Jordan Desert - Part I

Have you ever been to a place that was so different from anything you’ve seen that you struggled to take it all in? Wadi Rum is that place for us. When I came to Israel to visit Brian on a work trip last December, we stayed here for one night and took a short tour. We knew right away we hadn’t scheduled enough time for this amazing desert wilderness and vowed to return someday. Little did we know that we’d be back with our four girls in tow less than a year later! We were supposed to have our dear friends from NYC, the Rileys, join us, but they had some unexpected news at the last minute and had to cancel their trip. We were SOOOO sad not to have them here because we love them so much. Tessa cried when I told her their girls, Scout and Fern, weren’t coming. But, we are grateful that they found out before they left, which hopefully made it easier on them.

We flew down to Eilat early Friday morning (alarms went off at 4 am to make the flight) and then drove to the border of Jordan, about 10 minutes away. After going through customs and entry, we walked across the border and got a taxi into Aqaba, on the Red Sea. We picked up our rental car there and started the hour drive into the Valley of the Moon, a very apt nickname. We stayed at Sun City Camp, famous for their space-like, dome-shaped guest rooms.

We flew down to Eilat early Friday morning (alarms went off at 4 am to make the flight) and then drove to the border of Jordan, about 10 minutes away. After going through customs and entry, we walked across the border and got a taxi into Aqaba, on the Red Sea. We picked up our rental car there and started the hour drive into the Valley of the Moon, a very apt nickname. We stayed at Sun City Camp, famous for their space-like, dome-shaped guest rooms.

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I mean, if you’re going to have people sleep in the desert, their rooms might as well look like this, right?? :)

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After eating lunch at the camp and dropping our things off, we got back in our car and decided to go for a desert drive with just the six of us. There are no “real” roads, only different variations of tire marks snaking their way through the desert, so we tried as best we could to stick to those. We found some fun dunes to stop at and let the girls run around and jump off the huge hills of orange sand. They didn’t last long in their shoes, as their feet sunk deep into soft sand. So, we got rid of the shoes and just ran around jumping, rolling, climbing and sliding all over the place.

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See what I mean about those “roads”….yeah. Not really going to see traffic signs out here. Well, we were driving around and went up over a hill into some rather deceptively deep sand. We had a four-wheel car, but the sand proved too much for those wheels and we got stuck. Like really stuck. Brian tried to get us out several times but to no avail. Luckily, we weren’t far from another camp and one of the locals saw us (I’m sure it happens a lot more than he’d like!) and he waved at us to stop trying to get out ourselves. He ran over and he and Brian dug the tires out as best they could….still nothing. Meanwhile, the kids and I were in the car, helplessly watching. After a few minutes, Tessa mentioned that she had said a prayer for help and thought we should all say one together. I want to remember her sweet request and how we all knew that it was the best way we could help. Next thing we knew, another local with a truck drove up and he had a tow rope, which he connected to our car. It snapped once before working, but eventually he was able to pull us down the hill and out of the sand. Phew! Tessa’s prayer worked. :)

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Our girls were dying to ride camels again. It was one of their favorite things we did in Morocco a couple of years back. Getting on a camel is kind of like riding a rollercoaster, so if you’ve done it before, you know what’s coming and it makes you laugh in nervous anticipation. Hence, these cute pictures below- lots of squeals and laughter.. You get on the camel’s backs when they’re laying down and then they got on their front two feet first, which quickly propels you forward and then they get on their back two feet, which pushes you right back and upright. It’s awesome.

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How about that backdrop?!?! This place really is like being on another planet- its unreal.

How about that backdrop?!?! This place really is like being on another planet- its unreal.

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And, after a barbecue dinner where they cook the meat entirely in an underground pit, we were out for the night in this magical setting. Tomorrow’s adventures would require a good night’s rest…

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Galilee, Upper Galilee, and the Golan Heights

It has been an adjustment to have church on Saturdays now instead of Sundays. At first, I thought I wouldn’t like it, but I’ve totally changed my mind. Its pretty great to have a “day off” after the Sabbath before heading back into the work week. So, we have been really loving having Sundays all to ourselves while we live here!

For our first weekend adventure, we decided to head to the Sea of Galilee, two hours northeast of Tel Aviv. We headed out right after sacrament meeting so we could maximize our time there. Brian found the cutest cabins on a farm, called Vered Hagalil (Hagalil means “the Galilee”) that we checked into and let the girls run around their “backyard” and play on their hammock for a bit. Then, back to the car for a quick drive over to Capernaum, “The Town of Jesus”. Jesus had been rejected in his own Nazareth and came to reside here in this fishing village on the northern side of the Sea of Galilee. He only lived here for about one year, but it is where He began His mission and chose 5 of His disciples (11 were from Galilee and only Judas Iscariot was not). Needless to say, it is an extremely important part of His life and where most of the chapters in the New Testament are based.

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All thats left of the village of Capernaum is some ruins, and it appears much smaller than it would have been in Jesus’s time. In fact, there were about 15 fishing villages off of the Sea of Galilee back then, but the only city that has flourished is Tiberias since then. Below is our first up-close look at the sea, which we realized is actually a huge lake :). It is shaped like a harp, so the locals call it Lake Kinneret (translates to harp).

 

We didn’t realize they only take cash upon entry and we left all of ours back at the hotel. We were so sad to miss this special place and started to walk away, but the guy at the front office stopped us and told us to just go on in with no charge. It was such a nice gesture and we were so grateful. After seeing Capernaum, we wanted to somehow put our toes in the water. So we drove around and found a pretty trail that led along the water and stopped at a beach area. We all got to to touch the water where so many of Jesus’s miracles were performed and the girls then loved playing in it and collecting little shells for a while.

This is one of the cabins we stayed in. The farm village that it is in was huge and so peaceful. The girls loved running around and playing outside and then rinsing off in the jacuzzi inside! Vered Hagalil sat right north of the Mt. of Beatitudes, so we ventured out to explore all over that area.

It was seriously so peaceful up there. This was right beyond where we stayed and overlooking the Sea of Galilee. They had these beautiful and strange-looking white plants all over the hill as well as a Carmelite monastery. It was so quiet and peaceful- we could totally understand why Jesus would come up here to relax or to gather his thoughts and then deliver such powerful sermons.

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After Brian and I walked around for a long time, we came upon this area that had a ton of what appeared to be cow bones. They were really old! We knew the girls would totally get a kick out of seeing these huge bones, so we decided to get them up early the next morning to join us on our walk.

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The only people we could wrangle out of bed at 6:30 am were Lauren and Tessa! I’m so glad they came along (even Tessa still in her pajamas!) and they were so excited to find the bones we told them about the night before. We went on a really long walk all over the hillsides and then back up to our cabins to eat breakfast altogether.

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After leaving Galilee, we drove up to the Golan Heights to make a stop at the famous Nimrod’s Fortress on Mt. Hermon. The fortress is a medieval castle that overlooks all of the Golan Heights and was built with the purpose of guarding a major access route to Damascus against armies coming from the west. It was huge and had a ton of different view points as well as things to explore inside.

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Its always amazing to learn about history that you don’t know much about and to discover places that are so old- built in 1229! The area is under Israeli occupation since 1967, together with the Golan Heights, but the international community sees it as Syrian territory. And when you’re this close to Syria…you might as well get a better look!

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We drove over to Mt. Bental, which has great panoramic views of the Golan and even Syria. It is also the sight of a battle fought during Israel’s war for the Golan. There are bunkers open to visitors at the very top where you can see really far in all directions…it was kind of cool to be able to look right into Syria!

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Just beyond this farmland below is Syria.

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Last stop for the weekend was Lake Hula, where an estimated 500 million birds migrate from all over Europe, Africa and Asia. The birds stop over for about a month before they head to their final warm destinations for the winter. We didn’t see a ton of different birds (I think we probably just missed the high season), but we rented a golf cart and some binoculars and tried our hardest to see as much wildlife as we could.

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Tessa was definitely the most excited bird watcher. They have you take identification pamphlets so you can figure out exactly what you’re seeing and she loved flipping through and matching the birds with their name and picture.

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Our first road trip in Israel included a lot of driving and seeing things we’ve read about in the scriptures our whole lives. Can’t wait to see more and more of this amazing country!

Istanbul, Turkey

A 10 hour layover in Turkey gave me a chance to hit the highlights of Istanbul. I don’t love visiting a country without doing much research before, but this quick tour was opportunistic.

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The Blue Mosque … massive, impressive, and being repaired. Scaffolding on site like these always hurts a bit but I did love walking around its gardens and eventually visiting the courtyards.

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The mosque was closed for most of the day (muslims only) and then opened to the public for a couple of hours. I appreciate the fact they let tourists in to visit something special and a place of worship.

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From my naive POV, the courtyard was much more beautiful. Inside was less impressive but more importantly an active worship site for muslims.

Below is inside the Magia Sophia, a separate mosque directly east of the Blue Mosque. It was massive and also beautiful. It was a bit difficult to capture on my camera. It was so crowded, I would get bumped each time I pointed up to get a shot of the massive dome-shaped structures.

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What as most unique inside the mosque, were the chandeliers that hung low, connected by long chains that reached the top of the ceiling. The effect worked, making a massive structure feel a bit smaller and comfortable.

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Istanbul was beautiful but I will admit all the muslim countries are starting to feel more and more similar. Almost difficult to differentiate beyond the large and numerous mosques inside the city.

Londontown!

After our week-long visa delay in NYC, we weren’t sure we would still be able to squeeze in a visit to London. But, Brian managed to pull it off and we got to visit one of our very favorite places in the entire world. Our huge van picked us up eeeearly in the morning at our hotel in NYC and we loaded our 30-plus bags in and headed to the airport for our flight. So excited to be visiting our old stomping grounds again, I don’t think anyone even minded getting up at 4:30 am.

We landed late in the evening at Heathrow and Brian whizzed right through customs, but the rest of our passports got flagged because our old UK visas were never cancelled. So, we waited forever in the holding area while Brian grabbed bags and rushed to make it to a luggage storage store literally seconds before they closed. He barely made it, begged them to stay open until a porter was able to bring the rest of our stuff (he could only lug 2 bags with him), and safely got all of our luggage stored for our trip. We only brought our carry-ons into the city. We finally got to our hotel in Belgravia, where we crashed hard after a long day.

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DAY ONE- TWO: We forced ourselves out of bed our first morning (jet lag is real!) on a very typically English cold and rainy day and walked to grab a late breakfast/early lunch across from Harrod’s. We waited out the rain while walking all over Harrod’s and then got ourselves to Queen’s Theater, where we had tickets to see Les Miserables! The show was amazing- although Tessa thought it was “so annoying” that they only sang and there was no talking. LOL. I’m sure I would’ve had similar thoughts when I was 6. It was still wet and yucky after the show, so we got home and ate some Indian food close to where we were staying. We checked into our airbnb near Paddington, where we’d be for the rest of the trip. On Sunday, we got to go to our old chapel on Exhibition Road to watch a session of conference. To be honest, we were a little bummed we wouldn’t be able to attend regular meetings because we were looking forward to seeing so many old friends. However, the session was great and we were able to catch up with the Checketts afterwards, who are the mission presidents there now. Brian stayed back to check out the renovated Victoria and Albert Museum (it was boarded up the entire time we lived there and its gorgeous now!)

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DAY TWO: Freddie! Tessa and Freddie were in the same class at The Vestry Preschool in Maida Vale. They really loved each other and she has always talked about wanting to visit him again. Plus, they have some shared memories playing together at the park across from our our flat, so thats where we met up. Tessa got to play with a dear friend and we got to go back to our legitimate favorite part of the city…St. John’s Wood! It was SO nostalgic and happy being back where we used to live!

After getting off the tube in SJW, we excitedly pointed out all of the things we remembered and loved and even stopped to get some warm quarkinis at the Bread Shop on the way to St. John’s Wood Park to meet up. Once Tessa and Freddie spotted one another, they ran so fast and embraced for a full minute! It was the sweetest meeting of two little friends. They played while I caught up with Freddie’s mom and then we had to race off to meet Brian in Regent’s Park across the way. Brian’s phone had run out of batteries though, and we could not find him in the park. We didn’t know at the time that his phone wasn’t working, so we walked all over and ended up in Queen Mary’s Rose Garden, feet from where he was sitting on a bench waiting for us. We never saw each other though! Frustrated about not being able to connect, we headed off to eat dinner at Nando’s in Marylebone with just the 4 of us. Brian had to buy a charger, get his phone working again, and by the time we got ahold of each other, we were both headed back to our place for the night.

Queen Mary’s Rose Garden is the best place to take a gorgeous walk. The roses were still blooming all over and the park was sooo green. It was stunning. We smelled the roses (literally), chose our favorites and relaxed on a bench there while the sun set.

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DAY THREE: Brian and I got up to do a long run in and around Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. We trained for a marathon together on these paths and it was so nice to be back seeing so much of the same scenery after two years away.

There were several times when we all made verbal lists of things we wanted to make sure and see and Borough Market was at the top of everyone’s. So many good, yummy memories! We explored our favorite market where we indulged in delicious custard-filled donuts and then hot ham and mozzarella sandwiches. We then walked over to the Tower Bridge, past the Tower of London and tubed to Big Ben (sadly, covered in scaffolding). We walked down Whitehall over to Trafalgar Square, where we hung out for a while just taking it in. This was always one of our favorite places in London and the weather today was amazing. So, we took advantage of just being outside in this glorious city. We made a quick stop in the National Portrait Gallery, where we split with Brian and Kate. They wanted to stay longer at the museum, and we wanted to take a bus from Trafalgar, through Piccadilly and Oxford Circus and down Regent Street (the best ride- and we even nabbed top deck front seats!).

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We got out at Notting Hill and I stopped at my favorite cafe in the entire world, Ottolenghi. That place is a-maz-ing. I got a medley of their unique salads, a dark chocolate cookie and a slice of their molten chocolate cake for Kate. We sat by the flower stand on the High Street while we all nibbled on my salads and ate the most delicious cookie of my life (sorry, Levain, Ottolenghi has you beat by a mile!). After that, we walked down Portobello Road admiring all of the shops and made our way to the famously adorable Biscuiteers shop, where we met back up again with Kate and Dad.

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We had a dinner with our friends, The Beesley’s, later that night, but we had some time to kill and the girls needed some “kid friendly” stuff after all of that walking. We found a nearby park, where they were able to play and run and climb. London has the best playgrounds and they’re surrounded by the most gorgeous neighborhoods. I could walk around this place all day long every day and never tire of it. We walked over to Nando’s to meet our friends and had another delicious dinner with them…it was so fun to see them again and to catch up on the last two years and hear about all that they had going on.

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DAY FIVE: Our last day in London was actually spent outside the city. We rented a car and drove to the Cotswolds near Cambridge. We love this area and its a close drive from the city, so its justifiable on such a quick trip. It’s also one of the most gorgeous places on earth. ;) This day, the weather was unbelievable—a local even said it was the prettiest day he’d seen in the area in years. We drove to Stow-on-the Wold, parked our car and rented bikes for all 6 of us. We biked through Stow-on-the-Wold and over to the Upper and Lower Slaughters through the most gorgeous scenery. Man, this place is like nothing else. The quaint cottages, little streams, bridges, horses, green rolling hills and huge estates made this bike ride pretty unbelievable.

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In the Slaughters, there is this huge descending hill that ends in this water-covered pass. If you’re on a bike, you can bypass the water via a little side path, but these girls decided that wasn’t going to be good enough for them. They rode through as fast as they could and as many times as they could, getting pretty soaked by the end. It was the perfect sunny time of the day and we were totally alone out there. It was a pretty perfect moment with lots of laughs and memories.

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The weather, outside of that first rainy day, was perfect. We ate a lot of our favorite Hob Nobs, Digestives, and Cadbury Bars as well as a multitude of other delicious things. We walked a lot and saw a ton. This quick trip just re-confirmed what I already knew…London is such a magical place. There really is no better way to describe it. I thought I was over you, but I just don’t think I ever will be. We were so grateful to get to go back!

The Mighty Dolomites

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Is there anything better than the Alps? I'm not sure. I love spending time here. 

A couple weeks ago, I was in Munich, Germany for a board meeting. The girls were in UT, so I decided to add a few days to the trip. I headed south, through Austria, to hike a few trails in the Italian Alps.

I only had time for a few Google searches in terms of where to stay and ultimately hike. Limiting the searched ended up providing a bit more serendipity into quick trip. Usually, we spend time planning. I typically have a picture already in my head of what I'll be seeing. 

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After being steered in the right direction from a few locals, I ended up at Lago di Braies. A beautiful alpine lake, Braies is mostly secluded, except for the large hotel and parking lot on the north side. Once I arrived, it felt like the best place for a home base. And although the hotel listed wifi, it didn't work, which was perfect. 

I snuck these pics in before our first hike. It was about 5:30 in the morning. You would think I was the only one up at that hour desperate to get a good shot. What you don't see is the 20 other tourists behind me. By 9:00 AM, it was packed. 

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The first hike was about an hour south of lake, Tre Cime. I may have taken hundreds of pictures during the 9 hours of hiking. And despite the on/off raining and cloudy weather, the temperature was perfect.  

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I didn't have my girls to photograph, so the cows and horses got shot.

I didn't have my girls to photograph, so the cows and horses got shot.

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Back at the lake ... home base. A relaxing evening and dinner at the boat house.

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The next hike was on the other side of Cortina d'Ampezzo (Queen of the Dolomites),  at Cinque Torri. There was an option to climb the mountain by way of tram, but I hiked up. 

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This town was beautiful. Borca di Cadore is hard to describe. It feels Austrian but very much Italian. It appeared they were in the middle of some festival but apparently, it was just every day life.

This town was beautiful. Borca di Cadore is hard to describe. It feels Austrian but very much Italian. It appeared they were in the middle of some festival but apparently, it was just every day life.

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A few shots of Lago di Braies:

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On the way back up to Munich, I stopped in Austria to repeat a hike the girls and I did a couple years back while we lived in London. 

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These horses were super friendly--and much bigger than they look here. 

As for the Dolomites, we'll be back. Lauren and I are already planning her 12-year-old trip! 

Another 24 Hours in Jerusalem

I've tried to make a quick visit - at least 24 hours in Jerusalem every time I come to Tel Aviv for business. I love coming up to the BYU Jerusalem Center to attend church. It must be my favorite building in all of Israel. 

This past visit was extra special because Elle was there, doing a semester abroad. It's the very thing I hope my girls get to do once in college. It's a special place in every way. 

It's been over three years since Elle lived with us in London. It was great to catch up as always and to meet her roommates. I couldn't help be jealous of the experience they are having at this time in their life. When Rachel and I were at BYU, the Center was closed due to security and safety concerns. So we never had the opportunity. I'm only living vicariously through their once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

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Once I got to Jerusalem (Friday evening), I met up w Elle and her roommates for dinner. Afterwards, we went to the Western Wall to welcome in the Sabbath. There is quite the celebration each Friday night before sundown. 

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I always find some time to walk around the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Always fascinating to watch the visitors and activities that take place inside the church. I'm never really sure what is going on. :)

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One of my favorite places in Jerusalem. The BYU Jerusalem Center aka Mormon University to the locals. 

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After church, Elle and I, and her roommates grabbed a few pictures. Such amazing views of the Old City. 

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My go-to spot after church is the Garden of Gethsemane. It's beautiful and peaceful (when there are few tourists)

A Day in Versailles

After spending a day in Paris, we decided to snag a last-minute hotel in Versailles, just outside the city.  We found an awesome deal at the Waldorf-Astoria (!!!) right off the actual grounds of the stunning palace of Versailles and planned spending Saturday night and Sunday morning there.  Before dinner, we worked up an appetite by walking around the charming city streets-- bike rentals had just closed for the day when we arrived :( . We loved exploring the streets of this city and seeing the gorgeous architecture and lovely restaurants.   We enjoyed a delicious pizza dinner and then for the piece de resistance, we wandered over to the most delicious bakery ever, the Boulangerie Guinon.  Seriously, this place is incredible-- best pastries and bread of my life.  We had been here once before when we did a bike tour of Versailles with some of our best friends, the Dardanos, a couple of years ago.  But, this time we invested in more sugary fare, specifically the eclairs and tarts.  Amazing.  Before we even finished satiating our appetites, we were planning a trip back tomorrow before we left Versailles.

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The next morning we woke up, worked out together, showered, and then went to indulge again in the hotel's breakfast for Mother's Day!  Per expectation when traveling in France, it was incredible.  The croissants, cheese, yogurt and fruit were top-rate.  Almost as good was the beautiful setting as we dined outside under a tent on a gorgeous morning.  Such a happy memory!  After finishing up, we rented bikes and started our self-guided tour of the grounds of Versailles.  We rode all around the Grand Canal, stopping to go down less-traveled roads as well as soaking it all in as we went along.

Here are those less-traveled roads...so so so beautiful.

Here are those less-traveled roads...so so so beautiful.

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After parking our bikes and wandering the gardens for a bit, we decided to go into the Palace and see what all of the fuss is about. ;) I'm sure its incredibly busy in the summer, during high tourist season, but it still felt a general crowded push at all times to see the most popular things.  We visited the bedrooms and the Hall of Mirrors, where we tried to wrap our heads around the kind of lives the French royalty lived back then.  Nuts.

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One of my favorite parts was this room full of important French portraits and events in French history.  I recognized a lot of scenes and people from our favorite broadway, "Alexander Hamilton", which was really fun.

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We biked back out of the grounds and continued our tour of the actual city.  After discovering our favorite bakery was closed today (so sad!!), we found a disappointing replacement and sat on these church steps to eat.

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We rode around the market and surrounding areas and then rode to the Paris LDS temple, which is actually right in Versailles.  It was so cool to walk around and learn a little about the construction and the LDS history in the region.  The temple and grounds were immaculate and beautiful and it was so fun to see in real life.  We LOVED every second of our time in Versailles and were so glad we decided to get out of the big city for just one night.  Totally and completely worth it.