Saturday, January 30, 2010

Soaking in the City of Spa

Winters in Belgium are dark, dreary, and seemingly without end. Latitudinally speaking, this country is up in middle-Canada range, which means that for too long out of the year the sun rises around 9 a.m. and sets before anyone even thinks about leaving work. Add to that the regular Belgian weather pattern of 364 days of clouds often mixed with rain and sometimes even snow and you've got a populace so racked with the winter blues it's hard to imagine recovery could be possible.

Then you learn about a city called Spa. Yes, Spa, as in the city that gave English a word that means "A resort providing therapeudic baths." Located in the Walloon (French-speaking) Region of Belgium, and known as the home of the Formula One Belgian Grand Prix, and for its mineral water company of the same name, the city's Thermes de Spa attract winter-worn pilgrams who come to soak in the baths, roast in the saunas, and breathe in menthol-scented air in the steam rooms. In short, it's paradise for those of us who are counting the days until Spring.

For the surprisingly reasonable price of 17 euros, a couple of friends and I were able to spend three glorious hours in the Thermes' warm, envelopping, fully relaxing, non-winter environment. The café food was yummy, and the view of the surrounding hillsides that you take in while leisurely floating in the outdoor pool was magnificent. We left Spa feeling healthy, refreshed, and ready to tackle what's left of this dark, dreary, never-ending Belgian winter.

If you go:

Les Thermes de Spa
Colline d'Annette et Lubin, 4900 Spa
Telephone : +32(0)87 77 25 60
About 1h30 from Brussels by car

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


How do you like to travel? Inexpensively? Comfortably? Luxuriously? I've reached a point in my life where I'm looking for something more than the push-button showers and thin-mattressed bunks of my backpacking days, but doable in terms of my bank account. So while planning a recent long weekend in Paris, I wanted to find lodging that satisfied my young professional's tastes and my young professional's salary. Enter, connects renters with rentees, for short or long term stays, and with an impressive range of tastes in mind. Traveling on a budget and just need a couch to crash on? They have that. Searching for that perfect Upper East Side homebase for a weekend of 5th Avenue shopping? They have that too. Always wanted to know what it's like to sleep in an igloo? Yes, they even have that. Hoping to rent a fourth floor, newly renovated, studio apartment in the Marais that is clean, simple yet comfortable, and gives you a true feel for what it's like to live in Paris? So was I.

Overall, my experience renting a Parisian apartment through was flawless. I found a great place (and price) for what I felt was the perfect launching point for a weekend of visiting friends, taking in the sights, and shopping the sales. The woman who owns the apartment was friendly, prompt, and sent her very nice mother over to welcome me to my four-day home. The apartment was spotless, perfectly located, and tastefully remodeled. I would definitely use airbnb again. I wonder if they have anything on a Greek island...?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Looking for Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité

Born during the French Revolution and institutionalized during the Third Republic, "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" is the well-known, widely seen national motto of France. This phrase is everywhere in l'Hexagone: On stamps, on coins, and on countless buildings across the country. It even used to be inscribed on packs of Gauloises cigarettes. I kept noticing the French motto while out on my early Sunday morning photography mission, and since no one was around to block my shot, I kept taking pictures of it. It's a beautiful motto - Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (Brotherhood) - and a fun subject to hunt for while roaming the streets of Paris.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Good Morning, Paris

Parisians are not morning people. Many shops in Paris don't open their doors until sometime between 10:00 and 11:00, and most of my Paris-based friends don't need to be at the office until 9:00, 9:30, or even 10:00. For a morning person like myself (and for someone who has spent time in the very morning-oriented city of Washington, DC), this can sometimes be a frustrating reality, as waking up at 6:30 ready to start your day only works if the rest of the city has the same idea. I once shocked a French friend when he discovered I'm always at my desk no later than 8:00. The expression on his face could have correctly been translated into the words, "Crazy Americans."

But there is one advantage we crazy morning people have over all the others in Paris: We're the only ones who ever get this city to ourselves. Venture into the streets at the crack of dawn and you'll enjoy empty sidewalks, quiet boulevards, and deserted parks; a welcome change from the often overwhelming hustle and bustle. This works especially well on weekends, when Parisians are under no obligation to present themselves to the outside world until lunchtime.

With that in mind, I left my apartment at 8:00 on Sunday morning hoping to take photos along the Seine and in a few of the neighborhoods. Without having to deal with the usual crush of locals and tourists I could easily get all the shots I wanted. No stray pedestrians walking in front of the camera and no stares from Parisians as I crouched down to capture the city from different angles. The only other people I saw were a few like-minded photographers getting their own perfect morning pictures.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Parisian View

One hour and twenty minutes on the train later, I find myself in rainy, fabulous Paris. There are many things in this city that make me swoon every time I see them, - the Eiffel Tower, pastries in a shop window, anything at Galleries Lafayette - but the view out a Parisian window is even more swoon-worthy than most. Even views that are average are beautiful, simply because there's no other place in the world that looks likes Paris.

So, naturally, the first thing I did after moving into my studio aparment rental on the Rue du Temple was open the the window and take in the view, the second thing I did was take a picture, and the third thing I did was come back in out of the rain and close the window tight. Thank goodness I brought my umbrella.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Graffiti and Gingerbread

A few weeks ago I told you about my sister's impending visit to Brussels. I was anxious for her first trip to Europe - would she have fun, would she like it here - but those worries turned out to be completely unfounded, as we had a fantastic time in Brussels, Amsterdam, and, of course, Paris. She LOVED Paris.

Seeing your town from the eyes of a visitor can be a reveletory experience, and my sister did not disappoint. On her first day in Brussels she made two observations:

1. "All the houses look like gingerbread houses!"

and 2. "There is graffiti everywhere!"

Truer words about the Belgian capital were never spoken.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Prepping for Paris

You know those people whose idea of a good time is showing up in a foreign city without any plans and just going where the wind takes them? Yeah, I’m not one of those people. My idea of a relaxing, successful trip is one that I’ve meticulously planned. I want to know exactly what tram/bus/taxi to take when I step off that train/plane, where I’m going, and what I’m going to do while I’m there. It’s not that I dislike spontaneity - If something else comes up and I need to switch my plans to enjoy an unexpected surprise, I’m all for it – but I don’t count on it providing me with the best possible experience. So, with my long-anticipated four-day trip to Paris on the horizon (quite possibly my last visit before returning to the U.S.), I’ve already set to work on a schedule that I hope will help me make the most of my last Parisian hurrah.

Here are some of the activities I have in mind:

Shopping “Les Soldes.” The big, post-Christmas sale season is in full swing. How could I resist hitting up my favorite stores to see if I can snag a great deal?

Trying a new restaurant, preferably one that’s a bit of a splurge. I sent out a tweet asking for recommendations and got a bunch of really good ones. Wading through them now and will set reservations this weekend.

Tweet-up on Sunday. I was invited to meet with fellow Francophile bloggers. I wonder what we'll talk about...

Drooling my way through the E. Dehillerin cooking supply store, which is heaven for amateur and pro cooks alike. I’m hoping to pick up a set of grapefruit spoons and one of those handy all-in-one French cheese knives.

Not going to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, as shown in this post's picture. It is one of my favorite things to do in Paris, but I just did it twice in three months. Maybe next time.

Visiting friends. My former roommate and a friend I met while studying in Paris are already on the list. Hoping to connect with a few others if time permits.

Lots of pastry eating. Might be awhile before I can get a good croissant aux amandes again.

Wandering a marché aux puces. I could spend hours wading through old junk in search of a treasure, but I’ve actually never done it in Paris. Need to change that.

Blogging, of course! I've arranged accommodations through, so I'll be reporting on the pros and cons (hopefully more pros) of this rental service, among other things.

If you only had four days in Paris, and you didn’t know when you’d be back, what would you do?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What Do You Know About Luxembourg?

What do you know about Luxembourg? Maybe that it’s a small, wealthy country? Or that it’s somewhere in Western Europe? Or that its citizens speak a language called Luxembourgish? Maybe you don’t really know anything about Luxembourg, but you could hardly be faulted for it. There isn’t a lot of news coming out of the place, and it’s not usually at the top of anyone’s travel wish list. When I moved to Belgium I knew very little about the smallest member of the Benelux region other than that I wanted to take advantage of its proximity to Brussels to engage in a little exploration. Last weekend’s overnight stay finally opened my eyes to this undeniably charming European enclave.

Recorded history shows that Luxembourg's eponymous capital city (sometimes also referred to at Luxembourg City) arrived on the scene in 963. Built as a fortress city, it possessed great strategic value throughout much of Europe's tumultuous history. At 998 square miles, and with a population of roughly 493,500, the country of Luxembourg is tiny, but it is also quite powerful. Its financial sector is one of the most important in Europe, and it has the highest GDP per capita in the world (approximately $113,00 according to the IMP, whereas the U.S. is at about $47,000). Luxembourg's citizens do speak Luxembourgish, but also speak French and German (the other two official languages) and often English.

Luxembourg City is not big, but there is plenty to do to fill a weekend. I loved exploring the historic fortifications as well as walking around the adorable old town (someone once told me that the city looks like it was plucked out of Disneyland, and they were right), both of which were named World Heritage sites by UNESCO. There is a cathedral and a couple of large churches to visit, a number of theatrical and musical venues, excellent shopping opportunities, and an impressive number of fine dining options. Be sure to try one of Luxembourg's wines or sparkling wines, which are said to rival their more famous French neighbors. The rest of the country offers beautiful rolling hills and plenty of outdoor activities.

One of the things I liked best about Luxembourg was that it was small. Larger European capitals are amazing (hello, Paris!), but can sometimes be overwhelming. I felt relaxed in Luxembourg, which is not usually something you feel in, say, London or Brussels. The city gives you the impression of being isolated from the rest of the world, and provides a unique and beautiful escape. We might not know much about Luxembourg, but maybe we should.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bikes Around Europe

Paris isn't the only European city with a self-service bike rental system. I snapped these photos of distincly Vélib'-esque two-wheelers in Brussels (called Villo!) and Luxembourg City (called Véloh!).

It begs the question: Just how many bike rental system names can one cleverly derive from the French word, "vélo?"

Friday, January 1, 2010

Travel in 2010

2010 marks the third year I will track my worldwide (and statestide) travels via Parisian Spring. The impending move into a new decade made me wonder: If 2008 was the year of Paris - when I studied a little and traveled the country a lot - and 2009 was the year of unpredictability - when I declared my intent to travel the U.S. but instead moved to Belgium - what will be 2010's travel theme? I didn't do so well at predictions last year, but after realizing that I haven't taken a real vacation in five years, which is one I characterize as 7 days and 7 nights of nothing but pure relaxation, I'm hoping resolving to make 2010 the year of the vacation. I'm also resolving to get better at predictions.

This will be the year when I use my precious few annual leave days not to go home to Minnesota, or as nice ideas that exist but never get used, but as time when I leave my worries behind and spend a week or more lounging on the beach, in a wilderness hideout, or at a secluded spa. Two ideas are already in the works. The first involves a week in Los Angeles sometime in March. I'm envisioning drives up the California coast, testing out the local restaurant scene, and possibly even a day at Disneyland, my favorite childhood vacation spot. The second idea is Greece. I'll celebrate my final 20-something birthday in July, so why not celebrate the almost-end-of-an-era with a late springtime jaunt amongst the islands? Greece has been on my dream destination list for some time now, and The Year of the Vacation might be the perfect excuse to finally check that box.

Of course, Belgium is still in the picture for 2010, especially since my employer recently extended my time here by a month. I won't be leaving the Capital of Europe until the end of February, giving me plenty of time for a few more weekend trips. Paris is set for mid-January, and I'm trying to find something for mid-February. Any suggestions?

Happy New Year and Happy 2010 Travels!