Friday, April 6th
All photographs by Tigger. Click on a thumbnail to see a larger version.
I had set the alarm for 3:15 am but got up at 3. We were all packed so there were just last-minute things to do like putting out the rubbish. The bus was due at the Red Lion at 3:59 but we there in plenty of time. Just as well, as the bus was early.
We were surprised how many people were about at that hour – some buses coming from town were full. Our bus was nearly empty and stopped seldom on the way to Waterloo Station. The check-in opened only at 4:30 so we had time for an overpriced early breakfast: soggy cheese and tomato sandwich and coffee.
Checking in involved a security check – putting coats, bags and personal belongings on the X-ray machine and stepping through an arch – but we have been through worse: in Chicago we had to take our shoes off as well, and had had our finger prints taken and our eyes photographed. A bored official glanced perfunctorily at our passports and we were through. Then all we had to do was wait and listen to confusing announcements about who would board first.
In the event, boarding was just a typical British scramble. We found we had a table for two right at the end of carriage 12. Very convenient and intimate. At last the doors closed and we were off. I always find there is a special magic about travelling through the city in the hours of darkness with lights of all colours shining and twinkling in the blackness. This city does not sleep but at night seems to make room for dreams.
As we boarded, we noticed how many Eurostar staff were on hand to assist and advise, so unlike normal British rail services. In fact, the whole system seems modelled on airline rather than railway modes.
Our first stop was to be Ashford International, a station we know well from our trips to Margate, but now we watched as all other stations slid softly by in the darkness.
Suddenly we emerged from the city into the country with a full view of a beautiful red dawn sky.
Despite having had a soggy sarnie at Waterloo, we treated ourselves to a “Continental” from the buffet – a croissant with butter and apricot jam, orange juice and coffee – for £8.20 the pair. This was my first chance to speak French, as the staff were of that nationality. As we finished eating, we arrived at Ashford under a brightening sky. The fields were dressed in a blanket of mist.
The train manager announced that we would shortly enter the tunnel. With a whoosh we did and the Eurostar turned into a tube train for 20 minutes. Some people become nervous at this point, I am told, thinking of all that water bearing down above them. Do they think of this, I wonder, as they pass under the Thames on the Northern Line? However, I do understand their concerns while of course not suffering from them myself.
At 7:58 we emerged from the tunnel and into France. Of course, we had legally been in France for several minutes but it had not been obvious in the tunnel. As if to confirm our arrival, my phone jangled: a text from Virgin Mobile saying “Welcome to France” and warning me of the outrageous roaming charges that now apply. Enough to tempt you to switch the damn thing off. (Surely, not – Ed.)
Other passengers had been sleeping but I had been running on coffee and nervous energy. Now I felt sleepy and began dozing off, awaking with a start every time my elbow slipped off the window ledge. There was nothing for it but to put the seat back and have a snooze. I woke up after half an hour. It was then that I noticed the Missing Seats.
Our seats were numbered 11 and 15. That leaves only 3 numbers between them so how could they fit in the 4 seats opposite ours? The mystery deepened when inspection revealed that these were numbered 13, 14, 17 and 18. Where were 12 and 16?
Perhaps the original design had had 4 seats either side of the gangway and two had been removed to make more room for today’s bigger bodies. Someone somewhere must know the answer. If it is you, how about leaving an explanatory comment?
The day has become warm and sunny but the layer of mist remains, ghostly thin in some places, fog thick in others. Sometimes the lower parts of the pylons are shrouded in mist and their heads are clear of it.
I am feeling excited excited about getting out into the streets, shops and cafes and hearing and speaking French again. Announcements by Bruno, the train manager, whose voice resembles that of the old roué in the TV Cointreau adverts, have whetted my appetite.
Ah! On arrive!
So this is Paris. We are lucky: it’s a beautiful day. We make our way out of the station. Our hotel is in the rue des Vinaigriers which is fairly close to the station but Tigger has packed her street map. “Let’s get a cab,” she proposes.
We approach a suitably large taxi. The driver is absent but appears after a moment. “Vous connaissez la rue des Vinaigiers?” I ask. He begins to explain where it is. “Pourriez-vous nous y emmener?” I enquire impatiently but he’s already been booked. He explains again where it is and says it’s within easy walking distance.
We walk. It isn’t far and I enjoy the sights and sounds of France, reading out the shop names and even the notices in the windows like a child. Paris, at once familiar and strange. “I could live here!”, I hear myself exclaim in a paroxysm of happiness.
We reach the hotel. The desk clerk barely acknowledges me. I tell him my name but he goes on doing whatever he was doing when we arrived. Tigger roots around in her bag and finds the “voucher” we printed off the Web. I give it to him and he becomes marginally more interested. After fiddling with the computer for a while he gives his verdict: we do have a room but it isn’t ready. Well, it is rather early, I agree. “Revenez après une heure,” he says. In the meantime we can leave our baggage.
We have over 3 hours to kill before the room is ready. Tigger proposes walking round the block. We start off and are soon engaged by exploring. Tigger takes photos. I am taking it all in and still reading out notices, signs, bus destinations, what is painted on passing vans…
We find a park and sit for a while. I notice that the transparent plastic rubbish bags (marked “Propreté – Sécurité”) come in pairs, yellow and green. I look at them trying to work out the difference but fail. There is a little cabin with a man sitting in front of it doing a crossword.
I approach and ask about the bags. He is happy to explain that the yellow is for recyclables and the green for all the rest. On the lid of the yellow is a list which I hadn’t noticed. He has spent some time in England and now tells us, in English with occasional lapses into French, what there is to see in the area. He is interrupted by his mobile and we take our leave.
“What about a bus ride?” suggests Tigger. “We could buy a day ticket.”
“Where do we get those?”
“Dunno,” says Tigger. “You could ask in there.” She is pointing at a pharmacie.
Er, right… We go in and I apologetically explain to the lady behind the counter that we are newly arrived in Paris and need to know where we can buy bus tickets. Not fazed in the least, she explains: go to the ticket office in the Métro and ask for either for a day ticket or a carnet of one-per-journey tickets (a bit like our bus savers, I imagine).
We find the Métro but the booking hall is jammed with people. “Give up for now?” proposes Tigger philosophically. We emerge and wander down the road. “Time for a beverage?” asks Tigger. Yes, high time. We find a smart-looking cafe with a dour waiter. We order Earl Grey for Tigger and Ceylon for me. It is surprisingly good. The tea bags are made of a material I haven’t seen before.
They serve cups with tea bags in them and a teapot of hot water. No milk. I know Tigger likes plenty of milk with her tea though I drink mine black. “Un peu de lait, s’il vous plaît,” I say to the waiter. He brings it. Oops, it’s hot milk. Must remember to ask for cold in future.
I explain to Tigger that in France the lunch “hour” runs from 12 to2. “We could have lunch, then!” says Tigger cheerfully. Actually, it’s only 11:30 but I suppose that’s near enough midday. We saunter along looking at menus. We plump for the Tire Bouchon which offers omelets of various sorts.
Tigger has a pear and apple juice “cocktail” and I a “Limonade diabolo”: lemonade poured on top of a fruit syrup. I choose strawberry. It is delicious and the taste takes me back to my childhood. Well, this is the land of Proust.
We finish off with a crème brûlée with a delicious crispy crust and a small French coffee. Whenever I go to France, one of the first things I do is have coffee. French coffee is inimitable.
We can now saunter back to the hotel as it will be gone 1 pm by the time we arrive. I am not sure which way it is but Tigger has the instincts of a homing pigeon and we are soon there.
The same clerk is on duty, as phlegmatic as ever. “Rappelez-moi votre nom,” he says. He hands us the key, tells us breakfast is from 7:30 to 9, liberates our luggage and shows us the lift. An American couple want the third floor too so we invite them to share the lift with us but when it arrives it is minuscule: Tigger and I hardly fit in it by ourselves.
At last we are in our room. It is at the end of a narrow, dark corridor but when we open the door the room is bright with sunlight. “This’ll do,” I say approvingly.
We kick off our shoes, stack the luggage and flop on the bed, Tigger to doze and I to catch up with this blog entry.
What of this evening? We shall see when the time comes.
We went out again around 4pm. The plan was to investigate the “OpenTour” bus we had seen earlier. This is a hop-on-hop-off touring bus with 4 routes. You buy a one-day or two-ticket which is valid for all tours. They also give you your own set of earphones to plug in to listen to the commentary.
The only problem was that we didn’t know where to pick it up so I asked a few people and gradually homed in on the stop nearest the hotel. We then found that all the details were published in a leaflet that we had picked up at the hotel on the way but hadn’t read yet!
The bus, a roofless double-decker came and it was crowded. For a while we had to stand on the staircase. Then Tigger got a seat, then I got a seat, then we got seats together, then finally we got front seats.
We didn’t listen to the commentary this time but just enjoyed the views of Paris, and the sights and sounds of the streets. I knew that Starbuck’s had set up in Paris (predictably, the pundits said it would fail) but was still surprised to see, not one, but three in a relatively small area.
Despite it being a bank holiday (or perhaps because of it), traffic was very heavy. If you thought driving was chaotic in London, I can tell you it is a model of regulation and good manners compared with Paris. I was glad not to be driving.
We disembarked at about 5:50. We weren’t ready for dinner but felt in need of a rest (I nearly nodded off a couple of times on the bus). The solution adopted was the traditional one of coming back to the hotel for a cup of tea! Now, you probably know that French hotels, unlike their British counterparts, do not supply tea-making accoutrements so we brought our own! And we even remembered to bring adaptors so we can plug our kettle and phone charger into French electric sockets.
We are now at the hotel, drinking tea. I am blogging (as you can see) and Tigger is studying the “OpenTour” maps ready for tomorrow’s expeditions.
Later, we will have to face the delicious dilemma of where to go for dinner.
We went out again at about 8pm. The phlegmatic desk clerk had been replaced by a more cheerful and outgoing one. We told him one of the light bulbs over our bed wasn’t working and that there were towels for only one person. He promised to see to both straightaway.
I asked him about buses and was told a flat fare ticket cost 1.40€. We took the 65 bus to the Gare de Lyon so we could walk down to the river and the canal but first we looked for dinner. We studied a few menus then plumped for a small one-man bistro. It had a crêperie attached to it. We dined on crêpes and iced tea. I like these off-beat meals.
Afterwards we went down to the river and Tigger pointed out Notre Dame, silhouetted, black on black, against the night sky, and the Eiffel Tower, all lit up and sending out a sweeping laser light like a lighthouse. I have to keep reminding myself I am truly in Paris and seeing all this for real.
We caught the bus back to the hotel. We were not all that surprised to find that the dud light had not been repaired and no extra towels had been brought.
It has been a long day – from 3am to 10pm (UK time) – but an exciting and rewarding one. I am looking forward to tomorrow and a new lot of fun.
Saturday, April 7th
Today started with a hiccup. The sky was grey and there was a definite chill on the air. But that wasn’t it.
We went down for breakfast and were quickly supplied with tea and coffee. We waited for the rest. And waited. Then waited some more. At last I went to the reception and enquired whether they were going to give us anything to eat. The clerk thought I was complaining there wasn’t enough to eat and launched into explanations. No, I persisted, we haven’t had anything to eat.
Finally I got through and they hurried to put things right. I think each thought the other had served us when no one had. Having them off-balance, I thought this would be a good moment to remind them that they hadn’t supplied enough towels and that we had already reported this. More apologies and two sets of clean towels. (We gave up on the dead light bulb and solved the problem by moving the other bulbs around.)
We thought to take the tourist bus from the Gare de l’Est to L’Opéra and change to the “historique” tour here. Usually the bus remains some time at a stop as people get on and off, buy tickets, etc so we went to the nearby cafe. The bus arrived but no one wanted to get on or off so we ran out of the cafe in time to see the bus disappearing down the road!
So we ended up walking to L’Opéra. I enjoyed this. Once there, we caught the “historique” and off we went. I don’t know whether it was the crush of the people, being tired from the excitement of the day before or what, but I began feeling stressed. All I wanted was to get off the bus. I told myself this was silly and that I didn’t want to interrupt Tigger who was filming away with her camera clamped to the rail. Tigger kept asking if I was OK and I kept saying yes and telling myself to stop being stupid. In the end, I had to take a break. We got off the bus and found a quiet cafe where we had hot drinks.
We regained the bus and went round all the famous tourist spots – Champs Elysées, Arc de Tromphe, Notre Dame, Place de la Concorde, La Tour Eiffel, Les Invalides. Though feeling better after a break, I was still not “dans mon assiette”, so we got out at the Invalides and looked for a cafe. We found one. It was very busy and it was now the lunch hour so we decided to have lunch.
After lunch I was feeling a lot better. We joined the “promenade” bus and I enjoyed this. Instead of visiting the crowded tourist spots, it took us slowly around some of the prettier parts, including the river near the Gare de Lyon.
We left this bus at what Tigger refers to as “Juliet’s 18-30 Club”. For Paris buffs, this is the Place de la Bastille, whose famous monument celebrates Juillet 1830.
The tours convinced me that Paris is a beautiful city. Beautiful buildings are everywhere and even the Art Nouveau railings and lamps of the “bouches de Métro” add to the charm. The monuments… well, the monuments are so enormous and so over the top in their romantic complexity and shiny gilding that they possess an outrageous beauty.
From the Place de la République, we went on one of our wanders. We walked, we goggled and gawped, we looked around shops, we bought some tea in a shop with the improbable name of Betjeman and Barton. We had a drink in an off-beat cafe called Chez Jenny, with lamp shades in the shape of snail shells. (This is not the restaurant of the same name but the little bistro beside it.)
We decided to return to the hotel for a rest and a cup of tea before dinner. But first we had to get there from wherever we were. At this point a tourist bus hove in view. It was the “ligne jaune” which stops at the Gare de l’Est, near our hotel. As our tickets were still valid, and although it was a roundabout way to go, we jumped aboard.
We reached our hotel and had a cup of Betjeman and Barton (good, even very good, but perhaps not worth €9) and I wrote up the day’s events.
Now we are thinking about dinner. Where to, tonight?
Instead of heading for the bright lights, we walked up the rue des Vinaigriers, where our hotel is situated, into the sidestreets. First there was a tapas bar and then a small and bare Chinese restaurant. Neither of these appealed so we continued. On a corner was another tapas bar but the menu contained little to content a vegetarian. We turned the corner into another quiet street and part way along came upon a small eaterie called Santa Sed. Colourful handpainted signage declared this to be a Chilean restaurant.
The short menu contained one vegetarian item, something called Pascualina. We decided to give it a try. The aforementioned dish turned out to be a sort of vegetable pie whose main ingredient was spinach. It was served with a tomato salad and – nice touch – a bottle of green tabasco sauce. As this was France, we were also served a basket of bread. This led to another of Tigger’s culinary inventions.
Tigger had previously invented pepper sandwiches (bread with butter and pepper) and omelets spread with mustard. Today it was tabasco sauce on French bread. Don’t knock it until you have tried it. We have taken to carrying a pepper mill with us so as always to have tasty pepper to hand and it looks as if we shall now have to add tabasco sauce to our essential accoutrements when we travel.
To finish we had a tasty but very sweet crepe. I have no idea what Chilean name it rejoices in or even whether it has one.
We returned to find the hotel door locked at this ungodly hour of 10:15 but the clerk was on hand to let us in.There is a full complement of towels, Betjeman’s and Barton’s tea, if we need it, and all’s right with the world.
Bonne nuit, Paris!
Sunday, April 8th
Where do you go in Paris on Easter Sunday? Why, to the mosque, of course! But first, we had to deal with breakfast. Today, however, it passed off without a hitch.
Tigger had been studying the map and working out bus routes but I didn’t know where we were going until we started out. “Georges Pompidou Centre,” announced Tigger, adding confidently “but you’ll hate it.”
We thought we needed the 47 bus but couldn’t find the stop. A bus was standing nearby so I went and asked the driver. He told me where it was and as I turned to go added “Mais il ne marche pas le dimanche.” If our bus didn’t run on Sundays, what were we to do? Without prompting, the bus driver told me what bus we needed and where to find the stop.
That is something that I, used to London ways, notice about this city: people take time to help you and are amiable about doing so. London impatience is rare. On setting out, we had gone down into the Métro to buy one-day travel cards. I met the same unhurried courtesy there: the ticket clerk explained that the tickets were good for all travel modes – bus, train and Métro – within the city. I went back a couple of times with more questions and to ask for a map and met the same polite and smiling response.
We found our bus and off we went. We got off at the Georges Pompidou Centre and I nearly fell over backwards looking up at its heights. “They built the Lloyds building after this,” said Tigger, “and I know how you hate that. So you’ll hate this too.”
“It’ll be nice when it’s finished,” was all I would say.
We had a walk around the area and looked at an ornamental pond they have there with surreal art objects rising out of it. What I liked best was a pair of ducks, male and female, standing in the water preening. Another thing that strikes me about Paris is the number of birds in the city, especially sparrows, which are relatively rare in London.
Then we took the bus for the Mosque. This is a famous landmark in Paris near the Gare d’Austerlitz. It is a beautiful building and completely lacks the embattled feel of mosques in London. We infidels are positively welcomed into the entrance area which performs the role of a cafe and restaurant. The whole is beautifully decorated in Arabic style with moulded pillars and tiles. We had mint tea while taking it all in and watching the antics of a pair of sparrows who flew in looking for crumbs and were obviously tolerated.
Out in the street again, we waited for a bus to take us on he next stage of our trip. Service is a little slower on a Sunday but it was a fine day and we didn’t mind waiting, chatting excitedly about our experiences.
The first bus took us a little way up the road to the Institut du Monde Arabe. This is a modern building designed with unusual angles but very elegant. Here we changed buses and were carried to the Champ de Mars, and the Eiffel Tower.
We now stopped for a tea in a cafe. Our waiter was a lively and frolicsome character. I decided to check the Euromillions ticket we had bought on Friday. He wanted to check his too and invited me to blow on it for luck. Alas for him, it did no good. When they checked my ticket, they found it was for next week, not this week. Not to worry: if I win a major prize I’ll be only too happy to make a special trip to France just to collect it.
As you might imagine the whole area of the Tower was crowded. Even so, the Tower itself is so huge that in comparison the people look like ants. You really cannot help wondering how something so small and insignificant could think up and build something so big and imposing. I shuddered just to think of those men climbing the girders and adding more as they gradually raised this structure towards the sky.
We went into the Champ, found shade under a tree and sprawled looking up at the Tower, the red and yellow lifts sliding up and down and little dots of ant-people at various levels.
We also watched the pigeons, sparrows, wood pigeons, crows and starlings hunting for food and squabbling over their finds. Need I say that we also watched the antics of the human fauna too, just as entertaining in their own way.
When we had watched enough, we went to look for refreshment. It was now well into the lunch “hour” and the cafes were crowded. Nothing daunted, we walked into the Bar Castell and were immediately shown a table for two. I was able to admire the speed, skill and good humour of the waiters. We are wrong to take them for granted (if we do) because they are skilful and work very hard.
After lunch we were off again on the bus. Tigger wanted to show me what I will call Little Miss Liberty until I can look up her real name. After a bus ride and a walk, we came down beside the Seine again and found Little Miss Liberty, a small replica of the better known Statue of Liberty that resides in New York Harbour. Like her sister, this one – about 20 feet high, I would guess – holds her ice cream cone aloft in a noble gesture. Her spiky crown is gilded and shines becomingly in the sunshine.
Walking up from the river we came upon Bar Les Ondes and stopped for lemon tea. When the waiter came to take our order, he spoke a phrase that I had heard from other waiters and which struck me as odd. “Je vous écoute,” he said, much as might a lawyer or doctor or other professional waiting for you to present your case to him.
We decided to take the train (SNCF) for the next stage of the journey. We needed to go a few stops to the Musée d’Orsay. It was a bit like using the suburban rail services in London except that the train was a double decker, roomier and cleaner than our old crates.
At the Musée d’Orsay, we took to the street for a few hundred yards to Solferino, a station on line 12 of the Métro. This too was similar to, but different from, the London Tube. We only went 9 stops so it would be unfair to make comparisons.
The target of our journey was Monmartre and the Sacré Cœur. Unsurprisingly for a main tourist attraction on a warm sunny Sunday, the place was crowded. To get to the Sacré Cœur itself from our street level you either take the funicular or walk up a staircase that makes that at Bank station look like a kick stool. The funicular was out of order owing to an unspecified “technical incident”. There was a replacement bus service but such were the crowds (there were even long queues at the mechanical toilets) that we gave it a miss. Tigger contented herself with a few photos from where we were.
Instead we found a bus that took us to the Gare de l’Est, on our doorstep, so to speak. In the hotel room we made tea and I wrote up the day.
Tomorrow we are to return to London so we hope to have a special final dinner. Will we succeed, dear reader? At this point, I do not know.
We walked down rue des Vinaigriers and crossed the boulevard to a restaurant we had noticed previously. Called Plaisir des Iles, it offered Indian, “creole” and Mauritian dishes. A quick look at the menu convinced us that this would fill the bill perfectly. We had a very good meal with lassi. We spoke French to the waiter though I am pretty sure he spoke English. (If he was from Mauritius, he would presumably be bilingual.) The food was slightly different from the Indian food we are used to in London – maybe because they have adapted their dishes to French taste.
After dinner, we strolled to the nearest Métro station and took the train. We realized we were going to wrong way and at Austerlitz changed to the SNCF, which took us to Neuilly Porte Maillot, the nearest station to the Arc de Triomphe. As we walked towards it down the rue de la Grande Armée, we caught intermittent glimpses of the Eiffel Tower, illuminated and sending out its rotating lighthouse beam.
The Arc itself is huge and makes Marble Arch look like a croquet hoop. It stood like a sheer illuminated mountain against a black sky, almost overwhelming in its scale and grandeur.
Turning our backs on it at last, we went underground and took a SNCF train to Châtelet les Halles and changed there to line 4 of the Métro which carried us back to the Gare de l’Est and our hotel.
On reaching our room, we flopped gratefully onto the bed, tired out by our excursions.
We start back to London tomorrow after breakfast. This has been a most enjoyable holiday. I love Paris and want to return. There are things we haven’t seen and places yet to visit. It was fun talking French again and interacting with Parisians, most of whom were friendly, good-humoured and helpful.
Monday, April 9th
The alarm went off at 7:30 French time, 6:30 British time, but I had been awake for a while pretending to myself that I was asleep. It was a relief to get up, pack and go down for breakfast – nice bread, pity about the croissants. Collecting our luggage, we stepped into the rue des Vinaigriers for the last time. Out of habit, I turned the corner towards the Gare de l’Est but today we had to go to the Gare du Nord.
I trundled my wheelie bag through a bank holiday Paris morning. Most shops were closed and there was less traffic than usual. There must have been a water leak somewhere because the gutters were like little rivers. It was so quiet that the tramps were still abed in doorways and even on the forecourt of the station.
Our Eurostar train is not until 10:15 and it is now 9:15 and we have completed all the formalities: ticket check, passport check (both French and British) and we are sitting in the departure lounge (less a lounge than a shopping mall with seats), watching the people and the clock. We can go aboard at 9:59.
Boarding started early but there was the usual crush. We joined in, of course, not to be left out. The train was fairly crowded but this doesn’t matter too much as all Eurostar tickets come with reserved seats.
I am leaving Paris in a happy frame of mind. This was only a short break and we could spend only a little time getting to know the city and its people but we will be back in the not too distant future and in the meantime have other trips planned or sketched out.
There is nothing much to do now except to watch a sunlit French countryside parade across our train windows as we thrum our way towards the coast, the Tunnel and, eventually, Kent and then London.
The Eurostar reached Waterloo more or less at the appointed hour. Soon we were outside the station waiting for a bus. Our Paris adventure was over for now but I have a feeling we will return before long.