France

10 Best European Castles You Can Visit

Posted October 4, 2013 by SmarterTravel.com

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Sometimes romantic, sometimes sinister, Europe's best castles evoke a palpable sense of both melancholy and wonder. Their ancient stones brim with mystery and history—but not the stodgy old history of musty textbooks. Castles are the past brought to life, a visceral reminder that quests and battles and chivalry weren't always the exclusive province of fantasy novels. Go medieval on your next trip with a visit to one of these castles where ancient history is alive and well.


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Carreg Cenne Castle, Wales

Never trust any list of Europe's best castles that doesn't include at least one entry from Wales. Owing to its tumultuous history of war and rebellion, the Welsh countryside is home to more castles per square mile than anywhere else in the world. Our favorite is Carreg Cennen, the only ruined stronghold to make this list. Actually, we like that Carreg Cennen has been in a ruinous state since 1462. Perched on a lonely limestone hilltop in Brecon Beacons National Park and often shrouded in mist, Carreg Cennen is easily the most evocative castle in the land. And while it may not be quite as popular as the larger Caerphilly Castle, Carreg Cennen will always be first in our hearts. It's open daily between April and October.


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Hohenwerfen Castle, Austria

Brooding high above Austria's Salzachtal Valley amid the dramatic peaks of the Berchtesgaden Alps, this stronghold has served alternately as a home to kings, archbishops, and prisoners (it was a state prison for a period of time) for more than 900 years. Today, Hohenwerfen Castle is a popular tourist draw and the site of Austria's foremost falconry center, where the royal hunting art is on full display with daily demonstrations.


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Predjama Castle, Slovenia

Predjama Castle is an easy sell to castle lovers. Most famous for being built into the side of a 400-foot cliff, it may also call to mind visions of Tolkien's Helm's Deep. But this real-world stronghold has the requisite dungeons, secret tunnels, and bloody history to make it a must-see on its own merits. Visit Predjama Castle during the annual medieval tournament, held each July, for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.


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Guedelon Castle, France

Who says the age of castles is over? Take a trip back in time at Guedelon Castle in Burgundy, France, where a team of 50 craftspeople and laborers are currently using 13th-century building techniques and technology (think: horses) to construct an authentic castle from scratch, deep within a secluded forest. Visitors are welcomed from mid-March to early November each year. The project has been running since 1997 and hopes to reach completion in the 2020s.


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Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

It might be the most photographed castle in the world, but there's still nothing quite like seeing Germany's fairy-tale castle in person. The brainchild of "Mad King Ludwig" (or, more generously, "The Fairy-Tale King"), Neuschwanstein has influenced everything from Disney attractions (note the similarity to Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle) to books and computer games. Take a tour of the castle grounds, but leave time for an off-site walk along the myriad nearby trails. That's where you'll find the most stunning views for photographs.


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Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland

One of the most iconic castles in Europe, Scotland's Eilean Donan Castle is recognized the world over from its appearances on postcards and in movies like the original Highlander ("There can be only one!"). History buffs will appreciate Eilean Donan's rich past as a key site during the 1719 Jacobite Rising, and all will enjoy the stark beauty of its surroundings, where three great lochs meet at the foot of an impressive mountain range. Today nearly every part of the castle is accessible to the public for tours and exploration.


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Hohenzollern Castle, Germany

This ancestral home to a line of German emperors would fit in with the fantastical fortresses imagined by J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin. At 2,805 feet above sea level, Hohenzollern Castle really is a castle in the clouds. The current fortress is actually the third to be built on the site (the first was destroyed in battle and the second fell into disrepair). Today it is a popular tourist attraction.


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Hunyad Castle, Romania

The imposing Hunyad Castle, which once imprisoned Vlad the Impaler (Bram Stoker's inspiration for Dracula), offers plenty for castle aficionados to sink their teeth into. Marked by myriad towers, multicolored roofs, and exaggerated stone carvings, this Gothic-Renaissance castle was fully and fancifully restored after decades of neglect. What we see today may or may not be authentic (some suggest that modern architects projected their own "wistful interpretations" of a Gothic castle onto the reconstruction), but either way, the end result is memorable.


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Edinburgh Castle, Germany

One of the best examples of a fully restored medieval fortress, Edinburgh Castle towers over Scotland's capital city from atop an extinct volcano called Castle Rock. It was built in the 12th century and has passed hands between the English and the Scots numerous times over the course of its bloody history. Today, it's open to the public year-round for tours and events.


Versailles, France

From its origin as an unassuming hunting lodge to its height as the royal court of France under Louis XIV, the Sun King's Chateau de Versailles is arguably the grandest castle in the world. No visit to Paris is complete without at least a day trip to see the gardens, canals, and gilded halls of Versailles.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Best European Castles You Can Visit.

Follow Josh Roberts on Google+ or email her at at editor@smartertravel.com.

10 Amazing Wine Towns in Europe

Posted September 9, 2013 by SmarterTravel.com

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From medieval hilltops to breezy coastlines, European wine towns make for irresistible vacation spots. Local cuisines help form a food-wine symbiosis unique to each locale, and surrounding vineyards provide the perfect backdrop. Whether renowned or under the radar, these gastronomic playgrounds offer plenty to taste plus enough history and culture for days of exploration. So head down into the cellar, uncork a prized vintage or two, and toast to these 10 amazing European wine towns.

 


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Beaune, France

Within its ramparts and narrow cobblestone streets, Beaune has one major priority: the production—and consumption—of wine. Dubbed the wine capital of Burgundy—itself one of the most famous viticulture regions in all of France—the small town has been obsessed with the drink since the Middle Ages, thanks in part to the lavish lifestyles of the Dukes of Burgundy. Today, it remains the region's center for wine trade and tourism. As you walk through town, undoubtedly in search of prestigious Pinot Noir-based vintages, stop at the Wine Museum, the Dukes' former residence, for a quick study in oenology, then enter the cellars at Marche aux Vins for a free tour and tasting. Across the way, the Hotel-Dieu, a medieval charity-hospital museum that hosts an annual wine auction every November, offers a sobering look into the lives of the sick and poor in the 15th century.

Uncork: Biodynamic wines at Joseph Drouhin, best tasted in the winery's historical Duke's cellar, built on top of 4th-century Roman fortifications.

Pair: In the snazzy, red-cloaked dining room at Loiseau des Vignes, opened in 2007 by Dominique Loiseau (wife of late chef Bernard Loiseau), choose from among 70 different wines by the glass to accompany the regional prix-fixe menu.

 


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Bernkastel-Kues, Germany

Of the many wine villages on Germany's Mosel River, Bernkastel-Kues is one of the most well-known and oldest. Set in the Middle Mosel region, the town has the ideal terroir for growing prized Riesling grapes. Its steep, slate-covered hillsides are striped with vineyards and lead up to the ruins of Landshut Castle, a focal point for cruisers floating by in river boats below. In the town center, take time to admire the medieval market square lined with half-timbered houses, and stop to photograph the narrow and leaning Spitzhauschen ("Pointed House") that dates back to 1416. Continue on, strolling through small boutiques and breaking for a leisurely lunch at one of the many welcoming restaurants. Just be sure to open a bottle of the town's most legendary wine, Bernkasteler Doctor, which supposedly cured the 14th-century Archbishop of Trier of serious illness.

Uncork: More than 160 regional wines—including Riesling, sparkling Elbling, and fruity Kerner varietals—at the Mosel Wein Museum's Vinothek, housed in the cellars of the historical St. Nicholas Hospital.

Pair: Enjoy regional specialties complemented by a Riesling-focused wine list at Doctor Weinstube, a 17th-century hotel and tavern with an inviting, rustic dining room.

 


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Montepulciano, Italy

Perched above vineyards and cypress-tree groves in the Italian province of Siena, Montepulciano is the biggest and highest medieval hill town in southern Tuscany. Panoramic views of the Val d'Orcia countryside render it a perfect setting for movies like The English Patient and Under the Tuscan Sun, but it is most famous for its Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a red wine made primarily from Sangiovese grapes. The town, lined with Renaissance palaces and churches, centers on Piazza Grande, where the Bravio delle Botti barrel race takes place every August. Food lovers will especially enjoy shopping in the Centro Commercial Naturale, visiting the olive mill, and learning how to make pici pasta with flour from local wheat at the Il Sasso school for language and culture.

Uncork: The celebrated reds at the Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, the local wine consortium made up of more than 70 producers, and its Enoteca Wine Shop in the historical Palazzo del Capitano on Piazza Grande.

Pair: Sample Pecorino cheese, meat, honey, and olive oil in the town's cantines (wine cellars), which are often linked by underground tunnels. Local favorite Cantine Contucci, in the 13th-century cellars of the Palazzo Contucci, is open for tastings every weekday.

 


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Borba, Portugal

When in Portugal, many wine lovers make a beeline to Porto and the Douro Valley. However, the lesser-known Alentejo region to the south has plenty to offer as well, especially when it comes to smaller towns devoted to wine. Though the historical UNESCO World Heritage city of Evora has a regional tasting room and is a natural starting point for the Alentejo wine route, it's nearby Borba that truly lives for wine. From adegas (wineries) in the heart of town to the annual Festa do Vinho e da Vinha (Festival of Wine and Vine) in November, visitors to Borba have plenty of opportunities to sample its robust reds. However, it's also worthwhile to check out the architectural details throughout town: Because of several nearby quarries, Borba is dressed in fine marble, particularly at sites like the Convento das Servas de Cristo and the ornate Fonte das Bicas fountain.

Uncork: Touriga Nacional (considered Portugal's finest grape) along with other regional varietals such as Trincadeira and Aragonez at Adega de Borba, a cooperative that offers different labels from 300 wine-growing associates.

Pair: Dine among giant terra-cotta talhas storing wine while eating local specialties—including ensopado de borrego, a lamb stew, and migas, a traditional dish usually made with breadcrumbs, garlic, and pork—at tasquinhas, or small taverns and restaurants, in town.

 


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Eger, Hungary

On the hills of the Bukk Mountains, nestled in one of Hungary's main viticulture regions, Eger is a popular wine town regarded for its whites and especially reds. Architecturally, the town presents a melange of Turkish, Baroque, and neoclassical styles, evident in well-touristed sites like the Eger Cathedral and the original Ottoman-period minaret. You can learn about the history of Eger's castle and its underground fortification system at the Istvan Dobo Castle Museum, then unwind (releasing any lingering anxiety from the museum's medieval-punishment exhibit) at the recently renovated thermal baths and Turkish spa. After climbing the 97 claustrophobic steps of the needle-shaped minaret, get a sweet fix at the Marzipan Museum and candy shop across the way. To taste wine, hop on the shuttle from the central Dobo Square to cellars in Szepasszony-volgy, or "Valley of the Beautiful Women," just south of town.

Uncork: The legendary Egri Bikaver, or "Bull's Blood of Eger," Hungary's best-known wine internationally. Blended with three or more red grapes—primarily Kekfrankos—the cuvee is matured in oak barrels for at least a year.

Pair: Taste dishes such as goulash soup, roasted pork tenderloin with creamy wild mushrooms, and smoked Hungarian sausage at Kodmon Tavern, an elegant spot that has been serving local cuisine since 1778.

 


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Haro, Spain

With clay soil ideal for growing grapes, multitudes of wine bodegas, and an organized vineyard route, Haro has earned the right to be called the wine capital of Spain's Rioja region. Not only does wine drive Haro's local economy, but it is also taken quite seriously as a way of life—so much so that on the feast of San Pedro (June 29), the town hosts a wine battle, during which opposing sides launch liters of wine at each other, then throws an after party in central Plaza de la Paz Square. Oenophiles and casual visitors alike can delve into the study of viticulture at the Rioja Wine Interpretation Centre, which serves as a research center and museum, or taste the area's fine red wines at the many vineyards and cellars open to the public.

Uncork: Wines from area bodegas, such as the generations-old Lopez de Heredia or the more modern Roda, which specializes in Tempranillo-based wines.

Pair: In Haro's Herradura neighborhood, known for tapas bars and restaurants, seek out dishes like pepitos (steak sandwiches) or pincho moruno (skewered diced pork). For traditional cuisine, mixed vegetable stew, chorizo, and lamb cutlets with vine shoots go nicely with the local wines.

 


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Saint-Emilion, France

If the scent of freshly baked macarons wafting through medieval streets isn't enough to lure you into Saint-Emilion, the wine certainly will. One of the most famed villages on the right bank of France's Bordeaux region, Saint-Emilion is built as much on Merlot and Cabernet Franc as it is on ancient limestone. After visiting the many wine shops in town, take a tour of the 800-year-old Monolithic Church and go underground to the cave where Breton monk—and hermit—Emilion once lived. Come back up to admire the eye-catching 173-foot-high bell tower before following the winding road that leads out to wine-tasting chateaux and rows of vineyards in a World Heritage landscape that span as far as the eye can see.

Uncork: Wines by innovative—but controversial—garagiste winemakers, such as Chateau Valandraud and the appropriately-named Bad Boy label by Jean-Luc Thunevin.

Pair: Decant a bottle of Grand Cru Classe then toast to seasonal market cuisine either indoors or on the shaded terrace at L'Envers du Decor.

 


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Orebic, Croatia

On the southwestern tip of Peljesac, a peninsula on Croatia's Dalmatian coast, Orebic is a maritime town that attracts tourists looking to relax on its sandy beaches, dine on the local catch, and drink wine from the surrounding vineyards. Explore the Maritime Museum—and its collection of models and paintings of boats—at the foot of Mount Elijah, and find sea captain's homes (which you can often stay in) throughout town. The Franciscan monastery's observation towers afford views of the Adriatic, the old town below, and the fruit trees, cypresses, and olive groves that dot the landscape. Winemaking on Peljesac dates back to Roman times, and the Plavac Mali grape, called "the blood of the soil" in Dalmatia, thrives in the Mediterranean climate and takes center stage on the peninsula's pebbled hills.

Uncork: Dry, ruby-red wines such as Dingac, which is deeply rooted in the region's winemaking tradition and became Croatia's first protected wine, and Postup, the country's second protected wine.

Pair: In Orebic's taverns and cafes, seafood reigns supreme. The highlight is the local shellfish, in particular crab, squid, and octopus, but make room for the region's handmade cured ham and cheeses, local olive oil, and fresh citrus fruits and vegetables.

 


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Barolo, Italy

Barolo, famous for its garnet-colored wines made from the Nebbiolo grape, is a low-lying town tucked into a valley in Italy's hilly Piedmont region. While the town has produced wine since at least Roman times, we can thank the last Marchessa of Barolo, French-born Giulia Colbert Falletti di Maulevrier, for realizing the potential of the noble grape in the mid-19th century and getting the town on the map. Visit her former home, the recently renovated Castello Falletti, which houses the WineMuseum (or WiMu) and tasting room, or head next door to the Corkscrew Museum in a former wine cellar. Stay in the neighboring countryside and use your rented villa or farmhouse as a home base for taking walks through the vast vineyards of Barolo and the rest of Piedmont's Langhe wine region.

Uncork: Wine from the 11 communes that produce Barolo at Enoteca Regionale del Barolo, located in the basement of the Falletti castle.

Pair: Choose dishes that can stand up to—and are often cooked in—the region's wine, such as mushroom risotto, braised beef, and gamey stews like bollito misto. Find similar items on the menu at Locanda nel Borgo Antico, a modern farmhouse restaurant tucked away in the vineyards.

 


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Pico (Madalena), Portugal

It's one thing to be a wine town, but it's quite another to be a wine island. On the Azorean isle of Pico, coastal vineyards grow along the sloped edges of an enormous volcano, with their gnarled grapevines creeping up basalt stone walls that protect the plots, or currais, from whipping sea winds and saltwater. Get an introduction to this unusual World Heritage vineyard landscape at the wine museum in Lajido, then trail the coastline in search of clay-roofed wine cellars built with black lava rock, old stone ramps (rola-pipas) that barrels would roll down and onto waiting boats, and tracks (rilheiras) carved by ox carts hauling grapes over the rugged landscape. At the cooperative in the main town of Madalena, learn how the basaltic wines are crafted and, of course, taste them too.

Uncork: Regional whites and reds from Frei Gigante and Terras de Lava, plus aperitif wines and firewater, which will knock you clear off your axis if you're not careful.

Pair: At Restaurante Ancoradouro in Madalena, start by drizzling corn bread and Pico cheese with honey, then pair a glass of vinho branco with any one of the seafood specialties. Grab a table on the breezy terrace for views of the sea and the nearby island of Faial.

 

Read the Entire Story: 10 Amazing Wine Towns in Europe

Follow Anne Banas on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

 

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Indulge Your Senses in Montelimar

Posted April 12, 2010 by Jaclyn Liechti

Montelimar With an enviable location in the south of France, Montelimar offers visitors a charming escape from everyday life. Feast your eyes on the 12th century residential palace; take in the scents of thyme, rosemary, and lavender at the Garden of Fragrances; or listen to the chatter of locals during the Saturday market at Church Square. And you can’t leave the area before giving your taste buds a treat by sampling some Montelimar nougat, the region’s specialty.

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Arnaud Soubeyran Nougat Factory & Museum: Montelimar was the first to replace the walnuts in nougat with almonds, and there’s no better place to sample the sweet treat than the Arnaud Soubeyran Nougat Factory & Museum, which is the oldest factory in the area. First, learn about the process and the ingredients at the museum, then head to the kitchen to watch nougat being made. Individual tours and tastings are free, but you don’t have to leave empty-handed. You can purchase your favorite varieties, plus chocolate-covered fruit, pralines, and more at the museum store.

You can use our tool to compare airfares to Lyon, the closest major airport, from multiple travel providers.

(Photo: iStockphoto/@laurent)

Unearth Chinon's History, but Not High Prices

Posted March 10, 2010 by Kate Hamman

Chinon Situated in the shadow of the 12th-century royal fortress where Joan of Arc first met the future King Charles VII, the city of Chinon exudes history everywhere you turn. Come immerse yourself in its past without paying a high price. Learn all about the city's fascinating history, taste regional wines in a cave, and stay in a surprisingly charming chain hotel.

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Royal Fortress of Chinon
: Sitting high above the city, the Royal Fortress of Chinon stands as a reminder of the city's intriguing past. Today, visitors can immerse themselves in the area's history by learning about the lives of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, who lived and died here; seeing the Royal Lodge where Joan of Arc met the future King Charles VII; and touring the apartments filled with the Flemish tapestries and furniture of the castle's heyday. There is also a Joan of Arc museum, which offers insight to the life and death of this heroic woman. Admission costs €3 (about $4 U.S.; check XE.com for current exchange rates).

Drink
Plouzeau Chateau de la Bonneliere: At Plouzeau Chateau de la Bonneliere's tasting cave, you won't have to dig too deep to unearth a wealth of wines. Built into the foundation of the fortress, the cellars are the perfect place to store and sample wines of the Chinon and Loire valleys. Open from April through September, the shop sells a variety of reds and whites.

Stay
Best Western Hotel de France
: It may surprise you to learn that this Best Western is more like a charming historic inn than a basic chain hotel. Located in a 16th century building in the heart of the city, Hotel de France transports you back in time. Enjoy the view of the famous fortress or listen to the fountain below your room's balcony. Rooms start at about €75 per night.

To search for flights and compare prices to Paris, the nearest major airport, please use our price-comparison tool.

(Photo: iStockPhoto/Jowita Stachowiak)

A Bargain Beach Vacation in Biarritz, France

Posted February 1, 2010 by Jamie Moore

Biarritz In summer, beach bums on a budget and ultra-chic jet-setters alike flood the gorgeous beaches of Biarritz, one of Europe's best surf spots. In this little town in southwestern France, you'll find people eating three-course meals or dropping big bucks at exclusive shops just steps from the sand. But you don't have to spend a fortune to feel fabulous here. Celebrate frugality with a stay at an 18th-century home, a taste of Basque culture at a chocolaterie, and a stroll on the seafront's promenade.

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Grand Plage Promenade
: Thanks to a major revamp from the city, the seafront now spreads out to a gorgeous and foot-friendly downtown. Terraced gardens and pathways lead from the city's shops and cafes to the Grande Plage, Biarritz's most popular beach. So take in the sea air mingled with the scent of magnolias and hydrangeas while you listen to the rhythm of your flip-flops and forget that you're not staying forever.

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Maison Paries
: When you work up an appetite from all that sunbathing, head a few blocks from the beach to this 1894 gastronomie/chocolaterie for a decadent delicacy. The mouchous (biscuits) and kanougas (chocolate toffees) tempt even the most dedicated dieter, and the gateaux Basques (Basque cakes) are renowned well beyond the Basque region. Try one with soft almond cream filling for €11 (about $15; see XE.com for current exchange rates).

Stay
Hotel Alcyon
: This historic 18th-century home-cum-hotel, in the middle of all the action, is an absolute find. From here you can easily walk to the beach, casino, restaurants, bars, and shops. Or retreat in one of the 15 comfortable, modern rooms with LCD televisions and grand arched windows that stretch taller than you. Room rates begin at only €85, or $118.

You can use our tool to compare airfares to Biarritz from multiple travel providers.

(Photo:iStockPhoto.com/Jean-Yves Benedeyt)

Become a Fashionista in Paris Without High Prices

Posted July 1, 2009 by Kate Hamman

FR-Paris-Fashionmodel-DEF From couture collectors to darling divas, people from all over the world come to bask in Paris' trend-setting glory. Come see what all the hype is about by paying a visit to some of the hippest joints in town, including a vintage boutique, a fashion museum, and a stylish brasserie.

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Musée Galliera: Walk in the high heels of fashion's history at the Musée Galliera. Housing a collection of more than 90,000 items, the museum invites visitors to learn about three centuries of fashion. Guests will encounter 18th century costumes, couture gowns, and designer accessories. Admission costs €7 (about $10 U.S.; check XE.com for current exchange rates) and includes entrance to a library on the history of Western dress.

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Café Marly: Overlooking I.M. Pei's pyramid, Café Marly lives up to the Louvre's reputation by bringing fashion to the level of high art. Paris' top fashionistas and trendsetters mingle alongside its dark wood paneling and velvet drapery. The Pacific-Mediterranean cuisine is modeled after the clientele, with simple yet elegant dishes such as tomato-basil penne. 

Shop
Free "P" Star (site in French only): Located in the fourth arrondissement, this labyrinth of forgotten trends, retro accessories, and high-fashion finds attract the city's premier shoppers, including the likes of Kirsten Dunst and Sofia Coppola. If you have the patience to sift through the chaotic mountain of clothing, you may just encounter a hidden treasure. The bargain-basement prices make this vintage shop even more attractive. Open until 11 p.m., the store encourages you to take your time and shop your heart out.

To search for flights and compare prices to Paris, please use our price-comparison tool.

(Photo: Patrick Breig, iStockphoto)

OpenSkies to Mix Business (Class) With Pleasure

Posted June 18, 2008 by Zak Patten

OpenskiesbizWhat's in a name? In the case of OpenSkies—the new mostly-business-class subsidiary of British Airways—a whole lot. When first announced, the airline's name was inspired by the new deregulating treaty that allows airlines to operate on any routes they choose between the U.S. and E.U. Today, OpenSkies might also be taken as a comment on the lack of competition in the air, particularly since the demise of all-business-class carriers Eos, Maxjet, and Silverjet.

Sure, OpenSkies only has one airplane, a 757 that holds 82 passengers, but the Little Airline That Could has big plans for that one plane. We're talking three classes of service, with the top of the line being Biz, which boasts "truly lie-flat seats." Don't want to sleep that well? No worries. OpenSkies has Prem+, which must denote its premium-economy class, because I doubt it’s a typo (unless OpenSkies is planning on professionally curling its passengers' hair en route). Last but not least (well, actually it is the least, but OpenSkies swears it's not too bad at all), is the economy cabin. There are only 30 seats (genuine leather ones) there, so you should get plenty of attention, assuming there's also a designated flight attendant (kidding!). And everyone, regardless of class, will have access to the 50-plus hours of audio and video programming on their personal entertainment systems, so that's a step up from my favorite in-flight game: staring at the back of the seat in front of me.

So where exactly will OpenSkies fly? Let's just say it doesn't have a massive worldwide route network. In fact, there are just two cities involved, but they're pretty decent ones: Paris and New York. The plan is to scale up by adding new destinations as business results allow for it. Currently on the list of potentials are Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt, and Milan.

In these days of cutbacks and fee increases, any airline looking hopefully toward the future should cheer us all up. No matter what it's called.

(Photo: AirFlights.to)


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