Friday, September 5th 2008
I have had a slightly sore left ear for a couple of days and when I awoke at 5 am this morning, the ear felt blocked. As you know, perhaps, I wear hearing aids (I call them my “dolbies”) and am prone to worry about anything that affects my hearing. I lay there in the darkness feeling very anxious.
Our doctor’s surgery runs a walk-in clinic on weekday mornings but I am supposed to leave here at 10am to take Freya to the cattery this morning and tomorrow early, we are off to Paris. I felt rising panic.
So I made a plan. The surgery opens for making appointments at 8:45 and consultations start at 9. You take pot luck in the walk-in and may have to wait some time. My plan is to go to the surgery for 8:45 and telephone the cattery on the way, explaining the problem and asking if I can come later than planned. Then I will go and wait my turn in the surgery, hoping for the best.
Perhaps the doctor can prescribe some drops to loosen the blockage. It will be a nuisance spending a week in Paris with a blocked ear but all I can do now is wait and let events take their course.
The doctor said she couldn’t do much. She diagnosed a build-up of wax – to which I am prone – which will have to be dealt with when I return. She said there was no sign of infection in the ear, despite the soreness, but prescribed anti-biotic drops just in case.
The doctor also prescribed eardrops for the other ear but as I know from experience, these can also cause blocked ears when the softened wax moves, and I can’t risk having both ears stopped up. I will therefore not use them until we are back in London.
Freya was not happy to be put in the basket again so soon after the last time but accepted it with a silent resignation. She should be used to going to the cattery by now and I hope this makes it easier for her to bear.
I have been feeling a bit down over the last few days and the ear problem makes this worse. I now have to recover my usual excitement and enthusiasm for the trip.
Tigger has planned with her usual thoroughness and put on her phone a map of a section of Paris containing the Gare du Nord station and our hotel. We might take a taxi or walk, depending on how we feel on the day.
As I write this, I am on the train heading for Chingford.
Returning home, I did a few chores and then went to meet Tigger for lunch. Friday, as you know, is Omlette Day and we had missed out for a couple of weeks with our various trips. In the evening we packed and got ready for departure.
I have decided not to proceed with the antibiotic that the doctor prescribed “in case”. This is because it requires me to put in drops 4 times a day, for which I have to take out my hearing aid until the drops have soaked it. As we will be out and about, you can imagine how inconvenient that would be.
If she had diagnosed an actual infection, or if the drops would clear the blockage, it might be worth the inconvenience but not otherwise.
By the time we went to bed, my ear was quite painful but I eventually fell asleep. I awoke again after a short while and lay there trying to go back to sleep. My ear was throbbing and in the end I decided to get up and take a painkiller. This seemed to work and I at last went to sleep.
Saturday, September 6th 2008
By the time you read this, we shall be speeding on our way to our next destination.
Today we are taking the Eurostar to Paris, which will be our base for the week. We hope to explore Paris itself (we already have tickets for the tour bus) and some other towns as well. I went to Dijon as a teenager and would like to see it again but I am not sure whether we will manage to include it.
The journey by Eurostar is part of the pleasure of the trip. Compared with British railways, cramped, uncomfortable and often overcrowded, Eurostar is railway travel from another era. The train also passes through some beautiful countryside on both sides of the Tunnel.
We visited Paris last year for a long weekend. That was a thrilling adventure and I found Paris very different from what I imagined it to be. I hope it has some more surprises in store for me this time around. I will let you know in due course. Watch this space!
Saturday, September 6th 2008
The day started with a panic. The usually efficient Tigger had made a mistake over the time to get up. I had not noticed this, so I am as much to blame. We were due at the Eurostar terminal by 7am and it had gone 6:45 by the time we left the house.
We rushed down the road, burdened like mules with our luggage, casting glances over our shoulder to see if a bus or taxi was in view. We ended up walking the whole way and arriving at the Eurostar entry gates on the dot of 7am. This is pretty good going and I can only think that fear lent us wings.
As usual, we had to submit to the humiliating business of putting our possessions through the X-ray machine and then walking through the detector gate. I forgot my belt contained metal but when the detector alarm went off, I didn’t hear it and took no notice. I was stopped by a security officer who told me I should stop to be searched if I heard the alarm. I explained about my hearing aids and he became a little more forgiving.
On we went to passport control and then into the departure lounge to await boarding time. This is always a hurried affair because they allow you only 20 minutes for boarding. We were in the first seats in coach 17, right down the front of the train. I felt like yelling “Charge!” as I ran through the crowds pulling the wheelie suitcase after me.
At last we were seated with our baggage stowed and could draw a breath.
This morning the niggling pain in my ear has departed. Whether this is permanent or whether the painkiller is still working, remains to be seen. Either way, the absence of the ache is a welcome relief and has improved my mood considerably.
I am still deaf in my left ear, which throws the audible world out of kilter. I cannot tell where sounds come from and can only make out announcements, whether in French or English, with difficulty.
We are in standard class on this trip, so in a while I will have to think about going to the buffet car to buy breakfast. Meanwhile, the morning countryside rolls past the window, having a soothing effect. It is a grey day but we are cocooned as we speed through Kent on the way to France.
I was queueing at the buffet during the passage through the tunnel so by the time I regained my seat, we were in France. France greeted us with rain but, just for a moment, as we left Calais-Frethun, there was sunshine.
I had been looking forward to a good Eurostar breakfast but was disappointed. When it was my turn, nearly all food had gone. There were not even any croissants.
Arriving at La Gare du Nord, we crossed the road to a small cafe for coffee and then set out to look for our hotel. The online map had given an incorrect position for the hotel’s postcode so we set off along the rue de Dunkerque in the wrong direction and then had to come all the way back. Hotel Paris-Nord is not far from the station, in fact almost in sight of it.
La Villa Andrea and Parisian eco-warriors
Our room would not be ready until 2pm but we were able to leave our luggage and set out to find lunch. Paris is not any more of an oasis for vegetarians than any other French city but in the end we settled for an Italian restaurant, La Villa Andrea, offering a lunchtime menu for 13€. We had a tasteless Minestrone soup and a pizza.
The unassuming façade of Hotel Paris-Nord
It was only 1:30 when we returned to the hotel but the room was ready. It is on the 3rd floor but there is a lift. The lift is so tiny that I have to take my backpack off or we can’t fit into it! We unpacked our kettle, made tea and settled down for a snooze.
Deafness in my left ear is causing difficulties but by listening carefully I have managed so far. My ear has become painful again and as I don’t know why this should be so, it is a little worrying. I will try to avoid taking painkillers unless I need them to help me to sleep.
In the photo of the hotel, you may have noticed the bicycles. This is one of the Vélib’ stations. Vélib’ bicycles can be used free of charge once you identify yourself to the system or more easily by a subscription card that costs €29 per annum. You collect a bicycle from any station and return it to any station, using it freely in the meantime.
This is an excellent way to get people out of cars and on to bicycles and it really seems to work! We saw plenty of the easily recognizable bikes in use throughout Paris and the station in front of the hotel was nearly always empty.
If you read French, you will find information on the Vélib’ system here.
We decided to go for a ramble so I gave in and took a pill. As the pain gradually subsided, so my mood improved.
We walked down and came out at the back of the Gare de l’Est. We walked through it, noticing how Parisian stations seem more spacious and better laid out than London stations.
We continued along the Canal St Martin to the Place de le République where we noticed a large though relaxed police presence. I spoke to one of the officers, who politely saluted me (can you imagine similar courtesy from the British police?) and was told that it was because there was a protest in progress.
Carrying on along the Boulevard St Martin, we came to a pleasant cafe called Au Petit Pot and had coffee.
Walking on along rue du Faubourg St Martin, we discovered Passage Brady, an alley occupied almost exclusively by Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri restaurants and Asian food shops. Most restaurants had a special vegetarian section on their menus so we might well return here.
Pigeons under the Porte St Martin
Tigger’s inner pigeon brought us unerringly to Boulevard Magenta and Plaisir des Iles, an Indian restaurant we visited last time we were in Paris. We thought we might have an early supper here but it was closed. It was only 6pm so, thinking it might open later, we have come back to the hotel for a rest and a cup of tea with the intention of trying again later.
So far, my good impressions of Paris have been confirmed. In particular, the people are friendly, polite and helpful. I can only hope that French visitors feel able to say the same about Londoners.
On the way up, I asked the hotel clerk what time breakfast would be tomorrow. He replied that it was from 6 to 10am (and tomorrow is Sunday, remember). Compare that with the one-hour “window” at the hotel in Glasgow. In the UK you are lucky to find a two-hour breakfast period.
At about 8pm local time, we besitirred ourselves and stepped out into streets lit with evening sunlight. The restaurant was open.
Restaurant Plaisir des Iles* is a Maurician Indian restaurant and the preparation of the dishes reflects this. There has probably also been some adjustment to local French tastes just as Indian food in the UK is adjusted to local British tastes. (For example, no Indian restaurant we have tried in Scotland has ever brought us hot towels after the meal as they invariably do England.)
As there was no thali on the menu, we chose soup and several side dishes, rice and nan bread. The food was delicately spiced but not “hot” (French taste?) and very tasty. We shall definitely return whether this week or on future trips.
The walk back to the hotel through a Paris dressed for nighttime in its garb of lights was very pleasant.
I had been pessimistic about weather prospects and brought my winter anorak but it has been warm today, too warm for coats though with an occasional flurry of raindrops.
We have learnt that the Pope is due to visit Paris on Friday and Saturday and will do our best to adjust our itinerary so as to go nowhere near him.
Sunday, September 7th 2008
After lying awake for some time because of pain in my ear, at 5:30am I took a painkiller. I must remember to go to a pharmacy to buy more. 20 minutes later, the pain has subsided somewhat so perhaps I can get a little sleep yet before it is time to get up and start the day.
The day, incidentally, is my birthday, and this trip was intended as a special one to mark a “landmark” age. It is a pity for me that this ear business threatens to spoil the trip and a pity for you too, dear reader, as hearing about my health problems is boring and threatens to spoil your enjoyment of this account.
For this reason, I will not mention my ear troubles further unless there is any change of condition or related event that deserves to be noted. I am sure that you “get the picture”, and do not need to be reminded of it at every turn.
The last stabbings of pain have now melted away (it is not until you are ill that you realize what a boon good health is) and I will try to doze off for a while and will take up the narrative again in due course.
It had rained during the night, making it cooler. Paris time is an hour ahead of us, so it’s like adjusting to summer time at the wrong time of year.
The people in this area seem very argumentative and there is a lot of shouting in the street, especially at night. It was too warm in the room when we went to bed so we had the window open, reducing insulation from the shouting.
We had our first hotel breakfast this morning: juice, bread, croissant, butter and jam, coffee.
French coffee has always been my favourite. When I used to come to France frequently, one of the first things I would do was go to a cafe and order a coffee. Back in England I would dream of French coffee in those thick green and gold cups.
I would buy French coffee beans and take them back to London but it was never the same. French coffee had to be drunk in France.
French coffee seems to have changed – or is it that Parisian coffee is different from what I am used to elsewhere? They serve it in tiny cups like thimbles and call it “Café express”. It is so strong that I wince nearly every time I drink it. Maybe I should start ordering café allongé.
Nonetheless, we drank a lot of coffee, so I must be getting used to it.
The rest of the day is hard to describe in any narrative form as we spent it going aroung on the tour buses (the green and yellow routes), getting off here and there and going rambling on our own account.
Some of the places we visited were Porte St Martin, Porte St Denis L’Opéra, La Madeleine, La Comédie Française, Montmartre and Le Moulin Rouge. We got off the bus in the Champs Élysées because Tigger spotted a Virgin Megastore there and wanted to buy some DVDs about Paris.
We decided while we were there to have lunch, which was probably a bad idea as it’s an expensive area. We chose Pizza Pino, an Italian restaurant (as you might guess from the name). The food was reasonable but the service slow and glum.
We discovered some more interesting back streets which we explored with pleasure noting their names for future reference. Oh yes, and we found a Starbuck’s! – one of many in the city. (Who said Starbuck’s wouldn’t survive in Paris?)
Finding ourselves back at the Louvre we planned to take the tour bus to as near to our hotel as possible only to find that the service was ending for the day. We thus began a long and leisurely walk back, stopping to look at, and perhaps photograph, anything we found of interest on the way.
Using the map she had recorded on her phone, Tigger guided us impeccably until we had enough of walking and so waited for a number 65 bus which took us the rest of the way.
Back in the room (which is again very warm, requiring us to keep the window open), we made tea and went over the days events.
As our tour bus tickets are valid for two consecutive days, we plan to spend part of tomorrow riding the tour buses on the blue and orange routes.
On the way home we picked up two free newspapers, not so much to read as to use on the tour buses. How? Well, some of the buses have padded seats covered with plastic material. This gets cracked or slit and on the open top deck the sponge filling absorbs rain and any other available wetness. When you sit down, this squeezes out the moisture and you end up with a wet bottom. We hope that sitting on newpapers will go some way to alleviating the problem.
We saw that there is soon to be an exhibition entitled “Soldats de l’Eternité” (Soldiers of Eternity) which are better known to us as the Chinese Terra Cotta Army.
Monday, September 8th 2008
The day has started sunny so we should make the most of it. Our programme will be determined by the fact that this the second day of our two-day Open-Tour bus tickets and we plan to travel the blue and orange routes today.
On the way to the bus stop, we saw a number of Paris’s famous and beautiful fountains. They all seemed to be foaming (see picture) as though someone had added washing-up liquid to the water. Is this done to clean them?
The promise of the bright beginning was fulfilled and a warm and sunny day followed. We followed the orange route with the tour bus which dropped us at its stop near Notre Dame. Here we found an Indian restaurant called Aarapana where we had a cheap if mediocre lunch.
We then took the blue route which finally brought us back to the same point. From then on we wandered on foot.
I was content to photograph Notre Dame from outside but Tigger wanted to go inside and take photos of the stained glass windows. The place was crowded as you might expect. There were notices advising that priests were available in the side chapels but the majority of people were tourists and sight-seers doing a circuit of the church and taking photos.
The one point in favour of Notre Dame, compared with, say, Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s Cathedral in London, is that entry is free. You have to pay to go to the upper parts but not to go into the main part. Personally I regard it as immoral that the Church of England, which is suported by taxes and tax breaks, in addition charges citizens a fee to enter buildings that they and their ancestors have already paid for.
We also visited the Pompidou Centre. We had been here before but had not gone in. We had a brief look inside and it seems quite impressive despite the ugly exterior.
As we are somewhat over-budget, we bought bread, cheese and tomatoes at Monoprix for supper and ate these in a pleasant little park called Square Émile Chautemps.
Sparrows nesting at the Pompidou Centre
We now undertook the walk home, following the directions of Tigger’s inner pigeon, plus a little help from the map. Back at the hotel, Tigger watched one of her DVDs on Paris while I wrote this account.
Yesterday I said I would not mention my ear trouble again unless there was some hange worth noting. There has been such a change.
At midnight, I had taken a painkiller in order to be able to sleep. I was expecting to have to take more pills during the day but I haven’t needed to do so. Apart from the odd twinge, I have been pain-free all day. I also noticed that my hearing has improved slightly in that ear.
We discussed the differences between France and Britain. It is easy to exagerate these and my impression is that the two countries are much more similar today than they way even a couple of decades ago.
Are the differences between England and France greater (apart from language, obviously) than the differences between, say, England and Scotland? In some ways, perhaps. but in other ways there are great similarities.
I find Paris a beautiful and enjoyable city. The impressions I gained on my first visit have been confirmed and I think I could live here quite happily.
After all, I would not even be deprived of Indian food!
Tuesday, September 9th 2008
Another sunny start to the day. Our tour bus tickets have expired and it is now the turn of the 3-day general transport tickets we bought when we arrived.
After breakfast we set out the find a stop for bus number 38 going south-east. The plan was to visit La Mosquée de Paris, the Great Mosque of Paris. We visited it last year and wanted to see it again. It took us several attempts to find the place and we had to ask a few times, but we gradually homed in on it, enjoying exploring the city by bus and on foot in the mean time.
It is possible to visit the Mosque itself at certain times on certain days and I believe there are also guided tours. We once again went to the cafe which has a separate entrance on the corner and is open to the public, There is seating inside or in the garden. We remained inside with its “Moorish” decor and had mint tea. This is served piping hot in decorated glasses.
The main pleasure for me is to watch the sparrows. These charming little birds have free access and you hear them chirping as soon as you enter. They perch here and there, flitting about among the tables and chairs and the fittings: the big central light fitting is one of their favourite observation posts.
After the Mosque we set off for the Gare de Lyon and found it by the same method of successive approximations. We had visited it before and been impressed by it. We had seen it at night and were seeing it now in the daytime when it was very busy and its charms were less obvious.
We had another reason for going there. On our last visit we had found a small cafe with a crêperie attached where you could sit in the cafe as eat crêpes as a meal. We thought we would go there for lunch. Two crêpes, one savoury and one sweet as a dessert proved sufficient for a midday meal.
By bus and on foot we progressed back roughly in the direction of the Gare du Nord, stopping to sit for a while in the Jardin du Luxembourg. The day had become sunny and very warm and I was beginning to feel a bit uncomfortable, perhaps becaue of the humidity. It was pleasant to sit in the open and watch the people and the birds.
Given the humidity, we were not surprised when the sky clouded over and raindrops fell. We retired out of the rain to a nearby cafe and then took the 38 bus towards the Gare du Nord and thence to our hotel for a rest.
We will have to see about supper later on. For now, I think it is time for a cup of tea.
For supper, with economy still in mind, we bought bread, cheese and mustard at the local supermarket, then caught the market just before it closed and bought cherry tomatoes and fruit.
We then hopped aboard a 38 which took us down to the île de France near the Palais de Justice. We ate our picnic supper on the bank of the Seine as night gently fell over the scene and the Bateaux Mouches sailed past.
The bank at this hour is quite popular, especially we young people, either in groups or canoodling couples. We were lucky to find a relatively quiet spot.
Then the 38 carried us back again to our hotel near the Gare du Nord where we made tea, wrote postcards and reflected pleasantly on the day.
Wednesday, September 10th 2008
It’s another warm day today, warm and muggy, the sort of day when even moderate activity makes you feel hot and sticky. We started by going to the post office to buy stamps. I don’t know whether this is general in France but in the local office you have to press a button labelled with the sort of transaction you wish to perform and you then receive a ticket with a number on it. You wait until that number is displayed on a board together with the number of the clerk who is to serve you. This chore done, we caught the bus to Monmartre. We had seen Sacré Cœur from afar on our previous visit and intended to go up there this time.
Unlike some equally famous monuments to religious fantasy, Sacré Cœur is not all that old. The first stone was laid in1897 and the job completed by 1919. As buildings go, it is quite striking but, in my view, nothing special.
Its most spectacular feature is its setting on the heights. A good way to appreciate this elevation is to arrive by bus, as we did, at the lower level and then climb to the top on foot. Once up there, you are rewarded with spectacular views over Paris. By the time we arrived the sky had clouded over so the views were dull and veiled. One should choose a bright, clear day.
All the Parisian monuments are infested with souvenir sellers, some of them quite aggressive. They are not above standing in your way or even grabbing your arm, which I regard as beyond the pale.
Walking down the steps and steep slopes to the town below is a lot easier than climbing up. This seems to be a good place to go for all kinds of cloth, as there is a whole street dedicated to this trade.
After a coffee, we took a bus for the Trocadéro. The bus terminated short, however, and as the sun was shining we sat in the park – Parc Monceau, to be precise – for a while.
We finished off the bread and cheese from last night’s picnic and fed the sparrows, some of whom could be persuaded to take bread from the hand.
There is concern for sparrows in the UK because their numbers have declined drastically in recent years and they have virtually disappeared from towns. In France, they seem more abundant, at least in the parks.
After this interlude, we continued on by bus to the Trocadéro. Here too there are good views, especially of the Eiffel Tour.
I think the Eiffel Tower to some extent suffers from its popularity. Everyone knows it and its image appears in so many forms in so many contexts that it comes to be taken for granted. Until, that is, you see it and are bowled over by its sheer size. You then see it in a different light and realize that how elegant its shape is for so huge a structure.
Eiffel Tower from the Trocadéro
We did not ascend the Eiffel Tower either this time or on our previous visit. I imagine that the ascent is memorable and the views spectacular and hope to make the ascent on one of our trips. Likewise, we put off visiting Le Musée de l’Homme until another time.
Yesterday and today we travelled everywhere by bus, using the three-day travel cards we bought on arrival on Saturday. We decided it was time to try them out in the Metro. They worked perfectly. One of the good things about them is that they do not appear to limit the hours when you can travel, unlike similar tickets in the UK.
Place de la République (detail)
We travelled by Metro to La Place de la République and then took a bus back to the hotel for a cup of tea and a rest. We will go out again later when, all being well, it will have cooled down a little.
We finished the evening with an adventure. Or perhaps it would be fairer to call it an almost-adventure to distinguish it from one of those proper adventures where we stray too far and fail to make it back for the night.
Shrine of Ganesha (Thaly Restaurant)
For supper we went to Thaly, an Indian restaurant just down the road that we had had our eye on. The food was quite pleasant though nothing out of the ordinary.
Then Tigger asked whether I wanted to go back to the hotel, go for a walk or go for a bus ride. As our 3-day tickets are still valid, I chose a bus ride.
We thought of taking bus 30 to the Arc de Triomphe but couldn’t find the stop. If that sounds daft, just wait until the day you are at the Gare du Nord trying to find where a particular bus stops…
In the end we took the 39 which was going south to Issy Val de Seine. Look it up on the map and the rest of the story will make more sense. We had a nice ride and disembarked at the Terminus-tout-le-monde-descend-svp and looked around. It was dark and there wasn’t a lot to see so we politely enquired of the bus driver the time of he next departure. He politely informed us there was no departure: his service was now finished for the night. Oops.
We asked how we would get back to the Gare du Nord and he said that was difficult from where we were. Then he kindly offered to take us unofficially in his bus to somewhere where we could pick up a connection. See what I mean about Parisians being kind and helpful?
So he switched off the internal lights and off we went. The plan was to drop us at a stop for the 42 which would take us back. Then he asked whether we had ridden the tram yet and whether we would like to. I said you betcha so he dropped us off at the tram terminal at Pont du Gariliano where we could get a tram going to Port d’Ivry. Your map will show that this route is tangential to our desired direction of travel but it does go through Porte d’Orléans where we could transfer to line 4 of the Métro.
And that is what we did. The Métro was stuffy and hot but it took us all the way to the Gare du Nord, our famous 3-day tickets being valid for it.
As I said to Tigger, getting around Paris is a doddle, innit?
So now we are back in our little room on the 3rd floor, about to go to sleep to get up our energy for another day’s exploration tomorrow.
Thursday, September 11th 2008
Today is again more like spring than autumn, a beautiful warm and sunny day. After breakfast we joined the commuters on the bus and arrived at the Eiffel Tower while there were still very few people about.
In the parks, the gardeners were busily at work, weeding, tidying, sweeping and watering. The water sprays caught the sun and made rainbows. Pigeons and other birds bathed in the puddles and snoozed in the sunlight.
There will always be beggars and con artists where there are crowds, and fashions change from year to year. Last time we were here, it was “gypsy” beggars, women with babies, going the rounds and demanding money. This year, it seems to be the Lost Ring Scam.
The lost ring scam
As you walk along or sit on the grass, a passing citizen – male or female – dashes in front of you and “finds” a gold ring on the ground. “Is it yours?” they enquire in whatever language they think appropriate.
The idea is to ensnare you with your own greed. If you claim the ring as yours, they will demand a reward for finding it; otherwise, they will try to sell it to you. The ring is worthless but you are supposed to think you are getting a valuable jewel for very little.
We were accosted 4 times in a short space of time – twice by the same man! We sat on the grass on the Champ de Mars and watched them plying their trade. They didn’t seem to be having any success. Time to change to a new scam, no doubt.
It was pleasant to lie on the grass with the sun at our backs, staring up at the massive Tower, fully illuminated with sunlight, watching the people moving about on the first and second levels and the lifts slowly rising like ladybirds climbing a tall plant.
The sun became too hot so we retired to a bench shaded by the trees. Here too we observed the ring scammers plying their trade and the tourists taking photos of one another “holding up the Tower”. There is little that endures so robustly as kitsch.
The scene is so tranquil and relaxed compared with the crush around the monuments in London and the absence of controls is also striking. Tigger pointed out that in Paris they have the luxury of space whereas in London, everything is packed into a relatively small area.
This doesn’t explain the marvellous cleanliness. The lawns and the alleys are free of garbage. In comparison, London is a disgrace. I don’t know whether it is because Paris has an efficient cleansing service or because Parisians – and Europeans in general – have a more positive attitude towards rubbish disposal and recycling. Whatever the reasons, the results are impressive.
When we had relaxed sufficiently, we took bus 92 towards the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Élysées. We stopped short of the Arc and went is search of lunch. The trick here is to get off the main road and its high prices. We found a little café called Bistro le Telex 17 where we had crudités and omelettes.
Emerging from the cafe we decided to walk to the Arc. We walked slowly because of the heat. To us Londoners, such heat in September is almost unimaginable.
We found our way via the underpass to the Arc de Triomphe. Like the Eiffel Tower, this is such a familiar icon that it startles you when you finally see the scale of the real thing. It makes London’s Marble Arch look like a back garden gate.
How does one characterize the Arc the Triomphe? As monumental architecture? Or as monstrous architecture? Or as pertaining to both?
Surely, since the Pharaohs no one man has erected such a huge monument to himself. The irony is that the man who built the Arc, then at the height of his career, no doubt believing himself all-powerful, was soon to end his life in ignominious exile and confinement.
The double irony is that after his death, France once more reclaimed Napoleon and his conquests and incorporated his remains and his works into her national monuments and rituals, so that the Arc de Triomphe, a paean in stone to the self-glory of a dictator, today also serves as a memorial to the nation’s sons and daughters who have given – and who continue to give – their lives for France.
Like the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe pushes through the grandiose into the extreme but then somehow creates for itself a new category of grandeur which we can only marvel at and accept it on its own extraordinary terms.
We caught bus 31 through heavy traffic – exacerbated by the cordoning off of certain areas in readiness for the visit of the Pope – and returned to our hotel room to cool down, rest and rehydrate ourselves with cups of tea.
This evening we set off to a secret location, secret to Tigger, that is, as she knew where we were going. She wanted to watch the sunset and had picked out a place that she thought would be good for this.
When we stepped out, we realized that the temperature had dropped several degrees and the sky was becoming overcast. We hadn’t gone very far before the first streaks of rain appeared on the bus windows. Soon a heavy rain storm was in progress and the bus quickly filled with damp passengers. We put on our rain jackets, which we had brought with us fortunately, and disembarked.
We were now at the Pont de l’Alma in heavy rain and the most sensible thing seemed to be to take the bus whence we had come.
When we reached the Gare du Nord, we were surprised to see large numbers of police. We never got a satisfactory explanation for this though they seemed to be associated with a piece of worrying news. This was that the Eurostar that had departed earlier for London was on its way back to the Gare du Nord.
In the end I approached one of the police officers and asked if there was a problem with the train. He replied that the train was being sent back as there had been a fire in the Channel Tunnel.
I hope this will not affect our journey on Saturday because we will be working to a tight schedule for reasons that I will explain in due course.
As we left the station, we saw at least one family arguing with officials that they were now stranded with nowhere to stay…
Friday, September 12th 2008
Our first action this morning was to go to the station to enquire about the Eurostar. The news is bad. The fire – in a lorry – has caused extensive damage and it is thought unlikely that there will be any services tomorrow or for some time to come. We were therefore advised to return to London by other means.
Our Eurostar tickets will be refunded but we will have to attend to this in London. The adviser we spoke to wanted to put us on a coach there and then that would take us to London but we refused. Apart from anything else, for reasons I won’t bother you with, I cannot be cooped up in a coach for hours on end and in any case, why should we be robbed of a day’s holiday and hotel room?
So the next task was to join the queue at the ticket office and book an alternative route home on Saturday. In London, you can buy tickets right through to Paris or Amsterdam but here, apparently, you cannot book a journey to London. The clerk could only sell us train tickets for Calais and give us the channel ferry ticket office phone number. If London can do it, why can’t Paris?
Because of my hearing problems, I needed a nice quiet place for my phone call to Calais so we went back to the hotel and the desk clerk provided an outside line for the phone in our room.
A recorded voice answered that was barely audible but when I finally got through to a human being, I had no problems. So we now have tickets to take us as far as Dover. Completing the journey to London should be no more difficult than one of our usual weekend outings.
There remained the cattery. The proprietors are leaving on holiday tomorrow and we had arranged to return early enough to collect Freya from the owner’s mother the same evening. It is obvious that we cannot now fulfill that promise. I tried phoning after booking the ferry tickets but no one picked up. I will have to try again later.
Having sorted out our return journey as best we could, there was no reason not to follow our original plan to buy tickets for the Batobus and have a ride on the Seine.
Batobus (English language version here) is a “Hop on, hop off service”, which means you can, if you wish, spend the day going round and round, getting off for a rest or to explore or have lunch etc., whenever you feel like it.
Unfortunately, as previously mentioned, the Pope is visiting Paris and this is causing more than a small amount of disruption and inconvenience to the rest of us (not to mention the burden on the French tax-payer). This disruption included closing off part of the route normally taken by the Batobus, whose itinerary was therefore somewhat shortened. The ticket price was reduced accordingly.
Sailing up and down was quite pleasant nonetheless. The heavy rain of yesterday evening had gone and the day was warm, though not as uncomfortably so as in the last couple of days, with sun and clouds – and the occasional shower of rain – alternating brightness and shade.
At lunchtime we left the boat near the Musée d’Orsay to look for something to eat. We found a nice fruit and vegetable shop with a small but well stocked grocery section and bought a lunch of pumpernickel bread, raclette cheese, mustard and strawberries. We carried this little lot back to the river and ate our lunch on one of the stone benches sited along the bank.
After this we went around the truncated Batobus circuit a few more times until the service closed at 7pm. We stopped for coffee, partly in order to have coffee and partly to make some small change for the bus, and then caught to 42 towards the Gare du Nord.
During one of our breaks from the boat ride, I found a quietish spot on the river bank and used my mobile with the T-loop to call the cattery. I got a good connection. They knew about the Tunnel fire and were very understanding. They kindly agreed to re-arrange Freya’s pick-up: I will now go on Sunday morning instead. That was a big weight off my mind.
Our intention was to have supper in a little Chilean restaurant that we discovered on our last visit. Tigger pointed out that we haven’t had much French food on this trip because French restaurants seem positively averse to offering anything remotely vegetarian.
The Chilean restaurant is called Santa Sed and is in rue des Vinaigriers. It advertises a vegetarian main course, Pacualina (a spinach and mushroom pie) and also has a couple of starters suitable for vegetarians.
It was here, last year, that Tigger invented bread and green Tabasco, so we made sure to ask for the green Tabasco again and to eat it on bread between courses.
I feel quite sad that this is our last night in Paris this time around. I worried that this second visit would seem an anticlimax after the first one last year but am glad to say that it has surpassed it.
I have got to know Paris a little better and have begun to feel even more at home here. I look forward to more visits in the future and there will be plenty left to do and see for those occasions.
The one difficulty has been my hearing. As long as people speak clearly it’s fine, but if they mutter or turn away when speaking, I am lost.
Tigger’s French has be improving, though. She has once or twice picked up on things that I have missed and this has been a help.
Saturday, September 13th 2008
Here we are back again from Paris. We are glad to have made the return so easily.
Possibly you know about the fire in the Eurotunnel. We heard about it more or less by chance on Thursday evening when we happened to be at the Gare du Nord and heard an announcement that the Eurostar train that had departed a while before was on its way back. That, and an unusually large police presence in the neighbourhood of platform 18 where the returning train would arrive, set alarm bells ringing in our minds.
I still don’t know the reason for the large number of police officers present. Did they think that irate passengers would riot? It’s a mystery. But I was at least able to ask one of the officers what was going on and he told me about the fire in the Tunnel.
On Friday, we enquired again and were told it was unlikely that there would be any Eurostar services running for some days and that we would be advised to travel “by other means”. Following this advice we bought train tickets from Paris to Calais and booked a ferry crossing by phone.
This morning, we got to the station in good time for our Calais train and found a queue of people ostensibly checking in for Eurostar: apparently, a limited service was now running. We were able to get seats but there wasn’t sufficient time to queue up and get a refund of our Calais tickets so we may lose the money on those unless I can persuade Eurostar to stump up.
The journey was slightly longer than usual as we had to wait half an hour at Calais for a “slot” to travel through the unaffected tunnel. Apart from that, however, the journey passed without incident and we arrived home earlier than we would have done following our original schedule.
I have to say that Eurostar has gone down in my estimation. I don’t know how the fire occurred and caused so much disruption so cannot comment on that. What I can say is that Eurostar obviously had absolutely no contingency plans for such an event and the local staff seemed unable to do much to help travellers whose trains were cancelled other than to lay on a coach to London on Friday morning.
These events did not spoil our holiday and even added spice in a strange sort of way. We racked up quite a few miles during our stay even though we never left Paris itself. Apart from a downpour on Thursday night, the weather behaved itself and it was warm throughout. In fact, for the last few days it was like summer, so hot that we returned to the hotel in the afternoon to cool off!
Have we now “done” Paris? No, not at all. Nearly everyone we spoke to asked if we had visited this building or that market and we had to keep saying “Non, pas encore!” So there still remains plenty to see and do and Paris will keep on being “new” for us for a few trips yet. Apart from the seeing and doing, though, there is the simply being: Paris is a wonderful place to be in. We had some lovely moments just sitting on park benches or strolling along the banks of the Seine.
I will write up my account of “Paris 2008” in due course and fill in the details there.
Sunday, September 14th 2008
Our train to Calais was due to leave at 9:58 so we could afford a leisurely start, getting up at 7:30 as we have done all week. We agreed nonetheless that it would be a good idea to check the status of the Eurostar along the way.
On enquiring, we learnt that the service had resumed, though with “perturbations”. There was a long check-in queue. I went to the front of this and asked for information. The train on which we had reserved was not running but others were scheduled. Places were being allocated to passengers in order of arrival.
So Tigger joined the check-in queue while I hurried off to the SNCF tickets windows to get a refund on our Paris-Calais tickets. Owing to the respective lengths of the two queues, it became obvious that Tigger would get to the check-in before I got to the ticket window, so I had to give up on the refund for now, hoping to be able to get the money back later.
We progressed to the departure lounge where I phoned the ferry company and was able to cancel at least those tickets.
There was understandably some confusion at the station and virtually no information to help Eurostar passengers. There were electronic notice boards announcing – in French only – that a partial Eurostar service had resumed. Apart from that you had to be lucky or observant enough to notice a queue being served by grey-suited Eurostar staff.
All in all, Eurostar has shown itself unprepared for major problems and lacking plans for dealing with them adequately. The company has accordingly gone down somewhat in my estimation.
Looking on the bright side, we are returning to London by Eurostar, which is better than a three-stage journey involving a ferry crossing. We shall arrive in London earlier than originally planned so I may even be able to collect Freya from the cattery today as previously arranged.
In a situations like this, passengers are anxious and stressed and often behave rudely or aggressively. Ordinary staff bear the brunt of this without being responsible for the problem but having to deal with its consequences. It is worth remembering this and treating them politely and with consideration.
At 10:13 local time, 9:13 UK time, our train departed for St Pancras. We have been advised that the journey, which will take us through the unaffected tunnel, will be longer that usual. Better that than an even longer journey or, worse still, being stranded altogether.
What might have been another of our adventures has turned into a minor inconvenience.
Running through France on the Eurostar is a strange experience.
Before you board the the train, your baggage is checked and your passports examined. You are locked in the train like cattle until the destination is reached. There is something slightly claustrophobic about it: France rolls past the window but it might as well be a film. It is inaccessible, forbidden territory, a place where you may not set foot or breathe the air.
I have travelled by train countless times to countless destinations. On these journeys I could have got off at any station and because I could, I never thought to do so. Speeding through France, sealed in like some dangerous cargo, I of course do think about this, wishing I could break my journey in this or that attractive place. But it is not possible: we rush on to our irresistible destination…
When we reached Calais, we were informed that there would be a delay of about 30 minutes as we would be using the unaffected tunnel. I assume this means that traffic has to go through this tunnel in both directions and we have to wait until the single track is clear of oncoming trains before we can resume our journey.
We left Calais station at 11:15 and emerged at the other end of the tunnel about three-quarters of an hour later. We are due at St Pancras at 12:25 UK time.
We arrived at St Pancras without further ado and took the familiar bus home. Despite the fire and the anxiety, we had completed our journey with very little disturbance. So ends our Paris adventure – for this year, at least.