My time spent at the Hotel Port Royal was indeed grand. This charming little place deserves its reputation as the best deal in all of Paris. Family-run, friendly, spotlessly clean, and across the street from a Metro station that takes you to the Pont Neuf in about ten minutes, all for about $60CDN per night for a single. Its only drawback is that it is just slightly “out of the way”. Not enough to be an issue by day, given the proximity of the Metro, but enough to discourage late-night shenanigans, as getting back here after the Metro closes can be a long walk, or a quick taxi ride if you are lucky enough to find a taxi.
On the other hand, this is perfect for Phase 1 of a week in Paris, in which the daytime attractions are enough to drain your energy by 9pm anyway. Phase 2 begins today, with my move to Dhely’s Hotel, just off Place St. Michel. Now for a brief account of the last two days…
Saturday, May 5
This was Right Bank Day. Unfortunately it was also “Damn, I’ve caught another virus” day. In the morning I took the Metro to the Pere LaChaise cemetery in the 11th. The cemetery is huge–almost two square kilometers–and is hilly and full of huge trees and other vegetation. The graves are all of the mosoleum type with large above-ground monuments for each. They’re jammed in, cheek-by-jowl, with barely walking distance between them. My “Let’s Go Paris”, which otherwise sucks, describes it as “The antithesis of the church graveyard, [its] more like a garden party for the dead.”
The cemetery is broken up into more than 90 “districts”, each with hundreds of graves. The weather was cold and grey and I felt weakened by my sore throat so I didn’t go in search of a map, instead relying on the sparsely-located plans that are never nearby when you need one. I skipped the graves of Colette, Abelard and Heloise, Moliere, Gertrude Stein, and Chopin. Instead I strolled and wandered, hoping to find those of Jim Morrison (although I was never a Doors fan, but this apparently is a “must see”) and Oscar Wilde. I found both, as well as a series of large monuments to the atrocities of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, and Buchenwald.
Two hours with the dead is enough, so I hopped on the Metro and headed for Sacre-Coeur, the massive St.Joseph’s-Oratory-like church high on Montmartre, overlooking the whole city. I went for the views, which were spectacular, despite the grey sky and dull light. To the left, the treetops of the cemetiere Pere Lachaise, and beyond the greenery of the Bois de Vincennes. Straight ahead, Notre-Dame and just to it’s side the Pantheon. Farther to the right the 59-storey-tall Tour Montparnasse, essentially the only sky-scraper in central Paris (aside from the Eiffel Tower), a sad comment on the progressive thinking of the 1970’s. And all around, Paris, with it’s human-scale design of low buildings, wide boulevards, narrow streets, massive green spaces, and a cafe on every corner.
Looking back to the left again, not far from Notre Dame, I saw what looked like a bag of trash thrown into the garden of beauty that is Paris. A large, garish square structure that appeared to be shrouded in scaffolding with blue shapes on top like large ugly recycling bins. My first thought was that it must be some historic site undergoing extensive restoration, but when I raised my binoculars for a closer look I saw that it was indeed fully formed and shameless baring its ugliness. The Centre Pompidou, the only building in Paris to garner more scorn than the Tour Montparnass. Indeed if Paris–one of the few major cities on the continent to have escaped bombardment during the 20th century’s two world wars–ever sees an incoming missile, I hope it falls dead-center on this shameful blight.
Distraught, I descended from Sacre-Coeur into Paris’s other realm of ugliness–the Pigalle. This is Paris’s primary red light district, and even at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon it was in full swing. The streets were full of people, because between the peep shows and porno parlors are regular bars, hotels, shops, and restaurants. A walk through the Pigalle for a happy couple is merely a walk through a quaintly naughty neighbourhood. For a lone male, however, its a very different thing.
The stretch of Boul. de Clichy between the Metros Pigalle and Blanche–about 400 metres–contains countless peep shows and sleazy sex shops. As well, there are a number of “live sex” parlors, in front of which is posed a man or a woman whose job it is to entice men to go inside. It is impossible for a lone male to walk by one of these places without having a multilingual person–usually a 40-ish woman with a Russian accent–grab him firmly by the sleeve and attempt to steer him into the doorway. As they approach I hold up my hand and emphatically say non merci avoiding eye contact, but it’s no good. Once they have the iron grip on your sleeve you have little choice but to stop. She tells me that for 30F I can go in and see the show, get a free drink, and if I want, meet with one of the hostesses who will take me upstairs for a massage (for an additional fee).
No amount of pleading dis-interest or claims of having no money will do. “For you it’s free”, one said, “special promotion”. The only way to break the grip is to take an aggressive stance, look the person square in the eye, and sternly say “Let go of my arm“. Like magic they immediately let go and turn away as if they had never even seen you. You walk 30 feet and it starts all over again.
My skin crawling, I took off for my hotel, had a nap, and went out again to meet Bonnie at Dhely’s Hotel at 7pm. We walked over to St. Germain des Pres and settled into a nice sidewalk table at the fabled Cafe de Flore, where Sarte composed Being and Nothingness, for drinks while we discussed where to eat. When the drinks were gone we still hadn’t decided, so we walked 30 feet to the left and settled into the terrace at Cafe aux Deux Magots, where the literati have gathered since 1885, for another round. The person sitting in front of us may have been John Malkovitch (hard to tell with the ball cap, but the face, nose, and attitude were right).
Finally, we stood and went in search of a bistro that Bonnie had heard about, on the nearby rue de Seine. We found it easily enough, but found the menu lacking. So on her suggestion we headed over the to Le Marais, the hip and funky area in the 4th, on the right bank. By now it was dusk, so we crossed the Seine on the Pont des Arts–a pedestrian bridge–and stopped to admire the lights of the city. To the east, the lights of the Pont Neuf and Notre-Dame. To the west, the arcs of several bridges and in the distance, the lit-up Eiffel Tower.
Another 20 minutes of walking and we were in the heart of the Marais, which is sort of like the Plateau Mont-Royal of Paris. It was10ish and we were both famished, so we cut to the chase–find a meal. Within the span of five minutes we had narrowed it down to three places and finally settled on a tiny and cozy place called “Equinox”.
The meal was fabulous. I drew from the “Formule 170F” and had a feuillet des champignons du bois, some kind of volaille that was delivered in a copper pot, and a faboulus desert of a light and dark chocolate gateau. Bonnie had a steak au poivre and creme brulet. We split a nice bottle of vin and finished with cafe noir. The bill came to 495F, including tax and tip (for the two of us) which is basically a hundred bucks CDN. I’d rate the meal as being better than anything you’d find on the higher-level places on the Plateau (excluding Toque and the chi-chi joints on the main). I later calculated that the same meal would have cost a minimum of $125 back home, which reconfirms what I’ve been discovering–Paris can be less expensive than Montreal!
And speaking of Montreal, we were settled in and ready to order before I realized there was something a bit too familiar about this place. Perhaps it was the photographs of maple sugar production on the walls, or of Quebec-style farm houses. Perhaps it was the items on the menu marked Specialities du Canada, or the “Montreal” license plate nailed to the wall. Maybe it was the copy of Voir under the glass on the next table, or the map of the Avenue du Mont-Royal shops under the glass of our table. It turns out the place is run by a pair of Montrealais.
As we were heading back to Place St. Michel, we walked down to river-level and got muddy with a view of the back of Notre-Dame. I remarked to Bonnie that you could never be in such a magical place, in the heart of the city, in the dark by the riverside, in America. She agreed. By the time I dropped her off near her hotel it was after 2am and the Metro was closed. I tried unsuccessfully for a taxi and ended up walking the 2 kilometres back to my hotel, arriving at about 3am and rousing the hotel keeper to let me in.
Sunday, May 6
This was recovery day–recovery from the hundred or more kilometres of walking I’ve done over the past few days, from the late and boozy previous night, and from the virus that was ravaging me. I eventually got up at about noon and staggered to a cafe for a cafe au lait and croissant. This time it only cost 16F because I stood at the bar instead of taking a seat, which would have doubled the price.
Then I walked through the Sunday market at “Le Mouff” (rue Moufftard). I was back in my room by 2pm, and slept until 6. Then I dressed and again walked up Le Mouff. Rue Moufftard is like a cross between rue Duluth and rue Prince Arthur in Montreal. It’s as jammed with activity as Prince Arthur, but has more of the feel (and is as narrow as) Duluth. Bars, restaurants, shops, and a lively market at one end. It was too early for dinner (I refuse to be the only person in a restaurant), so I stopped into Teddy’s Bar to fortify myself with a pint of Guinness. Teddy’s is like Else’s, but less than half the size. I like to lament that a Guiness in Paris cost me $12 back in 1993, but the going price these days is about 40-45 F ($7-8 CDN), and there are many happy hours in which they can be had for as low as 25F (five bucks). Again, lower than any price you’ll find in Montreal, especially when you consider that the tip is included in the price. Part of the trick is to do your Guiness drinking in a bar, not a cafe.
Then I found my way to a small restaurant and had a pleasing meal of soupe a l’onion gratinee (which I’d been craving all day, what with my cold and all), poulet Basqueaise, tarte aux pommes and a half liter of red Bordeau (and coffee) for 130F (about $26, including tax and tip). Satiated and suitably pickled, I stumbled back to my hotel to retire early with a Graham Greene novel.
Yesterday’s Oddness: There’s a pizza delivery chain here called “Speedy Rabbit”. They use mopeds to deliver pizza. As Bonnie and I were walking down rue de Seine, a Speedy Rabbit driver went by, doing a wheelie on his moped the whole length of the street. As we checked over the menu at a restaurant, I noticed him handing over the pizza to someone at a nearby address. Then he hopped back on his moped and with a BZZZ-BZZZ-BZZZ wheelie’d his way out of site.
Today’s Oddness: About half way up Le Mouff I spotted an unattended motorized wheelchair blocking the narrow sidewalk. Three hours later it was still there.