Mont Saint-Michel, France

For any Lord of the Rings Fans out there; Mont Saint Michel is probably the closest you’ll ever get to seeing a real-life Minas Tirith. This gargantuan fortress town capped by it’s chapel upon the rock is gorgeous, serene and quite other-worldly.

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Minas Tirith

Named Mont Saint Michel (pronounced Mon-San-Michelle) is named after the Angel Michael who legend has it convinced St. Aubert, the local bishop, to build the church as a place of pilgrimage through a series of visions. St. Aubert resisted, as it was a great undertaking at which point St. Michael burns a whole into Aubert’s forehead with his thumb, the final straw.

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The Angel Michael pressing his thumb into St. Aubert’s forehead

 

The town itself, which is protected by the largest tides in Europe, invites pilgrims (in all senses of the word) to come and explore its narrow streets filled with endless nooks and crannies, past the stores selling souvenirs, past the restaurants, towards the chapel.

 

The abbey is much larger than first expected! The initial chapel is modest in size but the tour route then takes you down through 3 further floors of halls, chapels, crypts, storage rooms, cloisters, and even a room with a huge wooden wheel used for hoisting goods up into the abbey on a cart pulled up the hillside on old tracks. Each room opts for simplicity (I assume to take away from distractions) and as our friends Ben & Judith pointed out, unexpectedly Celtic-like window designs!

 

Monks and  nuns inhabit the chapel from Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem (who are based in Paris) and hold several liturgical services a day which visitors are welcome to attend. The services are mostly in the abbey itself but in the crypt during winter. The crypt is not normally open to visitors so when we heard the eerie sounds of a flute coming from below we had to check it out! The nuns and monks are quite a sight to behold, dressed in full garb. The outfits, the candle lit crypt and eerie flute made for a rather magical moment.

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Following the eerie flute down into the crypt

Tips:

  • All in all, I’d allow 3-4 hours for your visit (including time for parking and catching the free shuttle to and from the island)
  • We’d reccomend using the optional audio guide (see below for cost details)
  • Bring a packed lunch because restaurant prices are crazy!
  • Don’t miss the ramparts! If you make your way up to the abbey though the main shopping street make sure to use the alternative route down the ramparts on the way down (just make sure to go straight immediately after you exit the abbey instead of turning right back down the way you came). This route along the ramparts has less people and magical views of both the surrounding beaches and of daily life on the island. But if you do miss it, this path ends at a set of steps just after the first archway in to the island (with a Mary statue above it) so just look out for that.
  • If you’re in the area with a car, be sure to make the extra 45minute journey to Saint Malo, which would be an ideal spot for a late lunch. Saint Malo is fully walled town that has a history famous for being a pirate hang-out. Today it houses the highest concentration of restaurants in Europe.

 

Costs include;

  • Around €12 for parking (free if you’re there under 2 hours, which we don’t think is really possible for visitors given the shuttle alone takes 15 minutes either way and a 5 min walk on each end just to reach the island, let alone reach and explore the abbey)
  • Abbey entrance costs €7 if you’re 25 or younger, €9 to for over 25s
  • Optional audio guides cost €4.5 for one audio guide or €6 for a couple. We didn’t opt for an audio guide but ended up wishing we had on this occasion as there were very few explanatory signs and no brochure about the different areas of the abbey

Paris (Parc Asterix)

Long before the magic of Harry Potter could be found at any theme park, there was the magic of the Druids found at Parc Asterix Paris! A whole theme park almost completely dedicated to the well-loved comic book series of Asterix and Obelix + their many adventures!IMG_7354

The park itself is well decked out with theme and ride galore mixing excitement, humor and a plethora of shows. The park features the two extremes of coasters, Featuring OzIris, one of the best B&M coasters I’ve ever had the privilege of riding

IMG_7157 IMG_7169 IMG_7189 & Goudurix a Vekoma ride that was voted in 2012 as the worlds worst roller coaster (its pretty rough – my wife & I temporarily lost partial eyesight on the ride).

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The park also hosts a number of fun bone drenching water rides, an impressive wooden ride Tonnerre de Zeus (Thunder of Zeus) which demonstrates some serious speed and length (although a little jerky at parts)

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and bobsled roller coaster that was very smooth and enjoyable.

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Roller Coasters aside, the real magic of this park lay in its uniquely themed rides and areas. The village of Asterix and Obelix was impressively fitted out & was accurate to the books, it’s a great place for a meet and greet with your favorite characters!

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The shows were also strikingly good, some of the best we’ve seen & very fun for the whole family showcasing some good old druid magic & a showdown between the Gauls and romans! We were also pleasantly surprised by Le Défi de César, a mad house ride that packs in a lot of surprises and clever theming.

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The park makes for a great day out for the whole family & will be a little lighter on your wallet than Disney! For a one of a kind park & for Asterix and Obelix fans you’ll find this park hard to beat!

Paris (Walt Disney Studios Paris)

Top 3 High and Lowlights of Walt Disney Studios

Having been away from a Disney park for 13 years my wife and I decided to ignore Robert’s (from theme park insider) advice (sorry Robert) a make a day out of visiting Walt Disney Studios Paris. We were glad we did, with a better E-Ticket line up than its sister park Disneyland Park Paris we had a great day!

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Below I have compiled my own list of Top 3 High and Lowlights when visiting Walt Disney Studios Paris (with fresh Disney Eyes).

Let’s start with the highlights!

  • CineMagique

This one came as a complete surprise to me and is unique to Walt Disney Studios Paris! This celebration of Cinema Magic brings movies to life, elegantly blending together movies and reality with just about as much humour and heartfelt that you can handle. Prepare for a wild ride, this 25 min show references a full 60 films with precision!

  • The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

An unbeatable classic! The ride is exceptional and the French cast members pull it off excellently making it all the more memorable! We ended up riding it 3 times back to back we loved it so much!

  • Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquee de Remi

I was really excited ride the new motion-based 3D trackless darkride, it didn’t disappoint, its very clever and enjoyable! The ride elegantly blends set and screen to the point where they are almost indistinguishable from each other, its high paced and fun for the whole family!

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Lowlights:

  • Eating Options

For travellers on a budget like my wife and I the options were very minimal. The park offers 3 budget restaurants but on the day we visited (in the peak of summer) one was closed for the day and a second closed early, leaving us with just 1 option. We weren’t to keen to revisit the 1 budget restaurant. We thought we might go check out Bistrot Chez Remy but again with budgets in mind we couldn’t afford one of the set menus on offer but did notice an à la carte dessert menu that we could afford and so made a booking. Unfortunately this was probably the most sour experience we had in all of the whole trip as we were rudely informed that we’d misunderstood their use of “à la carte” as you could only order these in addition to their set menus. Perhaps this is normal for Disney restaurants but it certainly wasn’t obvious to us, embarrassed we left the restaurant and instead decided to eat later at the Disney villiage (this was our only negative encounter with the Parisian Disney Staff)

  • Vanilla Themeing

I know its meant to be backlot/movie production themed but I just felt the general park theming was a little vanilla for Disney, the different lands being a little indistinguishable and little rashly assembled. Certainly not the immersive wonderland that many Disney fans have come to love.

  • Crush Coaster Wait Times

While the Crush Coaster (again unique to Walt Disney studios) is a pretty fun dark ride the wait times were pretty tough, seldom dropping below an hour the whole day with no fast pass available. It’s a ride aimed at kids with a line that exceeds any kids attention span (even patient adults will struggle). The only other option was single rider, which only shaved off 10mins off the group ride line.

While the park is smaller, we quite happily made a day of it and enjoyed ourselves immensely. After a 13hour marathon effort at Disneyland Park the day before we were quite happy to have a shorter second day. Its small, but packs a punch, don’t discount it!

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Paris (Top 3 High and Lowlights of Disneyland Paris)

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It’s probably obvious because I’m writing this but I am a big theme park fanboy! Living in isolated New Zealand however has meant that it has been far too long since I last visited a Disney Park (13 years!) So travelling through Europe with my wife this year we relished at the opportunity to visit Disneyland Paris (& Walt Disney Studios). Below I have compiled my top 3 Highlights & Lowlights of our recent drip to Disneyland Park Paris from the perspective of a theme park fanboy with fresh Disney eyes

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Let start with the Lowlights:

  • Wifi

Disneyland Paris is one of the biggest attractions in Europe, garnering over 14 million visitors annually, many of whom travel across international lines to visit like my wife & I. For us internationals on roaming, we depend on wifi so for the life of me, I can’t understand Disney’s strategy in promoting the use of their app to check wait times throughout the park without providing adequate coverage to do so.

  • Odd Eating Times

Being theme park fans my wife and I arrived early and avoided rush hour meal times. We assumed that the dining venues would be open for the duration of the park. We assumed wrong. Arriving hungry we were surprised to see most of the dining venues wouldn’t open for a good hour after the park opened. We found the same with dinner, with an 11pm close time we assumed the eating venues would stay open late, when we went to find food around 8pm however we were really surprised to find practically all but the pricey fine dining restaurants to be closed!

  • Indiana Jones: The Temple of Peril

I remember riding the LA Indiana Jones ride as a kid and LOVING it, so the opportunity to ride another Indiana Jones themed ride was pretty exciting. This was our longest wait of the day, 45mins so anticipation was high, unfortunately our anticipation was not met! We found the ride to be quite jerky, the tight loop really stained my neck and the shoulder restraints played ping pong with my wife’s head, unfortunately it’s not quite up to Disney’s usual high standard in my opinion.

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Now that we’ve got that out of the way, there is actually a LOT to celebrate, Disney has produced a really high quality park, full of life, magic and quality rides. I found it really hard to narrow it down but here is my top 3 for the day!

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Highlights:

  • Disney Dreams

Having just spent 2 nights earlier being blown away by watching the Bastille day fireworks off the Eiffel tower I was actually worried that the Disney Dreams fireworks and light show much be a bit of a let down. I couldn’t be more wrong! For the second time in two days I found myself saying “this is the best fireworks display I’ve ever seen!” I give it a 12 out of 10, the way they have managed to link together heartfelt movie scenes, lights, songs, lasers, fire and fireworks together is mind-blowing. I came away glowing, it’s a must see!

  • Big Thunder Mountain

While the queue could use a little work (some fans & some in-line entertainment – the lines get really big) the ride itself in my opinion is perfect! So quick, so smooth, great turns and some great dark ride moments as you ride your way under the lake.

  • Staff

Reading the discussion boards of theme park insider before arriving, I was very aware that the French staff has a reputation for at times being a little complacent and unhelpful. Which made me really pleasantly surprised to find that the staff we’re in fact very helpful. Given not 100% of the staff could understanding my English Speaking Kiwi accent but all made an effort and we came away very pleased, collectively the staff add real magic to the park!

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Also notable mentions to Phantom Manor, Pirates of the Caribbean & Alice’s Labyrinth which in our opinion were all exceptional attractions!

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*Note that Space Mountain 2 and Les Mysteres du Nautilus were down for maintenance on the day we arrived so these two attractions have been left out of consideration.

Paris (The Museum Pass Paris)

If you’re planning on going to more than 1 museum in a day at Paris, the Museum Pass is an easy decision. With 34 separate included museums & attractions in central Paris (including The Louvre, Notre Dame Tours, Arc de Triomphe, Sainte-Chapelle, Musée de l’Orangerie, The Rodin Museum, Musee d’Orsay) the inclusions are impressive! There are still a further 20 museums/attractions/palaces that are included in the wider Paris region (54 in total). The passes in many places allow you skip the line or at least join the faster moving pre-bought tickets line which will save you time.

Coming in either a 2-day (42 Euro), 4-day (56 Euro) or 6 day (69 Euro) format, we opted for the 2 day option having already knocked off a few of the attractions included in our last visit. In that time we managed to pack in The Louvre, Musee de’orangerie (for Monet’s famous water lilies), the Rodin Museum, Napoleon’s tomb & the Palace of Versailles. At the end of which we’d had our fill for museum for 2 days and went off to make the most of the Paris sale season.

The Louvre

Huge, but we knocked off a surprising amount in the 4 hours we had there. It pays to know what you want to see (as its simply impossible to see everything) and aim to tick those off. Good idea to get there early to see the Mona Lisa first before the crowds get too big, then power through the biggies such as the Michelangelo, the coronation of Napoleon, the winged statue of Nike, Venis de Milo, the Egyptian section & if you have any extra energy at this point, Napoleon’s apartment.

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Dave trying to find cell phone reception

Dave trying to find cell phone reception

Not sure what to make of this statue

Not sure what to make of this statue

Musée de l’Orangerie

This was a lot quicker than expected (one of the good things about the pass – we would have felt disappointed paying full price for this one – but with the pass you can pick and choose the best of each), we really enjoyed Monet’s Waterlillies but quickly realized that we weren’t that blown away by the rest of the collection, we were joking about the quality of many of them until we realized that they we Picasso pieces, turns out that Picasso is not our thing.

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The Rodin Museum

Go see the famous ‘Thinker’ sculpture and many others in this idyllic garden setting, we were both really impressed with Rodin’s work, raw beauty, not flashy but a master of conveying emotion!

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Napoleon’s Tomb

Laid to rest in the chapel behind Invalids, this massive tomb was apparently built in such a way that you’re either forced to look up to him or bow down to him, this man had a touch of megalomaniac to him. Hitler famously built himself an alter on a visit to the tomb that instead allowed him to look at the tomb at eye level. Its right next to the Rodin museum so if you’ve got time and a museum pass, worth a look ( & decide for yourself if the legend is true)

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The Palace or Versailles

One place where the museum pass wont help you get in any quicker, ever since the French revolution, no man is greater than another, you wait in line like everyone else! The lines here are huge! The line literally zig-zagged itself across the palace courts taking about and hour and 45mins to get through! Much like the line, the palace and ground are gigantic so wear your walking shoes and prepare yourself for about as much gold and ostentatious royal living and behavior as you can handle. We enjoyed our visit but after half a day there, we were a little over it all!

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Paris (Opera Garnier)

As a big Phantom of the Opera fan we just had to visit the setting of the original 1910 book & subsequent Andrew Lloyd Webber recreations, Opera Garnier! While not discovering any secret passageways or one-way mirrors ourselves, we were not disappointed!

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Opera Garnier stands alone as one of the luxuriously opulent buildings we’ve ever seen. Complete with its lush red velvet opera house, quality statues and busts, facades and golden clad grand halls for which one would mingle with the rich and powerful of society.

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Walking up its main staircase, it’s hard to shake the musical’s “Masquerade” song and scene from your head, its awesome.

Take your time as you move through self guided, there is so much detail to discover given time, from small details in the golden frescoes, peaceful balconies overlooking busy Parisian streets & glimpses into opulent late 1800s life. We also particular enjoyed looking at the mini displays that highlighted some of the stages most impressive setting fit outs & the various costumes once used on stage on display.

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While you’re still in the ostentatious mood and finished with the Opera, the famous The Galeries Lafayette flagship department store is just a stones throw away. Worth a quick visit but just note that its huge & expensive, you could spend all day looking around there. I however just recommend just taking your classic photo of the dome, freshening up with a couple of sprays from the most expensive perfume/cologne tester you can find & then getting on your merry way to enjoy all that Paris has to offer!

Paris (Catacombs)

IMG_7139 While we’re on the topic of death (see our previous post Pere Lachaise), a visit to Paris is not complete without a visit to what is widely regarded as the worlds biggest grave, the catacombs. This underground network of tunnels put Disney’s Haunted Mansion, with its 999 ghosts, to shame holding the remains of around 6 million people. Its not every day that you get to walk past the remains of more people than the entire population of your home country (New Zealand has 4.6 Million people). The dark tunnel system complete with many twists & turns, its dripping ceilings & floodlight lit bones all add to the scene, making it the perfect eerie place to give your friends a small fright from around many of its corners. IMG_7141 Honestly speaking thought, I was surprised and how fast I became blasé about walking past such the vast quantity of human remains. The issue is that while the quantity was huge I’d anticipated that they’d separated the bones into separate rooms of skulls, pelvises, rib bones etc. Instead you mainly see the same set up in each room: a wall of presumably femurs, dotted with the odd skull & the rest of the bones piled behind this wall. There is the occasional artistic contribution, I personally enjoyed the classic pirate skull and cross bones set up we’d found in one of the corridors as we went along.

So while this has the biggest collection you’ll find, if you truly want to be creeped out, and don’t mind a shorter visit, I’d recommend checking out Rome’s Capuchin Crypt. By doing so you’ll also miss out on the gigantic queue that also forms daily at the Catacombs, usually completely around the block, a good 3 hours worth of waiting (so if you’re going to go, make sure you’re there at least 45mins before opening time). It’s also worth researching where it exits as it’s reasonably far away from the entrance.

Finally, talking about the exit, we found quite a humorous gift shop directly opposite the end of the Catacombs. Its definitely worth a few moments to check out!