Category Archives: Amsterdam, Bruges, Paris 2016

Off to Amsterdam! Fear of Traveling?

amsterdam

Amsterdam

Husband Paul and I are leaving soon for our next adventure-four days in Amsterdam, four days in Bruges and seventeen days in Paris.  I am looking forward to enjoying art and beer in Amsterdam, waffles and chocolate in Bruges and everything in Paris, my favorite city in the world.

When we were planning this trip, Brussels was the first choice for our Belgium stay.  We booked an apartment one block from the Grand Place, the central square of Brussels and started planning our excursions and day trips.  Three days after we confirmed our Brussels apartment, suicide bombers set off three bombs in the city.  Although the bombings got us thinking about safety, we decided to stay with our plan.  Two weeks later our Brussels landlady called to tell us she had to cancel our reservation because she was selling her apartment and leaving the city because of the bombings.  After that, we decided the universe might be telling us to go somewhere else in Belgium.  Loving the film In Bruges and reading about the beauty of Bruges, we had no trouble changing our Belgium home from Brussels to Bruges.

bruges

Bruges

Some friends and family have asked us if we feel safe traveling to Belgium and Paris.  One family member half-jokingly referred to this trip as our “ISIS tour” and asked if we were also going to Nice.  A few people have told us safety concerns caused them to cancel their Europe travel plans in the last year.  I understand their concern and have discussed travel and safety with my husband.  But really, we feel like we will be as safe on this trip as we were on previous trips to Europe.  Data supports this feeling.  According to one data scientist we are sixteen times more likely to die from being hit by lightning than from a terrorist attack. Other than trying to avoid train stations during rush hours and being more vigilant, we don’t really plan to do anything differently on this trip.

Why do we worry about our safety in one travel destination and not in another?  We didn’t hesitate to book our Paris apartment just a few months after the tragic Paris attacks.  Our lack of concern about safety in Paris may be because we have been to Paris numerous times and know and love the city.  We have never been to Brussels, so it was harder to imagine what might make us feel unsafe there.

Part of the joy of travel is visiting new places and having new experiences.  I want to be both a wise and a fearless traveler.  So, we leave for our next adventure with as much excitement as ever and maybe a tad more caution.

Arrived Amsterdam

A warm, sunny morning welcomed us when we arrived in Amsterdam today. Driving to our apartment, our Afghani taxi driver, Farid, talked with us about life in Afghanistan and his family’s experience moving to Amsterdam.  He said Kabul is safe, but the outer areas experience daily bombings and both the Taliban and ISIS are gaining ground and adamantly stated that they are not Muslims. Farid told us he chose to live outside Amsterdam because he did not want his three children being close to the coffee shops, which sale marijuana, not coffee in Amsterdam.  Coffee ship patrons must be eighteen, and I had that it was mostly tourists who patronized the coffee shops; local people were not very interested.

Our host, Edwin, met us outside our second-floor apartment in a seventeenth-century building.  Thank goodness he was there to help get our luggage up the incredibly steep “Dutch stairs”.  They look more like a ladder than stairs.  Because houses used to be taxed based on their width, older  Dutch houses are very narrow and tall; they have nice size rooms but not much space for stairs.  Edwin assured us that in a few days we would be so accustomed to the steep stairs that we would go up and down without giving it a thought.  Right now we are holding on to both railings and stepping slowly both up and down .

stairs

Our apartment is a block from the flower market.  Stall after stall sell bulbs and flowers.  We didn’t realize until we walked past the flower market that the stalls are built over the canal.

flower-mrktflower-mrkt-back

Edwin recommended that we visit the Brouwerij”T IJ brewery located next to the De Gooyer windmill, the only remaining windmill in Amsterdam. Thanks to his great recommendation we enjoyed a sampling flight of their five original beers and met a lovely couple from Cleveland who gave us a great Paris restaurant recommendation.

amsterdam-beer-flightwindmill

Along the walk to the brewery we passed many of the more than 3,000 houseboats on the Amsterdam canals.  Some of them are available to rent.  Prior to 2008 very few of the houseboats were connected to the sewer system. Now, more than 2,000 boats have connected to the system, and the goal is to have all boats connected by 2017.

amsterdam-houseboats

After a wonderful Indian dinner at Indian Shiva, it’s early to bed for us.

Exploring Amsterdam

I was in breakfast heaven this morning, sitting outside enjoying a plate of poffertjes.  Sometimes called Dutch doughnut holes, they are little baby pancake balls smothered in butter and powdered sugar.

proffitterj

After breakfast we strolled through the lovely Jordaan district, reputedly the most famous neighborhood in the Netherlands.  Developed in the seventeenth century, it is a maze of little streets, art galleries, restaurants and specialty shops.

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We visited the Stedelijk Museum whose collection includes examples of every significant movement in art and design in the 20th and 21th centuries.  Dream Out Loud, a special exhibit showcasing twenty-six designers trying to solve complex social problems, was a special treat.  We saw a huge design made from cocktail umbrellas and a neon chandelier that turned at the same speed as the earth.  The museum was amazing, but I would not recommend lunching there.

stedlijk2stedilijk

Vondelpark was on our itinerary today, and we thought we were there and weren’t too impressed.  When we got home and checked our map, we realized we hadn’t gone far enough, so we missed it. The park we thought was Vondelpark didn’t even have a name on the map.  We’ll try again another day.

Afghani Dinner

While exploring the Jordaan district, we walked by Mantoe,  the Afghani restaurant Farid, our taxi, driver had recommended.  The universe was definitely telling us to try this place.  Luckily, we were able to get reservations.  We weren’t disappointed.  Our five-course meal was one of the best ever.

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Mantoe’s is owned by an Afghani family and is the first Afghani restaurant in the Netherlands.  Our waitress told us that it is part of her culture to offer guests a feast.

afghan-family

Van Gogh, Anne Frank and More

More than twenty years ago Paul became fascinated with Van Gogh when he first saw his work at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.  Ever since, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has been on his  list of must-see places.  It took awhile, but today we got to the Van Gogh Museum, home of the world’s largest collection of Van Gogh art.

The museum is beautiful  and extensive.  After a couple of hours, we took a break and had a yummy pastry in the coffee shop (a real coffee shop.)  A little sugar and a little rest and we were ready to see the rest of this fabulous museum.

vangogh

We were so lucky to be able to see the special exhibit, On the Verge of Insanity, which focused on the last eighteen months of Van Gogh’s life.  Using letters, art, timelines and narration, the exhibit addressed questions about Van Gogh’s mental health such as why he cut off his ear, why did he commit suicide, and what illness did he have.  Van Gogh’s last painting, which was unfinished, was at the end of the exhibit.

van-gogh-last-pinting

Anne Frank House

After lunch we went to the Anne Frank House.  Because the line to get in is so long without advanced tickets, we wanted to get tickets ahead of our trip.  Their web site is a little unpredictable, and every time we tried to get tickets, they were sold out.  After doing a number of trial runs, Paul was pretty sure he had figured out their system and got up at 2:00AM one morning and was able to get us tickets.

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I read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank when I was young and still remember how hard it was to understand what happened to her.  Going in to the rooms where she and her family hid, seeing pictures of how the rooms looked when she lived there, watching interviews with her father and others who knew her and reading quotes from her diary created a powerful and emotional experience.

ann-frank-house

More

Paul had a very Amsterdam experience today-a bicycle ran into him.  Paul and the cyclist went down, but luckily no one was hurt.  Bikes are everywhere here, and we have really worked at being aware of them.  I love seeing women in dresses and heels and men in suits biking to work.  Children usually sit in little metal seats in the front, and no one wears a helmet.

bikes

We walked by a cheese store that was hosting a cheese tasting.

cheese

We went to the Red Light District and saw women in windows.  There seemed to be more coffee shops (the marijuana kind) in this part of town, and people were sitting outside smoking marijuana.  Some of the shops sold marijuana candy, cookies and tea.

marijuana-shop

On the way back to our apartment we found a great outside table on Rembrandt Square and ended our day with a light meal and some great people watching.

amsterdam-break

Rijksmuseum, Vondelpark and More

We started our day with Dutch pancakes, which are really like crepes.  On our way to breakfast we ran in to Edwin, our apartment host.  He told us that Amsterdam folks hop on the train and head for the beach on warm, sunny days like today and tomorrow.  Tomorrow, he is going early to the beach to avoid the crowds on the train.

amsterdam-pancakes

Rijksmuseum

When it comes to Amsterdam museums, we saved the best for last. To avoid the lines we got our tickets for the Rijksmuseum in advance, but unlike our tickets for the Van Gogh and Anne Frank museums we did not need to come at a designated time.  We had thirty days after purchasing out tickets to use them, Built in 1885, the beautiful Rijksmuseum is dedicated to arts and history in Amsterdam.  A lovely garden surrounds two sides of the museum.  We used the informative free app, www.rijksmuseum.nl/tours to guide our visit.

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Among the 8,000 objects on display, Rembrandt’s works are the stars of the show.  His The Night Watch is the most famous painting in the museum and had by far the most people viewing it.

amsterdam-rijskm1

Two other Rembrandt masterpieces were acquired by the museum in 2016 for 18 million euros each.  Marten and Oopjen are the only life-size, full-length standing wedding portraits Rembrandt ever painted.  Since portraits like these were reserved for the nobility, this young couple was obviously very successful.

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There were so many beautiful and interesting things to see in this museum that we are already talking about spending more time here the next time we come to Amsterdam.  The stunning library in the Rijksmuseum is the largest public art history research library in the Netherlands.

amsterdam-rijksm

Vondelpark

After our mix-up a few days ago, we got better directions and found Vondelpark today.  It was a beautiful day for a walk in the park and a nice picnic.

amsterdam-vondelpark

We crossed a small bridge that had lovers’ locks like we had seen in Paris.

amsterdamvondelpark

More

We love exploring neighborhoods, so we planned our walk home from Vondelpark through the De-Pijp neighborhood and had fun browsing the Cuypmarkt, the largest and most popular market in the Netherlands.

amsterdam-market-2

We had a yummy waffle with chocolate.

amsterdam-market-3

Since I left home without a watch, I was thrilled to get a watch for four euros.  If it only lasts until the end of my trip, it will have served its purpose, and it is pretty cute.

amsterdam-market

Tonight we took a canal cruise, a classic Amsterdam activity, with Rederij P. Kooij.  We chose that company from the many Amsterdam canal cruise companies because they were closest to our apartment.  Our captain, Willem, was an interesting guy who liked to share additional information with us because we were the only English-speaking passengers and were sitting in the front.  We learned that every year they retrieve about sixty bodies and fifteen thousand bicycles from the canals.

amsterdam-canal-cruise

Amsterdam to Bruges

This morning we left Amsterdam for Bruges, Belgium.  Our favorite Amsterdam taxi driver, Farid, took us to the train station and Edwin’s nephew Zeus helped us get our luggage down the steep stairs.

amsterdam-zeus

We took one last look at our second floor apartment and noted the hook on the top of the building.  All of the old houses in Amsterdam have these hooks to bring furniture in through the windows because the stairs are so narrow and steep.

amsterdam-house

In addition to all of the wonderful experiences we had and the places visited, when I remember Amsterdam,  I will remember the canals, the narrow, crooked houses and how well we were treated.  People went out of their way to be helpful, from giving advice about using the trams to cutting in half a waffle the server knew we were going to share.  I think Amsterdam would be a great first destination for someone who wanted to plan their own trip to a non-English-speaking country.  Almost everyone here speaks English, and they are so friendly and  helpful.

tipping-house

I will also remember our lively street.  Beginning at noon, the street was closed to cars and  filled with people having a good time.  After noticing stickers on some of the windows that said “Member of Secret Village”, I started doing some research to see what that meant.  I discovered that our street,  Reguliersdwarsstraat,  was the most famous gay street in Amsterdam and four of the most famous gay bars in the city were next door to us.   The “Secret Village”  business initiative was launched in 2016, to position the street as an open-minded and tolerant shopping and entertainment area with an international reputation.  Although it got a little noisy at night, I thought it was pretty cool to discover we were staying on such a historic street.

View from our window one night

View from our window one night

On our train ride to Bruges we met a man who live in Bruges and works in Brussels.  He gave us a great restaurant recommendation – Pottekijker and insider information about Bruges-like don’t eat and drink on the square.  Except for the fries, the food and drink are overpriced and not as good as at other parts of the city.  A big soccer fan, he told us about the Champions League game on Wednesday between Bruges and Leicester City, England.

bruges-train1

We discovered that the three guys sitting across the aisle from us were sports writers from England going to Bruges to cover the game.  I had just read an article in the New York Times about the Leicester team and shared it with them.  They were friends with the writer for the NYT article.  We all had a great time talking about traveling and sports and the US.

bruges-train

And then suddenly we were in Bruges.  Michel, our Bruges host picked us up at the train station and oriented us to our beautiful Bruges apartment.  Called “Silent Bruges” it is a lovely change from our lively Amsterdam apartment.  Although the main house was built in the seventeenth century, the part we are in is “only” 150 years old. Michael gave us an extensive summary of the history of Bruges and mapped out a slightly-off-the-beaten-track walk for us.

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We did part of Michael’s recommended walk and stopped for dinner at a little cafe on one of the canals.  We had wonderful mussels and my new favorite beer, Bruges Zot.

bruges-mussels

bruges-beer

Lucky for us, a little chocolate shop was still open, so we had our first taste of wonderful Belgium chocolate.

Exploring Bruges

Our first full day in Bruges started with a lovely breakfast Michael left outside our door.

bruges-breakfast

Then we were off to tour some of the beautiful Bruges highlights.  Today was market day in the square.

bruges-market

We saw the beautiful buildings in Burg Square, including the Basilica of the Holy Blood.  It was built in 1150 for the sole purpose of housing drops of Christ’s blood that Derrick of Alsace brought home from the Second Crusade.  The dried blood is preserved inside a clear tube.  Today the vial was on display and people lined up to put their hands on the case around it and say a prayer.  After each person moved on,  a woman in priestly robes wiped the top before the next person approached. I don’t think the vial is normally on display.

bruges-christ-blood

After visiting other historic buildings we came to Bruges’ most photographed spot, so, of course, we took a photograph.

bruges-most-photographed-spot

Visiting another church, the Church of Our Lady, we saw Michaelangelo’s beautiful Madonna and Child, one of the few Michelangelo sculptures found outside Italy.

bruges-madonna

Since I enjoyed my first glass of Bruges’ Bruges Zot beer yesterday I have been looking forward to touring the De Halve Maan brewery.  The beer has become so popular that their sixth-generation brewery can no longer process the beer in their heart-of-Bruges location.  So they have just completed an underground pipeline from the brewery to a bottling plant outside of town.  Standing on the top of the brewery, we could see the beer’s destination in the distance.

bruges-beer-tour

Our tour guide was quite entertaining.  She showed us drying hops used in their beer and told us hops and cannabis had similar effects on people and that was why Belgium people were so “hoppy.”  Belgium beer has a much higher alcoholic content-most is six to eleven percent alcohol- than American beer.  Her opinion is that drinking any beer less than six percent alcohol is for sissies.  She warned us that tourists aren’t prepared for Belgium beer and to be prepared for it “sneaking up on you.”  We think she probably had had a few beers before our tour.

bruges-beer-tour-1

We ate lunch/dinner at Vlissinghe, a pub dating from 1515.  It was such a beautiful day that we sat in their back garden and, of course, had more beer.

bruges-vlissinghe-1

bruges-vlissinghe

Belgium is know for fine chocolate, and chocolate shops are everywhere in Bruges.  We asked our apartment host, Michael, where to go for the best chocolate.  His recommendation was Spegelaere.  All of their chocolates are handmade at the shop, and they are always one of the three chocolate makers asked to represent Belgium at world expositions.

bruges-chocolate-shop

It was so hard to choose. The woman helping us advised us to tell her what we liked and she would make recommendations.  The cream-filled chocolates were different shapes depending on the filling.  This yummy caramel-filled horse was shedding a dark-chocolate tear.

bruges-chocolate-horse

 

 

Bell Tower, Bike Ride and Waffles

Think of Bruges, think of the Bell Tower, especially for those who have seen In Bruges.  Climbing the 366 spiral steps of the Bell Tower was our first adventure of the day, and we were rewarded with beautiful views of this beautiful city.

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Since 1300, the Bell Tower has provided time keeping and beautiful carillon music.  It was pretty amazing to be right by the bells when they started ringing.

bruges-bell-tower

After climbing the tower, we rented bikes and rode to the charming little town of Damme, only four miles from Bruges.  Being helmet-wearing, turn-signaling, trail-riding bikers, we were less than confident sharing the narrow roads with cars and other bikers.

bruges-damme

Soon we were out of Bruges and on a beautiful bike path along a canal built by Napoleon.  We passed a working windmill.  On weekends it is open for tours.

bruges-damme-chruch

Ready for a break when we arrived in Damme, we stopped for lunch at an outdoor cafe.

bruges-damme-lunch

After lunch, we enjoyed a peaceful visit to the 13th century Church of Our Lady.   The interior was beautiful, and the well-tended cemetery had beautiful grave markers.

lbruges-damme-church

We biked back to Bruges and around the perimeter of the city.  Bruges is surrounded by canals with narrow parks running alongside the canals.  It was fun to bike through some of the residential areas.  We headed back to Bruges Bike Rental through one of Bruges’ four medieval town gates.

bruges-damme-bike-home

Our rental bikes had great locking systems.  On the back wheel was a little brace with a key.  When we stopped, we pressed the lever which locked the wheel and took the key with us.  Coming back to our bikes, we put in the key, gave it a little turn and the brace unlocked.

bruges-damme-bike-lock

After days of planning to have an authentic Belgian waffle, I finally enjoyed one at Lizzie’s Wafels.  It was crispier than I expected, but it was absolutely yummy.  Unlike some of the waffle stands where the stacks of waffles wait to be ordered, Lizzie’s makes each waffle after you order it.  A little caramel sauce, and we were in waffle heaven.

bruges-waffle

I discovered Zanzou, a darling little jewelry store on Sint Amandsstraat 19 that makes their jewelry on site and has reasonable prices.

bruges-zazou

Paul had a hankering for steak, so we ate dinner at El Churrasco, an Argentinian restaurant on Vlamingstraat 76 rated 29th out of 566 Bruges restaurants on TripAdvisor.  The service and food were excellent.

Scenes from the Day

Bruges Bell Tower

Bruges Bell Tower

Bell Tower at night

Bell Tower at night

Paul in the Bell Tower

Paul in the Bell Tower

Debbie in Damme

Debbie in Damme

Church in Damme

Church in Damme

Church in Damme

Church in Damme

Damme Churchyard

Damme Churchyard

Post-bike refreshment

Post-bike refreshment

 

Day Trip to Ghent and Final Dinner in Bruges

Ghent

After watching Monuments Men and learning more about the Ghent Altarpiece, we decided to make a day trip to Ghent, a thirty-minute train ride from Bruges.  I always struggle a bit to figure out bus systems, so getting our Tram tickets and getting from the train station to Kornmarket, where we wanted to go, was a little hiccup. Two different kind strangers helped us, and the rest of the public transportation components of our day worked great.

ghent-tram

The highlight of the day was seeing the impressive Gothic Cathedral of St. Bavo and its beautiful Adoration of the Mystic Lamb altarpiece.  The Ghent altarpiece, as it is most frequently called, is in a special darkened chapel behind glass.  We felt lucky that for the first third of our time viewing the altarpiece, we were the only ones in the room.  It never got as crowded as we expected.  The Ghent altarpiece has been called the most influential painting ever made because it is the first masterpiece in oil and is probably the most stolen.  The lower left panel is still missing and has been replaced with a copy.

The outside of the cathedral was covered in scaffolding, but the inside was stunning.  An organist playing the second-level organ as we entered certainly enhanced our experience.

ghent-organ

An amazingly intricate carved pulpit with a golden serpent and numerous Carrara marble statues was on the side of the nave.

ghent-st-bavo-1

We ate lunch in the Patershol district at Souplounge, a little soup shop.  Before ladling the soup into the bowl, they put little meatballs, fresh chopped onions and tomatoes and fresh herbs in the bottom.  As we walked out of the restaurant, we noticed two intricate, quirky gabled buildings at the end of the road on our right.

ghent3

Back in Bruges

Walking home from the train station we discovered the amazing merveilleux,a small cake that originated in Belgium.  It is an airy delicacy of meringue covered with whipped cream and various toppings.  We had passed Aux Merveilleux de Fred  on 3A Eiermarkt every day as we walked to the square and watched the bakers creating the little mounds but had never tried them.  It is a good thing I waited until my last day here to have one because I think I could become seriously addicted.

bruges-aux-marvelieuux

We were going to have one last Brugse Zot at the De Halve Maan Brewery, but they were closed to set up for a huge block party.  They were celebrating the opening of their pipeline and thanking supporters and businesses around them who had been inconvenienced by the installation of the pipeline.  We have enjoyed supporting their beer this week, but, alas, we were not on the invite list.

bruges-beer-party

Dinner

Bruges has been called the “Michelin epicenter of Belgium”, a country with one of the highest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world.  On our host’s recommendation we decided to try Kok au Vin, Ezelstraat 21, one of the restaurants that Michelin’s Bib Gourmand identified as a rising star. We started with an organic, farm to table artichoke.  As much as possible, their produce and meat are organic, farm-to-table.  After warm, sunny weather every day our trip, tonight it started to rain.  We walked to the restaurant, a few blocks from our apartment, in a cool, rainy drizzle-very cozy.

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Paul had a chicken dish, and I had pork.

bruges-final-dinner

Amsterdam and Bruges Video Snippets

Scenes from the Day

Paul in Kornmarkt

Paul in Kornmarkt

Debbie at the tram stop.

Debbie at the tram stop.

Lunch at Souplounge

Lunch at Souplounge

Cloth Hall, connected to Belfry

Cloth Hall, connected to Belfry

St. Bavo

St. Bavo

Welcome to Paris!

We took the high-speed train to Paris yesterday and settled into our home for the next seventeen days.  A half block off the Rue Cler, our third-floor apartment is cute, spacious and in a great location.  An extra bonus is being a block from our dear friend Moira.  After unpacking and exploring our new neighborhood, we met Moira for wine and cheese.

paris-moira

paris-moira-cheese

Freshly-baked croissants from our neighborhood boulangerie and a French melon- my favorite French breakfast.  Small, aromatic and bursting with flavor, the little melons are tastier than any melon I have ever eaten.  Going to the  boulangerie  just as it opens in the quiet morning time before our street gets busy is the best way to start a day in Paris.

paris-breakfast

One of our favorite activities in Paris is to explore the neighborhoods without a set agenda and see what we discover.  We started our walk this morning in the Parc du Champ de Mars.  Behind a group of early-morning exercisers, we discovered an Azerbaijan village set up promoting their culture, food and art.

paris-exercise

paris-azerbaijan

We continued our stroll past the Eiffel Tower and over the Seine to walk along Avenue Montaigne, home of many luxury designer stores.  We noticed a particularly stunning building and discovered it was the 5-star hotel Plaza Athenee, where Alain Ducasse, France’s most famous chef, has a restaurant.

paris-eiffle-tower

paris-alaine-ducasse

It was cool today, so chocolate chaud at Anglina’s, my favorite place for chocolate chaud, was a special treat.

paris-chocolate-chaud-1

European Heritage Days, when many public buildings not normally open to the public open their doors to visits, are the third weekend in September.  Last time we were in Paris we visited the beautiful Hotel de Ville, the building housing Paris’s local administration.  This year we visited the Hotel de Talleyrand, a beautiful 18th century private residence that since 1950 has been owned by the US and is where the Marshall Plan was developed after WWII.

paris-tallyrand

We were able to walk right in, but many sites had long waiting lines.  The wait to get into the  Elysee Palais, the official residence of the President of the French Republic, was three to four hours.  The roads and sidewalks around the building were barricaded and patrolled by armed police.  We were impressed with the security measures taken by the Paris police to ensure that a Nice-style attack was not repeated.

paris-security

We made a stop at the beautiful L’Eglise de la Madeleine, an 18th century Catholic church built by Napoleon to glorify his army.  Site of Chopin’s funeral in 1849, it now hosts classical music concerts.

paris-eglise-de-la-madeline

Scenes From the Day

 

Debbie at Place de la Concorde

Debbie at Place de la Concorde

Line at National Assembly

Line at National Assembly