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Archive for October, 2012

Better than Paris. Better than Paris by Night
Paris by Night on a Bike!

I hoped to spend quite a bit of my time in Paris on a Velib (shared bike), but the weather really wasn’t cooperative and a close encounter between my left knee and the cobblestones of Prague just prior to my arrival was also a bit discouraging. The weather had improved and the swelling subsided by my last night; however, so some friends and I rendezvous’d at the South foot of the Eiffel Tower at dusk for a Fat Tire Bike tour.  This is an amazingly good value that I strongly recommend to first-time and experienced visitors to the city alike.

The bikes are comfortable and well maintained and the staff at Fat Tire have the tour down to a fair science. No reservations required. You meet at the Eiffel Tower, they divide everyone into manageable groups, walk you back a few blocks to their headquarters and collect your fee, store your effects and sell you bottles of water and rain ponchos if required. Eat something before the meet up time and take an extra layer for the night tour – they will give you a bungee cord to carry it along on your rat trap.

The first part of the ride is the most parlous but quite exhilarating:  A half-hour ride to Notre Dame and Ile Saint-Louis – and quite a bit of it in traffic!  Well how can that be fun, you ask?  Or safe?

The reason is that the tour rides in “road domination” formation, and makes good use of bus-only lanes.  Those occasional honks one hears while blocking the entire road are merely the good citizens of Paris complimenting the riders on their excellent form, agreeable environmental choices and all-round good looks.  It is a bit stop-and-go just at the beginning, but soon everyone in the group is comfortable and the amount of road riding diminishes considerably after that first leg.

On the Ile Saint-Louis we stopped for a famous Berthillon ice cream cone and listened to an old fellow play the accordian on the pedestrian bridge. It was one of these great moments in Paris – right out of Lady and the Tramp, only minus the meatball.

Later, we rode into the Cour Napoleon (the large courtyard surrounding the glass pyramid at the Louvre) through a passageway at the back where a lone cellist was exploiting the acoustics. Also quite magical. We spent a bit of time racing around the pyramid,  photo-bombing the tourists not clever enough to be on two wheels, and then headed along to the Place de la Concorde and a ride down the road-width sidewalks of the Champs-Elysees.

Lose the crowds and enjoy the lights of Paris.

After nearly three hours of short, easy rides and sight-seeing with a knowledgable guide, we locked up our bikes and boarded a bateaux mouche (open excursion boat) for an hour long sightseeing tour along the Seine. This was included in the 3o Euro tour ticket, as was a fairly generous pour of wine. Another short bike leg and we arrived back at Fat Tire at about 1130, tired but happy.

Fat Tire also operates day tours in Paris, as well as in Barcelona and Madrid.  I recently did the Barcelona tour and found it to also be a great value and a brilliant way to get oriented to that city.

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Where to start?  Where to go? What to see?

Paris offers so many possibilities, but it is a really big city, and if you aren’t careful you can spend most of your time trying to get from one marquee attraction to the next. Even off season, attractions like the Louvre and Gare d’Orsay are very popular. In fact, off season, you are likely to encounter a lot of school groups: Not always conducive to the contemplation of great works of art. Throw in a lot of standing in line and some pricey tickets and a day in Paris can leave both you and your wallet feeling a little drained.

It’s been quite a few years since I was in Paris with time enough to do some sight-seeing.  Even longer since I visited the Louvre or climbed the stairs at the Eiffel Tower. Did you know there are 35,000 works of art in the Louvre? To look at everything would take about 9 months of full-time effort. About eight and a half million people visit every year.

I like art but I like it best when it sneaks up on me; when I stumble on a little gallery, or open someone’s coffee table book to find something wonderful and surprising. The last time I was at the Louvre, it was a less than pleasurable experience that left me feeling fraught. Since it’s the most visited museum in the world, I decided my absence would not be noted.

Instead, I decided to find a few less celebrated attractions conveniently located in one neighbourhood. The Marais was my choice for a full day outing. The name Marais means swamp and the land was once swampland adjoining the Seine and nearby Ile de la Cite, where Paris started out as a village inhabited by the Parisii tribe. The historic neighbourhood is charming, with narrow streets and interesting shops. It was originally the preferred location for aristocrats. It later became, and remains, a popular Jewish quarter. More recently, both the gay community and Chinese immigrants have become increasingly established. The result is an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants and night spots.

Within the Marais are several excellent museums and I chose two of these to visit. The first is a branch of the Museum of Paris, dedicated to the city’s history. It is known as the Musee Carnavalet after one of two mansions in which it is housed. Wikipedia offers this concise description of its collections:

“The Carnavalet houses about 2,600 paintings, 20,000 drawings, 300,000 engravings and 150,000 photographs, 2,000 modern sculptures and 800 pieces of furniture, thousands of ceramics, many decorations, models and reliefs, signs, thousands of coins, countless items, many of them souvenirs of famous characters, and thousands of archeological fragments. . . . The period called Modern Time, which spans from the Renaissance until today, is known essentially by the vast amount of images of the city . . . There are many views of the streets and monuments of Paris from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, but there are also many portraits of characters who played a role in the history of the capital and works showing events which took place in Paris, especially the many revolutions which stirred the capital, as well as many scenes of the daily life in all the social classes.”  

In other words, something for everyone. I loitered for hours, often finding myself alone in one of the numerous exhibition halls. It’s in the center of town, it’s full of interesting historic items… Did I mention it’s free to enter? Oh, and that it has a pretty garden where you can wander around when you need a little break and some fresh air?

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By the time I had seen all the Carnavalet had to offer, I was hungry. A few blocks away, on quaint Rue de Rosiers, is the city’s most famous falafel shop (and a number of imitators.) Don’t let the line up in front of L’as du Falafel discourage you. It moves fast.

The line up outside L’as de Falafel

Best Falfel in Recent Memory

Runners took my order and money in exchange for a chit while I waited in line. Once at the window all I had to do was answer yes or no to the question “spicy sauce?”  It wasn’t overly spicy and added a lot of flavour. A massive veggie-laden falafel sandwich and a can of Heineken cost 8 euros. I found a quiet bench in a pocket-sized park two blocks away and devoured it.

After which I felt ready for the Shoah Memorial and museum depicting the history of anti-Semitism in France, the rise of Nazism, the crimes of the Vichy government and the events surrounding the deportation of Jews, more than 70 thousand of whom are listed on the memorial’s walls. The exhibits here include a reconstruction of the collection of file cards kept at one time on every Jewish person in Paris, as well as a picture wall of deported children. The crypt, in which ashes from concentration camps has been interred with Israeli soil, is peaceful and quite beautiful.  This exhibit is also free to enter.  While the subject matter is horrifying, it is well-presented and I recommend a visit.

Afterwards, I perused some of the local boutiques of the Marais. The Picasso Museum and the Pompidou Centre were both in easy reach, but two was enough. And Paris by Night lay just ahead!

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That’s what we learned to do. And also consult Tripadvisor! The thrill of maybe discovering a great restaurant on your own wears thin after a few consecutive failures. Once we started to consult the gurus we never missed. While traditional Czech food tends to lovely roasted meats swimming in gravy with dumplings, potatoes or creamy salads, we also found terrific Indian at an outdoor terrace near the pricey Old Town Square as well as lovely pizza (this last on a floating restaurant with views of the castle.) We had terrific food at great prices along with good service!

Together with all the beautiful sights and the pedestrian friendly and bustling vibe, my visit to Prague was really enjoyable. Now off to Paris for a few days but I won’t leave you without a few food pictures!

This was our lunch yesterday at U Parlementu. I had roast pork in a luscious gravy, along with spinach and bread dumplings. AB had beef sirloin in a cream sauce (which looks like gravy) and buttered boiled potatoes. We shared a Greek salad and a crepe-style dessert and we each had a beer. Our bill came to 427 Crowns which is approximately 18 Euros or CDN $23.
Best of all, the server was friendly and really helpful. He didn’t tip himself, but we sure did.

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Gorgeous day, so AB and I jumped on a tram and then the funicular up Petrin Hill. The walk down to Prague castle in the fall sunlight- through forest and then orchards-was spectacular!

Near a monastery we decided to splurge on coffee on a terrace with a spectacular view. My coffee was 79 crowns, and we think AB’s hot chocolate was 80 or 85, but when the waiter came to collect he presented no bill and asked for 180. It was no more than what we were preparing to give him, but perhaps he thought we would tip him on top of his faulty math?

We proceeded to join the throngs of tourists milling around the castle just as the guard changed at noon. Decided not to buy a ticket package for the various exhibits but did see St Vitus’ chapel.

After walking down through the Royal Gardens we looked about for a bite of lunch in Mala Strana, finally settling on a beer garden style spot that was very busy and advertised reasonable prices.

Things began to go wrong pretty quickly. I used the bathroom and was appalled by it’s condition. Bad sign.

Then AB noticed that the menus all instructed customers to “accept only printed bills” – code for “don’t trust our staff.”

But we’d already ordered. Half an hour later our food arrived
AB’s fried cheese was hot and plentiful. My Goulash soup was excessively salty but edible. Side dishes of fries and a meager portion of limp onion rings – which came on a bed of dressed greens- were stone cold. I thought of sending them back but felt it was probably my fault for ordering a North American style dish. I decided to just enjoy the salad instead. And that’s when My teeth discovered it was full of sand. I lifted up the lettuce leaves and could see sand all over the plate. Now it was going back.

Called the server to explain the problem and told her I did not want a replacement – I was simply sending it back.

She wandered off to report this to someone, and as we waited for her to come back something nose- dived into AB’s fries. I thought it was a big bumble bee: No such luck. It was a cockroach.

We looked at the plate in frozen horror, too stunned to even take a photo. The waitress came back just then and began to say “I’m sorry but…” but was halted when we waved at the cockroach. She scooped up the plate and disappeared with it in moments, returning shortly thereafter to say ” I’m sorry but the chef says the bug was not in your food when it left the kitchen. That is nature.”

“You have roaches.” I countered.
“Yes, in the Czech Republic.”

It was becoming clear we would not agree on whose problem the roach was. I asked for the bill and told her I would not pay for the cold onion rings and sandy salad. I deducted the appropriate amount from the bill that she brought us, we left the reduced amount on the table and left. Around the corner was a market selling cold beer and a MacDonald’s with a clean bathroom and hot fries. And that is what I had for lunch.

Best meal and value we’ve had was an Indian restaurant rated number three on Tripadvisor. We looked up our lunch spot after returning to our hotel and found horrible reviews and tales of bill scamming – rated at almost 1000 among Prague restaurants. So now we are going to consult Tripadvisor in advance. In fact I believe we will plan our days around our meals.

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New record for posts in one day. Notifications filling your inbox? Getting annoyed?
Just read this before you get all up in my grill.

Got into Praha, as we euro- sophisticates like to call it- around 1 and bused into the centre. Found the Mosaic hostel/hotel after the usual comical errors that see you dragging your pack around long after the fun is gone. Total chaos at check-in. A group of eight Spaniards were engaging in a dramatic altercation in the lobby. I felt so unconcerned. Until it was my turn. Seemed they were having problems fitting all the bodies into a finite number of rooms. Wanted to give us a double with a cot instead of the twins we’d booked. Naa- unnhhh. Upgrade!

We now have a very deluxe room on the top floor with terrace, high tech lights, auto blinds, magic smoked glass at the touch of a switch, rain shower, plasma, sound system, fridge. Ya, don’t mess with me!

So, still waiting for AB, I go out for a look about, realize I’ve eaten little all day, and choose a quiet tidy place with a schnitzel special for 260 crowns. I’m no math whiz but I’m on fairly solid ground that this is between 10 and 12 Euros. Beer is a bit steep at 60, but people have to make a living, right?

First course is soup. Creamy potato soup full of dill and hard-boiled eggs. Strange texture combination, but this is why we travel. Not bad really. Schnitzel is less appealing. Overdone, tough. A few fries and a tired bit of salad. You win some-you lose some. And then the bill comes.

A two part bill. First part is a cash tape showing 260 dinner, 60 beer and 20 “cover.”. That’s what some places charge for bread or perhaps in this case my cutlery. Ok it’s a buck. Then I see the hand written note that says “with service your bill is 412 crowns.” Like I said, not a math whiz but how did 320 become 412? So I pick up the cash tape and go into pay. “where is the other part of the bill” says the cashier?
“This is the bill” say I, staring her down, “You don’t decide service, I do.”

“I am service. You have a problem with me?”
“I’ll pay this bill, and then I’ll think about your service”
So she gave me all my change and after thinking about her service for a moment or two, I left.
Lesson one: don’t read your tourist guide book in the restaurant, even if you are bored eating alone.
Lesson two: don’t mess with me.

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