Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Last Tango in Paris (with Canard)

Bride jumping the fence to escape the tourist hordes at Sacre-Coeur
Last day in France.  Last day before heading home.  One last encore day in Paris to end the trip.

The bullet train from Saint-Etienne got me into Paris mid-afternoon.  My flight back to the United States leaves tomorrow morning.  That left some time for a little Paris-seeing.  So I decided to head to one part of Paris I had not seen last week:  Sacre-Coeur on Montmartre.


The Basilica of Sacre-Coeur sits atop Montmatre, dominating the skyline in this part of the Rive Droite, which the "right bank" of the Seine River is officially but rarely called.


You climb a ton of steps to get up to Scare-Coeur.


The Basilica itself is strikingly beautiful.  And there's a carousel.


France has a lot of carousels, but this was a very nice setting for one.


Indeed.


The problem is this.  The area around Sacre-Coeur is absolutely lousy with tourists.  Worse, it is packed with cheap souvenir stalls, aggressive salesman, and scam artists trying to pull of the string-around-your-wrist scam.  This is not the fun side of tourism.


No photography inside the church, so I took no pictures inside the church because I obey church rules on photography like no other rules.


But it didn't stop me from taking pictures of the view from Montmartre.  Weirdly enough, even though this should've been facing south, I did not see any distinct Parisian landmarks.  Not even the Tour Eiffel.  Just the Gare du Nord train station, which was nearby.

The interior of Sacre-Coeur was almost as beautiful as the outside.  But it was not a fun atmosphere.


Time to take the funicular off Montmartre.  We were heading for the Latin Quarter, Rive Gauche, the much more interesting side of Paris.


This time we did not take just the "Metro," we took the "Metropolitain," as it was cutesily labelled at the Arvens stop.  By the way, it was on this Metro ride that I thwarted a pickpocket attempt on me.  For reals.

I never put my wallet in the back pocket of my pants when I'm traveling.  I had on cargo shorts (with camera around my neck -- how did he ever figure out that I was a tourist?), with the pockets snapped shut.  The subway car was very crowded.  It was rush hour.  I could feel someone trying (unsuccessfully) to get my wallet out of the cargo pocket on the left side of my shorts.  He had my wallet about a quarter the way out.  Luckily, it's tough to get the wallet out of those pockets unless both snaps are opened.  I put my hand down and the pickpocket attempt ended.  He had opened only one of the snaps.  Snap on my back pocket was open (I knew I closed it when I left this morning), meaning he tried to grab tourist wallet there first, so this was a professional.

So, yes, don't ever put your wallet in your back pocket when traveling.


Back to the much nicer Rive Gauche.  That is Notre-Dame cathedral, which I photographed a hundred million times during last week's visit.


But, you know when the doubledecker open-air hop-on/hop-off pulls up, your tourist attraction is about to get a whole lot more touristy.  And, by this time, I'm developing a bit of an allergy to the tourist hordes, so time to move on from Notre-Dame.


Even though Notre-Dame is amazingly photogenic.  By the way, the Seine River right here looked a little lower than it was last week.  Good news for Paris.


Next stop was to find the famous "Shakespeare and Company" bookstore, made famous during the "Movable Feast" era of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald.


Some activity in this area, but not the tourist concentration.


Here are some women using one of those famous Paris water fountains we learned about during the Latin Quarter walking tour.

Let's have a closer look.


There was a band playing just to left of this picture, playing mostly R&B flavored versions of American hits such as "Every Breath You Take" by the Police.  And there was an entertaining pooch here, too, at the Shakespeare and Company area.


 Very playful.


But he loved his plastic ball.


Enough time killed.  It was the seven o'clock hour, which is the time that the restaurants of Paris open, and my stomach was empty.  It had been a long time and a long way since the hotel buffet breakfast at the Hotel B&B in Saint-Etienne.

Time to wander the backstreets of the Latin Quarter in search of deliciousness.


Past Saint Severin, which you already saw in a post last week:


Past the Pantheon, which, again, you already saw in a post last week:


I've been in Paris too long.  I'm repeating myself.

But I'm not repeating myself on restaurants.  This one may be the best one yet.  Bistrot l'estrapade.  It was very small.  Maybe eight tables inside and another out.  But the food was incredible.  Prix-fixe menu of course.

For the entree:


This is a baked pear, in a sauce made from roquefort cheese (and lots of cream I am guessing), served with chorizo.  You wouldn't think those three ingredients go together.  Trust me.  They do.  And they do quite well.

I'm not even going to try to give the name in French.  The restaurant has no on-line menu.  The menu is on a chalkboard that the waiter/server/wine steward/maitre d' brings to your table.  The "English language menu" is him describing the dished in English.


The main course was canard.  Duck.  I'm in Paris.  This is my last night in Paris.  I decided to break out of my culinary comfort zone and order something I would not ordinarily eat.  I contemplated the beef tongue ("cooked for 15 hours," said the waiter), but opted for canard.  In a cherry sauce.  He asked if I wanted it "medium rare."  "Medium rare" does not strike me as an option for avian meats.  So I opted for "medium."

The duck was cooked perfectly and the cherry sauce was extraordinary.


Dessert was tapioca.  This being France, this was not simply "tapioca."  It was prepared with rhubarb (nice and tart) and topped with cocoa and berries.  This is tapioca of the gods.


Bistrot l'estrapade.

And outside the restaurant, this being Music Night in the Latin Quarter, there was a band.


Two girls and an amplified acoustic girl.

The crowd loved them:


If I ever come back to Paris -- maybe it will happen, maybe not -- my rule will be this:  Maximize time on the River Gauche.  Minimize time on the Rive Droite.  Everything I have loved about Paris has been on the Left Bank.  The D'Orsay.  The Rodin.  The restaurants.  Everything that was overly touristy and packed beyond the point of fun (and the attempting pickpocketing).  That was on the Right Bank.  And if Sacre-Coeur was that much of a hassle because of the tourist hordes, how bad must the Arc de Triomph be?

that is a wrap on Vacation 2016, summer edition.

Futuristic Hotel from the Prisoner

Welcome to the future
Before I post my final installment about this trip, I feel my Paris hotel deserves a post of its own.


I am staying for this last night at the Citizen M Hotel at Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport.  When I say "at," I mean it's a five-minute walk to the airport.  It's got that futuristic vibe to it.

Or more like something from The Prisoner.  At least on the TV screen welcoming me in my room, I am Robert.  I am not a number.  I'm a free man.


This is the check-in desk.  Notice:  no people.  That's right.  You check yourself in.  (There is an employee to guide you through the process if you need her.  But you check yourself in.)  You even make your own room key.


The lobby is huge.  Because the rooms are small.



Everything is red or white.  Or red and white.  This is the corridor leading to my room.

And this is my room:


It's small, but it's bigger than my room in the Paris Latin Quarter.  Or the Skuggi in Iceland.  So by Euro standards, the room is enormous.


This is the desk.  Again.  Red.  And white.


And this is my bed, at the far end of the room, the length of the bed being the width of the room.  Efficient use of space.

As is the "WC" in the middle of the room, shielded off from the rest of the room by translucent plastic.


Note the purple tinge to the light.  You can change the color of the lighting in the room on the iPAD in the room that use to adjust all controls, including light color.


If I see someone pedaling through the lobby on a velocipede -- or if I am being chased by a giant bouncey white blob -- I'm leaving.  I'm not even going up to my room to get my stuff.

Monday, June 20, 2016

More Touring Saint Etienne. Plus #SVKENG

Pre-game street scene in Center-ville Saint-Etienne
The center of this trip was the trip to Saint-Etienne, France, to see two games in the European football championship.  The first game was the eventful Croatia/Czech Republic.  The second game was England/Slovakia.  Start time for the game would not be until 9:00PM local time, which meant a long day to kill in Saint-Etienne.


Pastry is a good way to kill some time.  We would call the above a Napoleon, but in France it was called a "mille-feuille" in French.  No, it was not gluten free.  Sometimes you just got to cheat a little and deal with the consequences later.


Still quiet in Saint-Etienne.  That would change.  But, first, off to the Parc-Musee de la Mine, or Puits Couriot.


Abandon all hope ye who enter.


There was a group of schoolchildren lined up for a tour.  At least I think they were there for a tour.  We never saw them again.  Perhaps they are still working an underground seam.


Saint-Etienne was a major coal-mining center from the mid-19th Century into the 1970s.  This is a statue that was erected with great fanfare at the mine in 1920.

They had a collection of photographs on display from the 1900 era of mineworkers and was were, literally, "working families."  Not in the sense that politicians use the phrase today, but in the sense of the whole family worked the mine.




These were from noted French photographer (and Saint-Etienne local) Felix Thiollier.


This is a view of the top-landing.  And this is where the miners hung their equipment:


Has a "gallows" feel to it, doesn't it?  This is the shower:


These were very depressing safety posters:




They also looked vaguely communistic, but that's just me.


The "chevalement," or top-landing.  There were stairs on the side.  You could once climb it.  I was "willing" to climb.  But, alas, the stairs were cordoned off.  No climbing the chevalement in 2016.


Under the chevalement.


Heading back to the exhibit area, with one of the old slap heaps visible.  It's now largely green with a bald-headed top spot.  They said that on cold days you can see steam rising from the old slag heaps as heat is still escaping.


Here is a view of the entire Parc-Musee de la Mine:


One of the best museum experiences to be had in Saint-Etienne.  Of course, Saint-Etienne is not exactly Paris when it comes to museum.

Uh-oh.  Would you look at the clock?  It's getting time to head up to the Satde Geoffroy-Guichard for some football.


Downtown Saint-Etienne was now packed with partisans of the English and Slovakian sides.


The easiest thing to do was walk the half-hour to the stadium.  The police presence was heavier than it was at the Croatian game.  For obvious reasons.



Strangely enough, I only was frisked once.  And that was at a checkpoint where everyone was getting frisked.  Entering the Croatia game, I was frisked twice.  I strongly believe that I was being racially profiled because I looked Croat.  Turns out, at the 81-minute point of the Croatia game, there was a good reason for the profiling.

This is the time during the pre-game when the Slovakia players come out in their civvies to greet the faithful.


This is the pre-game ceremony:


It is difficult to get good photos of game action when you are sitting this far from the pitch.


I could crop and enlarge, but the camera is not professional quality.  Neither is the photographer.


There was a lot of action on our side of the field in the second half.  That was because England was continually trying to score and Slovakia was playing great defense.


The game ended in a 0-0 tie.


It was an exciting 0-0 tie.  England was constantly putting pressure on Slovakia and Slovakia would not relent.  This is something that American sports fans tend not to understand.  Sometimes a nil-nil tie can be exciting.  Sometimes it can be deathly dull.  This was an exciting one.

As a result of this game, England finishes second in its group, which means it advances to the knockout round.  Slovakia finished third in the group, which means it may or may not advance.  Yet after the game, Slovakia fans were ecstatic and the England fans dejected.  Why?  Expectations.  Slovakia does not expect to win.  Drawing against England is a positive outcome for fans who expect nothing more from their team.  For England, they kept the pressure on because they wanted to win the group.  Finishing second meant a game in the knockout round against France.  In France.

To which the England fan next to us remarked:  "We handled France in 1415."  It's not every sports event where the fan next to you makes a Battle of Agincourt allusion.