Rich Parisians have always had week-end “country” getaway homes. Josephine Bonaparte’s Chateau de Malmaison only about 30 minutes by RER and bus from Paris and well worth the trip and the modest 8.50 Euros ($10 USD) entry with free audio guide. The use of the house as the French government headquarters from 1800-1802, and Josephine’s love of flowers and her feminine touches are evident in both the gardens and the interior.

The front gate entry.

The front garden is full of flowers and roses.

A walking path from the front of the house to the front gate.

One side of the front garden includes a small vegetable patch.

The back yard is more natural with intentionally unmowed grass for animals.

The back entrance is as stately as the front

with Egyptian style decor.

Inside the foyer.

Even the doors are decorated

 as well as the ceilings.

Her husband Napoleon had a few mementos on display like his grooming set,

a few swords,

and of course his hat.

The billard room showed she enjoyed games,

 entertaining guests,

 playing music,

 and dining.

 The library,

 Josephine’s salon,

 and receiving rooms,

 showed details like swan chairs.

 Josephine’s bedchamber was like a sumptuous tent,

with incredible details like a sky painted ceiling

 and flower painting on every panel of the wall.

This was her jewelry box which held all the diamonds, emeralds, and rubies she owned:)

A small country home only about 12 miles from Paris :)

I went back to the marché in Versailles on Sunday when the center square was filled with food vendors instead of clothing vendors. A big difference, even at 11am, was there were many more people,

and many more vendors.

Honey from all over the EU & from Lavender honey from Provence for 20 Euros ($22 USD) a Kilo (2.2LBS).

Strawberries are in season and as delicious as they look.

 All the ingredients for a ratatouille.

 As much asparagus as you can eat in both white and green.

 Herbs galore for about 1 Euro a bunch ($1.15USD).

Teas

and spices from all over the world.

 If you don’t want to cook your Sunday meal, chickens are available roasted with potatoes.

 Only two blocks from the Chateau de Versailles, Les Halles de Versailles is a much more local experience than the busloads of tourists at the gates (which you can see the the end of the street).

Nearly everyone who comes to Paris goes to Versailles, but unless you live here (or nearby) Les Halles, or the markets of Versailles, just a few blocks from the Chateau, are a hidden treasure. First I went to see the organic (bio) markets by the church St. Louis, but the market was tiny, with literally less than ten stands in front of the church.

Les Halles the big market, is open from Tuesday through Saturday from 7am- 7:30pm and on Sunday from 7am-2pm, the covered square and open center square attract locals more than tourists. With easy parking underneath the square, many bus stops within a block or two, and an easy walk four blocks from the chateau, make this a worthwhile stop if you are going to Versailles.

The permanent stands are all in the covered buildings surrounding the open area and feature several cheese shops,

vegetable and fruits vendors,

all kinds of poultry, raw and cooked,

seafood and fish stands,

prepared foods if you don’t want to cook,

prepared skewers for your BBQ,

prepared roasts for your oven,

and mountains of shellfish.

If you want dessert, there is of course sweets and patisseries galore.

All around the outside of the covered stands are cute cafés with outdoor terraces if you want to be served your meal and just window shop the vendors :)

Any day with blue skies in Paris is a good day to go an explore the Châteaux nearby, especially on a holiday weekend when most Parisians were out of town. The town of Maisons-Laffitte is only about 35 minutes away from the Champs-Elysées by the RER A train, and the Château de Maisons is a small and unusual chateau. Regular entry is 7.5 Euros or about $9 USD and includes a 2 hour guided tour during certain times (in French). The entrance looks perfectly symmetrical because it was built a bit like a Hollywood facade, with the outside built first and the inside built around the outside. This meant that some rooms have half a window, and walls are not where they might seem to be on the inside.

The exterior symmetry applies to the back also.

The original entrance was built to receive royalty on the chance that they might come visit (which they did on occasion) so the marble sculptures in the portico

and on the columns were carved to impress.

Even the trompe d’oeil staircase gives the illusion of several stories even though the entire chateau is only two stories. The “third” story was hidden quarters for the servants under the “roof”, which gave them a view of the royals entering and leaving the royal chambers on the second floor.

The ground floor was where the actual owners lived and although the columns here look like marble, they are actually painted wood because the original ones were sold to pay off debts long ago.

Even though the owners lived below the royals, their rooms were well appointed.

The most ornate part of the chateau is of course where the royals ate and slept

and even the original parquet floors show the work put into pleasing them.

The dining area had a middle entrance reserved for the King, while the side entrances were for everyone else; any pushing or shoving was punishable by fines.

The King’s bedroom was only used by the king on a handful of occasions but had the rare modern convenience of its own private entry with an adjacent bathroom.

A wardrobe fit for a king.

The women’s quarters on the other side had a distinctly more feminine style.

Even the ceilings,

fireplaces,

and walls, had feminine details.

The kitchens underground showcased the copper pots and pans

all over the walls,

and there was a display of the china.

Most of the grounds were parceled off and sold to rich Parisians for weekend homes in the “country”, but the bit that remains looks out towards Paris and the Seine as a reminder that a few minutes away is a place where you can leave the noise and intensity of city life behind.

On one of the many gray rainy days in Paris, I sought out the warmth and comfort of sun. Morocco was too far away to go for lunch, but Maison de Couscous is in the 14th, only a metro ride away. I found it a bit funny to see a roaring fire on the tv screen facing the dining room; it was as if everyone was pretending we were someplace warmer, using any means possible. The restaurant is a bit off the main road Alésia, so it’s easy access by metro Alésia, and the servers are welcoming and friendly. They had a big sign in front saying that all the couscous dishes included all you could eat couscous and vegetables, so the very reasonable under 15 Euro menu is an even better bargain if you are a big eater.

Since I love lamb, I tried their lamb, but found it a bit bland and dry, even though the serving of meat was quite large for Paris. The vegetables and broth were resonant with aromatics, but I longed for more depth, complexity, and salt.

I found my perfect couscous with their Merguez sausage couscous, savory, spicy, and absolutely addictive. The sausage added the depth and complexity I longed for in the lamb version and as large as this portion was, I managed to finish the entire plate. Their merguez was the best I’ve ever eaten, and I’ve eaten many many links of merguez!

I only ate about half the large plate of couscous because I was so enamored by the merguez and vegetables.

By the time my dessert pastry came I was glad it was a tiny morsel of sweet date in a honey soaked sesame topped crust.

The also offer ice cream, but I think the little bite of date or in this case, pistachio in honey soaked filo, are far more satisfying.

Finding a small neighborhood spot with nice people and excellent merguez couscous is like finding a ray of sunshine among the rain clouds; head towards it and enjoy it.

The only time I go to a church on Sunday is when I’m visiting one as a tourist. Even though I’ve visited Paris too many times to count, and lived here now for over a year, I had never gone to Sainte Chapelle until one rainy gray cold morning last month. It is next to the Hall of Justice, so the side by side juxtaposition means entry is strictly controlled by the gendarmes; be prepared for TSA level screening because the entry allows access to both depending on the day of the week.

The Hall of Justice

The entry to Sainte Chapelle is under renovation and has only a small gift shop and this small section open to the public.

Even in the stained glass, the the proximity of “church” and “state” is a theme is played out in both the history of France and in the art in Sainte Chapelle. The stained glass comprises more of the structure than the stone in the building which was finished in a record breaking 6 years time in 1248.

The exterior does not convey the magical light the stained glass gives from within, especially on a gray rainy day.

The breathtaking 15 panels are one level above the entry, so after climbing the steps (the pic was taken looking down from the top),

you reach the main part of the church which looks like this on the outside

but the inside is magically different

with sculptures of each of the apostles in between the glass panels which depict various scenes from the bible.

Spending time inside this “colorful lantern” has a wonderful magical effect of making the gray skies outside disappear:)

On my last day in Barcelona, I went to the Fountain of Montjuïc. Originally I was going to go up to see the light show that night, but with a transportation problem, dinner plans, and club hopping all vying for my time, I opted for the afternoon. Everything works out in the end, and twilight ended up being a perfect time to enjoy the fountains with no crowds :)

Barcelona was a beautiful break from the gray rainy cold of Paris, and I’m sure I will have another rendez-vous soon with this delightful town :)

There are many ways to get around Barcelona, from the old fashioned horse and carriage,

to the modern electric car, but my favorite was simply to walk.

The modes of transportation are the only things that offer both old and new; construction of modern buildings around historical monuments abounds.

Before starting my day, I tried a second cafe

that had the nicest service

with good coffee, excellent freshly squeezed orange juice, and mediocre croissants

but a good apple pastry (according to the person who ate it and let me take a picture).

A few metro stops away, I saw this bakery, which looked fantastic, but there was no way I was going to start my day on the metro without breakfast.

I had a cone of Iberico in La Boqueria from Mas, but I saw that they also have stand alone stores.

Walking can lead to unexpected discoveries, like this shrine near Park Güell,

or these passageways

some leading into courtyards.

As dusk fell, it was time for dinner. Gilda has great reviews in the Gothic Quarter, and since it was a few blocks from where I was staying, I made a reservation through The Fork, which gives diners a discount on two tapas and a main course. The welcome and ambiance are warm, and the artwork is for sale, making it a showcase for artists.

I chose the ham croquetas for one of my tapas and was surprised at how big they were, there was definitely enough to share. As for the croquetas, they used quality ham and I would certainly order these again.

The garlic prawns were my favorite bite of all, lightly cooked and slightly spicy, I wanted to make a meal of them!

The steak and fries were a disappointment after the rock star prawns. I ordered the steak very rare and it came out pink, but not red. It came with a peppercorn sauce, but it lacked flavor and I was glad there was salt and pepper on the table. The Belgians are known for great fries, and they did not disappoint on this plate. Service was a bit hit and miss the night I was there; they had a problem in the kitchen and it affected the wait staff who forgot to bring me a steak knife, added a charge for bottled water I did not order, and neglected my discount from The Fork*. All remedied in the end, but a reminder to always check your bill before paying it. My total with a glass of wine and the discount came to 20 Euros or about $23 for quality food in a nice atmosphere.

The strolling the Ramblas after dinner

I passed the Gran Teatre del Liceu where they were getting ready to open for an evening of Opera.

I was about to turn in for the night when my host invited another house guest and me to a Couchsurfing event at Polaroid Bar, literally next to our place. I’m glad I accepted the invitation because I met people from all over the world, including Latvia, Germany, Italy, France, and of course the US. It was a Couchsurfing event, so we got discounted draft beer, and even though I don’t usually drink beer, it was better than the wine and the sweet mixed drinks, so I had my first beer in years here for the incredible price of 1.50 Euros (less than $2) for a pint!

On another night we went to Juanita Lalà, which had much better wine, and very loud music, but a great patio and enough space for some South Americans to strut their dance moves. We left when the place emptied at 3 AM, and headed to the Placa Reial to go clubbing but all three places we tried to get into were full or had monster lines!

After getting some snacks at the local market, we headed back around 4AM, but we weren’t the only ones out. I felt perfectly safe out that late with other people, but if I had been alone, I would definitely stick to the main streets and take a taxi if I was coming back from or to the Gothic quarter.

*Note : They had a problem with my US credit card, so bring cash or an EU credit card.

Barcelona rivals Paris for the sheer beauty of its buildings.

This is a hotel near Diagonal and Casa Mila

that resembles a castle.

A post office in the Gothic Quarter

whose interior

is as mesmerizing as a museum.

The justice building is less ornate, but still stately.

Everywhere I walked, there were intriguing styles,

sometimes right next to famous landmarks like the Casa Batlló,

or along the Ramblas.

The street lights

and street tiles in the Eixample district, both had rich details.

Now apartments and offices, many buildings are meticulously maintained

and you never know what may be beyond an open door

or behind an ancient window.

Residents are proud of their culture and their language Catalan,

and their rights to use natural substances

even as ingredients in ice cream:)

Some signs are meant for the tourists, but that doesn’t make them any less true!

One of the most famous churches in the world is Gaudi‘s unfinished Sagrada Familia. The church is so widely visited, it has its own metro stop in Barcelona.

Even coming out of the metro, you are greeted with art.

As with any popular tourist destination, it’s wise to buy your tickets online because the line in the rain was four blocks long on a weekday in the Winter. Count on at least an hour wait on week-ends and in the Summer.

Another option is to buy a tour which allows you entry through a special gate with much shorter lines.

Since I didn’t take my own advice to purchase my entry in advance, I literally walked around the entire structure

astounded by the details.

There was a much shorter line at the Cathedral of Barcelona,

and since it is in the middle of a neighborhood, there was an antique market in the square facing the church.

The style here is classically gothic, both outside

and inside.

This is not just a tourist destination, but an actual church, with prayer areas and confessionals, so a strict dress code is enforced (no shorts, bare arms, or tank tops), and student groups may not enter through the main gate. There are areas where no pictures or videos are permitted, so if you go please respect the rules as a guest here.

The astounding amount of gold in every one of the niches

was bedazzling to behold.

The stained glass on a rainy gray day

added a warm colorful light to the interior.

This section in the center of the church was off limits to visitors and from the map it looks like it is where the choir sits

with an elaborate staircase to the upper portion.

My favorite part was the cloister

with stone sculptures

and 13 geese :)

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