Thursday, January 1, 2015

Eve of 2015 in Paris, the end of our 20 day in Europe

31 December Wed 

Undeterred by the failure to get up the Tower of Notre Dame, we tried again, after doing the research online.

This time we got it right, the location at least. I thought one hour was too long a lag before the doors to the Tower at Rue de Cloitre would open, but my, was I wrong ! At 9 am, there was already a long queue by just as determined tourists for the first visit to the Tower at 10 am.

It was cold, though at 6C it was considered balmy by yesterday’s standards. H helped passed time with her jokes and made waiting bearable.

Entry was €8.50 for each of us and we had to negotiate more than 350 steps up. It was grueling but I was glad I made it without any problems.  The first levels were breathtaking enough – the gargoyles added texture to the city’s skyscape, each creature looking menacingly over the city. Every Parisian icons – Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur, and La Defence were visible from the viewing gallery.

Another flight of head spinning steps led us to the highest point on the Tower. It was the panaromic gallery, very small and each were allowed only 5 minutes to view the city. I did not find it as photo worthy with the absence the gargoyles.

The descent down the spiral stairway was just as difficult and it felt like eternity to get to the road level.

From Cite station, we trained over to Rue du Bac. It was  a chi-chi area with chic boutiques, expensive patisseries and a very upmarket grocer. It was a non event for me despite the hype online. I bought 2 boxes of gourmet cheeses to bring back to Singapore, and half hoping that the clothes will not smell too badly when we reach home.

We had our first good quality pizza lunch at Mama Roma, off Rue du Bac. For €30 it was one of the most satisfying pizza meal in Paris.

Another train ride, with mind bending number of train transfer, and we found ourselves at Ecole Militaire. It was a short walk to Eiffel. The sun was out , the weather dry and crisp and we snacked in the park, with Eiffel Tower as backdrop. It would be perfect in summer.

We clowned around the tower, taking copious number of photos and generally being silly there. After all, it was the last day of the long Europe holiday and revelry was in order.

We walked towards the Tower and baulked at the crowd milling around the Tower , spilling to Trocedero. Military personnel with assault weapons patrolled the area to keep trouble at bay.

We took a train from Bir Hakeim station , one of the above ground train tracks in Paris to Cluny La Sabourne. Christmas markets were open and the selling was in full steam. We logged our last evening in Paris on ‘film’ all the way to the hotel and beyond.

Like most of our DIY holidays, we rested in preparation for the midnight countdown. There was minimal packing because we have adopted a system of pack as we travel. The evening was spent writing our travelogues before dinner. It was one of the most restful 3 hours in hectic Paris!

Our original plan to have a simple dinner at Quick was quickly forgotten as we were lured by a foie gras set dinner at a pub near Senlis ( €39 per set ). We had one of the most generous block of foie gras and steak for a fraction of the price in Singapore. By the 3rd and last course, we were stuffed and unable to stomach the food. The 2 hour dinner meant that we were away from the cold longer than planned.

Public transport in Paris was free and running all night. In fact, thre free ride lasts to 12nn on 1st of January. We enjoyed the free commute to Ecole Militiare. The area around Eiffel was teaming with people, full of revelry. Celebrations were in full swing and more than 10 tour buses disgorged tourists to wait for the lightup of the tower.

By midnight, without fanfare or countdown, the tower lit up with shimmering lights. No fireworks, no music, no auld lang syne. Everyone waited in anticipation but the odd firework privately put up made the entry into the new year one of the most unspectacular events I have ever seen. We have been spoilt silly by last year’s show at Taipei 101 so this doesn’t measure up.

It was a let down and like the thousands of people, we took the free train back. Thus ends our 20 day long holiday in Europe. Tomorrow on the 1st of January 2015, we leave for home. It will be a year of many unknowns and we look forward to embracing it by the grace of God. May many good and wonderful things continue to happen.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

10km walk in the latin quarter and beyond !

30 Dec 2014 

Pantheon - famous people in their resting place
The 2nd last day of the year was a day of walking for the 3 of us. 10 km to be exact. After a modest breakfast at Macs, we found ourselves very quicky at the beginning of a long queue for Pantheon. It was a church dedicated to the patron saint of Paris, St Genevieve, and later turned to a crypt for national heroes. For 2 hours, from 10am, we scratched our heads at the paintings of St Genevive, Joan of Arc and the writeup at the Crypt, half wondering what we were looking at. Pantheon was massive and stately but the guys who collected our monies were not able to return the favor by putting English explanations. All was not lost because we had a rather competent interpreter with us. My biggest discovery was the crypt belong to the Curies and Brialle.  

We had a good meal of crepes at La Creperie just off the Pantheon, about €40.

Over to the river at Notre Dame, we abandoned plans to get up the Tower because of the massive queue. Unknown to us, the entrance to the Tower was actually at the side road of the Cathedral. Plans to get up were abandoned but we decided to try again the next day.
Rest in the Carousel park
We walked towards Louvre and the Carousel and even got to sit on the free chairs around the fountain. It was bitterly cold and we had to continue walking to keep warm. Towards La Concorde, the giant ferris wheels was a focal point  of merry making post Christmas. Beyond, the Christmas market was in full swing on both sides of Champs Elysee. We joined in the party as far as the Petite Palace and made an about turn.

At Rue de Rivioli, we had our tea break at a bistro. €24 for 3 beverages and a soggy apple pie was the worst ripoff in the whole of Paris for us. Had it not been for the public conveniences, I would have given the place a miss.

Now totally exhausted, we decided to take the train down from Rivioli to Chatelet to look for my elusive Carousel du Louvre underground mall.  It was a terrible mistake because the mall was near where we had tea ! We walked 2 stops back to find ourselves in a very unhappening underground mall because the Museum was closed that day, a Tuesday ! Another wasted trip.

We made our way to Rue de Huichette on the left bank for dinner ( St Michel station ). Tens of eateries, restaurants and bistros clustered at that tiny real estate . Greek, Turk, Indian, Chinese, French and Italian – it was a mish mesh. Raclette cheese pots were featured prominently until I realized why.  We were in the Latin quarter.

We were attracted to an eating place because of the chicken and suckling pig roasted over the rottiserie at the entrance. Interestingly enough,  we did not order any of the items roasting outside. The service was so slow we became bored of waiting. We had 3 3-course sets ( lamb, duck, beef stew ) . Apart from the starter which was pathetic, the food was pretty good. Garnishing was not their forte but the taste is decent enough. It was also the place that I had the most delicious ice cream in Paris.

We did some last minute ‘marketing’ at Monoprix before calling it a day.  The hotel chamber staff has taken away all our cups and we had nothing to drink from or brush our teeth with. I cannot wait to give a poor review of Hotel de Senlis.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Returning to Paris from Normandy

29/12/2014 Monday. 

Leaving just after sunrise
This was the part of the holiday I have been dreading – the long drive back to Paris from Normandy. I had seen the route back on Google Map and it looked like we would traverse a quarter of Northern France.

By now we understood how Garmin worked and Pat was adroit on the left hand drive manual transmission. The car’s inbuilt TomTom was a supporting system which most often did not agree with Garmin. We opted for toll road, going by A13 then A14 to Paris. It would cost us €21.

4 hour ride that was uneventful - Thank God !
Without taking breakfast at the B&B, we drove off in the dark at 8 am. The night before had been dry though it was -4C that morning. Thankfully there was no frost and we started off without issue. Our journey was uneventful and we even got to enjoy the sunrise on the road trip.

We were ahead of schedule and after a pit stop decided to change our destination to our hotel, Hotel De Senlis to drop off our luggage before returning the car at Hertz.

How did we land ourselves here ?
The 3 hours taken to drive to Paris was nothing compared to the 15 minutes in downtown Paris . It will be an event we will remember for  a long time. Garmin had instructed us to do the NW approach so we got into Paris by way of La Defence. We landed right smack in the thick of action in Champs Elysee the moment we emerged from the tunnel with the Arc facing us.

There was lots of excitement in the car and Pat was suddenly on high alert. We met our first crisis when we drove among the chaos around the unmarked Arc , each car trying to go its own way. There was total madness but everybody actually got moving in no time. It was simply incredible, something that would not happen in Singapore without a lot of honking.

Driving through downtown Paris
After the  Arc as we approached La Concorde, it seemed like the whole of France has descended on that little plot of space – it was jam packed with people. Amazingly we managed to get to the lane we wanted and make our way to Hotel Senlis on the left bank. Then Pat did the French thing and drove backwards on the one way road so that we could unload the luggage at the concierge. The journey in between the end of A14 and the hotel will be in the oral annals of our family history archives.

Our next stop was a little drive to Montparnasse, where I quickly located the Hertz return depot at 13 Rue du Commandant Rene Mouchant, beside Pullman Hotel. The return was uneventful but what was mention worthy was that we woke up early so that we could settle the luggage problem and return the car before the Hertz guys go for lunch at 1 pm. In fact, we were early ( return time 2 pm ) and avoided the surcharge of another day.

We grabbed lunch near Hertz office at Rue Du Maine ( 2 steak burger, 1 German meal , 3 beverages ) for €50 . It was a celebratory meal for a safe trip back.

The kid has this place all to herself
We claimed ownership of our bags, checked in to room 34 ( another rooftop unit but warmer with lots of light and heating ). H even has her own alcove bedroom  , which was very cute.

We made arrangements for airport shuttle pickup on 1 Jan 2015 ( €54 ) before heading out.

We visited Pantheon and Notre Dame, intending to enter but deterred by the long queue.  Even so, we managed to get night shots of Notre Dame and relive our first visit with H 10 years ago.

Notre Dame
On the way to St Germain, we got into Promod and  saw some winter which I thought would be suitable for H’s interview at UCL. At €129, the fully wool overcoat was a reasonable buy,

We walked back to St Germain and after failing to locate Carrefour hopped into the  first restaurant with available seats. The meal was good, service slow as usual ( €50 ). We thought of visiting the night markets and were surprised that they were all closed by the time we were done with dinner. It was not even 8.30pm.

We made our way back, with a ‘loot’ of overcoat and truffle oil from Monoprix. There was nothing good for breakfast but Pat spied Macs on his handphone apps ( citymapstogo ) near our place. With lots of foresight, our breakfast was already accounted for the next day,

A day at Mont St Michel

28 Dec 2014 Sunday ,  A day at Mont St Michel

Target of the day
MSM was 6 months of planning but I found out today that there was a serious lapse – how are we to take night scene of the Mont and yet not drive back to Avranches in the dark ?

The day started very frosty – the door of the car was iced over and we could not open the door. Imagine if I had been in the car all night. I would be frozen stiff already!

We had a very elaborate breakfast , courtesy of the proprietor, and ate with another French family. It was awkward and I kept wondering if small talk on the already late morning was going to prevent us from seeing MSM while the weather was good.

A cold , high pressure front has come to France and though for the first time in weeks it is crisp and dry, the wind chills to the very core. Our ride started off very carefully because of the frost but Pat soon got going on the highway like the French.

We did not get onto the coastal road as planned ( again ! ) and went by the highway instead to Pontorson , where we looped back to MSM. The rock and its famous Abbey shone stately in the sun. It got more and more magnificent as we approached.

We parked as near as possible to the Visitor Center and hopped on the free shuttle. We used the new causeway  that began functioning a couple of months ago.

It was a steep accent to the top of the Mont and thankfully, the crowd was still thin. It was vantage point at every turn ! Entrance to the abbey for us and H was €9  and €5. Youth has its perks.

We toured round the endless abbey which exit led us to the low end of the tower where we lunched. A gale blew and we could not huddle up enough – it was bitterly cold. Lunch was the usual crepes at a restaurant on the Mont, about €40.

We toured the other end of the abbey, making another accent minus the crowd before plucking ourselves from the Mont. Instead of taking the free shuttle bus, we took a 40 minutes walk. It was not easy because the sun shone into our eyes and it was very, very cold and windy. It was just 4ish pm and to while away the time, we had tea and shopped at the gift shop. I got a tub of duck liver paste at a steal of about €6.

Last look at MSM

Near the MSM mainland hotels, we stood on a dam which had a direct view of the Mont and experience the dam releasing the water. It was a new project, meant to revitalize the marsh so that grass will not grow around the Mont.

We waited for nightfall to take night scenes of MSM  before leaving reluctantly. Going back to Elham Ricoux B&B was very tough because the roads and turnpikes were pitch black. Thank God He led us safely home.

After a successful ‘expedition’ back and forth, Pat drove to Jardins where we checked out the MSM from the vantage point. The Jardins was in pitch darkness but I had the foresight to bring 2 solar torches to illuminate our paths. It was so cold nothing seemed possible for long. We went downtown to look for dinner.

Avranches on Sunday was totally different from Saturday, deserted and unhappening. Even bars were closed ! We ate in the Serhbat Kebabs shop ( 3 kebabs $21 ). I was pleasantly surprised that the food was good, the service friendly and the eating place was well lit and modern.

Another day of feats, possible only by the grace of God. Folks living in Normandy did not have it easy. Through time, they have experienced battles, wars, invasions and the severe weather. Perhaps there must be something that made it special so that so many come again and again.