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Much to the dismay of our readers (namely, our parents) we never finished our final blog post. Between the jet lag and the job/apartment hunting that ensued after our trip, we kind of procrastinated. And anyone who knows me knows that is totally atypical of me 🙂  Though our family and friends already know how our story ends (or begins…), it is finally the right time to document the last few days of our trip, on the anniversary of our last day in Paris. So here it goes:

Day 42: Paris Plages et Un Film en Plein Air

Our first night in Paris, we stayed at the St. Christopher’s Inn hostel in the 19th arrondisement near the Bassin de la Villette – a large, artificial lake on the outskirts of the city. Along the lake – and other bodies of water in the city – Paris Plages (or Paris Beaches) were set up – sand, umbrellas and water sports were imported to create a makeshift beach for the summer.

Paris Plages along the Bassin de la Villette

Also nearby in the Parc de la Villette, there were a bunch of free concerts and activities going on. We explored for a bit and came across a section of the park where a large inflatable movie screen was blown up – the were showing a free movie there later that evening. When I asked in French which film was playing, I didn’t understand the title. We decided to stick around and watch the movie anyway! To our surprise, the film was Le LaurĂ©at – The Graduate – and it was playing in English with French sub-titles, which pleased Dan! Such a perfect and fitting surprise for the end of our graduation backpacking trip. We shared some wine and a sat on the grass enjoying the movie en plein air (outdoors) surrounded by French girls butchering the words to the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack. All in all, a wonderful, memorable night.

The Graduate in Le Parc de la Villette

Day 43: Sightseeing

We decided to hit up the main sites all in one day by going on a walking tour with our favorite favorite free tour group, New Europe. The tour began at the Fontaine Saint Michel, and from there we walked along the La Rive (river) Seine to the Pont Neuf, the oldest standing bridge on the Seine, despite its name, which translates to New Bridge. According to our tour guide, the different faces on the Pont Neuf were carved after a lavish royal party, each one representing a different guest in attendance. He declared that the Pont Neuf was, in effect, the ancient Facebook – what happened last night, ends up on the Pont Neuf the next morning. Not sure how much truth there is in this story, but a fun one nonetheless.

Faces on the Pont Neuf

Next stops on the tour were the Louvre, L’OpĂ©ra de Paris, les Jardin Tuileries, la Place de la Concorde, le Grand Palais and le Petit Palais.

Le Jardin Tuileries

After the tour we headed to L’Arc de Triomphe and climbed to the top. The Arc is in the center of la Place Charles de Gaulle, also known as Place de l’Étoile because it is the intersection of twelve roads including les Champs Elysees. The view from the top is amazing!

L'Arc de Triomphe

View from the Top

I spy...the Eiffel Tower

After this day full of sightseeing, we were very excited to move from our hostel to the Hotel de la Tour Eiffel for the last two nights of our trip, a beautiful, comfortable and air-conditioned hotel that was a graduation gift from Dan’s parents! We went to dinner at a nearby cafe.

Day 44: An Engagement to Remember

We had planned to wake up early to take the hour-long train ride from Paris to Reims to visit the champagne country, but decided to sleep in instead! We ended up just wandering around and exploring Paris, window shopping and stopping by a creperie for a delicious treat. Stopped by the Eiffel Tower, where we would end up later that night, and also Notre Dame – where we stood right in the center of Paris.

La Tour Eiffel

Paris wouldn't be complete without a crepe!

For our last dinner, we wanted to go to a restaurant called La Refuge des Fondues – a tiny restaurant in Montmartre that is known for serving wine in baby bottles, a tradition that supposedly began to help the avoid paying tax on wine glasses. The restaurant consists of two long tables along the wall and it is so narrow that you have to climb over the table to get to the other side – you are basically guaranteed to become friends with the people sitting next to you. We had both gone to this restaurant separately when we studied abroad two years prior, and wanted to go back together – because we couldn’t leave Paris without eating some fondue! Though it’s a bit touristy, the owner is fantastic and the atmosphere is enticing!  The prix fixe menu is fairly reasonable and consists of multiple courses, wine and more than enough food.

Le Refuge des Fondues

While in Montmartre, we stopped by the International I Love You wall – and Dan wrote our names and the date – July 28, 2011 – which I’d later find out had much more significance than I thought!

International I Love You Wall

For the last part of the evening, we headed to the Eiffel Tower to lay on the grass and admire the monument, which was all lit up – a popular spot to have late night picnics. We had come to the same spot two years ago when we were studying abroad. Over a bottle of wine, we reminisced about our the whole trip, and also our relationship. The crowd of people began to disappear, and we were practically the only people left.  Sometime after midnight we stood up to head back to the hotel.

AND THAT’S WHEN…

Dan got down on one knee and asked me to marry him! I didn’t quite believe him at first – until he said that he had asked my dad before we left for the trip. I was so happy and surprised (and shocked that after 44 days together nonstop he still wanted to marry me!) Of course I said YES! I couldn’t imagine a more perfect ending to the trip of a lifetime – and I can’t imagine a more perfect man to spend the rest of my life with.

The View from Where Dan Proposed

Engaged!

Newly Engaged and Headed Home

The Ring

So – here we are one year later. It’s been a year full of change and excitement – Dan is about to start law school at Pace University in White Plains, NY after working for ADT Security and I’m working in New York City at WCG, a communications company specializing in healthcare. We’ve set our wedding date on Sunday, September 2, 2012, and time is already flying by. We are busy with adjusting to the “real world”  and of course, the wedding planning, and while most days we wish we could go back to being vagabonds in Europe, we are pretty content sitting in our air-conditioned apartment as we write this post, and we’re looking forward to our next big trip – THE HONEYMOON!  Perhaps we will start a new blog about the wedding…

Thanks for sticking with us!

Au revoir for now,
Ally and Dan

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According to our original travel plans, we were going to take an overnight train from Madrid to Paris – the last stop on our European adventure. When we got to the train station to book our tickets, we found out that there were no seats left for Eurail pass holders, and to get to Paris we’d have to buy a seat in a sleeper car for about 200 euros each. Since this was definitely out of our budget, we decided to make a pit stop for one night in Bordeaux, France.

The only hotel we could find was about 15 minutes outside of town. Little did we know that the Tour de France was stopping in Bordeaux the next day before heading to Paris for the last leg of the race – making it impossible to get a train reservation to Paris until the 25th. So now we had to add an extra day to our stay in Bordeaux. We figured it would be fun since we were in the middle of wine country, but of course, all of the wine tours were cancelled due to the Tour de France.

We made the most of our full day in Bordeaux and headed into town to catch some of the time trials of the Tour de France, and to see some of the beautiful landmarks in Bordeaux. We ended up catching a glimpse of Andy Schleck, who was in second place.

After watching some of the race, we walked along the Garonne River to La Musée du Vin et du Négoce de Bourdeaux (Museum of Wine and Wine Trade). Between a coupon we got from our hotel, and the student rate, we got in for 4 euros each, instead of the normal adult rate of  7 euros. The museum was very small, but provided an interesting look at the wine industry in Bordeaux and how the trading of wine played a major role in the economy of Bordeaux. After the short self-guided tour, we tasted two wines. Though it was an alternative to the cancelled wine tours, we definitely want to go back to Bordeaux and take a tour of the beautiful vineyards in the Bordeaux countryside to get the true experience.

The view of Bordeaux on the La Rive Garonne

One of the landmarks I wanted to see before heading back to the hotel is called Le Miroir d’Eau (The Mirror of Water). The Water Mirror is a square with a layer of a couple centimeters of water that reflects the beautiful buildings at la Place de la Bourse.

Le Miroir d'Eau

Our last stop of the day was a cute bar Ă  vin (wine bar) called L’Autre Petit Bois, which was designed to look like woods, mixed with eclectic vintage furniture. Bordeaux ended up being a great stop on our trip to just relax and take in some beautiful scenery.

Bordeaux Wine and L'Assiette de Charcuterie

View from our seat at L'Autre Petit Bois

L'Autre Petit Bois

We arrived at our hostel, Cat’s Hostel, fairly early in the evening, but decided to stay in the first night to recover from our late-night adventures in Barcelona. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the best hostel to hang around at as the staff was extremely rude and unfriendly, neither of the air conditioners in our room worked and there was only one outlet in an entire dorm of 14 people. We finally were able to control use of the outlet, so we could plug in Dan’s computer and catch up on blogging. Since we stayed in, we thought we might be nice and rested for the next full day of exploring the city, but this was not the case. Besides not being able to fall asleep because the room was sooo hot, two Americans returned from a pub crawl at about 4 a.m., one of which proceeded to fall off of his top bunk bed, bringing the mattress down with him. While this was amusing, it didn’t make it easier to catch some Z’s.

Wednesday morning, we headed out to catch the free walking tour provided by a company affiliated with the hostel (we don’t remember the name). If you’ve been following our blog, you surely know how many free walking tours we have been on… and this was the ABSOLUTE worst. It turned out to be the tour guide’s first day on the job, so we felt a little bad for leaving after the first five minutes, but the girl was actually reading hand-written notes off of notebook paper – and you couldn’t understand a word she was saying with her accent. We discreetly wandered off, ready to explore the city on our own.

Luckily, we ran into another free walking tour with MyMadridFreeTour that was just starting up near Madrid’s most famous piece of public art and the city’s symbol: the monument of the Bear and the Madroño.

Most of what we learned on the walking tour is that Madrid is a melting pot of different cultures (including the Islamic Moors from northern Africa, Austrian Hapsburgs and French Bourbons) that have shaped the city’s history and architecture over the centuries.  The facades of the buildings are a mixture of red brick (Moorish) and stone (Austrian) throughout the city.

An example of the mixed-influences in Madrid architecture

The Palacio Real – the biggest in Western Europe – was eventually built in the French style:

Our tour ended up near the Gran Via – the Champs-ÉlysĂ©es of Madrid, which definitely gives it a big city feel, as opposed to its Catalan neighbor, Barcelona.

After the walking tour, we headed over to Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, the home of Real Madrid’s football (soccer) team. We heard from other backpackers who had gone to Madrid that the stadium tour was worth seeing, as it is home to the winningest football club in the world. It was interesting to compare and contrast this huge, state of the art stadium with the very modest Liverpool stadium.

Madrid is home to several famous museums, including the Prado, which is comparable to Paris’s Louvre. We found out that on Wednesday nights, most of the museums are free for their last two hours. We opted to check out the Reina Sofia modern art museum, which is home to several Picasso and Dali pieces. We saw some interesting cubism and surrealism pieces, including Guernica, which Picasso painted as a reaction to the bombing in Guernica, a civilian town where the dictator Franco allowed German troops to practice bombing during the rise of WWII.

Since our train to Bordeaux on the 23rd would be bright and early at 8 a.m., we decided to celebrate my birthday the night before at midnight by going on a pub crawl with MyMadridFreeTour that our guide, Katya was also leading. (She was a great tour guide, even if she went to the University of Florida.) For only 10 euros, we had an open bar of beer/sangria for an hour, free shots and drink specials at each bar!

Last 10 minutes being 21!

The best part of the night, besides it being my birthday of course, was that there were two other UGA graduates on our pub crawl.

GOOO DAWGS!

One Week Left!!!!!

We can’t believe that we’ve already been gone for five weeks! The time has been going by so fast that the last leg of our trip has snuck up on us. In one week from tomorrow, we will be heading back to the states. While we’ve had the most amazing adventures traveling together, there are definitely some things that we can’t wait to get back to in the U.S. Here’s a list of things we really miss:

  • Family, of course!
  • Air conditioning
  • Ice cubes and cold drinks
  • Human-sized towels
  • Clean clothes
  • Home-cooked meals
  • Air conditioning
  • Full-sized beds
  • Cell phones
  • Driving
  • Free refills
  • Television
  • Air conditioning
  • Hairdryer/straightener (just Ally, obviously)
  • English speakers
  • Good service in restaurants
  • Cheap Meals
  • Fruit Juices without carbonation
  • Vitamins

To get to Barcelona, we had to take a train to Port Bou, the French/Spanish border, and then switch trains to get to Barcelona. Each of the trains was about 2.5 hours, so it shouldn’t have been that bad, except for the fact that it was about a million degrees on the first train!

Since we had a long, sweaty exhausting trip and needed to do laundry, we thought we’d stay in at our hostel, Sant Jordi’s Arago. It was the same hostel that I stayed at when I was in Barcelona two years ago with my study abroad friends, and it’s one of the top hostels in all of Europe, but it’s also our most expensive one of the trip. However, it was worth the splurge because I knew how great it was already and it was air conditioned!

Barcelona is known for its nightlife, with most residents staying out and partying until 7 a.m., so the biggest benefit of the Sant Jordi chain is that they arrange night life events with cheap, safe transportation and no cover charge for clubs. When we stepped into the hostel, we didn’t even put our bags down before meeting some awesome people who convinced us to go out to the “Saturday Night Mansion Party.” After all, how can you pass up a mansion party in one of the most awesome cities in the world! We showered and got changed in record time to meet up with the over 100 other hostel-goers at a local pub, before private buses transported us to an actual mansion for only 2 euros each. Though the drinks were expensive, we had a great night meeting people from our hostel!

Since we didn’t get in until almost 6 a.m., we slept until noon, along with most of the hostel. We found a free walking tour with a company called TravelBar that was starting at 3 p.m. Our guide, Jim from Australia, was hilarious and showed us all around the Barri Gòtic, or the Gothic Quarter. Starting with the history of Barcelona, we learned about the Catalan culture and the divide between Catalunya (the north eastern region of Spain) and the rest of the Spanish country. Similar to the difference between Germany and Bavaria, the Catalans have unsuccessfully been fighting for their independence from the rest of Spain. The Catalans are in fact very different from the rest of Spain – they speak a different language, are more economically rich, and are more liberal in ideology. For example, they detest the gruesome sport of bullfighting, which is Spain’s national sport, and it is almost all but outlawed in the Catalan region.

Barcelona is primarily known for its incredible architecture, which is heavily influenced by the 19th century Modernist architect Antoni GaudĂ­. You can see his work all over the city, and it is easy to identify because it looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Our hostel was right next to the famous Casa BatllĂł, which is known by locals as the “House of Bones.”

One story we learned about Barcelona involves Sant Jordi, the patron saint of Catalunya, who was known to be a dragon slayer. A legend goes that Sant Jordi saved the city of Barcelona from a dragon that was cutting off the city’s water supply. Supposedly, this dragon kept demanding sacrifices of virgins until the only virgin left was the king’s daughter. Sant Jordi arrived in time to kill the dragon and spare the sacrifice of the king’s daughter and then proceeded to marry her. So, here in Barcelona, people celebrate Sant Jordi Day instead of Valentine’s Day, and traditionally men give women roses and women give men books!

A quite ironic anecdote about Barcelona involves George Orwell, the author of 1984, who was actually a freedom fighter (along with Ernest Hemingway) for the anarchists who wanted to separate from Spain. To honor him after his death, the Barcelona government dedicated a plaza to him. Ironically, the first square in Barcelona to have 24-hour surveillance cameras was George Orwell square.

After the walking tour, we got a free glass of sangria, and decided to sign up for some of TravelBar’s other tours, one of which was for a Tapas and Flamenco dancing tour later that night. For 23 euros each, we got a full dinner of tapas (small appetizers including chorizo, patatas bravas and paella) and lots of sangria. Flamenco is Spain’s national style of music and dance. In the small venue, Tarantos, there was a live band and two dancers – a male and a female. The music was really beautiful and different than anything I had ever heard before, but the dancing was way more intense than I thought it would be! Overall, the whole experience was awesome!

After the show, we hung out with some Americans and a Canadian that were on both the walking tour and the flamenco show with us. We hung out in a bar that looked like a jungle until 1, when the clubs open up. From our Let’s Go guidebook, we learned that people handing out flyers for free club entrance on the street are actually legit, and can save you up to 15 euros on a cover charge. We ended up getting free entrance for a club called BLVD. One of the rooms was playing hip-hop and the other had 80’s music, so we had a good time dancing!

Our second full day in Barcelona, we bought a day metro pass and saw some of the major sites in the city that we hadn’t hit on the walking tour. We went to the Mercat de Boqueria, which is a huge food market off of Las Ramblas, the main strip of Barcelona. The colors and smells were amazing! We snacked on some natural fruit juice and some strawberries and pineapple for a great deal.

We then headed to the FC Barcelona football stadium, Camp Nou so Dan could check it out. The stadium is one of the biggest, with seats for over 100,000 – even more than Sanford! It was pretty packed so we didn’t take the tour and saved some money.

Next up was Parc Guell, the famous park designed by Gaudi. I visited here when I was in Barcelona two years ago and it was one of my favorite things to see. You start by taking escalators up a really steep hill, followed by a short trail that provides great views of the entire city.

After that, you head back down into the main part of the park where you really see the Gaudi influence.

When we were finished at the park, we headed back to TravelBar for a Spanish cooking class we signed up for. It sounded great – we were supposed to learn how to make paella and sangria. But unfortunately, we didn’t realize that the food would be exactly the same as the tapas dinner the night before. The other disappointing aspect was that there were so many people signed up, you definitely didn’t get to physically make any part of the paella. We watched one of the cooks there make the paella in a huge pan. He was really great at describing the whole process and pointing interesting aspects of the dish out, but the actual paella didn’t end up tasting that great! (We had had the same paella the night before and it was much better.) We did get to make our own sangria, which salvaged the night, but all in all I wouldn’t recommend doing both activities with TravelBar since they were so similar.

After our disappointing paella experience, we met back up with people from our hostel for that night’s hostel party. This time, we went to a club called Oshum. The night started out with another flamenco performance, but it wasn’t as interesting as the first one because the venue was a lot less intimate and everyone was talking instead of watching with their eyes glued to the stage like the night before. But after the flamenco, the venue turned in to an awesome night club with one of the best dj’s we’ve ever heard! We spent the next three hours dancing and having a good time with some friends from our hostel before calling it an early night by Barcelona standards at 4 a.m.

We had one more thing to do our last morning in Barcelona before leaving for Madrid – see the famous Sagrada Familia, the imposing Gaudi church that has been under construction since 1882 and isn’t expected to be completed for another several decades.

Montpellier – The City Where the Sun Never Sets

After celebrating Bastille Day with the Marseillais, I couldn’t wait to get on the train to Montpellier, my second home away from home (after Athens, of course!) We got in just in time to hit the Monoprix – think the Tar-jay of France – and stock up on some food for dinner. When I was studying abroad, I often grabbed a baguette and some hummus for lunch, or a little tub of taboulé or shredded carrots. For some reason, the little pre-packaged snacks there are so good I had to have them when I went back! I wish we had Monoprix in America!

By the time we settled into our hotel pas climatisé (un-air-conditioned), it was already getting late so we decided to take it easy and just walk around the Place de la Comédie, the main square in town. It was so great to be back in a familiar place, remembering all of the amazing times I had studying abroad two years ago.

We wandered around, and I somehow managed to remember how to find Shakespeare Pub, a pub that my classmates and I would go to frequently for a Banana Bread beer or trivia on Tuesday nights. Unfortunately, they have been out of banana bread beer for a while, so Dan didn’t get to try any of that for his beer post. We walked through a couple more of the little streets and alleys, but it was almost 1 and bars and cafes were starting to close, so we headed back to the hotel.

The next day, we ate salads at a café in the Place de la Comédie before catching the tram/bus to the beach called Palavas. Montpellier is situated on the Mediterranean Sea, but it still takes about 45 minutes between riding the tram and bus to the coast. As soon as we got on the bus, I heard someone call my name, and it turned out to be my sorority sister Jamie Lewis, who is studying abroad in Montpellier this summer! It was great running into Jamie, who is also blogging about her summer adventures in Montpellier. We talked the whole way to the beach about Montpellier, studying abroad and Gamma Sig stuff.

The beach was just how I remembered it – we even found my favorite snack stand called Miam Miam (Yum Yum in French) and shared an American sandwich (a baguette with hamburger and french fries) and some sodas to take a break from the heat.

Later that night, we headed out to Les Estivales, an outdoor craft festival/wine tasting that happens every Friday night in July and August in Montpellier. I was so excited that it turned out we’d be in Montpellier on a Friday so we could walk around, taste local foods and wines and do some shopping. For only 4 euros, you get a wine glass and three dégustations (tastings) of wine. We had a great time, but it was way more crowded than I ever remember it being!

Since our train to Barcelona wasn’t until 5 p.m. on Saturday, we got to meet up with my French professors from the UGA a Montpellier program for a delicious lunch at L’Assiette au Boeuf. Over a delicious lunch, we reminisced about the program two years ago, told travel stories, and had a great time! I didn’t want to leave Montpellier – there were still so many places I wanted to go back to, but our adventure must go on!

It took 12 hours and five trains, but we made it to Marseille on July 14 (le 14 juillet) in plenty of time to celebrate Bastille Day, the French national independence day. So, even though we missed celebrating America’s independence 10 days before, we got to watch the fireworks with the French. Bastille Day celebrates the anniversary of the 1789 storming of the Bastille, a prison, which symbolized the uprising of revolutionaries and an act of rebellion. Marseille, the oldest city in France, was an especially special town in which to celebrate the national holiday because the people of Marseille had a significant role in the French Revolution sending 500 volunteers marching to Paris to help defend the revolutionaries. The song they sang as they were walking, La Marseillaise, became the French national anthem.

After checking into our hostel, we walked around the Vieux Port (Old Port) of Marseille and grabbed a sandwich and salad from a cafe, which we ate sitting by the port. It was finally starting to get dark, so we somehow managed to find an open table on a terrace outside of a cafe – most of the tables had been reserved ahead of time. It was the perfect spot to watch the fireworks from.

The firework display was amazing! Set to a variety of music that included anything from traditional French music to the Beatles, the climax of the display was the finale, which definitely blew any 4th of July fireworks’ finale out of the water! Though the majority of the fireworks were exploding over the far end of the port, for the finale the entire length of the port right across from our table lit up in beautiful fireworks. The best part about it was that Queen’s “We Are The Champions” was the song playing during the finale!

(This is just a still shot from the video we took… we’ll try to upload the video when we have more time!)

The next morning we explored some more of the Vieux Port region near our hostel, coming across the Abbaye St. Victor, which dates back to the 5th century. It was really beautiful and quiet when we walked inside, so we decided to tour the crypts since it only cost 2 euros. Being in the abbaye was really interesting because I just finished a course in French cathedrals in my final semester at UGA. I recognized several of the different roman architectural elements we learned about. In fact, the man working in the abbaye began telling me the history of how it was built and differentiating between the different architectural styles. It was great that I understood most of what he was telling me, since it was in French (I had to translate for Dan.) Merci, Dr. Bell!

After the crypt, we ended up coming across a stand selling tickets for a boat ride out to L’Ile d’If, where the Chateau d’If is located. The Chateau d’If was an ancient fortress-turned-prison, and the setting for the story The Count of Monte Cristo. Since this happens to be one of Dan’s favorite movies, we figured this would be a great way to spend the rest of our time in Marseille. The round trip boat ticket only cost us 10 euros each, and the 10-minute trip out to the island provided us with beautiful views of Marseille. Touring the castle was interesting, but they have definitely turned it into more of a tourist attraction with displays and pictures in many of the old cells. As Dan noted, Alcatraz was a little more interesting because they seemed to keep it more in the same state it was when it served as a prison.

View of L'Ile d'If

Despite the fact that this was one of the most isloated jails, making it difficult to escape from, they had a pretty nice view. If I had to go to prison, I think I’d choose le Chateau d’If.

View of the Lighthouse and Marseille from One of the Cells

Seeing the castle and the inspiration for Dumas’ famous story was great, but by far, the best part of the chateau was the views of the port of Marseille, the Notre-Dame de la Garde perching on top of a hill, the beautiful lighthouse (hope you like it mom!).