Sunday, October 5, 2014

We are in Paris!

So, I mentioned in my 'We're going home' post that we had a big trip planned for October. That trip is a three-week vacation in France. We're starting things off with nine full days in Paris before heading down to Lyon.

I've only been to Paris once before on a nearly three-week trip where I stayed with my brother in fall of 2009 when he was living there. I fell wildly in love with the city and have been pining to go back ever since. As for Terezia, this is her first time in Paris (and France), and after just an evening and a day, she is already nuts about the place.

I should first state the obvious and mention what an absolute breeze it is to fly into Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport from Vienna. The flight took less than two hours, and we landed in a terminal that was close to the RER train that took us into Paris. (When I went to Paris in 2009, getting to the RER train station from wherever it was I arrived was an Odyssean, labrynthine journey that involved lengthy shuttle rides and a never-ending series of people movers).

We're renting a cool studio apartment at the base of Montmartre, not too far from the Barbes-Rochechouart Metro station. The place is located on a cool, quiet side street, a good distance away from Montmartre's tourist scrum, and on the edge of a slightly gritty and very ethnically diverse neighborhood. It's a small apartment, but the living room/kitchen area has these great big windows that let in loads of light and offer cool views over the neighborhood's typically haphazardly jagged cluster of rooftops.

View from the apartment window.
The apartment.

After arriving and settling in, we took a stroll through Montmartre. The views from Sacré-Cœur are amazing, but god damn, the steps in front of the thing were mobbed with tourists.

Montmartre's main arteries were also clogged with an endless cavalcade of tourists, but it's the neighborhood's quiet, atmospheric, off-the-beaten-path side streets that appeal to us with their almost Bohemian vibe, and strolling through those was a must.

Paris is such a big and bustling city that it's been kind of sensory overload for both of us. Bratislava, by comparison, feels incredibly tiny, mellow, and snail-paced, and even Vienna seems very calm and orderly compared to Paris. Even just the sheer volume of people you see walking down the busier streets is just something you never see in Bratislava. And the incredible ethnic and cultural diversity, of course, makes us feel like we're back in San Francisco.

Also, the architecture, from the crazy, ornate gothic churches to the classy, shuttered residential buildings that line the narrow, gently meandering side streets, has us constantly turning our heads. Everywhere you look there's something worth pausing for and gawking at. Walking the streets of Paris has only intensified Terezia's dislike of poor old Bratislava.


For dinner we opted to stick close to the neighborhood, and we had a slew of restaurant recommendations to investigate, all of which were near the Pigalle area at the base of Montmartre hill, more or less on or near the hopping Rue des Martyrs. After wandering around with growling stomachs checking out menus, we settled on a place called La Cantine de la Cigale, right on the extremely busy corner of Blvd de Rouchechouart and Rue des Martyrs. We were initially a bit apprehensive because its location made it seem like a tourist trap, but the food put an end to any hesitation.

Or, I should say most of the food.

The starters were a pumpkin soup with hazelnuts and foie gras, and marinated Basque mushrooms with a poached egg and an herb pesto. The soup was comforting, if slightly under seasoned, though things came together nicely when you had all of the goodies together on your spoon, and the flavor came out more once it cooled down. The mushroom dish was better/more interesting: it consisted of an assortment of pickled wild mushrooms (so they were cold) with bits of sausage embedded in them, while the poached egg kind of tied it all together, and various herbs enhanced the flavor. While we wouldn't call this life-altering, it was quite good and you could tell some serious thought and care was put into it.

Things got alternately weird and exciting with the main dishes. Terezia ordered a pan-seared saddle of lamb, which came with a dense bed of sautéed wild mushrooms with chorizo jus and little crunchy bits of chorizo, and my f-ing god, this is absolutely one of the best lamb dishes either of have ever had (and we've had plenty of great lamb dishes). The lamb itself was cooked to perfection - orgasmically tender, juicy, and exploding with flavor, with a perfect sear on the outer layer of fat. The wild mushrooms (an assortment of fresh chanterelle, oyster and hedgehog mushrooms) packed an intense flavor that harmonized with the lamb brilliantly, and the chorizo jus and some aggressive seasoning really tied everything together. This is one of those dishes that will forever remain etched in both of our memories.

The life-altering lamb dish. We stupidly forgot to take a photo until we had almost decimated the plate. I know it looks unappetizing in this mostly-eaten state, but trust me, this thing tasted heavenly.

The dish I ordered, sadly, was a total flop: braised veal shoulder in a reduction sauce with cauliflower and fries. While the meat was fork tender, the dish was unforgivably bland and woefully under seasoned. Terezia felt bad for me and she generously swapped dishes midway through so that I could feast on her mind-blowing lamb. As a chef, Terezia could sort of appreciate certain aspects of the dish I ordered, but conceded that it was ultimately a pretty dull plate.

We also savored a half carafe of some pretty damn good red wine, and we had an awesome table at a corner window that was perfect for people watching at the super bustling intersection.

First full day

On Sunday, we took the metro to the Cité stop to stroll around the center of town and give Terezia a chance to orient herself. We first checked out the Notre Dame cathedral, but didn't go inside as the line was wrapped around the entire massive public square in front of the thing (we'll go back; plus we also have to ascend Notre Dame's gargoyle studded tower). Terezia was visibly wowed by everything in the vicinity - the gorgeous architecture of the cathedral and the surrounding buildings, the river setting, and the overall vibe.

After strolling through the two islands in the Seine, stopping now and then to ogle some cool river view or drool in the windows of a few pleasingly pungent cheese shops, and popping briefly into the Latin Quarter to check out St. Severin, we made our way over to the Marais for lunch at Chez Hanna, one of the bustling falafel places in the Jewish quarter. We both had the foie de volaille falafels (chicken liver), which were as good as they were the last time I ate them in 2009. Chez Hanna is a good cheap(er) lunch option, but they have a confusing and slightly silly system: it's cheaper if you order a falafel at the window outside and then go eat it somewhere in the street. If you sit down inside to eat, you pay more and you order from a longer menu. A few people were ordering at the window and, understandably, then scoping out the dining area for a table, only to be told that since they had ordered at the window outside, they had to go eat outside in the street.

I then dragged Terezia back to Île Saint-Louis for ice cream at Berthillon. The weather was a bit windy and chilly by the river, and Terezia was grumbling a bit about not really wanting to eat ice cream in cold weather, and about the fact that I was making her backtrack to an area that we'd already been to, but once we got to Berthillon and she took her first lick of their ice cream, she understood instantly why I was so insistent about going out of our way to eat there. "This is the best ice cream I have ever had," she proclaimed. "This is even better than the best gelato we had in Italy", she added, which is a bold statement. Berthillon is no secret - it's extremely popular, but their ice cream is perfection and it's totally worth going out of one's way for. The flavors absolutely pop with their richness, intensity, and freshness.


On the first Sunday of each month, most of Paris' big museums offer free admission, so we took advantage of that today by going to the Centre Pompidou, Paris' museum of modern art. When I went to the Pompidou in 2009, I walked out thinking it was one of the most stunning modern art museums I'd ever been to. Unfortunately, they've since made some pretty severe changes to their permanent collection on the fifth floor, and while there is still much to admire, I was disappointed to find that a good chunk of the works they had back in 2009 were nowhere around this time.

In 2009, they had a slew of awesome cubist works by Picasso, Braques, Delaunay, Juan Gris, and others, as well as a great assortment of other 20th century favorites like Kandinsky, Maholy-Nagy, Chagall, Paul Klee, etc. This time, most of the fabulous cubist stuff was gone entirely (perhaps some of it went to the Picasso museum, which unluckily for us is opening after we leave Paris), which left me pretty dismayed. It was replaced by a lot of second- and third-rate unknowns (to me, at least), as well as a few rooms of only mildly interesting African modern art.

Otto Dix
A really sweet Kandinsky with our stupid reflections in the glass.

But we eventually stumbled into a few rooms that at least had some Kandinsky stuff, as well as some Futurism, Bauhaus, and Russian Constructivism, and a few other things of interest, like a cool Otto Dix piece, a couple De Chiricos, and a few nice Mattises. But their permanent collection today pales compared to what they had in 2009; so while it was still enjoyable, it's not as stunning and impressive as it used to be.

After that, we strolled over to what in 2009 was one of my favorite public places to perch: the square along the south side of the beautiful St. Eustache cathedral. Yet, annoyingly, here yet another change had taken place after my 2009 visit, as the city has completely reconstructed the square in a bizarre and thoughtless way. The square used to be this big circle that was lined with these terraced concrete steps that you could sit on and people-watch and gaze at the cathedral. What was nice about it is that the circle really seemed to exist in harmony with the cathedral - they fit together really well even though they were clearly from very different eras. In contrast, the new square strikes a totally harsh and dissonant note next to the cathedral, fighting with it at every inch with these modern, sharply angled, terraced, zigzagging steps. It's like the designer just rammed it in there without any thought of harmonizing it with the cathedral. Oh well, it's still a nice place to sit after you've been wandering around all day.

And St. Eustache is one of my favorite cathedrals in Paris. The interior is refreshingly free of tourists and has a pleasantly gloomy atmosphere and a beautifully detailed rib-vaulted ceiling.

On a positive note, the city finally decided to put that eyesore Les Halles out of its misery and they are replacing it with this massive, space-age looking canopy thing that at least looks nicer.

After a stroll through Rue Montorgueil, a 4-5 block pedestrianized stretch of food markets, gourmet food shops, cafes, and restaurants (where I bought some tasty figs - I was afraid I'd be figless this season, as figs are virtually impossible to find in Slovakia, and we weren't able to get over to Vienna in September, where good figs can be found in abundance at Naschmarkt. So, yay!), we took the metro back home, made some salads for dinner at the apartment, and called it a day.

It's been awesome to see Terezia savor Paris. It's a pretty overwhelming city for a first-timer, and I'm just as wowed by it as I was in 2009. The city has a real vibrancy and pulse to it, yet the locals seldom seem tense or uptight. Both of us could easily live here and be totally happy.

I don't anticipate that I'll be doing posts every day of the trip (that could get mighty tedious for both you and me), but I'll try to keep this thing updated on a semi-regular basis.

Click here to see the full set of Paris photos!

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