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Postcards: Lost in Parma (IT)

After a few days in Cinque Terre we were packing again, this time to go to Bologna. It was a multiple-trains journey. While I had not bothered buying Regionale tickets ahead of time, I did have tickets for Parma-Bologna on which I scored a good online price on. The small problem? Trains serving Cinque Terre always ran late – at least that was the case when we were there, even for those at 7.30am! – and we did not want to risk missing our connection.

Parma

Parma

We therefore found ourselves leaving Vernazza/La Spezia on earlier local trains and had a couple of hours to kill in Parma. Thinking we could pull something similar while visiting Florence, we were excited to see the town that lends its name to the famous Italian prosciutto. One strategical error: it was a Sunday when just about everything was closed, bar a few restaurants/cafes; one unexpected hurdle: the train station was under works and so no left luggage service could be found.

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Weekend eats

I don’t do brunch on a regular basis. In fact, I even suck at sleeping in. Any random Saturday morning, by 11am – the time when most people (or hispters?) grab their first bites of the day – I would have done my grocery shopping, ran a load of laundry, and probably planning what to cook for lunch. Nowadays, I’m even throwing in a swimming date with a friend into the mix. And on Sunday morning? F is supposed to “encourage” me to take a long jog in nearby parks.

Weekend eats

Weekend eats

Going to brunch is still a special occasion to me, usually for a irregular catch-up gabfest with a friend. Or to hangout with a visitor. I don’t have a favourite place to brunch, but it does give me an excuse to try out different spots around town. Most recently, when SL was in town and we were meeting in the neighbourhood around Canal St Martin, she let me led her to Holybelly so I could finally check it out.

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Hidden Paris: Canal St Martin to Mouzaïa

I love friends who make effort to visit Paris more than once. It means this city is no mere checklist item for them; it also opens up the possibility of leading them to Parisian neighbourhoods where few visitors venture in because they still need to see the Louvre, or Notre Dame, or Montmartre, and the likes. Don’t get me wrong: these are good places to see with much to learn (art, architecture, culture, etc) but after bringing one friend after another to the same set of places, it’s a nice change to be elsewhere, you know?

Canal St Martin to Mouzaïa

Canal St Martin to Mouzaïa

After a lovely brunch near the Canal St Martin (more on that next time), I invited SL to join me on an exploratory walk towards Mouzaïa, another purported “countryside” of Paris that lies in the 19th arrondissement. I don’t often come by this part of the city either, as I normally play explorer to discover the nooks and corners near where I live instead. Our trail took us from Canal St Martin to the small hilly streets by Colonel Fabien, then towards Parc des Buttes-Chaumont to continue towards the villas branching out from rue de Mouzaïa. And voila, the photos of things and places we admired on that wonderfully sunny September afternoon.

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The villages of Cinque Terre

This is one place, or more accurately, national park which needs very little introduction. The famous five Ligurian villages – Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore (from north to south) – interspersed along the rocky coastline of the Riviera di Levante have been written up and photographed by many, and here I am, with my meager personal contribution about these overly-revered villages.

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre

F and I had rented quite possibly the smallest AirBnB room in Vernazza (cosier than Parisian budget hotel rooms, if it is at all possible), at the street level, so we could not open the wooden shutter without everyone looking in while we enjoyed the privilege of hearing every conversation in passing. It was conveniently located for us to explore the area but you can also see why it was tough for us to air the enchanting “eau de pied” when our hiking boots were off!

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Sunsets of Cinque Terre

The perk of spending a couple of nights in Cinque Terre: F and I caught beautiful sunsets on both balmy Italian evenings in quaint villages, feeling lighter and happier than usual. I’m not sure if it’s possible to get more idyllic than this.

At Vernazza, we combined sunset watching with cocktail and dinner high above the village, at a terraced restaurant. The experience was mostly undocumented as my camera battery died and I’ve left the spare in our room. The next evening in Riomaggiore, we went back to basic and bought fresh pasta-to-go and sat by the port to eat. We also added a cone of gelati as dessert, all the while observing people came and went in their (row) boats.

Sunset in Cinque Terre

Sunset in Cinque Terre

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Dining in Lu.C.C.A. – L’Imbuto

It is no secret that F and I like eating in single menu – or no menu, depending how you see it – restaurants. We like to be surprised with something different, something that pushes our (usual) palate boundary, and more importantly, something that the chef creates based on what’s fresh and in season from the market. Even better combination, for us, would be a meal that’s creative yet home-y at the same time.

You may have noticed the lack of planning to our Italian trip thus far, relying mainly on serendipitous wandering around town for sightseeing, food, and gelati. Apart from knowing where we would be sleeping on any particular night, everything could happen. L’Imbuto (i.e. The Funnel) was the sole restaurant that I’d pencilled onto our itinerary, having seen it mentioned in an article about Lucca and got me all curious.

L'Imbuto

L'Imbuto

It was a tough self-debate if we should seek out Cristiano Tomei’s contemporary restaurant, or head to one of the local favourites which serves more traditional fares. We eventually decided an evening of out-of-the-ordinary meal over two weeks of traditional Italian could be a good culinary break. Our B&B host did make us doubt our decision for a moment, with his constant mention of how “special” this restaurant is, according to his friends.

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The walled-city of Lucca

Lucca is a splendid walled-city, lies just to the north east of Pisa. I am not sure why there aren’t more people visiting this small city, but I am certainly grateful that we got to enjoy it without being jostled about. Founded over two millennia ago (even Julius Caesar had been here, and Puccini called it his hometown), it had seen days of glory (it was an independent city state, like Venice, until Napoleon came along) as well as certain decline (the fall into the Tuscan’s hand). Luckily, it had also retain plenty of charm to make this a worthy detour when travelling in the region. Hands down, better than Pisa!

Lucca

Lucca

The very first thing any visitor should do is to rent a bike. While Lucca is the kind of place one could happily saunter from one end to another, there is much more fun to be had on two wheels, especially when you could start touring the city by way of its intact Renaissance-era city walls and tree-lined ramparts. Very leisurely, a full turn takes about 20-25 minutes to complete. And you’d want to do it more than once, or maybe even in the other direction.

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Postcards: 2-hours in Florence (IT)

A second day of whirlwind Italian sightseeing continued, this time to the heart of Tuscany. F and I were en route to Lucca, which requires at least a train change in Florence, and since we would be at the train station already anyway, why not take advantage of the time gap between trains to take a quick glimpse of the birthplace of Renaissance?

Florence

Florence

We were there sufficiently early in the morning that we could enjoy an external admiration of the prominent Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore among relatively thin crowd. Its green, pink, and white marble façade was breathtakingly elegant, and we also marvelled over the large brick dome – quite a feat of engineering when you consider the timeline of its construction. One of these days, I’ve got to visit it properly. This was my third trip to Florence and I’ve yet to step foot into the cathedral!

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Postcards: Centro storico di Roma (IT)

It has been a good decade since I last visited Rome. I have forgotten just how enormous the buildings are, how many churches and cathedrals you can find within a stone’s throw, how chaotic everything could and would be, and how much I enjoyed hearing melodic Italian around me. However, I recall vividly the sheer number of people who flock to the main sights (even during the “shoulder” season)…

Rome

Rome

F and I started our two weeks trip to Italy with a quick stopover in Rome. How quickly? Just a little over a day. Frankly, I did not have the courage to brave the August crowd in the August heat, but when our schedule necessitated flying into Rome (but also out of Rome), it also seemed silly not to give F his first quick tour of the Eternal City.

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Hidden Paris: A walk in the 16ème

Still trying to keep the homebody syndrome at bay, F and I cycled across Pont de Grenelle into the 16th arrondissement over the weekend, nodded hello to the Lady Liberty in passing, and intent on exploring the petite ceinture sort of adjacent to the Jardin du Ranelagh/Bois de Boulogne. This stretch opened a good few years ago, in 2007, thus predates the one in the 15ème which we visited recently.

A walk in the 16ème

A walk in the 16ème

Passing by many elegant buildings in this affluent neighbourhood, we finally spotted an entry into the former railway belt near La Muette and slipped through the low gates that are characteristics of many entrances to Parisian parks and gardens. Had it not been for the sign we saw just a minute ago, we would not have guessed that this was where the trains used to pass. Unlike the petite ceinture in the 15ème, nary a sign of abandoned rail track could be found here. They had been dismantled.

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La Petite Ceinture of 15ème

It could be the weather, it could be work, it could be a combination of multiple things. Whatever the underlying causes, I’m more a homebody lately than the overly perky urban explorer that I could be. Luckily, F wouldn’t let me languish about at home for more than what’s healthy, and we’d end up taking some short walks somewhere around town. A couple of weekends ago, we explored a small portion of the old railway belt of Paris, called La Petite Ceinture, in the neighbourhood.

La Petite Ceinture

La Petite Ceinture

Parts of the disused railway line, which once encircled Paris in its entirety, are now officially open to public for walks and jogs, although a large part of it remains out of bound – not that it deters the most ardent urban adventurers from accessing and actually enjoying beautifully wild paths in Paris that tempts me to follow their footsteps at some point!

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Home-made soya milk

Growing up, buying and drinking soya milk is a simple thing. Soya milk is available fresh daily if anyone is inclined to drink it everyday, although we often ask the vendor to dial back on the amount of sugar syrup they add to the milk. Living abroad, it is no longer a staple for me because anything that I can find comes in a carton and lasts for months. These simply do not taste the same, and not for the better.

Home-made soya milk

Home-made soya milk

Even though I know making soya milk is not difficult, it can be rather time consuming. Because of the amount of effort required, it’ll end up being a big batch and then I’d run into the difficult of actually finishing everything within a short few days before they start to go off.

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Postcards: Stari Grad Dubrovnik (HR)

To spend only approximately 36 hours in Dubrovnik is too short, especially when this time frame translates sub-optimally to 1.5 days of activity time. We saw the old town in a rather cursory manner, without additional time to understand the culture, to visit any museum, to admire churches and their hidden compounds, and to explore the coastline by kayak.

Stari Grad Dubrovnik

Stari Grad Dubrovnik

But hey, we had not intended to visit Dubrovnik initially either. It was through a stroke of luck (and flight arrangement) that we ended up here. It gave us a taster of what it could be like and teased us to return, sooner rather than later. We do not yet know when that may be, but we will relish it when the next opportunity jumps at us.

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Hiking up Mount Srd

Having explored the old town of Dubrovnik and then walked the city wall, all in one morning, we decided to enjoy more of the city albeit a little differently. We decided to head up to Mount Srð, the mountain which stands over Dubrovnik to its north, with a peak height of 412 meters. That’s taller than St John’s in Kotor, so we were expecting some fantastic aerial views during this hike.

Hiking up Mount Srd

Hiking up Mount Srd

There are 3 ways to access the summit of Mount Srd. The easiest and quickest is by taking the cable car at Petra Kresimira Street, and the journey of mere minutes costs 60 kuna and 100 kuna respectively for a single and a return journey. For anyone with a car, it is also possible to drive up via the village of Bosanka. As for us, we took the active way up – some 90 minutes walk of it – a serpentine footpath which starts from Jadranska Cesta (near the long sign board which welcomes folks to Dubrovnik) above the old town and goes all the way up to the Fort Imperial.

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The walls of Dubrovnik

We travelled to Montenegro by way of Dubrovnik, thanks to reasonably priced air tickets that were half the price of those to Podgorica. Quite naturally, we opted to spend the final day of our trip in Dubrovnik before flying home, so we won’t be at the mercy of some long-distance and cross-border public bus while racing to the airport to catch our flight. More importantly, we were glad things worked out the way it did because we absolutely love the stari grad Dubrovnik!

Dubrovnik city wall

Dubrovnik city wall

Having arrived later than expected on Friday (due to wrong timetable found on the internet, plus further delays because of heavy traffic and slow border crossing) we decided we would make the most of our full day on Saturday by starting very early in the morning. By that, I meant 6am early. And even then, it was already a little late to catch the sunrise by the time we were out the door!

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The ruins of Stari Bar

Our final morning in Montenegro (already!?), we packed our bag and were glad to leave the dingy and increasingly humid cave apartment, which had been letting water seeping in through one of the walls after nearly an entire day (and night) of rain. It was barely 8am but the right time to catch a bus to Bar, where we would take another bus at 1.30pm to get to Dubrovnik. It also meant we had a few hours to kill, and Stari Bar seemed like a good option.

Stari Bar

Stari Bar

Bar derived and shortened its name from the word Antibari(um), given its location just opposing the Italian town of Bari across the Adriatic Sea. There are regular sea crossings between Bari and Bar for anyone wishing to hop between Italy and Montenegro! The port/coastal side of Bar is newer, built and favoured following destructions of an important aqueduct that used to feed into the Stari Bar, or the Old Bar. Unlike most towns where the newer parts are built surrounding the historic centre, Stari Bar and modern Bar sit a good 5-6 kilometres apart, the former at the foot of Mount Rumija and the latter by the seafront.

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In search of the Walnut Valley

You may have noticed that we’ve been very active throughout our trip in Montenegro, and our second day in Lake Skadar was no different. We had had a hike to the Walnut Valley scheduled and booked with Ben, but due to forecasted storm on the next day, he had to bring forward another excursion and our walk was cancelled. Moreover, another couple who were supposed to be on the walk with us decided to rescind their booking, effectively left us with less than minimum number of persons required.

Walnut Valley

Walnut Valley

Nonetheless, understanding that we’d still like to give the walk a go on our own, Ben stopped by our cave apartment with a map and instruction on how to locate the trail ourselves. Armed with these two pieces of paper, we set out for the Walnut Valley, in the direction of Dupilo.

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Kayaking in Lake Skadar

You’re probably thinking “she’s looking for punishment”, and trust me, I wondered the same too. Barely recovered from our little escapade in the Bay of Kotor, we were on a pre-booked taxi at 7am the next morning, making our way to Virpazar in the south so we would not missed a kayak excursion of Lake Skadar. We would pretty much deposit our bags in our “cave apartment”, get changed, and run out the door for the meeting point. Oh yes…

Kayaking in Lake Skadar

Kayaking in Lake Skadar

Our new adventure actually began in Vranjina, a short drive away from Virpazar. In the jeep, we met with our fellow kayakers – a family of four from Scotland – and Ben, the owner/operator of the tour company. Once in Vranjina, we were put under the care of Vuk, who is familiar with the lake and had been paddling here for a few years now. He would guide us as we paddled, and share some history and story of the lake and the Kom monastery, our ultimate spot of discovery.

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Kayaking the Boka Kotorska

We had initially planned to hike in Lovćen National Park but soon learned that “daily departure” and “minimum 2 persons” indicators on a tour website could not always be counted on. A change of plan was needed, so we opted to rent a kayak for two for the day and head out for a paddle in the Bay of Kotor. This would be my very first kayaking experience, and the fact that the ria is deep enough for cruise boats to get in and out made me a little nervous. I’m still a fledgling swimmer afterall!

Kayaking in the Bay of Kotor

Kayaking in the Bay of Kotor

We started out from Mua, the small town that’s right across from Kotor. After being instructed to try to stay by the coastal front, and advised on the safest strategy should we ever wish to cross the width of any part of the ria, we were sent on our merry way, our bag tucked into a waterproof drum behind us and a small waterproof daypack inside the kayak itself. I had swapped our regular dSLR for my trusty old compact to take photos on this excursion to avoid potential problem, like, I don’t know, drowning the dSLR in salty water?

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Postcards: Perast (ME)

In search for clearer water than those surrounded the town of Kotor, F and I hopped onto a local bus that took us to Perast, a small town (or is it village?) northwest of Kotor. The bus deposited us by the side of an undistinguished motorway and had us wondering if we were told to get off at the wrong spot, when we realised we were at a level above the town. Off, downhill we went.

Perast

Perast

Perast is as quaint as it can get, surrounded by grey, rocky mountains and deep blue sea. Unlike Kotor, we were not jostled about by scores of day-trippers and it felt relaxing to be here. The water was a bit choppier but it was clearer too. The only downside I guess would be the lack of proper beaches. We did find one at the north-western end of the marina which was completely packed, and further south, well, we’d have to launch ourselves into the water from small piers-slash-parks by the waterfront.

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Up, up, to St John’s Fortress

It was already rather warm at 7.15am, an estimated 26°C. From the terrace of our temporary home, we could see a cruise ship that had docked overnight and would probably unleash a large group of visitors into the teeny tiny walled old town of Kotor. Unhurriedly, we finished our tea-and-cookies breakfast, lathered up with dollops of sun cream, and checked that the large bottle of water that was chilling in the fridge was now ensconced in the backpack. We were set for a hike up the mountain of St John.

Hiking to St John's Fortress

Hiking to St John's Fortress

There are two entry points to access the ramparts and fortifications that grace the slopes above Kotor: the main one near the North/River Gate, and another somewhere mid-town (which clearly we didn’t use since I have no idea what that entrance is called). Officially, the “door” opens at 8.00am, but when we got there just a little bit ahead, a ranger was ready to start his work day. For the sum of €3 per person, we each received a multi-lingual information brochure (with route map) and the official permission to commence our hike. I suspect anyone who got here much earlier could have just walked up without fee, since we were already encountering people coming down when we’ve barely started…

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The medieval town of Kotor

Between the very early start in the morning to catch our flight, and the heat that we were yet unaccustomed to, F and I struggled to stay awake during the hour-long bus ride from Herceg Novi to Kotor. I think I gave in to a few minutes of nap but as I jolted awake, I looked out the window in amazement. The Bay of Kotor was breathtakingly beautiful.

Kotor, Montenegro

Kotor, Montenegro

A World Heritage Site, Kotor sits at the farthest pocket of the bay, backed by steep, rocky and grey mountains on its rear. Its medieval centre is enclosed within impressive city walls, filled with small streets that form a labyrinth of sort, and perfect for exploration by foot. Having been under the Venetian rules for several centuries, traces of this old empire are easily, most notably the relief of the winged lion at multiple locations within the stari grad.

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Postcards: Herceg Novi (ME)

Our summer vacation this year is broken into two parts; the first, a shorter trip to Montenegro, and the second, a slightly longer one to Italy later next month so I can also attend one of my best friends’ wedding. We flew in and out of Dubrovnik, given reasonably-priced flights in comparison to those into Montenegro, and we were not that far away from the border. We arrived in Herceg Novi within the hour after our plane landed, which included crossing border controls that sit strategically with a view of the Adriatic sea. Not too shabby a workplace.

Herceg Novi

Herceg Novi

We had not intended to be in Herceg Novi initially, but due to transportation scheduling etc (long story and I won’t bore you with the details), we found ourselves with a few hours to quickly explore this coastal town that sits near the entrance of the Bay of Kotor. We deposited our luggage at the main bus station for a small price of €2, took the street past the adjacent cafés that leads downhill, and reached the Nikola Ðurković’s Square after a few minutes walk. Standing before us, the city gate with a clock tower that is the threshold to cross to get into the old town.

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La Chasse aux Trésors de Paris 2014

How time flies. It felt like yesterday when we went treasure hunting for the lost love of Erasme, but here we are, set for another adventure. Keen, as usual, to explore different neighbourhoods, we took up the inter-arrondissements challenge that started from the Mairie of the 13th. We even reinforced the team with two new treasure hunters!

It seems Erasme had somehow lost his true love, again. Seriously, how often can a man be so careless? Once careless, forgiveable; twice, starting to be a bit ho-hum; thrice? He’d better had a good reason for it! This time though, he’s convinced his love is trapped in the written world, and as it was “raining books” overnight, the clues are hidden in the pages scattered about town. Allons-y!

Treasure hunt 2014

Treasure hunt 2014

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Wine and cheese tasting evening

As a newbie, I had much to learn at work. It is not unusual to see me still typing away or poring over documents at my desk when most of my colleagues leave for the day. I miss wandering the streets of Paris leisurely on my way home, since I’m cutting it pretty close nowadays to be back in time to prepare dinner. Well, a girl (and her partner) has got to eat, you know.

When I received an invitation from Imogen of Native Native a couple of weeks ago, asking if I would like to participate in a wine and cheese tasting evening that she was organising, my inner foodie wiggled a happy dance. “Oh yes, please!” (My inner busy bee did nag a little…)

Cheese tasting evening

Cheese tasting evening

Native Native aims to bring expat bloggers together for tailored events that introduce what’s new and innovative in France. For its June blogger event, it had partnered up with Les Nouveaux Fromagers and took us to the gorgeous tasting room of Ô-Chateau. F was just that bit envious when I told him about this tasting evening. I love cheeses and (certain) wines, but he’s an even bigger fan of these (proof: he’s 100% French) than me!

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Postcards: Piriac-sur-Mer (FR)

We may soon be running out of interesting and new places to visit in the vicinity of F’s hometown. Each time we travel east to my in-laws’, we’ve always borrow one of their cars on one of the afternoons and explore places within an hour or less of driving time. The distance that we’re stretching, however, is getting longer and longer. We may have to start doing day trips rather than an afternoon away…

Piriac-sur-Mer

Piriac-sur-Mer

Our most recent trip to the hometown saw us driving out along the coastline and sought out Piriac-sur-Mer, a quaint village on the peninsular of Guérande. The centre of the village is pedestrianised, making it very pleasant to visit on foot, down along the main streets and continue along the sea wall, past the parked boats and yachts, and a well-loved merry-go-round which (sadly) danced to the tunes of the 80s.

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Postcards: Chambéry (FR)

We had two hours to kill after returning our Vélonecy bikes following a day of bike-about Lake Annecy and retrieving our bags from Marc’s cellar. With tickets back to Paris via Chambéry, when we spotted a regional train due to leave for Chambéry pretty much right away, we did not hesitate jumping on it. That should give us time to quickly explore the historical capital of Savoy, buy something for dinner, and grab the capital-bound TGV.

Chambéry

Chambéry

Located in a valley surrounded by mountains, the medieval section of the town is within a short walk away from the train station. It is compact and can be easily visited on foot within an hour or two. The many heraldry-based flags hung conferred an atmosphere of the past, and I was half-expecting some knights to ride down the streets in armours and all set to joust each other! It was surprisingly quiet for a Saturday evening when we were there, with few people and even less traffic around.

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Biking around Lake Annecy

Final day in Annecy came around far too quickly, but like any good troopers, we made the most of it. After checking out and depositing our backpack into Marc’s cellar to be retrieved later (it is somewhat inconvenient that the train station does not have a locker facility), we went over to the office of Vélonecy to take out a couple of their chainless yet 7 speed-equipped Classique urban bikes. As we travelled to Annecy by train, our SNCF tickets scored us the equivalent of local resident’s rate of €5 per day.

Biking Lake Annecy

Biking Lake Annecy

Our plan was to cycle the entire lake, having seen good bike lanes stretching to the villages next to Annecy. When we mentioned this to Marc and Marie, they assured us that this would be very doable, but with a small caveat – there will be a stretch where we would be on the road with the rest of the traffic without the benefit of bike lanes. Undeterred, we went ahead with this excursion.

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Lunch at La Ciboulette

The rain just wouldn’t let up. We were supposed to roam the famous market that lined the streets of the old town and canals of Annecy, but we ended up staying in for a grasse mat’ and read in bed. Eventually, we had to brave the weather and headed out, since we had a lunch reservation at La Ciboulette. We took the long way round so we could at least catch a glimpse of the market.

La Ciboulette, Annecy

La Ciboulette, Annecy

Slightly drenched after our walk, we stepped into a visibly posh restaurant with opulent interior, charming paintings, antique decorative pieces, and actual silver salt-and-pepper shakers and butter dish awaited us at the table which we were assigned. The couple at our neighbouring table were clearly in celebratory mood: a bottle of champagne with two long-stem flutes had just been brought over by the sommelier.

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Hiking the Annecy-Sévrier way

Morning of Day 2 in Annecy, we woke up early to be greeted by grey sky and drizzles, but undeterred, we put on our walking gear and headed in the direction of Semnoz. Based on direction given to us by Marc, the Église de la Visitation was our key landmark, and continuing along the avenue de la Visitation, we came to the starting point of our intended hike.

Hiking Annecy-Sévrier

Hiking Annecy-Sévrier

Multiple options of varying distance were available and we opted for a 3.5 hours (blue) circuit, figuring that’d get us back in Annecy for a late lunch. If we’d wanted a route with higher elevation, the 2.5 hours (red) circuit would be ideal, but Marc warned us that with recent rainfall, it may be just a tad too slippery without hiking sticks to aid us.

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