El Día de los Muertos

UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

A celebration of loved ones now gone

Mexican day of the dead altar (Dia de Muertos)Halloween, Samhain, All Saints’ Eve, whatever name you’d prefer to use, the 31st of October and the days that follow are celebrated across many cultures as a time to honor the spirits of the dead in one way or another. In Mexico, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) extends over three days from October 31st through November 2nd in memory of relatives that have passed away.

While in the United States skeletons are sometimes seen on Halloween, in Mexico skulls and skeletons are inexorably entwined with this holiday. People paint their faces with elaborate and colorful skull designs, often of archetypal characters found in the country’s popular mythology. The calavera (skull) designs aren’t meant to spook or scare as in Celtic origin traditions; instead they hold a uniquely positive symbolism meant to evoke the memories of dear ones gone, and empower the wearer in vanquishing their fear of death.  The images extend throughout all the décor, including the Day of the Dead altars, special foods to place at the graves of family, and even on the sweet sugar breads (pan dulce) traditional at this time of year.

52225bbc-4547-47f4-b3e1-fb622da70eb5While the feast is now celebrated during the Catholic holy days of All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’, and All Souls, its origins go back much further.  Many of the tenants of the celebration can even be traced back to pre-Colombian times, when the festivities once encompassed the month of August. One of the most popular skeleton icons of this holiday, La Catrina, is taken from the Aztec goddess “Lady of the Dead.”  La Catrina and the other calaca (skeleton figurines) are elaborate creations. They are used to decorate homes during Día de los Muertos and depict deceased family members in a unique, artistic and fun way.

It’s interesting to see the similarities between disparate cultures that can be found in one single holiday. Perhaps it’s a sign of a common denominator in the human condition that developed over centuries through globalization into the celebrations we know today.

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Spanish Comfort Food

When thinking of Spanish cuisine, people naturally jump to paella. While it’s true that paella is delicious and widely popular in Spain, it’s often considered summer fare. So what do the Spanish eat for great hearty comfort food? Cocido

IMG_1174[1]The tradition of Cocido has its roots in a Sephardic Jewish dish called Adafina, which was also eaten by the Moors, while they occupied Spain. Adafina would be set to cook on the eve of the Sabbath to be eaten on the following day. Like many of the Spanish versions, its star ingredient was the chickpea, which was cooked for many hours with pieces of lamb.

Cocido literally means cooked or boiled, but the name doesn’t do the dish justice.  Its most basic elements are a variety of meats and some sort of legume, most commonly chickpeas, slow cooked over many hours. From region to region and house to IMG_1173[1]house the recipe can be quite different. In Madrid, Cocido Madrileño is a chickpea stew cooked with numerous different pork products like chorizo, trotters or blood sausage. It stews for ages and is finally served in three courses: first the broth with noodles added, then the chickpeas, and finally the meat. In the region of Cantabria, Cocido Montañés is a one dish white bean stew. In the province of Burgos they make Cocido Castellano, adding more lamb, which is a delicacy in the region, harkening back to the dish’s far flung origins.
No matter what form it takes, it is a hearty, soulful dish perfect for cold and rainy fall or winter days. Which brings me to today: October 12th, Spanish National Holiday. It’s a long weekend, but  it’s 50F and rainy. So, instead of resisting the gloom and trying to spend Sunday out and about, we made Cocido!
IMG_1167[1]This is a dish where you use what you happen to have around or find that day at the butcher. It’s common to use ham bones left over from a spectacular Serrano Ham, or commonly wasted pieces like trotters and ears. We happened to have a fresh pig’s ear lying around (hey, we live in Spain, and maybe I read the forecast earlier in the week and asked the butcher to throw one in with our order just in case), some adobo rib tips, and a serrano ham bone. I recently got a new crock pot so we did it in there, but simmering it in a pot would work just as well.

Spanish Cocido
(serves 6-7 – and freezes well)

The meat:

fresh pig’s ear
1 lb adobo rib tips
a serrano ham bone (or ham hock for instance)

*In lieu of these you really could use anything you wanted like: chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage), chicken, lamb, beef or any mix thereof.

1 large onion
3 cloves of garlic
2 small carrots
a little salt and pepper
a drizzle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 pounds chick peas

Soak chickpeas overnight. Put everything in the pot (crock pot in our case) and simmer until the meat is falling apart and the chickpeas are soft. Serve. Yep; it’s that easy.IMG_1176[1]

We did it in the slow cooker, so it was simmering about 14 hours (overnight for Sunday lunch) on low. The meat was ready before the beans, so I took it out and let it cool to de-bone and shred to reincorporate for easy eating. We are a no fuss no muss family, so, even though this most resembled Cocido Madrileño, traditionally eaten in three courses, we ate it as a one plate stew. If you wanted to do the three courses, you would pull out the broth and cook some thin short noodles in it, then serve the chick peas, and finally the meat. If there is any leftover meat they often make croquetas, but that’s a blog for another day!


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Dreams of Chocolate and Beer

Over the years I’ve made it to Belgium a time or two, but I never seem to get past its phenomenal capital full to the brim with gastronomic wonders.

1931056_508273738810_5627_nYou’d have to live under a rock not to have heard of Belgian chocolate, and for good reason.  The country’s history in the chocolatier business goes back centuries. The chocolate bar and the praline were both invented here. You need go no further than the city’s famous main square, the Grand Place, to find the home one of the biggest names in chocolate: Neuhaus.  As you choose from an infinite number of gorgeous and delicate bonbons, below your feet you can see through the glass floor to the workshop where they were made.
Brussels has the convenience that it is much quainter and so accessible as compared to other European capitals. Just behind its beautiful Grand Place with its extravagant guildhalls, you can find one of the world’s best beer halls hidden away in an alley. Delirium Cafe is the bar with the largest selection of beer in the world with a veritable bible of selections.  They guarantee to have 2,004 selections on hand at any given time. While their house brewed Delirium Tremens is great
in its own right, I’ve even tried an exotic Tahitian banana beer served in a coconut shell. Just a manneken pis chocolatesbrief glance at their menu will make you understand the reverence the Belgians have for beer and why they are so famous for their domestic selections from Affligem to Lindemans to Stella Artois (just to name a few of their over 1150 unique domestic offerings).

Whether it’s their chocolate, beer, or any number of their other world famous gastronomic contributions like mussels, frites, or waffles. The Belgians know how to have a good time, so the next time you’re looking for a great vacation spot think of Brussels. You’re bound to have a blast. Just don’t visit while you’re on a diet!



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Wind Your Way Into the Heart of Catalonia

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABarcelona is just one of those cities. It’s a must-have on every serious traveler’s bucket list. Given its architectural charm, and that it’s perched on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, it isn’t any wonder. When you’re walking down Las Ramblas, the pedestrian walkway that is the central artery of the city, it’s impossible not to be drawn into the life of the city. Barcelona has a distinctly European vibe  compared to other Spanish cities.  The people are perhaps less laid back  than in some other parts of the country, but nonetheless the city has so much to offer the keen traveler that few are left to want.

IMG_1055It’s impossible to walk far in Barcelona without stumbling upon one or another of Gaudi’s architectural treasures. The city exudes the whimsical style of this artistic architect, and a visit to the city isn’t complete without a tour of Casa Batló, a stroll through Park Güell, and a climb up the unfinished towers of La Sagrada Familia.

Another great idea is allowing yourself to get lost along the winding streets of the Barri Gòtic. The narrow medieval streets along with the cathedral and synagogue are nearly all that’s left to testify to Barcelona’s long history as an important Mediterranean city. Though the city is referenced as far back as Phoenician times, it is mostly a modern marvel given its face lift for the 1992 Olympic Games.

The beach in Barcelona is not much compared to those in the southern Spain, but the Barceloneta is a great area to cool off with a quick dip in the Mediterranean and grab a bite in one of the many bars or cafés.  

Barcelona port view from the air.Barcelona is considered a great mecca for haute cuisine,  well known for its innovative and unusual culinary inventions. The current “Best Restaurant in the World,” Celler de Can Roca isn’t more than a stone’s throw from Barcelona, in the nearby town of Girona, and the all too famous El Bulli is only just past that in Roses.  In fact, Barcelona itself has earned a total of 32 Michelin stars, including the three-starred Sant Pau.  For simpler fare, don’t pass up the pan tumaca to start your day.

Whether it’s the architecture, the history, the food, or the general feel of the city, Barcelona is sure to impress. Make sure to include it on your next European itinerary!

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Delving into Spain’s Wine Culture

The Descent to the Bodega2013-04-19 21.04.07

There exists a curious tradition in the wine growing regions of Spain: the bodega. This term may seem familiar to some; many translate it as “wine cellar”, but a bodega is, in fact, much more than this. Over my last few years living in Spain I’ve had the good fortune to have been invited down to a number of these in the Ribera del Duero and Toro wine regions, and I’d recommend that anyone presented with the chance to experience one not pass it up.

2012-12-09 21.24.38A bodega is often the wine cellar connected to a vineyard, but in most cases its purpose goes far beyond that of a simple place to store wine. I was first introduced to this tradition in the village of Sinovas near Aranda del Duero, right in the heart of the Ribera del Duero region. In Spain many families grow and produce their own house wines. I had been invited to the village festival by a friend, and after touring their grape fields we trekked up the hill to the merendero and bodega. In this case, the merendero was what seemed to be a storage shed, but as I went inside I realized it was, as its name suggests, the perfect place to have an afternoon snack. Complete with a basic kitchen, a large table, and a wood fired grill (usually fueled by sarmiento - the dried out grape vines), it was a place for friends and family to gather, celebrate, and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

We then made our way down a long stairwell in a corner, and after a while found ourselves in the bodega itself. The walls were lined with bottles upon bottles of wine and orujo (a grappa-like liquor made from a product of the wine making process).

Bodega Pic One

In the center of the room was a table with chairs so that you could partake without making the long climb back up to the merendero. We grabbed a number of bottles and headed back up so we could roast some lamb and sausages while we tasted the house varietals.

In the province of Zamora, where the Toro wine region is located, the tradition is taken to a whole other level.  I was recently invited to the village of Boveda de Toro where we visited a number of these ingenious constructions. In this case the families often make their own wine, but may co-farm in order to obtain the grapes. For convenience, their bodgeas are located on the edge of town and look like a strange grouping of outhouses and electrical sheds. When you open the door, each one leads immediately down a stairwell of varying degrees of incline and regularity.Bodega Pic 2 Bacchus stainglass

As you make the decent down to the bodega you notice the temperature drastically change. The function of these places is to keep the wine at a stable temperature throughout the year. After descending several stories down into the ground you are greeted with a charming bar of sorts. Often belonging to families or groups of friends, these bodegas store innumerable barrels and bottles of wine, but they also serve as a gathering place. The rooms are quite large and complete with kitchens and grills that vent back up to the surface. They are fully stocked with all the accouterments for a great party, which is exactly what we had!2012-12-09 21.37.12

If you don’t happen to know someone with a vineyard in Spain, don’t dismay. A similar experience can be had in the village of El Perdigón, near Zamora in the community of Castilla y Leon. Here you can find a number of restaurants which use the bodegas to provide a truly unique dining experience.

¡Salud! -  Cheers!

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What to Do With Four Days in London

by TravellingGourmet,

a Conexus travel correspondent

The View of St. Paul's and the Thames from the Tate Modern

The View of St. Paul’s and the Thames from the Tate Modern

A few months back a friend of mine called up to tell me we were going to London. Seeing as I’ve been an expat living in Europe for several years now, I’ve had many an opportunity to visit the British capital. I’ve always had the best of times, but, when she first told me, I was a bit disappointed. I’m an avid traveler, so returning to destinations can sometimes feel like a wasted opportunity to visit somewhere new and mysterious, full of exotic and novel experiences. But after such an incredible weekend, I can hardly think how I could have NOT wanted to go back to London.

This was my friend’s first trip there, so we had to hit all of the big sites, but also made time for new culinary experiences for me to revel in.

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Day 1:

The "street" our guesthouse was on, in the heart of Covent Garden. It was Featured in Harry Potter

The “street” our guesthouse was on, in the heart of Covent Garden. It was Featured in Harry Potter

We got in mid-afternoon on a Saturday and made our way from Heathrow, via Tube to our guesthouse in Covent Garden. Since I was already familiar with the city, this made a ton of sense. Guest houses are the perfect option for people who don’t need to be reliant on a concierge or front desk staff. The room was great, and I’ve never stayed more centrally.

Our first stop was the Lamb and Flag, only a few paces from our lodging and right near the Leicester tube stop. The Lamb and Flag is one of the greatest examples of a traditional pub I’ve ever encountered.

Located on an alleyway in the heart of Covent Garden If you try and find it by going down Rose Street, you’ll ask yourself if it’s even a street you’re going down, less than six feet high and barely wide enough for one. Once you get inside you’re met with hard woods, bar stools, and beer taps, which take you back to every image of a pub you can summon up.

Trafalgar Square and Nelson's Column

Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column

We made our way upstairs, out of the dreary London rain that had greeted us upon arrival, to the dining room, where we met a friend of mine stationed outside the city, and sat down for some killer pints of London Pride and some steak and mushroom pie with veg and mash that couldn’t have suited the moment any better.

After that we made our way through the stereotypical London drizzle to Trafalgar Square to admire the sights as best we could, given the weather. And eventually took shelter in yet another classic pub for a glass of Lagavulin.

Worn out from a long day of travel, we went for a great cookie dough lava cake with a couple nice glasses of Sangiovese at Bella Italia, before calling it a night.

Day 2:

Horse Guard's Parade

Horse Guard’s Parade

I’m not usually a big fan of waking up early in the morning, but when on vacation I always make a point of taking full advantage of my time. Luckily, we woke up to significantly improved weather, which made it much easier to roll out of bed and down to the neighborhood Starbucks. After getting our morning caffeine requirements under hand, we made our way back to Trafalgar Square for sunny pictures of Nelson’s Column and the National Gallery, and caught our first glimpse of Big Ben in the distance. It had been too dark and stormy the day before to make it out.

Our first glimpse of Big Ben

Our first glimpse of Big Ben

The moment you see that one most iconic of monuments in a city is when you really feel like you’re there and the trip really comes into focus. And, when it’s London, for me, it really makes me feel small and large all at the same time. You feel your place in the world in all its grandeur, and at the same time you feel a participant in it, a real citizen of the world.

After the photo op we decided to walk towards Buckingham Palace and in doing so stumbled across the Horse Guards’ Parade. We stopped for a bit to see the show and then continued on our stroll through the wonderful Royal Parks.

I’ve never known any similarly bustling city to have such incredible parks; it really is incredible. You could walk for hours and hours through them, passing people doing sport, or walking their dogs, or just reading on the grass a while. We went along the Mall by Saint James Park, passed by the Victoria Memorial and Buckingham Palace, through Green Park and under the Wellington Arch, and along Park Lane into Hyde Park.

Wellington's Arch

Wellington’s Arch

There are few places better to be on a sunny Sunday morning than meandering through Hyde Park, so full of people enjoying themselves, yet tranquil and relaxing with its never-ending green lawns. We only had time to walk up the western length of it, but with more time one could spend hours enjoying its diverse flora and fauna. We went up to Speakers’ Corner. Unfortunately, you have to be there on a Saturday to catch all the crazies on their soap boxes, so we decided to stop for a much deserved midmorning break.

Part of my travel philosophy is grazing: making frequent stops to take in the liquid and edible culture of a place, and if there’s a little people watching to be had, then for me that’s the best travel experience I could dream of. So we decided to get off the main drag and discovered the Grazing Goat. Since even its name fits my philosophy, we couldn’t have found a better place. We had a Mimosa and a Bloody Mary, but the food looked great too!

The Wellington at Waterloo

The Wellington at Waterloo

Recharged and ready to push on, we went ahead to Oxford Street, and after a little shopping at Top Shop, we decided it was time to head south of the Thames.

Hopping on the Tube at Oxford Circus, we opted for the Day Travelcard, which ended up being a huge savings and great convenience.

Emerging on the Southbank, we went for lunch at The Wellington at Waterloo which is a great historic pub and hotel with an incredible painting of the battle of Waterloo on the ceiling.  

The next thing to do was hit a museum! So we ambled over to the Tate Modern and spent a while looking at the collection and taking incredible photos of Saint Paul’s Cathedral across the Thames.

Tea Time at the Four Seasons Canary Wharf

Tea Time at the Four Seasons Canary Wharf

On our agenda for Sunday afternoon was one of the big highlights: afternoon tea! Our tea reservations were at the beautiful Four Seasons Canary Warf . We went for the Taittinger Brut Prestige Rose Champagne to accompany our tea. The unending chain of beautiful scones, tea sandwiches, Earl Grey, and decadent deserts was supremely apropos for the beautiful setting and superb service. It was the definition of excess, and absolutely the right choice for our Sunday afternoon pit stop.  

Having finished tea, we caught the Thames Clipper to the Tower of London.  After that we pulled out our friendly bus map to find a route that would take us up to Parliament to catch Big Ben and Westminster Abbey at sunset.

Jamie Oliver's Union Jacks

Jamie Oliver’s Union Jacks

After a long day of sightseeing, it was time to start looking for dinner! We hadn’t made reservations anywhere but had a few places we’d looked up, finally settling on Jamie Oliver’s   Union Jacks, just a short ways from where we were staying. And what a great decision! From the long drinks, done with homemade sodas, to the oxtail pizza and the earl grey ice cream, everything was spot on; he perfect way to end a long day taking in London!

Day 3:

Our big English breakfast was scheduled for early, and luckily bright, Monday morning at the Hawksmoor at Guildhall. And of all the breakfast places I’ve tried out in London over the years, this was the king by far. The exuberantly friendly service and great food made it just the place we were looking for. My friend ordered Eggs Benedict  and I went a little more native, ordering kippers with poached eggs and a side of beef marrow bones, for dessert we shared a stack of scotch pancakes.  Everything was just stellar!

Beef Marrow Bones

Beef Marrow Bones

After we managed to roll ourselves out of the breakfast joint, we made our way to the Museum of London, which does a great job of putting London in a historical context and conveying that to the modern museum goer. Getting our historical fix for the day, it was time for a little liquid grazing. So we meandered through Smithfield Market and stopped off at the Sir John Oldcastle for a pint of John Smith’s

Once quenched, we pushed on to King’s Cross Station for the photo op at platform 9 and  ¾ , which was more or less on our way to Portobello Road. We spent a short time soaking in Notting Hill and looking at antiques before hopping a bus to Knightsbridge.

604134_593600857580_1951078030_nAs big as breakfast was, it was getting time to make another grazing stop, so we decided on Wagamama. I’ve often said I couldn’t imagine a trip to London without going to this go-to Asian fusion restaurant. After some Gyoza, Pad Thai, and Sake, it was time to move on to Harrods. There are few shopping experiences as impressive as Harrods. The second you catch sight of it you feel the luxury its simple name exudes. As the foodie I am, the food halls are a must see for me every time I’m in town, so we started out there, where we stocked up on tea, gourmet chocolate, and a quick pause at the cheese counter for me to grab some Stilton and red Leicester  cheeses to take back to Spain with me as a peace offering for not having taken my husband along with me on the trip. We went from there to the Egyptian Escalators, and up to look, and only dream of buying, in the shoe department, then on to lingerie, as I had under packed some essential items (woopse!). At this point the opulence was beginning to make me feel insecure of my socio-economic standing, so it was time to go.

Les Mis at the Queen's Theater

Les Mis at the Queen’s Theater

In anycase we had reservations at the Queen’s Theater to see Les Miserable, and needed to pick the tickets up. Theater is a big deal in London, as is evidenced by the plethora of half-price ticket shops and scalpers, but we bought ours online so we grabbed them from the box office and stopped off for a little more grazing before the show. Just up the street from the theater we found the St. James Tavern, where we ordered a wheel of fried Camembert, and a couple pints of cask ale, as well as some Bulmers cider.

After a tremendous performance (I’m always a Les Mis fan, even before the movie!), the next thing to do was explore China Town.  We were pretty tired at this point so we went to the nearest Time Out recommended option, which was the New Mayflower. It was alright, I would probably try somewhere else next time. We ordered an appetizer plate (spring rolls, fried chicken satays, bbq short ribs, shrimp toast – which is the one thing that pleasantly surprised me, and fried seeweed) to share, and some TsingTao. It fulfilled our need to check off China Town, but little more. At the end of another jam packed day nothing is better than having the hotel just around the corner, which luckily we did!

Day 4:

Covent Garden

Covent Garden

My last morning in London, we went to see Covent Garden before grabbing breakfast at Paul. Getting to the British Museum just after opening, we made a beeline to the Rosetta stone. Then we made our way through their ancient collections, with true gems from everyone from the Egyptians, to the Assyrians, Myceneans, and winding up in the Greeks surrounded by the Parthenon frieze.

Fist Bumping a random arm from an Ancient Egyptian statue at the British Museum

Fist Bumping a random arm from an Ancient Egyptian statue at the British Museum

As history majors these collections are particularly fulfilling, but I think any time you’re confronted with the arm of an ancient Egyptian statue three times your size and thousands upon thousands of years old, it’s humbling and awe inspiring. Then we went on a little spree in the Museum Shop, because who doesn’t need a Rosetta stone iPhone case. We decided to retrace our steps and spend a little more time in Covent Garden and get some shopping done (I really had to have that Dr. Who themed transit pass cover!)  before lunch.

The British Museum

The British Museum

One can’t leave London without experiencing its Indian food. So we had made reservations at one that came highly recommended: Dishoom. It turns out I had actually researched this place for my last trip, but never got around to trying it out, and what a shame, because it’s incredible.  We had the Blow Horn Spiced up cider and shared a number of small plates including some wonderful veggie samosas we ordered twice, and their signature Dishoom chicken tikka, which is an interesting take on the English national dish. We finished with a nice rose and cardamom lassie for “dessert.” Finally, it was time to head back to the Airport.

I took advantage while waiting for my flight of doing a Johnnie Walker whiskey tasting, and took home a bottle of their Explorers’ Club the Spice Road, and grabbed some wasabi popcorn and sushi from Pret a Manger for the long trip home.

Big Ben and a Telephone Box, could you get any more iconic?

Big Ben and a Telephone Box, could you get any more iconic?

And that was all she sung. Four days full to the brim with sight-seeing and gourmet adventures. I think I fall in love with London more every time I go. Everyone jokes about how bad English food is, but I’ll tell you what: I’ve always eaten well when I’ve gone. Of course I’m a relentless researcher when it comes to travel, always looking up recommendations and reviews, and I suppose that makes a difference. But maybe my wonderful discoveries in this capital of European capitals can serve to help guide you on your own gastronomic adventures.

Be sure to check out our pictures from the great weekend we had in London!

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Le Mont Saint-Michel:

La merveille


In the land of France, the lower Normandy region, one can admire what some have named the Eighth Wonder of the World, Le Mont Saint Michel.

The famous abbey and its surrounding town, famous for its savory crepes, are situated in the middle of the sea on a rocky base, making it a uniquely beautiful place. In centuries past, before the man-made road was built from the coast, the only way to get to Mont Saint Michel was during low tide, or to go by boat. Spectacularly eerie, visitors can hear the sea coming in during high tide long before they can see it. It is said that the tide comes in at the speed of a galloping horse and that on occasion it has surprised a disoriented fisherman.

ImageTo arrive at the foot of the sea locked mountain is to travel to the true Medieval Age that many of us have seen in movies or literature. The grand fortress welcomes us with its thick walls, typical of its defensive character. Through a gateway of wood, we cross the threshold of a great wrought iron door, and it is here where everything changes. In just a few moments, we have turned back the clock hundreds of years and the eagerly awaiting ascent to where we will find the great abbey of Saint Michael.

The skirt of the mountain maintains its typical medieval morphology: narrow winding streets and homes with strong walls of stone. The houses are now souvenir shops,  small museums of medieval themed memorabilia, and small restaurants featuring area specialties. The small streets give access to nooks and crannies where one can get lost in time, and where the views are unrivaled. As we go further up, the streets widen, giving way to open areas to contemplate the immense Atlantic Ocean and the expansive Normandy coast.
French CafeWalking and watching attentively, we arrive at the long awaited summit: the abbey. A construction of wood and stone, the abbey contains evidence of monastic life though it also served as a jail for the religious during the French Revolution.

Whosoever visits Mont Saint Michel will be touched by its enchanted medieval feel, adapted to modern times by the less than fifty inhabitants of the town, who maintain a modern life surrounded by its history and unique location.

The natural architecture of Mont St. Michel makes it one of the most unique places in the world. Admired by the Gauls and later the Romans, today it is one of the landmarks of particular pride for the French people.

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