Beginning and Ending a Balkan Getaway in Tirana, Albania

Skanderbeg Square (set up for Euro 2024) viewed from
our Tirana International Hotel & Conference Center room

Putting together this Balkan trip: Photos of picturesque Ohrid, North Macedonia, nestled on a gorgeous mountain lake caught my eye and inspired this trip. (This tends to happen to me. I see a photo or read something online or a place mentioned in a book, do a little research, and the next thing I know I’m going there.) July and August are peak season in certain parts of the Balkans, but temperatures can be really hot. So, I wasn’t sure my plan to check out Ohrid in July was my most genius move. Lake Ohrid’s waters are cool and lots of people head to the lake in the summer months, but of course, I wanted to explore the region a little, too. What cities might we fly into or visit before or after our time in Ohrid? Options for direct flights from our home in Paris were limited (“Paris Beauvais” doesn’t count as it’s not really in Paris and a real hassle to get to from the city). Transavia offers direct flights from Paris Orly to Tirana, Albania, a 2.5 hour drive from Ohrid. I looked at some open-jaw itineraries with us flying out of Ohrid or Skopje, North Macedonia, but those required lay-overs that didn’t interest me, so a round-trip to Tirana made the most sense. David and I had been in Shkoder, Albania, a few years back on a short side trip from Montenegro. While we’d enjoyed good food and the picturesque ruins of Rosafa Castle, we were interested in seeing more of Albania. Its capital, Tirana, seemed the perfect place to start. read more

Yerevan, Armenia

The Cascades in Yerevan

Our last three nights in the Caucasus would be in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. After charming boutique hotels in Baku, Azerbaijan, and Tblisi, Georgia, I planned a little big-hotel luxury for the end of our trip. I used Marriott points to book affiliate The Alexander, reputedly the most luxurious hotel in Armenia, with its spa, indoor pool, sauna and steam room. Our driver from Tblisi, Garnik, dropped us off at The Alexander in the early evening. We were greeted warmly and quickly checked into an elegant and spacious room decorated in neutral tones. A welcome note awaited us beside a plate of dried fruit and churchkhela, that popular Georgian sweet made of walnuts and grape paste, a promising start to our time in Yerevan. read more

By car to Tblisi, Georgia, to Yerevan, Armenia

Sevanavank (Sevan Monastery and churches) on Lake Sevan

I planned our Caucasus trip with a one-way Azerbaijan Airways flight from Paris (our current home) to Baku, Azerbaijan, with 6 nights in Georgia before a return flight from Yeravan, Armenia, to Paris. We hopped a short Azerbaijan Airways flight from Baku to Tblisi, Georgia. When doing my usual pre-trip research, I quickly decided that combining a transfer by car from Tblisi to Yerevan with a little touring along the way would be a great alternative to the hassle and expense of another flight or a no-frills minibus or private direct transfer. Once again, Viator made finding what I was looking for in the way of Caucasus tours and transfers easy. I connected with Sergey at Private Tours in Armenia and we settled on a Sunday transfer with stops in a couple of monasteries including one at Lake Sevan, the largest body of water in the Caucasus and one of the largest freshwater high-altitude lakes in Eurasia. read more

On Georgia’s Khaketi Wine Route

Khaketi vineyards with the Caucasus Mountains in the distance

Our second day trip out of Tblisi took us through the 1800 meters-above-sea-level Gombori Pass to the Khaketi wine region. Our driver, Mamuka (a/k/a Mamu) turned out to be tons of fun and we had a great day. The sweeping views of the pass gave way to bright green forest as we descended. We stopped to drink from a roadside spring where rows of decorated bottles and snacks were apparently for sale on the honor system. With its abundant springs, water throughout Georgia is of excellent quality.

A roadside spring

When a picturesque monastery perched on a roadside hilltop caught our eye, Mamu pulled in to let us hike up. The 16th century Gremi Monastery surprised us with its little Church of Archangels boasting a wealth of frescoes in varying states of preservation. read more

Day trip from Tblisi: Jvari, Uplistsike, Gori, Mtskheta, Chronicle of Georgia

Rugs, scarves and more for sale outside the walls surrounding
Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta

Georgia has so much to offer and I was excited about our first day trip out of Tblisi. I booked a private tour with “Karlo-Georgia” on Viator that offered an interesting mix of sites from differing periods in Georgia’s long history. Our driver turned out to be George (how appropriate!), an independent guide who worked with Karlo. George arrived promptly at 10am across the street from our hotel on Rustaveli Avenue in a spiffy and spacious new SUV. I’d agreed in advance with Karlo on the sites we’d visit, but left it to George to determine the order of our stops as circumstances warranted. It’s impossible to know in advance where we’ll want to linger or move on quickly, how long a lunch break might be, traffic, whether rain will be a factor, etc., so I’m happy to be flexible. read more

Tblisi, Georgia, a city of contrasts

Tblisi viewed from Mtatsminda Park

We arrived in Tblisi on a short Azerbaijan Airlines flight from Baku. The Tblisi International Airport is not big and we quickly collected our luggage and summoned a Bolt car. We ended up using Bolt several times in Tblisi, always with very reasonable prices and typically short wait times. We knew prior to our arrival in Tblisi that massive protests had been going on in the city over objections to a proposed anti-free-journalism law. I messaged our hotel from the Baku airport to verify that the street our hotel was on (the same avenue on which the Georgian Parliament sits) was still open. Thankfully, the hotel confirmed that it was so I could reassure our Bolt driver who at first told me the road was closed. read more

A Festival of Scallops in Monmartre, Paris

Snapshots of La Fête de la Coquille Saint-Jacques

I’ve had this year’s La Fête de la Coquille Saint-Jacques (Festival of Scallops) in Montmartre on my calendar for a couple of months. A French friend told me about this annual Breton event and I was instantly intrigued. David and I love scallops. We had big fun in October at the Meaux “Brie Happy” Festival celebrating the local cheese so had high hopes for a festival centered around scallops and other specialties from the Brittany region of France. A quick online search promised booths of food, cooking demonstrations, traditional Breton dancers and more. Fun! read more

The Biggest Medieval Festival in France is a hit once again

Encampments outside the ramparts at Les Médiévales de Provins

UPDATE June 2024: The 39th annual Fête Médiévale de Provins was as much fun this year as last. I’m happy to report that entry fees have not changed. The weather was wildly different, though: chilly and cloudy on the first weekend in June! This year, I even got David in costume. A thick leather belt with “antique” medallions turned his Moroccan wedding attire (bought for a friend’s wedding in Marrakech in March) into medieval garb. Despite the Fête Médiévale website stating that full costume attire head-to-foot is required for an entry discount, they are in fact very liberal and freely allow tennis shoes, etc. under costumes. Costumes range from the impressively accurate period dress to fantasy wear and inexpensive Halloween-quality costumes. read more

Versailles: Beyond the château and gardens

La Galerie des Sculptures et des Moulages (The Gallery of Sculptures and Casts). It’s hard to believe the spectacular venue was a stable and arena for horses!

[I’m still committed to blogging our three-weeks in New Zealand (Fall 2022), but decided that I wouldn’t let that stop me from posting about our current year in Paris when the mood hits me.]

The town of Versailles is an easy Métro/RER ride from our apartment and we love heading out there just to wander the extensive château gardens, especially on days when the château is closed so that the crowds are thinned. Recently, though, we headed to Versailles on a Sunday to the Galerie des Carrosses (Gallery of Carriages), a place I’d been wanting to visit, but that is only open on weekends. Housed in former royal stables known as La Grande Ecurie, the Grande Ecurie along with nearby La Petite Ecurie were built for Louis XIV between 1679-1682. Located just across from the main entrance to the palace of Versailles, they comprised the largest, most extravagant stables ever built. Since the Galerie des Carrosses is only open on weekends, we got a chance to check out the masses of tourists at the château across the way. Wow. And no thank you. I’ve visited the château many times over the years so feel lucky not to have to brave a mob like that. Still, it is one of the top tourist sites in the world and absolutely worth a visit, even in a crowd. But, back to Versailles beyond the château : read more

Corsica, at last

Bonifacio, Corsica

Corsica is a French island in the Mediterranean southeast of Nice and just north of Sardinia. It’s the birthplace of Napoleon I and a place of rugged beauty with a culture all its own. I wanted to visit Corsica for decades, but despite living in Paris on-and-off for years, I never made it. The time had finally arrived!

After finishing a house-and cat-sitting gig in little Thoiry, France, we flew EasyJet from Geneva to Ajaccio, Corsica, an 1h10m non-stop flight. We picked up a rent car at the Ajaccio airport and drove two and a half hours through rocky mountains to Bonifacio at the southern tip of the island, stopping a long the way to admire views and snap photos. We had nine nights in Corsica and I’d agonized over where exactly to spend our time. With all the winding roads, driving times in Corsica can be long and I didn’t want to fall into the trap of rushing around trying to see everything and being rushed everywhere. I settled on Bonifacio as one of two places to stay because it was just so dramatically beautiful. And given how many dramatically beautiful places there are in Corsica, that’s saying a lot. Wow, was I happy with my choice of Bonifacio! read more