11 April 2009

Quatre villes charmantes

It is now officially April (and, in fact has been for some time – I’ve been a bit behind on my blogging) and Paris is full of signs of spring: brilliantly green leaves have popped up as if overnight on the trees lining the city’s Haussmannian boulevards, Parisians are flocking to green spaces to pass lazy afternoons on the grass (I should know; I spend a lovely afternoon among the groups of young people lounging about the Place des Vosges) and night doesn’t fall until well after 8 p.m. This lovely transition from the chill and dampness of winter makes it even more difficult to concentrate on the massive amount of work that keeps piling up. It’s equally hard to image ever leaving this beautifully blossoming city, although I will be doing so all too soon (My flight delivers me back to the other side of the Atlantic on May 30).

I believe this all explains why I haven’t recorded my thoughts here in a while, but I decided to use a quick minute, just days before I leave for spring break in the south of France, to catch up on my amazing experiences. In the last few weeks, I’ve visited four enchanting cities beyond Paris:

Amiens Less than an hour and a half from Paris by train, Amiens, I’ve decided, would be an excellent place to live. One could experience the charm and tranquility of quaint small-town life yet remain a mere train-ride from the excitement of Paris. Amiens certainly had a lot to offer in the realm of charm. The plentiful canals of the Saint-Leu district earn the town’s nickname as the “Little Venice of the North.” The Victorian houses (including Jules Verne’s) of the Henriville area create a cozy, old-world feel. And like every other French city, the centre-ville is a shopper-friendly pedestrian area with all the stores one would expect. Amien’s centerpiece, an enormous 13th-century cathedral twice the size of Notre-Dame de Paris, caps the town’s charm with a detailed and awe-inspiring beauty; it may be the most beautiful cathedral I’ve ever seen. I can’t forget to mention the excellent galettes my mom and I ate at a crêperie along the river: my mom’s contained ratatouille and chicken and mine, goat’s cheese, tomato and honey.

Boulogne-sur-mer A rainy and cold first day in a deserted Boulogne-sur-mer left me disappointed with my travel decision, but a sunny and pleasant second day more than made up for the unfavorable conditions of the first. The old fortified, hilltop town of Boulogne-sur-mer provides a haven of history and tranquility amongst the activity of this modern port. Throughout our visit, we walked the circumference of the historic town’s walls, which gave excellent views onto the city and English Channel beyond. We also visited the city’s musée des beaux arts, housed in a former castle, and the more modern basilica. Our walk to the beach was a bit miserable the first day due to the gale-force winds and occasional moments of drizzle. When we returned to the beach the second day, however, the wind was gone and with the sun shining, it was a perfect afternoon for walking the beach and collecting shells. A number of the town’s inhabitants had the same idea and the pier and harbor were busy with families out for a Sunday afternoon stroll. We joined the families to order hamburgers and fries from stands along the channel and enjoyed a lunch in the sun before boarding our train back to Paris.

Bruxelles Just last weekend, my friend Rebecca and I caught the train to Belgium for a weekend of unabashed tourism. We started out in Brussels, which is a mere hour and a half from Paris by the lightning-fast Thalys train. With the help of an irreverently hip free map from our hostel and the advice of our friend who spent a semester in Belgium, we wandered the city, hitting the major sites of the centre-ville like Manneken Pis (an adorably tiny statue of a little boy peeing), the Grand Place and the Royal Palace. We also took the time to enjoy the Musée des beaux arts where we admired the fantastical images of Bosch and the overwhelming tableaus of Rubens. We even indulged our love for Tintin at the Comic Museum. Of course, we also ate waffles and chocolate and enjoyed a beer before dinner. I very much enjoyed the intricate and whimsical architecture of the city which made it so very different from Paris. The numerous open plazas also promoted a sociability and openness that made such a huge European capital seem friendly and welcoming.

Bruges The real Venice of the north, Bruges is an enclosed, canal filled town that feels more like a Disney attraction than an actual municipality. Each street, each storefront, each corner is as picturesque as the next, and even on the chilly, cloud-filled day of our visit, its charm shined through. Rebecca and I followed our guidebook’s walking tour which led us past a number of delightful canals, adorable facades and historic buildings to its end at the serene Béguinage, a daffodil-filled courtyard surrounded by cute Bruges houses. Along the way, we snacked on a cornet of fries and sampled some more chocolate. The highlight of the visit (besides the sheer beauty of it all) was emerging from dinner to join the crowd on the Markt plaza for a free outdoor Belgian rock concert.

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