Three summer days in Venice

By Caitlin Kelly

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Unless you’re arriving via ferry, cruise ship or private vessel, it’s a rare city you can approach and leave by water.

Venice is one.

I arrived from Rovinj, Croatia by high-speed catamaran, ($100 one way, a 3.5 hour journey), cruising into Basilio, where our passports were examined and stamped.

I’d been to Venice before — for my 21st birthday (also alone) and a few years later on my EU fellowship.

I booked into a gorgeous 40-room hotel in San Marco, Hotel Flora, with a tiny perfect garden, with pink tablecloths and vines overhead.

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My third floor room, facing the courtyard, was lovely — even if the shower stall was so small and narrow I couldn’t bend over to pick up the soap!

I only gave Venice three days this time because — exactly as I feared — it was a madhouse.

I have never, anywhere, seen as many people in so small a space.

If you’ve never been there, Venice’s streets and alleyways are very narrow and the city is made up of 118 islands, so you’re sharing that space going up and down small, narrow stone bridges. If there’s a river of humanity, many of them stopping to take &*&%#@@# selfies everywhere, you’re stuck. Literally.

It was also extremely hot — and while Venice really offers unique and extraordinary charms (no cars! no trucks! no sirens!) — it also has very, very few trees and little shade as a result. It is a city of stone.

(When you arrive at the airport to leave you think — what’s that green stuff? Oh, right, it’s grass!)

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Murano glass, a Venetian specialty

In my three days, I went to the Ca D’Oro, a magnificent 600-year-old mansion filled with art and sculpture, with many, many Madonnas. It has a wide terrace facing the Grand Canal so you can watch the world go by.

One of the best things to do is simply closely observe all the maritime traffic — because everything, (garbagemen, couriers, groceries, building supplies, police), travels in Venice by water. Every building has a dock.

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Then, of course, there are the famous gondolas, sleek black 35.5-foot wooden vessels operated by gondoliers in striped shirts, skilfully poling their way through the canals. The ride is 35 minutes for 80 euros,  ($91 U.S. dollars) or 100 euros at night. I’ve yet to take one, though — I had more fun photographing them.

There are gondola stands  — like taxi stands in vehicular cities — where you can book one.

I spent most of my time taking photos and hopping on and off the vaporettos, the water-buses with regular routes.

One morning, I headed to Piazza San Marco, and stopped to admire a sketch and the oils a woman was about to use to paint the famous church. As I usually do, I asked permission before snapping her photo, and we started chatting.

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Of course we had a friend in common…who lives, as she normally does, in Bermuda. Small world!

The woman suggested I flee the crowds and visit the island of Giudecca, which I did. It’s purely residential, with a few small cafes and food shops. It was silent, the only sounds the squeaking of a swing as a small child played on it and the singing of a caged songbird. I wandered its streets, while suspicious old women looked dubiously at me and my camera. I had a very good lunch there at Majer — great pastries, coffee, wine — in a lovely, elegant setting and not crazy expensive.

It was heaven!

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I also visited the Naval Museum, since Venice has only survived thanks to its maritime prowess. Loved it! It’s housed in a former factory, an enormous brick building, and filled with fantastic examples of earlier boats, from the huge gilded vessel used by kings and princes to humble barges and fishing boats.

I’m really glad I went back to Venice (a logical next stop as I headed back west within Europe, and from where I flew to London, my final stop.)

But I admit — I was so worn out from heat and rude, pushy tourists I fled to the airport hours early, and gratefully sat in air-conditioned silence. It was a good decision, as the airport had — only two weeks earlier — opened a handsome new wing, with a glass roof and plenty of natural light. It was clean and spacious and I had a great chat with a woman from Calcutta.

I’m eager to return to Venice but in October or November, which everyone there said is a much less aggressive experience. The city has only 55,000 residents — and millions and millions of tourists.

Said one weary hotel staffer: “People have no respect for our city. We feel like pandas.”

 

A week in Istria, Croatia

By Caitlin Kelly

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My hotel, Angelo D’oro, Rovinj, Istria, Croatia

Most people who choose to visit Croatia head to the more familiar Dalmatian coast — to Split, Dubrovnik and the islands there, like Hvar; fans of the the HBO series Game of Thrones know that Dubrovnik is the location for some essential scenes.

I decided to skip that part of the country, knowing it would be expensive and crowded, and chose Istria instead, a place I’d never heard of before.

Here’s how I found it and chose to go:

1) I consulted Relais & Chateaux , a worldwide association of small, independent luxury hotels. Once I start to think about a future trip, I look for a R & C hotel I might like to try — if I can afford it! (I did in Malta.) That led me to Istria, although the only hotel they included was more than I wanted to pay.

2) Thanks to a Twitterchat I participate it, I met a travel agent based in Zagreb who helped me plan.

3) This travel blogger based in Berlin did a post on Rovinj, and I was sold.

Rovinj, a town of 15,000 people, is called Little Venice and feels like a smaller, less-jammed version of that much larger city. The streets are narrow, the houses painted ocher and mustard and a gorgeous deep raspberry color, and the stairs up to people’s apartments are Amsterdam-steep.

I got there by bus from Zagreb, about 4 hours’ journey, and walked to my hotel, the Angelo D’Oro, which (it had to happen!) turned out to be a lot more expensive than I had remembered when I booked it. (Like, holy shit, twice as much.)

It was worth every penny.

The hotel has only 23 rooms, and is housed in two buildings from the 18th and 17th century, and used to be the bishops’ residence. My room was on the top — fourth — floor, with a small terrace overlooking the harbor, my only companions flocks of swallows and shrieking seagulls.

Buffet breakfast was served on a shaded terrace full of oleander trees, with two small cats who came by each morning to visit.

Every morning and evening at 7:00, the bells of Santa Euphemia rang out from the church just above my windows.

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The town is so small you can easily walk everywhere, although there are taxis and the hotel has a little golf cart for moving luggage.

There’s not a lot to do, but it’s a place to kick back and soak up the sun and sit in cafes and savor the views.

The beaches are rocky, (and sea shoes are essential because spiny sea urchins live in the rocks and you do not want to step on one!), and the water crystal clear and the perfect temperature.

You can sail, sea-kayak, fish, snorkel. You can buy really pretty linen shirts and dresses from Italy inexpensively and I treated myself to a pair of gold earrings.

I took a narrated bus tour one day to two hill towns, Groznjan and Oprtalj (right at the Slovenian border), which was terrific — a lovely break from 85-degree heat and a chance to see how gorgeous the hilly interior is.

Istria is small, so it’s easy to see a lot of it within a day’s drive.

Only two words of warning about Rovinj — restaurant food, generally, is of very mediocre quality and almost every restaurant has the same (!?) menu, with fried fish, spaghetti or steak, catering to a lower-income tourist, enormous families and its typical mix of British, German, Austrian and Italian tourists.

Crowds! You can escape them, but restaurants can be busy, especially the very few ones with excellent (and pricey) food.

I loved my time there and was sad to leave — taking a catamaran the 3.5 hour trip across the Adriatic to Venice, the perfect way to arrive to a maritime city.

 

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Loved the light on the cobblestone streets

 

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Lots of stores selling pearls — loved how stylish this one was!

 

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I often walked barefoot — the stones are silky-smooth, and, when steep, quite slippery!

 

 

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For 80 kuna — about $16 — round-trip, you can take a 20-minute ferry ride to Red Island, where this sort of beauty awaits. I had this beach all to myself all day.

 

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Santa Euphemia church, Rovinj, Croatia

 

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Old Town, Rovinj

 

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The view from Groznjan, Istria

 

 

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This gorgeous image sat in a niche outside my hotel room. I loved seeing it every morning.

10 reasons to travel alone

By Caitlin Kelly

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I went to say thank you and good-bye to one of the waitresses at my last hotel, and we chatted for a bit.

Then she exclaimed: “But…you’re alone!”

True.

I’d stayed a week at a 23-room historic hotel and I hadn’t seen anyone else there who was traveling solo.

In my time here in Europe, now five weeks, most of the travelers I’ve seen are in couples, or families, or packs of friends, whether teens or seniors.

I’m clearly an outlier, and I’m fine with that; my mother traveled the world alone for years and I spent four months alone traveling through Portugal, Spain, France and Italy at 23.

 

Here are 10 reasons I enjoy traveling solo, even (yes), while female:

 

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No one dictates my schedule

Unless it’s a travel day, and I have to meet a plane, train or bus on time, it’s no one’s business when I get up or go to bed or do anything. Total freedom is priceless to me.

No one is insisting we must do this or must see that

Again, if I want to retreat to my cool, quiet hotel room at mid-day to escape 90-degree heat, no one is having a (literal) meltdown or tantrum because they want to do something else.

I’ve missed all sorts of must-see’s and must-do’s on this trip, (all those museums! all those famous sites!), because I wanted to just rest and relax and see only what I want to see.

People can be much kinder than you’d expect

This trip has been savaged by a lot of right knee pain and right foot pain. It makes walking slow and painful. It makes stairs slow and painful. I also do poorly in heat, and everywhere people have been very kind, offering to help me with luggage or stairs.

 

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Pauly Saal, the Berlin restaurant where I met two new-to-me friends for lunch

 

Making new friends is easier

When you travel with others, their wants and needs, of course, matter to their enjoyment of their vacation. If you just want to sit and have a long conversation, sometimes even a short one, that can impede your companions’ progress.

I’ve really savored the long conversations I’ve had along the way, and have learned a lot about the places I’ve been.

I don’t want to just slide past, taking lots of photos.

And yet….

 

Silence is truly golden

When traveling solo, you don’t have to talk to anyone beyond the most basic questions. I can go an entire day without conversation, and what a relief that is.

As the waitress agreed, about having to be charming and social: “It’s exhausting!”

 

You’re present in a way that’s usually impossible when traveling with others

I’ve been amazed at how I just sit, still, for an hour. No book, no magazine or paper. No screens. Whether I’m watching someone in a cafe, or the local cats who shimmy down the garden trees, or admiring kids splashing into the Adriatic at sunset, I can pay all of it my full attention.

I’ve gotten some astounding photos at all times of day and night, able to see clearly without interruption or distraction. I spent one happy afternoon sketching and painting.

 

No fights!

I witnessed a furious mother and her mutinous little boy, (and his brother and their fed-up grandparents), at a table near me in Rovinj, a seaside resort in Croatia. It was clear they were all totally annoyed with this kid, and he with them.

Thank heaven it wasn’t me; having had some monumental arguments while very far from home — out alone with my father, my mother, my husband — I know how stressful that is since you all still have to get back into the same hotel or flat and/or the same means of transportation later anyway.

 

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Time to reflect

I’ve had all sorts of new-to-me ideas while away, for more travel, for some different ideas about designing our home, about how to work.

I’ve been reading a lot — books for a change  — and loving it.

 

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The trams in Zagreb — fast, cheap, efficient

 

You (re)-learn to be self-reliant

My favorite French words are “se débrouiller” and “débrouillard”...which means “to figure it out for yourself” and, loosely, “a self-reliant person.”

Solo travel turns you into that person, and quickly!

At 25, I won an EU journalism fellowship based in Paris that required four 10-day independent  reporting trips throughout Europe. No one was there to hold my hand or to show me stuff. I loved it!

Whether you’re madly calculating currency differences, (try 276 Hungarian forints to the U.S. dollar!) or trying to read a map in another language or making sure you’ve caught the right bus/train/boat heading in the right direction, it’s all up to you.

If it goes pear-shaped, (as the British would say), everywhere has some sort of medical care and usually someone who speaks English. Absolute worst case, you can contact your consulate or embassy for emergency help.

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The Washington, D.C. Metro

The self-confidence solo travel creates is fantastic, lasting and can inspire others to take the leap

I’ve been traveling alone since I was 17 and first crossed the U.S. border by train to attended a photo workshop — although I took my first flight alone, from Toronto to Antigua, at seven.

Once you realize how to navigate the world, and see that many people — like us — just want to make a living, help their kids and grandkids thrive, and to enjoy their lives as much as we do — it’s a much less intimidating place.

Yes, some spots are tougher than others, and some truly no-go zones for women alone. But fewer than you’d think.

 

Have you traveled alone?

 

How did you enjoy it?

 

How to plan a perfect vacation

By Caitlin Kelly

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Toronto, March 2017

One new friend, a Zagreb travel agent, says: “A perfect vacation is one without expectations..”

She might be right.

When I plan a vacation I focus on what I, (and/or my husband), really want to do, (not what we see on social media or what’s “hot” this year) — informed by my participation in multiple weekly travel Twitterchats, and reading travel websites, blog posts and articles that offer specific ideas and inspiration.

Having been to 40 countries, I’m torn between visiting the familiar, like Ireland, (five visits), and France (many more), and seeking out new experiences.

Things to consider when planning your holiday:

For how long? (Will it be enough or will you get bored?)

Using what transportation?

With whom, (or alone?)

How much activity, and how much downtime?

How many (tiring) travel days and transfers?

What will you give up to stay on budget, (e.g. luxury hotels, taxis everywhere)?

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Washington, D.C. June 2016

 

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The Donegal cottage, 3 bedrooms, great views

“Perfect” for me includes:

 


 

Easy/safe/quick/affordable, (hello, $$$$$ London!), public transit in and around the city/town, ideally without cars or taxis. My favorite vacations involve no driving, unless it’s a road trip or touring.

— Making emotional connections. I travel out of curiosity, and having long conversations with a country’s residents is a great joy for me. I got to know two sisters in Croatia whose powerful memories of Zagreb being bombed are much more powerful to me than any lovely vista.

Kind and welcoming locals. I liked Berlin, but didn’t enjoy “Berliner schnauze”, a biting, sarcastic edge that’s quite common. Travel is disorienting enough and you can feel vulnerable, especially if you’re alone. Croatians have been terrific.

Healthy food at decent prices. Easy access to farmer’s markets, (in cities like Toronto, Paris, London, Zagreb, New York), can make a real difference to your budget and ability to eat well.

A climate with some variation. If it’s a sweltering 80 to 90+ degrees during the day, a drop of even 10 degrees and a breeze is a blessing. I can’t handle humidity; cold, for this Canadian, is not a problem.

Ready access to nature: lake, river, ocean, forest, parks, gardens. Too much concrete makes me feel ill, even on a city-focused trip.

Great shopping. I love finding items, styles and colors I just can’t get in New York (yes, really.). I treasure wearing and using them for years to come.

— Culture/design whether music, museums or just well-designed lighting, streetscapes and buildings.

Personal safety.  Especially in an era of terror attacks, I avoid crowds whenever possible and am extremely aware of my surroundings in large cities..

Fleeing American violence and toxic politics. I’ve lived in the U.S. since 1989, but am so sickened and embarrassed by its current politics and President I want to be as far away from of it as I can afford, and for as long as I can afford.

Nor do I want, on vacation, to be surrounded by Americans, so I choose places, and hotels, with a more international clientele.

While trying to relax, the last thing I want to think or talk about is American politics.

— History. The town I’m writing this in, Rovinj, Croatia, has buildings from the 16th century — and my hotel dates from the 18th and 17th, two buildings later combined. I’m happiest in places with a rich, accessible history.

Eastern Europe also offers something I’d never seen before — in Berlin, Budapest and Zagreb, museums of torture, places where its citizens suffered unspeakable crimes. History is filled with darkness, too.

Grace notes

Everything from the starched, spotless linen napkins and tablecloths in my Rovinj hotel to the oleander blossoms that fall onto my breakfast plate from the terrace’s overhanging trees. For me, touches of beauty and elegance make a place deeply memorable. 

— Rest!

It’s so tempting to gogogogogogogo. I finally lay in bed one afternoon and napped and listened, on the Internet, to my favorite weekend radio shows from NPR.

— A mix of solo and accompanied time

So many women are afraid to strike out alone, to eat alone, to walk alone.

I’ve done it in Istanbul, Spain, Mexico…

Dig through the archives here and you’ll find several posts detailing how to do it safely and enjoyably.

Ideally, I like a mix of vacation time both solo and accompanied; alone here, I’ve had terrific conversations with bus and train mates, at cafes and in shops and restaurants. These included two U of Texas accounting students; a Croatian art history major; a Romanian professor of environmental anthropology; an epee fencer, and an electrical engineer, both from Zagreb and an IBM exec — who I met smoking a hookah! — who’d worked for NGOs in Africa.

Even when I travel with my beloved husband, taking some daily time apart is essential.

 

Some of our best vacations have included:

 

• Our rented cottage in Dungloe, Donegal, in June 2015, (through this website), and the flat we rented twice on the Ile St. Louis in Paris (friends.)

• A five-week bus journey throughout Mexico in May 2005, including Mexico City, Queretaro, Patzcuaro, Oaxaca and Cuernavaca, where I lived as a teenager.

• Since our first visit in the fall of 2001, exhausted by covering the events of 9/11, we’ve returned six (!) times, so far, to Manoir Hovey, a resort on Lake Massawippi in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, a 7-hour drive from our home in New York; elegant but not stuffy, welcoming, great food and lovely in every season.

 

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Lake Massawippi, Eastern Townships

This European trip has offered virtually no disappointments, not bad for a month on the road through four countries so far. I chose a mix of larger and smaller cities, with a seaside break in Istria, Croatia.

I also chose three long train journeys — Paris-Berlin (7 hours), Berlin-Budapest (13 hours), Budapest-Zagreb (6 hours) —  in order to rest and see the countryside. I dislike flying, so this also reduced my stress.

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This trip’s two greatest surprise expenses?

Hotel laundry, (sweaty from walking all day in 80+ degree heat; one hotel even forbade hand washing!), and taxis, when my arthritic right knee gave out. I could have used laundromats, (as I have in Paris), but right now, free time is more precious to me.

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Lincoln Center, New York City

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Bucks County, Pennsylvania

 

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Washington, D.C.

 

 

 

 

What’s your idea of a perfect holiday?

 

Have you had it — or planned it — yet?

Four days each in Budapest and Zagreb

By Caitlin Kelly

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I’m now in Istria, the northernmost part of Croatia, only three hours by car from Venice. I’ve booked a week’s stay in the town of Rovinj, hoping to do a lot of nothing — no museums, no shopping, no walking with a bum knee along hot, crowded streets.

The Adriatic!

I really enjoyed my four days apiece in Budapest and Zagreb, my first visits to both. I’d definitely return to either one, but in spring or autumn.

 

Budapest

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One of the pleasures of this trip is seeing how different each city is from the next. Budapest is very much not Berlin; its buildings feel older, dirtier, more massive in scale and design.

I stayed with my best friend from University of Toronto, (who lives far from me in the interior of British Columbia), and her 24-year-old daughter in a rented one-bedroom flat in District VII, the former Jewish quarter, which is very lively and filled with bars and restaurants.

The company is called 7 Seasons,  on Kiraly Street, (with a Metro stop within a two-minute walk.) I liked the flat very much — although the bedroom didn’t have air conditioning, which in this brutally hot summer, was unpleasant. It had a small balcony with table and chairs, and lots of natural light. facing a huge central courtyard; below were about five restaurants, including a fantastic Middle Eastern one.

Lots of fun shops, including vintage clothing and (!) endless “escape rooms”, whose attractiveness completely eludes me.

A great pleasure of Budapest is how affordable it is, for food, lodging and transport (except taxis!) A great disappointment for me was — because it’s so much more affordable than other European cities — it attracts roving/shouting/shrieking gangs of men and women who’ve flown in cheaply for their “hen” and “stag” do’s, (what North Americans call their bachelor or bachelorette parties.)

We visited the 99-year-old Gellert Baths,  (about $20 for admission; bring your own bathing suit, cap and towel), and savored the warm waters of its two indoor thermal baths. I didn’t try the sauna or swimming pool but dipped my toes into the frigid cold bath.

The place is astounding and well worth a visit to spend a few hours lolling beneath its stained glass and mosaics.

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Budapest’s Houses of Parliament

 

Loved our night cruise on the Danube, choosing a 10:00 p.m. boat so the sky would be completely dark. Like Paris and New York, Budapest is a city of bridges, each with its own history and character.

 

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The New York Cafe, Budapest

 

We also loved our visit to a local legend, the New York Cafe. Go!

One hot afternoon I managed to walk for ages (!) in the opposite direction to my goal, passing every embassy on Andrassy Avenue, which terminates in Hero’s Square. 

Desperately tired and thirsty, I staggered into a shady seat in a cafe…full of men smoking hookahs! I got chatting to a man beside me, about my age, and happily puffing away on his after-work treat. We had a great conversation: he was born in Lebanon, raised in Kuwait, studied to his PhD in India and had worked with NGOs in Africa before coming to IBM. Hussein was a sweetie and I so enjoyed meeting him.

 

Zagreb

 

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So far, perhaps, my favorite city for its relaxed quality: Berlin’s blocks are very, very long (so tiring to navigate) and Budapest was just too full of bro’s.

Zagreb — with only 790,000 people, (to B and B’s 3 million or so) — felt just right.

I liked my hotel very much, The Palace, and my small room with its quiet garden view; (the street-side is busy with tram traffic.) Had a phenomenal massage in their wellness center for $60 — about half what it costs in New York.

Zagreb feels lived-in, in a good way. I was very struck by how clean the streets are, and its many green, flower-filled parks. No graffiti, at least not in the central areas — something Berlin is covered with.

The city’s many cafes were full of people actually talking and laughing with one another —- not staring grimly into laptops.

Food is a mix of Eastern European (lots of meat!), Italian and Balkan, with various kinds of cheese and cottage cheese I’d never seen before.

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Loved the Dolac, the central  daily farmer’s market that runs from 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m, filled with fruit and vegetables and flowers and cheeses and nuts and lavender and local shoppers with their wheelie carts. The square is edged by cafes, so you can take a break as you head home laden with cherries!

 

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Loved the city’s many blue trams, making it quick, easy and comfortable to get around.

Loved its architecture and ocher and yellow-painted walls.

 

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Loved most the Upper Town, silent and breeze-blown, with a spectacular church. I visited two museums there and loved both — the atelier of Ivan Mestrovic, Croatia’s most famous artist. His sculpture is exquisite, in marble and bronze and his home, built in the 1920s, a lovely space as well.  If you like Rodin/Giacometti and/or the work of Diego Rivera, you’ll like this.

The Museum of Naive Art, a block away in Upper Town, is fantastic — filled with works on paper and many done on glass. A small museum, maybe four or five rooms, (a docent told me they have 1,900 items with only 75 on display), it’s really special. (Word of warning, though: both of these museums have steep narrow staircases to enter and to see everything in the Mestrovic site. Those with mobility issues might not be able to enjoy them.)

The city has 37 hotels — and 33 (!) hostels, making it an accessible place for all budgets.

I mostly loved seeing how people enjoy their city — guys playing badminton in the park, little girls rollerblading, people just sitting on the many pretty benches to chill out in the shade.

Zagreb felt civilized in all the right ways.

The challenges of (in)dependence

By Caitlin Kelly

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I’ve been gone from my home near New York City since June 2 and won’t be back from Europe until July 19; apart from two weeks with husband and friends, and 3 days with others, I’m on my own.

 

It’s been humbling to realize how many things and people I now rely upon to stay safe and healthy:

 

Electricity/wi-fi

 

Without which I can’t charge all devices and keep up with English language media.

 

Google!

 

Without its instant access to all the data I need in each new-to-me place, I’m not sure how I’d survive. (Unlike many of you, I’m not using my phone 24/7 with all the cool apps available; I don’t want to spend my life, on vacation, still attached to a screen. I also fear its theft or loss and overage fees.)

Whether how many forints to the dollar or a map of the city with tremendous detail or train schedules, it’s become essential.

 

A phone

 

I hate carrying and using a cellphone but was deeply grateful for it, (and an overseas plan) when my husband, after weeks of severe stomach pain, was at the doctor’s — our shared GP. I called him to hear the diagnosis, (thankfully, nothing serious), as he was in our doctor’s office.

With a six-hour time difference, communicating can be challenging — and worrying about my sweetie was horrific.

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Maps

 

Yes, really. I like a paper map I carry in my purse or pack. You have to quickly orient yourself, especially as a woman traveling alone, especially at night. It’s unwise to appear befuddled or lost.

Mobility

 

Hah! So much for that….While in Berlin, I rented a bike for 8 euros for a half day. Riders there whizzed past, with little to no warning — (no friendly, “Passing on the left!” or a ringing bell?!) — and I kept jamming my very damaged right knee as I jolted and stopped the bike to avoid getting hit or falling.

OUCH!

Now that knee, (bone on bone), is once more swollen and painful, and I’m wearing my brace and icing it and finally, in Budapest, was able to buy anti-inflammatory meds. But it’s put a damper on a six-week trip that, de facto, requires lots of walking and stairs. Taxis are expensive!

 

Language

I speak fluent French, so Paris was easy. Berlin is filled with people who speak excellent English and many words are pretty easy to figure out from context (they also offer English menus!) Hungarian and Croatian? Not so much! I felt absurdly proud in Budapest as, returning from dinner, my friends and I figured out which subway line to take, and had to change lines along the way.

 

Safe and Reliable Transportation

 

Without which, no travel!

Whether it’s a taxi, tram, subway, airplane or train, I need it to move at speed — and safely. My train journey from Budapest to Zagreb included a detour that had all of us moving into buses for a bit — track work — then transferring to a regional/commuter train for our final 20 minutes. It was handled efficiently, which was great.

As I was writing this post, I read (with horror), about a New York City subway derailment.

One friend recently flew all the way from our suburban New York town, Tarrytown, to the annual Leonard Cohen celebration on the Greek island of Hydra; the first leg of her very long return journey began by donkey!

 

Books

 

I don’t use a Kindle, so have been carrying a few books.

The first — A Little Life (loved it)  — got me to Berlin (left it at the hotel for a local friend); the second, an excellent biography of Angela Merkel got me through 10 days in Berlin. Now reading The Tender Bar, a memoir, with two more left.

When you’re alone, you need something to read!

 

Friends

 

I’m loving my journey and so glad I’ve taken so much time away from work.

But, I admit it, I miss my friends! Evenings are more challenging when you travel alone — I end up pretty pooped, (esp. with a sore knee), and don’t venture out very far again after a day of walking/limping.

So I’m still tweeting and Facebooking and emailing, even finally catching up with a photographer living nomadically, a longtime friend of the blog  who’s now home in Singapore.

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Husband

 

I’m a big baby, it turns out — I miss my husband!

Jose and I have been emailing a lot and have Skyped several times, to our mutual joy. Even 17 years into our marriage, I miss him terribly; we work in the same field, share many interests and normally talk to one another a lot.

I traveled alone at age of 23, for four months in Europe, and have traveled alone many times since. I do love it.

But…I miss my sweetie.

First (10 day) visit to Berlin

By Caitlin Kelly

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The lobby of my hotel, the Savoy.

 

I’d heard so much about Berlin I wanted to give it some time, so it was the longest one-stop stay of my six-week journey through Europe.

I didn’t see all the official sights — it was very hot this week, and I have an arthritic right knee, so long days of walking in the heat were unappealing to me.

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I did visit the Holocaust Memorial, which is built on oddly, (I assume deliberately) undulating land, a huge mass of blocks on an unshaded corner. It is, as it’s meant to be, brutal and disorienting.

Loved the legendary Pergamon Museum, with spectacular Babylonian tiled murals and Islamic art.

Took an hour’s boat ride on the Spree, a great way to appreciate the city’s many bridges and some beautifully designed buildings.

Walked the Ku’damm, the city’s main shopping street.

Saw multiple stumble-stones, small incised brass markers amid the city’s cobblestones, reminders, mostly, of local Jews killed in the Holocaust, an ongoing project that began in 1992.

 

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Ate a very refined, delicious but spendy lunch (69 euros!) at Pauly Saal, which has a Michelin star.

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Loved lunch in the garden at Literaturhaus, a few blocks up the same street from my hotel.

Shopped at KaDeWe, a luxury department store that opened in 1907.

Marveled at Walter Konig bookstore, just one of many amazing Berlin bookshops, specializing in art, photography, architecture and design; I bought books twice here.

Ate sausages, drank beer.

Loved this cafe, a block from my hotel on Fasanenstrasse in Charlottenburg, and ate/drank there often; (they have wifi.)

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This cafe is amazing — with a stunning selection of coffee, tea and chocolate — on a quiet, shaded street in Charlottenburg, in the quieter, more staid part of the city.

Took lots and lots of photos, my favorite activity.

Some random impressions:

— It’s really hot!

To my surprise, (and I admit, discomfort and dismay), air conditioning is not much done here. My room, in a 60-year-old hotel, the Savoy, (which I love) gave me a small rotating fan on my first night and it’s been a godsend.

Stores, whose frigid interiors offer reliable relief in most North American cities, are no better, usually with one fan aimed at the poor staffer. A long day of walking on hot streets without much shade is enervating.

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— Parks! Lakes! Nature!

My favorite day here, and one of my happiest days anywhere, ever, was Sunday, when  — with thousands of others — I took public transit to Schlachtensee, a lake just outside the city limits. Berlin has many such lakes, clean and accessible, and this was the perfect place to rest, snooze, sunbathe, picnic and swim.

One guy near me showed up with an entire inflatable raft, which, un-inflated, he carried home in a massive blue Ikea shopping bag.

People were there in rowboats, paddle-boarding, on floats and rafts, of every age, from babies learning to walk to seniors. I was impressed with how well-behaved people were, even lying within a few feet of one another on the grass.

Tiergarten is simply amazing — a huge central park where you can sit by a lake, rent a rowboat, enjoy one of several beer gardens (serving very good food), picnic, wander, even stare at some of the animals next door in the Zoo.

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— Bicycles rule. Look out!!

Like Amsterdam, Berlin is a city of cyclists: ladies in pretty dresses (no helmet); men in elegant suits (no helmet) and many hapless tourists like me, who’ve rented a bike for the day for 12 euros. Locals go really fast and are pissed off when people like me (the rental bikes are sub-optimal) wobble or stop suddenly in a narrow and busy bike lane.

— It’s a massive city

City blocks here are often very long, so your map can be misleading.

— Safe, quick, clean public transit

It operates on the honor system, (with a 60 euro fine if you cheat and are caught). You buy a ticket, validate it and get on, with a two-hour limit for transfers. But (oddly?!), there are no conductors or station agents, so you better figure it all out for yourself.

— Anything goes

Lots of tattoos and half-naked people. Lots of suited businessmen. It’s a busy place, pop. 3 million, but with a relaxed attitude, a nice change from Paris, where elegance really matters.

— Great architecture, whether classic/baroque or starkly modern

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— Rudeness hinging on what-the-fuck?! aggressiveness

I wanted to love Berlin, and I liked it very much, enough to want to return, but holy shit, people can be shockingly mean! I’ve lived and worked in/near New York City for decades, but have rarely seen behavior with this kind of nasty edge there.

Be warned!

It even has an official name, Berliner Schnauze. Here’s an explanation of it from a local blog:

In New York City, it’s often said that the locals are actually quite friendly. Provincials who arrive to New York are the ones who insecurely perform the stereotypical New York sass. Being in the City, in the anonymity of the metropolis, is an opportunity to insult your fellow citizens indiscriminately, when they get in your way or you don’t like how they look at you. After you’ve exhausted your creative vocabulary, you can really feel like you belong. The line between “acting like a local” and la violence gratuite can be awfully thin. I sometimes wonder how many of those Berliners who give you sass aren’t from here at all, just like Claire Waldoff.

This leaves us with a number of aperçus: Berliner sass is a problem of historic proportions, insult masqueraded as humour (ok, I might just admit it’s funny), a commercial invention packaged as a local speciality in the 20s, a stereotype sold by the provincials to the capital, yet somehow linked to the city’s local dialect. Berliner Schnauze is a sham, but it bites you in the ass all the time.

Overall, I’m really glad I came and gave Berlin so much time.

I’ve made new friends and left plenty of things still to explore for next time, preferably some September, when it’s cooler and less crowded, to see more of it with Jose.

If you’ve never been, I recommend it highly!

Meeting Twitter/blog pals IRL

By Caitlin Kelly

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I began blogging because my then-agent insisted I create a social media presence to help sell my second book. I never wanted to tweet, but thought I’d better get with the program. Ditto for Instagram.

But I now enjoy them all.

I use social media, more than anything, to connect professionally and personally with people I find smart, interesting and civil.

 

The photo above was taken at a favorite Toronto cafe where, in March 2017, I finally met another writer, someone super-creative I’d admired from a distance, and who knew some people in common.

I only “knew” her from her Facebook posts and blog, but we had a great time. I later hired and paid her to coach me on how to better use social media for work, which she teaches at my alma mater, the University of Toronto.

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A blog meeting in Paris, January 2015. We had a great time!

This trip — most of it solo through seven European cities and six countries — has also finally given me a chance to meet some people I’ve only known through social media.

Several years ago, I started reading Small Dog Syndrome, intrigued by the worldly young woman who wrote it. We began by reading one another’s blogs, worked together (virtually) for a year, and finally met face to face only in January 2015 when I stepped off the Eurostar from Paris.

We sat and talked for so long at the train station her worried husband called to see if we were OK. We were indeed!

They generously hosted me — having just met — for a week(!) in their teeny London flat, and this month I was able to return the favor by hosting them for several nights at the Paris apartment we rented this trip.

It’s been a huge pleasure to get to know them both.

Now in Berlin, I’ve met three more social media pals, all of whom I’ve gotten to know through their blogs, some private emails and weekly Twitterchats focused on travel, like #trlt, #culturetrav and #travelskills.

One is an Irish woman who also works in journalism; here’s her blog. 

I met Kate and her fiance, and we spent the day talking and walking through a flea market and through Tiergarten, one of Berlin’s huge and fantastic parks, filled with brown bunnies, lakes with rowboats, beer gardens and lots of benches.

It felt immediately comfortable, as if we weren’t meeting face to face for the first time.

The other two people I met,  through weekly travel Twitterchats, are a travel blogger and — of all things — an archaeologist who works primarily on a Neolithic site in Turkey; I knew he and I were sympatico when we started (!) tweeting Rocky Horror Picture Show lyrics at one another across the Atlantic.

We all went out for lunch and had a fantastic time. Finally meeting someone face to face is always a bit of a blind date, so it requires optimism and openness. But, really, it’s just lunch!

I’ve done this now in several cities, and enjoyed every meeting.

 

Have you met some of your blog or Twitter followers in person?

 

How did it turn out?

 

Notes from the road

By Caitlin Kelly

I’m 14 days into my six-week six-nation European journey, much of it solo.

A few notes, in transit:

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Crossing the Atlantic, England to Canada, age five or so…

The kindness of strangers

It’s an interesting experience, as a generally competent and independent adult, to be vulnerable, to need other people to pay attention to me when I need it — like when I got on the wrong train in Frankfurt and, re-directed by a kindly stranger, quickly de-trained.

When transport and restaurant and shop and hotel staff are helpful, even friendly, it matters so much more than when you’re at home, surrounded by the love of friends and family. I enjoy travel, and am happy to do it alone, but rudeness and indifference can sting without the emotional supports of the familiar.

Extra vigilance

I was enjoying a leisurely breakfast in a crowded corner cafe of Berlin’s Ku’damm, a major street, and a spot surely full of tourists like me — when I noticed a police motorbike speeding down the sidewalk opposite.

It was nothing serious, but it could have been.

This trip, I’m spending more time than ever before paying attention to my surroundings and how the people around me are behaving. Without my protective, savvy husband — (a former White House Press corps photographer who spent eight years watching the Secret Service protect the President and his family) — it’s all up to me.

Situational awareness matters now.

The humility of needing translation

I speak French, so Paris was easy. I don’t speak a word of German, (or Hungarian or Croatian or Italian.) Nor do I use apps or carry a pocket dictionary. It is humbling to rely on others’ knowledge, and their willingness to use it to help me.

I was at a gym here in Berlin trying to explain something, when a young man, clearly on his way to the office, stepped in: “Do you need help translating?”

I did. And was so grateful!

Sharing space

People may share tables here, and expect to do so. North Americans are more accustomed to lot of physical room, in public and in private.

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I love this crazy painting in my Berlin hotel, lobby, Hotel Savoy

 

Your memory isn’t my memory

Everyone has their favorite (or not!) memories of the places they’ve been and I’m constantly told to Do this! See that! by well-meaning friends.

But your memory of each place is shaped, as mine are, by many variables: who you were with, how old you were, your budget and tastes, the time of day and year, the weather, even the strength of your currency, in that moment.

We also may enjoy wholly different things!

I like to wander. I’m just not a box-ticking type of tourist, rushing to every must-see or trying every must-do.

One of my loveliest afternoons happened by walking a side street, slowly, and discovering one of Germany’s major auction houses, housed in a gorgeous architect-designed building from the late 1800s. I had a great chat with the woman at their front desk, a former Lufthansa flight attendant who got married — in all places — on Staten Island, New York.

That’s not an experience I could have planned, nor offered by any blog or guidebook.

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Sitting still is key

Travel is, for all its many pleasures, tiring. Your feet get sore and tired from walking. Your arms and shoulders get weary from dragging a backpack or suitcase. You get hungry and thirsty.

You need to think, to make notes, to just stare into the sky for a while.

You have chosen to stop working — and also just need to rest.

Most of my favorite memories are of sitting still for a while, even an hour at a time (!), watching the light shift and the people walking by, possibly sipping a pot of tea or a prosecco.

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There’s never enough champagne!

 

Taking photos is my greatest joy

I started my career as a photographer, so I love finding images to treasure and frame for our home. My husband gave me a gorgeous little Leica for my birthday and I’m making very good use of it!

Everything is visually interesting to me: light, shadows, foliage, the patterns on a bike or a dress.

I’m fascinated by how different my hotel’s street in Berlin — Fasanenstrasse — looks at all hours — the sky is light at 3:45 a.m. (!) and at 7:10 a.m. I suddenly noticed sharp sunlight briefly illuminating a fantastic stone carving in a doorway.

 

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Routine still matters

I found a gym in Berlin, took a spin class, lifted weights — and sweated happily. At home in New York, I’m at the gym two to three times every week and I miss it. I need to stay in shape.

Routine — although deadening when never broken — is also a little soothing when everything else around you is new.

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That little white bear in the very back? He’s along for the ride!

 

So does comfort

Yes, I travel with a very old, very small, very beloved stuffed bear.

And I’m fine with that.

Acquisition versus disposal

I rarely shop for anything at home beyond gas and groceries, and find much of what I really crave too expensive — and that which I can easily afford unappealing.

So I love to shop when I travel.

But I offload as I go; every post office sells stiff cardboard boxes and plastic packing.  I spent 38 euros ($42) this week in Berlin to mail three packages home, things I do want later but don’t need to want to drag around at the moment.

 

 

How to look French (si tu veux!)

By Caitlin Kelly

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Even some shoe soles are stylish! A brand called Freelance

 

The second you arrive in Paris — unless you’re already stylish, small and thin — you can feel like a Stegosaurus among orchids.

It’s a cliche but a true one — French men and women often dress, and design their interiors — with a terrific sense of style, and one I find endlessly interesting and inspiring.

 

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Color

French clothing colors are quite different from those offered in North America, especially in the U.S., where garish primaries and brilliant pinks and turquoises predominate, especially in summer.

A French red is a soft tomato-red, not a cold blue-red, their orange slightly dusty, their yellow a soft mustard. Green is a deep emerald or teal, or a soft, pale mint, maybe even a strong chartreuse. You’ll find many more neutrals — gray, cream, beige — than in the U.S. Also, lots of great browns and rust tones, like the rich russet red of cinnamon and a lovely pale peach, the color of ballet pointe shoes.

On the streets, (where in New York you see a lot of black), you’ll see instead a dozen shades of blue.

I love their combinations, in scarves, shoes, clothing and interior fabrics: mustard/gray; navy blue/soft pink; red/gray; olive/burgundy. Clothing is often displayed by color, making it easier to find what you want, or to match outfits.

Prints

Much less popular, in general. Men and women both wear prints, but usually on a scarf or a very small-scale design shirt or blouse.

Scarves

You might not be a scarf person — but men and women of all ages here wear fantastic scarves year-round, whether of wool, cotton, linen or silk. Most are long and narrow, like a muffler, and add a note of stylish confidence.  Incredible selection everywhere, and at all price points.

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Even grocery carts are chic!

Fit

Since so many American women are large — the average U.S. women’s size being a 14, (maybe a size 6 to 8 in Paris) — almost everything for sale in the States hits below the hip to disguise bulk.

Not in Paris! T’s, jackets and blouses are all cropped shorter. French armholes are also cut higher and closer to the armpit, with narrower sleeves, making for a much cleaner line, but also challenging-impossible for those with larger upper arms. Even a size Large to Extra Large can be a lot smaller than you need.

Tall men with broad shoulders may find French clothing less accommodating as well.

I have seen larger sizes for women, but at high price points — usually $200-400 for a stylish blouse or dress, found in a few indie boutiques.

Fit matters here. You won’t see baggy-assed trousers or pleated khakis on men or women, nor pants that need shortening. Attention to detail is a key element of how Frenchmen and women present themselves in public.

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Shoes

Available in every conceivable color and material — from black raffia to pale pink iridescent patent leather to metallic green kidskin with a parrot on top. A jazz shoe — soft-soled, laced — is a perennial favorite, in all colors and finishes, as are loafers. You won’t see many high heels, impractical on cobbled streets.

No matter how simple her outfit, a stylish French woman chooses an interesting shoe.

There are lots of great choices for men, with a flat-soled leather or or suede boot a popular option. The Marais, long a gay neighborhood, offers fantastic options for men, and BHV Homme is an entire department store just for men.

Bags

So many bags! While some tourists drop thousands on a Big Name Designer bag like Chanel or Hermes, there are many other stylish and less-expensive options, whether  a classic French maker like Lancel, Le Tanneur or Longchamps to something more fun and funky.

Hair

A great cut and lively color are de rigueur.

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Galeries Lafayette

Interiors

I lovelovelove shopping for our home here; on this trip I bought everything from napkins to bathmats to a throw for the bed, even a comforter.

I find the colors and textures so alluring, with bed linens — sometimes made of linen — offered in every color of the rainbow. If you love beautiful objects and home goods, set aside time to browse department stores BHV and (higher-end) Le Bon Marché.

Small, light packable items like salt and pepper grinders, aprons, napkins and small trays make gorgeous gifts and souvenirs.

Both of these stores have excellent cafés and if you spend more than 175 euros in one day, be sure to claim your détaxe — the 12% value-added-tax — at the store’s designated desk. You must take your passport.

For those with the budget and enough time, ($150/meter and up), you can also visit the showrooms of the Rue du Mail (as I did), a street lined with high-end interior fabric for sale, like Pierre Frey, and order some for your home. They need at least three or four days’ notice, (not including a weekend) and it allows you to bypass the annoying American gatekeeper system, where you can only buy such fabrics through a designer.

 

Some of my favorite Paris shops:

 

Irena Gregori

Every time I visit Paris, I stop in, and am still wearing and loving several garments I bought there many years ago — and I’m a size 12 to 14, so you don’t have to be tiny.  Great selection of shoes, scarves, dresses and blouses. In June, sales start and her lovely winter coats were half-off for about $200.

BHV

It’s huge! A terrific cafe sits on the top floor, offering splendid views of the surrounding area. You’ll find clothing, shoes, home goods, luggage, make-up and perfume. Check out their throw pillows and comforters; (you can always mail them home.) Their stationery and crafts section is amazing — with lots of very good art supplies.

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Le Bon Marché

Le Bon Marché

This high-end department store, founded in 1838 in a quiet, mostly residential neighborhood, offers a very beautiful physical space to shop in — spacious and full of natural light. Lovely tea room and an amazing food hall!

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Affordable and pretty lingerie, sleepwear and bathing suits.

Galeries Lafayette

Huge, bustling department store, in a circular design, beneath a spectacular stained glass roof.

Calligrane

On the Rue du Pont Louis-Philippe, one of three very good paper stores all beside one another. Paper for writing letters, framing, lampshades or wrapping; also notebooks and gorgeous cardboard folders.

Diwali

This chain of stores is a must if you like scarves as much as I do, in silk, cotton and wool. Their crinkled one-color scarves are well-priced at about $20, and adding one or several to your outfit, men and women, adds a pop of Parisian panache.