Friday, October 10, 2014

More Paris!

Since the last post we've experienced a range of weather conditions, which seem to change somewhat dramatically every couple of hours. We seem to get chilly wind and overcast skies, gushing rain, and warm, full beaming sunshine, all in the same day.

Monday morning it was overcast but not raining, so we got up bright and early to ascend Notre Dame's facade and south tower, which in my opinion offers some of the coolest views in Paris. You get a 360-degree panorama, but you're still close enough to really be able to see the details of all the surrounding buildings and rooftops. I also really dig seeing all the gargoyles on the ledges up close. I especially love the one featured on the cover of REM's Chronic Town EP (one of my favorite EPs ever). Despite the grey skies, it really was a great way to see the city from up high. (Last time I was up there in 2009, it was sunny but unseasonably cold, and I remember the wind slicing right through my leather jacket and two shirts.) For most people, it seems the Eiffel Tower is the priority for vast city views, but this one is my favorite, even though it's considerably lower.

Of course, the problem is that the line for this tends to be epic, even right now in October after peak tourist season, in part because they only allow so many people up in the tower at one time. So, we had to get there a bit early to beat the line.

We also hit up Saint Severin, the cool 13th-century Gothic church just across the Seine in the Latin Quarter. Though way smaller than Notre Dame, I actually kind of prefer it because it has yet to be scrubbed of its patina of soot and grime, it's got a cool stained glass window on the facade that looks like flames, and its interior is dark and gloomy. There always seem to be strange characters  milling about in front of it though. On this day a homeless British expat was really giving a telling off to some of the voices in his head.


For lunch we zipped across town to Comptoir de la Gastronomie, near Rue Montorgueil, a nice joint where I'd eaten at back in 2009.

We were shoehorned in at the last available table in the corner of what was an incredibly cramped (but very Parisian bistro-looking) dining area. We split a starter of pumpkin gratin, which, while tasty and made with good, fresh ingredients, was strangely under seasoned - not just in terms of a lack of salt, but it was absolutely screaming out for some rosemary or sage to help elevate the flavor; yet there were no herbs to be found. Very odd.

Terezia ordered a cassoulet, a classic French dish that she wanted to try while in France. The meat components were actually quite good: the duck leg was super tender and flavorful, while the hunks of pork and sausage were equally rich and tasty, but the beans and saucy gloop were curiously blah. Again, this dish was just crying out for some thyme or other herbs to help make the flavors pop.

Unfortunately we neglected to photograph the dishes before we started devouring them.

My dish, on the other hand, was wholly satisfying: foie gras-stuffed ravioli in a truffle sauce. The ravioli were silky smooth and delicate, while the rich truffle sauce packed a super earthy, flavorful punch. I actually had this back in 2009 and was so wowed by it that I had to order it again.

We then went to check out the Eiffel Tower in person, but decided the lines were too long and the weather was getting too intermittently rainy/gloomy to go up, so after piddling around there for a bit, awed by how massive and beautiful the tower looks when you're standing under it, we strolled up nearby Avenue Rapp to check out a few groovy examples of some of the Art Nouveau architecture in that arrondissement. On the way back, we stopped by St. Sulpice, another appealingly gloomy old church.

Day 3

With no rain on the horizon and partly cloudy skies the next morning, we thought it'd be nice to do a stroll along the Seine from the Pont Marie down the left bank to the Pont des Arts. What I like about this walk is that you get some really cool views of Notre Dame and the two islands. It's also nice to walk by all the street vendors along the river, most of whom sell piles of old books and striking vintage poster art - stuff that's actually worth taking a gander at - rather than tacky tourist crap.

The Pont des Arts is a wooden pedestrian bridge that seems to have been designed for cliche romantic strolls across the Seine, but whose railings have been swallowed alive by padlocks left by imbecilic tourist couples. This padlock phenomenon is unfortunately not exclusive to Paris. A couple buys a padlock and a sharpie and writes their names and maybe a little message on it before locking it onto a bridge railing and throwing the key into the river. Parts of the railings of the Pont des Arts got so weighed down by padlocks that a few sections of them actually collapsed recently. The city is now trying to put a stop to this tradition. I have no idea what makes people feel compelled to come to a city as amazing and beautiful as Paris and litter it with padlocks, but I firmly believe that the brains of those who do are only barely more sophisticated than those of animals who mark their territory by urinating everywhere.

You can see here on the Pont des Arts how boards have been put up to prevent people from putting more padlocks on the bridge.

Père Lachaise

At any rate, next we made a b-line for Père Lachaise cemetery, which is pretty hard to beat as far as old cemeteries go - at least if you're into that kind of thing. I've always been struck by how tightly packed and densely clustered everything is, with the graves and tombs just crammed in together any which way. It's an insanely beautiful and incomprehensibly massive place. And real estate there has gotten pretty high, with bigger plots costing as much as €11,000. I don't go through the place with a map trying to find the headstones or tombs of famous people, but it's always kind of fun when you accidentally stumble upon one. This time we saw Balzac's tomb, which features a bust with his pudgy mug.

Terezia had never seen a cemetery like this before. In the Bay Area we have several old, sprawling cemeteries, but they are nowhere near as old as this, and nowhere near as crowded. In Slovakia, the older cemeteries that we've seen were significantly smaller and the graves were generally more comfortably spaced from one another. The only thing we've seen like this in Slovakia that's comparable is the old Jewish cemetery.

Later, while on a stroll through the picturesque backstreets of Montmartre, the sun eventually won its tussle with the clouds and cast its silvery, brilliant light over the city for the rest of the afternoon. We perched on a bench up the hill just below Sacre Coeur for a while and soaked up some rays while watching from a distance the tourist commotion at the square at the foot of the hill.

This joint here on the corner is where the restaurant scenes in Amelie were filmed.

Amusing observations: Big city con artists

On any given day in Montmartre at the base of the Sacre Coeur hill, you can see these foreign guys targeting dazed tourists by tricking them into buying these lame friendship bracelets. The way it works is one guy will come up to a couple, usually approaching the woman, and quickly try to put a bracelet around her wrist and tie it off, acting like it's some sort of demonstration. But once he's tied it, three or so other (big) men appear seemingly from nowhere and surround the couple, and then they pressure their victims to fork over some cash for the bracelet.

These guys are extremely aggressive and will get right up in your face, and some tourists literally have to flail their arms and shout "no!" to be left alone. When Terezia and I walked through, we just put on our bitch faces and they didn't bother us. Yet, we spotted a few couples who appeared to go along with the con and paid up. They seemed to be targeting a lot of non-European couples. At one point a pack of 4-5 cops came through the square and the bracelet guys scattered in a flash. They stayed away until the coast was clear and then gradually started trickling back.

Later, when we were stepping out of a metro station through these tall vertical turnstiles amid a cluster of people who were all exiting at the same time, we noticed several men who suddenly appeared out of nowhere and started pushing and cutting in the line for the turnstiles, getting really uncomfortably close to everyone. Just as Terezia and I were making it through a turnstile, we saw the young woman in front of us catch one of the men who'd cut in line just as he was picking her smartphone out of her pocket. She responded fast and snatched it back from the guy while giving him a fierce death glare, and she kept walking. I immediately put my hands in my pockets to make sure my wallet and camera were still there (they were, thankfully).

Amusing observations: Grocery shopping

Since we're renting an apartment during our stay in Paris, we've gone to the grocery store a few times, and we're staying a half a block away from Leader Price, a slightly dumpy looking discount store that's good for buying stuff like milk, cereal, and cheap olive oil, but which also, surprisingly, has entirely decent bags of mixed greens for salads. Across the street and up just a bit is Carrefour, a slightly more upscale grocery store that's better for buying stuff like cheese, fruit, bread, and wine. Being in such close proximity to these two stores is profoundly awesome.

So, back in Slovakia people always talked about how everything was cheaper in Austria, especially clothing, gas, and groceries. We never totally believed this claim, but we never really went into Austria to do any comparison shopping either. As it turns out, Slovaks may at least be right about groceries.

In Carrefour, for example, we noticed that cartons of Carte D'ore ice cream cost about €3.50, but in Tesco back in Slovakia they usually go for around €5! In Slovakia, a particular kind of packaged French Roquefort blue cheese costs about €4.50, and here in Paris we saw the exact same one for €2.25. And in the Paris stores these items weren't on sale or anything. In Leader Price, you can get a big bag of surprisingly good mixed lettuce greens for €1.10, whereas in both Tesco and Billa in Slovakia, you pay up to €2.50 for a bag that's half the size and usually pretty dicey in terms of quality. There are numerous other examples.

What's utterly bizarre about this is that Slovaks earn on average WAY less than Parisians. The average monthly Slovak wage is about €800 a month, while the average wage for Bratislavans is about €1200 a month. The average Parisian likely makes two-three times that. Of course the French are taxed quite heavily, but still, at least in Paris they still have enough money to go out frequently, which Slovaks seldom seem to do.

Notre Dame

After people-watching in Montmartre, and with the sun still shining, we took the metro down to Notre Dame so we could gaze at its facade as it basked in the late afternoon sunlight, when it looks its best.

Le Hangar

My friend Randy was flying into Paris this evening as part of a trip of his own that happened to partially overlap with ours. Since he's a fellow food snob and a fun guy to have around and chat with about anything, we thought it'd be nice to meet up and hang out and explore some restaurants together. Randy flew in from LA and was thoroughly jet lagged, so we ate at a place more in the center of town, closer to where he's staying, called Le Hangar.

Le Hangar seems to have a solid reputation and loads of positive online reviews, and the place filled up not long after we nabbed a table. Unfortunately, the food wasn't exactly mind blowing.

A starter of salmon tartare was under seasoned and bland, though another starter involving sardines was tasty enough, and a rabbit liver terrine was nice and rich.

But things got a bit weird from there. I did something I never do and ordered their salmon. I never order salmon in restaurants because no one cooks it with nearly the same drool-enducing perfection as Terezia. She serves it on the rarer side and it's always orgasmically juicy, tender and packed with flavor. Le Hangar's salmon, like seemingly most restaurant salmon, was overcooked and under seasoned, totally illustrating why I never order salmon in restaurants. It came with a few piles of carrot puree, which were also bizarrely under seasoned, and was served atop this weird orange sauce that didn't really go with it or do anything to enhance the flavor. It wasn't horrible - just bland and not what I'd expect from a chef in a restaurant in Paris. Uninspired and amateurish. Terezia can make WAY better salmon blindfolded with one hand tied behind her back.

Terezia and Randy both ordered what was essentially a shepherd's pie but with duck confit under the bed of mashed potatoes instead of lamb. It was quite tasty and interestingly different, but I'm not sure I'd say it was especially life-altering.

I've been trying to remember to photograph the food we eat (even if I only remember just before I'm about to devour the last few bites), but I neglected to do that with these dishes, which may be somewhat telling.

(Click here to see the whole set of photos from ascending Notre Dame, lunch at Comptoir, and piddling around the Eiffel Tower!)

(Click here to see the set of photos from strolling along the Seine and through Père Lachaise Montmartre, and Notre Dame in the sun!)

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