A Day (or Three) Out

Monday, October 10, 2011

You know how I mentioned earlier that London is great, but sometimes you just want to get out for a while?  Well that feeling came over me last week when I inadvertently ended up with a week off before starting my big exciting new job.  There I was with time on my hands and a definite need for a bit of relaxation before diving into what will certainly be the most demanding and high-profile gig of my life (so far…).  That, coupled with the fact that the Eurostar goes directly from St. Pancras Station, London to Gare du Nord, Paris in under two and a half hours and it was clear what was required.

How could I not?

I’ve been to Paris before.  Many of you will recall I had about ten days in the City of Light when I was on my Grand Tour, and this meant that I’d done a lot of Paris’s big sights: the Eiffel Tower? Check. The Louvre and the Mona Lisa? Check.  The Musée D’Orsay? The Catacombs? The Champs Elysée? The Arc de Triomphe? Montmartre? Check, check, check, check, check.  I even visited the museum of the Paris sewers.  All this meant that I was able to have a much more relaxing, less touristy time on this little break.  My plan was to arrive, sleep in every morning, seek out neighbourhood bistros, eat a lot of macarons,  sit in cafés with the crossword puzzle, check out a museum or two, and wander around a lot.  And I was, I believe, spectacularly successful in executing this plan.

So what were the highlights?  Well, I did find that neighbourhood bistro I was after. (Thank you Lonely Planet… it was nice to have your familiar blue presence at my side once again.)  It was a little place just around the corner from my cheap (but still over €100 a night!) hotel, and they did a fixed menu – starter, main course, cheese platter, and dessert - for €32 a head.  That’s all they did.  If you wanted to eat there, you made your selections and that was that.  There were no printed menus, just a bunch of big chalkboards with the day’s choices written on them.  When you were perusing the menu they just propped a board up on a nearby chair so you could contemplate the options.  It was perfect.  Even better, the first night I went there (I went twice…) I ended up seated at a table next to a chatty American business man who was friendly and interesting so I even had a dinner companion. (Nice meeting you, Mark!) 

And the cheese platter… mon Dieu.  After they cleared away the main course (first night: breast of grouse, second night: scallops roasted in the shell) the waiter came by with an enormous tray of cheeses – probably about ten different choices.  He left the tray on the table along with a side plate, and you were free to slice off bits of whatever looked good and decant then onto your small plate to be smeared onto the contents of the ever-present bread basket.  When you had what you wanted, off the tray went to the next table.  Brilliant.  So yeah, I went there twice.  The second night I was practically a regular and ended up helping translate some things for an Asian couple that the waiter was struggling with.  The poor guy was flapping his arms to try and get across the concept of poultry.  I loved that place.  LOVED.* 

In order to justify my continued trips to the cheese platter I also did a lot of walking.  Like most great cities (London, Rome, Hong Kong, San Francisco…) Paris is excellent for walking, and a lot of the best sights are really close together.  I did a couple of guided walking tours with Paris Walks, who I highly recommend.  We took in interesting sights, sacred and secular, and the guide was friendly and knowledgeable and a bargain for €12. I especially liked when he pointed out quirky things like this:

This small tile mosaic is the work of an urban street artist known as “Invader”.  He adorns city walls all over the world with these characters inspired by the video game Space Invaders.  Each tile is about an inch square, and once they’d been pointed out, I saw them all over the place.

This one was my favourite – on top of a building next to the Canal St. Martin.
Thursday night was another highlight.  On my last visit to Paris I had a very quick tour to the Musée des Arts et Metiers which I liked very much, but which I recall having to rush through in order to catch a train.  This time I could linger, and (BONUS) it turns out the museum is free after 6pm on Thursday nights!  It could not have been more perfect.  “Arts et Metiers” translates literally as “Arts and Crafts” but it’s really more a museum of the history of industry and technology and a repository of scientific instruments and inventions.  They’re probably best known for displaying the original Foucault pendulum, which French physicist Léon Foucault used to prove the rotation of the earth in 1851. They also have examples of original metres and kilograms and astrolabes and models of bridges (!) and early cameras and adding machines and looms and transport of all kinds and a lovely flying machine. 

Flying machine
But the thing that really made me smile was… the gears.  I realize here that it is insufferably geeky to be so jazzed about gears but I’m telling you that I lingered at those display cases with the goofiest grin on my face for an embarrassingly long amount of time.  But I ask you, how could you not find this incredibly cool? (Karen, I am talking to you.)

Toothed rolling curves with frame and quadri-lobed wheels!! (And look at that one in the background: a logarithmic spiral gear pair!) (And I am NOT making up those names.)

So what are our highlights so far? A cheese platter, mosaic space invaders and gears.  Well, that’s what everyone goes to Paris for, isn’t it? How about something a little more typically Parisian: pastries!

These are macarons – not to be confused with macaroons – the haystack-ish sort of coconut thingies, which are also quite lovely but not at all the same thing.

Macarons like the ones pictured above are about an inch and a half across (two perfect bites) and go for €0.65 to €1.00 each.  And though they look sort of meringue-ish, they are actually sort of chewy once you get through the impossibly light and fragile outer crust.  They come in 7.5 zillion flavours of which the best is (no surprise) chocolate.  I actually had to resurrect my Italian gelato rule and repurpose it for macarons while in Paris.  The gelato rule had two parts.  First: when in Italy, one must have gelato at least once per day.  Second: when ordering gelato, one must always order two flavours at once, and only ONE of these flavours can be chocolate.  This forces one to try other potentially good flavours, but also allows the backup option, in case the non-chocolate flavour turns out to be a dud.  I tried coconut milk, salted caramel, pistachio, raspberry, lemon, vanilla and passion fruit.  And four kinds of chocolate.

I did actually go to one gallery on my trip, though it was a small and sort of manageable one (not like the Louvre, which is daunting in a Hermitage – Prado – Uffizi kind of way).  The Musée de l’Orangerie is home to Monet’s famous Water Lilies, which are housed in two purpose-built oval shaped rooms designed by Monet himself.  I didn’t realize this, but the series of paintings we call the Water Lilies are actually HUGE.  There are eight in total – two sets of four – and they take up whole walls. 

One of the rooms.  I told you they were big…
The paintings themselves are quite lovely, of course.  What I found less lovely were the other people in the gallery.  There are signs as you walk in asking you to enjoy the place in silence which were roundly ignored by most people.  One particularly odious guy was taking long series of photographs of each mural that involved him sitting on the bench and panning across the room while his camera shutter clicked loudly like a tiny machine gun.  He did it once… then again… then again and again and again until I was seriously contemplating violence and glaring so fixedly at him that I’m surprised he and his camera didn’t spontaneously combust from the force of my hatred.  But like I said, the paintings were nice…

And, as I mentioned, I did a lot of walking.  On Friday morning I wandered along much of the Canal St. Martin and got to see TWO excellent bridges that swing out of the way of passing boats.  Since I have already subjected you to pictures of gears I will spare you the video of the pivoting bridge, but I was really tickled when I came upon it unexpectedly just as a tour boat was going past.  I also walked around the Latin Quarter and the area around the Bastille.  The Bastille was particularly good, and included a stroll along the Promenade Plantée, which is just what it sounds like – a planted promenade.  It’s a section of an old raised rail line in the area that’s been revitalized in a really clever way.  The arches that support the rail line have all been renovated into artist’s workshops and galleries, and the rail bed itself has been turned into a kind of very skinny 3 mile long park.  There are stairs and elevators interspersed along the way, but mostly it’s just this lovely green space, with fantastic long views of the city of the sides.  Very cool, and great for running on. (Not that I did any running… I was far too busy with vital cheese-related activities.)

The Promenade
And the view
I did manage a fair bit of sitting in cafés as well, and I squeezed in a visit to the Musée du Moyen Age (The Museum of the Middle Ages, not The Museum of Middle Age, as I first suspected.  Though the latter might have been fun, it likely would not have had the same extensive collection of tapestries.) And that was quite enough for three days, thank you very much.  I planned to blog on the train on the way home, but it was all I could do to keep my eyes open.  Though I did manage to do that long enough that while I was staring blankly out the window into darkened French countryside I spotted the end of a fireworks display off in the distance and watched it for long minutes as it grew closer and then disappeared behind me.  It was oddly compelling to watch from so far away, lacking the noise and spectacle that fireworks usually have - like a tiny little silent film just for me.  And when we finally rolled into St. Pancras Station and I turned my feet to the tube line for the quick hop home, my heart filled with contentment when I realized I was just a few minutes away from a nice cup of tea.

* If you are actually going to be in Paris in the near future and are interested in checking out my bistro, send me an email to gostayworkplaylive AT gmail.com.  I’ll give you the details.  


Anonymous said...

Going "home" for a "nice cup of tea" - you're almost more English than the English! I thought of you as I moseyed past St Pancras Station yesterday on the way back to good old Plymouth.Glad Paris sounded like a good rest for you before the all important "New Job". A.x

Kathryn said...

I need to come visit you. That is SO my kind of get-away. cheese plates and macarons! Next time you go (I can't remember if you did this on your BIG trip) you must get to Mariage Freres tea house in Paris. You would have had your nice cup of tea WITH your macarons!

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