Vacation Post – Nice & Monaco #3

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” – ―  Anaïs Nin

Such startlingly true words.  With each vacation post, I managed to relive so many holiday memories.

The last leg of our vacation was spent at Nice and Monaco.

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view from our service apartment balcony

After our adventures in Paris and 1 hour flight, we found ourselves in the warm and bustling Nice (South of France). Paris was fast paced while Nice was laid-back.

NICE– Narrow streets and busy sidewalks flanked by quaint -looking  apartment buildings were the first sights to greet us. Shops with colourful wares from fruits to vegetables to crockery and fresh blooms; lavender, peonies, tulips and lilies. Pet shops with naughty puppies and mad hamsters scurrying about in their cages, set the mood for the rest of the day. Nice is like a place out of a children’s story book.  Misty mountains on one side and the azure sea on the other. The tourist season was just setting in.  The first week of May isn’t considered warm enough but for us it was quite warm. By the time it was afternoon, the sun was blazing down on us.  It was then we stopped loafing around and settled ourselves on the pebble -laden beach.

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Lavender

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Icy waves crashing against the pebbles drawing them back into the sea, seagulls racing against the winds and my little imp tip toeing on the pebbled shore are the moments in time I will forever treasure. Nice is beautiful. Beautiful is an understatement. I would say Nice is pleasant where pleasant is a superlative of all things beautiful and lovely.

Travelling with a toddler is made easy by service apartments and we got a service apartment that was comfortable. It gave us the flexibility of cooking our meals when eating out seemed like a hassle. I enjoyed cooking simple meals for us in an apartment overlooking stunning sights. Soon, I will post about one of the easier meals I had cooked while in Nice which was as filling as it was tasty. We had a super market right below our service apartment which made it easy to buy milk, butter, bread, oil, fruits, vegetables and condiments in small quantities. I was quite ready to settle down because in our 4 day trip we had practically made it our home.

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The restored fountain at Place Masséna

Sight seeing around Nice is made easy by a mini trains that leave  from Promenade des Anglais every 30 minutes or so. The mini train took us around the city and around the outskirts, up until the top of the Castle Hill. There it stops for 15 minutes for the visitors to tour around. I bought lovely water colour paintings of  lavender fields, sun flower fields and many more captivating sights on paper.

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Night time at Nice is even more exciting with people rushing to go clubbing or drinking. There were pubs and bars where salsa classes were being conducted and there were groups of boys performing their b-boying stunts for a visitors at Place Masséna. My daughter stood fascinated looking at the boys performing their stunts. She then coyly, asked me if she could go. I pushed her forward and imagined that she would shy away. But she wasn’t the one to be deterred by the 50-odd spectators. One of the b-boyers noticed her and took her to the forefront and introduced her to the crowd. Then they blared the music and urged her to perform. I was shocked to see my baby performing effortlessly whatever she picked up from observing those boys in front of all those people. She wasn’t in the least bit intimidated by all the crowd or the new dance form. For a 3 year old, she did well. I was a proud mum. All the people clapped and cheered for Mimi as she pirouetted and swirled around. It shall remain a treasured memory for time to come.

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The Cathedral on the left hand side; Lights that shine up the Nice nights on the right hand side

If you take a quick look on the right hand panel of my blog, you’d find a culinary bucket list that I had prepared at the start of the year. One of them involves me sampling some oysters. Inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s quote I had read sometime back –

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Books and great writers have always influenced me a great deal and hence this decision of tasting some oysters just to see if there was any metal in what Ernest Hemingway felt on tasting oysters.

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We tracked down the best place in Nice through internet research.  Cafe Turin, our research pointed, served the best platter. Off we went with brave hearts to see what oysters might taste like. Cafe Turin is very homely and far from being posh but the people serving definitely came across as being extremely pretentious. This includes the cafe’s  Maitre D’hotel  who seated us without a smile on his face. It was as if he was being made to do it against his free will. The servers were of little help and we felt discouraged. I looked around helplessly once the platter of oysters was placed before us to see if I could just observe how others in the restaurant were eating/swallowing theirs. A friendly French lady saw me looking nervously around and smiled at me. So I approached her and asked her if she knew how to have oysters. She was having some herself, so she taught me. Here it goes:

1. Pick the oyster in your hands and  you will see a molluscan-looking stuff in some liquid.

2. Loosen the oyster meat from the shell with the help of the knife and squeeze some lemon juice on it. Do this liberally.

3. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath and think of how much Ernest Hemingway liked this thing. Obviously there must be some merit.

4. Suck the oyster meat in your mouth and give a single, shallow bite and swallow it.

5. And keep it in. Yes, its a bit of struggle where your brain is figuring out whether to eject this lemony- squishy thing stuck in your throat or to swallow it and be a part of the world that adores oysters.

6. I swallowed one and then 4 more after that.  It isn’t all that bad. But it isn’t all that good either. It is, well, like nothing. Neutral. I don’t know whether I like it or dislike it. I am yet to make up my mind over whether I would ever try oysters again. So my verdict is: Oysters taste neutral.

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I proudly strike the oyster eating adventure off my culinary bucket list!

Out of the 4 day trip in Nice, we took a day trip to Monaco. It was a 20 minute train ride from Nice to Monaco.

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Monaco

Monaco – Principality of Monaco is the second smallest independent state in the world, after the Vatican.  Stepping out of the railway station, we were greeted with an air of affluence and elitism. Herds of Rolls Royce and Bentley parked in a row is a common sight all over.

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Stellar yachts bobbing in the horizon created a picturesque view. It is easy to take stock of the state in the mini train that cruises around the city introducing us, visitors to the prominent sights in Monaco. Known world over for the Grand Prix races, visitors surround the race tracks to get a closer view of the stadium. Apart from that, the principality is adorned with perfectly manicured lawns and exotic gardens all over.

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The food as far as my taste bud memories tell me was the best of the trip. I can still recall the taste of the delicious goat cheese and honey salad and the fantastic cup of hot chocolate that I had at one of the road side restaurants in Monaco.

If Amsterdam was amazing, Paris was perfect. If Paris whet our wanderlust appetite, Nice only aggravated it. If Nice was like  the best chocolate cake ever, then Monaco was like the chocolate icing on the cake. That pretty much sums up my vacation. Phew!

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With this I complete my series of Vacation Post #. Writing about my vacation adventure has been absolutely exhilarating.  I can’t wait to plan my next vacation and celebrate my birthday in some interesting part of the world. Inshallah.

RAMADAN KAREEM TO ALL WHO ARE FASTING.

Photos courtesy : – Namit Bhatia (@namit93)

Vacation Post – Paris #2

A 10- day vacation is the just right amount.

More than a week and less than a fortnight.

It is just the right amount to fit a few places but not too many. Its good to be flexible like that. Exactness is exacting, I feel. Vacation stops feeling like one when one tries to over plan it to its last detail.

What is the stuff you have to plan and what of it do you leave it to luck, you ask?

Stuff that needs planning –

*Flight tickets

*Hotels

*Some must -see  and must -do stuff ( 40% of the itinerary should be planned)

With a toddler, you need to have a fair amount of certainty else it can turn into a chaotic situation.

Stuff that you can leave to luck-

*Some can-see and can – do stuff ( 60% of the itinerary should be ”at -the-moment” plan)

*Places to eat

*Places to shop

The discovery along the unplanned part of the trip is where the actual learning happens about the culture, people, the geography and the food.

Paris

After our Amsterdam stint, the next leg of the trip was a 5 day rendezvous in Paris. Recently, my biggest influences in planning this trip to Paris have been this book, this movie , this other movie about Paris and this grand movie too. And oh this blog and this blog!

Otherwise, I have always been fascinated about travelling to Paris just to see the Eiffel tower. A birthday under the shade of the Eiffel tower sounded dream -like.

We took a flight from Amsterdam into Paris which was short and uncomplicated. But upon landing, we were shocked to find that KLM hadn’t sent our baggage in the same flight. We were left with some hand luggage and a baby stroller. We were sent off by the airport officials, with a small kit of toiletries to explore Paris. With absolutely nothing except our passports and cash we roamed the streets of Paris with a bitter-sweet feeling. One thing about the officials in France; you can’t rush them neither can you urge them. You have to smile politely and pray that you get your baggage back as they promised. I prayed. Very hard.

The following day, the bags were at our hotel as promised.

It was cold and blustery even though it was April end. I wanted to know why this city is the most visited city in the world. I had read about it, heard people talk about it and here I was with my baby, hubby and a dear friend to explore and experience the magic of the city. Did I feel the magic? Well, at certain times yes, and many others absolutely not.

The Predictables

A large portion of my 5 day trip to Paris consisted of visiting popular tourist destinations such as the Louvre Museum /Musée du Louvre that houses the enigmatic Mona Lisa. Right outside the museum we spent some time gazing at the children sailing their little boats at the  the spectacular Tuileries Garden  – Jardin du Tuileries.

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On exiting Jardin du Tuileries from the Palace de la Concorde end with its unmissable Obélisque, we stepped  into the majestic Avenue des Champs Élysées. Flagship outlets of world renowned French and international high fashion, culinary and retail brands welcome you on either end and it calls for immense will power to resist the urge of not stepping in one of them.

 Eiffel Tower – The whole world travels to Paris to see the iconic Eiffel tower. Every few seconds, I felt like pinching myself because it felt surreal to be in the presence of this magnificent engineering marvel.  The sight of the Eiffel tower by night is a scene out of any romantic movie based in Paris. It is here that I found my happy place. I sat staring at the tower and wrote in my little note book about how thrilled I was to be here.

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Pastries and confectioneries – Every street in Paris has a crepe /pancake stall. The enticing aroma of browning butter on the hot skillet is everywhere; in the parks, in the malls, streets and railways stations.

McDonalds has a Pâtisserie and so does every single food outlet there is. It felt like a city that had macaroons for breakfast. Paul’s was ubiquitous and you could see people flocking Paul’s waiting for their pain au chocolat, tarte sucre, millefeuille and croissants. I was gobsmacked to see how much of these flour-butter-sugar-chocolate combination was savoured everyday by the French people  and yet everybody was far from being obese. How do these French women eat these delicacies and still look their best?

Well, the answer to that is very, very simple!

‘Portion size’

Tiny portions of your favourite treats = makes your day+ don’t affect the tiny waist size.

The Unpredicatables

Freebies

Shopping in Paris was an extraordinary experience. Everywhere I went and bought stuff, I got a lot of free stuff. There is no bigger incentive than free stuff in this world. I feel free stuff is better than a discount  or sale. Free stuff is like a surprise gift.  Free perfume samples, free mascara, free key chain and lots more. At 33, there are  hardly any surprises in life. Life is humming away at a predictable pace. That pace was pleasantly disrupted by this shower of freebies that I welcomed gratefully.

Make -over

At the posh, Avenue des Champs Élysées, I got my pre – birthday make -over at Sephora.  I  walked into Sephora, not knowing what to expect. I saw 2 people body painted and crystal studded. I stood there fascinated as hundereds of women swarmed the store to buy their favourite beauty products. Soon I was whisked away fora  make over. I sat at my seat petrified about how it would turn out. My only make up experience was at my wedding which remains my most painful dressing up memory. But I was in for a huge surprise.

At the ripe age of 33, I discovered the magic of the mascara. I learnt from the experts about applying make-up for the very first time in my life. All these 33 years ( actually 32, since it was my birthday eve when I got the make-over done) I lived without knowing the joys of applying make-up and shopping for beauty products. How utterly shameful is that!!!

I was spoiled rotten by my hubby and friend at Sephora. They got me tonnes of make up (which now, I know how to use) and a special make up brush with my name inscribed on it. How cool is that!

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sephora- make over

A baker’s paradise Ofcourse, I knew Paris was about all the sweet stuff like macaroons, pastries and tarts. But I was in for a shock when I visited G. Detou and Mora to get my fill of baking supplies and ingredients. Such a fantastic array of the best of best should be seen to be believed. I could have spent 2 whole days just looking at the display. I got myself the best cocao powder, baking chocolates, vanilla extract, micropline zester, pastry brush, lavender extract, vanilla pods and other good stuff.

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Mora for baking apparatus

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Disneyland – Ideally, this should fall under the ‘Predictables’ section. But Disneyland is an experience. I don’t know if magical is an apt word. You need to be there to feel it. The vibe, the air and the concept brought alive all our childhood fantasies. Undoubtedly, my daughter enjoyed it but I have to say we, adults may have enjoyed it a wee bit more.

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Latin Quarter-  Latin Quarter remains one of the best kept secrets of Paris. This bustling district boasts of innumerable eateries with an array of cuisines from Greek gyros and Turkish kebabs to Mexican Burritos and Indian curries. The place has it all.  You can venture around the area and visit some of the famous landmarks like the Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Fontaine Saint-Michel to admire the gargoyles and the French Gothic architecture. The Shakespeare and Company bookstore, made famous in the recent Hollywood movie Julie and Julia is also located in the vicinity.

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Fontaine Saint-Michel

My birthday – when you are in Paris, there isn’t much you need to do to ‘celebrate’ your birthday. Every second of the day seems special because you are trying to absorb every bit of the magic and wonder that the city is throwing at you. I played out the day in my head so many times before I actually traveled to Paris but nothing prepared me for the joy I actually felt.  An Italian lunch and several glasses of wine later, we strolled by the river Siene. Under the Eiffel tower, I sat in a state of trance unbelieving. The icing on the cake  (actually a tart) was a lime and lemon tart from Ladurée and a box of scrummy macaroons.

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What I missed doing in Paris

* I booked for a macaroon baking class and couldn’t go because I chose to visit the boring Palace of Versailles.

* Watch the Moulin Rouge and the Lido and instead I bought a lot of place mats with their pictures on it.

* Drink more wine (because you can never have enough)

* Buy tulips and press them in my books to treasure the spirit of the blooming city for a long, long time.

* Eat good food. I was surprised that most of the meals we had weren’t really the memorable sort that you would expect to in France. It was not just with the French food but all cuisines. A shocking lack of flavour, I recall. Only the confectioneries and the sweets passed the test.

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Latin quarter

Sigh! It is the end of the post #2 and I miss Paris with such a fierceness. Thank God for these photos and my diminishing memories, as they are the only ones that will help me relive the enchanted moments spent in Paris.

All photos by Namit Bhatia – @namit93

The Vacation Post -Amsterdam #1

It was my 33rd birthday and I really wanted to do something special; something I can remember for as long as I live. And I did just that. Not alone. Ofcourse not. Happiness doubles when you have people to share your beautiful moments. In my case, it tripled because I planned it with Amit (the history loving husband), Mimi(the L’Enfant terrible) and Namit ( the cool, photographer friend). With interesting personalities as them for company, the trip was bound to be adventure from the word go!

Amsterdam

9 hours of air travel with a 3-year-old isn’t the most ideal of situations. 3 year olds, especially the ones of the hyperactive nature, find it difficult to stay put in their seat. Well, on the positive side,  3 years of handling such a baby has conditioned us and taught us valuable lessons. The thing is now, we are prepared with required ammunition to tackle all probable toddler meltdown situations. Infact, we try and not allow that to happen at all. An iPhone, a Samsung tab, an iPad, books, colours, in-flight entertainment, food and other paraphernalia served their purpose dutifully until we landed at the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. Travelling from the desert to Europe can be a little bit of a shock, climate -wise. We did check the temperature and had mentally prepared ourselves to face the jarring cold. We were armed with thick jackets and woollens to keep us warm. But the moment we stepped out, we were hit by a cold wave which was unfair considering it was Spring in Europe. How does 9- 10 C qualify as Spring -time temperatures?

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Amsterdam was gloomy and overcast, yet there was promise in the air. Crown -shaped orange balloons, vendors selling royal crown printed tshirts and artificial crowns for children to flaunt was a common sight. Dutch Crown Prince Willem-Alexander was to be crowned as Europe’s youngest monarch after his mother, Queen Beatrix. There was to be a magnificent ceremony which was to be attended by all the world’s royalties and dignitaries. On 30th April, 2013, Willem-Alexander, 46, was to became the first Dutch king since 1890.

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Several cups of hot coffees later, we summoned the guts to brave the cold winds made worse by a persistent drizzle. Clearly, the weather wasn’t on our side. It was the 26th of April and yet it felt like middle of winter to us.  The moment we stepped out of the airport, we were greeted by “IAMSTERDAM”  which is iconic. It is impossible not to act like a typical tourist a click tonnes of photographs against the different letters.

Another important piece of advice for anyone planning to travel with young children would be carry a baby stroller. This was the single-most handy piece of equipment, we couldn’t have done without for this trip. There is only so much walking that toddlers can do. Their enthusiam is just as short lived as a fire work. Soon they get tired and cranky especially if it is their nap time. Mimi slept, rested, kicked her heels in the air, played games on her iPad in her stroller. Without a stroller, we would have had to cut short all our tours to go back to the hotel just because its the princess’s nap time. I also made sure I always carried plenty of food in my purse because toddlers usually don’t realize when they get hungry. Keep them nourished and they will be chirping like larks all the time.

Inspite of the weather being such a kill joy, we  planned to visit Keukenhopf which is famous as the Tulip garden. Keukenhopf its closer to Schiphol airport than Amstedam City. It is the world’s largest garden which is open between mid – March to mid- May.   drenched and shivering, we toured around the gorgeous garden full of tulip blooms. There is a dream – like feeling in visiting this garden having seen it only in bollywood movies. I desperately wanted to visit the Tulip fields which I mistakenly thought to be in the garden. The tulip field are a few kilometers away from the garden but it was too cold to take a walk that long. I sighed at them from far and waved them goodbye as we made our way back to the city.

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We checked into our hotel  – Multatuli, dot in the middle of the city, overlooking the canals. After a much deserved nap, we set out to meet a friend of my hubby’s. We had a lovely time cruising around the city, absorbing the spirit of the festivities. We ended the day with a sumptuous dinner at an Italian joint.

The next day we set out for a canal cruise around the city. Criss-crossed by bridges, 165 canals encircle the city of Amsterdam. The waterways provide an attractive border to the art-sy shops, galleries and cafés.  As we  sailed around, we found the ‘Museum of bags and purses’ that my hubby resented at the very idea, Anne Frank’s House and  other stellar landmarks. By the time we finished our cruise it was just enough time to visit the Vondel park which isn’t something I would recommend if you had time. We thought there may be some play area for Mimi but to our disappointment it just an unkempt park with cyclists running amuck. I missed visiting the Van Gogh Museum and taking a peak at the red light area, which with babies may seem quite inappropriate.

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Amsterdam to my mind is about freedom of the extreme kind- I found it in the graffiti of the walls of buildings, in the carefree peddling of the cyclists, in the hearty drinking in the pubs that also serve green tea and in the beauty of the bridges that have stood the test of time.