throw from Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, the Conciergerie served as a royal residence in medieval times and later a prison. That’s where we started our day yesterday.

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I was enthralled by the vast Salle des Gens d”Armes (Hall of the Soldiers). Constructed in 1302, it’s a great example of Gothic architecture.

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During the French Revolution of the late 1700s and the Reign of Terror that followed, part of the old royal palace held prisoners including Marie Antoinette whose prison cell was later converted into a small chapel in her memory.

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This painting shows the queen ascending the steps from the Conciergerie to the courtyard where she would be transferred to an open cart pulled by horses that would take her to the guillotine located in the Place de la Revolution, now Place de la Concorde.

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Looking serene today, this was the women’s courtyard. Surrounded by two floors of cramped cells, it was used by the female prisoners to take daytime walks.

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Our visit included Sainte Chapelle, the church built within the palace walls. I thought by now we might be getting tired of churches, but not so. I continue to be amazed by each one that we step into.

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Absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the sight that greeted me when I reached to top of the narrow winding staircase to the upper chapel.

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If you read my post about our afternoon in Milan, you’ll know that I love stained glass windows. Never in my life could I ever have imagined something like this though! Photos simply can’t capture the magnitude of what surrounded us.

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Later in the day, after eating crepes from a street vendor and treats at a nearby bakery then taking an elevator to the observation deck of the 56 storey Montparnasse Tower for panoramic views of the city, we made our way to Place de la Concorde.

 

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It was here that the guillotine stood; here that Marie Antoinette, King Louis XVI, and many others lost their heads. From there, we strolled 2.3 km up the Champs Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe enjoying the Sunday afternoon crowds.

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