Saturday, February 11, 2012

Paris Day 8 - That's one really big flea

Today was another big day for us and possibly the farthest we were going to travel (besides Versailles) on our Paris trip. We were heading to the famous flea market at Saint-Ouen, just outside the Périphérique. We left early, taking the RER B to Gare du Nord and from there, the Metro (line 4 to Porte de Clignancourt). Once you get off, you need to walk down just outside the Périphérique to where the marché aux puces begins. As we walked on I saw a sign that made me smile: Paris. It made me feel like I was indeed a Parisian coming from within the city, stepping outside the city for a little weekend shopping!

Oh, that's Paris, is it?

A very important tip (so important, it needs a paragraph for itself): Just below the flyover (a large white bridge), you will find toilets. Use them. Once you get into the flea market, there aren't too many options. You will need to get to  one of the restaurants and they are scattered along the main roads and not exactly inside the little lanes of the flea market.

Now that we're done with that, it's back to the report. Les Puces de Saint-Ouen is open Saturdays (9 am to 6 pm), Sundays (10 am to 6 pm) and Mondays (11 am to 5 pm) and is the largest antique market in the world. And it really is large! Spread over 7 hectares, it's actually well organized for a flea market. Rue des Rosiers is the main road you walk through to access the markets. Get past the first few stores that house cheap, fake clothes and trinkets and get to the real deal further down.

The flea market is actually a collection of fairly well organized smaller markets. The markets are more or less divided into the kinds of things they sell...everything from antiques, furniture, jewellery, clothes and even old beer coasters! It helps if you have a map of the market (the best place is the Tourist Information Office you should visit when you get to Paris, like we did). Markets are divided by name - Vernaison, Serpette, Dauphine, Paul Bert, Biron and Malik to name a few. Vernaison had a nice mix of everything. From the charming to the macabre (especially the one housing Nazi memorabilia that just left me very disturbed, especially because of the owner who proudly shared his wares with me). Dauphine looked nothing like a flea market. It was covered and had stores divided neatly. There's more interesting stuff I found here than Vernaison. There were a lot of eclectic stores but the second hand bookstores and a print store with neatly catalogued sections that caught my attention. Paul Bert was another nice section where, again, there was a mix of everything. Some of the markets we clearly avoided. They seemed like expensive, high-value antique shops judging by what we could see and the people we saw inside (possibly getting them shipped to their villas)! We weren't here to do lots of shopping but we did want to get something that was truly Parisian from the flea market. We found lots!

We read about the bargaining and we were well prepared to do it. I'm a seasoned bargainer and I was all set to get down to it but surprisingly, I didn't need to. Everybody seemed really friendly and ended up reducing rates even before we asked. At first I thought it was a ploy but later realized it probably had to do with the time of year we were there because there weren't too many customers around. They didn't just voluntarily reduce rates, they also threw in small things we were interested in for free.

We picked up a few nice things that will remind us of this experience forever. Like the two identical letterpress printing alphabets representing our names. And yes, I did buy a whole bunch of old beer coasters that will soon hang framed next to the bar counter at home!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Paris Day 7, Part 2 - Head in the clouds

I was done with what I hoped was the most macabre side of Paris during the first half of the day and I was really looking forward to the second half. Something I've seen in so many movies and I had also done a lot of reading up on it. Montmartre.

By the time we got there, I was already wishing we set a day aside for it. Montmartre has a very different feel from what I'd seen of Paris so far. The people, the cafes and even the tourists seemed different from what I'd seen elsewhere. Maybe I was wrong and it was just my mind replaying all the things I've read about this part of Paris. We headed straight to Sacré Coeur because it was going to be dark very soon and I wanted to catch the Basilica in natural light. I would have loved to walk the stairs to the top but it was a tiring day and the funicular seemed so inviting. You can use a Metro ticket to ride the Funicular and the Navigo Decouverte passes we were carrying worked too. Trust the French to think of this convenience. Imagine standing in long queues to buy tickets for it and then getting in line to board the funicular again. Of course, if you didn't have a Metro ticket on you, that would still be a problem.

I saw a lot of pictures of Sacré Coeur before I left for Paris. But there was none that prepared me for my first sight of it. Against the increasingly darkening sky, it stood out like a brilliant white gem. What is it with churches and me? I'm not religious at all and I can't remember when I last went into one. Neither am I a believer of god in general or Catholicism in particular. But there's something about churches that captivate me. First it was Notre Dame, and now Sacré Coeur.

The Funicular

No, that crowd isn't watching me perform.

Sacré Coeur was more than just a church. It was a celebration - singing, vin chaud, food, kids running around, artists sketching, lovers kissing...and everybody smiling. We spent a while walking around the Basilica, until I forced myself to put the camera away and step inside. There was a service going on so I let the camera stay inside the bag. The inside is...well, gothic! Maybe it was the time of the day or the fact that it was the end of a hectic day for us, but I was tiring and just wasn't able to spend more time inside. Assuring myself that Sacré Coeur would get more time during my next visit, I walked out.

My ceiling fascination continues.

The Christmas Market was running full just outside and around the Basilica. We headed to the Vin Chaud stall first and grabbed ourselves two steaming glasses (although the best I've had are the ones at the Champs Elysees market). Rave did a bit of trinket shopping and we settled down on the stairs in front of Montmartre. It was festive and crowded but the crowds added so much to the atmosphere. There were musicians taking turns performing to an eager and responsive crowd. After a long while of sitting around soaking it all in, we decided to leave.

One of each please!

We're incorrigible. Figuring our feet were well rested, we decided to go wandering about for a while. After lots of walking around through some of the most interesting parts of Paris I've seen, we found ourselves near a familiar landmark. The Moulin Rouge! We gambled on catching a show somewhere and after making enquiries at all the wrong sorts of places, we decided the best show for us that night would be served on a plate inside a nice restaurant!

There were lots of other places in Montmartre we planned on visiting but didn't because we ran out of time. Place du Tertre, a few blocks away from Sacré Coeur, is supposed to be a place where artists set up their easels for tourists. Considering this part of Paris has a long association with art and artists, there are quite a few artistically inclined visits we'd planned too. The Espace Dali, housing lots of work by the master surrealist, Renoir's house, Picasso's studio and the house where Van Gogh stayed. These were the few on our list but I'm sure there's lots more than this we'll catch on our next trip.

Montmartre will definitely remain one of the regrets from this first trip to Paris. Regret because I wish I spent more time here. It's a regret I'll carry until the next time I visit Paris. Because that's when I'll make up for it!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Guest Post: Culinary adventures of the DIY kind

Well hello readers! I'm so thrilled to be doing a guest post over at Different Doors. Also because I'm talking about one of the biggest highlights of the Paris trip for me. For someone who has lovingly regarded French cuisine from afar with awestruck eyes, being in Paris meant three things: Eating, Cooking and Shopping for Food and Equipment. Whilst Eating and Shopping could easily be taken care of one day at a time, Cooking required a bit of pre-planning. Kitchen equipped accommodation? Check. Registration for a course at one of Paris' big culinary schools? Ah.
I trawled through the options that I read about online, and before I dive into the one I picked, here's a look at what I found:
Lenotre: Located on the ultra chic Champs Elysees, there's a course for everyone from 40-400€
Ritz- Escoffier: Uber fancy and uber expensive. Oh, and you need to book way in advance. 
La Cuisine: Probably the only place that offers classes in English, and the most affordable. 

(I left out options like truffle hunting and grape crushing because you can’t really do those in the city.)

But I chose, Le Cordon Bleu, primarily because of the brand name I'd been hearing all these years. Any chef worth his salt in India, trained at the Cordon Bleu. I'd dreamed of walking through those doors, and now I could make it a possibility. I carefully consulted their Gourmet courses, comparing it with our itinerary, and found one that was perfect, "Cooking for Friends" on the day that Charlie could go off and visit dead Parisians. There are two options while registering, the demonstration and the demonstration plus workshop. I picked the latter. The chance to step inside a professional kitchen, under the guidance of a real chef. Wow.

I paid for my course in full over a month in advance via credit card, because seats do fill up quickly. I received a confirmation and a reminder about the class over email. And finally the day arrived. After a couple of train changes, I arrived at 8:30 am on a lonely street in the 15th Arrondissement. I was ushered in along with others who were arriving to the 1st floor cramped cafeteria where we were left to ponder our kits comprising an apron, dishcloth and printed copies of the recipes over a breakfast of coffee and croissants. 

In the classroom, watching everything upside down was interesting.

The class began on the dot at 9 am. Chef Patrick, assisted by his sous chef and translator, quickly took us through the three courses of the day, jumping from one dish to another, and back again, as and when required, fielding questions and tossing jokes. I learnt an awful lot, and it was a test in multi-tasking as I tried to watch and concentrate, while furiously scribbling down notes. By 12, the demonstration was over and it was time to taste. I savored every bite, appreciating all the flavor and technique that went into the dishes.

The tasting. I'd give this a 10.

A quick break followed, during which most of us hung around the crowded little souvenir store (I didn’t buy anything, as I’d been advised that most of the limited range was available at a better quality and price at J Detou, which I later discovered was true).
Then we went on to the kitchens (where only the 20 of us who’d registered for the workshop as well stayed on), where we each had our own stove behind us, and shared one large island counter in the middle of the room. Chef Patrick watched over us, as we proceeded to put all that we’d learned to practice. 

Chef Patrick was a stickler for tidiness.

A team of assistants kept walking around, cleaning up, distributing ingredients and equipment as required, and also helping me save my venison from burning! Chef Patrick seemed to be enjoying himself as well, as he kept trying to add more and more mini lessons while we waited for the meat to cook. The mood was very light and jovial in a room full of people who clearly enjoyed cooking. We all went home beaming, carrying our steaming creations neatly packed in little bags, our freshly printed certificates in folders, and the experience of a lifetime in our hearts.


My review on the class:
Was it tough? Very. (But probably because of a combination  of unfamiliar ingredients, unfamiliar techniques, and inexperience; one doesn't usually stew venison or work with risotto, foie gras or juniper berries in India)
Was it fun? Extremely.
Would I do it again? In the blink of an eye.
Was it expensive? Yes.
Worth the money? Absolutely.

Oh, and what of the dish I cooked? Ask Charlie. He devoured it.

Are you a foodie? Drool over a more elaborate account of my experience at Crave / Create.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Paris Day 7, Part 1 - With the dead and the living

Today was the day Rave had her class at Le Cordon Bleu (she's going to come over and do a guest post on that soon). So today, I had to do something she wasn't going to be interested in. And there was something that was perfect - The Catacombs of Paris. I can't imagine her being underground surrounded by a few million bones. So while she left really early in the morning for her class, I had an easier morning. The entrance is at Denfert-Rochereau, very close to where we were staying at Port-Royal.


If you're planning to visit the Catacombs, my advice would be to get there early. And remember entry closes at 4 pm, although the place is open until 5 pm (closed on Monday). The queues were long and they allow groups of about 15-20 at a time. Also remember that there is no cloakroom once you enter and neither are there toilets. After about an hour of waiting, I was finally inside. There's about 130 steps that take you below the surface but they're not as difficult as the Notre Dame, for example. But it does get narrower and quieter as you get down, so if you're claustrophobic, it can get increasingly problematic as you proceed.

It takes a bit of walking before you get to see anything that's remotely familiar to the pictures you might have seen online. Along they way, you will encounter sculptures made by a quarryman called Décure, who used to serve in the armies of Louis XV. The structure you see there is a model of the fortress of Port-Mahon and I overheard someone saying this part has recently been restored and opened to the public.

The first sight of the actual bones is a bit disturbing. I'm pretty sure there's nothing like this (except for the Chapel of bones I've seen online) and it's a bit startling to be suddenly faced with a large stack of skulls, more in number than it seems in pictures. And once it begins, it doesn't end. Stacks upon stacks of neatly arranged ('artistically arranged' is a more appropriate phrase, actually!) bones and skulls as far as the eye can see into those dark empty tunnels. I've read that there are 6 million Parisians in there and after seeing it in person, I think that number is a very modest count.

The entire walk takes about 45 minutes and is roughly around 2 km, although it felt like a lot less. Good walking shoes with soles that have a good grip are essential. There are some parts where the stone floor is really smooth and there's one section in particular that has water (I hope!) dripping through. One of the people with us was quite startled by it actually and dropped her camera, thinking some other-worldly whatever was dripping whatever on her hand! Luckily, the camera (and her hand) survived without any damage. The exit gets you out on Rue Remy Dumoncel, a few blocks away from where you entered. There's a store right outside the exit that offers macabre souvenirs...from ugly glittering skulls to pencils shaped like bones.

By the time I was out, it was time for a quick lunch and to catch up with the wife, who came back with goodies from Le Cordon Bleu. The evening was reserved for something I've been really looking forward to - Montmartre.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Paris Day 6 - Off with their breath

We hadn't planned on stepping out of Paris at all when we were deciding on our 14 day itinerary. Early on, we were lucky enough to understand that there's more to Paris than we can see in 14 days. So all ideas of a quick hop into a neighboring destination (we toyed with Amsterdam for a bit!) were unequivocally erased by both of us.

Then we watched Marie Antoinette. And the idea of going to Versailles crept in. After much debate and moving dates around, we agreed to accommodate it on the itinerary. We did a bit of research and our suspicions were confirmed - a trip to Versailles would take an entire day on our itinerary.

We left home pretty early, taking the RER B to Saint-Michel - Notre Dame and the RER C from there to Versailles Rive Gauche (€6.50 for a return ticket). It was a cold, wet rainy day and it was wonderful to see the landscape change as we left Paris. The larger buildings began giving way to smaller homes and empty spaces. There were fewer people we saw outside. Along the way, our train reached the end of its line and a local reminded us that we needed to get out and hop into another train (further proof of French hospitality that we would continue to experience through our trip).

It was easy to find Chateau de Versailles once we got off the train. We simply had to follow the crowd. As we walked up to the Chateau, it suddenly didn't seem very impressive. Was this what I left Paris for? Sure the facade and the gate are impressive but where's the rest. The rest, of course, was hidden from view right now. And all through the rest of that day, we were so glad we decided to step out of Paris.

The attractions are divided into 4 primary sections - The Palace, The Garden, The grand Trianon and Marie-Antoinette's unique estate.

The Chateau de Versailles is French classical art at its best. From the extravagant curtains and upholstery (much of which has been restored or recreated thanks to the generosity of various establishments like, if I remember right, Louis Vuitton or Swarowski) to the numerous busts and figurines scattered around. Of noteworthy value is the Hall of Mirrors in the Grand Apartments. Built during the time of Louis XIV, who converted this into much of what it is today. Imagine, this was once just a hunting lodge for Louis XIII! The Hall of Mirrors is as grand as grand gets. After walking around speechless for a while, it was time to get out to catch some fresh air, especially after having my breath taken away so many times.

Is that you, Marie?

The Gardens, even in freezing winter, were an absolute delight. Unfortunately, we couldn't do too much walking thanks to the the steady drizzle. But we soon had that problem sorted out. There are nice golf carts you can hire for about €75 for the first hour. There's a lot of walking to be done, so rain or sunshine, I strongly recommend hiring the golf carts. We hired one, after leaving a driver's license as a guarantee (I don't think any cop is going to want to see your license anywhere inside) and headed out to see the rest of the place. The Grand Trianon is and white marble, smaller less opulent rooms, including the games room that resembled the one from the movie. We didn't spend too much time here because we were keen on seeing Marie-Antoinette's freakish little hamlet.

I wonder what he was thinking of.

There's a lot of walking to be done.
Nap, anyone?

And what a hamlet that was! It seemed like it was a painting come to life. Everything, dirt included, was perfectly in place. Maybe it seemed that way because we haven't seen a European hamlet before but this seemed picture perfect. The little stream, the bridge, the homes, the rickety crumbling staircase...even the birds flying around seemed to be deliberately planted in their respective spots!

After a long tour of the Estate and the rest of the gardens, we dropped off our golf cart and headed out of the Chateau. Along the way, we stopped for a late Italian lunch before getting our train back to Paris. I'd definitely like to see Versailles when the gardens are in bloom. And with that promise, we waved goodbye to Marie and Louis (however many there are!).

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Paris Day 5 - Leonardo and William

So today is the day we visit a landmark that isn't just synonymous with Paris but is also perhaps the first name people come up with when they think art and museums - Musée du Louvre. The Louvre is about 60,000+ square metres large and while it actually is possible to walk through it in a day, it's impossible to see everything. I was very clear that I wasn't even going to try! I planned on hanging around with the Greeks, Romans and a few Renaissance artists. Unfortunately, the rest will have to be put off until a later trip.

After the wait at Musée d'Orsay, we decided to get to the Louvre earlier than we initially planned to. We got there a little after 9 am and there were no huge crowds to deal with. There are three entrances to Musée du Louvre - the main entrance directly through the glass Pyramid, one from the Carrousel du Louvre (the shopping mall underneath the Louvre that houses a McDonald's...yes, the one that you just cringed at!) and from Porte des Lions (which was shut when we got there because of some work that was happening). If the crowds aren't too intimidating, walk in through the Pyramid. I've heard many Parisians can't stand it but I personally thought it's a nice contrast to everything that surrounds it.

Musée du Louvre is huge and comprises 3 wings - Richelieu on the left, Sully in the centre and Denon on the right. Richelieu houses the Oriental Antiquities, Sully the French and Greek and Denon is Italian and French. Remember to check in stuff - if it's winter and you're wearing jackets, check them in near the Richelieu Wing, or you have heavy baggage, check them in under the Pyramid to the right of the Denon Wing (if you can, stuff your jackets into your bag and check everything here). There's quite a bit of walking to be done and you don't need anything heavy on you (it's also warm inside, so don't worry about wearing jackets).

There were a few pieces we were sure we wanted to spend time with (surprisingly, the Mona Lisa wasn't one of them!). As we walked through the Roman and Greek sections, we caught a glimpse of The Winged Victory of Samothrace at the Daru staircase but we were going to catch it later, so we continued on until we reached Venus de Milo. Ok, time for a little truth. It's a beautiful piece but I just can't honestly say it's the best. Not even as compared to others from the same era. There, I've said it! But before I get slayed, let me quickly add that this is just the opinion of one who isn't an art or history aficionado. This is just my regular everyday Joe (or Some Charlie) take on Venus. I did give Venus her time, though. I stood around trying to genuinely understand why it's such a talked about piece. From the slightly twisted stance, to the angle of the shoulders, to the view from the right...I just didn't get it, pardon my ignorance. I kept wondering what would happen if Venus was replaced by one of the other pieces from the exhibit, would people still gush over it? What if there were decades of praise surrounding that piece instead of Venus? Would they appreciate that one more and leave Venus behind along with one of the other pieces in a corner? I guess we'll never know. But I'm going to give Venus another chance on my next Paris trip. I'm sure the millions who adore her do so for a reason.

The next 'big ticket' item was The Winged Victory of Samothrace. I can't think of a better place than the Daru staircase for this piece. At first sight, I felt how I did when I first saw Venus de Milo. But this one grows on you. As you walk around you begin seeing more...the wind blowing against the contours of her body, the stance, the angle at which she leans forward, the detail on the wings. It seems like she might just flap those wings and take a little flight around the Museum for a while.

The Daru staircase

Next, da Vinci. Yes, I did see that famous one of the woman with the 'enigmatic' smile but there were two other pieces that I really loved. John the Baptist and Bachus. There's something eerie about them. The slightly manic expressions, that weird smile, the finger. With the million da Vinci conspiracy theories going around, you're tempted to look deeper and search for symbolism. I did that too for a while until I figured it's pointless wasting time that's much better spent enjoying the work.

From here, we finally walked into the room housing the Mona Lisa, possibly the most crowded room in the entire Museum. I was actually more interested in the gigantic Wedding Feast at Cana that hangs directly opposite the Mona Lisa. I didn't imagine it would be so big. So as I kept walking backwards to see it from a distance, I encountered a bunch of Japanese tourists. They were a little intrigued why I was looking away from the Mona Lisa instead of at it. So a couple of them looked in my direction for a second, possibly told themselves I was mad and turned back, cameras held overhead, to Mona Lisa.

Somewhere out there, she's there.

The Wedding Feast at Cana

After walking through the rest of the Denon Wing, we decided to stop and head out of the Museum. We were getting what we call museum syndrome...there's only so much you can absorb and after a while, you're just looking at stuff without actually seeing it. We walked out through the Richelieu Wing, stopping only briefly to see a few displays. That was all we could take of the seriously overwhelming Musée du Louvre. We will be back to visit the Louvre on our next trip...primarily for the Richelieu Wing that's also of special interest to me. But to try and cram it all in one visit just isn't worth it.

Under the Pyramid

We weren't really tired, just a little numb from seeing so much. And Paris has a perfect antidote to numbness - walking. We took a walk along the river to Shakespeare and Company on the Left Bank. Sylvia Beach's bookstore was a haven for a few literary greats I've read. This was the birthplace of Ulysses. We lost ourselves for a while inside the bookstore, while a young girl practiced piano next to us.

The fountain outside the bookstore

That was the end of a packed day. This first trip to Paris is increasingly beginning to feel like a little wine tasting expedition. We're just sampling a bit of what Paris has to offer, so we can come back for long leisurely glasses of what we like in the many visits that will surely follow.