Summer 2017: Paris


Day Zero

It was difficult to decide what to see this time around – like Rome, both Ange and I had been to Paris a few times and so we were looking for a mix of old friends and new experiences.

I’d switched from flights to the Eurostar, so rocked up to Gare du Nord and headed downstairs to the Metro. A few minutes later I was striding through the touristy areas of Monnaie to end up at the Hotel Marignan.

Day One

We checked out and headed over to our next hotel. As you would expect, the room wasn’t ready, so we stored our luggage and headed back out

Though the day dawned damp and overcast, we headed out to Versaille. It’d been 6 years since I’d been and about 20 since Ange had, so even though we knew it wouldn’t have changed, we thought it a good idea to go. The appeal of Versaille goes beyond it’s historical significance – the rest of Europe uses the palace and its grounds as a touchstone of grandeur. Many a time I have visited palaces elsewhere and had them described by guides as “the Versaille of…”. So to refresh our memories, away we headed.

Depending on which station your train goes to you can have either a five minute or ten minute walk to the palace. Ours went to Gare de Versailles Chantiers so we enjoyed the slightly longer walk, pausing to poke our heads into a truly amazing antique book shop.

Magazines from the 1930s were just lying around, in perfect condition. Everything was in French (as you would expect) but the place was huge, and filled to the brim with leatherbound books, furniture and assorted bric-a-brac. I couldn’t figure out how they could stay in business, as the rent must have been enormous.

Ange and I continued our stroll down the road, discussing whether we should get something to eat before heading inside. We’d decided that it would be better to get something before entering the palace because it would surely be over priced in the palace, and were discussing what we would like to eat. We agreed that something like you would get in an English pub would be perfect, and the words “Yes, but the French don’t have English pubs” had just fallen from Ange’s lips when we came upon an English pub. Right there on the boulevard leading up to the Palace,

We stuck our head in and had a look at the menu – surely it would just be a facade with French food inside? No – although the staff were very French, the food on offer was English and reasonably priced too! So we sat and ordered.

I had the Croque Madame, and Ange chose the tapas platter. Now I have an almost religious reaction against tapas. I think the serving sizes are too small to get a decent meal and I also have an unfortunate approach to sharing food coming from a childhood upbringing which was long on siblings and short on food.

But I bite my tongue – maybe the tapas platter would be good value, and I would look  a fool. But no. The food came and my croque was perfectly adequate. Ange’s platter was like something you’d get from a Wetherspoons (discount pub chain in UK favourite of students and the elderly), which to be fair is what we had just finished asking the universe for. But not a very satisfying meal.

I was generous with sharing my croque – poor choices shouldn’t mean you go hungry, and we made sure we had dessert: splitting a good sized waffle with chocolate sauce and whipped cream.

And then on to the Palace. Or at least on to queueing for the palace. Which took an hour snaking across the cobbled entrance. Last time I had done a tour and so had waltzed up through the group tours door, and I weighed up whether it would have been worth the additional expense for the time spent. I didn’t quite get to work out that particular piece of calculus, as we finally got to the front of the line and entered the complex.

The audio guide. Hmm… what to say about that. It was supposed to be triggered by entering a room, automatically starting the relevant commentary which is a great idea. I just found the commentary a touch on the verbose side and the value started to trail off. To really get full value you would have to spend far more time than we had available.

The palace itself is amazing, as we remembered from all those years ago. We noticed some familiar faces and names from our time in Vienna and Schönbrunn and a few of the design features also looked familiar from there also. It was particularly interesting how the palace managed to survive through the various republics and expulsion of the monarchy – the seat of power remaining in what back then would have been at best a place on the outskirts of Paris.

After we finished meandering through the galleries and halls, we headed out to the parklands in the rear of the Palace. We hadn’t splurged for the all inclusive tickets, so could go no further, but by then it was fast approaching closing time and the heavens were darkening at a worrying rate. The clouds made for some good photos, but promised at some point to drop a torrential deluge somewhere, and with a trip to the station approaching it would most likely be on us as we departed.

Thunder began to roll across the sky as if to press the urgency. As it turned out we managed to take a step into the nearest train station the second before the heavens opened.

Unfortunately, by waiting for so long and taking our time through the palace, we had managed to leave bang on closing time, meaning the station was chock full of returning tourists. We got into a line and I sent Ange off to rest her foot. The line moved slowly forward as tourists attempted to navigate the automated ticket machines, and eventually I was about three back from the front.

The line stopped as an American family tried over and over to buy the tickets, failing each time. Before I could get angry or step up and attempt to help though I noticed that the line beside ours was going really fast for some reason. And then I saw why. The machine was no longer working. It had stopped mid transaction, the little light illuminating the “machine working” sign had died and so people were getting to the front of the queue and then, realising their queuing time had been wasted, moving to one of the other queues.

Ange rejoined me and the family which had been holding our line up moved off to queue for the manned booth. We then made good time and I, worried that our machine would pack up mid transaction, stabbed the machine meticulously in an attempt to execute the purchase without any wasted time. Success! Ticket in hand we got through the barriers and ran for the train waiting n the platform. It was packed! We kept moving forward until we found seats and finally exhaled.

We checked into our new hotel and then left to seek out a place to eat. Now if you are of a sensitive nature you may want to skip ahead. I’ll mark where to start reading from again with a club(♣).

So we head out and find a clump of restaurants near the metro station Nation. Some of them look too touristy, some don’t have anything interesting on the menu and some we just don’t like the vibe. We’re being fussy. Ange has been having severe food envy and has decided that I am going to order for her cos she’s sick of me choosing better than her.

Or, I say, I could choose two things and you choose between them, how does that sound? Fine, she says and we eventually choose a smaller restaurant that seems to have a good selection of real French dishes.

We settle in the back room and peruse the menu. There are a few people around, most are outside under the awnings smoking, hence our choice of seat, and a TV on the wall is showing the news with the sound off.

I narrow down the choices for Ange to two items and she chooses the canard which I tell her is a fowl smaller than a standard chicken but turns out is actually duck. The waiter comes over as we decide and we order but I realise I don’t really know what I want so I panic and select the local sausage – Chitterling, thinking even if it’s not bangers and mash it comes with fries so it’ll be fine.

Ange’s food comes first – a sizeable leg of duck with some potatoes and gravy, nice. Good choice. We smile and nod at each other – we broke the curse of Ange choosing food poorly. Yay us.

Then a smell hits us, making me wonder: did someone fart? The waiter puts my order on the table, I look down and raise an eyebrow. Hmmm…that sausage looks comically phallic. And my god it pongs. The waiter returns with mustard, and we set to our meals. Cutting open the sausage reveals… let’s just say “not meat”. White rubbery not meat in little rings, like calamari but smelling like ass. I plow into it, hoping that it tastes better than it smells…and looks. It doesn’t taste of much but the smell is really off putting.

I’m tempted to smear my upper lip with the mustard so that I can’t smell it. Ange asks what’s wrong and I say that I’m just trying to get through my meal, and she looks concerned. I offer some to her and she picks at the morsel I give her for a bit and then tries it and spits it out, “nah,” she says, “I’m good thanks”. She asks if I have food envy now and I grimace while responding that I would have had food envy even if she’d ordered baked beans on toast.

I force it down and we order dessert – some sort of flan that we split. I don’t quite gargle my beer but certainly make sure there’s no remnants of the “not meat” before we head off. Back at the hotel I do an internet search to see what I had just eaten.

Chitterling, otherwise known as Andouillette, a French delicacy. The clues – looks like dick, smells and tastes like ass. And yes, it turns out it was ass – the lower colon of a pig. The other commentators have various funny stories of their experiences, and one even mentions that their waiter tried to dissuade them from ordering the dish. My question is why didn’t our waiter try to do the same? Lol!

♣Back? OK let’s continue.

Day Two

We checked out of our hotel and made the move across Paris, ending up much closer to Gare du Nord as we were heading back to the UK by Eurostar. On the way down the hill from the metro to the hotel we passed a cute little square – actually it was more of a triangle – with five or six restaurants on it. The heavens were threatening to open, but at best it was drizzling – a fine mist which was actually refreshing to walk through.

After the usual conversation at the hotel – “Is our room ready? No, it’s too early. OK we’ll come back, can we store our luggage? Sure”, we headed back up to the square/triangle for a spot of lunch. We were spoiled for choice of cuisines but Ange still wanted to try some French, so we chose the most obviously French of the restaurants on offer, and settled in. Outside the rain started getting a bit heavier, and the dark grey of the cobbles was frequently punctuated by the bright colours of the umbrellas.

Ever the optimists, we tried the tourist menu and for once were pleasantly surprised. We both finished with the very rich strawberry cheesecake, but I had the steak and Ange had the veal with chorizo sauce. Not bad!

We struck up a conversation with the elderly dears at the next table and my attempts at French were well received.

After lunch we completed the check-in and then headed out to visit two icons of Paris – the Arc di Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. By the time we got to the arch the rain had broken and the clouds started to clear, so by the time we waited twenty minutes for tickets and then climbed up to the top, the views were quite amazing and the afternoon light made for some great photos.

On the way down we stopped off at the memorial to World War I with the selection of uniforms used by the combatants.

There are no metro stops near the Eiffel Tower, so regardless of which line you take there’s always a lengthy walk at the other end. And then the decision of which side to approach from. We queued for the security check on the river side, and then after that queue had to choose which leg to go up. The South West one was reserved for groups, and the North West one was only for those who wanted to walk up the leg, so we went over to where the South East and North east queues met and chose one at random.

Ange went over to the concession stands and got some hotdogs and chips for us while we waited, a bit of forethought which proved invaluable as we waited…and waited…and waited. I usually like to get t0 places early, that way you avoid the longest queues and biggest crowds. We’d managed to not only go at the busiest time, but also when the weather had cleared which had brought out additional crowds.

We watched the sun go down from the line, and then only just made the lift going up when the light show started; bright lights flashing on the outside of the tower. As soon as we got to level two we got into the queue for the lift to the very top, and were watching the clock very closely as we were approaching cutoffs for when the lifts to the level 3 platform would stop running.

Everyone in the queue was tired and hungry and there were some people there with kids who were having meltdowns. Not recommended! The stress of perhaps missing our slot also made tempers a little frayed. We did manage to get into the lift and reach the top in the end, and were rewarded with views out across the city which really brought home the fact that Paris is the City of Lights.

We then joined the crush of people waiting to go down the elevator, but when confronted with the hordes of people waiting for the lift down to ground level, we decided to walk down instead. The night was still very warm as we followed Google’s advice and headed towards the bus stop for our bus home. We walked past what seemed like an interchange station like they have for triathalons and there were portaloos and sealed off sections which made us try and figure out what was happening – maybe the Triathalon for Brugge was following us?

We got to the bus stop and I saw a sign in French saying that the bus stop wasn’t in use. Great I thought, as we navigated towards the next bus stop along our bus’ route. Again, not in use because of some event.

Muttering to myself we headed even further along the route, this time walking along the river towards the next stop which was on a bridge. Near to the bridge was a train station and while it would be touch and go whether the trains would be still running at this time, I suggested that if that bus stop was also not served, then we’d try our luck with the RER.

Quite a crowd of people joined us at the bus stop, my guess being all previously visitors to the Tower, all exhausted and heading for home. I don’t think any of them had tickets for the bus and when it did show up, to visible looks of relief, Ange and I were two of maybe six or seven people who actually validated their tickets.

It was so bad the driver played an automated message “reminding” people to make sure that they travelled with validated tickets. Nobody moved. So we drove off, the driver probably instructed not to confront people at 1:30am in the morning when he’s alone. It was quite the relief to get back to the hotel at last!

Day Three

Museums in Paris are free on the first Sunday of the month, so we decide to go to the Musee d’Orsay and the Pompidou Centre – two art museums. After queuing a reasonable amount of time at the Arch de Triomphe and a ridiculous amount of time for the Eiffel Tower, we’re kind of over queuing, but as we approach the Musee d’Orsay and see the line snaking across the plaza in front of the museum we roll our eyes and relax into the inevitable.

A coffee kiosk which is a part of the queuing route remains inexplicably closed, even though there’s a person inside, cleaning. It’s not raining but feels like it will very shortly, so I would have thought people would have snapped up the opportunity for a hot coffee while they waited. Anyway, after about an hour we got inside.

The Musee d’Orsay has an impressive collection of art. So much so it’s almost impossible to take it all in at once – it overwhelms. There are some really heavy hitters in there too, with some of the paintings having a ring three or four deep, all trying to take photos of the art, most humorously using large iPads, which of course block the views of those behind.

We got a map form the front desk and sat down to plan out what we wanted to see. Our choices ranged form the incredibly popular Van Gogh, to the less popular but impressive collection of Art Nouveau.

We made sure to head up to the top floor to see the Impressionists and also to check out the clock faces both in the cafe as well as at the far end of the museum.

We’re just starting to get weary when we decide to move on, fully aware that there will likely be a queue at the Pompidou Centre also.

Lo, and there is too, snaking over the plaza alongside the centre and reaching the square next door. We decide to take lunch at one to the restaurants on the square and sit down at an Italian restaurant (Al Solito Posto). It’s amusing the combination of the languages – English and French and Italian all combining while we order. I have one of the pizzas and Ange has the spaghetti. It’s a well deserved rest from the queueing and art appreciation, and sets us up nicely for the afternoon of the same.

The Pompidou Centre, like the Lloyds Insurance building in London has pipes, escalators and elevators on the outside of the building, playfully turning the infrastructure of the building inside out. Inside we’re interested in the contemporary and modern art floors and I find myself asking what the difference between the two are. It turns out Modern art covers the period from the turn of the 20th Century to the 1960s when Contemporary art began.

Basically Modern Art leads to the point where art stopped looking like art. I must admit to being more comfortable with the Modern art floor and by the time we get to the Contemporary floor we’re pretty much exhausted. Like Musee d’Orsay it would really help to consume the art in multiple sittings.

We head back into the centre of Paris for the last things we wanted to see and do – Ange wanted to see the Pyramide du Louvre and then try a dessert from Angelina’s pâtisserie. I’d been to the Louvre Museum before and had found it’s enormity to be overwhelming, but needing an edit. There was just too much of limited value – it did  have the effect of making the gems stand out more though!

Above ground we took photos of the famous Pyramid and marvelled at the smallness of the queue to get in – if we weren’t so exhausted it would have been very tempting to head down for a taster selection of the best that the Louvre has to offer. Instead we capture ourselves in full tourist poses (so hard for me to get up onto the plinths!) and then head back through the Jardin des Tuileries to the Rue de Rivoli.

We duck scaffolding and find the entrance to the pâtisserie. I’m surprised that there is a queue out on the footpath, and take my place. Ange nips to the start of the queue to make sure I’m queueing correctly – she knows that it’s possible to make a booking to actually eat in the tea room, but also knows that there is a shop beside the eating area for takeaway.

She comes out and collects me – this looks like the queue of people without reservations that are queuing in the hope that someone doesn’t come to their reserved time slot! Thats how popular the place is! We skip ahead to the takeaway shop and marvel at the different coloured macaroons and selection of desserts in fine jars and tins, all tastefully designed and impeccably detailed.

It really is a throwback to the early 20th century, of style and service and in addition to celebrating over 110 years in business, they have also expanded to over 30 other locations. After a long and careful deliberation Ange selects a mille feuille and I elects to try the strawberry eclair. Hard to know who chooses better – a competition with no losers!

We made our way back to the hotel and then went out to dinner nearby – literally less than 200m from the hotel. We elect to sit inside to get away from the incessant smokers – it’s the bane of the non-smoker that although it might be uncomfortably warm inside, you end up having to choose to be able to breathe or be cool. Nevermind. There are a fair few customers in, but the staff handle the rush well enough. I have the egg mayonnaise and Ange has the onion soup for starters, and for main I have the burger with fries and a side salad which is suitably tasty, while Ange has the onion soup and salmon tartare.

The waiter goes to some trouble to make sure she knows what she’s ordering – raw salmon, and Ange assures him that she knows. I don’t think she’s prepared for the quantity that is delivered though, and there’s a fair bit left on her plate when we finish. For dessert we share a slice of the lemon meringue pie I had been eyeing all night, sitting on a refrigerated shelf in the front counter.

Day Four

We get up too early for breakfast at the hotel and head to Gare du Nord for the trip back to the UK. Paris is always a feast for the senses and the iconic locations to visit never get tired. The queuing though makes me wonder if guided tours (which usually have separate entrances) might just be worth their price for the time savings alone.