Sunday 16 May 2010
May 16, 2010
One stereotype I often heard about the French is that they are unfriendly. I arrived in France prepared to be ignored or openly looked down upon, particularly as an American tourist. But I found the opposite to be true. Certainly there was one or two short tempered waiters when we were first in Paris with Manuela’s family, but that’s to be expected whenever a party of 12 sit down to eat dinner.
Traveling with someone who speaks the local language fluently, makes traveling easier. But the elderly lady who approached us outside Gare Centrale in Strasbourg as we studied a local bus map didn’t question our language abilities before she offered to help us understand the multi-colored lines. And it was clear that we were visitors to the woman who offered to help us find our hotel as we stood on a Montparnasse street corner with our luggage in hand.
Pont Couverts, Strasbourg
Before leaving Strasbourg Friday morning (May 14), we stored our luggage at the train station and visited Barrage Vauban, ancient water gates built to control city flooding. Also nearby are the Pont Couverts, covered bridges that are no longer covered.
Our high speed TGV train to Paris had “574 Km/hr” blazoned beside each door to advertise it’s record speed. That’s 356 MPH! I don’t think we traveled that fast during our 2 ½ hour trip back to Paris, but it was a fast comfortable ride. By noon we were standing on that Montparnasse street corner getting directions to our hotel from a friendly Parisenne.
Hotel Transcontinental Paris
We were lucky to have made a reservation the night before; the Hotel Transcontinental Paris desk clerk said all the rooms were now booked. Our room, unacceptably small by American standards, was big enough for a double bed and a small wardrobe. The bathroom was equally tiny; I had to sit sideways on the toilet. But it clean, quiet, and modernly furnished.
Manuela and I spent our first afternoon back in the capital visiting Isle St. Louis, the sister island to Isle de la Cité. I’d read about these islands a lot in books and travel guides but could not develop a mental image – inhabited islands exist in the oceans, not in rivers.
View of Isle de la Cité from Isle St. Louis
These two islands, each about six city blocks in size, are within a few hundred feet of each other. Several bridges span between them and both banks of the Seine; one bridge connects the two. Paris was first settled on Isle de la Cité and it is home to Notre Dame and other tourist attractions. In comparison, Isle St. Louis doesn’t have any tourist attractions aside from one street lined with restaurants and boutiques. Manuela and I were drawn to Isle St. Louis because of the quieter atmosphere and because of Berthollin, a homemade ice cream shop.
With our gourmet cones, we strolled around the island’s riverside promenade then continued our walk on the Left Bank and browsed through the bouquinistas, who have been selling used books on the quai since the 16th century. Shopping second hand bookstores has become something of a hobby for us and I was tempted to buy an old copy Victor Hugo, despite the French only editions. The bouquinistas have expanded their selections these days to include kitschy photographs of Paris and old Playboy magazines.
During our long afternoon walk, we happened upon a Starbuck Coffee shop in the St. Michel district and I coaxed Manuela inside. It wasn’t the quality of espressos and coffees in France that filled me with delight at the sight of that familiar green and black Starbucks’s emblom, in fact the espressos and coffees in France have been wonderful. It was simply the serving size. I like an American sized cup of joe I can nurse for an hour to so while reading a book, one that needs reheating before it’s half consumed. In France café doble means a cup with two sips instead of one.
Despite the chatty Brit girl sitting next to us, I enjoyed a grande cup of coffee while reading Sarah Turnbull’s Almost French, a great book for anyone thinking of visiting France. In 2002 Turnbull, an Australian on vacation in Europe, moved to Paris to be with her new boyfriend – no friends, no job. It’s a very familiar plot. Almost French is about Turnbull’s experiences acclimating to the French culture. Many of her anecdotes and observations are echoed in Polly Platt’s 1994 guide to working in France, French or Foe?
Baudelaire’s grave, Cimetiere Montparnasse, Paris
For Americans, the Door’s Jim Morrison is the most well known inhabitant of Paris’s many cemeteries; and no visit to a foreign city with Manuela is complete without at least one visit to a local graveyard. But Manuela has seen Morrison’s grave, which is now fenced off, so we decided to visit Cimetierre Montparnasse just a few blocks from our hotel Saturday morning (May 15). Many well known French citizens are buried there, but the poet Claude Baudelaire, was the only one I was familiar with. Besides seeking out Cimetierre Montparnasse’s famous tombs, Manuela and I enjoyed some of the more unique markers, including two rusty hands and a large ceramic cat.
In the afternoon, we returned to the Montmartre district via the Metro. We got off at the sytem’s deepest station, Abbesse, and walked up 181 spiral steps to the street. The entrance to this Metro station is still covered by one of the few original iron and glass awnings, designed by Hector Guimard in 1899. We and other patrons were serenaded by a series of strolling musicians while having breakfast at a nearby sidewalk café. After lunch we returned to the St. Germain des Pres to find Les Deux Magots and Brasserie Lipp. These cafes and others nearby were frequented by Ernest Hemingway and other writers.
Abesses Metropolitan Station, Paris
There are many wonderful museums in Paris, but one to be missed is Musée Duvernet. I was disappointed at the French only exhibit about the history of Paris which seemed to focus mostly on furniture and clothing. It was during our next museum visit, in the former home of Victor Hugo that I finally reached my fill of history and art exhibits.
Chez Victor Hugo is an interesting (and free) exhibit on the life and times of the great author and, unbeknownst to me, statesman; but the lengthy audio guide ($6.50) dragged on. One particular quote delighted me. While writing a son about his attempts to decorate a home with second hand store discoveries, Hugo penned, “A junk fairy made eyes at me and the curio god befriended me.”
Chez Victor Hugo, Paris
Manuela and I had our first reasonably priced dinner Saturday night at a Chinese restaurant across the boulevard from our hotel. Until then we regularly paid $30-40 for simple dinners. Petit dejeuners (breakfast) typically cost $8.00, which is a lot for a cup of coffee, a croissant, and a glass of juice. But dinner at the Chinese restaurant was just $20.
The advantage to returning to Paris instead of squeezing in a visit to Normandy was the chance to slow down. This morning (Sunday, May 16) we visited two local markets not frequented by crowds too busy rushing from one grand sight to another. The market on Rue Mouffetard was small, it had an unmistakably neighborhood atmosphere. The local butcher, fromager, grocer, and baker, were all selling their goods along a narrow cobble stone street that ended at a church.
Rue Mouffetard Marche, Paris
We bought fresh apples from the grocer and croissants from the patisserie and watched the baker slice large chunks of steaming bread sold by weight. While riding the Metro back to our hotel, we passed a much larger market, though more commercial, so we wandered through it
Back at the hotel, we waited in the lobby until noon, twenty-four hours before our departure tomorrow so we could check-in early online and choose good seats. The British Airways website announced that their cabin crews would go on strike the day after our return home. I got checked in, but because Manuela booked her flight through a travel agent in Graz, she could not.
Isle de La Cité, Paris
Rather than spend our last Parisian night in a high priced hotel and leave early in the morning, we decided to book an economical room at an airport hotel. But we still had an afternoon left in the city of lights, so we stored our luggage at the Montparnasse hotel and took another long walk along the Seine’s right bank.
We passed through a sculpture parked inhabited by homeless men, past the bouquinistas across from Isle St. Louis, and ate another ice cream (Hagen Das) on the banks of the Seine. We wandered around the St. Michel area and happened upon L’Hotel, a swanky hotel that in an earlier, seedier time was where Oscar Wilde died. A few blocks away, we found another of Ernest Hemingway’s many Paris homes.
Today was one of the warmest days in France, so we finished our afternoon by soaking in the sunshine on an old stone bench outside the Musée de Louvre. Have I mentioned that this city just oozes romance?
Musée de Louvre, Paris