Author: Julie

Hi, I’m Julie, and ever since I went on my first family vacation trip as a kid, I've been a little obsessed with seeing new places. I’ve found that there is something interesting about every place, no matter how boring it may seem at first glance. Travel is the most exciting adventure we can have! I live in a college town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore but like to escape whenever possible to see new things, eat new foods, take more pictures, and make new acquaintances. I am married with two children (only one still at home). Also living with us are a contrary tabby cat, and an goofy little dog who is part Corgi. (We’re not sure what the other part is!) When I am not traveling, or writing about my travels, you will find me planning my next trip, daydreaming about returning to one of my favorite places, reading a good book, or working on a craft project. I hope you enjoy reading about and seeing the places I’ve been. Remember, travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer…
The Best Flamenco Show in Madrid

The Best Flamenco Show in Madrid

The Spanish tradition of flamenco encompasses much more than a woman twirling around in a bright dress, castanets clicking away in her hands. It is a folklore tradition rich in history and full of emotion. While flamenco originated in southern Spain, it is alive and well in other regions of the country too. Here’s my experience at the best flamenco show in Madrid.

The History of Flamenco

The exact origin of flamenco is unknown. Most historians believe that it originated in southern Spain, specifically Andalusia, in the sixteenth century.

Oddly enough, the word flamenco is Spanish for Flemish, meaning someone or something from Flanders, Belgium. And Flanders was at one time a Spanish possession. However, there are two other theories of the origin of the name. The first holds that it is derived from fellah mengu, which means expelled peasants and possibly refers to Moors and Gitanos (Romani people of Spain, or Spanish gypsies). Historians believe that these two groups of people had a profound influence on the creation of the flamenco tradition, and were later driven out of southern Spain. The second theory proposes that flamenco is from the Spanish word for fire because of the dance’s fiery emotions.

The best flamenco show in Madrid has its roots in gitano traditions of southern Spain
A Gypsy Dance in the Gardens of the Alcázar, by Alfred Dehodencq, via Wikimedia Commons

What Exactly Is Flamenco?

Flamenco is perhaps best known for its dance component. However, the musical accompaniment of a guitar, and the songs that are sung in flamenco are both integral parts to the overall flamenco experience. Flamenco’s key characteristics are hand clapping, foot stomping, and intricate, sometimes exaggerated, movements.

Traditionally, the women who dance flamenco will wear a form fitting colorful dress that flares out with layers of ruffles at the bottom.

(Source)

Their hair is usually pulled back in a bun or braid, and they often will wear flowers or a special comb called a peina in their hair. They also wear a lacy shawl-like garment called a mantle over their shoulders.

My Experience at the Best Flamenco Show in Madrid

After a little research, we determined that the best flamenco show was the one held nightly at Las Carboneras, a short distance from both Plaza Mayor and the Mercado San Miguel.

Las Carboneras offers two shows nightly, and you can make a reservation for the show plus a meal, or for the show by itself. Both tickets include a drink. In order to keep our costs down (because this excursion was not sponsored), we opted to eat dinner before the show at the Mercado San Miguel.

The best thing about flamenco at Las Carboneras is that there are no bad seats. It’s a small venue, with seating for about 50 people. (Take that with a grain of salt – I’m guessing, and my estimating skills aren’t always spot on.) Tables are arranged all around the stage, and the tables and chairs in the farther reaches of the room are elevated to provide for better viewing.

The food – what we saw of it on other people’s tables – wasn’t that impressive looking, so I really felt like we made the right choice by eating dinner before hand. A trio of Italian women slightly older than us were at the next table. They had enjoyed some sangria at the Mercado San Miguel before coming to the show. Very friendly ladies, even with the language barrier. We attempted to make small talk, using gestures and Google translate, but before much time passed, the lights dimmed and the performers came to the stage.

The Show

There were seven performers — four men and three women. One man played the guitar and two others sang. The three women and the remaining man were the dancers. The women and the guitarist took a seat while the other three men stood behind them on the stage.

Seven performers on the stage at the best flamenco show in Paris

The music began and the performers were either singing or clapping their hands and/or tapping their feet. It was a little surprising at how much music could be created with just one guitar! After a moment of great anticipation, the dancers got up one by one and did an introductory dance.

The dancer in the vivid blue floral dress was probably my favorite. Older than the others, and less svelte, certainly not your stereotypical flamenco dancer… but she very clearly loved what she was doing and enjoyed her time in the spotlight.

one of the dancers at the best flamenco show in madrid.

The second dancer, dressed all in black except for her red patent shoes, was next. As she danced, the other dancers called out to her, sort of cheering her on.

Then it was the third woman’s turn. Dressed in yellow and green, her style was one of smoldering intensity. she danced not just with her legs and feet, but with her entire body.

intense dancing at the best flamenco show in madrid

Finally, it was the male flamenco dancer’s turn. He reminded me a bit of Jason Momoa, so needless to say, I was riveted.

male dancer at the best flamenco show in madrid

After this sort of introductory dance, each dancer had an extended turn in the spotlight.

This time around, it was the woman in the green and yellow that impressed me the most. Her rapid-fire toe and heel tapping was amazing! Made my ankles hurt just to think about how many times she was stomping against the stage.

The Heart of Flamenco

Whether considering just the songs of flamenco, or just the dancing, and especially when considering both, there is undeniable emotion. I understood not a single word of the flamenco songs, but I could tell that they were full of emotion. Some celebratory, some mournful, but all full of emotion. It showed in the way the dancers moved, the expressions on their faces, the strumming of the guitar and the tone of the singers’ voices. It was the emotion that made the experience seem so much more than watching a performance. Seeing the best flamenco show in Madrid was a celebration of cultural heritage from centuries past. Definitely a must-see if you’re in the Spanish capital!

Some Interesting Flamenco Trivia

  • Flamenco has seen a surge in popularity in Japan. In fact there are more flamenco academies in Japan than there are in Spain!
  • In 2010, UNESCO named flamenco a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
  • There are over 50 different styles of flamenco known as palos. Some have 4 beats while others have 12, some are solo while others are for couples, some are sung while others are accompanied by guitar, some are identified by geographic region of origin, etc.
  • You may know fandango as a movie app. However, the original fandango is a lively flamenco dance for couples.
  • Flamenco music was traditionally only accompanied by toe and heel clicking, finger snapping, hand clapping and shouting. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the use of a guitar was incorporated.

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Stuck at Home? Check Out These Streaming Travel Shows

Stuck at Home? Check Out These Streaming Travel Shows

Sometimes circumstances arise which prevent us from leaving home. Inclement weather, bed rest during pregnancy, and recovery from surgery are all prime examples. Self-isolation during a global viral pandemic is another. But I digress. The point is that those of us who love to travel may, sadly, find ourselves unable to do just that. In those cases, the next best thing to do is to watch some entertaining streaming travel shows. Here are a few of my favorites.

1. Travel Man: 48 Hours In…

I just discovered this show, and it’s a delight. It stars Richard Ayoade, who in each episode, takes a celebrity guest on a weekend trip. He starts out saying, “We’re here, but should we have come?” Then over the course of two days, he and his guest will experience tourist attractions, unconventional methods of transportation, and local food & drink.

Sometimes the attractions that Ayoade and his guest visit are offbeat, like New York City’s Mmuseumm, a museum housed in a freight elevator that specializes in the “overlooked, dismissed, or ignored.” Other times they will go the more traditional route and visit must-see attractions like St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum.

Here’s a clip from the Travel Man YouTube channel where Richard and British comedic legend Dawn French sample ouzo in Greece.

Watch Travel Man: 48 Hours In… on Hulu or YouTube.

2. The Amazing Race

There are at least 29 seasons of The Amazing Race available to watch on streaming services. If you aren’t familiar with this show, where have you been? To sum up, it’s a competition reality show where teams of two compete in a race that takes them all over the world. In each country they visit, they need to complete tasks that (usually) relate to the local culture and customs. As with other reality shows, there’s drama and tears and in-fighting and alliances… but the bottom line is that you get to see a lot of the world while you’re watching it.

Every time I watch this show I think about how much I would love to compete. Then they show contestants doing something like this and I realize that I couldn’t possibly.

Watch The Amazing Race on Amazon Prime, Hulu, and CBS All Access.

3. Jack Whitehall: Travels with My Father

jack Whitehall is a 30-ish comedian from the UK. His father, Michael Whitehall, is nearly 80 and a very Proper English Gentleman. Perhaps I find their relationship so funny (and endearing) because there was a similar age gap between Hubs and his dad. Or maybe it’s because Michael is so stereotypically old school British.

Don’t let the title fool you — Michael is the real star of this streaming travel show. Watch him refuse to dress in anything less formal than a three piece suit, openly insult his son’s manhood, and grumble and complain with style (and the occasional F bomb). Then, just when you think he is the grumpiest of old men, he will surprise you by purchasing a baby doll (whom he lovingly names Winston, in honor of Churchill).

Here’s some unseen footage of their visit to an American diner, posted on Jack Whitehall’s YouTube channel.

Watch Jack Whitehall: Travels with My Father on Netflix.

4. Kindness Diaries

The Kindness Diaries chronicle Leon Logothetis‘ journeys around the world. The catch is that he travels without any money at all. Not a cent in his pocket, and not willing to take money from strangers, he relies solely on the kindness of strangers. People all over the world feed him, shelter him, and spend time with him. Often, the people who share all that they have with him are people who have very little to begin with.

In each episode, Leon provides one of the people he meets with a substantial financial gift that helps them achieve their goals (go to college, buy a car, etc.). He repays their kindness tenfold.

Here’s a clip of an interview with Leon, in which he explains why he embarked on this journey.

This show will restore your faith in humanity. Watch Kindness Diaries on Netflix.

5. Extreme Engagement

PJ Madam is an Australian news anchor. Tim Noonan is a film maker with a penchant for exploring remote areas of the world. They are in love and engaged to be married. This series follows them as they visit far flung corners of the world, exploring the engagement and marriage rituals of other cultures, and testing their relationship as they do. Here’s the trailer:

Watch Extreme Engagement on Netflix.

Other Streaming Travel Shows

Traditional travel shows:

  • Rick Steves’ Europe (Hulu, Prime)
  • Smart Travels with Rudy Maxa (Prime)
  • Travels and Traditions with Burt Wolf (web site, Prime)
  • Places to Go: Your Passport to the World (Prime)
  • A Taste of Travel (Prime)
  • Globe Trekker (Prime)

Travel & Photography

  • Tales by Light (Netflix)

Travels & Food

  • Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations (Hulu)
  • Ugly Delicious (Netflix)
  • Street Food (Netflix)
  • Restaurants on the Edge (Netflix)
  • Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern (Hulu)
  • Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner (Netflix)
  • Somebody Feed Phil (Netflix)

Luxury Travel

  • World Class: Seriously Expensive Travel (Prime)
  • Travel in Style (Prime)

Road Trips

  • Great Drives (Prime)
  • Summer 2019 American Road Trip (Prime)
  • America’s Great Road Trips (Prime)
  • Expedition Happiness (Netflix)

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Sainte-Chapelle: A Symphony of Light & Color

Sainte-Chapelle: A Symphony of Light & Color

If we could hear light and colors instead of seeing them, Paris’ Saint-Chapelle would be a full blown symphony. It has the most beautiful medieval stained glass, some of which is over 750 years old!

Some of the medieval stained glass at Sainte-Chapelle is over 750 years old.

The History

Sainte-Chapelle was part of Palais de la Cité, the residence of the Kings of France from the sixth century until the 14th century. In this old illustration, you can see Sainte-Chapelle on the right, surrounded by other buildings in the royal palace compound:

By Limbourg brothers – R.M.N. / R.-G. Ojéda, Public Domain

Sainte-Chapelle means “holy chapel,” which is only fitting. You see, the primary purpose of the chapel was to house a collection of Christian relics. Those relics included the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at his crucifixion. The crown remains in Paris to this day, housed at the Cathedral of Notre Dame until the 2019 fire made it necessary to move it.

King Louis IX (later canonized and made Saint Louis) purchased the relics in an effort to gain religious and political influence. When the relics arrived in France, King Louis hosted a week-long celebration. For the final stage of their journey to Paris, the King himself carried the relics while barefoot and dressed as a penitent.

From the 14th century until the French Revolution, Sainte-Chapelle was headquarters of the French treasury, judicial system, and the Parlement of Paris. Today, the site primarily houses the Palais de Justice.

According to the Sainte-Chapelle web site, it took a mere seven years to build the chapel. (By comparison, it took 200 years to build Notre Dame. In Barcelona, Sagrada Familia’s construction began in 1882, and has yet to be completed.) Construction of Sainte-Chapelle began sometime after 1238, and consecration of the chapel took place in 1248.

The Architecture

Experts consider the chapel a prime example of Gothic Rayonnant architecture, characterized by an intense focus on illumination and the appearance of structural lightness. They say that King Henry III of England, after attending the consecration of Sainte-Chapelle, had Westminster Abbey rebuilt with key elements of the Rayonnant style.

Inside the church, it seems as if the building is nothing more than a framework to support the medieval stained glass windows. It provides a stunning contrast to most churches of that era, where stained glass windows served as more of an accessory than the main attraction.

There are two distinct areas of the Sainte-Chapelle building: an upper chapel and a lower chapel. The lower chapel was the parish church for those who lived at the palace. Visitors today enter the lower chapel first, where they see a statue of Saint Louis, surrounded by gilt-painted columns.

Statue of King Louis IX aka Saint Louis at Sainte-Chapelle, home of beautiful medieval stained glass.
By PHGCOM – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The upper chapel earned Sainte-Chapelle’s reputation for having the most significant and stunning collection of medieval stained glass.

The Medieval Stained Glass

Stepping into the upper chapel of Sainte-Chapelle is like watching that scene in “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy transitions from life in dull, black-and-white Kansas to an explosion of technicolor in the land of Oz. It is breathtaking, overwhelming, and awe-inspiring.

The medieval stained glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

There are 15 windows, each about 45 feet high, depicting 1,113 scenes in colorful glass panes. Added together, the medieval stained glass covers 6652 square feet! Although some of the windows received heavy damage during the French Revolution and underwent restoration in the 19th century, nearly two-thirds of them are authentic and original.

Three of the windows feature the New Testament. They show scenes of The Passion, the Infancy of Christ, and the Life of John the Evangelist. One heavily restored window features scenes from the Book of Genesis, and ten other windows depict scenes from other portions of the Old Testament. The fifteenth window shows the rediscovery of Christ’s relics, the miracles they performed, and their relocation to Paris by King Louis.

In addition to the fifteen tall stained glass windows, a rose window was added to the church around 1490.

Medieval stained glass: the rose window at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris
By Didier B (Sam67fr) – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5

Damage & Restoration

While nearly two thirds of the windows are authentic, much of the chapel that visitors see today is a re-creation of what once stood there. Sainte-Chapelle suffered a great deal of damage during the French Revolution. At that time, the steeple was removed, the relics dispersed, and various reliquaries were melted down.

Less than 20 years later, Sainte-Chapelle was requisitioned as an archival depository in 1803. As a result, six feet of the medieval stained glass was removed to facilitate working light. It was either destroyed or put on the market.

Then there’s damage caused by the best of intentions. Fearing damage from World War II bombing, authorities applied a layer of varnish to protect the medieval stained glass. As time passed, the varnish darkened, which made it more difficult to see the images. In 2008, a €10 million, seven year program to restore the windows began. The restoration included the application of a thermoformed glass layer for added (clear) protection.

Restoration seems to be an ongoing operation. When I visited, I noticed several architectural elements up against the side of the building in a fenced off area.

Visiting Sainte-Chapelle

Sainte-Chapelle is a worthy destination when visiting Paris. It stunning medieval stained glass makes it unlike most other historic churches in Europe, and it is simply amazing to behold. Here’s what you need to know if you are planning a visit:

HOURS: Sainte-Chapelle opens at 9:00 am daily. October 1 thru March 31, it closes at 5:00 pm. April 1 thru September 20, it closes at 7:00 pm. It is closed January 1, May 1, and December 25 each year.

COST: Admission is €11.50 for adults. Admission is free for children under 18 if visiting with their family.

METRO: The closest Metro stop is Cité on Line 4.

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To the End of the Earth: Point Lookout, Maryland

To the End of the Earth: Point Lookout, Maryland

On a narrow spit of land where the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River meet, in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, there is a small state park with a fascinating historical background. Here’s why you should visit the appropriately named Point Lookout.

view from Point Lookout, Maryland

The Early Days of Point Lookout

Captain John Smith (yes, the one whom Pocahontas saved when her father threatened to kill him) first set foot on Point Lookout in 1608. He explored the area and sent favorable reports back to the British crown, stating that in addition to abundant resources like fish and game. He also pointed out that the area could offer a strategic military position as well. (More on that later.) The first settlement in the state of Maryland occurred in 1634, in nearby St. Mary’s City.

The Turbulent Times of War – Part 1

The area got the name of Point Lookout during the War of 1812. The Chesapeake Bay was a major route for British war ships, based on nearby Tangier Island. Members of the local citizens’ militia in St. Mary’s County established a secret base at Point Lookout to monitor the movements of those war ships. They also established a secret relay system of night time post riders to send intelligence reports to President James Madison in Washington, DC.

The citizens’ militia secretly worked in the area for over a year, until the British came ashore, seized and occupied Point Lookout. Unfortunately, the militia was no match for the overwhelming number of seasoned British troops. American intelligence efforts in the region came to a grinding halt. This turn of events could have been a contributing factor to the invasion and burning of Washington DC by British troops in 1814.

The Turbulent Times of War – Part 2

In 1862, as the Civil War was ramping up, Point Lookout once again became a hub of activity. The area became a bustling port and temporary city of civilians and military personnel and numerous buildings. Point Lookout included a large Union Army hospital, an Army garrison, and a prisoner of war camp.

Maryland Historical Marker - Point Lookout Prisoner of War Camp - Civil War

The conditions for the Confederate prisoners were not ideal. Designed to hold 10,000, the POW camp often held more than twice that amount after the Union and Confederate armies stopped exchanging prisoners. In some cases, there were sixteen men to a tent. Point Lookout was the largest Union-run prison camp and its reputation was one of the worst. About eight percent of the Confederate prisoners died before the end of the war. That may seem like a lot, but by comparison, it was less than half the mortality rate for the men fighting in the war.

In an interesting twist of fate, some African-American soldiers of the U.S.C.T. Regiments (United States Colored Troops) served in some federal Army units that rotated from the front to serve as guards at Point Lookout. In some cases, these soldiers had occasion to guard their former masters, which led to instances of brutality, or of kindness, depending on the nature of their relationship prior to the war.

What Remains at Point Lookout Today

Today, visitors to Point Lookout can visit a memorial honoring the Confederate prisoners of war. A mass grave on the former grounds of the POW camp holds the bodies of the 3,384 Confederate prisoners of war who died there. The grave is marked by a pillar inscribed at its base with the names of the dead. A privately funded Confederate Memorial Park occupies a three-acre site next to the cemetery. Although a US flag is flown in front of the memorial, there is also a Confederate flag on a flagpole just outside the gates of the grounds, in memory of the soldiers who gave their lives for the Confederacy.

Privately owned & maintained confederate soldier  memorial at Point Lookout Maryland

There is a sign at the memorial explaining why they chose to fly the Confederate flag.

Please note that I am merely reporting on the use of the Confederate flag at this privately owned and maintained memorial. I am not in any way endorsing or condoning it.

As one might expect in a geographical location like Point Lookout, there is also a lighthouse, which was built in 1830 and utilized until 1966. When we visited, the lighthouse was closed for renovations, but I was still able to get a photo from a distance.

Lighthouse at Point Lookout, Maryland

As a recreational area, the Point Lookout State Park offers visitors a wide range of activities. There is a fishing pier, as well as a beach area with grills, picnic tables and a playground. The park includes a designated pet-friendly beach, swimming, a water trail, wooded campsites and cabins. Deer and waterfowl hunting are permitted in designated park areas at specific times of year.

The Point Lookout fishing pier. Image via Flickr by Elvert Barnes.

Additionally, the park’s nature center and museum are located within the campground. The Museum and Nature Center are open May through October, Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Center offers programs in nature and Civil War history.

Finally, the park holds some outstanding events throughout the year. Contact the park for a current schedule of historic programs. Popular annual festivities include Civil War era demonstrations and re-enactments.

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Madrid Day Trip: The Walled City of Avila Spain

Madrid Day Trip: The Walled City of Avila Spain

Sometimes, when I conjure up images of medieval European towns, I think that my imagined version must be so much neater and more fanciful than the real deal. After all, how can city walls built in the twelfth century be as beautifully symmetrical and clean as a sand castle dumped from a mold on the beach? Then I visit places like the walled city of Avila and I realize that the reverse is true – the reality is so much better than anything I could have imagined.

The walled city of Avila looks like something from a fairy tale of old.
(Full disclosure: this is a stock photo of the walled city of Avila, courtesy of Pixabay, not my photo. It was snowy when I went – scroll down for my much less impressive winter photos.)

The Walled City of Avila is Rich in History

Avila has been inhabited as far back as the 5th century BC, when a people known as the Vettones lived there. They called it Obila (“High Mountain”) and built one of their strongest fortresses here. Then came the Romans, who called it Abila or Abela. Roman incfluences can still be seen today in the town’s layout. It is rectangular in shape, with two main streets intersecting at a public swuare, or forum, in the center.

After the fall of the Roman empire in the late fifth century, it became a stronghold of the Visigoths, then was conquered by the Moors. What followed was a series of repeated attacks by the northern Iberian Christian kingdoms in a spiritual/geographical tug of war. The city became virtually uninhabited due to the constant conflict.

However, in the late eleventh century, Avila was repopulated following its definitive reconquest by Raymond of Burgundy, the son-in-law of Alfonso VI of León and Castile.

The Walls

Not surprisingly, the main attraction at the walled city of Avila is, well, its walls. The walls of Avila, constructed in the 11th through 14th centuries, are the largest fully illuminated monument in the world. And I highly recommend seeing them at night. They are nothing short of spectacular:

The walls around the city of Avila enclose an area measuring about 77 acres, with a perimeter measuring 8, 256 feet. They are nearly 10 feet thick and include around 90 towers. The walls are considered the best-conserved example of their kind in the world.

Visitors to Avila can, weather permitting, walk along part of the wall. There are four entrance points, one of which is accessible for those with disabilities. However, the best views of the city walls are from the ground, where you can fully appreciate just how imposing they would appear to any would-be invaders.

The Cathedral of Avila

Considered the earliest example of Gothic cathedrals built in Spain, construction of the Cathedral of Avila began in 1107. Notice anything off about it? The cathedral may appear to be a bit lopsided, or it may seem like part of it’s missing. That’s because the south tower, which should be to the right of the entrance, was never built.

The church’s eastern apse was fully integrated with the city walls. In the night shot of the city walls above, the rounded part of the wall that is shown is the exterior of the church apse. Inside the church, we could see how thick the walls were by looking at the windows in that part of the church:

There were so many beautiful things to look at in the Cathedral of Avila. I especially loved the alabaster baptismal font, which depicted Jesus getting baptized by John the Baptist. It dates to 1514–1516.

Interestingly, the cathedral has a secret passage. Be sure you get the audio guide, which is included with the price of admission, to learn about the secret passage’s discovery and possible uses. The signs are in Spanish only.

The Basilica of San Vicente

Another notable church in the walled city of Avila is the Basilica de los Santos Hermanos Mártires, Vicente, Sabina y Cristeta, or Basilica of San Vicente for short. Christian martyrs and siblings Vicente, Sabina and Cristeta were martyred during the rule of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (284-305 A.D.). Their corpses were buried into the rock and much later this basilica was built over their tombs. 

The main attraction in the Basilica of San Vicente is the cenotaph honoring the three martyrs.

The cenotaph features scenes of the three martyrs lives and deaths. They had refused to sign a document acknowledging they had offered sacrifices to the Roman gods, hence their death sentence. Nearby, there is a stone slab in the floor with Hebrew symbols carved on it. The story goes that a Jew, also accused and faced with death, promised God that if he got free, he would convert to Christianity and provide the martyrs with a tomb.

basilica of san vicente in the walled city of avila - the grave of the jew who buried the martyrs

What to Eat in Avila

It seemed like every city we visited in Spain had its own special dessert. ponche segoviano in Segovia, mazapan in Toledo, and in Avila, yemas. Their more formal name is yemas de Santa Teresa. Now if you know Spanish, you may be aware that a yema is an egg yolk.

Occasionally, food will have a name that has nothing to do with what the food actually is. Toad-in-the-hole, for instance, has nothing to do with toads. Or even frogs. But yemas are, in fact, egg yolks.

They are, essentially, a soft boiled egg yolk that has been cooled and dusted with sugar. I tried it. It wasn’t bad. I also had a pastry in Madrid called a rosquilla de yema, which was a donut-like pastry with a sugary egg yolk glaze. Both items were surprisingly not gross. I don’t know that they would be my first choice for dessert, but they were nowhere near as disgusting as I feared they might be. Definitely worth a try if you’re feeling adventurous.

Why You Should Visit the Walled City of Avila

Hopefully you can see here that Avila not only looks great from the outside, but also has a rich history inside its walls. It is a perfect destination as a day trip from Madrid, and a lovely destination all its own. You can get to Avila from Madrid by train or bus, both of which run regularly on a daily basis.

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One of the Most Unusual Things to Do in Madrid

One of the Most Unusual Things to Do in Madrid

As strange as it may seem, one of the most unusual things to do in Madrid is to buy cookies at a local convent. Now, that may not sound unusual in and of itself, but trust me, it’s definitely one of the odder experiences I’ve had while traveling!

On our first night in Madrid, after we ate dinner at the Mercado San Miguel, we decided to explore the area. When we came upon the Monasterio del Corpus Christi, I remembered reading in a travel book that the nuns there sell cookies. But they do it in a top secret manner because they are not supposed to have contact with outsiders.

Getting In

When you arrive at the monastery, you will need to press a special doorbell to gain admittance. It’s fairly easy to miss the doorbell. For that matter, the whole monastery is pretty nondescript… you really have to be looking for it in order to find it.

Unusual things to do in Madrid - the doorbell that gives you access to the Monasterio del Corpus Christi

Once admitted into the monastery, you travel down a winding path to a small dark room.

The Transaction

A sign posted on the wall tells you what types of cookies you can buy:

Unusual Things to Do in Madrid - Buying Cookies at the Monasterio del Corpus Christi

Next to the sign you’ll see a little cubbyhole in the wall that houses a divided turntable. You have to tell the nuns what type of cookies you want and whether you want a kilo or a half kilo. (Note: not all of the varieties listed will be available.) Then place your money on the turntable and watch as it moves to the other side of the wall where you cannot see it.

A few minutes later, the turntable moves back to your side of the wall and voila! A box of cookies now sits where you placed your money.

Unusual Things to Do in Madrid - Tea Cookies from Monasterio del Corpus Christi

I ordered the tea cookies. They were kind of bland, and very expensive but pretty, and very fun to buy.

Unusual Things to Do in Madrid - Tea Cookies baked by the nuns at Monasterio del Corpus Christi

The Experience

It doesn’t always happen, but this time I actually had the forethought to record the experience for you! Take a look:

My Recommendation

It’s not about the cookies as much as it is about having a unique experience that very few places can offer. So, if you’re looking for unusual things to do in Madrid, this clandestine cookie shop should definitely be on your list!

The Monasterio del Corpus Christi sells cookies from 9:30-1:00 and 4:30-6:30 each day. It is located close to the Mercado de San Miguel, at Plaza del Conde de Miranda, 3. If you go, let me know what you thought of the experience!

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The Best Place to Eat in Madrid

The Best Place to Eat in Madrid

Hello! I am just back from a ten day visit to Madrid, Toledo, Avila and Segovia, Spain. My friend and I spent several days exploring the capital city, and we found ourselves going back to the Mercado San Miguel to eat over and over. So I thought I would share a little about it with you, and what makes it the best place to eat in Madrid.

The Best Place to Eat in Madrid is Convenient

The Mercado San Miguel is located just outside Madrid’s Plaza Mayor. This made it very convenient to get to, centrally located near so many other attractions. Especially convenient for us, since we were staying at an Airbnb on Plaza Mayor. Jet lag can be especially brutal when flying to Europe from the US, and we crashed hard after checking in. A few hours later, we woke up semi-rested and absolutely starving. The Mercado San Miguel was the first place we went.

But even if you aren’t staying at Plaza Mayor, the Mercado is conveniently located – just a five minute walk from the Ópera Metro station (Lines 2 & 5) or a ten minute walk from the Sol Metro station (Lines 1, 2, & 3). Its location is one major reason why it’s the best place to eat in Madrid.

The hours are convenient as well. Most days the Mercado San Miguel is open from 10:00 am until midnight (until 1:00 am Friday and Saturday nights). So during the afternoon dead zone when many stores are closed (roughly 2-5 pm), you can take a break and pop in to the Mercado for a quick bite or a leisurely couple of drinks.

The Best Place to Eat in Madrid Offers a Variety of Food & Drink

At first glance, the Mercado San Miguel is a big food court like you would see at an American shopping mall. Multiple vendors, each selling a different type of food, and a central seating area.

But it’s so much more than that.

From the mundane to the exotic, there is something for everyone at the Mercado San Miguel: Sangria. Italian. Vegetarian. Beer. Pastries. Seafood. Wine. Spanish. Vermouth. Mexican.

Whatever you want, you can find it at Mercado San Miguel!

The Best Place to Eat in Madrid is Affordable

The best place to eat in Madrid is affordable

Whether you’re in the mood for a snack, or you want a full meal, you can eat at Mercado San Miguel without breaking the bank. Sample a few things until you find what you like, or just dive right in and order what you want… it won’t cost a lot either way. Here are a few sample prices from my recent visit:

  • Croquetas/Croquettes – yummy, gooey fried cheese with or without bits of meat mixed in – €1.50 each.
  • Empanadas in all sorts of varieties, savory and sweet – €3.25 each.
  • Subs made with famous Iberian jamon (ham, but not like we think of it) – €6.

The Best Place to Eat in Madrid is a Great Place to Meet People

Best Place to Eat in Madrid is a Great Place to Meet People

I visited the Mercado San Miguel several times while I was in Madrid, and at all different times of day. Not once was it anything but packed with people. I shared a table with a group of German tourists enjoying tapas, met a fellow Baltimore Ravens fan who was looking for the taco stand, and talked with a trio of Italian ladies who had really enjoyed their sangria. 😉

Appreciation of good food is a common denominator that transcends language or culture. So there really is no better place in Madrid to meet people than the Mercado San Miguel. And no better circumstances than to do so while enjoying delicious food. And maybe a sangria.

Croquettes and Sangria at the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid

One Other Thing You Should Know

When you order food at Mercado San Miguel, keep your receipt! If you use the rest room while you’re there and you don’t have your receipt, you will need to pay for access to the toilets.

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A Philadelphia Ghost Tour

A Philadelphia Ghost Tour

Last month, my daughter and three of her friends went to an AJR concert in Philadelphia. Hubs and I provided the transportation, so we had to figure out something to do while they were at the show. Luckily, I happened upon a Philadelphia ghost tour that sounded like it might be fun.

We made our reservation, dropped off the girls, and headed to the meeting place for the start of our tour. Our guide issued us glow sticks, provided a brief introduction, and away we went!

The Ghost of Carpenters’ Hall

Our first stop was Carpenters’ Hall (320 Chestnut Street), built in 1775 for the Carpenters’ Company for the City and County of Philadelphia, the oldest craft guild in the country, and still in existence today. This building was the meeting site of the first Continental Congress in 1774, and the Pennsylvania Provincial Conference in 1776. It was at the latter meeting that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was officially established and declared independent from British rule.

Philadelphia ghost tour - Carpenters Hall

As for the ghost, the story goes that at one point in time, the attic floor of Carpenters’ Hall consisted of apartments rented to members of the guild. One of the residents, Tom Cunningham, died in his apartment in late 1879 from the yellow fever epidemic. (Yellow fever, as it turns out, was quite a big deal in Philly. More on that later.) After Cunningham’s death, other residents stated that they heard footsteps stomping down the hallway and loud banging noises from Cunningham’s old room.

Bishop White House

The Bishop White house (309 Walnut Street) was home to the Rev. Dr. William White, the first Episcopal Bishop of Pennsylvania and chaplain to the Second Constitutional Convention and the U.S. Senate. It was built in 1787, and was one of the first homes to have an indoor “necessary,” or toilet. While that sounds like a luxury of which most would be envious back in the day, it didn’t turn out that way. Servants emptied the waste from the toilets into Dock Creek… the waters of which flowed in back of the Bishop’s house. The waters from that stream were used, among other things, in food preparation for the White family. Five of the Bishop’s eight children contracted dysentery and died from the disease. (This is what our tour guide told us. Other accounts say that the deaths were due to yellow fever.)

City Tavern

City Tavern - one of the most haunted sites on the Philadelphia ghost tour

Once called the “most genteel tavern in America” by founding father John Adams, Philadelphia’s City Tavern ( 138 S 2nd Street) boasts two ghosts of legend. The first is that of a waiter who unknowingly stepped into the line of fire at a duel on the tavern grounds around 1790. Some people have reported seeing his ghost fall to the ground as if shot. This spectre also purportedly moves table settings around and makes silverware clatter.

The second ghost is that of a bride-to-be who was upstairs with her attendants preparing for the wedding. During the excitement, a candle set a curtain on fire and the flame quickly engulfed the room, then spread to the rest of the building. The bride died in that 1834 fire which also destroyed part of the building. Visitors report seeing a ghostly woman dressed in her wedding gown with a long train.

The Merchants’ Exchange

The Merchants' Exchange - a haunted site on the Philadelphia Ghost Tour.

This is probably the most beautiful building we saw on our Philadelphia ghost tour. The Merchants’ Exchange (143 S 3rd Street) was built in the 1830s and is the oldest existing stock exchange building in the United States. The ghosts at this location are those of Harold Thorn, a wealthy but ill-tempered business man, and Jack Osteen (no relation to Joel as far as I know), a blind beggar.

Jack hung around outside the Merchants’ Exchange building, hoping to get some money from a philanthropic business men. While there, he would often spend time with the horses tethered outside the building, petting them and, when he was able, feeding them apples.

One particular day in 1834, Thorn lost a lot of money inside the Merchants’ Exchange, putting him in a fouler mood than usual. As he stormed out, he bumped into Jack. The bling man stumbled to regain his footing and as a result, inadvertently stepped on Thorn’s shoes. Thorn went into a rage and began pommeling Jack with his fashionable walking stick. When his rage subsided, Jack was dead.

In the silence following the attack, one of the horses let out an unearthly shriek, reared up on its hind legs, and struck Thorn with its hooves. The blow killed him. Today people say that they sometimes see the figure of Thorn and a horse re-enacting the scene outside the Merchants’ Exchange building.

Physick House

The entrance to the Physick House - one of the haunted sights on the Philadelphia ghost tour.

Built in 1786, the Hill-Keith-Physick house (321 S. Fourth Street) was once owned by Philip Physick, the father of american surgery. One of the foremost surgeons of the time, Physick was one of the few doctors who stayed in Philadelphia to care for the sick during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. His many patients included Dolley Madison and Chief Justice John Marshall.

The story goes that Physick hired men to dig up bodies from the grave yard and bring them back to his house, where he performed autopsies to study anatomy and discover their cause of death. Once he had finished with them, he buried the bodies in his back yard. The ghosts at the Physick House are supposed to be those of his dead subjects, robbed of their final resting place.

St. Peters Episcopal Church

In 1793, a group of Iroquois chief tribe chiefs traveled to Philadelphia to sign a peace treaty with George Washington. The city was going through a smallpox epidemic at the time. Unfortunately, all of the visiting chiefs contracted the disease and died. Washington buried them at St. Peter’s Church (3rd & Pine Streets) with military honors.

Today, their ghosts are said to haunt the area because they were buried in a location that was not consecrated for the Iroquois. And because their graves are unmarked, the bodies can’t be moved — no one knows for certain exactly where they are buried.

Old Pine Street Church

Old Pine St. Church & Cemetery (412 Pine Street) – also known as the cemetery that Nicholas Cage ran through in National Treasure – was occupied by the British Army from September 1777 – June 1778. The British soldiers stripped the church of its pews, and used the church building as a stable and hospital. They also used the cemetery as a target range to improve their marksmanship.

It is said that the spirits of those British soldiers have been condemned to remain there as an eternal punishment, and that the fancy fence that surrounds the cemetery is there to keep them locked in.

Washington Square Park

William Penn laid out five public squares in the 1680s to keep the green in his “greene Countrie Towne” of Philadelphia. One of those public squares is Washington Square, and during the Revolutionary War, it was a mass burial ground. It served as a mass burial site again during the yellow fever epidemic that struck Philadelphia in 1793.

Grave robbers were very common at that time, so Quaker nurses wearing black cloaks would patrol the area to keep the graves undisturbed. They say that today, the spirit of one such nurse named Leah still walks through the square.

Congress Hall

Next to the imposing and important Independence Hall is a smaller building called Congress Hall (6th & Chestnut Streets). The United States Senate and House of Representatives met at Congress Hall while Philadelphia was the capital of the United States, from 1790 to 1800. President George Washington took his second oath of office in this building, and John Adams’ inauguration also took place here.

Congress Hall, allegedly haunted by President John Adams - part of the Philadelphia ghost tour.

They say that the ghosts of some of America’s early legislators inhabit the building, including President John Adams. The story goes that President Adams’ spirit regularly knocks the paintings on the walls so they hang crookedly.

How to Take a Philadelphia Ghost Tour

The ghost tour we enjoyed was the Spirits of ’76 Ghost Tour. It lasts about 75 minutes, and takes you to 20 different allegedly haunted sites in the historic center of Philadelphia. You can also buy a ghost tour combo ticket with a Constitutional Walking Tour. 

While we did not see (or feel the presence of) any ghosts, we did enjoy seeing some of the historic buildings and learning about the history of the city. I would recommend taking this tour if you’re looking for a fun, family-friendly evening activity.

Please note that I paid for our tickets. Spirits of ’76 Ghost Tour was not aware that I was a blogger, nor that I would be writing a review of my experience.

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The Medieval French Town of Dinan

The Medieval French Town of Dinan

There are six Celtic nations* – areas in which a Celtic language are still spoken to some extent today. Five of the six Celtic nations are in the UK. The sixth is in France; specifically, the northwestern region of Brittany. Because of my deep and abiding love of Cornwall, another Celtic nation, I knew that when I went to Paris, a day trip to Brittany was a must. I found a guided, one day tour of Brittany that included the fairy tale village of Dinan. The other two stops on the tour were St. Malo and Mont St. Michel. Adding a third stop seemed over-ambitious to me for a one day trip. I was skeptical as to the value of going there, so I looked Dinan up online. Once I saw what it was like, I couldn’t have been happier. It is the most beautiful medieval French town!

* In addition to Brittany and Cornwall, the other Celtic Nations are Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and the Isle of Man.

About Dinan

The town of Dinan is built up on a hillside, overlooking the River Rance. We drove up to through the town straight to St. Sauveur Basilica, a Gothic-Romanesque church.

We arrived in this charming, medieval French town fairly late in the day but the cathedral doors were open, so we stepped inside to explore. There were lovely stained glass windows depicting the saints of the Roman Catholic Church.

We also saw a couple of stone sarcophagi (I think that’s the right name for them).

The Secret Garden

Then we ventured outside the church, and I wandered around to the back of the building. Here I found “Le Jardin Anglais” or The English Garden. Tucked away behind the imposing church, it was a place of beauty and peace. It was also a place of solitude, as I had the entire area to myself! I thought the name was quite appropriate, as it did remind me quite a bit of the gardens I’ve seen on my trips to England.

Wandering around the back of the church also gave me an opportunity to look over the town’s ramparts. The view of the town and the river below was excellent, and I highly recommend taking in the view from this spot if you visit Dinan.

The Town Center

I left the church and walked toward the historic center of this medieval French town. Because it was late afternoon/early evening, and a gloomy, rainy day to boot, there were very few people in the streets. Combined with the cobblestone streets and historic half-timbered buildings, the lack of pedestrians made me fantasize for a moment that I had stepped back though time to a different era. (One can always hope!)

There were creperies and small shops, but we were on a tight schedule with very little time to explore properly. I did not venture inside, but instead just walked around and took in all the beautiful details.

I saw half-timbered buildings in several different colors – dark red, light blue, and even a grayish green color. It seemed garish and artificial compared to the strictly black or brown Tudor style buildings I’ve seen in the UK. I asked our bus driver about this and he assured me that the colors were historically accurate for that region. (I remain skeptical, but not bothered enough by it to do the research and determine if this is the case.)

When to Go

The weather was less than ideal when I visited Dinan, and it was still stunningly beautiful. I’m fairly confident in saying that there may not be a bad time to visit. However, if you are traveling to France in an even numbered year, I encourage you to visit Dinan in mid-July for the town’s Festival of the Ramparts (Fête des Remparts). The town is transformed with decoration and many locals dress up in medieval garb for this two-day festival held on the third weekend in July every other year.

Disneyland Paris without Kids: A Review

Disneyland Paris without Kids: A Review

When I booked my solo trip to France, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go to Disneyland Paris or not. I last set foot on any Disney property over ten years ago, and going to Disneyland Paris without kids seemed weird.

Okay, that’s an understatement. It actually seemed a little sad/pathetic. But since the trip was intended to help me figure out if solo travel was right for me, I decided to go anyway.

Getting There

Fortunately, taking the train from the heart of Paris to the Disney properties couldn’t be easier.

Line A of the RER system of express trains ends at Marne-la-Vallee station, right next to the front gates of Disneyland Paris. Not staying near an RER station? Just hop on the Metro and transfer at the most convenient stop. From most locations in Paris, the journey to Euro Disney will take about 40 minutes.

I should note that the Marne-la-Vallee station is in Zone 5, whereas most central Paris Metro locations are in zones 1 and 2. Make sure your rail pass ticket will cover transportation to Zone 5. The cost should only be about 8 Euros.

Bienvenue!

Upon entering Disneyland Paris, I got that giddy, like-a-child-again feeling. Because Disneyland Paris without kids is still Disneyland, right? So much to do, so much to see… so many wonderful details to take in!

Unfortunately, my enthusiasm was short lived. Now, I don’t know if the standards at Disneyland Paris are different than they are at other Disney parks… and maybe I only noticed because I didn’t have children with me to focus on… but when I saw this, it disappointed me more than it would have someplace else:

Disneyland Paris without kids - not watching kids means you're free to notice some rather disappointing characteristics of the park.

Chipped paint and damaged wood. Anyplace else, not that big a deal, but Disney has a reputation for keeping its parks pristine. From daily after-hours power washing of Main Street to placing trash cans every 30 feet, their attention to the physical appearance of their properties is near legendary. Walking in, visitors should feel like it’s a brand new place, open for the first time. Disney’s US parks, I later learned, have paint touch ups done every day.

Every.

Day.

Apparently that’s not the case with Disneyland Paris.

(DISCLAIMER: I fully realize that I sound like a whiny, first world, privileged brat. I hate it as much as you do. But as I said, if this was anyplace other than a Disney park, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it. Disneyworld in Orlando has set the bar very, very high!)

The Castle

As with most Disney parks, the castle – in this case, Sleeping Beauty’s castle – was front and center, dominating the park landscape once you enter.

Disneyland Paris without kids - who doesn't love a fanciful  castle?

It was so pretty! And I loved that the trees are trimmed to match the trees in the 1959 animated feature film, Sleeping Beauty. After snapping far more pictures than I actually needed, I entered the castle to look around. Displays, tapestries, and stained glass told the story of the ill-fated princess cursed to sleep until she received a kiss from her prince.

Disneyland Paris without kids - Sleeping Beauty's castle knight
Remember, the entire castle was placed under Maleficient’s sleeping curse. This sleeping knight stood guard in one of the castle’s displays.
Disneyland Paris without kids - take in the story of Sleeping Beauty in the castle

The “Secret” of the Castle

Friends, I could have written this entire article about the following feature of the castle. I could have billed it as “The Secret Attraction at Disneyland Paris that You MUST See!” like so many other bloggers have done. But the truth remains that, while it’s a really cool feature, it is not a secret and there is far more at the park to see than just this one thing. That being said, it is pretty amazing.

Are you ready for it?

Yes, there is a huge animatronic dragon lurking in the shadows beneath Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Disneyland Paris! By far the coolest part of the whole park, IMHO.

Disneyland Paris without Kids - grown ups will surely love the dragon beneath the castle!

The largest animatronic figure ever built when the park opened in April 1992, this dragon measures a whopping 89 feet long from head to tail.

To find the dragon when you visit, just go off to the left hand side of the ramp leading to the castle entrance. You will see a sign with Maleficent-style horns that says “La Tanière du Dragon.” Enter the dark cave and you will soon see this ferocious creature, growling and puffing smoke.

Pirates of the Caribbean

High on my list of must-see attractions at Disneyland Paris was Pirates of the Caribbean. I love pirates, I love the Disney movies that stemmed from the popular ride, and I love the ride at Disneyworld in Orlando.

The exterior of this attraction at Disneyland Paris was nothing less than stunning:

Disneyland Paris without kids - Pirates of the Caribbean

The line for this ride was surprisingly short, although I was there on a Friday in early April, so it was not at the height of the busy season. It was pretty much the same as the one in Florida, with one notable exception:

Jack Sparrow was singing in French! I could make out an occasional “yo ho,” but I had no idea what the rest of it was.

Aladdin’s Enchanted Passage

After the pirates, I explored Le Passage Enchanté d’Aladdin, which was unbelievably disappointing. Essentially, it consisted of shop windows (minus the shops) with dioramas depicting scenes from the animated Aladdin movie.

Disneyland Paris without kids - the Aladdin attraction is decidedly unremarkable.

Star Tours

As I made my way to Discoveryland, there was one attraction that I knew I had to check out. It was Star Tours: The Adventure Continues. I got giddy as soon as I saw the X-wing fighter.

The queuing area simulates a bustling spaceport. Eventually you see C-3PO tinkering away on a Starspeeder 1000, projection screens and scanners all around him. When we boarded the ride, we received strict instructions to buckle up and stow any loose items in the compartment beneath our seats. The storyline for the ride is that as you prepare for lift-off, a series of mishaps unwittingly causes your starship to launch and C-3PO to take control.

It was pretty exciting! But before we could get to the point where the transport is intercepted by Imperial forces, the ride stopped abruptly and we were told to disembark. There had been a real life malfunction that required us to wait for the next round of boarding. At which point we started over. This time, instead of stopping the ride, C-3PO entered hyperspace and propelled us on “an unpredictable, frantic adventure to the farthest reaches of the galaxy and back.”

The ride was essentially like a 4D movie. The seats move as you go hurtling through space. You feel every movement and sensation that you would feel if it were happening in reality. It was fun. (And honestly, kind of a bonus that I got to do it one and a half times but only had to queue once!)

Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast

I had so much fun with my family on the Toy Story Midway Mania ride in Disneyworld Orlando! I couldn’t wait to see how the Disneyland Paris version compared.

Disneyland Paris without Kids - Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast

The queueing area was not as fun as the one in Orlando (which actually makes you feel like you’re a toy, surrounded by other toys). It was definitely more focused on Buzz Lightyear/space and less on the entire Toy Story cast of characters. Once I got through the line and got seated, I picked up my laser blaster, and prepared to zap some stuff.

Disneyland Paris without kids - Buzz Lightyear laser blast

And then we took off. Here’s the beginning of the ride, before the action really started.

As you can see, the ride included plenty of black light effects. I was zap-zap-zapping away when all of a sudden, Emperor Zurg showed up to attack!

Disneyland Paris without kids - Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast

He actually startled me a little – and he’s quite a big figure! All in all, the ride was fun, even for someone who was traveling solo and visiting Disneyland Paris without kids.

After that, I thought about going on It’s a Small World. But there was a line. A loooong line. And ultimately I decided that I didn’t want to wait that long for a ride that was more or less the same as one I’d already been on at least twice.

Bottom line: Is it a good use of time & money to visit Disneyland Paris without kids?

By this point in the day, I’d had enough of being at Disneyland Paris without kids. A big part of the fun in going to a Disney park is sharing the experience with other people. Being there by myself just felt kind of wrong. Now, if Hubs or a friend had been with me, I’m certain I would have enjoyed it more.

But, as with most things, your mileage may vary.

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