Sunday, October 12, 2008

First trip to Paris, Part 2

I've uploaded photos from the trip.

On Monday, the three of us went to the Eiffel Tower. It opens at 9:30, so we tried to make it there by then so we would avoid the lines. We had a bit of a slow start in the morning though, due to a lack of coffee in the apartment. After having just some sliced apple, grapes, and yogurt for breakfast, we went out and found a Starbucks so we could all get out fix to-go. We then hopped on the metro to get over to the left bank, where the tower is. We got off at a stop just beyond the gardens leading up to the tower, and walked through the gardens, admiring the tower as we approached. Strangely, the Eiffel tower seemed somewhat shorter than I was expecting, though no less impressive. It's an absolutely beautiful building, to my tastes at least. Despite having gotten a late start, the lineups still weren't bad when we got there. The lineup goes into a buildings built along the side of of the concrete bases of the tower's four legs. There's also a security check, like a mini airport security station. They even took my camera bag and checked to see if it fits in one of those little metal cages they use for checking the size of airline carry-on bags. It didn't quite fit, so I probably won't be able to fly with it, but they let me up with it anyway, after having a look inside. We also had to go through a metal detector, just like at the airport, but they didn't go so far as to x-ray our bags.

Once we were through all the security, we bought our tickets to the top, and got in line for the elevator. You can walk up as far as the second (of three) platforms, but it's quite a lot of stairs, and I think you pay the same to get to the very top regardless of whether you walk the first two. The elevator itself was quite interesting. Because of goes up the leg of the tower, it goes up at an angle, not straight up like a normal elevator. It's also two stories, with entry and exit doors for each. I don't know how many people they fit, but it reminded me of the Grouse mountain gondola. It stopped briefly on the first platform, for people who had only paid to go that far, before continuing up to the second, where we all exited. We didn't stop to admire the view, but immediately went and got in the line for the elevator that would take us from the second platform up to the very top. The ride up was a bit nerve wracking, because we were crammed into the elevator like sardines, and Lynne and I were pressed up against the door, which neither of us were terribly comfortable with.

When we reached the top, it was all made worthwhile. The view from there is incredible. There's two floors, the lower one enclosed by windows, and the upper one open to the air, but fenced off quite securely. The lower floor had photos and indications where various buildings throughout Paris are, but we skipped that and went straight to the upper floor, and Lynne and Britt pointed out all the locations that I couldn't find on my own. I quite like my new(ish) camera lens, with the long zoom (35mm equivalent is 320mm) and image stabilization, as it made for great viewing of things way off in the distance. I was able to just barely see the pillar and statue at Bastille, near the apartment, halfway across Paris. The Arc de Triomphe looked so small from the top of the Eiffel tower. After having our fill of the view, we went back down to the second platform, and took a quick look around from there, though the view from the top was much better. Rather than crowding into the elevator for the trip down, we decided to take the stairs, which was nice because it offered some more nice photo opportunities.

After the Eiffel tower, we went for lunch. As we were walking back along a gravel path, away from the tower, a woman stopped and "picked up" a ring from the path, holding it out to us to show us how shiny it was. Lynne told her no thanks, in French, and then told me that it's a common scam. They have a very very cheap metal ring, that they then pretend to pick up, and offer to let you have it. When you accept it, they then ask for payment. There's all sorts of variations, from pretending to be of some religion that doesn't allow you to keep it, to just plain giving it to you, and then asking for money.

Britt and Lynne had a favourite restaurant nearby they were going to take me to for lunch, but unfortunately, we found it closed when we arrived. Apparently most small family run places close Sunday and Monday, so we had to try three more places from their Zagat rating book before we finally found one open, but fourth try was a charm. At Le Florimond, the waiter was extremely friendly, and the food was incredible.

To start with, before we had even ordered, they brought six bite sized little loafs, similar to carrot cake, but with a hint of curry to them. We all ordered an aperitif, and I went with a Gewurztraminer late harvest, which was somewhere between the Kerner late harvest I'm so fond of, and an ice wine.

We then each ordered the three-course set menu, and all started with the same entrée, the terrine de lapin á l'estragon, rabbit terrine with tarragon. Terrine is kind of like pate, but more coarse, with bigger chunks. It came with bread to eat it on, and was absolutely delicious. I was a bit apprehensive about ordering it, as I've never had terrine before, but after my first taste of it, I was in heaven. It's probably one of the tastiest things I've ever eaten.

For the main course, I think we all ordered the same thing again, gite de boeuf á la moutarde, or beef shank with mustard. It was basically beef stew, in a red wine sauce, with carrots and something very similar to scalloped potatoes. Everything was so incredibly tender it was actually a challenge to get it to stay on the fork. Again, it was absolutely delicious, but not so world-shaking as the terrine. With the meal we shared some quite nice red wine, though I didn't happen to catch what kind it was, as I'm not a huge wine drinker.

When the food and wine was all done, we ordered the third course, dessert. It was nice to be able to choose which dessert at that time. When I've ordered from a set menu here in London, they've all made me choose the dessert up front, even when I've asked if I can do it later. I had clafoutis d'ananas, which is baked custard with pineapple in it. I thought that perhaps the pineapple would be too strong to have with something like custard, but somehow, either done specifically, or as a side effect of how it's cooked, the pineapple flavour was much weaker than one would normally expect pineapple to be, so it went very nicely with the custard.

After dessert, not with, as is the proper French way to enjoy one's food, we all had coffee. With the coffee came a tray with lumps of sugar on it, as well as some small biscuits, and chocolates.

Throughout the meal, Lynne and Britt commented on a group of about 10 retirement age French men that were having lunch at a table on the other side of the restaurant, all dressed up in their suits. At a closer table, there was also an old lady, that tried to pay her bill four or five times in the time we were there, with the waiter telling her each time that she'd already paid. She seemed like she might be a bit of a regular there, and the whole scene was rather sweet.

After that epic lunch, we went separate ways, and I walked back under the Eiffel tower on my way to the Palais de Chaillot to see the Cité de l'architecture, the French architecture museum. It was a bit more expensive than I had expected, but it was quite enjoyable. It was very quiet there, with hardly any other tourists around, so it was quite a nice break from all the hustle and bustle around outside. I spent a couple hours quietly sauntering around from cast to cast (it's a museum all full of casts made from various bits of architecture around France) in a somewhat library like environment. The only time there was much noise at all was when a small school group was brought through, and even they were somewhat muted. The clack-clack of my camera was the loudest noise there, aside from them.

When I had had my fill of peace and quiet, I ventured back outside, to walk east along the Seine, as far as Pont Alexander III, Lynne's favourite bridge. It's certainly the most ornate bridge I saw there, with two gilded statues on large pillars at each end, and smaller sculptures as well. On my way there, as I was walking along the river, a friendly looking fellow bent down as he was walking towards me, and "picked up" a shiny ring, which he flashed at me as he grinned hugely, and said something in French which I couldn't understand. I was certainly glad that Lynne had filled me in on the scam earlier in the day, or I might have been taken. After walking across the bridge to see the statues on the other end, and to take some photos of Les Invalides, I headed for the metro at la Madeleine to head back to the apartment.

Tuesday and Wednesday were much less eventful. I had been to see all the things I wanted to see in Paris, and then some, so I took the next two days to just relax. On Tuesday, I spent a few hours at the Musee Carnavalet, which is all about the history of Paris, and has many wonderful paintings of the city. It was really neat to see paintings from decades, or even hundred of years ago, of the same places I had been in the last three days, to see buildings that were there when the painting was created, and to see how much had changed. One thing I noticed was that Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris (despite being French for "new bridge") was by far the most popular subject of the paintings in the museum. I would say that at least half the paintings there were either paintings of Pont Neuf from farther west up the Seine, or were paintings of the view to the west from Pont Neuf. I hadn't been there yet, so we walked over there on Tuesday, after dinner, in the middle of a rainstorm, and were soaked to the bone by the time we did get back to the apartment.

On Wednesday, I really just relaxed, and didn't do much of anything. The day started a bit oddly, with me being locked in the apartment. For some reason, it seems a lot of doors here have locks where you need the key to unlock them from the inside. That was the case with the apartment we stayed in, and when Lynne and Britt left, early in the morning to get to the department store as it opened, to take advantage of the sales, they locked the door behind them. When I woke up and was ready to leave, I discovered I couldn't, because the key I had been using was in a lock box on the other side of the locked door. Thankfully, Britt had given me her cell number, so I was able to reach them, and Lynne came and let me out. I shudder to think what my day would have been like if I hadn't had any way of reaching them. I spent most of the rest of the day just relaxing in the park, or even just in the apartment, until Lynne and Britt finished shopping, and came back. We went for a late lunch at a restaurant that specialized in muscles, and we all had an enormous pot of boiled muscles, in a sauce with bacon and mushrooms, and drank Belgian beer.

After lunch, I finished packing, and was on my way not too long after. The ride back on the Eurostar was more or less uneventful, though my seat didn't have a power outlet at all this time, and I hadn't charged the laptop, so I ran out of juice part way back to London, which was a bit frustrating. On the way to Paris, my seat had an outlet, but it was a European plug and I didn't yet have an adapter to be able to use it. I got a full set of travel adapters for Christmas last year, but what I hadn't realized until I was packing is that while those work for my Canadian gizmos, I bought this laptop in London, so it's a UK plug, and I had no European plug adapter for those. I bought one my first day in Paris.

One random interesting thing I noticed about Paris is that nobody drives interesting cars. Just about anywhere in London I go, if it's a busy time, I'll see Jaguars, Porsche's, M-series BMW's, Aston Martins, high-end Audi's, all in any five minute period. Just as I was typing this, a BMW M-Coupe drove by. In Paris, everyone seems to drive perfectly functional, but utterly boring cars.

Well, that's it for the trip. My first time in Paris, my second time in France, something I've wanted to do again since I was 13 years old. There's one thing accomplished from the bucket list.

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