Sunday, 27 September 2009

Paris days 1 & 2


Currently sat on the Thalys train to Paris Gare Du Nord. It's running a little bit (10 mins so far) late... Just like at home! We did manage to get up to the Atomium this morning – a bit of an interesting journey on the tram at the tail end of rush hour – we didn't manage to sit down for very long before getting up to allow others to have our seats. Given that the tram carriage could theoretically accommodate 120 people standing (according to the notice), I'd hate to be on there when it was really crowded! We went through a lot of residential areas – some nicer than others – before we got out to the Atomium (fortunately, it was the last stop on the route so we didn't have to worry about missing it!)

The Atomium itself (which did have a place to leave our heavy bag) was fun! A series of globes connected by escalators and stairs, set up to represent an iron molecule. It was the centre-piece of the Belgian World Expo in 1958, and was doing very well for a temporary structure! Inside the globes were a viewing circle (rather sadly today has been the first cloudy day of the holiday, so we didn't get as good a view as we could have done), information about the 1958 expo (some rather eyebrow raising positive propaganda, particularly around the Belgian colonies and the role of the B royal family during the war!), and a couple of lovely pieces about the role of the Atomium in the modern cartoons/bandes dessinees (accompanied by posters and slideshows). It probably took us about an hour and a half in total to go round – then we headed through the giftshop and out for a drink and the Metro back to Brussels. We got to the Gare du Midi at lunchtime (again, a very crowded Metro journey as all the schoolkids were on their way home), and stopped for a mildly disappointing lunch (the cafe had an offer on but neglected to say that only a couple of their sandwiches were actually in the offer until after they had heated up our (non-offer) baguettes!) Still, all salvaged by a very yummy Hagen-daz waffle with squirty cream and chocolate sauce (and where else but Belgium would you get the chance to choose between dark and milk chocolate sauce?!). We then mooched around the station until our train arrived, and we are now speeding through the countryside out of Belgium and into France!

21:48 Paris Time (PT). We are now in hotel Manet, which we found very easily. The Metro line ran directly from Gare du Nord to Place d'Italie, and from there it was only about 5 minutes down the road. The hotel is very comfortable (and has free wifi!). We are round the corner from the main police station of the district, and earlier this afternoon we did hear a lot of sirens However, it does now seem to have quietened down (I'm hoping that France has the same 'no sirens unless necessary' rule as the UK, otherwise it could be a noisy night!). After a bit of loafing in the hotel room (catching up on emails!), we headed out to see if we could find a light supper (whilst it is not as hot here as it was in Brussels, and we've even had our first spots of rain of the holiday, it is still quite muggy, and we have already eaten well today!) We very quickly found La derniere seance, which is a creperie tucked just off the main avenue (Seance here being the French for show/film show, rather than being an occultist themed restaurant. Just so you know.). They had a good meal offer going on, but we weren't quite hungry enough at 7pm, so decided to do a large walk round the block to build up an appetite and to see what else was about for tomorrow evening (John is very keen to try a Chinese given that we are on the border of Chinatown here). We passed a number of likely looking places, with the set menus getting better and better (we started getting very picky and not even considering places that didn't have a set menu!), and we think that we have now found our place for tomorrow. The spotting of rain did get a bit heavier, so we headed back to Seance for our pancakes. And this place was good. We were the only clientele there, which was very undeserving. The waiter was the perfect balance of attentive when we needed him, but fading into the background when we just wanted to chat. The pancakes, though basic (ham, cheese and egg for the savoury and sugar/chocolate for the sweet) were delicious – so much lighter than the ones we get in the UK. We also got a basic salad and a drink (John had his diet coke, and I went for a glass of cider – a lovely light and slightly sweet one, which rivalled most of the ciders I've had in the UK recently). We added to the set menu with a couple of drinks (John had mint/lemonade, and I had grenadine/lemonade) and an excellent espresso coffee each. The whole meal took over an hour and a half, and was just what we needed. I'd definitely recommend this place again!

And now, hopefully, an early night and a bit of a lie in tomorrow morning (as we are not B&B here, so don't have to be up in a specific time for breakfast) before heading out to the tourist areas of Paris.


First full day in Paris. We had quite a long wander round this morning trying to find the patisserie that we spotted last night, but to no avail! Still, we found another, which had lovely chocolate chip brioches, which did just as well for breakfast. Then off to the famous section of Paris! It was raining, which was a bit disappointing, but the grey weather did not last long. We came out of the Metro close to the Louvre, and wandered around the outside, taking photos, but not going in (that's tomorrow's plan...). We then headed down to the Place de Concorde and from there up the Champs Elysée. It was very sad that we had to do so much dodging of beggars (one on the Metro with a baby firmly clamped to her breast was better dressed than I was!). - I am probably incredibly hard hearted, but they just annoy me now (and I'm sure that I've seen at least one of them in Bristol!). We also had to keep on dodging souvenir sellers – it felt like almost every third person at the Palais du Chaillot was selling tacky Eiffel Towers. Still all parts of the hazards of being a tourist in a big city!

We found another patisserie for lunch half way up the Champs Elysée (after wandering backwards and forwards for a while), and then finally found somewhere that sold coffee for less than 5E each! Then on up to the Arc de Triomphe and, after taking some photos and trying to avoid the coach tours, wandered down the the Eiffel Tower. The weather by now was glorious, so we decided to head on up (there wouldn't have been much point if it had been raining as we wouldn't have had a decent view). We only ended up going in the lift to the 2nd floor, rather than right to the top, as the extra 10E would have pushed us over the edge of our budget, and things are getting a little bit tighter than they should! But it was still worth it – the views were amazing, and we then spent a leisurely couple of hours going round the exhibitions on the first floor before descending via the stairs back to ground level again (which given the queues, would actually have been faster than waiting for the lift!). We then moseyed on up towards the Military College, stopping for a quick drink, and a replaying of “The Birds” with sparrows (they really wanted the crepe of the gentlemen sat at the table behind us). Then back on the Metro to the hotel and ready to go out for supper this evening...

My first real impressions of Paris are that it is very crowded and not very sociable – the folks in Belgium seemed to be a lot more laid back and more willing to (a) make room on the pavement and (b) let you cross the road; here the aim seems to be to inconvenience as many people as possible (qv the lady who stopped in the middle of a scaffolded area of pavement to take a phone call, ensuring that everyone who wanted to get past in both directions (i.e. she could see the oncoming pedestrians, even if you tried to make the excuse that she wasn't aware that there were people coming up behind her) had to step out into the reasonably busy street)) and that pedestrian green lights are things to be ignored wherever possible (particularly by bicycles – my old bug bear – and by moped) The architecture is all very nice, particularly around the famous bits, but it is also a bit samey – I really did enjoy Brussels changing face where the different architectural styles blended and complemented each other.

Recently got back from our visit to Noveau Viet Nam (no web page from Google - I will have to see if I can find one on the business card they gave us when I get back home) – an amazing little Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant about 10 minutes walk from the hotel. From the start, the evening was more than a meal, it was full entertainment, too. The waiter (who, aside from a c15 y.o. Boy, seemed to be the sole member of staff in the restaurant) was small, grey haired, walked as though he had slippers on, and seemed to be talking to himself a lot. Only when he repeated himself did you realise that he'd actually been asking you a question! However, this was not a detriment to the restaurant (nor was the shouting match with one of the other customers over whether he should have served the second bowl of soup with the first or waited (the customer thought that they should have been served together, even though he was having the soup as his main meal. Or so I gathered – my French isn't exactly amazing!)), but more a wonderful splash of colour. The food was, in a word, exquisite. The seafood soup with tamarind actually had tamarind rind floating in it, and was the perfect balance of sweet, sour and salty that you expect from a Thai dish. The duck with pineapple, on the name of it, a very traditional, and, some may say, bland dish was heavenly. The pineapple was evidently fresh, with a pure, across the top of the palate taste that you just don't get from tinned fruit. The duck was cooked to perfection, with just enough fat in it to flavour the meat, but not so fatty that it chokes (as so often happens with duck). The crystallized ginger desert was a little too much for me to finish, but what I managed was delicious (and I pinched a piece of John's nougat, which was more like a Turkish delight with peanuts in, coated in toasted sesame seeds). All this was for 11.90E each – could you get three courses in the UK for the same? On top of this, we had a delicious bottle of rose wine, and espresso that was to die for (and seriously, I would have killed if anyone had tried to take it away from me!). Also, complements of the house, we got a glass of a digestif – an anonymous liqueur that was better gulped than sipped, though if you sipped it, you got a better chance to admire the unusual mugs that it came in – they each had a prism in them at the bottom of which was a picture, especially selected for John and myself (so it was therefore a shame that we initially picked up the wrong mug!) of a naked person for us to admire... The picture only showed through when there was liquid in the mug....

Added to the food and the floor show that the waiter provided was also the side entertainers of the rose seller and the random book seller (we presumed he must have been a Jehovah's witness, but he obviously only assumed that one of the tables was worth saving as he only tried to sell his literature to two ladies sat in the corner), and also that of the parking lorry coming and lifting away a car, interrupted by, we presume, the car's owner (not too much Gallic shouting, so there is a possibility that they were only just passing the time of day!), and then followed by what I assume was another member of the car removal team pushing a parked car out into the oncoming traffic (the car was on some kind of sledge arrangement...). There was also the possibility of an amusing occurrence when the waiter went out through the fire escape to pick up some more beers from the cellar. The fire door was heavy (with a push bar arrangement to open it), and so he propped it open with the chair from the table by the door. Even that only just managed to hold it. Whilst he had disappeared, two more ladies appeared wanting a table for the evening. The waiter's 15 y.o son (I assume) appeared and asked them where they'd like to sit. As all the other tables for 2 or 4 were taken, they chose to sit by the fire escape and one lady took the chair which had been propping the door open to sit on. It very gently swung shut. Fortunately, before it clicked, the waiter called out, and they repropped it open, but it could have very easily become a farce... (must try to remember should I ever write a play!) All in all, it was a glorious evening, and, as it is unlikely that we will ever get to go there again, I hope that I can promote it enough that other people will manage to go for us!

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