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Once upon a time, in a land called Marseille

I am going to tell you a story about a city in France. Everybody all over the world knows Paris, but my story is about a town in the South of the France. Maybe some of you had heard about it, maybe in a positive way or maybe in the negative way. This city, snuggled up at the heart of Provence and on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, is also commonly known as la Cité Phocéenne (The Phocaean City). Marseille, town of a thousand facets, fascinating and bewilderingly complex, is my city.

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Marseille, Land of Immigrants

I was born in Marseille in 1984, to Italian immigrants parents. Why Marseille? Because  for many people who make the choice to leave their country, the city has a big port open on the Mediterranean sea. Near Spain, Italy and North Africa, the town has welcomed many different culture over the years. When you are in Marseille, you just need to drive 3 hours to cross the Italian border. Easy! The new inhabitants arrive also by boat, trying to built a better life. Marseille has never closed its arms in front of any wave of immigrants. This made it strong, a multicultural city. Everything isn’t perfect, because some differences can create conflicts. Indeed, language, religious, or cultural differences can cause real integration problems. Despite that, Marseille stays the most welcoming city in France, a town where my siblings and I have grown up and where we proudly carry our Italian heritage and our dual citizenship.

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Marseille, Land of  Authenticity

If you like beautiful and authentic attractions, Marseille is made for you. When I think about my city, I can’t forget the smell of the sun on my skin, its daylight beauty, and its mysterious side at sunset. Rich in history, Marseille is where ancient architecture combines with the new face of the city. The first thing to do, even if you aren’t catholic, is to visit la Basilique Notre Dame de Garde, commonly refer by the Marseillais to “La Bonne-Mère.” Built on the hill overlooking the town at 490 ft, the view on the top is wonderful. The best moment is early in the morning when everything is still quiet. With a 360 degree view of the city, it was consecrated on June, 5th, 1864, and each year, the pilgrimage for the Assumption Day, on August 15th is really popular event. This Neo-Byzantine church supports a monumental statue of the Madonna and her child, which is 27 feet tall and made of copper gilded with gold leaf. La Bonne- Mère, is the guardian and the protector of Marseille. The other religious site is La Cathédrale de la Major, built from 1829-1874, in a Byzantine-Roman style. With a capacity of 3,000 seats, it’s one of the largest cathedrals in France. It’s 469 ft long, with a main cupola of 231 ft high.

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But in Marseille, there is another strong religion: football. Not in general, but the football team of the city, l’Olympique de Marseille (OM). Taking place in the famous Stade Vélodrome, the night of home matches are events not to be missed. The ambiance and the fans are considered  as the best all over the world.  Built in 1937, the stadium welcomes 67,394 spectators and is also used for shows. Indeed, le Vélodrome is a wonderful stage for several artists, such as The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, The Police and AC/DC. The other site associated to the team is La Commanderie, it’s the training center of l’OM. Many fans from all over the world come to see their idols and dedicate jerseys.

The town is also known for its different authentic districts, such as le Panier, which is located in the oldest part of the city and surrounded by famous places such as l’Hôtel de Ville, les Grands Carmes and La Joliette. With narrow streets, shops and its own old architecture, the district is considered the most picturesque place in Marseille. It’s defined as a popular area because it was the first place of the immigrants in the city.  It soon became a tourism venue and many artists opened studios because Le Panier served as a place of inspiration as for the famous local TV show, Plus Belle la vie, shot in Marseille. You can also visit La Vieille Charité, a a museum and a cultural center and former almshouse for the poor. This Baroque structure was constructed between 1671 and 1749 by the architect Pierre Puget. It is filled with beautiful architecture such as structure with pink and yellow tinted stones. In the center of the courtyard a round church was built. If you continue to walk, you will arrive on the MuCEM, (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations), inaugurated on June 7th, 2013, the year Marseille was designated as the European Capital of Culture. The museum is near the wonderful site of the 17th century le Fort Saint-Jean, built by Louis XIV at the entrance to the port. The two places are linked by a high footbridge.

There are so many places to see that the best way for you to take it all in will be to book a ticket and fly Marseille. But if you want more right now, I of course have to talk about le Vieux Port (the Old Port), which is located at the the end of the most historic street of Marseille, La Canebière. Since 2013, it’s mainly for pedestrians with few cars. Each morning it welcomes the fresh fish of fishermen. It is the historic and cultural center of the city since it dates back to sixth century BC. From the port you could take the ferry boat to visit the islands of the Phocaean City, such as, the archipelago of Frioul and le Château d’If, fortress and prison known for being one of the settings of Alexandre Dumas novel, Le Comte de Monte-Cristo.

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If you continue towards the Southern districts, you will follow the ledge called la Corniche du Président John Fitzgerald Kennedy, named after US President Kennedy. It extends from Les Catalans beach to Le Prado and its famous for its naked statue of David. It offers one of the most beautiful landscapes of Marseille, with the Mediterranean Sea and its islands on the horizon. On the way you could see the famous fishermen sheds, “cabanons”,  houses of the 19th century (Villa Valmer, Villa de Gaby Deslys), hotels and famous restaurants (Le Petit Nice, Peron, Chez FonFon), where you could stop to eat the inimitable, bouillabaisse (fish soup). Under La Corniche, hides the little but picturesque port of Vallon des Auffes, where the time seems to have stopped.

I can’t finish this part without talking about the amazing Calanques de Marseille. The massif is the best place to hike and climb with is wild and rugged landscape between Marseille and Cassis. The site is the one of France’s great natural beauties. The geology and ecosystems are protected — In 2012, the Calanques were declared National Parks due to their uniqueness. Even though nowadays we can’t visit it, the Cosquer cave is located underwater, in the Calanque de Morgiou. It’s a cave of the Paleolithic area, covered with paintings and engravings of animals dating between 27,000 and 19,000 BC. The Calanques can be see by boat and if the weather allows you should swim in this warm, blue water. But please be a responsible tourists! Protect this land of dreams.

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Marseille, Land of Pleasure

Oh my taste buds quiver with pleasure evoking the food in my city. Okay, I’m vegetarian but even though Marseille has the best fish restaurants, we are also known for the best pizza. Remember, Marseille is a city of immigrants with close proximity to Italy. We are the city with the most pizza in France. In each area, you can smell tomato sauce and wood fire. I could damn myself for one of these piece! If you want make your own pizza, the best venue is Sapori di Napoli. It’s a little Trattoria in Château-Gombert’s district, which combines a shop full of Italian products with a restaurant. The owner, Raffaele Paparone, imports products such as the mozzarella di Bufala, Panettone, wine and deli meat from Napoli.

If you like different kinds of food, I recommend la Baie du Dragon. It’s a Vietnamese restaurant on Notre Dame du Mont district. The place is perfect for vegetarians and the chocolate nems are just divine. It’s my king of headquarter, the go-to for when I have to celebrate something, such as my departure for the USA.

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In Marseille you can easily find all kind of restaurants — Indian, Italian, French, Moroccan, Japanese etc, and for all your events. Even though Marseille has some good restaurants, for me, the best place remains my family home, with the real meals made by la Mamma. But take your ticket and wait your turn, because I can’t invite you all in the same day.

It’s time to say goodbye to Marseille, with a little twinge in my heart, thinking about these venues, the food and my mother’s arms. But do you smell the perfume of the Mediterranean? Do you smell the garlic, tomatoes, basil and olive oil? Do you smell the flavor of freedom?

If yes, you are made for Marseille, the city of the Epicurean

Sorry, I have to leave you, it’s now time for l’apéro, (a kind of happy hour, after work where you drink and eat snacks), the most important moment in a day in Marseille, to drink the legendary Pastis.

Allez santé! Salute! (Cheers!)

Le Mont Saint Michel

Three and a half hours outside of Paris stands Le Mont Saint Michel, a castle-like structure posing as an island commune just off the coast of Normandy. Before we could see ocean water, the silhouette of Mont Saint Michel emerged on the horizon, obscured by dreamy layers of distance like a mirage. As our bus made its way closer to the shore, the details of the structure began to solidify–the blue-grey roof tiles, the dusty windows, the tiny gold statue of St. Michel on top of the highest spire.

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Photo by Lauren Espina

From the parking lot, a shuttle took us across a bridge over the mudflats that encircle Mont Saint Michel, and once at the base of the structure, we made our way on foot. Lined with gift shops, hotels and restaurants, the main street was by far the busiest part of the commune, the bloodline to many of the smaller vantage points and flats that are home to its 49 residents. The crowd dissipated as we hit the first set of stairs, when visitors with children or bad knees decided to hang back.

Photo by Lauren Espina

Roughly 350 steps to the top, the uphill battle was surprisingly easy, as there were more than enough visual diversions to keep us distracted: the climbing vines in shades of red, green and brown, abandoned spigots aimed at stone basins, blankets of moss coating the walls, the local cat posing on a ledge, the different shape, texture and hue of each brick.

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Photo by Lauren Espina

At the peak of the grand staircase, we came up on the first view of the east-facing mudflats and the mouth of the Couesnon River. On this uncharacteristically sunny day, the shallow water acted as a glassy reflection of the sky, the billowing clouds and breaks of sunlight creating a glittery white sheen over the landscape. On the western side of the building, we had a similar view with a less pronounced distinction between the water and land. We could see people walking along the mudflats, and with the impression of the sky so clearly reflected, it looked as if they were walking on water.

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As we made our way through the unfurnished chambers, quiet chapels and open courtyards, the grandeur of Mont Saint Michel–which initially reminded me of a cross between Hogwarts and Kings Landing–evolved into a more understated beauty. The stone structure was never a palace or home to any royals, though it certainly looks the part. Its history as a monastery, a place of prayer where people came to be closer to God, gave it a subtle, tranquil air that resonated long after we left.

Of all the remarkable sites we visited on our trip to France, from the gardens of Giverny to the Palace of Versailles and the various arrondissements of Paris, Mont Saint Michel was the most memorable. Perhaps it’s because I knew the least about this landmark or maybe because all of the other destinations are so well-documented, but there was something transcendent in the vacancy and majesty of this location that is truly striking.

24 Hours in London

Two months ago I traveled to Europe with a friend. London was our first stop and we would only be staying two days, which admittedly is not enough time to see and experience all that the city has to offer.  Our first day in the city was lost in a haze of tube transfers and jetlag. When we finally did manage to leave our hotel the first day, we spent most of the day walking, walking and more walking–ending the day utterly exhausted. That night, feeling a slight panic that we only had about 24 hours left to experience the city, we resolved to make the best of our last day before catching the Eurostar to Brussels. With only a short list of priorities, here are 24 hours in London.

9am: Eagerly we leave our hotel located in Kensington Garden Square, right behind Whiteley’s, and start walking west through Notting Hill to a cafe rumored to have a great traditional English breakfast.  The morning is bright, crisp and sunny as we pass expensive cars and gleaming white row houses covered in ivy. The cafe is located just across the street from The Travel Bookshop–yes, Hugh Grant’s bookshop from the movie. It was a real bookshop, but sadly it closed not too long ago.

9:30am: “I can’t leave London without  having some bacon,” my friend announces firmly. “English bacon is different, it is actually cut from the back of the pig as opposed to to American bacon that is cut from the belly,” he explains. He orders the traditional English breakfast with a side of bubble and squeak (a fried mash of vegetables and potatoes) and I order french toast with bacon and banana; we both order huge cups of coffee.  Looking around the cafe, I get a good feeling about the food we are anticipating. Its a Thursday morning and the place is busy with people on their way to work, friends catching up over coffee and eggs and an open refrigerator full of a mixture of familiar and exotic looking drinks (Tang in a can!). Continue reading

Parisian Disney Magic

Disney’s plan to build a theme park just a few miles outside of Paris was met with opposition from those who feared cultural imperialism from an American company. However, today Disneyland Paris and the accompanying Walt Disney Studios receive over 15 million visitors each year, which makes it the most popular tourist destination in Europe.

I recently visited the park with a few friends; we figured that Paris + Disney + Christmas = MAGIC. Despite our enthusiasm and optimism, the idea of visiting Disneyland Paris made me feel a bit uneasy. In my mind there could only be two dramatic results: complete disappointment or utter exhilaration. Would Disneyland Paris be an exact replica of Disneyland Anaheim? Or would it be completely different? I was determined to see what made the park unique from its American cousin, and whether or not the park planners made any cultural accommodations.

Disneyland Paris good: Getting to Disneyland from Paris is a breeze! Paris’ RER commuter trains make several stops in Paris and continue to Marne de la Vallé, the suburb where the park is located. Trains come roughly every ten minutes; the ride takes about 35 minutes and costs approximately 22EUR round trip. The train station is located at the gate of Disneyland, right next to the awesomely pink Disneyland Hotel. Besides the RER trains, there is also a SNCF station that receives French national trains and high-speed TGV trains. There is even a shuttle that brings visitors to the park from Charles de Gaulle Airport and Orly Airport. Already, Disneyland Paris’ transportation options put it far ahead of its Anaheim counterpart, with its enormous parking lots and massive parking structures.

Walking into the park, everything looks eerily like the U.S. version. In fact, the layout for both Disney parks is almost exactly the same. A cheery and nostalgic Town Square greets visitors and behind that, Main Street USA with its charming old-fashioned candy shops, boutiques and arcades leads the crowds to a central plaza and the foot of Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Compared to Sleeping Beauty’s castle in California, the castle in Paris is not quite as wide, although the towers definitely appear to be taller. Shiny gold accents and stained glass give the castle a rich look, while cube-shaped trees add an air of whimsy.


Stained glass and brilliant gold accents on Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

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Europe’s Best Christmas Markets

Christmas markets have a long history in many of Europe’s leading cities and are popular attractions for locals and tourists alike during the holiday season. Traditionally held during the four weeks of Advent, these markets often celebrate the holidays with a piping hot mug of mulled wine and a hefty scoop of Christmas magic.

Christmas at Liseburg, photo by Mikael Miettinen, CC by 2.0

Austria

Salzburger ChristkindlmarktSalzburg

November 17 to December 26, 2011

This lovely annual Christmas market takes place in the heart of Salzburg in Residenzplatz and has been going on for nearly 500 years! Salzburg is home to more than just The Sound of Music and Mozartkugel, its charming medieval architecture, snowy hills and panoramas from the Hohensalzburg Castle. Visitors enjoy strolling the vendors, hearing live choir music and viewing a live Nativity. This is one of the few markets that is actually open on December 25, so if you are looking for something to do on Christmas Day, this is the place!

Belgium

Bruges Christmas MarketBruges

November 25, 2011 to January 3, 2012

If you enjoy Christmas markets and ice skating, get your skates in gear for Bruges’ Christmas Market. Held in the beautiful historic center of the city in the Markt, this market offers traditional little chalets selling snacks, trinkets and, of course, delicious Belgian beers! Don’t forget to try the delicious specualoos, which are a Dutch-style of gingerbread.

France

Lille Christmas MarketLille

November 19 to December 30, 2011

A quick 30 minutes from Brussels or 90 minutes from London can get you to Lille! Held in place Rihour, this market is easily located in walking distance of Lille’s main train station, making this an ideal outing if you find yourself in one of northern Europe’s loveliest cities.

Germany

ChristkindlesmarktNuremberg

November 25 to December 24, 2011

One of Germany’s most famous holiday fairs, the Nuremburg Christmas Market has often been used as a model for Christmas markets around the world. The market opens with an elaborate ceremony every year on the Friday before the first Sunday of Advent, and often features local school choirs and a visit from the Nuremburg Christmas Angel. This massive fair has just about every food, drink or craft you could possibly want, including gingerbread, pastries, mulled wine and a large variety of glassworks and porcelain. Other events include church services, city tours and musical programs.

Hungary

Budapest Christmas FairBudapest

November 18 to December 30, 2011

Considered one of the best Christmas fairs in Europe, the Budapest Christmas Fair features some of the most talented artisans and craftsmen in the country. Have a cup of mulled wine in a souvenir “Budapest” cup as you peruse the stalls. For many, however, the main attraction is the food. The traditional Hungarian dishes include sausage, grilled meats and kürtőskalács, a cone-shaped filled pastry. Evening entertainment includes musical performances and the Nativity play.

Ireland

Docklands Christmas MarketDublin

December 8 to December 24, 2011

The Christmas Market at the Dublin Docklands takes a more pan-European approach to the holidays. Visitors can treat themselves to traditional mulled wine, a wide selection of pastries from all over the continent and wander through the merchant stalls. The dockside location lends a magical atmosphere to the market as the sun sets and the lights’ glow illuminates the water. The lovingly restored “Galloping Horses” Carousel, fairground attractions and carol singers provide hours of family entertainment.

Italy

Heidelberg MarketFlorence

December 1 – 21, 2011

Held in Florence’s piazza di Santa Croce, this market in the heart of the city features vendors primarily from Germany, France and some Italian vendors. There are many crafts on hand (sweaters, trinkets, toys) as well as German wurst with mustard and a mug of Glühwein (mulled wine).

Netherlands

The Christmas Market in the Velvet Cave – Valkenburg aan de Geul

November 18 to December 23, 2011

A visit to the Valkenburg Christmas Market is a unique experience. One of the largest and oldest underground Christmas markets in Europe, the market is housed in a series of caves decked out to look like everyone’s Christmas fantasy come true. Visit Santa’s home in the Velvet Caves, ogle his room of presents and admire his bedroom. Children will delight in seeing his sleigh and reindeer. With endless stalls brimming with crafts and food, a visit to this subterranean bazaar will surely be one to remember.

Norway

Christmas Market at SpikersuppaOslo

November 24 to December 20, 2011

Christmas time in Oslo is enough to make even the most jaded of us believe in Santa again. The lights that cover the trees in the market and the fanciful design of the tents bring to mind childhood ideals of the perfect holiday. The Christmas Market at Spikersuppa is filled with potential presents and Norwegian delicacies, most of which involve elk. Grab a warm cup of gløgg, nibble on some pepperkake and revel in the holiday spirit.

Spain

Santa Llúcia Christmas MarketBarcelona

November 26 to December 22, 2011

This Barcelona market dates back to 1786 and has become synonymous with the traditional Catalan Christmas. Generally, the fair is divided into four sections. The Nativity Scenes and Figures area offers both displays of Nativity scenes and sells accessories for customers who would like to construct their own. The Greenery and Plants section sells both real and faux trees. The Crafts area is filled with local artisans peddling their wares. The Simbombes section supplies every type of musical instrument you could possibly want for your symphonic Christmas celebration.

Sweden

Christmas at LisebergGothenburg

November 18 to December 23, 2011

The holiday season at one of the largest amusement parks in Scandinavia is a sight to behold. Lit by nearly five million lights, visitors can experience a traditional Swedish Christmas. The park’s many restaurants also offer traditional local holiday dishes, including a buffet inspired by Sweden’s west coast. Every Sunday, enjoy sing-alongs with some of the country’s favorite vocalists and be sure to take the children to see Father Christmas!

United Kingdom

Traditional German Christmas MarketEdinburgh

November 24 to December 24, 2011

Germany comes to Scotland for the holidays at the annual Traditional German Christmas Market in Edinburgh. Put on by Frankfurt-based merchants in Princes Street Gardens, the multitude of stalls selling German hand-crafts is perfect for those searching for unique gifts. The food, of course, is not to be missed, with German delicacies like grilled sausages, fried potato cakes, pork sandwiches and glühwein, a traditional German mulled wine.