Paris part 3: the tour

We saved a walking tour until our last day, hoping that the sun would come out and burn off the mist hanging over the city. Unfortunately, no. If anything it got worse, and our tour was cold and rainy. But we would not be deterred: I put on my mittens and we headed out to the Eiffel Tower.

For some reason I was convinced the Eiffel Tower was black. Maybe cartoons and pop art have led me astray, but I was sure it would be shiny, black metal spiraling up into the sky. But as we walked toward it and watched it creep into view through the fog, I realized it was brown! A light brown-beige color of untreated metal. My world was shattered.

It was still neat to see. But we just walked on past. Because it was cold. And there are only so many touristy pictures you need of your sister pretending to hold up the Eiffel Tower.

We powered on to the Arc de Triomphe. It was in the middle of a busy traffic circle so we just snapped some shots from afar and decided to catch the train. And there are only so many touristy pictures you need of your sister pretending to hold up the Arc de Triomphe.

We were headed to Montmartre. We were both pretty excited about this one – both of us studied art history and couldn’t wait to see this place that had inspired so many amazing artists.

…It was not very exciting. I mean, it was incredible to be there, but it was dirty and filled with too many tourists. It looked like a hobo town, with run-down shops and cracked pavement. Stores were bursting kitsch through their windows and garbage from their alleys. Hawkers were selling tiny Eiffel Towers (painted black!) all over the place. A random busker had carried a full-size harp up to the top of the cathedral stairs and was playing a mediocre version of Coldplay or something.

We wandered around the hill top, aghast at the cheap trinkets and street art for sale, with at least six caricature painters following us around, until we finally settled in a cafe for an expensive snack. The whole thing was a bit disappointing, but at least we did it. And it meant that we could reward ourselves with some shopping and a lavish dinner later on.

We decided to go looking for an oyster bar. The first one we tried turned out to only have oysters on Sunday (why?? no idea). So we wandered around to Saint Germain, grabbed some beers and watched the people for a while. Then we found a great seafood place nearby and settled in for our last big night in Paris. The oysters were great – served on steaming dry ice – the drinks were great, the company was great – a perfect ending to a wonderful trip.

The next day we headed off to the airport – my suitcase (and me) both at least 10 pounds heavier than when we arrived. But I had about 10,000 steps back through the metro to burn it off. I waved goodbye to Cheryl and spent the next eight cold, boring hours waiting for my plane. They really need to heat the airport.

Au revoir, Paris!

Airport goodbye!
Airport goodbye!

Paris part 2: the art

The top of my Paris bucket list was the Louvre. We spent an entire morning there, and we easily could have spent days. Of course, the Mona Lisa was a show stopper, but I enjoyed a lot of the other pieces as much if not more. I was distraught that the Vermeer wing was closed, but I satisfied myself with the Venus de Milo, the Medici cycle, some Monets and the ever-titillating Gabrielle d’Estrées and her Sister, among others.

That afternoon, we wandered over to a gourmet food store so I could buy some truffles to bring home. We stocked up on goodies and cooked ourselves a delicious fresh pasta for dinner and sat up drinking wine into the night. Another perfect Parisian day!

Up next: Eiffel Tower & Oysters

Paris part 1: the palace

The train from London to Paris was pleasant but unremarkable. Once again, we didn’t see anything but darkness in the tunnel, and we watched as the English countryside turned into the scattered suburbs of Paris. We arrived at the Gare and hopped on the metro to Bastille – where we had rented an apartment for the next four nights.

If you’ve never been to Paris, then I don’t blame you for this – but for all you folks who have visited or lived there, you neglected to warn me that Paris is the least suitcase-friendly city in the universe. We went up and down about 10,000 stairs between getting off the train and entering our apartment. No escalators. No elevators. Just many, many stairs and plenty of uneven sidewalks interrupted by construction. I think, actually, by the time you go down into to the bowels of the Paris metro and walk the several kilometers of winding underground paths to your stop, you might as well have just walked along the street. Also, normally I subscribe to the ‘pack 2 pairs of underwear in a bag for the week’ kind of travel mantra, but for this trip, I made the mistake of bringing an actual suitcase (to bring back large amounts of delicious Parisian treats). So I had to lug that suitcase through what I assume was equivalent to the distance of the entire metro line. Only backpacks for me from now on.

But we did make it safely, and we couldn’t wait to head out for amazing French food for dinner. But where to go? We did some quick online searching and found a highly rated restaurant nearby that was unique in being run by a single chef who also acted as waiter and host – serving only a handful of people each night, as though you were sharing a meal with him at his house. Perfect! I called him up and managed to get reservations for that night.

And it was AMAZING. Easily in my top 3 meals of all time.

The next day, we decided to venture out to Versailles. Travel tip: Don’t book with an overpriced tour. It was an easy train ride and we had no problem buying tickets at the palace itself for much cheaper than any tour.

We were expecting a lavish, opulent palace filled with rococo curiosities. It turned out to be more like a dusty museum that had been pillaged of its contents over the course of a few centuries. Actually, I guess that’s exactly what it was – an empty building with most of the stuff having been sold off for the good of the republic at various points in history. There were still a few items in the main bedrooms, but they weren’t *stunning*, and they were caked with dust. It was most interesting to see the layout of the building itself – I’ve watched enough period piece movies to know that the king and queen had zero privacy, and this proved it. All the rooms were essentially hallways, and it was pretty clear that they were high-traffic zones. Probably they didn’t sleep much in there, and it was mostly for show, but still, they really did give themselves to the motherland, in all the being-naked-and-going-to-the-bathroom senses of the word. The Hall of Mirrors was cool, but again, kind of dusty and run down.

We wandered outside into the gardens, which are enormous and famous. But because we were there in early spring, they were mostly ugly and misty. Plus there were some refurbishments going on in many of the fountains. The entire garden is hundreds of acres, which was so overwhelming we didn’t even bother leaving the palace area to explore deeper into the yard. Time to take our tired feet home for some wine.

Along the way, we stopped at the Notre Dame cathedral to watch pigeons poop on all the tourists, found a little cafe and ate some crepes for lunch, and I bought some local art. It was a perfect Parisian afternoon!

Next up: Art!

London part 2: the tourists

It was Sunday in London, and my sister and I were looking forward to exploring around and watching the St. Patrick’s Day parade taking place at Trafalgar Square. It was cold enough for mittens that day (which, luckily, I had brought with me!). So we set out on foot in the hopes of having tea with the queen and to see some rowdy Irish folk drinking in public.

Well, we didn’t get to visit the queen. But we did see Buckingham palace. There was a large crowd standing around, and we sort of stood around awkwardly with them for a while wondering what to expect. The royal family arriving from church? The queen gracing the crowd with a wave from her balcony? No, nothing happened. So we left. But as we walked through the park, a troop of fresh palace guards came by on their horses – of course, everyone was waiting for the changing of the guards! Luckily we come from Ottawa, which is basically mini Britain, so we’ve seen the changing of the guards before and didn’t feel we missed anything. But I did get a video of them trotting down the lane:

 

After the palace, we found the tourist motherlode at the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye, and about 100,000 Asian tourists. We snapped a few photos, and decided to look for some tea, because London. We didn’t find any tea, but we did stop at an adorable place behind Westminster abbey called the Jewel Tower, where I bought a blanket made out of recycled wool (which I then had to carry around all day – I am not smart).

We wandered our way toward Trafalgar square and stopped for some overpriced lunch and drinks at a pub along the parade route. The parade filled up quickly, and soon we were back outside, fighting our way along the road to the square. I was surprised at how many South & Latin American groups were represented in the parade. I realized that St. Patrick’s Day is treated as the “Irish” national holiday in North America, but actually, it’s the “Catholic” holiday, so of course there were plenty of Mexicans, Peruvians and others taking part. But it was great to see so much spontaneous salsa dancing in the street! Also, plenty of pipers.


The activities in the square were not very exciting, but as we left, we came upon one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen: a huge animatronic St. Patrick float blasting “Whoop, There It Is” with a troupe of pro-choice (or anti-abortion? actually it was hard to tell) dancers in front of it… video or it didn’t happen:


That afternoon we decided to go for a real English High Tea, and booked ourselves into a table at a swanky restaurant. We decided to order ALL the scones and crumpets and cucumber sandwiches, and forgo the strange cakes that everyone else had. Because London. After stuffing ourselves, we wandered around for the night sampling pints in all the bars around Chinatown and along Charing Cross road. It was a good night; if only I could remember it better.

The next morning we met up with a business contact for brunch at the Wallace Collection, which is a beautiful family-donated art house. Londoners really like their runny eggs, dry toast and smoked salmon for breakfast – that was basically every morning menu we saw. After breakfast, we went off to explore the Tower of London and whatever else we could find around there.

First, I had a mission to find the Globe Theatre. We didn’t find it. But I did take a picture of something that had the words “The Globe” on it, close enough? But we did find some pulled pork sandwiches for lunch, which made up for that loss as far as I was concerned. Then we wandered along the river, both of us in shock that the “London Bridge” is just a boring normal bridge and not the iconic “Tower Bridge” that you see on everything London. My childhood nursery rhyme knowledge was built on lies. We also wandered over to the Tower of London, fully intending to go inside (I mostly wanted to see ghosts), but it turned out to cost about 4 billion dollars to get in, so we just looked at it from afar and consoled ourselves with the fact that we were unlikely to have seen any ghosts anyway. Later on, we stopped at Coventry Gardens (not at all anything to do with gardens) to check out the flea market… it was not very exciting.

That night we wanted to celebrate our last night in town, so we planned to check out this neat restaurant called Flat Iron that apparently has fancy hipster steaks, but it was packed. We settled on a funky ramen noodle restaurant instead, and it turned out be amazing! I ordered the “Dracula” ramen, which was FULL of garlic and black sesame broth. The crazy waiter tried to talk me out of it, and when I insisted that I love garlic and would accept nothing else, he started crushing on me because it was “his favorite dish too.” We had a moment. I also ordered a BEER SHAKE – beer that came with a frozen whipped topping, which was also made out of beer. Look, if you didn’t know me before, then you do now. Garlic ramen and frozen whipped beer is the key to my heart. After a bit of shopping at the totally surreal M&M shop and a disappointing dessert bar, we headed home to sleep off our food hangover.

Before the train left in the morning, we spent an hour or two wandering around Regent’s Park, which I’m certain is beautiful when it’s warm and sunny. But it was cold and drizzly, and the zoo was closed. We did spy over the fence to see some kind of penguin documentary being filmed, but one of the production crew gave us the stink eye so we didn’t linger. On the way home, we peeked at 221b Baker street. There was a guy dressed up like an old-timey bobby hanging around, so we took some discreet photos like real Brits and went out of London with a bang!

Next stop: Paris.

London part 1: the arrival

Back in March, my sister and I went on a Thelma-and-Louise style trip to Paris and London (minus the manslaughter and double suicide, of course…). But it was a super fun last-minute vacation, and extra special because it was probably the first time we had ever traveled together, just the two of us. Why Paris and London? Well, it seemed to be a fair halfway point between Canada and Indonesia. Plus, who wouldn’t want to go there??

It’s taken me a while to post this because we crammed so much into our week abroad that I was exhausted just trying to sort through all the photos. But now I’m ready! So let’s do London.

We met in the Paris airport on a chilly Saturday morning. As it turns out, public spaces in Paris are not heated. Coming fresh off the plane from Jakarta, I had to put on two pairs of pants just to keep warm while I waited. Soon my sister arrived and there was much rejoicing. Our plan was to head straight to the Gare du Nord and catch our train to London. We hopped on the metro, passing what I think must be the ugliest part of Paris: crumbly buildings, industrial yards, graffitied train stations and gypsy tents made out of discarded fridges and old clothes. As it turns out, most of Paris looks like that, but more on that later.

When we arrived at the Gare, we had a few hours to kill before our train to London, so we took a little wander around the area. Although there wasn’t a lot to see – other than about 1000 cafes, all with the exact same red awnings and wicker chairs out front – we stumbled on a lovely little indoor market (also not heated) selling fresh produce, flowers, seafood, cheese, meats – so we picked up a little treat of salami and delicious stinky cheese for the train ride. Our train companions were thrilled about that.

The trip was only a few hours, and the track went under the English Channel. I was hoping it would be epic – how often do you get to travel for miles underneath the water? But we didn’t see any coastline or actual water, because the tunnel starts so far away from the edge, and then inside the tunnel is quite dark – of course, because it’s a tunnel. This makes total sense in hindsight. I’m not sure what I was expecting; maybe one of those glass aquarium tunnels where fish swim right over top of you? I guess that was a bit unrealistic. So the ride wasn’t very exciting, but it was neat to see the Paris suburbs turn into quaint English pastures as we chugged along.

We rented a little apartment in London just south of Regent’s Park, perfectly situated to walk to most of the tourist areas, and right on the underground line for areas that were a bit too far on foot. That night we were up for an adventure, so we headed straight out to explore the town!

The first place we ended up was an adorable and totally packed English pub that was about the size of a small living room. We shoved our way to the bar, ordered some pints and started chatting to a couple nearby. Turns out they were visiting from the U.S. and were equally up for an adventure. So the four of us had a few more drinks and wandered off to find “real English” dinner – that didn’t turn out to be too hard, and we soon found ourselves in the (probably haunted) top floor of a pub eating a variety of liver pies and heartily overcooked vegetables. And it was all as bland and tasteless as we expected. Mission accomplished!

We stumbled out of the pub and wandered around Piccadilly Circus – which, disappointingly, is not at all the animal kind of circus. Wikipedia informed me that our British friends use “circus” to mean a junction of streets in a circle. Silly. We checked out some shops, I bought a coat because it turns out London is cold, and eventually parted ways with our American friends to get a bit of sleep back at the apartment.

Next up: Irish partying & garlic love