Paris (Aug 22-26)

We arrived at CDG airport and after a short battle with the ticket machine we soon managed to catch a train to Central Paris.  The airport appears to be at the end of a major commuter line, so the trains aren’t optimised for luggage but they are very frequent.

From Halles station stop Google estimated that it was only about a 15minute walk to our hotel which was named for its street address – 123 Sebastabol. Although first we had to navigate our way out of a rather intimidating shopping mall with sparse and sometimes contradictory signage, from which we considered it an achievement to have escaped! The hotel was an interesting place themed around French movies, and each floor was dedicated to a major French movie star. We were shown a 1st floor room, before settling on a 4th floor room as being quieter. It had a nice view overlooking a park opposite the hotel, and also featured good double glazing, which meant that the road outside was reduced to a dim quiet rumble.

We went out for dinner almost immediately, as I was quite hungry by now. Greg had selected a fast food burger bar – French style called Big Fernand. They were reputed to serve the best burgers in Paris, and our view is that that accolade was well deserved.  We had the house combination (rather than make our own) which consisted of a beef patty and a topping of French cheese, smokey bacon, chives and caramelised onions. You could also choose how your burger was cooked, and I went for rare (avoiding blue), which it was!  It tasted devine, and went very well with the supplied paprika salted chips and the French beer I’d opted for (to the approval of the cashier). The music which was playing was just as well matched to us as the burgers – Greg remarked that it could have been straight off one of his 80s play lists! The chirpy wait staff were also pretty easy on the eye which only improved the atmosphere. After our meal we returned to our hotel and watched Despicable Me 2 from the hotel free movie selection, afterwards falling asleep quite early.

We were up quite early the next day and enjoyed a nice breakfast. The hotel offered a particularly good cold selection including hams, a good range of excellent cheeses and smoked salmon. As the reputation of France would suggest the bread was also impressive with fresh baguettes, excellent croissants, pain au chocolat and madeleines.

Our first stop was Musée Rodin, based in Hôtel Biron since 1909. The building was originally built for a wigmaker in 1731 in a rococo style. Many years later and after significant changes Rodin rented some of the rooms to store his sculptures, in which then became his studio, and enjoyed entertaining friends in the overgrown garden. In 1909 Rodin decided that he wanted the building to be a museum of his work and made a bequest of all his property and work which the French government accepted in 1916 and the museum opened in 1919. Since then the museum has been acquiring the original decorative furnishings of the property that were stripped out when it was a school.

The museum contains most of Rodins significant creations along with models and designs for them. For a number of them they are not necessary the originals, in a way…  Rodin willed that plaster casts could be made of his work resulting in numerous copies being made. Until finally the French government put the breaks firmly on this allowance, having realised that they were losing potentially a lot of money by people simply making copies of priceless artwork in their care. The museum also contains a selection of works by Camille Claudel, a sculptor and artist who worked in Rodin’s studio and subsequently became his lover. It was an enjoyable museum containing many examples of his genius, particularly impressive was the sculpture garden, which we found to be a very nice stroll on a sunny day and where we found the sculpture more accessible in natural surroundings.

We also found the Robert Maplethorpe exhibition of great interest, which compared many aspects of his work to Rodin’s but executed in a more modern style (primarily through the medium of photography). It was an interesting exhibition and fascinating comparison.

By the time we left there was a queue outside the museum, something which was to become a Parisian theme. We walked for a while heading towards the Eiffel Tower, at one point along a street with an excellent boulangerie (Nelly Julien) where I got a fantastic croissant and Greg enjoyed a tasty apple turnover. We also bought a few macarons from a chocolate shop (Lemoine) that Greg knew was well regarded, and sure enough they turned out to be exquisite.

We reached our next destination – the catacombs – a little later than planned, to find a gigantic queue which we were advised was about 2 hours long!  After some consideration we decided we to wander around some of the local streets instead and headed towards Le Marais, a locale Greg understood was quite pretty. We also did a little shopping, including visiting the biggest underwear shop in Europe; which true enough had a startlingly large collection over two large floors!  We also stopped by Uniqlo which is in a converted gold smelting factory (the furnaces can still be seen in the basement) and I succumbed to a merino wool jumper in a more interesting colour (teal) than we normally see in the UK. By the time we got back to the hotel I was regretting not also getting the rich pink one, so just before heading to the airport at the end of the weekend we did a mad dash back to get one.

Dinner was at Boco, which proved to be very interesting. This was a unique proposition where Michelin starred chefs had designed fast food recipes in glass jars, and so you selected a range of little jars to form your meal. We picked some very tasty selections including cod in parsley butter with mash, a cheese risotto and a fantastic salmon and lentil creation, together with some nice Sauvignon Blanc white wine. The meal was further livened up by the failure of the POS terminals shortly after we arrived, which meant that the stressed looking staff closed the restaurant to the many attempted newcomers whilst they called for technical support and tried to fix the situation. Our greatest immediate concern was that we may not be able to buy dessert, but they were happy to take cash for that and also gave us free drinks to apologise for the disruption.

We were up very early at 6:45am (5:45 UK time!) for a long day the next day.  We caught the train to Versailles, about a half hour journey. Even arriving at the palace as early as 9:15am the queues in the outside courtyard were huge. Greg had, of course, planned ahead and we headed straight for the guided tour section where we were immediately admitted and shown to a comfortable and relaxed waiting area until our tour commenced. Armed with ear pieces we then proceeded to be shown round the private apartments.  The tour guide was an interesting character and commented that she didn’t always understand the restoration priorities, giving as an example that the museum had spent over £1m on a piece of original furniture which came onto the market, but there was apparently no money available to fix the leaking roof.

The tour finished with entry to the Grand Chapel (escorted past the normal visitors who had to stay behind a barrier as they watched us enter!). This was a very spectacular sight and an impressive end to the tour.  Talking to the guide we were sad to hear that tours are becoming less common and in future may stop entirely.  There is also a lot of Verseilles not open, and our guide explained that in many areas the roof leaks and they simply don’t have the budget or staff to open up anything more. This is a real shame as apparently there are large swathes of the place configured as huge galleries with magificent furnishings and thousands of priceless works of art lining the walls with no-one able to appreciate them. We then headed to the Kings public rooms (happily without having to get into the main queue). These were certainly very impressive, but no more so than the royal palace in Madrid, or the Munich residence and less so than the Vatican.

After the inside visit we ventured into the garden. I had had no idea how huge this was; apparently a significant element of what makes Versailles so famous. There is a formal 40 hectare garden, a larger park of 600 hectares and there used to be a greater park of 8000 hectares, which was sold off after the French Revolution. I really enjoyed our time in the garden. It’s size was quite something to behold first hand and we began our journey with a walk to visit the Trianon palaces (Grand and Petit – which is really not that small at all).  It took about half an hour to get to the Grand Trianon, and to be honest I liked it more than main palace;  certainly I’d have preferred it to live in it. It also had a really beautiful garden, with an abundance of colourful wildflowers.

From here we walked to the Hameau de la Reine (the Queen’s Hamlet), a trip which took us completely out of sight of any other visitors for some minutes (remarkable considering that this is the top tourist destination of Paris, receiving many thousands of visitors very day). The hameau is a somewhat bizarre model village created by Marie Antoinette, apparently so that she could dress up and play at being a shepherdess with her friends!  It was very pretty – picture postcard perfect in many ways; obviously having been designed to be just that!

We visited Petit Trianon briefly which is the smallest of the palaces and more like a large manor house.  It was originally built by Louis XV for his mistress Madame de Pompadour, and after she died her successor Madame du Barry wasted no time moving in.  Louis XVI gave it to his young bride Marie Antoinette who used it as a refuge from the main palace with minimal staffing and few visitors.  It does feature one fascinating curiosity in the main bedroom (which is dual aspect) in that with a turn of a crank all of the windows can be covered with large mirrors which come sliding in from the floor.  A small room adjacent to the kitchen holds the mirrors when not in use. There were plans for a similar design of dining room table so that the servants would not be seen, but these did not progress beyond building the foundations.

After this we headed back to main garden in time to see the the musical fountains. The garden has 50 fountains incorporating more than 620 jets (which caused a great deal of plumbing problems when they were created;  at one point they used more water than the whole of the city of Paris).  In the time of Louis XIV only the fountains visible from the palace were kept on.  Those hidden in the garden would only be turned on when the king approached, with fountaineers whistling to each other to indicate his approach allowing fountains to be turned on before he arrived and turned off immediately he had passed (of which he was allegedly unaware).  Even with electrical pumps the garden still has trouble serving the fountains, usually only the main fountains visible from the palace are put on but occasionally the full display is put on with a grand musical accompaniment.  This is managed by putting a small selection on at a time, following a published timetable through the day.   The Saturn fountain was probably my favourite of this set, with an impressive opera soundtrack to complement it’s imposing design. We left the garden after about 3 hours exploration, and headed back into the central city.

We needed a quick dinner, which went somewhat astray from Greg’s planning and so we ended up back at the burger restaurant of the first night. This time Greg created his own combination with goats cheese, which he thoroughly enjoyed. We then went to the Moulin Rouge, where we had tickets for their post dinner show. It was quite spectacular and energetic, particularly in terms of costumes (and in some numbers the lack of them..) and we could imagine a similar show running 100 years ago, though probably with less good lighting!  We went home to bed straight after, with Fitbit having congratulated us for having walked over 25,000 steps that day – over 19km.

The next day I remembered that the room didn’t have the promised half bottle of champagne when we arrived (which had been in the original room we were checked into, but had not been moved when we changed rooms).  We had asked in the morning our first day at breakfast, then in the evening when before we headed out to the Moulin Rouge.  I had a word with reception who promised to send it right up, though seemingly in France ‘right up’ sometimes means ‘maybe today’ and it took a second reminder call to actually get it to arrive.  However it was nice when it did, and we enjoyed the romance of champagne together in France.

The next day we visited Paris’ most famous cathedral – Notre Dame.  It’s suitably impressive in real life and has an atmosphere which derives from it’s huge age (it was started in 1163 and finished in 1345). We joined the long queue to get in, which moved remarkably quickly.  The interior was impressive and it was interesting to see how it had evolved over time (illustrated by some good information displays). Curiously the church is actually owned (and has always been) by the French state, the Catholic Church is merely allowed to use the premises. I decided to climb the tower and joined a fairly short queue but which moved pretty slowly. The view at the top did reward my patience however, providing a great vista not only over the cathedral itself but of Paris.  On our way out we passed by the famous Pont des Arts bridge, which enjoys a picturesque view of the cathedral.  It is here where romantic couples leave a symbol of their love in the form of a padlock “love lock”, and the weight of the locks recently caused part of parapet to collapse.  A small detour took us via Bertie’s Cupcakery for a snack of cupcakes from an American cook in Paris.

It was now time for us to head back to our hotel (via the short detour to the Uniclo shop to buy another rather fine merino sweater in a fabulous hot pink than I referenced earlier).  And to make us feel at home the heavens opened and heavy rain poured down on us.  It continued to rain heavily all the way to the airport and back home.  In fact the rain in Bristol was complemented by a (presumably deliberately) humorous choice of music playing in the airport arrivals lounge – Crowded House – Weather With You …  “Everywhere you go, always take the weather with you”!

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