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Posts Tagged ‘France’

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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What a flurry of writing! There is a reason of course. I have just waved Cottager off on his flights home and have FOUR hours to burn here at Toulouse airport before my own flight to Prague. Four hours and free wifi and a lot of stuff to catch up on means one achy iPhone index finger and stares of amazement from the Frenchman sitting opposite me.

Why Prague, you ask? Because I’ve never been there and neither has my current work-spouse, AB. So we agreed to meet there today and spend a few days wandering about before she goes off to Russia to visit another colleague of ours who is on assignment there while I go to Paris to visit a former colleague and my previous work-spouse AJ.

Does that make sense?
If you aren’t clear on what a work-spouse is you can get up to speed on-line. Try Wikipedia.

Really have to stop now or will get an RSI. Cottager took the iPad home, you see. More (short) posts from Prague.

Thanks for the great holiday Cottager! Travel safe, my dear.

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This lovely town is certainly swarming with tourists in the summer but in early autumn it keeps all it’s charm while losing the crowds. We spent two nights, hiked to an olive oil mill and then a castle high above and also did some shopping – another benefit of traveling in September is that the stores are clearing out almost everything at 50% off or better.

We had two good dinners here at reasonable prices for a tourist hub. But our hotel was over-priced and under- charming (can’t wait to hook up with my old buddy Tripadvisor on that one!). Keeps it interesting. A few pictures then.

The view from our hotel room;
And from the castle;
Walking about in the evening;

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In France, everyday starts with a trip to the bakery. Even in little Colombiers there are two. My favorite pastry is pain aux raisins. It is never exactly the same at any two bakeries but it is always delicious and usually still warm from the oven. When you enter the bakery it is considered correct to greet everyone with a murmured “Mesdames, Messieurs” unless one of these is missing or is present only in the singular in which case you must adjust this greeting.

In other words, you have to do a quick inventory of the number and gender of the folks in the room, and then speak rationally in another language and all while still half-asleep and wholly overcome by the smells in the bakery, which cause your mouth to flood with saliva.

And now it is suddenly my turn to order. Everyone leans in to hear what this weird tall lady will say…

All my pronunciation practice deserts me in that moment and instead of ordering a big loaf and two raisin pastries (approx phonetic – gro pan ay de pan o ray san) I order a pregnant bread and two breads with reason (approx phonetic – gross pan ay de pan o rays -on). I believe I only imagine a hiss as the words leave my mouth.

These delectable items are presented to me notwithstanding my gaucheness. The bill is two euros seventy or about CDN $3.50. You probably thought France was expensive? Only to my self- esteem.

Here are specimens of pain aux raisin from the two local bakeries. The rectangular one is from the bakery around the corner. Cottager preferred this one. It had raisins and that fake green fruit one puts in Christmas cake. I preferred the one from the baker at the Newport – the swirly one. Flaky warm and sweet. So good. Worth any humiliation, really. To get both in one photo I had to sneak back through town with the goods after my visit to the second baker. I hope you appreciate my efforts.

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To celebrate 20 years of marriage the Cottager and I have abandoned our responsibilities for a little time away together. We burnt all of our Aeroplan miles for a couple business class seats, found a car rental deal and decided to start out with a house rental that would allow us maximum relaxation – a quiet village in the South of France with lots to see nearby. Our house is called Maison Petite Grand It is petite and it is on Grand rue in Colombiers – population….not very much at all.

We are about 20 km from the Med, and a block from the Canal du Midi, an extraordinary feat of engineering from the 17th century, designed to move goods by water but ultimately superseded by railways.

Now it’s a haven for pleasure boaters. The citizens of Colombiers were perspicacious enough, sometime in the 1980s, to dredge a turning basin which makes it a popular spot for boaters to chow down and stock up. Away from the Newport, and some modern developments popping up nearby, the original village is still a very sleepy and charming town.

Our cottage is really a townhouse from the 1880s. It has no garden, unfortunately but the location is great, the beds are comfortable and the price was right. We feel right at home.

Can’t seem to label these photos so here they are in order:

Our village house behind blue double doors
Our breakfast room
The turning basin at the Newport
The emblem of the town

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