Monthly Archives: December 2010

Paris for Christmas

This year, I gave myself Paris for Christmas.

Five years ago, during my year abroad, I became absolutely obsessed with this city: the Parisians’ fixation on art, food, culture, and strikes; the beautiful architecture and dramatic history; followed by an infinite list of food items. I could barely contain my excitement to be reunited with Paris once again- this time, during Christmas. What is there to do in Paris during the winter, you say? Yes, it is rather cold, sometimes even snowy, but it still does not take away from all there is to do, see, and eat in Paris. The slightly tricky part is figuring out what exactly is open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Here is a short list of my favorite options…

1) Eat. Drink. Eat…and then drink some more.

One of my most common, cheap, quick (and delicious) lunches as a student in Paris was all picked up at local shops and supermarkets. This would usually include a big slice of quiche, some arugola, and a baguette. The French quiches (pictured below, is about half a serving) are very substantial and filling. One of my favorites is the salmon and leek quiche, but there is also Quiche Lorraine (with ham and onion), or mushroom quiche, you can get one big slice for 3-4 euros.

Then of course there are the iconic French baguette and croissants. Perfectly crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside.

One Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, when some shops tend to be closed, another great option for a quick meal is a trip to the historic Jewish quarter in the Marais for some falafel, tabouleh, and a huge selection of mouth-watering small dishes and spreads.

Chez Marianne (2 Rue Hospitalières St Gervais, Paris 75004) offers a wide variety of delicious small dishes to choose from. Pietro and I got the platter for two, along with pita bread. So here we have fresh falafel, tabouleh, tzatziki, smokey marinated eggplant, a lemony artichoke salad, a giant meatball, among others. Needless to say, we demolished the entire platter. There is also a “take-out window” in case you just want a falafel sandwich at normal human-sized lunch portions.

And for Christmas dinner- Pan fried sea bass with asparagus, grapefruit, and small round of potatoes au gratin at Le Relais D’Isle (37 rue Saint Louis en l’Ile, 75004 Paris, France).

Classic (and very boozy) creme brulee with an extraordinarily rich butter cookie on the side.

2. Ice-Skating at Hotel-de-Ville

A big ice-skating rink is set up in front of Hotel-de-Ville every winter, right in the center of the city. Ice skate rental and admission is only 5 euros…plus it is open on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

3. Midnight Mass and Christmas Concerts at Notre Dame Cathedral

There is a whole list of activities for Christmas at Notre Dame, including an international Christmas mass in the early evening, a Christmas concert with performances by the choir and the famous cathedral organ, followed by the midnight mass in French. If you want to get a seat for the concert, or for Christmas mass, you might want to get there a few hours before it begins, as it fills up very quickly. The interior and lighting of the cathedral is spectacular, and really put me in the Christmas state of mind, especially since this was my first Christmas away from family.

4. Christmas Markets at the Champs Elysees

Christmas markets are set up along the Champs Elysees, with lots of very tempting food choices (oh, and shopping). You are surrounded by food stalls offering freshly made waffles, sweet or savory crepes, churros, and lots of delicious pig/meat products. There is also plenty of tasty vin chaud (or hot spiced wine) everywhere.

5. Art Museums

For a little more art in your life, the Louvre is open on Christmas Eve. As is the case with traveling through Europe during the winter, it is not excessively packed with desperate, tired tourists so wait time is minimal at the main attractions in Paris.

As for Christmas Day, the Centre Pompidou, or Paris’ modern art museum, is open. Its permanent collections include art from the early 20th century onwards.

6. The Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower is open and in operation on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Although it was once hated by the Parisians when it was first built (famous French novelist Guy de Maupassant reportedly ate lunch there everyday because it was the one place in Paris where he could not see the structure), it has survived the German occupation of Paris during World War II, fires, to remain one of the most well-known structures in the world. On every hour in the evening, the Eiffel Tower’s lights sparkle for a few minutes and it is an amazing sight from wherever you are in the city. There are a few restaurants in the tower that are open during Christmas as well, for the full Eiffel Tower experience.

7. Concerts

There are many classical concerts in the beautiful chapels of Paris, along with other various dance and music performances around the city. Posters are usually displayed around the city, or you can check ticket Web sites (such as http://www.fnacspectacles.com/) for a more comprehensive and easily accessible source of information.

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Road Trip in Morocco

There are times when I question my sense of adventure. Is it ever a good idea to climb to the top of a gargantuan sand dune that is growing taller by the minute because there is also blinding mini sandstorm? The answer is probably not. But somehow my memory has edited the more painful parts of my ill-conceived adventure to the top (here’s a tip: NEVER bring your digital camera to the top of a sand dune because cameras don’t work when there is a pound of sand in them!) and has only left the great, very hard-earned view… and I believe that is how I have sustained my sense of adventure: fantastic memory editing and of course gaining amazing experiences along the way.

Our road trip started in Marrakech. I had visited about five years ago, but welcomed the opportunity to be back, especially with the cheap RyanAir flights that recently started flying directly from Bologna. Also, I was looking forward to some great chicken tajine and couscous!

Moroccan food is often cooked in tajines, or heavy clay pots that slow-cooks food so that everything is very tender and all the flavors of the ingredients blend together organically. Couscous is never served in or with a tajine, and trust me- they look at you funny if you ask for a side of couscous with your tajine dish.

Depending on where you are in Morocco, tajines may have slightly different ingredients. In Marrakech, the chicken tajine contained olives that were cooked with the rest of the dish (chicken is hidden under the veggies)- elsewhere in Morocco, they may contain some strongly flavored local berries that add a bit of tartness to the dish.

Couscous dishes are served with chicken and/or vegetables. The chicken and vegetables are stewed and served over couscous.

One of the main attractions in Marrakech is Djemaa el Fna, the chaotic/fun main square in Marrakech, where you can get your fill of trained monkeys, street performers, miniature bowling games, snake charmers, fortune tellers, and delicious food stalls.

However, the Medina, or “old” section of Marrakech isn’t always an easy place to be a tourist. Finding your way around the tiny, nameless streets for the first time can be frustrating, even if it is just back to your hotel. There is no stopping—once you stop to look at a map, Moroccan teenagers approach you to provide some directions, for a fee, of course. So tourists (including us) would always huddle in corners, facing the wall, just to take a quick look at the map to avoid being confronted by unsolicited help. There is also “new” Marrakech for those that prefer a more modern perspective of the city and more organized streets.

We wanted to get away from the chaos of Marrakech and see the Sahara, so we booked a last minute desert tour from Marrakech to Merzouga, where we can take a camel ride through the famous sand dunes and camp over-night. It was a three day, two night west-east cross-country trip with about 80% of the trip spent either in the mini-bus with 10 other very international tourists or on camels. Luckily we had a fun group and entertained ourselves with world capital and movie-star road trip games, random conversations (from the explanation of the show Doogie Howser, M.D. to one traveler’s adventures working for a burger joint in Australia), as well as the highly addictive Monopoly app on my phone. However, there were amazing sights outside our window throughout the entire journey.

On one of our lunch stops, I tried kefta— Moroccan meatballs served in a tomato-based sauce, with a cooked egg on top. I wasn’t sure what the kefta was made out of, but the meat was a bit game-y (tasted like a combination of super game-y lamb and beef) with a mysterious texture. However, I was incredibly pleased with the concept of a stewed meatball dish in tomato with an egg on top, so I might try to make this at home and not eat it at a road-side restaurant in the middle of the desert. Also- found some mortadella at a Moroccan gas station! Nope, not willing to venture that far.

The long trip included short excursions at various points of interest, including interesting rock formations, gorges, the site where the movie Gladiator was filmed, and Moroccan carpet “demonstrations”, AKA a marketing ploy for tourists to buy their carpets after an eternity in awkward silence time (if you are actually in the market for a Moroccan carpet, they are absolutely beautiful and handmade, by the way).

Arriving in Merzouga was somewhat of a momentous occasion- we had been traveling for days at this point, and finally reached our destination at sunset.  We all hopped on our camels and set off on our 1.5 hour camel ride to the campsite in the Sahara. My camel, who I named Luigi (although I think he was actually a she), was very well behaved and did not spit or freak out, like the worst-case camel scenario I dreamed up in my head. The ride through the desert was absolutely surreal: just miles and miles of emptiness, sand dune after sand dune, a la Indiana Jones and Conan the Barbarian.

Our good-natured Berber guides (the Berbers are traditionally nomadic people who are believed to have first settled in Morocco) cooked us dinner in a large tent and entertained us with Berber songs and delicious mint tea with sugar, or Berber whiskey, as they call it, since alcohol is not officially served in most of Morocco. But after my completely voluntary, never-ending climb to the top of the gigantic sand dune, where my camera became completely defunct, and a rather sleepless night in the tent in the desert, I was ready to leave the desert, as it was getting a little too REAL for me. I hadn’t washed my clothes or showered in a while, and oh, I had a ridiculous amount of sand everywhere. It is still in my luggage to this day.

After about 10-12 hours straight of camels, driving, restroom stops, and car games, we finally made it back to Marrakech. The hectic night market at the main square was still going in full force, and we stopped there for our last Moroccan meal before heading to Paris in the morning. The food stalls at the main square presented all kinds of options- grilled meat skewers, fresh squeezed orange juice, offal, dried fruit, whole sheep heads…you name it! We decided on freshly fried fish, which was delicious and welcome change to the inifinite amount of tajines we’ve eaten at this point. It was served with a flavorful, smoky marinated eggplant side dish, a tomato based salsa, and warm Moroccan bread. We sat at the stall with our newfound road trip friend and feasted on our colorful spread of night market food as we reminisced about our trip and plucked sand out of our eyebrows.

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