Tuesday, 9 August 2011

He asked me to marry him.

Well girls... he got down on one knee. It was a beautiful day and he had taken me for a surprise day out to a National Trust property with beautiful gardens. Then he went silent for about half an hour as we walked around the grounds while, I later found out, he was deliberating which would be the most truly romantic spot.

And of course, I said yes; without a shadow of a doubt. (Not that diving headlong into new things is a character trait or anything). I have so much admiration for Dan: his generosity, his genuine love and concern for his friends, his wisdom and support. I haven't counted, but I think I probably have looked at my ring about 30 times a day on average ever since. Dan was very quick to reassure me that he managed to get a 2 year damage warantee on it, so it is safe in my hands!

We have enjoyed everyone's brilliant responses. I feel quite overwhelmed by so much support. Thank you all for your texts. Here are a few of our favourites...

“DP, Cat, my spy sources inform me congratulations are in order. Whoop whoop! Excellent!"

“Amazing! So weird, was just talking about you two with D*** H***** yesterday wondering when [Dan] would pop the question. Incredible news for you both”

“Waouw, felicitations. J'espere qu'on se verra bientot pour feter ça!”

“Ahhhhh AMAZING!!!!!! Cat, massive CONGRATS!!!!! Super pleased for you guys. I will take romantic shots of you on the sailing trip. x x x x x”

“Hooray hooray hooray hooray hooray hooray hooray hooray hooray hooray x million! Congratulations!! You two are wonderful, you are literally going to laugh your way through life. Want to hear the “story!”

"On a scale of 1 to excited-im excited! :-D x"

"Cat!!! I'm so happy for you!!! Can you send out a big long fb message with all the details for those of us abroad?? I want to know all about where you were when he asked and when you think the big day will be and EVERYTHING! xx"

"Felicidades. :-) Noticias fenomenal. Well done."

“Haha good work DP. I knew you wouldn't screw it up”

“So excited. Have just had a little blub and missed the turn on the roundabout! Just realised what your initials will be...”

"Congratulations DP. She must be deaf and blind"

And many many more.

Being engaged feels completely different to going out. Suddenly, all our individual plans for the future that we have each thought about or discussed, are now becoming solid plans for a life together. I'm so excited about the challenge of building a lifelong relationship that remains strong throughout the years to come, even when it's tough, and that can bless those around us. We have so many amazing friends and I'm excited about being able to have our own home where they can always be welcome to be part of our lives.
It still feels a bit poncy referring to him as my fiancé, although I appreciate reference to French!

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Tourist Tips on visiting Brussels

When talking of touristic European Capitals, Brussels isn’t necessarily one of the first that comes to mind. Less majestic than Paris, less buzzing than Madrid, less Catholic than Rome. Added of course to the unpredictable weather. I was informed when I arrived that “in Brussels it is sunny several times a day”. 

Granted, there is less to see than in Paris or London. However, I found Brussels held some real gems that would make it a perfect destination for long weekend or a few days visit. I really fell in love with the place in the time I was there. Only a train ride away from London, so no baggage allowance – something that will be appreciated by anyone who has travelled with ... some of the less expensive airlines. So, what would I suggest...?

 The Grande Place
No point saving the best till last. The Grand Place is the breath-taking central square of Brussels, a large cobbled square surrounded by beautiful gold-gilded Guild Houses. Each building has a story of its own as they date back to the old guilds of bakers, ship-makers, and textiles. During the day it is beautiful but at night when it is all lit up, this place is my favourite place to be. It is also surrounded with quaint little streets where you will find a whole range of restaurants and shops.

 Manneken Pis
A statue of a little boy having a wee. This is one of Brussels most famous monuments, and supposedly symbolic of Belgium. Certainly it is symbolic of the Belgians' sense of humour. You will find it down Stoofstraat, a small street off the Grande Place, surrounded by a crowd of excited tourists and probably sporting one of its famous costumes, if you are there on a weekend. So, to put your mind at rest, if you pass a lot of shops selling figures of naked little boys, fear not.  You could even take a souvenir chocolate figurine home for your parents.

Capital of Europe...?
Although the French would beg to differ, Brussels does have a sense of being the capital of Europe. The mix of languages and cultures wherever you go is testament to this. An entire region of bourgeoisie Belgian houses were swept away to make way for the immense European Quarter near the city centre. The European Parliament building is an entire world unto itself, complete with restaurants, hairdressers, post office and even a train station underneath. You can walk through the grounds and get a good view in  from the outside, and from Place de Luxembourg you have an impressive view of the whole Parliament. Also of interest in Place de Luxembourg are two remains from the Berlin wall, which stand intact to one side of the square.

Parc du Cinquantenaire/ Jubelpark
Once you have journeyed as far as the European Quarter, it is not much further to walk to Parc de Cinquantenaire. This is a beautiful park to walk in and is dominated by two enormous museums, joined by an “Arch de Triomphe” inspired Arch. Entry to the Military museum, on the left, is free, and from there you can gain access to the roof of the arch, where you get a view of the whole European Quarter, and out to the East of Brussels. This arch originally marked the entrance to the city. Also in the military is a large aerodrome full of aircraft from both world wars, amongst others – definitely worth visiting if you are interested in aircraft.

The Giant Atom
On my first day in Brussels, I was pointed out proudly by a Belgian: the Atonium. Shocked when I failed to react, she explained that this was “the Eiffel Tower of Brussels”. The population of Brussels are convinced that this structure is as world famous as the Eiffel Tower. However, even if it is not recognised by the world at large, this giant metallic structure, built in the form of an atom, is truly impressive. Although in my opinion it is a lot more impressive viewed from the outside, you may pay to go inside and access the different spheres via a series of escalators along the connecting arms.

I was amazed by the turbulent history that Belgium has, reflected in the ongoing linguistic struggle today between the French regions and the Flemish regions. Belgium only became a country in 1830, a seemingly short existence for the country that now houses (part of) the European Union. The Royal Palace is not spectacular inside, and only worth visiting over the summer months when it is free entry. However, to its right, there is a brilliant museum called Belvue Museum, which recounts the entire, if short, history of Belgium and Brussels.

Eat waffles! They are delicious. Chocolate sauce. Mmmm.

Belgian Chocolate
It's famous. There's lots of it. The truffles are amazing. If you fancy a particularly fancy chocolate shop, visit Marcolini Sablon in Place du Grande Sablon. There the chocolate is displayed and packaged like jewellery.

Belgian has a great selection of its own beers and ciders which are worth a taste. Even if you are not usually fond of beer, there are some delicious fruity varieties. Kriek, the cherry flavour beer, is a popular choice.

Palais de Justice

The Belgian Courts of Justice are the largest in the world. They were built purposely bigger than the royal palace, as a symbol that the law is more important even than the King. However, they are hugely impractical due to the costs of electricity and the security risks, and are therefore used less and less. You can go in as far as the forecourt and practically feel the tangible power prestige of the law.

Rooftop Restaurant
While the GrandeMusée des Instruments is another personal favourite. This may seem strange when I confess that I have never once been round the museum. However, you can take the lift directly to the 10th floor for free and there you find a rooftop restaurant overlooking the whole of Brussels. It is shut in the evening, so if you would like to eat out there, it will have to be lunch. A lovely place to start the day with a morning coffee. I took every single visitor here when they came to Brussels.

If you are a fan of Art Nouveau, Brussels is bursting with its influence. Frescos, beautiful window frames and doorways, and some spectacular Art Nouveau Houses. The beautiful house of Albert Horta, a famous Art Nouveau architect, is now a museum open to visitors, although make sure you check the opening times before going. The other road worth a visit is Rue Defacqz / Defacqzstraat, which has several beautiful art Nouveau Houses.

Something else I enjoyed about Brussels architecture was the variety. In Brussels, each family built their own house, and due to lack of space, this means they are on average 4 or 5 storeys high, despite only one room wide. The resulting effect is a patchwork of different houses all glued side by side, each made of a unique design and height and generally each using different bricks than their neighbours.

Further abroad
Once you have seen the sights of Brussels, it is only an hour train journey to the well-known town of Bruges, which is one of Belgiums treasures. Often a honeymoon destination, this town offers endless quaint streets and buildings. I warn you though. Take an umbrella. And some waterproof shoes. I spent an entire day walking around Bruges with wet feet, which did dampen my mood somewhat. Weather in Belgium is always hard to predict.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Tourist Tips on visiting Paris

A friend of mine has recently visited Paris and asked me for some tips on what to see, which took me back to all the things I did when I lived there. There are so many wonderful things to do in Paris, it would be impossible to list them all, but here are a few ideas to get you started. Let me recommend it as a very romantic destination!

Amazing views across Paris

You have several excellent options for some spectacular views over Paris. The most obvious is of course to go up the Eiffel Tower, which naturally is very well worth a visit. However, this is expensive and crammed with tourists and the downside is that you miss the most iconic point in the Parisian horizon - the Eiffel Tower itself!! So my advice would be to get the metro to Montparnasse and pay to go up the Tour de Montparnasse. This skyscraper is a gigantic office block monstrosity, but it has an open rooftop from which you get a wonderful view of Paris including the Eiffel Tower and NOT including the Montparnasse Tower - a definite bonus!

The Arc de Triomphe is not only a spectacular and iconic monument, but also boasts a very impressive view from the top, as the streets fan out from it in a star shape. My suggestion would be to go up at night when the city lights disappearing off in all directions are breath-taking, and if you go on the hour you get a perfect view of the Eiffel tower sparkling as it does for about 5 minutes every hour.

Sunset on the Steps of Sacre Coeur

The views from outside Sacre Coeur are also stunning - with the added bonus that they are free. One of my favourite things to do was to buy a crepe and sit on the steps of Sacre Coeur looking over the whole of Paris as the sun sets. Pretty romantic.

Boat trip along the Seine

A boat trip along the Seine is well worth the money. You get a unique Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Eiffel tower and many other magnificent buildings as you speed along the water. Look out for the barges of all the rich people who live on their boats, which are moored up along the banks. 

The Latin Quarter

For going out, bars, restaurants etc, the Latin Quarter is the place to go [metro St Michel]. Its just south of the river near Notre Dame and its the student area so it has a real buzz and a bit less pricey. It is a great place to wander through in the evening.
Time for Tea

If you fancy splashing out, why not pay an afternoon visit to "Angelina", possibly the most prestigious tea room in Paris. It is next to the Tuilleries Gardens, and their famous delicacy is the "Mont Blanc" cake. It is delicious!

Alternately, the Tuilleries Gardens, which are a lovely place to spend an afternoon, offer some lovely little coffee shops where you can sit under the shade of the trees and watch the world go by.

French Fashion

Les Galleries Lafayette is the most prestigious department store in Paris, and it truly beautiful inside.

If you are looking for jewels... and for a look at where I am reliably informed Lady Diana was last filmed leaving the Ritz ...there is a lovely square full of designer jewellers called Place Vendome. Walking from there along past the Tuilleries Gardens is the Rue de Rivoli, where you will fine Louis Vuiton and Dolce & Gabana among some of their other designer friends.

For slightly more affordable shopping, if you plan to pick up some cheaper souvenirs, Les Halles and all its surrounding streets going towards the Pompidou Centre are a great area for all sorts of shops.

Parisian Piquenique

And if you want to experience a bit of true Parisian culture, the young people in Paris often picnic on summer evenings on Pont des Arts, the pedestrian bridge across the Seine crossing over from the Louvre. Take a baguette, some wine and some smelly French cheese and join the fun. The view from that bridge looking downstream is actually my favourite view in the whole of Paris. 

Culture Galore

There are numerous brilliant museums and galleries worth a visit. For a gander at the disappointingly small, but enormously famous Mona Lisa, who definitely does not smile for photos, try navigating your way through the vast and impressive Louvre. My favourite part of the Louvre is actually the centre courtyard with the controversial contrast of ancient and modern architecture. 

For modern art the Pompidou Centre is fantastic, and the Musée d'Orsay also has a brilliant art collection, housed in a former railway station. For a spectacular circular room full of all the Monet lilies you could dream of, visit the Musée de l'Orangerie, found in the Tuilleries Gardens. 

And the good news is that entry is free for under 25's... so hurry if you are still young enough.

                                       If you are a fan of stained glass...

Notre Dame is, of course, spectacular inside. However, my favourite church to enter is the lesser known Sainte Chapelle, located on the same island as Notre Dame, just 5 minutes walk away. This chapel is on two levels, and as you enter the upper chapel, built as the King's private chapel, you are encircled by an immense array of stained glass windows, covering every wall. The Chapel has the most stained glass windows of any church in the world. Deep blues and purples and greens. Full of different stories from the Bible, if you can work out which they are each meant to represent. It is stunning.

Now, a word of warning for those who are harder to impress. When showing one of my friends round Paris, I decided to start with a flourish by taking her directly to the Eiffel Tower. We came out of the metro station, we walked down the steps, we reached the river, we crossed to the middle of the bridge and there before us stood one of the most iconic structures in the world. Her response? 

"Oh, well, that's disappointing. It's not very impressive is it."

Fear not. By the end of three days she left Paris won over by all its charms.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Tourist Tips on visiting Madrid

So you are thinking of visiting Madrid and want a bit of advice on what to see? One of my favourite things about living abroad is being a personal tour guide for my friends when they come and visit. So as I’m leaving now, I thought I would share a couple ideas, if you are visiting in the near future, although obviously, this is only from my experience:

Food Glorious Food
The Spanish know how to eat well. Oh yes they do. In fact they eat five times a day. Churros (like long, thin fried donuts!?) and hot chocolate, the traditional breakfast, but equally good as an afternoon snack, can be found in most cafes, but for a great experience, seek out San Ginés, right in the centre, and find a seat downstairs.

Paella of course is an important part of any trip to Spain. The restaurants in the centre are a bit expensive and touristy, but if you are happy to do a bit of map reading, you will find a gorgeous little Spanish restaurant down a side street near the centre - Calle Moratín - called Champaneria Gala, where you can share an enormous paella for 15 euros each, and enjoy some very nice sangria as well!

Night life

Madrid comes alive at night! The shops are all open till past 9pm, and if you want to eat out Spanish style, 10pm is the time to do so. The centre near Puerta del Sol is obviously full of all types of bars and clubs. Find a nice salsa bar if you like a bit of Spanish dancing. My favourite is a quirky little bar near Plaza Santa Ana, called El Imperfecto. A jug of sangria for 10 euros, and a very youthful and lively atmosphere. The coffees served there during the afternoon are also to die for (particularly the cafe bonbon, pictured above), and they have an incredible selection of exotic teas.  For a more authentic Madrileno vibe, head down through plaza Mayor (which is also definately worth a visit during the daytime) to the La Latina area, and enjoy a mojito in one of the many bars along Calle Cava Baja.

A bit of sight-seeing

Puerta del Sol is the place to start – basically the centre of Madrid. In fact, it is actually the centre of Spain! If you look carefully you will find the plaque called “Kilometro Cero” or Kilometre Zero, which is the point from which all the roads fan out all over Spain. The statue of the bear and the tree is the symbol of Madrid, and also makes a good meeting point.

To the East, the Royal Palace and its gardens are lovely to look at, although not worth paying to enter. Entry is free on a Wednesday however, if you are there during the week. To the left of the palace you can see the Cathedral. This took over 500 years to complete, so the styles vary greatly as you walk around. Note the patches of darker stone in the walls. After the destruction during the Spanish Civil War, the holes made in the buildings were filled in with a darker coloured stone to remember what had past. The plaza Mayor is a beautiful, medieval square near the centre. If you would like a short but interesting tour of Madrid in English, there is a free walking tour every hour on the hour at the weekend, starting from the bear and tree statue in Sol, and finishing at the Cathedral.
Heading East of Sol, towards Gran Via, you pass the Circulo de bellas Artes, where for 2 euros you can go up to the terrace and have a fantastic view of the whole of Madrid. If you carry on a bit further down Gran Via you will reach Cibeles, where the stunning white palace in front of you is actually the central post office! You can even send your postcards from there! 

Interested in art?

The two main art galleries in Madrid are the Prado and the Reina Sofia. The Prado, a world famous art gallery, holds plenty of beautiful pieces, particularly those by Goya. It’s amazing the incredible amount of expression and personality that Goya manages to reflect in his portraits, compared to the notably more drab portraits by other artists. 

If you want to see some Picasso, the Guernica, one of the most viewed pieces of art in the world, is on exhibition in the Reina Sofia, just down the road from the Prado. This piece is a lot more impressive in stature than the disappointingly small Mona Lisa in Paris, and on the opposite wall you get to see its creation in stages, as it was documented by Picasso’s girlfriend. My favourite piece is the picture of this girlfriend which is in the next room – certainly not the most flattering of pieces – I wonder what she thought of it!

Both the Prado and the Reina Sofia are free in the evenings – the Prado after 6 and the Reina Sofia after 8. Perfect for a quick look around before dinner if you are trying to be Spanish and eat late. Another gallery worth a quick visit is the small gallery sponsored by Caja Madrid, which is found right in the Centre near Sol. This hosts temporary exhibitions that can be well worth a look and entrance is always free.

Want to get some exercise/ sunshine?

Madrid boasts plenty of lovely parks. The Retiro park is situated to the east of central Madrid – just a short walk from the Prado. It is a lovely park to walk around, with lots of different areas, including a memorial of the Atocha train bombing, and the “Glass Palace” that houses free modern art exhibitions, and is a nice place to take photos. Most importantly though, the Retiro has a lovely lake, where you can rent a rowing boat for 45 minutes for just 4.50 euros and enjoy the sunshine on a romantic (or otherwise) boat ride. 

Further out from the centre, but in my opinion even more worth a visit, is the Juan Carlos park (Metro Line 8, Campo de las naciones). This is an enormous masterpiece of modern landscape architecture, and is full of surprises! You can rent a bike – or even a tandem if you are brave enough – for free (don’t forget your passport) and cycle around this enormous and stunning park for an hour. Similarly there is a lake here where you can rent rowing boats over the summer.

Beautiful plazas
Madrid is full of very quaint plazas, or squares, the perfect place to sit out and enjoy the sunshine. My favourite is without a doubt the plaza Santa Ana, just 5 minutes from Sol. There are innummerable restaurants to choose from, but my advice would be “Montaditos”, a cafe which offers 100 varieties of mini baguettes, not to mention shandy (“clara”) or beer for 1 euro. You write down which sandwiches you want on the paper provided and they bring it out to you.

Romantic Sunset?

Don’t miss a beautiful sunset over the Sierra and Casa del Campo forest. The Templo de Debod, and Egyptian temple given as a gift to Spain, is an idealic spot to watch a colourful Spanish sunset, with its trees and foundains. The Temple and its lakes are lit up at night and it is a beautiful place, not far from the centre, to enjoy the last rays of sunshine.

Of course, the list is endless, these are just a few suggestions. Shopping, dancing, drinking, relaxing, eating... Madrid offers it all. Have a great trip!

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The day my baking was appreciated by the former Spanish Minister of Defence.

My cakes never turn out exactly how I envision them. But fortunately, cake is cake, and with the amount of sugar that goes into them, it is hard to seriously fail. Perhaps my problem is that I rarely actually follow any sort recipe. But then I never expect my humble attempt at a lemon cake to come under the gaze of anyone famous. Ha.

On my penultimate day in my job here in Madrid, I baked a cake for my colleagues - a lemon cake no less - as a farewell. As is custom, we went down to the cafe beneath our office for our morning coffee break and to cut the cake.

One of the advantages of having an office backing onto the entrance to the Spanish Congress of Deputies is that we often find ourselves sipping coffee next to Spanish politicians and famous journalists... not to mention occasionally crowding round the office window to watch a distinguished guest enter the parliament.

So this morning it just so happened that as we were happily tucking into my cake, who should walk in but ... Bono. Unfortunately no, not the Bono you are thinking of. It was José Bono, the President of the Spanish Congress of Deputies, and also the former Defence Minister, so still, not someone to be sneezed at. He was passing us when he noticed our happy faces and full mouths, smiled, raised his eyebrows at seeing my cake, and stopped to wish us all "buen provecho" (bon appetit). What a proud moment it would have been for my mother had she been there. All those years of letting me help her bake cakes as a child and allowing me to lick the bowl.

I, naturally, had no idea who the distinguished guest was, apart from the slightly awed expressions of my ten colleagues, so was slightly late on the uptake.

A few moments later a band of video cameras and microphones entered, in the pursuit of a young man in jeans, wearing a blindfold and being led by the arm, apparently thoroughly enjoying the experience. Again, I had little idea what was going on, but it turned out this was "El Follonero", the presenter of a popular Spanish news program, about to interview Señor Bono.

Altogether, a rather exciting morning. Perhaps I should bake more often...

Saturday, 2 April 2011

French Kissing...

Anyone who has moved around in Europe has experienced it: that awkward moment of greeting a person from another country, when someone is left hanging, expecting a second/third/fourth kiss on the cheek. 

As a teenager visiting France I was introduced to the concept of the two kisses on the cheek, a novel and bewildering experience for a young Brit. After several mornings of the rather pretentious air-kissing with an entire class of French schoolgirls, I became acutely aware of the importance of remembering to brush your teeth when abroad! Later, moving to Brussels, I was embarrassed to be left hanging repeatedly, until I eventually found out that, of course, in Belgium only one kiss is necessary. 

However, this is not merely a question of Brits adapting to continental life and kissing personal space goodbye. Among other Europeans there appears to be confusion as to exactly how many kisses are to be anticipated. Even now, accustomed to the traditional two kisses in Spain - and foolishly assuming that I had sussed the European ways - I met my friend’s parents from Luxembourg a few weeks ago, expecting two kisses as I greeted them, only to discover that a third kiss was required. Yet another awkward moment.

When my boyfriend visited me last month in Madrid and was introduced to my work colleagues, he was taken aback to find himself for the next three minutes being kissed on each cheek by every single female member of the office! His girlfriend was a lot more amused by the situation than he was...
Similarly my sister, in Paris a few years ago ,was traumatized as we walked home one evening, to find a strapping young Frenchman on a dark street come and kiss her, not just on one cheek but two. He turned out to be a colleague of mine from the restaurant I worked in.

For a Brit who is used to their own personal space, European greetings can come as quite a surprise. So, before you go travelling unsuspectingly around Europe – beware!  It is unbelievably easy to offend perfect strangers all over Europe by miscalculating such a simple affair as how many kisses. One, two, three, four...? Well, that depends who you meet...