Getting to Know Poznań and Saying Goodbye

Just like the previous trip, that one was also supposed to finish in Poland. There’s something reassuring about coming here, because it serves to help make a transition from Europe to Russia and that’s how many people in our country see it anyway. We spent this last night of our trip in the same hotel near the Polish-German border where we stayed on the night we found out the royal baby had arrived. We arrived there in the evening and found ourselves in the Polish countryside. The cafes were packed with lorry drivers and we had to struggle a bit to find a supermarket which was said to be in the neighbourhood. We did find it and stocked up on some good-value Polish food. Funny Polish letters made an appearance again, the second time around during this trip! After sitting on a bench for a while and sizing up a serene landscape, we headed back to our room and happily munched on our food. As much as I might oppose to people going on and on about their food experiences while travelling, I think it has to be one of the ways (not the only one!) to experience a country because just as I said on my account of Venice, it’s all about senses! But it’s not just what you eat but how you feel eating it. I was certainly happy but later that night it finally hit me that was it, tomorrow night I would be on the train to Moscow and would have to say goodbye to all the romance and the feelings it had aroused in me. How would I carry on without it all, the feeling of adventure and romance in the air? I had no idea back then but now of course I know going back to normal is inevitable even if it didn’t seem so back then… I came back to our room where I was expecting to find my friend fast asleep to see her wide awake and looking really frightened. She got waken up by the noise of someone sneeking into the room. According to her, that someone could only be a ghost and she was positively sure about that! I tend to take all these ghost stories with a pinch of salt, but in the current setting I could buy into it, because you never know after all these places we had visited what kind of games your imagination might be playing with you. We sat there for a while with the lights on putting the world to rights and speculating who that ghost might have been… Still wondering how things will transpire and what our “normal” daily lives would be like, we went to bed and of course, whoever that ghost was didn’t make another appearance through the course of the night…
It was a lovely brisk morning and we were bound for the final destination on our trip, Poznań, a nice city in west-central Poland. Translated from Polish, its name might mean “a known city” or “something you got to know”. So will Poznań be poznan to us? I doubted it would because we weren’t going to have too long to spend here. A few picturesque Polish landscapes later, we found ourselves almost in the heart of the city. To be honest, I’d never heard of the city before and had no idea we would be visiting so I was intrigued to make it as much of a poznan as possible. It is actually one of the largest cities in Poland, the capital of the Wielkopolska region and has a population of about 500 thousand people. What we saw when we arrived was rather a view you would get in a nice little town. The streets were queit and there didn’t seem to be much going on. Our guide was a friendly guy who spoke good Russian and had an amazing sense of humour. The highlight of our brief tour was the Old Town Square, just like in any major city of Poland. It felt like a fairytale to see all those differently coloured buildings which used to be merchants’ houses (domki budnicze). They were the brightest memory of the city for me. It would have been fascinating to learn more about individual stories of each of the lovely buildings.
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The only sombre feature seemed to be a punishment post (pręgierz). We proceeded towards the church at the opposite end of the square. I love visiting Catholic churches for purely aesthetic reasons and I was happy to find out we were going to get inside. The Lesser Basilica of St.Stanislavus was a really beautiful and enlightening place to visit and funny comments from the guide made this quite a light-hearted experience. It was just us and no one else in the entire church and there is something spiritual about Polish churches or it could be my perception of Poland that makes them so… We continued our brisk walk of a few more streets of Poznań. Some were lined up with lovely cafes and restaurants inviting to pop into. Some other time, some other day… Probably…
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No one would guess what the symbols of Poznań are. These are goats as we were later to find out as we were walking down ul.Kozia (Goat Street). According to a legend, two goats were the ones to save the city from a fire and now they are featured on different souvenirs. I’ve got myself a souvenir of two goats head-butting each other and it is really cute. There is a monument featuring them as well and one girl in the group was so fond of it that the guide made a joke saying that as a Russian proverb runs, love can be so tough on you that one day you might find yourself falling in love with a goat… He really had a dazzling sense of humour!
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Of course there are some German influences in Poznań because it is not too far. Bamberg’s Girl Fountain is one of them. People used to come here from an area in Germany called Bamberg during a plague and eventually assimilated into a local community. This fountain is a symbol of these close ties. You can tell about high aspirations of the city and there is a large business centre Stary Browar that got a number of international awards. It was seen a distance away, but we didn’t have time to explore that part of the city.
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We had time for one more thing and that was to buy a unique local pastry with a day’s worth of calories in it. That was Rogal Świętomarciński (St Martin’s Croissant). We had a bit of a struggle trying to buy it because the shop assistant didn’t seem to understand either English, or Russian, or German, or Ukrainian. But looking back, it was fun. Even though your waistline might be the last thing you would worry about on a trip, I didn’t attempt to eat the whole croissant one at one go. That was a delight I decided I would savour just as the memories of our Poznań visit…
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There was a cute black cat on a window cill as we were making our way back to our coach and I remember thinking as I was looking at it how cats didn’t really have a nationality… A quite random thought to have, I know… I hope I’ll come again even if it involves head-butting someone like those goats did…
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Munching on the rest of my croissant from Poznań surrounded by a bunch of oriental-looking kids making nuisances of themselves was my memory of getting back to Russia…

OK, that was it. Here comes the saddest part. When we got back to Moscow, we wanted more of course but it was time we got in touch with the rational part of us and realize it all had to end, it always does… That was a beautiful extensive trip of this part of the world that has yet so much to offer. Reconnecting with Warsaw in a more intimate way, having a fun-packed day in Berlin, getting a little disappointed by Paris, falling in love with a feeling of love in Paris, taking my first dip into the sea in Cannes, enjoying more Meditarrenean and blue skies in Nice, feeling as if rubbing shoulders with the royalty in Monaco, getting attacked by mosquittos in Milan, writing a letter to Juliet in Verona, have my mind floating in the floating city of Venice, having a green walk in Dresden and finally being delighted by the colours of Poznań’s Old Town were one of the highlights of this trip. And more importantly, just as in the first trip, I learned more about me, what I’m capable of learning and feeling through the course of the short ten days. Getting bac to normal isn’t an easy thing at all but it’s all part of a trip. May this ghost my friend allegedly saw entering our room be a memory of the trip which would never let go. These trips are so revitalizing because sometimes they seem to give you strength to get through a time in between. I still get overwhelmed by the amount of beauty I saw on this trip and I think now there has to be a romantic in me after all… There you have it. Here is to more beautiful travels and ever-lasting memories to hold onto!

The Second Glimpse of Dresden

After a long and pensive ride from Venice, we found ourselves in Germany again. Guten Morgen, Deutschland! You just know the Autobahn when you are on one. There was something reassuring about coming here now after a string of romantic destinations we had visited and seen colours changing dramatically from bluest blue to menacingly grey. It felt almost as if we had had our feet back on the ground. Our final overnight trip ran smoothly and we were starting to get travel blues already knowing it was not too long till we had to set out on the journey back. We stopped for a nice German breakfast somewhere outside Dresden. It was a really brisk morning and we knew this substantial meal would keep us going through that last but one day of our travels. I felt a bit German (which to me is nothing compared to the way I had been feeling over the last couple of days soaking up all the romance) in this authentic diner. I found myself really spoilt for choice and thanks to the guide for an excellent food suggestion because that goulash soup was fabulous and I even attempted to cook one back at home! Well, if anything, it bore a strong resemblance to our national dish called borsch which we found ourselves craving for at that point. After the visit to Venice, I had to struggle to keep all the cravings I was having at the moment in check but this is what you do, I guess. Munching away at my what looked a bit too much for an ordinary breakfast, I was marvelling at the spot-on service and also felt my travel records starting taking shape in my mind and that’s how I knew the most romantic bits of this trip were now over… A bunch of cheerful elderly German fellow travellers standing outside the diner made me contemplate what I would love to be if I live to be their age. I’d sure want to be able to afford to go back to this exact place for this exact meal…
A quick ride later, we found ourselves in the heart of Dresden, in Theaterplatz. Early morning here in the centre of Dresden. It felt like something that had already happened at around the same time a year ago. I looked around to see everything in place – the buildings, the sky and the feel… But this time around we would enjoy the place on our own. I love that sense of familiarity you get after the awkwardness and insecurity of the first visit is over and you start feeling comfortable when it’s just you and the city… Zwinger was just a short walk from Theaterplatz but I felt so pleased with myself for knowing my way around now. There was almost no one here, except for a few early birds who came here too. I felt like running around, screaming with joy and I don’t know why I did… No guide to follow, the green grass (just to match my mental image of the Mediterranean) was all I seemed to need to be content with myself and where I was in and I was certainly in a good place! “Remember when we first came here we saw crowds of people coming right out of there?” I never loved to reminisce so much in my life… The views of the complex from the balcony were also reminiscent! The whole space inside the Zwinger was just beautiful and that was all I had to say really! It was as if I had just recovered from Venice and to see Dresden… It all had a dreamlike taste to it.
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We popped into the Old Masters’ Gallery because we had some unfinished business with it. We needed to buy an art watch we failed to get the first time we came. Well, we ended up not getting any because those they had on sale at the moment weren’t good but I got hold of a lovely book about the Old Masters’ Gallery that we visited during our first visit and I think I might be developing an interest in art, which, I think, is essential in order to become a sophisticated human being!
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There was a little time left before we were due to go outside the city for a bit of shopping and we went down to the Elbe bank to enjoy the early morning view. We were doing so to the sound of the Russian language being spoken by people passing by and someone playing Katyusha, a legendary wartime song. A bit of Russia in the heart of Dresden seemed out of place but it might be just me… There was something reassuring about the views of the river we got and it felt safe to be in Germany. This area of Dresden is quite small and you don’t need too much time to get an idea of what it is like. It was time to wrap up our little tour and meet up with the rest of the group.
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Our shopping experience outside the city was pretty average and probably we should have spent this time exploring more of the city instead. But that was an experience anyway and I did get a new bag which is always good news for a lady. Danke, Dresden!
It was going to be several hours before we found ourselves in Poland again.

A Fling with the Floating City

It was time for another passionately romantic highlight of our trip. A place that just like Paris, everyone seems to have an idea and a certain image of regardless of whether they have had a privilege of visiting and experiencing it for themselves at some point of their lives. Watery, alluring, secluded Venice… I can hear the sound of water beating against the famous and so Venetian gondolas as I’m writing this now. Water has always had a huge part to play in the history of the city and came to define it, either by pushing it to the verge of destruction and threatening its whole existence, or giving it a new lease of life and helping in promoting this idea of Venice we inherently seem to have. Water has this unique power over every living organism and here it doesn’t just serve its ordinary and customary function of maintaining our physical existence, but it also fuels the emotion and feeling of an enigmatic mystery, the one we are naturally drawn to… Venice is a quirky collaboration of man and nature and the latter always seems to have the edge over the former even if at times it may seem to have been conquered, but it is just to have her revenge in the end…
Did you know Venice consists of 117 islands? It is pretty incredible, isn’t it? Through the course of its turbulent and shaky (just as a gondolla gliding over the Adriatic Sea) history, it has been the land of long-standing conflicts and a refugee for those seeking to start a new life or making it just as secluded as all these islands. As secluded as it might have seemed to be, this kind of life would be a rollercoaster, because just as making Venice an incredible and enigmatic place as it is known to be, the collaboration of man and nature made living here both a struggle for life and a feast of it. Therefore knowing there might be to other chance, so we felt lucky to be coming here before the nature might have her final revenge and the man might lose this never-ending fight against the sea and this enigmatic miracle is submerged into oblivion never to be restored to life again… Life is too short, so don’t hesitate to come!
I don’t have to remind you we were still in Italy but I think I would make no mistake when I say Venice doesn’t really feel like Italy, which is arguably just a maze of different traditions and customs once united to be called one single country. The signs are everywhere saying “Venezia” having you guessing whether this inherent idea of it you have had up to that point and the actual reality would match. Previously I had been reflecting that solving this riddle has to be one of the most enjoyable and fascinating things about travelling. It keeps our brains busy and that’s how we know we won’t be too likely to suffer Alzheimer’s at an older age. So travelling is a fabulous way to stay young! So as I was sitting on the coach helping myself to stay young, I couldn’t quite understand how Venice (or rather my idea of it) would fit into the landscape. Would there be some dramatic change and that wow-moment you get to experience once this riddle of fantasy and reality is finally solved ? All of these had to be answered very soon as we arrive. The scenery was pretty dull and the clouds were settling in promising to make our Venice experience much different from what we had all expected it to be back home. The whole way you get to Venice makes you realize it stands out from what we had managed to get a glimpse of so far on that trip. We arrived at what looked like a docking station to get on a boat that would take us within a walking distance from the heart of the city on water. As the name suggests, it is only accessible by water. It felt incredibly stuffy as we were quieing in a very international (mostly oriental-looking) crowd to get on our boat. We were told to take our umbrellas with us to protect us against the passionate Italian (yes, we were still in Italy) sunshine while in Venice, but it looked like we would be needing them to protect us against a heavy rain. The boat felt a bit rocky and shaky but it was taking us to Venice and kept me wondering what my first glimpse of it would be like. The water was of a totally different colour than it was back in the Meditarranean. It seemed green and grey and not really inviting to swim in. But we knew we were done with swimming, for this trip anyway. There were some large vessels gliding by and I knew I had to take a picture.
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A while later, amongst the enigmatic backdrop of the grey skies and green and grey Adriatic, postcard views of the city started taking shape. There is always some kind of magic in this moment of the fantasy and reality colliding into something tangible. Bongiorno, Venice! St. Mark’s Campanille made for a beautiful reality check. I was just holding a notebook with a picture of it in my hands just the other day and here I was taking it in from a distance. But at the moment it seemed as if that photo of the notebook was part of the distant past because at the time I felt as if I was living a different kind of life, a Venetian life…
We got off our boat to find ourselves on the island of Murano famous for its glass-making factory. I never knew my first encounter of Venice would start off in this way. To come to think of it, it was pretty logical that glass should be produced here, because Venetians saw it as something reminding of water. We were shown the process of glass-making and led into a little shop selling different kinds of jewellery and a lot of other things made from glass. It was all very beautiful and we expected the price tag would be staggeringly high… There was a Russian shop assistant and she guided us through. It was funny to hear her speak with a distinct Italian accent and meeting someone Russian here made the whole experience to me seem like a tourist trap. We ended up getting some affordable things and I got myself a pair of earrings which I knew would be a lovely souvenir to take back home.
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It was now time to experience Venice the way an average tourist does. We were just at the heart of the city and pretty much what our idea of it comes down to. The view we got was the most touristic I had seen at this point and it seemed as if there were too many of us exploring the idea of Venice and we were getting in each other’s ways trying to figure out what the true Venice is. A gondolla ride has to be the highlight of an average Venice trip. It hardly escapes anyone’s list of things to do here, even though there are cheaper alternatives to exploring the Venetian canals. But I guess it’s one of those things that needs to be done anyway. Gondollas were first mentioned in the 11th century. Currently there are over 400 of them taking tourists on daily rides. Something like that had to emerge in the city with its unique geographical position. It is so much more than just a way of navigating the city, which was a tricky thing of course. Apart from a means of transportation, gondolas used to be places for secret meetings of the Venetian elite adding another mysterious as well as sometimes erotic and seductive twist to the experience. It makes you wonder what kind of secrets these insidious waters have been holding all this time. This fact should match our understanding of Italy but committing dark secrets to water with it being the only place to hide has to be purely Venetian. Using curtains to keep whatever was happening on gondolas a secret seems quite extraordinary. It adds to the idea of Venice being full of mysterious understatements. The way a gondola gently glides the waters of the canals can be seen as erotic by some and if I had known about it before my trip here, I wouldn’t have failed to see where these people came from. A gondola looks just the way we’ve seen it in endless pictures, quirkly shaped boats (mainly black) coming and going making you wonder what is going through the minds of people taking a ride and how different it is from what could have been on the minds of people taking this ride long before it became something only tourists would do. We were just about to let Venice pat our senses as we were getting on our gondola which looked rather rocky and shaky as pretty much everything else about Venice so far. As I was helped onto the boat by a gondolier and felt the boat shaking, I also felt the bottom of my dress submerging in the water as well… That was the same dress I was wearing on my final day in Paris and the one that protected me against zealous mosquittos back in Milan. I think I should make it a tradition to wear it for uniquely romantic experiences in my life if there are any to come. At this point it occurred to me that we were trusting our lives to the Venetian waters that in the end seemed to have a power over everything. We had to sit tight because the gondolla might have fallen over if we made an abrupt move. For that same reason, we were told to close our umbrellas as it started raining pretty heavily as we set out on our ride. Being on a gondolla ride in the rain would give us plenty to tell about back home. That was all about water defining where we were and what we were for the moment. It was all a very surreal experience when we got to see and smell Venice and navigate its narrow mazes of streets surrounding the canal in that pretty sensitive way as we let Venice penetrate our senses while our gondolla was penetrating its waters. In fact, there was no smell at all, contrary to what a hearsay would have us believe. Venice is also called to be a matter of faith and I think at that moment all six of us on the gondolla would agree with that, because all those buildings we saw with water dripping off our eyebrows didn’t quite seem to be touched by a hint of life. Were we all dreaming? I suspect the famous Freud would have been happy to investigate the way we were feeling. Crossing under all these bridges including the famous Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri) and watching the gondolier dressed in a typical attire navigating the tight space in a quiet masculine way was incredible! Hearing him talk with a gondolier sailing nearby made me wish I spoke Italian. They might have been complaining about how tired they were of taking tourists on rides of the canals they must have seen hundreds of times before. Because of the rain, our ride seemed rather quick and was over before we knew it. Did it all happen for real? This is the question you would find yourself asking here in Venice quite a lot…
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A typical Venetian experience was now done with. With our bodies out of the gondola and our minds floating amidst the insidious depths of the canal, we were about to embark on a gastronomic venture of Venice. Here it’s all about making use of your body as a massive tool capable of a whole range of sensations. There’s something Venice does to this tool because while your mind is still floating caught up in a fantasy, your body is working at supersonic speeds craving for new experiences. We found out Venice wouldn’t let us have things our way because as we found ourselves back in the piazzetta (a public square in front of the Palace of the Doge overlooking the canal), we didn’t find our guide waiting to take us to a restaurant as was initially planned. Was that all part of some conspiracy? Looking back, standing here in this square overlooking the canal feeling lost and having no idea where to go feels part of a proper Venice experience, but it didn’t at the moment. There was some sort of drama about it… Someone phoned the guide up, which was the most reasonable thing to do instead of standing there feeling sorry for ourselves. It turned out he had no idea our gondolla ride actually had taken place, because it wasn’t supposed to in this stormy weather! Our gondollier was a brave one to take us on this quick rainy ride which was long enough to start messing with our emotions and senses! Italian men can be very spontaneous and bold, can’t they? Seeing our guide showing up through a thick crowd was reassuring. We needed someone to guide us through. The restaurant was a short walk away but it didn’t mean we would have been able to find it on our own because it’s Venice… We couldn’t wait to tuck into our meal, which consisted of a starter, which was a vegetable salad, followed by a main course of pasta. It all tasted heavenly and there was something out of this world about this meal… I wonder what the same meal eaten back home would feel like… I wanted to feel every crumb melting in my palate making this moment last… Wine kept our minds floating even further but it was time to go, because we had some time before our tour of Venice started.
With no canal in view, Venice seemed a more earthly place to be in and it was time to indulge in something very materialistic and it was time for a bit of shopping. Enigmatic faces on Venetian masks seemed to have guided us where they were. Just like glass, you can expect masks to have emerged here because they made it so incredibly easy to mask your identity, let go of whatever was in the past and let yourself be consumed with the passion of a fling with Venice and who cared it wouldn’t last. It will in that mind caught up in fantasy… We made our way back to the piazzetta and properly took it all in. It was so incredibly beautiful and romantic! Of course, it was somehow not what I had pictured it to be and I guess it’s always a thing with imagination and reality, but I felt something distinctly Venetian touching my senses while I was standing here in this stunning space and that made the whole experience so worthwhile and Venetian. That was the ultimate romantic destination and a real treat for me! It would be insane not to be feeling romantic at the moment. I wanted a mental picture of everything, all those gorgeous details of the Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale) and these people some looking totally lost just as we did about an hour before and some looking totally consumed with romance as we saw some couples all loved up walking down the square. That moment in that square would live long in countless pictures taken and memories made. We had never posed for photos in such weird ways and positions but that is what Venice does to you, I believe… We just went along with whatever our hearts told us to do and I wish we had the luxury of that back home away from this magic group of islands which is Venice…
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Ah, look, here are the doves of San Marco, the flying legends! Well, would it be a guilty pleasure to feed them? They are there all the romance is, in the heart of San Marco. Will they ever be made extinct from here? At the moment, it seemed Venice was much more likely to get submerged by those insidious waters never to be seen again than those birds were to ever disappear from the place. Did they know something we didn’t know that was happening here years and years back? Even if they did, they wouldn’t tell us.
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The lion perched on a massive column was watching us as long-standing symbols of the city giving the whole romance thing a brutal twist. We got close to the waters again for a closer look at the gondollas parked near the shore. Is there anywhere else in the world you get a view like this? Postcards views ready to let us be part of them for a tiny little moment that we sure will never ever forget… Seeing all these iconic views larger than life is what we travel for at the end of the day. I turn my back to the waterfront, step back and here it is, the impressive Piazzetta di San Marco. Being here near the waterway watching Venice like this feels like being a spectator in the theatre and as small and busy as this central part of Venice is, we all might have a feeling we’ve got the front row tickets.
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We step forward from the waterfront and find ourselves near St. Mark’s Basilica, which really does look too beautiful to be true. Amongst all this beauty, it was time to sit back and enjoy a little break with a bit of gelato. I felt myself again sitting here people watching and more secure with Venice seeming less fragile from this queit bench. Were the impressions of the day sinking in or were we taking to Venice like a duck to water? All we knew was that our gelato was surprisingly cheap and absolutely delicious! Our guided tour of Venice was rather disappointing because our local guide was trying to babble out something in Russian but she wasn’t doing a good job. All we did was finding our way through loomy mazes of streets following the sound of her voice. A floating sensation seemed to be back as we watched secluded houses surrounded by waters penetrated by a string of gondolas with people enjoying their ride in style. One of the houses was where Marco Polo used to live and he was my absolute idol at the moment when I stood there thinking of how absolutely thrilling and fascinating it must have felt for him to embark on his famous journeys. I’m feeling a bit like him now documenting my experiences as well…The view of the Rialto Bridge (Ponte di Rialto) and the Grand Canal was worth putting up with the terrible guide! One look at it and I knew I must go back again for a closer and more lingering encounter. Sometime, some day… There are places in this world I know I owe another visit and this is one of them…Anyway, it was time to make our way back to San Marco and this is where you need to be because most of the signs you see lead there. You don’t want to get lost in Venice, well, you do unless you’ve got so little time on your hands. Sometime, some day I hope I will get lost here… But for now we had to follow the signs and the annoying guide before the tour was finally over.
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And here we were again in what Napoleon called “the largest ballroom of Europe”, Piazza San Marco. Dancing the night away wearing masks in the floating city must have been really extraordinary. There was something enchanting and unique about this particular public place. I had to remind myself we were so close to the waterfront even here and the marks of previous floods on the building walls did that as well. Of course we can’t completely appreciate the place with no sufficient knowledge of its history. Where we were didn’t feel like Italy, it felt like an ISLAND living on its own….
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There was time for some more souvenir shopping and that experience was pretty average. Some more mental images of the San Marco Square before we leave. St.Mark’s Campanile, the bell tower, in the corner of the square was what really caught my eye as we were saying goodbye wondering if we were leaving to never come back again. I found myself actually bonding with this architectural piece restored in the early 20th century following its collapse.
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It was now time to head back to the Piazzetta to catch a boat back. Saying goodbye is never easy especially to somewhere you know you can feel the way you’ve never felt before… It was getting really dark before what was likely to be a storm as we got on our boat. The views I was experiencing as we were leaving were the ones to remember forever. Venice seemed too vulnerable and fragile, but it was us in the middle of the stormy Adriatic Sea being controlled by it. The view of the Campanile against the menacingly grey sky was my last mental image of Venice… It waters wouldn’t let us go even after we got off that boat because the moment we were, it started raining so heavily we had to run for it! Well, we didn’t really, because we seemed to be the only ones in our group to have our umbrellas with us. I felt that same dress I was wearing on our final day in Paris soaking and that somehow seemed intimate and romantic to feel it touch my heels as I was walking through the puddles of rain… The umbrellas weren’t of any help anymore when we found a shelter to wait for the storm to finish. I felt sorry for our guide standing there soaking in the Venetian rain and wished I had a spare one to hand to him…
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Back on the coach as I got changed into different clothes, I felt my body starting feeling comfortable and safe but still craving for these new experiences while my mind was still floating just as the city… Just like in Paris while watching the Eiffel Tower burst into countless lights, I was up throughtout the entire overnight trip to Germany having thoughts of whoever I wished at different points of my life had shared this moment with me, shared Venice till it was gone forever just as that feeling of being young and in love… Did it all happen for real?

Romeo & Juliet’s Verona

I can safely say I’ve never been hugely fascinated by Shakespeare’s heart-wrenching “Romeo and Juliet”. I found the whole drama of the story a bit over the top as it centered on two teenagers who, by definition, weren’t mature enough to accumulate a feeling worth dying for. It’s more often than not hormones and a generally rebellious disposition that drive adolescents into bold and life-risking extremes. Set in Italy against a bitter family feud, this story about two turbulent, romance-seeking souls has an extra edge and zeal and keeps standing up as one of the most enduring love tales. More than that, I had difficulty in seeing what I would define as LOVE in this story… Would I define what it is if you asked me to? I don’t think I would but extravagant obsession was never part of it and that was what I saw underpinning a number of poor cinema adaptations and if you will, I might have them to blame for my nonchalant vision of Shakespeare’s piece. But forget about what I’ve just taken a liberty of saying and imagine me throwing my vision out of the window as I was sitting on the coach writing an intimate, heart-felt letter to… Juliet! Yes, a hormone-driven teenager who is a pure fiction!
That early cloudy morning we were on our way to Verona, a home place of the famous teenage couple. What was I doing writing that letter which I knew most probably wouldn’t ever be read, let alone replied to? Well, I thought this would be a beautiful ritual which would nurture my romantic side which had already been fuelled over the last couple of days. It wasn’t that teenage Juliet who stupidly ended up killing herself for “love” that I was writing to. What this letter did was reinforce my belief in love which hopefully existed. It also shed some light on what I wanted from life and love. The process of writing it was very beautiful and romantic and I don’t think I’d ever questioned the idea of writing to a fictional character I never took a liking to. I was just putting together the words strewn with a combination of emotions I never knew I could be experiencing venturing on doing something like this. I think if I read it now, I would chuckle but at the time it seemed quite natural to be let myself be taken over by romantic, sappy ideas… The rational part of me (the one that takes some time to mend when back home) was saying “What are you doing committing to paper some incoherent, quirky ideas and wishes, no one is going to read it at best and you might as well get ridiculed by whoever might happen to read this…”. The romantic bit of me (the one that wouldn’t drift away back home and makes you long to be back on the road again because this is how it stays alive) was savouring this moment and it is this part of me that told me I would be writing so extensively about it here…
Here we were in Verona, a beautiful city in Northern Italy. We didn’t have much time to spend here, that was going to be just a quick walking tour with a local guide who spoke a really nice Russian and looked very nice as you would expect an Italian lady to. That was in Italy that I saw ladies strut their stuff in quite high heels! Fashion-consciousness is something they were born with. I really loved how she said in Russian that she was from Verona. It sounded very cute the way she said it and it made me think about how this little phrase that people are taught to say in their first language classes comes to represent us to people outside our country… Я русская. I’m Russian. Ich bin Russin. Io sono Russa. Under certain circumstances, these words can be very important or just a conversation icebreaker… You have to experience saying them outside your country and that’s how you will get my point…
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The city was still quiet at this early hour… To my right I saw something which looked a lot like the Colosseum! Well, I knew I was in Italy after all but was there another, a smaller one? That was Arena di Verona, an amphitheatre which is still in use as a concert venue today. I wasn’t ready for seeing something like this knowing I wasn’t in Rome so I think it went a bit unappreciated…When you arrive here, you have to open up your mind to so much more that Verona has to offer except it being an alleged setting for Shakespeare’s story, otherwise you may miss out. We enjoyed a leisurely stroll of one of the main shopping streets. All these “Saldi” signs looked very inviting and shoes… Aw, they were beckoning for me it looked like paradise and I could only imagine walking the streets of Italy in one of these gorgeous pairs…
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Views of the Adige River and the feeling of tranquility I was having evoked a different side of Italy I wasn’t previously aware of…The city looked a small and comfortable place to be in… There is so much more history for me to learn before I can see beyond the tranquility of our stroll.
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The city seemed to be living at its own medieval pace and at one point when I was standing looking up at one of those very old buildings, I felt its decaying but enduring history looking back on me. Our very own and personal perception of history is shaped by moments like this… This is when it feels still living and breathing, you just need to stop to hear it… Verona streets are perfect for bonding with the history in quite an intimate and romantic way. I’m not sure if we have Romeo and Juliet to thank for that, though…
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Piazza delle Erbe was very evocative of ancient Romans as it was where the Forum was. The Italian word “piazza” (square) defines some really lively open space where people can casually hang out to have a chat or people-watch. Piazzas are usually lined with lovely cafes and restaurants if you want to enjoy a meal or sip on a drink while doing any of the above…It was quiet when we came but my mind was buzzing with images of the place in the late evening when people take to streets for their stroll… That had been the first piazza (not just what I would have called a square) I had encountered at that point with a real Italian feel to it. For a moment, it helped me to take my mind off this whole “Romeo and Juliet” thing because this idea of the association with the city made me feel pressured to feel as romantic as I possibly could… It was a really weird feeling… There was also a very beautiful and somehow warm Fontana dei Madonna Verona. It celebrates the warm and charming beauty of Verona and somehow posing beneath it felt a bit spiritual as if it was giving us some loving protection and guidance…I think I was starting to capture the spirit of Verona in this vibrant place… The souvenirs sold from stalls looked really lovely and homely…There was all that staff for your kitchen and so much more…
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You can go out of your way to try to escape the romanticism inspired by Romeo and Juliet but you really can’t because we were just on our way to Casa di Romeo through the streets coming alive. That wasn’t a very pretentious but rather low-key building where you truly had to let your imagination do the job for you… It was covered with inscriptions by lots and lots of people either desperate for romance or proclaiming their eternal love for each other… It all looked a bit too much… It was now time for the highlight of the tour, Juliet’s house and balcony. From about a distance away you could estimate how many people still believe in romance and someone special out there for them.
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Of course you know it’s all just a tourist trap because even the balcony was added to the house in the 20th century (obviously to make things slightly easier for our imagination). It was starting to rain and the place was packed with people from virtually everywhere but it was really romantic to be part of something celebrating something vague and intangible but something that we all want to believe exists… We were all there for one reason – LOVE… Celebrating it, asking for it, searching for it… It’s our curiosity about love that brought us there in the first place. There was one important ritual we were just about to take part in. There’s a statue of Juliet in the courtyard and you’re supposed to rub her right breast to be lucky in love. I have no clue where this whole tradition comes from but it really embraces the erotic aspect of love… Probably signorina Juliet doesn’t mind a bit of intimate contact as all the people wishing for luck in love seemed to be female…
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And we got to post our letters to Juliet! According to the film “Letters to Juliet”, there are secretaries employed to answer these letters! You might want to think of them as Juliet’s personal secretaries…Romeo, though, seems to be left out of the modern plot… It would take an insanely romantic to believe this letter would ever be answered… And what kind of answer would you expect? We just love the idea of putting a small piece of crumbled paper into a beautiful post box with lots of heart images in this crowded but cute courtyard celebrating the IDEA of love and… Shakespeare’s art which will be here forever…
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Before we left, we took a quick look at the street performers, got a few lovely souvenirs and munched on a much-needed fruit dessert which was a mixture of fruits put together in a bowl so in the end you got a mixture of flavours and it tasted like Italy and the sun which was hiding from us at that moment… It was just starting to rain again and the last thing I did in Verona was to ignore it and stop at a newspaper stand and ask if they had any British newspapers on sale. They had two! They got a bit wet in the rain but I felt so amazing reading these huge newspapers on the coach and feeling a bit British here in Italy…
Romeo and Juliet are one of the reasons people keep coming to this lovely city of Verona but there should be something else to it to make you want to come back or just really enjoy the city. And it has what it takes to be appreciated beyond all the romance. Of course there is a huge commercial aspect to this love tale but I think that this teenage couple makes for a very beautiful background to the subtle medieval charm of the city… When I look at this statue of Romeo and Juliet sitting on my desk locking their lips for a kiss, I know this is Verona, something passionate hiding in the rubble of time… Till after I’d visited Verona, I wasn’t properly aware of Romeo and Juliet being Italian and they have this exaggerated idea of love… Is love worth dying for? We’d rather not know and leave the tragic end out of the plot… Arrivederci, Verona! Arrivederci, Romeo e Giulietta!
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A Blurry Night Walk in Milan

Literally before we knew it and enjoyed a few more breathtaking views of the Mediterranean, we were in Italy! Most of Europe does seem like a huge space with no physically perceivable limits! Italy is a book too large, vibrant and diverse to even get a feel of in a day and that was how long we were supposed to be there for. I knew whatever the outcomes of that brief trip might turn out to be, I sure owed Italy a longer visit somewhere down the line. As we were travelling somewhere near San Marino and the scenery seemed to be changing, I was thinking about how Italy should forget me a quick cheeky peek at its beauty…I saw it as a rehearsal of something bigger and that was going to be a different story so bear with me!

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My first impression of Italy could well be summed up with one word and that is HOT! Up to that point, I’d been feeling comfortable in the Mediterranean climate even though I guess the temperatures were soaring at the time. As we got off the coach and technically set our foot on Italy to have a quick meal in a roadside café, I found it physically challenging to breathe… I even started doubting if “something bigger” was coming at all… I mellowed out a bit when I saw something very Italian – pizza and pasta! Now we are talking! After struggling for a bit to make ourselves understood to an Italian who didn’t seem to speak any English, we were sitting happily munching on our surprisingly cheap and quite large pizzas! That’s one thing off our bucket list of things to do in Italy… But a brief gastronomic experience was pretty much it… Ah, and the word HOT! Well, it was just a rehearsal, never mind that! I’d always had a feeling Italy needed to be taken slowly but slowly wasn’t our style, on that trip, anyway…

We were back on the road driving for a few hours to the suburbs of Milan where we were supposed to stay for the night. Milan! So we were staying in the suburbs of somewhere hugely fashionable and glamorous… Or so we thought… I think one of the purposes of travelling is bridging the gap between your previous, probably biased perception of a place and what it would seem like to be while you are actually there. Of course, our knowledge is like your luggage we take with us and the thing with it is that it’s not as easy to sort out as our hand luggage, but it’s amazing to see it transform through the course of your travels and it’s equally fascinating to see our hand luggage grow as well (even if it seems too heavy to be carrying at a time). But you wouldn’t mind that when you come home to unpack it and feel an urge to pack it again! So when our tour guide offered a trip to Milan as an optional activity for the night, we opted for it even though it wasn’t originally on our itinerary. Good things always come to those who… travel! My imagination took over and I was wondering what Milan would look like at night because you might have noticed I have a fascination for cities at night… It might have to do with me being a night owl… I need something to stare at with my eyes wide open with amazement at night… Here we were in Milan… There was no glamour there yet as we arrived to a rather deserted part of the city which looked a bit depressing with its gray and dull streets… No, Italy and dull shouldn’t mix! Well, we saw one man standing at a balcony and one of the ladies in our group seemed to be particularly interested and the tour guide made a comment that she should remember that house in case she wanted to come visit him later that night because our hotel was just close by! That was funny and I was wondering if this Italian would have minded a Russian girl turn up in his doorway… Someone was already embracing Italy! Sometimes Russian ladies can be ridiculous but we don’t really have decent men here so some of us can be extremely easy for foreigners to lead on…

We arrived at our small hotel and had some time to change before we set out for a tour of the city. I walk into the bathroom, look at myself in the mirror to see how two days of basking in the Mediterranean had given me a very intense suntan! That was very passionately sun-kissed skin… Well, now I looked more Italian, it’s bellissimo! I put on the same dress I was wearing on my final day in Paris and I’m ready to explore Milan. I hope I won’t be a fashion disaster. As we drove by streets of Milan, I had difficulty realizing where I actually was because dull kept being the word for the moment… Was that the financial and fashion centre of Italy in disguise? Was being dull a new trend of the season? I never cared much about fashion anyway… I saw signs for the city centre and was hoping for things to get more exciting. The streets were still deserted, were people busy at work sorting out finances at this hour? Was that why people in the South of the country never liked people in the North for not being able to live it up and enjoy la dolce vita? It looked like even I was better at that… Anyway, where were ever cheerful tourists? Making money on their holiday? Things still not getting any more upbeat, we arrived in the city centre to meet a local tour guide. I caught a glimpse of a fountain and what looked like a bit more lively area than what we’d seen so far, so not all was lost. We got off our coach to be welcomed by… Well, those weren’t handsome Italian gentlemen but… mosquitoes! They were very pushy and wouldn’t take a simple “No!” and a wave for an answer. I was happy to be wearing a long dress because it was a bit of protection against their attacks. I felt genuinely sorry for everyone else having to compulsively wave them away… They wanted our blood with zealous Italian passion!

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As our guide told us, the city residents had already filed a petition asking the mayor to address this mosquito problem. So that was not quite an enjoyable night stroll for most of the group… But the key to happy travelling is equally zealous optimism so we carried on to see Castello Sforzesco, which seemed to somehow resemble home, that is the Kremlin… No, I wasn’t homesick at all but a resemblance certainly caught my eye. As the night was setting it, the illumination was already on. The setting looked a bit gruesome and lonely (well, mosquitoes kept us company all the way!).

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We kept walking quite deserted streets of Milan and I was wondering where glamour and fashion were gone. Hiding from mosquitoes? I know that sounds like a very superficial idea of the city but I guess it stems from scarce and equally superficial knowledge of its history (I had no idea we would be coming here so I didn’t do my research). There were a few roadside cafes and they are always so inviting for you to pick a table and let the world go by while enjoying a meal or sipping on a drink… Perhaps, some other time but will be ever be some other time…? We walked a street lined up with flags because there was some international event going on and I was proud as I saw our flag here in Milan… Photos of the Milan football team (well, it made me a bit more aware of where we were). It would be nice to watch them play, I guess…

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Next, we saw what was the major sight of Milan and that was something massive and extravagantly Gothic! Duomo di Milano, Milan Cathedral. It was well illuminated and there was a huge interactive screen on it. It looked like a place you would love to get to spend more time, all glamour and fashion apart… It was like a Gothic jungle growing on the face of the city and there was some vague dynamics there…

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Exasperated by the mosquitoes, most people in our group insisted we kept moving so we went inside a luxury shopping area, The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II on, the world’s oldest shopping mall dating back to 1861. This is where that you get this “shop-till-you-drop” feel. For us, it was more a shopping museum and it was very imposing, top brands housed in such an old and astounding building! That is shopping with style and class!

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As the tour guide mentions Leonardo and his purely enigmatic and controversial “Last Supper”, I had this idea that we were like figures in this canvas, blurry and mysterious figures walking the streets the Genuis himself once walked waiting for something huge and significant to unravel as tourists would do…As we walked to Piazza della Scala with the monument to Leonardo, whose name and personality is a huge part of the Italian legacy…
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He looks pensive in the dark of the night overlooking Milan’s treasure, Teatro alla Scala… You’d heard about it a million times and might have just missed among other buildings… That had to be the most disappointing sightseeing experience because as large and opulent as you may imagine it, it is nothing of that! Probably due to a huge significance of everything staged here, the building doesn’t have to make any kind of a statement… It is so humble and low-keyed as if letting ladies dressed to impress coming here for a classy theatre night steal the thunder… To me La Scala and its exterior summed up Milan for me for the night… Something overrated and disappointing from a quick look…
VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100
We had very little time here on ourselves because the mosquitoes were ruthless (and no one else was wearing anything long). I didn’t happen to hear it but my sister says that while we were passing a café on our way back, she heard a soundtrack from a very popular Italian TV series “The Octopus” starring Michele Placido. In the early 90’s we used to watch it on daytime TV curled up on the sofa… It would always bring back childhood memories and my Dad and sister had this strange fascination with the series… Well, it’s a beautiful thing about travelling, it grants those gifts that channel you back to the younger you who would have never guessed they would ever be where you had been…We celebrated life and travelling with our first ever try of a wonderful Italian gelato (icecream) which was quickly melting as we were making our way back… Night doesn’t just bring beautiful illuminations pouring in through cities, it might make something indiscernable to the eye… “Where is all that glitter and glamour?”, the silly me was asking as we headed back to our hotel into the dim city lights… Were they letting us shine? We wouldn’t see Milan as a new day would come so next time… Perhaps… A bit of BBC World News, late-night reflections and we are in bed… Buona Notte, Milano!

The Royal Paradise

A haven for the rich and famous, a haven for glitter and glamour, a haven for tax evaders set among the picturesque mountains and washed by the blue Mediterranean … This is all about the second-smallest country in the world which nature and men collaboratively made into heaven… We might not be too knowledgeable about its history, but we know this is where wealth and money are blissfully happy to be… A perfect set for a beautiful fairytale in Hollywood style, so much revenue generated and glamour luring in the affluent people in the area tucked away by the nature which seems to bow to the wealth and bring it to its glorious best there…

A place fit for princes and princesses, earthly paradise, was supposed to be our final stop of the French Riviera. Were we going to feel comfortable here, too? Well, the beauty of the scenery left us astounded and overwhelmed. You still have the blue of the Mediterranean, perfectly green trees, a gentle breeze… But it felt as if there was a Chanel #5 drop dispersed in the air or some other very chic and delicate touch that made the Mediterranean look its bluest, the trees their greenest and the breeze the most gentle… Monaco arguably has the highest concentration of beauty in the world and offers a perfect adventure and getaway for those individuals for whom the money isn’t really an issue… Man is really capable of conquering the nature and tailoring the surroundings to feed their ambition and we didn’t have to drive too far away from Nice to realize that…

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The views make your head spin and leave you incredulous especially as you find out that jaw-dropping house overlooking the bay is owned by a popular and ridiculously rich businessman and politician, our fellow Russian… Russian people love to show off their wealth in unthinkably extraordinary ways… We are only allowed a brief stop here to get the best of amazing photo opportunities. That gives us a very captivating, sparkling-blue idea of what money can buy… This is Monaco-Ville, one of the districts of Monaco, perched on the rock where the city originated in the 13th century. It is too beautiful to be a dream but what they have in common is that they didn’t last too long for us…

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It was time to see more of the tiny country. The area gracefully occupied by the royal state seems so compact that I wondered if we were going to cause any disruption to the tranquil serenity of what is hard to believe to be home for about 30 thousands residents. It came across as more like a place you would come to celebrate life and make it a big indulgent party rather than somewhere to live day-to-day lives.

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Usually where there is money, there is a lot of adrenaline, testosterone and speed… So Monaco is also world-wide known as a venue for a major sporting event, Monaco Grand Prix and there are monuments of speedy fancy cars reminding you of that. I’d love to witness the squealing of brakes against a gentle Mediterranean breeze, to me these seem to clash. I guess I need to see the race being televised to get a feel for what it is like. It might send my heart racing. The view alone did anyway…

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We stopped to be dazzled by the Oceanographic Museum perched on top of a beautiful hill. It boasts the largest marine collection in the world and having seen it even just from the outside gives us something to boast about… I wouldn’t believe a view to be so awe-inspiringly beautiful even if I saw it on a movie screen. As they say, it’s just too beautiful to be true… It’s so beautiful it hurts and you think you’d been living your life for this moment to finally arrive…

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Driving down an underground parking area gives us a breather feeling like a moment to refresh and refill ourselves after being on set of a romantic epic, Grace Kelly style. As we go up to explore the paradise on foot, we see pictures of her son Prince Albert II and his wife gracing us with a royal smile. Even a touch of ordinary life had a dazzling royal shine to it.

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A huge wow-moment for me was the view of our next set, the Fontvieille harbor with pristine white yachts and splendid modern architecture. It had to be seen to be believed! This is so much more than just a postcard view. This is where the sea gave way to the human-made beauty. There is simply not enough space to accommodate all the wealth, therefore the area was reclaimed from the sea to display a tiny bit of it. It is hard to believe those glamorous vessels are ever used because they seem to be so perfectly lined-up to be a landscape to never forget. Can they take you anywhere more beautiful than Monaco..?

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After getting some souvenirs, none of which can really do justice to what you see here and will be revering and dreaming of back home, we witness the Change of Guards at the royal palace. It looks surprisingly less opulent than what you would expect it to be. The Grimaldi family ruled the country for 700 years and here is a statue of François Grimaldi to commemorate his capture of the fortress. The place feels super safe and occasional groups of tourists all seem to be out of place because it doesn’t look like your average tourist destination. It’s royal on the royal scale!

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What do you do when you can afford to spend money like water? You go where the water is the bluest blue and gamble like hell in this paradise. Some people in our group were entertaining hopes of winning some. “Good luck!”, thought we as we ditched them to go to a different paradise that would keep us boasting probably for the rest of our lives! As if the royal paradise wasn’t enough, we headed to the best place to be, the Monte Carlo beach! We were doing it the royal style! En route to the beach, we found The Champions Promenade paying tribute to the greatest footballers and it made us proud to see some Russian names and footprints. Don’t get me started on how bad the current Russian national team is… That was a walk with a view for a champion! I felt like singing “We are the champions, my friend!” Actually, there was another Titanic moment I wished to relive and that was spreading my arms into the air and screaming “I’m a king of the world!” Royal delusions in a royal country…

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That was a beach experience to remember, whatever beaches I will hopefully embark on in my life! Enjoying it all for free was an amazing bonus. Splashing in the bluest sea, having fun with the flirty waves with beautiful high-rises surrounded by a mountain landscape would be worth giving up a glorious Hollywood career to move here if I were Grace Kelly… Enjoying the leftover of Nice peaches was the cherry on the Mediterranean cake. At one point, I just laid back and put on a song called “Paradise” on my player to suit the moment… I knew I would be playing it during my trip and that was the time! Will my idea of paradise ever change from that? I’ve got my whole life to find out…

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Feeling like royally sophisticated sunbathers, we were leaving surprised to be back to “normal” life when I saw a bus stop and leisurely sitting here taking in what was a world away from what my routine bus experience is like… I was wondering how ordinary locals felt about living alongside the rich and famous…

It was time to leave and our fellow travelers weren’t lucky to win that day but they looked quite happy about the whole experience. Travelling to the French Riviera made us more relaxed and laid-back and what did we have to lose compared to big gamblers? I’m not sure anyone got a serious ambition of making it big and getting a property here in the region that was designed to enjoy life, sea and sun, but I guess we all had a common ambition, that was to come here again! Before we did, all we could do was to reminisce and splash in the sea of memories… Mediterranean, I can’t wait to feel you on my skin again… Au revoir, Monaco! Au revoir, Côte d’Azur… Je t’aime, ‘Méditerranée’!

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Nice – NICE or not NICE?

Before we set out for our overnight stay in Nice, we had a quick stop at Grasse to visit Parfumerie Fragonard. This might get a lot of ladies jealous, I know! How beautiful and peaceful this part of the world seemed and even if I didn’t deserve to be in paradise, I felt like I belonged there! The factory was set in an intimate location and didn’t look like a factory at all. We were given a short tour and introduced to some basic techniques. Perfume-making is a very elaborate process. Honestly, I’m not a fan of perfume because I haven’t found my signature scent yet that would somehow bring out my personality. I though buying a perfume here would be a good idea. We were given a few scents to choose from and that was very confusing to figure out which one appealed to me and I went for a fragrance which seemed to smell fine (still not 100% perfect!). A lot of ladies shopping at the same time is too much for me so we didn’t take too long to choose. I wasn’t meant to find my perfect fragrance here in the deep blue of the Mediterranean but maybe I will somewhere else, miles and miles away from here… The ladies from our group all seemed to be happy with their purchases and the whole coach was filled with a variety of scents. I was starting embracing a different notion of France because scents and fragrances were always part of it but their combination with the sun and sea of the French Riviera added a new flavor to it, just like the one I was smelling on the coach… Both fragrances I got were a bit disappointing though because they didn’t last throughout the day but it was a good memory to get them there. There are so many fragrances in the world and I still might find the one when I least expect to…

A sunny and picturesque road was taking us to Nice and that was so NICE! When you’re here, you get this feeling everyone is busy taking a rest from everything and the rest of the world doesn’t seem to matter any longer. A long stretch of the deepest blue and here we were in the second most visited city in France… I didn’t get the city’s energy at once but it seemed different to that of Cannes. There seemed to be a more ordinary, day-to-day life going on here, I thought…

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

We checked in our hotel, it was near the train station. It was NICE to find out our room was overlooking a lovely pool outside. I caught up with some things online because an Internet access can be an issue in France. I couldn’t wait to hit the beach and take advantage of having the rest of the afternoon to ourselves! Our hotel was said to be within an easy walking distance from the beach but we’d been struggling for a bit to find our way. The city wasn’t making much of an impression on me because I seemed to have a different idea of what a seaside city (probably like the one I wish I had been born in) was like and what I saw somehow didn’t live up to it. I just knew something wasn’t right…

We did some shopping at Monoprix (France’s major retail chain) and got some things for our little picnic at the seaside! Yes!!! Wine was on our shopping list of course because we didn’t drink much of it and we’d been in France for three days! I mentioned that wine can be very cheap here and comes in all kinds of varieties. Remembering our quest to open our wine bottle back in Paris, we were looking for small bottles that could be easy to open. That was a bit difficult but we did find them in the end! What for me was an absolute must to get for our picnic was… cheese! I can’t even begin to tell you how much I love cheese!!! That was one of a major draw in France for me apart from all the romance… I was really spoilt for choice, I’d never seen so much cheese in the same space!!! I had no idea which one to get and I ended up getting a set of five different cheeses. It was heaven! I was going to have my cheese fix!

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We dropped into some more shops and they were pretty much like those you can find anywhere. As we were leaving one, the theft alarm mistakenly went off and we had to go back in again to prove we hadn’t stolen anything… Shoplifting is never part of the plan for us really! It wasn’t too NICE! It was getting very hot as we heard a tram approaching. The sound it made was very terrifying! It was like a warning siren or something and this sound has haunted me up to this day! As we continued our walk, I looked to the right and saw a smaller copy of… the Notre Dame! That is the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice. It lent our afternoon a Paris feel… Without it, it would have been hard to believe we were actually still in France!

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We found ourselves in the main city square, Place Massena and it was just NICE and quiet with the statue of Apollo at the centre. There are also statues of seated men that I originally didn’t pay attention to. We bought some lavender bags which smelled really soothing and Mediterranean and a couple more souvenirs to take back home. Tranquility was in the air and even though Nice seemed like a busier place than Cannes, no one looked busy or preoccupied and it felt like every single person on the street was out having a lazy time… As I was walking Place Massena, I was wondering what that was that kept lots of artistic talents coming here in search of inspiration… I still couldn’t get it… I wasn’t able to see through all these buildings…

And here it was, second time that day! The Mediterranean! Bonjour!!!! I was ready to take another dip, a longer one this time! But those pebbles on the beach… No! I wasn’t definitely enjoying the beach there as much as I did on the Isla Santa Margarita. Going for a swim was a bit painful. Waves there were just so strong that it felt like they could have washed me away! But we were having fun and forgot about the beach not being too comfortable and who were we to judge anyway? We were in the Mediterranean!!! We decided to seize the day and stop grumbling! Wine, cheese and sea… That was a beautiful evening we spent surrounded by sunbathers from all over the world and I loved how people there wouldn’t give you weird looks or anything, everyone seems to be busy basking in the sun and minding their own business! The combination of the breathtaking scenery, hot sun, NICE wine and delicious cheese I was lucky to have all to myself made me feel like one happy person…

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Pebbles and waves were now part of the fun! As the late evening started settling in over the Mediterranean and people started leaving the beach, we took a walk along the famous Promenade des Anglais. Wealthy Englishmen chose Nice as their winter holiday destination in the late 18th century and this is when “The English Way” was built. It was a really brilliant idea and it felt so romantic for me, a teacher of English, to be walking along that Promenade admiring the Mediterranean stretching miles and miles and breathing the air of relaxed joy. In the evening the whole seaside scene seems to be changing… The famous Hotel Negresco, which dominates lots of pictures of Nice, was seen at a distance. It was time to head back to our hotel which might be tricky to find. We asked some ladies for directions but their English was below average and they weren’t any good. We were walking past lots of intimate cafes, small shops and Nice didn’t feel like a seaside city as we were moving away from the Promenade des Anglais. I still was struggling to get its atmosphere… Was that appeal lost forever now or was it lost upon me? Anyway, we safely made it to our hotel. The streets didn’t feel too safe and inviting as if there was some dust in the air that clouded its beauty and affected my judgment of the city. I got ready to go to bed after watching BBC World News for a bit. That had been a magnificent day full of sunshine and the blue Mediterranean, I would never forget it! Bonne nuit, Nice!!!

We woke up early for our brief tour of Nice. It was our final day in France and we loved some croissants and coffee for breakfast. It turned out, some people from the group were so tired the day before that they didn’t even get to go to the beach, bless them. That was a beautiful Provence morning and I was wondering what had been happening on these streets while we were asleep… There were virtually no people and the Mediterranean charm seemed to be opening up.

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Beautiful markets with lots of Provence specialties looked very inviting and charming. We got some peaches and they were perfect and smelled of summer and good times…

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We were shown some administrative buildings as well. The gem of this tour was a climb onto Chateau Hill. It was quite a long way up and a nice workout. We were only given 15 minutes to explore it and it was well worth the effort because the view from up there was breathtaking! Man and nature, all united… That was a view everyone needs to experience at least once in a lifetime and I feel blessed I have had that beautiful moment that felt like a dream I didn’t wish to wake up from… We even left behind a small engraving marking our climb up here on the railing… It’s wonderful thinking about our names being written somewhere above the Mediterranean…

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We had another quick walk along the Promenade to enjoy the palm trees, sun-tanned people and the Mediterranean of course… Nice turned out to be something different from I thought it was.

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As we were leaving, we saw a busier, industrial part of the city and that was when I realized, it wasn’t just about the Mediterranean, it was also about over 300 thousand people living in this seaside city. Is Nice overrated? I guess it might be and I know something was missing for me there… A seaside city is not just the sea and beach facilities, it’s the atmosphere. To sum up, the city is NICE but not perfect… Au revoir, Nice!
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A Dream Colored Shades of Blue

The blue sky, the blue sea, gentle breeze, warm sand, gigantic palms, sun-kissed skin, relaxed people… A lot of blue and green and sun… That’s a holiday in style, something to look forward to and something to remember on a cold drear day as you go about your routine… Sometimes you can feel the waves splashing and whispering in your ear, the sun caressing your skin, sand touching your feet, a breeze massaging your senses… And it all starts feeling so real that it doesn’t matter if it’s a memory you keep or something you’ve only been dreaming was a memory… I’ve always had a deep fascination for the sea, something about it I’ve always found revitalizing and energizing… Water is life and sea must be a huge showcase of life you just want to take a dip into to forget your everyday life…Sometimes it’s peaceful and calm, sometimes a storm comes. It’s pretty much what our lives are.
Sea has always been a dream for me and I’d always wondered what it would feel like to feel the waves splashing and whispering in my ear, the sun caressing my skin, sand touching my feet, a breeze massaging my senses. Even though I loved sea and water, I’d been afraid of approaching because I had never been taught to swim and took my first tentative dip in my twenties. I wish I had been living in a seaside city and never had had to face my fear. Swimming is supposed to come naturally and before we were born, we were all good enough swimmers to survive in our Mum’s womb.
On that day that was all supposed to become real, not only was I to see the sea (I love the way it sounds), but I was also going to take a dip in… the Mediterranean! Where else but here in the middle of the earth can you find so much blue and green and sun?
We were bound for the French Riviera, land of sea and holidays in style! Our first destination was Cannes, originally a fishing village and now a sprawling haven of beauty and chic set against the blue-blue Mediterranean. Blue should always be all the rage in this part of the world. So here we were, another overnight trip of about 1000 kilometers away from Paris brought US to join the paradise… We were not able to catch a glimpse of the Mediterranean yet as we stopped for a quick breakfast joined by a lot of holidaymakers. I couldn’t believe my big day was here and to me finally getting to see the sea seemed like a milestone. We were driving surrounded by the spectacular Mediterranean scenery, nice seaside houses dotted around. Nowhere to that point had I felt so on holiday as I did here.
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Holiday vibes were in the air and I couldn’t wait to take to the sea! I imagine that would be the area I would be humbled to trespass because we know about all these glamorous and uber-trendy people coming here for a getaway. But it all felt a bit low-key though, plain and relaxing setting and wasn’t too much “in your face” (something we are more used to in this country where people go to great lengths to show off their wealth and show ordinary people where they stand with them). Again I was wondering who was living in these houses, whoever it was, they were very lucky…
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We were just about to take a quick tour of the city and found ourselves just outside the famous Boulevard de la Croisette, a venue for the annual Cannes Film Festival which gained the town international acclaim. Some people might expect to rub shoulders with the rich and famous who had walked this boulevard but the place was actually quiet. The red carpet outside Palais des Festivals looked deserted and no good for celebrity-spotting. No celebrity was posing for a photo with an enigmatic smile. It was just a peaceful Mediterranean morning with clear blue skies and gigantic palms. You could just imagine the buzz and atmosphere of the place during the festival when it becomes a scene for star-struck fans and fierce photographers and journalists on the hunt for a scoop or an exclusive shoot. I wasn’t either of these but strangely felt I belonged there. I looked to the left and here it was – the huge, blue Mediterranean!!! So that was it! I wasn’t excited, I felt calm and peaceful as if I wasn’t new to the place.
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I was watching some people (probably locals) basking in the sun and some elderly lady was topless and no one seemed to mind. Cannes wasn’t just about glamour and wealth after all… Then we took a brief walk along the Allée des Étoiles du Cinéma to take clumsy photos of our weary feet next to beautifully preserved hand imprints of celebrities. Did I feel star-struck? No, I really didn’t but I was amazed how my first trip to the seaside turned out to get a cinema feel to it and I could have never imagined it would…
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We opted for a trip to the Isla Santa Margarita which is just about a 20-minute boat trip from Cannes. We walked past some yachts on the bay and astounded by this combination of beauty and wealth, I felt I was in a movie set. Blue skies, pristine white vessels… A perfect holiday dream seemed to be coming alive… If only I had had more time to lie back and take it all in…
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We got on our boat and our brief ride along the Mediterranean began… Never in my life had I seen so many shades of blue. My whole world seemed all shades of blue and it all felt like one, the sky and the sea… My perfect blue dream… Just like Rose in “Titanic”, I felt like spreading my arms and whispering “I’m flying!”. Well, that’s the only part of this iconic movie I’d like to relive really! We shortly arrived to what genuinely looked like PARADISE! A quiet island with perfect sandy beaches, very clear and very blue sea and amazingly green trees to match! Glamour, beauty, wealth don’t seem to matter any longer when you are treated to the scenery!
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The island is famous for its prison where Man in the Iron Mask was held in the 17th century. You can’t really imagine a person being incarcerated in this heavenly beautiful place.
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We took a walk along a very wonderful eucalyptus forest and listened to some birds which seemed to be singing in a French accent and that was a song I wish I could play on repeat… What a serene and intimate setting it was with a soothing smell of eucalyptus lingering in the air… It was very therapeutic and I remembered how eucalyptus was used as a cure for cough in my childhood. All of my senses were pampered with the beauty of that forest. I know we get all patriotic when it comes to nature because we claim our landscapes are like nowhere in the world but this French forest gave me peace of mind and this is what we love nature for regardless of underlying geographical and political reasons. After our enjoyable and therapeutic walk, it was time to hit the beach! Yes, my first dip in the sea ever and it was coming now!!! I couldn’t wait to delve into the blue waters of the Mediterranean. Awww, the water feels so good and refreshing! Now we are talking! That was a very spectacular dip and the view we had was to kill for! Cannes seemed so far away and we were just enjoying every single second of this seaside part of our holiday. I kept reminding myself it was real! “I’m in the Mediterranean!!!!!! I’m happy!” I had to lick my skin which tasted salty and that was how I was so sure it was all happening for real.
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VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100
My favourite colour for the moment was… BLUE!!!! Being a rubbish swimmer wasn’t an issue at all because we could actually see the bottom as we were in. So I felt as safe as ever in not so deep part of the blue sea! The Mediterranean was a perfect and very posh place for my first dip in the sea. Sand and sea – we were living it up! Do I need to say I was most unkeen on leaving about two hours later … We had a quick meal and my pear doughnut tasted like the best food I’d ever tried on that bench overlooking the Mediterranean…
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It was time to head back to Cannes and let my eyes feast on all these shades of blue again. I hardly knew I wasn’t dreaming… We were back to Boulevard de la Croisette to find it equally tranquil as it was early in the morning. Even though you realize that six-figure sums are spent daily in these lovely hotels and cafes and actresses strutting their stuff on 22 steps leading to the entrance of Palais des Festivals wearing the clothes you can never dream of wearing and splurge on lavish parties, you feel you belong here in what is portrayed by the media to be a haven for rich and famous. Was that because we spent most of our time here on the Isla Santa Margarita or was that part of the charm and beauty of the place? I guess it might take another visit to Cannes to find out. I had a perfect beach experience and saw the same blue-blue sea affluent people coming here get to see… If feeling comfortable in the world of hefty bills and high ambitions was just a delusion, I don’t care because it was colored blue by the Mediterranean… Here is to my first ever dip in the sea!

Au revoir, Paris!

The rain kept tapping on our window as we woke up for our final day in Paris. Soon it would be time to say Au revoir, Paris, but before that we were going to have the city to ourselves till the late afternoon! Nine hours in Paris on your own, isn’t that romantique? It is enough to fall in love, fall out of love and fall back in it, so we had plenty of time on our hands! “Paris sky, are you crying about us leaving today? No, you really don’t have to”. I was putting on my jeans because it didn’t look like the rain was going to stop any time soon. Then I started thinking “Yes, 9 hours can be quite a lot but it’s my final day in Paris, I’m not going to be here tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, next week, next month and most probably next year as well… So I’m wearing my long dress! It sounds impractical, I know but there might never be a better occasion to be wearing it than today…” Then came packing, our final breakfast of Parisian croissants and a cup of steaming coffee…As we were on our way to the Louvre where our coach was going to drop us off, I felt all absorbed by Paris (why do you always have to wait till your final day in a city to get absorbed, it’s like you know something is about to be gone and hold onto it) thinking about all the great people who had been walking these streets and that was when the significance of being here in this place at this time hit me… “It’s too early to say goodbye, Paris! At least I want une bise on the cheek by your sun before I leave…”. That was what I was saying to myself sitting on the coach looking out the window. Our tour guide said Paris could be weird when it came to weather because sometimes it’s raining and next minute the sun is shining! So choosing to wear a dress might turn out to be quite sensible after all! Paris might grant me my wish for this final day (une bise). Some people from our group were going to Disneyland and the rest were setting out for a day of adventure on their own just like us. So here we were, walking the streets of the early morning Paris and smelling it… Remember how insecure we felt on our first day? Now we were taking things slowly, enjoying everything as we were walking by. Beautifully coloured macarons (a traditional French dessert) in shop windows brought a rainbow into the city. But even the grey sky has so many dimensions and shades to it when you are in Paris… The rain had stopped and we were taking a leisurely stroll wondering what the next spell of weather would be.

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So a short walk took us straight into Jardin des Tuileries, a very beautiful public garden at the heart of Paris. As it was very early, we had it to ourselves! The grey sky and the perfectly green park covered with rainy dew… We walked around for a while soaking up the atmosphere. French like to party! The garbage cans, still not cleaned, were overflowing with bottles. There was not a single person in the park except us. There were a couple birds, though and… goats! We were surprised to see one and just a couple of meters away there was the second one as well! Back home I found out their job was actually to keep the grass down! So they were already up and at work so early! There were some beautiful sculptures in the park as well and I was wondering what it all looked like in the sunny weather.

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I was having fun walking on puddles in my long dress because I was in Paris! It was starting to clear up, we were on our way to the Seine to rest a little bit and enjoy a Parisian morning before we set out for Musée d’Orsay on the left bank. Just sitting and looking around me had never been so pleasurable and enjoyable. The quiet Seine with a few boats with early birds sailing by, occasional joggers (some were quite handsome), the sky turning blue and a bit of HER at a distance… My morning had never been better! A man walking his dog wished us a nice day as my sister told him how beautiful it was! Of course it was going to be a nice day and one we would never forget and “beautiful” was also the word to describe it…

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We crossed the bank to find ourselves just outside Musée d’Orsay. Let me explain why we chose to visit this particular museum during our free time in Paris. As a child, I remember browsing this shabby book my parents had about Renoir. Of course it was just a random book and my parents weren’t fans of his art but just randomly got hold of this book, which along a few others kept me entertained as a small kid. There were some nudity pieces there but I strangely found them funny. I loved the paper they were printed on, glossy like magazines these days. These were the first art apart from Russian paintings I remember ever being exposed to. As a result, Renoir and his style (which as I found out was impressionism) came to represent France to me. France also used to be my favourite country before I grew passionately keen on England. So the moment I knew I would be travelling to Paris, I was sure I would see some of Renoir’s paintings in Paris and revisit my childhood memories. The building that now houses Musée d’Orsay used to be a railway station, this is why its layout looked very unusual with a massive clock at the main entrance. This is a feast for impressionism fans. As recommended by our tour guide, we started our tour from the fifth floor. “Look, a Renoir!”, I whispered joyously! There seemed to be just a tiny moment between a five or six-year old me studying Renoir’s paintings in the living room of my parents’ flat to a 24-year old me in Paris standing there looking at those paintings… Impressionism was what it was all about for me – it was making an impression and so was the power of a dream. One more Renoir, another Renoir… I was grabbing each single particle of my dream as it was coming alive in the beautifully and differently coloured rooms of Musée d’Orsay. Enjoying a bit of art in the city of romance is romantique! Art is the most lasting legacy that is here for us to learn to comprehend and savor. Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Sisley… This museum is a genuine treasure. We went down to see some sculptures as well. There was something else we wanted to see on our final day in Paris so we left just about two hours later. A childhood dream had just come true! Feeling happy, I went outside for a passionate and hot une bise by the Paris sun! Ah, je t’aime, Paris!

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Just walking along the Seine and beautiful bridges in the hot Paris sunshine breathing the air of Paris like this was amazing. We stopped at Pont des Arts, a bridge famous for its numerous love locks and featured in lots of movies. So many love stories are clattered together here… A section of this bridge actually collapsed this year under the weight of the love locks… Yes, sometimes there is just too much love…

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It was time to rest our feet again and that was when we reached Place de Concorde, Paris’s largest square with an Egyptian obelisk at the centre. I was feeling like a child joining my sister and friend in splashing my feet in the splendid Fountain of River Commerce and Navigation… La Madeleine Church tucked away between other astounding buildings, Jardin des Tuileries on the right, the Arc de Triomphe at the top of the Champs-Élysées and a part of HER on the far left… That was a really epic moment in Paris and I wished it had lasted forever!

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Time came for our final mission for the day. A stroll down Champs-Élysées … I thought a visit to Paris would not be complete without it. This is another part of Paris that I found essential to my idea of it. An aristocratic promenade when you can put on truly chic Parisian airs and feel like a particle of Paris’s beauty show. Paris has another, outrageously fashionable face. Fashion is what adds a chic edge to our otherwise dull lives, captivates and lures. For some fashion is life… That was going to be a long afternoon walk all the way up to the Arc de Triomphe. I felt like singing:

Aux Champs-Elysées, aux Champs-Elysées

Au soleil, sous la pluie, à midi ou à minuit

Il y a tout ce que vous voulez aux Champs-Elysées.

We didn’t feel too aristocratic as we were getting a bit tired and that end of the boulevard didn’t offer too much people-watching. We decided to relax in the park just next to President’s residence, the Élysée Palace where we saw an elegant French lady walking her two cute dogs and a couple kissing (so Parisian).

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We walked on further into the boulevard lined with fashionable shops, restaurants, cinema theaters. What I saw didn’t live up to my expectations, though as I imagined Champs-Elysées to be more extraordinary in a way, not just a long boulevard. Maybe you need a huge bank account to make it an extraordinary experience…We crossed to the other side because that one we were walking on was crowded with some street performers. We were passing by a newspaper stand and I decided to stop to see what newspapers were on sale to nurture this passion of mine for journalism. The image of the joyous Kate and William dominated the front covers. Je ne parle pas français so I wasn’t going to buy a French newspaper (now I think I should have) so I attempted to ask if they had any British newspapers on sale (I love the British press and that was how I familiarized myself with newspaper English). It turned out, they had the Daily Mail! I was ecstatic and virtually jumping with joy! That was the first British newspaper I had bought and I got it there, at Champs-Elysées!!! That was a real treasure and I’d realized that London wasn’t so far away. From the other side of the street I saw my favourite actor, Leonardo DiCaprio, looking at me from a billboard of a fancy shop. That was all a very beautiful Champs-Elysées experience! I felt like singing again…

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We were approaching the Arc de Triomphe and the traffic around it looked insane as lots and lots of cars were circling the Arc de Triomphe in both directions. No insurance company covers accidents which are said to happen here every seven minutes. We needed to cross a little section of this crazy road to get to a wonderful spot to take photos of this monument honoring everyone who fought for France. It felt a bit risky standing there posing amidst all this traffic but it was a perfect Parisian adventure! I wish we had known about an underground passage so that we could cross straight to the Arc de Triomphe to examine its numerous inscriptions…

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It was time to head back to Jardin des Tuileries which was just about a two-kilometer walk! On our way back we popped into a very stuffy Monoprix shop to get some water. We wouldn’t splurge on a fancy meal at one of the cafes at Champs-Elysées of course so we dropped into a huge McDonalds which was just packed so we left. We did some more people-watching as we kept taking a break to sit down on one of the benches. There were people from around the world all around… We made it to where our tour of the boulevard began. It’s a shame it wasn’t Bastille Day when major celebrations take place here.

We were back in Jardin des Tuileries that was full of people lounging here. I saw those green chairs you can take and choose whatever spot you like here. I took one and it was quite heavy! The adventurous part of me wanted to take a ride on the famous merry-go-round here but the girls didn’t feel like joining me and there wasn’t much time before we were due to leave.

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We got a couple of souvenirs in Rue di Rivoli which was a bit challenging as French can be not too keen on speaking English and you can only rely on some words which English and French share to understand what shop assistants are saying. We had another overnight trip ahead of us so we needed a meal. We decided to check out a café near the Louvre which didn’t look too fancy. We were greeted by a most charming and friendly waiters who seemed to go out of their way to make us welcome. It seemed that all of them took turns in coming to check on us asking if we needed anything, while they didn’t seem to attend so much to people at the other tables. One came up to me and standing waving something at my face as a kind of a fan asking if I was feeling hot even though I really wasn’t. It was all extremely funny! When my sister mentioned she was having an overnight trip tonight, they kindly offered her to sleep in there! That was the only meal out we had while in Paris because you can imagine the city is rather expensive and it was the one to remember! Merci beaucoup!

9 hours had gone in a flash and it was now time to say Au revoir, Paris… Our coach picked us up and we headed for Disneyland where the rest of the group were during the day. Spending that final day here on our own made me even more curious as to what other experiences the city had to offer and there sure is plenty! As we got our final views of the Louvre to the song “From Sarah with Love” playing, I was getting really sad. That was it for me in the city of romance. It wasn’t love at first sight and I didn’t instantly get blown away by the Parisian romance as deep down inside I might have been expecting to. But it was very engaging to observe the way my feelings were evolving while I was staying here. In fact, you probably shouldn’t expect to feel all romantic just the moment you arrive but I think it’s your imagination and previous knowledge of the city that makes your perception of it truly romantic. I don’t know if what I experienced was caused by my imagination and was just what it painted over the real Paris. What this visit certainly did was change my perspective on romance and ways we can feel it and made me contemplate what romance really is… Because I believe it’s what you feel inside which is affected by the sum of all of your experiences. Being in Paris living out some script I had had in my head must have been romantic in itself. Was that the script that made me compelled to feel the way I did? Honestly, I don’t even care to know. Would I want to go back? I definitely would because I want to see where me and Paris would go… So yes, I want to take this next step and I hope I will one day and that will be a different journey… Don’t you believe in Paris?

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A Full-Day Romance

Waking up in Paris to breakfast of croissants for an early morning drive to Notre-Dame… It is so… Romantique! Needless to say, I had a very good sleep that night and probably I could have had wherever in the world I would have been because I didn’t sleep the night before. It was time to head out for our only full day with Paris and we sure wanted to make the most of it. My sister made a remark that French croissants had too much oil in them but I didn’t care! I loved how the Paris sun gave me une bise on the cheek when I went outside to get on our coach… I was feeling well-rested and light, no suitcase in my hand, ready to embrace love and romance with my both hands… Bonjour, Paris and off we go! I hope you don’t disappoint today and I’m ready, are you?
The traffic was probably just as bad as it was the day before but now I didn’t really care because I was in Paris!!! I’d seen HER (the Eiffel Tower, Mona Lisa), I spent a night here so now I was definitely and positively in the city of romance! I was feeling more playful and flirty and just looking at my surroundings while we were stuck in traffic keeping reminding myself that where I was now was where so many people were dying to be… I’m actually a very lucky person! So it was an early morning and kissed gently by the Paris sunshine we were on our way to one of the most enigmatic and astounding places in Paris, Notre Dame on The Île de la Cité, a natural island on the Seine. It was time to capture the spirit of Hugo’s Quasimodo, Esmeralda… What a perfectly mysterious and enigmatic place it is!
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Here the romance of Paris gets a mystical Gothic twist. The cathedral looks astounding and imposing against the blue sky making you feel as if you were part of some mystical plot. First thing we went inside as the place was not too crowded with people at that early hour. The interior was overwhelming with all of its mosaics, religious images. You could occasionally see people praying. Transept roses, rose windows… Here a rose does not feel like a romantic symbol but a token of an intricate mystery and shows how religious people attach a whole new meaning to it. In 2013 the Cathedral celebrated its 850th anniversary and we got special souvenir coins marking the event from a machine right there in the church. I wish I had read “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to fully appreciate the enormity of the place. We didn’t stay inside long and went outside to climb up some stairs just in front of the cathedral where we could take in its grandeur.
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When you are standing a little way up, all that seems to be seen is the cathedral and your eyes wander sizing up every little architectural detail. What I saw to me looked like another life going on amidst the splendid twin towers as if all these figures were part of a puppet show up in the air. I was really looking forward to seeing the famous gargoyles which in Gothic architecture were designed to protect buildings from rainwater. The way you see them clenching their jaws is petrifying. Were they watching us from up there? If they were, they shouldn’t have been bored because an average of 13 million people visits the site every year. I wish we could go up and join them in enjoying a splendid view of the city but we had no time for that. Having found out there was recently a suicide in the cathedral made me contemplate eternity and human life. How many more mysteries this building holds…
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As I was engaging in deep thought, it was 9 a.m. and we heard the bells start ringing. What a purely magical experience it was that we, early birds, were treated to! We posed for some pictures with a perfect view of the cathedral and went back down as we saw a man selling Eiffel Tower souvenirs and all of a sudden, he burst into singing Belle from the Notre de Paris musical.
Ô Notre Dame !
Oh ! Laisse-moi rien qu’une fois
Pousser la porte du jardin d’Esmeralda
Wow, that was really romantic and he had a fantastic singing voice! Hugo’s story that made this cathedral linger in art and culture felt somewhere in mid-air…
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It was time to go, we had a lot more to do. We walked some streets to where our coach was parked accompanied by the tour guide. We passed by the famous Hotel de Ville which houses the city’s local administration and marvelled at numerous enormous fountains. This was where our bus tour of the city began. As we found out from our tour guide, there would be beaches close by soon. The only bad thing about it was that we were not going to be here to see it and bask in the Paris sun like this.
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We drove along the Seine and learned some basic facts from the history of the city. What an unfathomable amount of history there is in Paris, more than a human brain can conceive! We arrive in Latin Quarter, a lively and bubbly area of Paris around the Sorbonne which does not look too large from the outside. Lots of cafes and bistros flash by and the streets are getting busier but the Paris vibe is still there.
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At the end of our tour, we stopped at a sensationally beautiful place Trocadero. The view of the main Parisian beauty from up here is truly breathtaking! This is where you get the best photos of her and this is where love birds flock for their romantic photo shoots. If you have that special someone , this place is a must if you are in Paris because I can imagine love feels so much stronger up here. From up there the Eiffel Tower looks like the winner of a Parisian beauty pageant accompanied by other sights that can be discerned. She knows all eyes are on her!
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We have just a couple of minutes here to take our beautiful pictures and leave to be mobbed by black street sellers offering us Eiffel Towers ranging from tiny to fairly large. This is really hard sell and these people seem to be very keen on Russians as they shout “Natasha” in your face as you are trying to leave. How very annoying!
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Anyway, we soon left for a tour of Versailles. Before we did, we made one final stop at Les Invalides (The National Residence of the Invalids) that now houses a museum showcasing the military history of France as well as a retirement home for war veterans. Along with some other war heroes, there is a burial place of Napoleon Bonaparte. The outside is dazzling with gold and the garden surrounding it is spectacular. Alain Delon was said to have a property around here…
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Next up we had a tour of the place which was the epicenter of France’s political life for more than a hundred years. Another place holding a great many mysteries of people having lived behind its enormous walls. If the Eiffel Tower is a symbol of romantic love, the Palace of Versailles is one of absolute monarchy that has witnessed the country’s turbulent past. We were about to immerse ourselves into inscrutability of history. Versailles is about a thirty-minute drive from the centre of Paris and we got an amazing chance to look back as we were already out of the city to see HER standing far up behind. Having seen it for the second day now I was kind of getting used to its beauty. Is that what happens with love as well when you eventually get to the point when the chemistry is gone? Anyway, moving on. We arrived to Versailles to realize why Louis XIV chose this place as the location of his future palace. The scenery is very calm and serene and offers a wonderful getaway from the hustle and bustle of Paris. Well, you think so until you come across another gang of black street sellers at the gate and look behind it to see gangs of tourists queuing for their entry tickets. The façade does look impressive and royal. We had to walk the pavement to the entrance to understand that it wasn’t actually used for walking on in the old days because it was mainly for carriages, royals didn’t bother to do too much walking. This is why I didn’t feel like a queen on a leisurely stroll of my grounds… As we had a reservation for our tour, we didn’t take long to get in. From the inside the place started feeling more just like a museum with crowds of tourists checking it out. You physically feel the place hadn’t been lived on for very long, since 1789 following the French Revolution to be precise. I was working hard to imagine what it must have felt like to be living in such a huge place. Is having a place like that all it takes to make a person happy? Being of royal birth grants certain privileges and opens a lot of doors but many people found it daunting to keep their dignities intact as they were living in a lap of luxury. As you enter the salons of the palace, you get blown away by the furnishing and décor and they make a statement of power and authority. French kings had huge egos that they boosted by lavish interiors. They had servants at their call to help them through their daily routine which might makes us presume they had no worry in the world.
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Some people had to work their way up by getting into the king’s good grace to get admitted to the place and here we were, thousands of us, casually touring it… I was wondering what the kings would say if they got a glimpse of what their residence is like today… But to this day, you have to be in a certain privileged position to get a proper tour because the palace is mobbed with tourists and I think to get a feel for Versailles, you need to take time to let your imagination work because if you are rushed as we were, the place might come across as a barren display of royal wealth but it is the people and their personal dramas that kept the place alive. You have to get into their royal shoes for as long as you are here. Amidst all this lifeless beauty, I kept thinking about things that were taking place here that might not be so politics-related. I might have started picking up on the Paris vibe but at some point it stroke me that Paris was not just about romantic love but a kind of “love” that at least used to be kept private before the social media came around if you get my point… In a way that makes you feel uneasy even though royals were just like the rest of us. The last queen of France, Maria Antoinette, that you see on a painting courteously looking down on you with her children was notorious for excessive partying and adultery and we can only imagine what kinds of things those party people got up to in the privacy of the palace grounds. The portraits that we see on display today didn’t help her public image. I dare presume she wasn’t the only royal to have fed their amorous appetites inside these mystifying walls. Standing there in the middle of the monarch’s chamber, I felt like a privacy intruder. Quite wide but very short beds looked as if they had never been slept in. Probably they hadn’t because a lot of the palace was looted after it was deserted following the Revolution and that must have been a copy of the original one. They could hardly be used for escaping the public eye because even a child-birth was public as it was taking place here. It is at this place where a strictly enforced etiquette which made provisions for every single aspect of royal life went hand in hand with extravagant pleasure-seeking. I found all these fancy bedrooms stifling in a way imagining how queens had their maids at their bedside whenever they woke up or went to bed to help them dress and undress. I’m not sure if I could handle being a royal… And of course, we stopped at the Hall of Mirrors which is next to the King’s chamber. Mirrors were very expensive to get at the time and were only produced in Venice so workers were brought here to make them because everything for the palace should have been home produced.
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What an utterly beautiful place to dance some waltz in and see the beauty of the moment reflected in the enormous mirrors… If I was a royal, it would be time for my promenade because the tour was now over. We were free to stroll the enchanting park of Versailles on our own for a bit. This is where you can really relax and enjoy royal views of Versailles. Was I feeling like a royal? Probably I wasn’t, but I definitely felt relaxed away from the crowds and this is perhaps what the royals came here for. Well-groomed lawns, flowers… You could well spend the entire day on the grounds. Unfortunately, the fountains weren’t working while we were here. There are fountain shows at certain periods and there must be an extra fee to get in. We walked around for a little bit and since we are not royals at the end of the day, it was soon time for us to leave. We had a bit of a meal which was a bit challenging to buy because as I noticed, French people can be rather unwilling to speak English. It was some bread with cheese and I can eat everything if there’s cheese in it! Before we left, we had a mission to complete. We needed to get some tiny Eiffel Towers from local street sellers because they sold them cheap. So we got our euro coins at the ready in fear we might be pickpocketed if we reached for our purses while buying our souvenirs. It was really funny but these black street sellers can really make you terrified. It made us chuckle that they did even try to speak some Russian with us and they didn’t really have to! Versailles turned out to be what I was picturing it to be, a pretty much lifeless display of royal extravagancy and wealth…
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We were on our way back to Paris. It wasn’t long till we saw HER again right in front of us. There’s no escaping HER really. As much as some people who were appalled by this structure tried to hide from it, the best they could do is to climb on top of her… Paris is so diverse that you can even get a bit of New York here when you pass by a replica of Statue of Liberty. Just a little surprise (imagine saying that in American accent!). The original statue was actually a gift from France. As we picked up the rest of the fellow travelers who were staying in the city, time came for another handsome man alert! There was one just the other day in Berlin with that man seated on the stairs of a bank. This man was seated on the stairs as well but of the famous Palais Garnier which houses the National Opera.
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Next stop was Montparnasse Tower. Our travel agency failed to reserve us the tickets to climb the main Parisian beauty and you can spend 3 hours in a queue to get your ticket there. So Tour Montparnasse was suggested as an alternative. That used to be the tallest skyscraper in France. We were to see Paris from the 56th floor! How dizzyingly exciting! We saw some handsome French office workers as we walked to the elevator. Falling in love in Paris can really be like a walk in the park or in this case, a walk to the elevator… It took us to the 55th floor and we needed to walk another floor to get to the roof terrace with breathtakingly beautiful views. We got there and had a photo of the three of us taken which we didn’t bother to pay to get but it’s kind of part of the experience. The terrace is amazing and there are some places you can sit or lie down to relax and take in the city. I took no time to find the best view of the Tower and here SHE is, so tiny and small but the largest and most precious jewel in the lavishly painted picture of Paris. I reached out my hand and it seems like it was sitting in my palm. “You are so beautiful, Madame!”, said I to myself as I noticed many more sights we had visited today lined up in front of my very eyes. We stayed up there a while and then it was time to go all the way down.
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We were now on our way to a very unique area of Paris, the area which used to have probably the highest concentration of art talent, Montmartre, ideally perched on the highest hill in Paris. A lot of celebrated artists found their refuge here and I imagined there would be a certain artistic vibe here. The area is visibly set apart from the rest of the city and I had to look a long way up to see where we were about to go. The first impression was that art gave way to petty crime here as I saw crowds of dodgy-looking black people coming and going and I was having doubts whether I really felt like joining this beehive of potential criminals. I’d never held on to my bag as tightly as I was walking up that street. The area didn’t feel safe at all and it gave me a feel of how poor artists who used to reside here must have been. It felt like a Paris underground where you always have to be on alert and aware of your surroundings. We safely got to the top of the hill to Sacré-Cœur, a very beautiful basilica I caught a glimpse of on my arrival to Paris. It’s even more beautiful close up and to me it looked even more spiritual than Notre-Dame. It looked like a rocket ready to burst into the air as we were standing at the foot of the hill watching it. The view from up there was stunning and of course we had a view of HER as well. There were some people lounging in the grass.
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We met our Montmartre guide who got stuck in traffic on his bicycle. The traffic in Paris can really get that bad! He turned out to be very friendly and interactive while he was introducing us to the area. We were cautioned against any interactions with street sellers during the tour. I don’t mean to sound racist but a lot of black people in Paris look a bit terrifying and that sends a clear message you’d better steer clear of them. Some of these guys seemed to be on friendly terms with our guide as they greeted him. He warned us that was going to be a sweaty walk uphill and by the looks on our faces, he might have assumed that made us even more terrified! He did his best to defuse the tension and told a couple of jokes. Accompanied by our energetic and fit guide, we were just about to enter the Sacré-Cœur basilica. Even though I’m not religious, I always enjoy going inside what religious people call “houses of God” while I’m travelling. This feeling it gives you is purely spiritual and comforting as you realize there is some energy in there that I can imagine a prayer can induce in someone in despair and you instantly pick up on it. For some reason, I found the energy in the cathedral a bit oppressing and the silence was really deafening and I was longing to hear a faint sound. I felt the urge to leave somehow. Luckily, we didn’t stay long and went back outside to continue our tour. This is when I saw a most terrifying and quirky dog being walked nearby. We were yet to see lots of dogs in this area of Paris. I was expecting to see lots of street artists at work but in fact all I saw in that part of the neighborhood were occasional groups of tourists. We were shown the first bistro launched by Cossacks in 1814. I smiled at my Russian heritage as we were walking by. Our Russian-French guide made the area come alive with the way he was introducing the sights and I was starting mellowing down after a not quite safe walk up to the area. As we started going down to some quiet place, he was telling a story of a man who once discovered he had learned to walk through walls. Once he met a woman around this area that he instantly felt attracted to and they started an affair even though this woman was married. One night he stayed at her place far too long (doing what? Well, there were some children in the group so it was said they had been dancing) and as he was running away, he discovered he could no longer walk through walls and where was he now? We only had to look to the right to see him stuck in a wall. This is a character from the story “The Man Who Could Walk Through Walls” by Marcel Aymé. We were astonished because the way we were approaching the monument was timed perfectly! To me this whole story was so Parisian and reminded of how Paris wasn’t just about romantic love and the sculpture of a human private part next to this man was another reminder of that and how important physical longings were here.
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We were shown a lovely house previously owned by Dalida, famous Italian-French singer, in quite an intimate location. Montmartre Museum had some copies of famous paintings accomplished in the area by the likes of Picasso, Matisse… To end our tour, we were shown a place where the famous character of the film Amélie came to buy groceries.
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A couple of hours before I thought the Montmartre vibe had been lost upon me but thanks to the professionalism of our guide, I felt a faint spark of it in my soul. We walked around the area on our own for a bit getting some art souvenirs from here and were struggling for a while to find our way back down that maze of streets. We were not sure if that was the street we needed but there was no question about it the moment we saw a very Russian face of a fellow male traveler in the sea of international people largely made up of some really gorgeous French men. I know probably no Russian men will be reading this so I can have a little rant about how Russian men are nothing like European ones. Scrubby looks, rude behavior, apathy to life is what generally sums up most men in Russia and I guess that was why that particular face stood up in the crowd… But we were in for some treat as we took a vacant bench right across the one where our “handsome” and so very Russian fellow traveler was seated. Checking out French men is an essential part of Paris experience and they make falling in love so easy! You might think Alain Delon was not your average French man but whilst seated there, I thought this idea had to be thrown out of the window as every third men in the crowd seemed a resemblance to this handsome French. I could stay here for hours French-men watching. Merci, French men, for providing some eye candy for us! This is what I miss a lot back home… I’m still struggling to figure out what on earth is the matter with men over here but the fact remains that something is seriously wrong! We left Montmartre wondering if we could come here on our own if we are in Paris again and not get pickpocketed again. We take another peek at the notorious Moulin Rouge and its windmill…
It was time for a brief New York throwback again as we took a brief ride along the business centre of Paris named La Défense with its huge skyscrapers. They were hiding behind HER as we were looking at Paris from Tour Montparnasse. This is where romance is put aside at least for the length of a work day…
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We were not at work, we were on a beautiful vacation in Paris and we didn’t say no to a bit of romance and as the night was settling in, we were just about to let Paris and its dazzling amorous lights work their magic on us. It had been a long day but again who cared, it was time for a late night date! After dark is when love transforms and has a playful spark of passion added to it that sends hearts racing and makes them do all the love talking. Our date was to start at 10 p.m. and we didn’t want to be late. We were there just in time and the magic was about to begin. We took some spot to see it closer. I knew it was our first late-night date but it was my heart speaking now and all that excitement was getting too much so let me get a little closer to you, Madame because tonight all the dreams I’d ever had of love were going to sparkle on you as you let your lights burst that might make me burst into tears of joy… For a tiny moment as we were standing there waiting, I felt like a man waiting for his date to make an appearance. And there she is, flirtatiously shining her bright lights on us. All eyes are on you, beautiful! Remember I said I thought after having seen the Eiffel Tower for two days, I started thinking I was getting used to it? Well, probably, it was a beautiful summer late or HER lights were even more beautiful but I thought Paris IS love! As I was standing here joined by thousands of others, I was thanking life for giving me this beautiful chance to be there in the city of romance feeling blessed and at the same time sorry for everyone who might never get a chance to come here… Jollie, jollie, jollie! Why can’t I just stand here all night watching you….It feels good to be here even without a special someone and even if you do want them blown away by these shining lights here with you, just imagine (but don’t close your eyes, please) someone you saw earlier in Paris or anyone from anywhere in the world who has ever made your heart skip a beat sitting here next to you…We feel love as long as our heart beats and especially when it has beaten in Paris… I feel tears coming to my eyes now just thinking of how hard it was to leave this beauty to be enjoyed by others… French specialties that were served in our coach didn’t help… I raised a toast to Paris (love) and to HER (a symbol of love)… Of course she’s the main beauty around and nothing else can shine their lights as she does but as we were on our way back to our remotely located hotel (safety comes first), we let the Louvre, Champs-Élysées and romantic roadside restaurants dazzle us with their charming lights… I felt in love and it seemed as if I needed that just like I needed the air to breathe… The air of Paris… I didn’t want to think I might not be feeling in the same way when I woke up the next morning… Paris, je t’aime… I believe in Paris, do you? Bonne nuit!!!
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