27 – Stepping firmly into my “Late 20s”

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I hit 27 this weekend, affirming my status of falling into the “late 20s” age bracket, taking one step closer to the big 30. 

The weekend started off in style with an early finish at work, thanks to the France v Uruguay quarter-final match. With a seemingly easy win, the streets were buzzing with noise as I headed home to freshen up before catching the train with my boyfriend to the Stade de France.

He’d bought tickets months ago for an Ed Sheeran concert as a birthday treat. We’d got VIP tickets as these were the only ones left, but it turned out to be a good choice with access to the lounge, great seats and unlimited drinks during the concert. Now, I’ve been to concerts and festivals before, but I wasn’t at all prepared for seeing such a big star in a sold-out show. As the music blasted out on the opening “Castle on the Hill”, I felt tears in my eyes and slightly emotional at just how good his music was. I even surprised myself at how I knew the lyrics of every son inside out… I must listen to him more than I think!

The following day, D-Day, arrives. I’m nervously awaiting the England v Sweden match, remembering as a kid in primary school watching my team be knocked out of this stage of the World Cup. 2 goals up and then the final whistle blows, a sigh of relief – England will, for the first time in my lifetime, be heading to the semi-finals. My birthday celebrations can begin.

After being spoilt with gifts, cards, flowers and champagne from mon amour, he’s taking me out to Loca, an Argentinian restaurant in the 18th, just behind la Butte Montmartre.

We started with Boudin Noir, Oeuf de Cailles et Haricots Verts for me (Black pudding, Quail egg and Green beans) with Stracciatella, Aubergines et Endives for him (no translation needed) which was absolutely delicious. Our main consisted of a deliciously tender Entrecôte steak with barbecued potatoes and leeks for me, with an oh-so-fresh octopus, tomates confites and grilled cucumber for him. We washed everything down with a glass of Malbec each, enjoying the breeze and sounds of football fans next to open doors, before strolling back home via Sacré Coeur.

As we get older, we come to expect less from birthdays, to dread getting a year older, forever closing in on the next “milestone” birthday. But for me, as the years tick by, I always feel surrounded by love and excited for the year to come.

 

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When in Rome… Or Venice, Or Florence

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As anyone who lives in France knows, May is the month of empty offices. With four public holidays dotted around the month, it’s the perfect opportunity to get away ahead of the mass exodus in summertime.

This year, two of the public holidays fell in the same week and so when my boyfriend saw some cheap flights in the Black Friday sales, we booked a return flight to Venice for this week, deciding we would fill in the details of our 6 day trip closer to the time.

Our first holiday together was in Italy and so we were excited to go back, knowing that we had so much more to see. After compiling our Italian wish list together, we decided on spending 2 days in Venice, 2 days in Rome and 2 days in Florence. We booked travel between each destination with Trainline.eu and hotels with Booking.com, ensuring that our hotel at each stop was within walking distance of the train station so we could maximise our time to sightsee, rather than working out travel logistics.

Here I’ll present a short list of things to do, see and eat at each of our travel destinations:

Venice

  • Ponte di Rialto: The famous bridge crossing the Grand Canal, be sure to visit early in the morning, before the crowds of tourists arrive
  • Piazza San Marco: It’s always going to be busy, no matter the time of day. While we enjoyed sitting by the waterside during the day, at night many restaurants have quartet groups playing, so it’s lovely to visit at this time as well
  • Ponte dei Sospiri: The Bridge of Sighs with gondolas passing underneath is an iconic image of Venice. If you do want to take a ride in a gondola, but don’t want to pay 80€ for the privilege, you can pre-book them online to share with other visitors
  • Walk along the Canals: You can do this anywhere in the city, but we enjoyed heading to the northern part of the city for the less-crowded and picturesque spots
  • Enjoy a Vivaldi Concert: Vivaldi hails from Venice, so it is only apt to enjoy some of his music whilst you’re there. We enjoyed The Four Seasons in the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Pietà (Vivaldi’s Church), but there are many other options to choose from

Restaurants:

  • Osteria Bentigodi: Friendly staff and my favourite meal when I was in Italy, specialising in seafood
  • Pizzeria Vittoria: Yummy pizza with porchetta and my boyfriend loved their seafood soup
  • Taverna Scalinetto: Close to Piazza San Marco, but off the tourist track and cheaper prices, this is a cute spot with an enclosed garden underneath a vineyard

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Rome

  • Fontana di Trevi: Toss a coin over your shoulder for good fortune at one of the most famous fountains in the world
  • Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti: The Spanish Steps are iconic and are instantly recognisable as the scenery in many films set in the city
  • Pantheon: Visit the best-preserved Roman monument in the heart of Rome
  • Vatican City & St. Peter’s Square: We pre-booked our tickets to the Vatican museum to skip the seven hour queue. Inside, visit the Sistine Chapel and buy a Vatican City stamp, before heading outside to St. Peter’s Square
  • Roman Forum & Colosseum: Again, we booked our tickets in advance to avoid queues and visit the ruins of the Roman city before heading into the Colosseum

 

Restaurants:

  • Trattoria del Gatto BiancoCosy and traditional restaurant, not far from the Pantheon. Word of warning: they don’t accept credit cards, so be sure to bring cash!
  • Emma Pizzeria: Recommended by a colleague, we were not disappointed by the cool interior and delicious pizzas
  • Al Forno della Soffita: A little off the tourist track, this restaurant serves traditional Italian food with a twist – my boyfriend loved their Octopus, Broad Bean and Almond pasta dish

Florence

  • Mercato Centrale: Head upstairs to their food court, full of food stalls with different offerings – you’ll be spoilt for choice! Also, seek out the gelato stand for their tasty Salted Caramel ice cream… delicious!
  • Mercato San Lorenzo: Just outside of the Mercato Centrale, we enjoyed walking around the various outdoor stalls selling leather goods
  • Duomo & Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore: We didn’t pre-book our tickets to climb the dome and ended up grabbing a spot with some tour guides outside. It actually turned out better this way as we had a great guide who told us a lot about the city that we wouldn’t have heard otherwise!
  • Il Porcellino: Visit the bronze fountain, rubbing the pig’s nose with a coin before placing inside its mouth, allowing it to fall to the grate below for good fortune
  • Ponte Vecchio: This bridge is iconic of Florence, supporting house-like structures on top of it
  • Galleria dell’Accademia: Pay Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Statue of David, a visit inside this gallery in the north of the city
  • Piazalle Michelangelo: Head here in the early evening to get a great panoramic of the city skyline as the sun begins to go down

Restaurants:

  • Trattoria Pallottino: This cosy and authentic restaurant is away from the tourist track and offers outdoor seating if you arrive early enough!
  • Trattoria-Pizzeria i’Grullo: Between the Cathedral and Galleria dell’Accademia, this is a good spot to grab a quick bite of pizza in between sightseeing
  • Ristorante Il Caminetto: A little more expensive than the other restaurants we visited, this restaurant with outdoor seating has a view onto the Cathedral, where we enjoyed refreshing, light pasta dishes

Copenhagen in 24 hrs: Challenge Accepted

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For Valentine’s Day, my boyfriend surprised me with a trip to Copenhagen. I’d been banging on about wanting to visit for ages and so he took the hints and booked for an overnight trip.

Our Saturday began with a 5am wake-up call, thinking to ourselves “Why do we always decide to go for a drink on the eve of early-morning departures?” By 9am, we’d landed and after dropping off bags at the hotel, we headed out with one mission – to see all of the major tourist hotspots in one day, using the Google Map I’d created for a rough itinerary.

Here’s what we got up to:

Morning:

  • Freetown Christiania: The self-declared autonomous and anarchist district of the city. It’s quite a surreal place with graffiti murals and its open sale of cannabis in make-shift stalls along the streets, even at 10am!
  • Church of our Saviour: I’d read that you could climb to the top of the spiralling tower for an amazing birds-eye view over the city, yet what we didn’t know is that it closes for Winter and we were a week early for its re-opening. So we just admired the tower from the ground instead.

Lunch:

We’d planned on going to the Copenhagen Street Food market, but upon arrival discovered it was closed, soon to be relocated to another spot (note to self: must research more thoroughly your trips!)

We headed over to the harbour and after a quick search on Yelp decided on Cap Horn.

Here I tasted my first ever herring, which was delicious, followed by a selection of smørrebrød for me and a fish soup for the other half.

Afternoon:

  • Nyhaven: Famous for its colourful buildings which provide the backdrop to the harbour
  • The Little Mermaid statue: The emblem of Copenhagen, its a homage to famous Dane Hans Christian Anderson who wrote the original fairytale, amongst many others
  • Frederik’s Church: AKA The Marble Church, it has an iconic dome, which is the largest in Scandinavia (the church inside is relatively small in proportion)
  • Strøget: The central shopping street, with gorgeous tiled squares, which are perfect for people watching (and giving our feet a rest)

Dinner: 

We’d booked online in advance for a table at harbour-side Hummer. When looking online, I found the prices to be reasonable for the Main Courses, but upon arrival we were informed that the plates were small and so we should get 2 or 3 each.

Nevertheless, it was absolutely delicious and we indulged ourselves in a variety of seafood dishes, which Copenhagen is famous for.

After dinner we nipped around the corner to Ofelia Plads where they had installed a light installation “The Wave” on the pier.

Copenhagen is an expensive city to visit (as many Scandinavian cities are), so I think we made a good decision to make it a simple overnight trip. With good planning, we managed to tick off every must-see spot on our list and after clocking up 20km of walking in 12 hours, we even managed to work off some calories too. Winning all round.

Being French: A gastronomical guide

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January is the month that everyone is waiting for the end of and yet, it passes by so slowly. Paris has been particularly dull these past few weeks due to the seemingly relentless rain and the question on everybody’s lips is “Is it Spring yet?!” Within the last month, we had one glorious day on sunshine, which my boyfriend and I spent strolling next to the flooded banks of the Seine. However, for the rest of the month, we’ve had to occupy ourselves with other pastimes.

Apéro is, in my mind at least, a form of art for the French. When I first arrived in France, I delighted in the way that people gathered together for a few glasses of wine with small plates of charcuterie and cheese – it was something I’d never experienced in the UK and it’s still one of the small things that I love about living here.

Whether it’s at home or in a bar, everyone has their ideal ingredients for their perfect apéro composition. This month, I went to Chez Nous, a cute wine bar in Saint-Germain, to celebrate a colleague’s birthday. While we all swiftly agreed on our choice of wine (red), opinions often differ when ordering small plates of food – should we go for 2 meat and 2 cheese plates, 3 cheese and 1 meat, or something different altogether? And once you’ve chosen your combo, which type of meat or cheese to select? One thing is for certain, I have never had the same apéro combination more than once and at the same time, I have never had a bad apéro.

Continuing in the theme of food, one rainy Sunday my boyfriend and I took ourselves to the Musée du Chocolat which, as you might have guessed, is a museum on the theme of Chocolate. The first part of the exhibition tells the history of chocolate, from the Aztecs to its introduction in Europe in the form of a liquid drink. Next, the story continues with the commercialisation of chocolate, moving into solid form before heading downstairs to a demonstration from one of their chocolatiers and finally gazing at structures such as the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe made entirely from chocolate.

Throughout the visit, we were able to taste chocolate – from tasting a recipe as close to that used by the Aztecs, to modern-day chocolate with different tastes depending on its country of origin. We finished our tour with a real-chocolate hot-chocolate, where a cube of your chocolate of choice is dunked into a cup of frothy milk. I am a self-confessed chocolate addict, forever trying to satisfy my sweet tooth, but even I was all chocolated out by the end of this museum.

The New Year is usually the time of calorie-counting following the indulgent festive season, but this month is anything but in France (and that’s before we even mention the galettes de roi for Epiphany!) Whilst everything must of course be taken in moderation, the French appreciation of good food and drink is something that never fails, even in the dull, dark months of January.

Searching for Santa Claus in Strasbourg

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In mid-December, my boyfriend and I headed to Strasbourg, the Capital of Christmas. It may seem strange that I am writing about Christmas now, given that the festivities are over for another year; I was so busy in the Christmas break and the following post-Christmas return to work that I haven’t had a chance, yet I couldn’t not write about this latest trip.

We started the day ever-so slightly hungover; my boyfriend’s work Christmas do the previous evening followed by an 8am train ride was never going to be a good combination. We took a little cat-nap once arrived at the hotel and made for the Christmas markets as the sun was beginning to set.

Now, if there is one thing you should know if you’re travelling to Alsace, it should be that you should prepare yourself mentally to eat. I thought that after visiting Budapest, we would be all sorted in that respect, but the portion sizes are truly huge here! On the advice of a colleague from the region, we’d reserved restaurants in advance and on her recommendation we booked a table at Gurtlerhoft for our first evening. After sharing a slice of foie gras to start, we were presented with an enormous flammekueche and a rösti.

The following day we visited Colmar and stopped at a cute spot next to the river called Les Bateliers, where we ate choucroute and tourte de la vallée Munster, before heading back to Strasbourg for the evening where we’d booked a table a Le Tire-Bouchon. Still feeling full from lunch, we’d tried to spot some lighter dishes on the menu; baeckeoffe for me and a jambonneau for my boyfriend. We had no such luck – the dishes were the biggest I had ever seen and only managed to finish about half of the food, so whilst absolutely delicious and great value for money, I really recommend having a snack during the day to make way for the evening meal whilst in Strasbourg!

Besides the food, walking around the streets of Strasbourg to gaze at the Christmas markets was a great way to kill time. The buildings are so beautifully rustic and give you a glimpse back in time. The markets are spread across the city, unlike in Colmar where they are very concentrated and so full of bustling crowds and queues. We stumbled across an a capella concert in a church on the Sunday afternoon and the city is buzzing with events such as these to compliment the Christmas spirit, making Strasbourg a magical place to visit in the run-up to Christmas.

The Parisian Weekend of Culture

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The past couple of weekends have been so moche in Paris… I’m sure I say this on an annual basis, but this year is the coldest I’ve experienced in a long, long time. Because of this, I’ve been spending most of my weekends boycotting restaurants and bars in favour of staying-in with my boyfriend, experimenting with home-cooked meals followed by Netflix binges. However, after a few weekends of this magic formula, cabin fever had begun to set in, and so it was great to get out of the house for a weekend of culture.

My boyfriend had received some vouchers for the Philharmonie de Paris for his birthday back in September and decided to reserve spots for Les Planètes. This was my first visit to the Philharmonie (yes, shame on me) and so I was probably more excited than him, if I’m being honest.

As we’d booked so far in advance, we’d managed to nab spots a few rows from the front and so were treated to a spectacular, up-close view of the musicians at work. This was something I was beginning to regret during the warm-up act; a rendition of an organ-led set that was at times painful to the ears. Thankfully, the main act of Les Planètes more than made up for this. We were treated to seven pieces of beautifully composed music inspired by the characteristics of the planets in our solar system, backdropped against images taken from NASA. Although the first set was somewhat overpowering, the second half of our evening was perfectly complimented by the amplifying acoustics of the place, making you feel like you were transported into outer space.

On Saturday, I braved the cold along with my colleague to visit the Exposition Dior at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. We’d been talking about going forever and when we couldn’t find any pre-booked tickets until January, we decided to brave the queues. Upon arrival, we were informed that the queue without tickets stood to be 4 hours long, which we put down to a massive overestimation (you can never take the French seriously in matters of time). However, they weren’t far off – we waited 3 hours in freezing temperatures to finally make it inside.

This is one of those expositions that has all Parisians going crazy throughout its runtime… and I can see why. It was honestly one of the most beautiful expositions that I have ever seen. Even if you’re not that into fashion, you will be taken aback by the vast collection of original sketches, vintage dresses and one-of-a-kind couture pieces worn by celebrities of past and present. Every other group you’ll overhear will suddenly transform into globe-trotting fashion critics and while it’s slightly amusing to overhear middle-aged men exclaim that Galliano “lost his mind” when designing such pieces, such experiences speak volumes about the wide-audience appeal of this exposition.

Fireworks, Festivities & London Fun

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For the past couple of years, I’ve found myself in London for the first week of November. Usually it coincides with some work event, before taking a couple of days to catch up with the uni gang and enjoy my favourite British festivity; Bonfire Night.

The annual celebration commemorates the anniversary of a foiled plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in the early 15th century. Across the country on the weekend of the 5th November you’ll be treated to displays of fireworks whilst gathering around bonfires with sparklers and toffee apples.

This year, thanks to a friend of a friend, we had a brilliant 360° view of firework displays from their rooftop, just south of Brixton. This weekend symbolises the turn of the season from autumn to winter and while this may usually be a depressing thought, as I wrapped up in a thick coat and wooly scarf to stare at the fireworks, it’s anything but.

Perhaps it was the glass of mulled wine I was clutching or the million layers I’d donned, but this special night, when the streets are filled with life, makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. And although I returned to Paris full of cold and knackered from a weekend of one too many drinks with uni friends, I know that come next year, I’ll be back for more of my favourite festivity.

Autumn: The season of Magic in Paris

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Autumn is by far my favourite season in Paris. As everyone returns from their summer holidays, the streets get busier again, new restaurants and bars open on every street and I get to dig out my heeled boots from their summer hibernation. However, for me Autumn is not just about rekindling my love with my classic black boots. This is the season that takes me back to my arrival in Paris four years ago.

In September 2013, I stepped off the Eurostar with one very large suitcase and a backpack to begin an internship within a marketing agency. Paris was a mystery to me at this point; although having visited several times to see the main tourist attractions, I didn’t imagine I would settle in this city.

Working in the 2nd arrondissement at this time meant that on a sunny lunch break, I’d often grab a sandwich with colleagues and head to Jardin des Tuileries. I remember arriving one day to find marquees had been pitched up in our usual spot and my colleague explained this is where some of the shows for fashion week took place. It felt so magical to me to be so close to the action, to just be a few feet away from the runways of some of the biggest names in the fashion business, having daydreamed about working in this industry since being a teenager.

For the past three and a half years, I have been doing just that, starting at a sustainable fashion platform, before this year joining the digital marketing team of a customisable jewellery house. Four years on from my arrival in Paris, I was tasked with organising an event during fashion week to host bloggers, press and stylists. Whilst returning home one night after dining at the former Jean-Paul Gaultier’s flagship, I spotted 90s supermodel Claudia Schiffer leaving an event; no matter how many years I spend here, Paris Fashion Week has a magic feeling to it, that takes me back to my 22 year-old self staring in awe at the marquees in Jardin des Tuileries.

Autumn also marks the arrival of Nuit Blanche; an annual, city-wide, all-night cultural festival. It’s events such as Nuit Blanche or (another favourite) La Fête de la Musique that you don’t really see in the UK and that, for me at least, make France a special place to live. My first Parisian Nuit Blanche was spent sitting on the banks on the Seine, witnessing an amazing fireworks display performed by a famed Chinese firework artist.

This year I revisited my old neighbourhood, as some would say the “bad side” of the 18th arrondissement. We walked around places that are usually closed to the public, this year visiting the train tracks and warehouses of the SNCF where artists were performing. Our evening finished at Le 104, a cultural space transformed for the evening into an open dancehall. While Nuit Blanche events can be hit and miss, I just love seeing the streets transformed and filled with people of all ages, experiencing events that they might have otherwise not have done.

When people back home ask me what I like about living in Paris, it’s actually difficult to put into words. The best way for me to describe it is a really personal feeling; it’s the small things that are almost intangible to the outside world. Personally, it’s the feeling I get every Autumn, swept up in the magic of fashion week or the atmosphere of filled streets for Nuit Blanche… every year it makes me fall in love with the city all over again.

Reunited in the City that Never Sleeps

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Almost a decade on from my first trip to New York at the tender age of 17 (yes, that makes me feel old) I returned to the city that never sleeps. I’d done all of the touristy things on my first trip, so this time around, I got to explore the many hot-spots of Manhattan and Brooklyn with my friends.

Since two of my ex-colleagues moved across the atlantic to North America a little under a year ago, me and another of my Parisian-Brit friends had been planning to visit. So when I found out that my company would be closed for a week in mid-August, we booked the cheapest last-minute tickets we could find to join them.

Being based in Brooklyn was a totally different experience than my previous trip when we’d stayed in a hotel near Madison Square Garden; instead of a tourist, I began to feel like a local. We spent a lot of time in Williamsburg and Bushwick, a fairly hipster district with many cool places to eat (Roberta’s for the most-amazing pizza) and vintage clothes shopping (I snagged a leather Saks of Fifth Avenue handbag for $18!). My favourite spot had to be the Wythe Hotel on the Williamsburg waterfront, where you can enjoy cocktails on the rooftop terrace while looking across the Manhattan Skyline – an absolutely incredible view, especially with the backdrop of a summer sunset.

It goes without saying that our days in Manhattan were filled with shopping – from visiting the largest Sephora I have ever seen to the cult showroom of Glossier, I was truly spoilt for choice. Aside from shopping, a few other highlights included visiting Chelsea Market and strolling down the High Line. While in Greenwich Village, we also stumbled across Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment by chance on our way to glance at the Friends building. However, my favourite spot in New York is (and remains so since my first visit nearly 10 years ago) Central Park. It’s such a surreal spot, with all its greenery contrasting against the surrounding skyscrapers – no matter if this is your first, third or fiftieth visit to New York, it will never get old.

As I was flying solo on my final day, after dining at the Italian Market Eataly, I took a trip down memory lane with a circuit of some of the spots I had visited nearly 10 years before. My afternoon stroll led me to the public library, Bryant Park and Times Square where I was hit by nostalgia. When I had first visited this city, being a naive 17 year-old, I was convinced that this was the place I would one day live. This time around, I loved getting to really know the city and being reunited with the dream team. However, I know that while I will always love the Big Apple, I couldn’t imagine living away from Paris and that for me it will always be my true home.

Getting to know the Algarvian coastline

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After spending several days exploring the hilly streets of Lisbon, my boyfriend and I headed south looking for sandy beaches and a few days of relaxation. We chose to be based in Lagos , famous for its picturesque beaches and pretty grottos, where we could easily access other Algarve hotspots by car.

Although you may not guess it from the milky-white glow of my paler-than-pale skin, I love nothing more than lying on a beach, book-in-hand and catching a few rays. If this is your idea of perfection too, you will not be disappointed by the selection of clean, quaint beaches in Lagos. The Praia da Batata beach soon became our favourite due to its comfy sun beds, close proximity to a bar which sold large (and inexpensive!) bottles of chilled water and a welcome windy breeze – other beaches we tried in the area just didn’t have this magic formula. On our final day, we took a boat trip nearby to discover the grottos. While some boat tours from the Marina are done in large groups piled into a boat, from next to our favourite beach, we managed to get a small, private boat for just us two (and the tour guide) which made the trip even more special and fun.

Besides lounging on the beach, we managed to find a couple of gems when dining out in the evening. Mar d’Estorias is a marketplace, restaurant and rooftop bar all rolled into one. After starting with a couple of artisanal beers on the rooftop terrace we made our way down to the restaurant and munched our way through our poached eggs starter, served in a tomato and chorizo sauce. We were then treated to a delicious roasted octopus dish alongside goats cheese covered chicken; this was my favourite spot by far and I’d highly recommend it to anyone visiting Lagos.

My boyfriend’s favourite was Restaurante Dom Henrique. He enjoyed it so much that he suggested we return here on our final night where we managed to be seated in their rooftop dining area. I started with the most gorgeous scallops, served in a cheese and ham sauce. My boyfriend is a big seafood lover, so he was delighted to see giant king prawns, ordered by the gram, on the menu. While a little more expensive, it was worth treating ourselves to this fantastic set-up, impeccable service and amazing food for our final night.

We also managed to explore further afield; despite making the most out of my Lagos experience, I’d heard such wonderful things about surrounding Algarvian coastal towns, I just had to see more. One evening, we headed to Portimão for their famed Festival da Sardinha. Since this was my first time time trying a sardine, it seemed only fitting that I should do it right! We also drove to Faro for a day-trip – although in my opinion not as pretty as Lagos, there is still plenty to see and do. We took a stroll through the historic Old Town, before stopping off at Faz Gostos – a cute terraced restaurant serving an amazing scallop carpaccio. After meandering down to the marina and visiting the cathedral, we headed back to Lagos, taking a slight detour via the Milreu Roman Ruins, just outside of Faro.

As a child, I’d always hear about friends going to the Algarve for their summer holidays and after experiencing it (finally!) for myself, it’s easy to see why many fall in love. Although I see myself as very much a city girl these days, the summer is the perfect chance to escape the unbearable Paris humidity, relax on the beach and recharge the batteries; Lagos provided the perfect recipe for me to do just that.