(Paris) Weekend

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.

(Paris) Lemons and lemonade

Here’s the lemon: the weather today was cool (probably no more than 12 C) and the sky was grey, threatening rain, all day. Here’s the lemonade: I walked about 30 km today, which would have been impossible to do if it were hot. Also, the flat light of an overcast sky is better for looking at city life–no squinting when looking into shadowy alleys or up sun-lit boulevards.

I began the day by sleeping through breakfast (which is included in my hotel rate). They stop serving at an unmerciful 8:45am. Undaunted, I headed up Boul. de Port Royal with Montparnasse on my mind. I ducked into a cafe for a quick cafe au lait and croissant, then took a hard left at rue du Faubourg St. Jacques, and there I was–in Montparnasse.

I had no particular goal beyond walking the streets and getting the lay of the land so to speak, and that’s exactly what I did. After a few hours I found myself back at the top to the 14th, right on Boul. du Montparnasse. This is where the big classic cafes are, so I amused myself by looking in the windows at people’s lunches. Everything looked spectacular, and most people were drinking wine. Le Dome was full of oyster eaters, and just up the street at La Coupole I saw someone eating a gorgeous-looking caprese salad. Across the street at La Rotonde, meat in sauce seemed to be preferred.

I arrived at Le Select and let my appetite get the best of me. Inside, I took a nice window seat and thought back to one of my inspirations for this trip–John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse, an autobiographical account of the year or so he spent here as a young lad in the early 1930s. I was following Glassco to Le Select, who in turn had followed Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

For lunch I took the easy way out and chose the “Formule 98F“. The starter was an unusual fillet of herring served over chunks of potatoes in oil, garnished with pungent greenery. It was much better than it sounds. Then arrived the main course, some kind of lamb with what appeared to be leg bones, bathed in a dark mushroom sauce with root vegetables. It was so pretty it looked like it had lept off the cover of a cookbook, and it was delicious. Served with it was a half pitcher of red Cotes du Rhone, which for some reason had been chilled.

Satiated, I headed out for more exploration. I headed north, into the 6th, with the intention of jumping on the metro and going elsewhere, perhaps the top of the 18th. As is typical in Paris, unless you are very determined to make your destination, you won’t, because there are so many distractions. Every corner offers new possibilities. “I’ll just go one block down this street” I’ll say, but at the end I’ll see another street that begs to be walked down. It’s endless.

During one of the moments when I stopped to get my bearings, I realized I was on rue de Fleurus. Gertrude Stein once lived on this street, and I had promised my house/cat sitter Suki that I would take a picture of her house. Unfortunately, the document where I wrote the address is the one I didn’t print–the same one that had caused me to arrive without the address to my hotel yesterday. I do, however, have the address written in a “note” in “My Yahoo“. So I set out in search of an Internet service.

The 6th is one of Paris’s smallest arrondissements, and I turned it inside out looking, but as I mentioned before, I was always distracted. At one point I found myself in the Eglise Saint Sulpice looking at frescoes by Delacroix. A dozen times I found myself examining restaurant menus. Then I had to pee so I went to a cafe and had a cafe noir at the counter and then pee-ed into one of those old-fashioned French squat toilets that are so rare these days. Eventually I found a hole-in-the-wall shop on a side street that had a malfunctioning Mac and an old PC in the back. The guy had to run some wires to get the modem hooked up, but I managed to log on, did some email, and got the address.

By now it was after 5pm, so I found Gert’s house at number 27, took a picture, and retired to the Jardins Luxembourg for a rest. It was a bit too chilly to linger for long though, so I kept walking, finding myself in St-Germian des Pres, and eventually Metroing back to my hotel at about 8pm, in an unspeakable state of fatigue.

However, there was still the matter of dinner. I wanted to keep it simple, so I showered, changed, and headed out at about 9pm. I walked the local ‘hood for about an hour before settling on a Belgian tavern for moule et frites for 70F.

Some random Parisian Oddness

  • Montparnasse is full of Chinese men walking around selling binoculars.
  • McDonald’s has a huge burger called “le 280” because it contains 280 grams of beef. It’s served on what looks like a sourdough bun.
  • In the ultimate attack on French light lunches, McDonalds has introduced “Croque McDo“.
  • Full nudity in advertising is normal. For example, a large ad in the metro shows a woman’s breasts with her skin in black-and-white and her nipples in flurescent orange. It’s advertising the new colors of Pierre Cardin Shirts. Another big ad up on the street shows a reclining woman with an absolutely perfect body. Her leg is folded modestly to hide her pubes, but the rack is there, full on. We also don’t see her head, which seems to be irrelevant–it’s advertising a gym. If I had a dollar for every bare butt I saw in ads from skin creme to vitamin supplements I’d never have to go home. Mind you, with so many bare butts around I don’t want to go home.
  • Related to the above, Jesus sure had great abs! You can tell from the nude Jesus sculptures in the churches!

(Paris) This is so easy.

My crazy inclination to get up at 5:00AM seems to have paid off. The Air France 747 wasn’t aloft more than two hours before I was asleep, which is an absolute first for me. Mind you, I didn’t sleep long; mostly it was semi-sleep, but that counts for something. Enough to reboot the old noggin. My only regret is that I missed the film they showed, a French film with the theme of unrequited love – something I would like to have all of, and not just the last 15 minutes which I caught when I woke up from my doze.

The plane landed only a few minutes late – just before 7:00 AM Paris time, marking just over six hours in the air. So quick. Charles de Gaulle 2 airport is so big that the plane’s taxi from the touchdown spot to the terminal seemed like a long drive to the country. By the time I deplaned, got through customs, recovered my bags, and pulled 600 Francs out of an ATM, it was 9:00 AM.

It was cloudy, rainy, and cool – about 12° C. I found my way to the RER station for the train to centre-ville, and painlessly figured out how to get a ticket and where the platform was. This is a commuter train, so by the time we were half way to centre-ville the train was jammed. The Paris suburbs are strange places as seen from a train window. Some are like generic French villages from yellowing postcards, while others seem like wastelands of ’70’s-era Jane/Finch high rises. All around are vast rail yards.

The rain fell harder and there was much lightening, such that the thunder made my fellow commuters jump. I got off the train at the Port Royal RER stop at the bottom of the 5th. That’s when I realized I had forgotten to print and pack the final version of my “Paris data sheet,” so I didn’t have the address of the hotel I had booked. Fortunately, I have my astounding sense of direction and the memory of seeing its location on a crude map a few weeks ago. And I knew the name – Hotel Port Royal, on Boulevard de Port Royal, a street that begins where I stood as I surfaced from the RER station, at the bottom of the Jardins Luxembourg.

So all I had to do was walk in the rain about 3/4 of a kilometre east on Port Royal, past Parisian cafes and sidewalk market stalls, until I found the hotel just before Boulevard Port Royal terminates at Place du Gobelins. The hotel, which was recommended by “Great Sleeps in Paris” (formerly “Cheap Sleeps in Paris,” but I digress) is a delight. From the street I entered a small but inviting reception area. There, the very nice receptionist gave me the info I needed and the key to inspect room 23. The room is small (as is typical in Paris) but very clean. A double bed, fake fireplace with a useful mantel, sink, armoire, and a French window facing the enclosed courtyard, so it’s very quiet. It’s done up in newly-applied subdued floral wallpaper. Down the hall, the toilet is sparkling clean with new tiles, and one floor down is the shower, which is brand new and very clean. All this for about $50 CDN a night, which is hard to believe considering this is central Paris in 2001.

It was still raining, which I used to my advantage. I wasn’t jet-lagged per se, but I was suffering from a time differential so I decided to take a nap to correct things. I opened the French windows and let the sound of the falling rain lull me off to sleep for a couple of hours. I got up around noon, showered, and headed out into the city.

I walked through the 5th, through “le Mouff” – the market area of rue Mouffetard – eventually passing the Pantheon, and then the Sorbonne. At this point I was hungry so I found a take-away place that serviced Sorbonne students where I ordered a panini to go for a very reasonable 16F. (A Franc is currently worth about 25 cents.) I felt fully integrated, since about half the people on the street were eating a baguette or panini. I continued through the Quartier Latin, moving over to Boul. St-Michel, heading north towards St-Germain. My immediate goal was to check out Dhely’s Hotel, which I’m moving to on Monday. I found Place St-Michel, which is right on the line between the 5th and the 6th, at the Seine, a block from the Pont Neuf. The hotel is supposedly there. Place St-Michel, as you can imagine, is very lively – sort of like Place Jacques Cartier in Old Montreal, but bigger and busier and with a lot more traffic.

Fortunately, I found the hotel down a ruelle just off of Place St-Michel. You go through an archway, down a few steps, and there it is. It’s 100 feet from Place St-Michel but as quiet as the suburbs. Perfect.

My next destination was the Cafe La Corona, near the Louvre, where every Thursday afternoon at 3:00 PM a guy named Ric holds court over his fictitious “Cafe Metropole Paris Club.” Ric’s a cartoonist defying retirement by doing odd things like running the Cafe Metropole Paris web site and club. (Check his website’s update for May 3, 2001 – “No Ice in Paris” –for pictures of yours truly.)

I was the first one there, after Ric. Following instructions from the web site, I went to the Cafe La Corona at 3, went to it’s “Grand Salon”, and headed for the back of the room. Sure enough, there sat a guy who looked like Ric from the photo on his website. Soon afterward, a couple from “near Washington DC” showed up. Then a couple from Vermont de-cloaked and confessed they’d been “lurking” nearby. Then Charles, a kept man whose wife has some big-ass job in Paris showed up (he was the only “regular” besides Ric). Finally, Bonnie from Maine appeared.

The next 90-or-so minutes passed very pleasantly, with us all getting acquainted and telling stories. Eventually people faded away, leaving just me, Ric, and Bonnie. Ric walked us back to the Pont Neuf, playing the role of tour director. Back on the Left Bank he finally headed off, bound for home and website updatage. That left Bonnie and I. Bonnie is on a seven-week hiatus from a recently-quit job and her husband and kids. She’s been here almost a week, and will soon be joined by some friends and together they will head deeper into the continent for six more weeks of exploring.

We ran into a Spanish-speaking couple who where having trouble figuring out where they should be for a pre-arranged tour. All they had to go by was a badly-designed map from the tour company. After a couple of false starts I was able to interpret it and show them that they were exactly one-and-a-half blocks away from their target. I’ve been in town for about eight hours and already I’m giving directions.

Bonnie showed me around that part of the neighbourhood (the area around Place St-Michel). It turns out she’s staying at Dhely’s Hotel – the same place I had checked out earlier. We’ll actually overlap, as I arrive there Monday and she doesn’t leave until Wednesday.

Since we’re both in Paris alone, we made a date to have a big-ass Parisian dinner on Saturday night. I was feeling fatigued, so we parted. A couple from San Francisco heard our goodbyes and asked me if I’ve been in Paris long. They’ve been here for four or five days, and they needed directions to Le Moulin Rouge. Being the Geographical wonder-boy that I am, I was not only able to give them precise directions, but also safely advice about using the Metro in that area at night (La Pigalle). This reminds me of the time in Portree, Isle of Skye, Scotland, when I gave detailed directions to a couple even though I’d only been in town for about two hours.

So I walked back to my hotel, read for a while, and had a 15-minute nap. Then I went out for a pizza (I’ve had pizza on my mind all day). About two blocks away I found a Franco-Italian restaurant called Cesar Pizza, which had planted the pizza seed in me when I had spotted it earlier in the day. It was packed, which is a good sign considering this isn’t really a touristy area. I got a window seat and had a big salad, a 12-inch fabulous wood-oven-baked pizza, a half litre of vin rouge, and a café, for 129F (tax and tip included). That’s about $25 CDN. Damn cheap, given that people would have you believe you can’t chew second-hand gum in this town for under $100.