December In Europe
Chapter 3 – Eating Dessert First
After almost a month of visiting friends and relatives in Ontario, Maggie and I boarded an Icelandic Air flight to Paris. Long distance flights can go either way, depending on the airline. Although the cost of our one-way tickets was relatively cheap the routing included a quick stop in Reykjavik and a change of aircraft. As we descended into the airport at Keflavik the ride became something out of a Disneyland nightmare and when the ground came into view, I noticed the approach didn’t seem to be in the same direction as the airplane was pointing due to a nasty crosswind.
A commercial pilot friend once described his profession as hours and hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Well, I have to say, the captain and co-pilot of this airplane sure knew what they were doing – terror or not. They plopped that monstrous thing down at about a 15-degree angle and slid it around perfectly and quite gently considering the circumstances, much to the delight of about 180 passengers. The plane taxied close to the airport but stopped about 100 meters short of the ramp and we were told we would be deplaning in the open, boarding a bus to the terminal and to please hold the handrail due to very strong winds. Once inside we noticed that there were no available chairs, people were sleeping on the floors and milling about with various unhappy expressions. Finally, we heard in English, that “Due to the extreme north wind we were currently experiencing no planes were able to approach the gangways and none of the flights would be leaving until the winds abated. Please stand by for updates.”
We could see outside. The rain and sleet whipped by horizontally as the entire building shuddered with each fresh gust. I think no one was too upset about the delay considering the view and likely most were a bit relieved that the right decision had been reached regarding the grounding of all flights. The 90-minute stopover turned into about 6 hours and in the meantime all the coffee shops did very well, new friends were made, romances blossomed, crying babies were soothed and generally all was well in the land of ice.
Entire encyclopedias have been written about Paris, so I humbly apologise in advance if my exuberance exceeds my ability to adequately describe the little bit of this marvelous city that we experienced.
Departing the Charles de Gaulle airport was simple. We found the B-RER train station and for about $12, rode it to within steps of our hotel at the Port Royal station.
Everything in Paris is expensive. I can’t possibly go into the details of their economy since it’s all tied up with the EU, Brexit, the mounting debts of many of the EU countries, etc, etc. But an easy way to describe the low budget cost with 3 meals a day with wine or beer (often cheaper than water), and an attraction or 2 like the Louvre, Versailles or a Bateau Boat ticket along with a 2 or 3 star hotel is that you will easily spend $125-150 per person per day. The euro price is about the same number as our Canadian dollar for most things (a meal in a Brasserie is about 25-30 euros per person) but the euro currently costs CDN $1.55.
We did a lot of walking since we have found that you tend to see and experience far more of the local environment when you walk through it. Port Royal is in the heart of the Montparnasse area and our hotel was located adjacent to Les Jardins Luxembourg, one of Paris’ many parks replete with walking trails, secluded grottos and many public amenities such as tennis courts, picnic areas, resting benches, statues and fountains.
Picking a daily activity became a challenge as we juggled locations, metro stations, opening hours, weather, timing and importance. One of the first things we did was to purchase tickets on one of the many tour boats which ply the Seine. We chose one that we could get on and off at will for 2 days and we rode it back and forth a few times while visiting the various attractions along the river. One evening we floated past the Eiffel tower. However, when we disembarked, we found the crowds around the base of the tower and the hucksters pretty unbearable, never mind that we couldn’t seem to locate the entrance. In the end we moved along, remembering the advice of Anthony Bourdain who recommended bypassing those obvious tourist traps in favour of much quieter places that serve great food and reasonable drink.
One of our first attractions was the Musee d’Orsay and a wonderful collection of impressionist art.
The Musee d’Orsay, with its high vaulted ceiling, a former rail station.
A famous Renoir and a view of Paris from the upper level of the gallery.
Although we tried every day, we found no bad wine in Paris. And the food, well it’s not what we are used to, but the service is levels above the ditsy North American, “Hi, my name is Chelsea and I’ll be your server tonight. Do you need a few more moments with the menu?” “How are the first few bites, etc.”
European servers are not your friends, nor do they care much about how you are doing. They only want to hear your order, deliver it in a professional manner as quickly as the kitchen allows and provide whatever else you require without any unnecessary palaver.
While many well known brasseries grace the corners of most busy intersections, we found some of the best meals down narrow alleys and side streets in small, hole-in-the-wall cafes and restaurants.
Because we were visiting Paris in the winter absent were the multitudes of foreign visitors and there were virtually no long ques at any of the attractions. We were blessed with sunshine and quite bearable temperatures for 5 out of 8 days. We did however have a taste of nastiness on one Saturday when the cold north wind blew in accompanied by a slow, cold drizzle, the kind that seeps in right to the bones. We took the day off and enjoyed a few warming beverages in a small café that had a fireplace where we settled in for a few hours with our books and our penchant for people watching. There also may have been wine, I can’t recall.
Transportation throughout Paris is simplified by a comprehensive subway (metro) and an accompanying train system (RER) which provides long trains and criss-crosses the city in various directions from Charles de Gaulle airport to Orlay and north-south, east-west suburb to suburb. Ground transport is provided by a network of buses and trolleys that connect with the train and metro stations.
One day we walked down to the Gare de Lyon, one of six major train stations serving Paris, where you can board trains bound for everywhere in Europe and beyond. Construction on this station was completed in 1900 at the height of train travel just prior to the advent of the automobile and the art, décor and workmanship is second only to some of the train stations in Moscow. The station has been used many times as a set for various movies.
Above is the dining room in the Gare De Lyon.
The Gare de Lyon, completed in 1900.
The tracks at the Gare de Lyon, with a number of high speed trains waiting to head to distant cities.
For about 30 euros we obtained Metro passes that were good for a week and took us everywhere we wanted to go. The ticket is required at the turnstiles both entering and leaving so don’t lose it! We got turned around a few times and went the wrong direction but since we weren’t in a hurry it was no problem.
When our time was up in Paris, we decided to spend a couple of nights in nearby Chantilly, about 50 kms north of the city. Chantilly is a friendly little town that houses the Chateau De Chantilly (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C3%A2teau_de_Chantilly) and also the Museum of the Horse ( http://www.domainedechantilly.com/en/accueil/great-stables/museum-horse/ ) .
We recommend visiting this wonderful place as an addition or even as an alternative to Paris. We had the whole chateau virtually to ourselves as we marveled at the fabulous art collections of the Musee Conde housed within the chateau. After our visit to the Chateau and a very nice lunch in their cellar cafe we strolled across the chateau grounds to the Musee de Cheval to take in the daily horse show, a display of choreographed entertainment provided by a dozen or so very capable equestrians and their well trained charges, all within a permanent circus ring-like theatre very artfully appointed and decorated.
The outdoor dressage ring at the Horse Museum in Chantilly.
The arena at the Horse Museum
Alas, as all good things must end, we left Chantilly on the train back to Paris, changed stations from Gare du Nord to Gare de L’Est and boarded one of Frances high speed TGV trains to Germany. Although far more expensive than air transport, the comfort and convenience of train travel far exceeds all the stress and security necessary to navigate airports. However, if you wish to sight see, we don’t recommend taking the TGV. We reached a top cruising speed of just over 300 kph and at that speed it’s almost impossible to focus on anything out the windows within about a kilometer. Since we weren’t ready to initiate our Eurail passes (until after the New Year) we paid about $170 each for the 3 hour ride to Karlsruhe, Germany. Once there, we checked into a hotel for the night and took a stroll into the downtown core where the Christmas market was in full swing.
The Christmas market in Karlsruhe, Germany.
December 21 Christmas market in Karlsruhe
Dec 31, marketplace in Speyer, Germany. A very busy day.
The Germans are big on meat and potatoes and serve it up for a few euros.
We ended 2018 with our friends, Marianne and Rudi in Bad Schonborn, near Heidelburg. We were treated like royalty and were able to experience a traditional Christmas of the area. Rudi retired at the end of the year from a long career in the music industry and sold his drum warehouse, Drumladen, to one of his employees. We enjoyed a night out with some of his local musician friends and I had the opportunity to sit in with a local blues band for a few songs.
We leave soon on a 3-week train odyssey after activating our passes. We head east to Prague for a couple of nights, then to Vienna and through the Alps (my only real reason for wanting to be here in the winter.) At the end of the tracks we hope to find a warmer place in the Algarve, Portugal where we’ll rent a car and a small apartment and settle in for a month or so.
Wishing you all the best in the New Year.