Thursday 31 October 2013

Surviving Paris: 5 things you should know

#1 Free WiFi at Charles de Gaulle Airport is only 15 minutes. Use wisely.

#2 After stepping out of the airport, go to the rail station and take the RER train to Gare du Nord. My ticket was EUR9.50 and non-stop. There's a ticket machine where you can buy the tickets but just to be safe, you can queue up to purchase them at the counter (they have an English counter). After Gare du Nod, switch to the metro to get to your hostel. Metros are easy, I love metros.

#3 You can buy 10 one way tickets for EUR13.30. Individual one way tickets are EUR1.70 each and they are not distance based. BUT if you're under 25, you can get the weekend unlimited travel ticket for EUR3.65. So as long as you are going to take 3 rides, it's worth getting the weekend ticket. And there are many zones you can choose from, zone 1-3 is enough since all the main attractions are in zone 1. I got a zone 1-5 weekend pass for my day trip to Provins (EUR7.85). You can get it over counter or via the ticket machine.

#4 When eating in restaurants, say "une carafe d'eau s'il vous plaît" to get free tap water. Or else they might give you bottled water which cost a few extra euros.

#5 Starting your questions with "Excusez-moi" or "Pardon" will help get the locals' attention more. It doesn't matter if you switch immediately back to English after that, hey, you tried! The French are really proud of their language so they'll appreciate your effort.

Sunday 27 October 2013

Paris, France VI: The day I left Paris

On the morning that I was supposed to check out, I went down to the basement for breakfast in my usual gear, aka pyjamas. I saw this girl who looked awfully familiar in the queue for our daily dose of croissant, baguette, cereal, coffee and fruit juice. I sat down on her right while peeking at her on and off. Finally she turned away from her conversation with the girl on her left and said hello to me. I immediately launched into a "Are you from Singapore? You look really familiar!" speech. Turns out, she went to the same Junior College (JC) as me and had two good friends from my class. She was at the end of her travels while I just started.

After packing up, I checked out and decided to leave my bag on top of the lockers so as not to block the walkway. I gave it a good shove and THUD! my bag fell behind the lockers.. leaving me standing there in shock with my jaws hanging. The cleaning lady who was beside me blabbered away in French, probably mocking me for my foolishness and walked away. Luckily for me, the cook walked past and I begged for help. All my mornings of conversing with him in French paid off (which went something like this*) because he helped me push the lockers out and I squeezed behind the lockers to retrieve my fallen bag. I merci-ed profusely and he gave a tiny smile. Mind you, he hardly smiled while handing out breakfast so he appeared rather standoffish.

*Morning conversations*
Him: "Bonjour."
Me: "Bonjour."
Him: "Café ou thé?"
Me: "Café, s'il vous plaît."
-passes me the coffee-
Me: "Merci." -smiles-

Left my newly made friend, G who wanted to go to Disneyland, and went to Versailles with another newly friend, W who is the close friend of an ex-JC mate whom G knows as well. Yup it's a small world after all, we met some 14,000km away from home.

After we returned from Versailles, we met up with G again to have dinner before my bus to London. We had a really good time laughing at nothing in a Kebab restaurant near our hostel. Dinner took a little longer than expected so I had to rush off to the bus terminal but not before snapping a photo to commemorate our meeting in Paris. We decided that we should take it in front of something symbolic so people would know we met in Paris so we decided on the statue at République metro. The statue turned out to be SO tiny and I have no idea why but we just couldn't stop laughing. Was it the kebab? No time for that though because I had a bus to catch! So they accompanied me to the metro and in a frantic mess, I couldn't find my metro ticket! I kept digging but it just wouldn't appear. So the other two attempted to help me buy a new one but they couldn't remember the station name. So I decided to crawl underneath the turnstile because time was ticking. (Kids, please don't try this out. I was desperate.) But there was another plastic door behind which I couldn't squeeze past. So mission failed and I had to crawl back out. It was quite a sight... The two of them were half laughing, half trying to remember the station name. AND THEN, this French lady tapped her card, past the turnstile and held the plastic door open for me! Tears of gratitude flowed down my cheek. I was so so so extremely grateful that I wanted to give her a hug. So with a quick wave to my two new friends, I crawled underneath the turnstile (again), merci-ed profusely and ran to catch the metro to the bus terminal. I kept checking the time, afraid that I would miss my bus because if I did, I would have to find another way to get to London, spend more money and ah, it would have been so troublesome.

After I reached the bus station, I headed straight to the car park where all the buses were. However, I realised everyone was holding onto a card of some sort. I sought help from another French lady and changed my email print-out for a boarding pass. I even acted as a translator for the bus driver who was communicating frustratedly with a Chinese man. Finally, it was time for the bus to leave the station and off to London I went!

P.S. My metro ticket showed up when I was on the bus. Pshh. Well I guess my day wouldn't have been half as exciting if it didn't decide to play hide and seek with me.

Thursday 24 October 2013

Paris, France V: Versailles

A trip to Paris just seems incomplete if you don't visit Versailles.

Everything was so intricate, so grand, so rich. Our tickets came with audio guides (EUR15; there are non-audio guide versions as well) so when you enter each room, you press the number associated with it and viola, a nice lady starts telling you more about the room. I can hardly remember anything I heard because it was SO crowded. We were packed like sardines I tell you. Half the time, I was trying not to lose sight of my friend, and the other half was spent furiously clicking on my camera. It was hard to have photos without a head or a hand popping into your frame.

Tall bush mazes surround the Garden of Versailles which requires a separate ticket to enter (EUR8.50). There are nice fountains inside but most of them weren't operational. Besides that, there wasn't much to see.

I thought the free park behind the Garden was much nicer (but I'm not sure how you can get there without crossing the Garden). You can take a stroll along shady rows of magnificent trees, row a boat leisurely in the large pond, read a book or have a picnic on the grass patch beside the bank (you will get chased away if you  try to sit on the grass in the Garden!).

How to get there?
We took the metro to Port de Sèvres (last stop of line 9) then transferred to bus 171 which stops right in front of Versailles.

Saturday 19 October 2013

Paris, France IV: So you think Paris is beautiful...

...wait till you see it at night. It's absolutely stunning.

Met up with Q and a new friend I picked up from the Montmartre walking tour and we went searching for the authentic French restaurant our guide recommended (thought of the day: but we were in Paris! Shouldn't all restaurants be authentic?). It's called Le Petit Saint Benoit, located near Saint-Germain-des-Prés metro station. It took us quite a while to hunt it down. It's a small cosy diner and the service was impeccable. There was this main waiter (or maybe he's the owner?) who kept going from table to table making sure everyone was comfortable and satisfied. He was very nice and patient with us since we (by we, I meant Q) tried to converse with him in French and you can see that he appreciated our effort.

We had French onion soup (which was too salty for me) and escargot for starter. Barbequed rabbit meat with rice and capsicum, beef tartare and duck confit for mains. Beef tartare was a totally new experience for me because I don't eat raw meat. I don't even eat medium rare meat. So when it was placed in front of me, I mustered up my courage and took a forkful. The first two or three bites were still fine, but I couldn't take it anymore after that. I felt so squirmish! My companions finished up the dish slowly. First time having rabbit meat as well and it tasted like chicken. This was my favourite dish of the night though the potatoes that came with the duck confit were heavenly. For dessert, we had cheese with honey (left) and dark chocolate in vanilla (right). Both came looking like nothing we thought. The cheese with honey was rather special. I've never had such cheese before, it was so smooth, tasted like plain yogurt.

Despite ordering so much, the bill was only EUR22 per person. Give it a try if you're in Paris!

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Paris, France III: Strolling through Montmartre

Montmartre means "mountain of the martyr" and is derived from the martyrdom of Saint Denis whom you'll encounter later down in the post. This hill, reaching 130 meters, was where original inhabitants of Paris were driven to when Napoleon III decided to make Paris the most beautiful city in Europe. So they established their own 'town' in Montmartre and since it was outside the city limits, free of Paris taxes, the hill quickly became a popular drinking area. Along with liquor came entertainment, such as the famous like Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat). Artists such as Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir also began calling Montmartre home.

To better appreciate and understand this area, I joined a walking tour. This time I chose Discovery Walks and I enjoyed walking with their guides so much that I joined their tours in almost every city that I went to. The guides are all local and the group wasn't as big as Sandeman tours so you can actually hear all the stories and ask questions.

We started at Moulin Rouge (right outside Blanche metro station) where the can-can was born. Can-can was originally introduced as a seductive dance by the courtesans, soon it evolved into a form of entertainment of its own and led to the introduction of cabarets across Europe. Our guide shared with us the story of La Goulue, one of the most famous can-can dancers. La Goulue means "The Glutton" because of her habit of picking up a customer's glass and downing its contents while dancing past their table. She was at her peak during the 1890s and became the highest paid entertainer of her day. The famous painting of her titled La Goulue was done by Toulouse-Lautrec (above). However, due to some changes in management (or something I'm not too sure), her show was closed. Suffering from depression, she drank heavily and dissipated the small fortune she had accrued while dancing. Alcoholic and destitute, she returned to Montmartre selling peanuts, cigarettes, and matches on a street corner near the Moulin Rouge. No one recognized the severely overweight and haggard former Queen of Montmartre. :(

OK moving on to happier stories. He brought us to Café des 2 Moulins where Amélie was filmed. She works in this cafe in the movie and they've kept it exactly the same so as to attract visitors. We just popped in to take a peek. Oh it took its name from the two nearby historical windmills, Moulin Rouge and Moulin de la Galette (see below).

This is the house of an Egyptian singer based in France named Dalida (Place Dalida). She had a successful career but a dismal personal life. Her first fiance committed suicide days after the wedding was announced, she tried to kill herself too but failed. Then just months later, she was impregnated by an 18-year-old Italian student. The abortion surgery left her infertile. Her ex-husband, one of her lovers and her close guy friend all committed suicide as well (not together). Dalida herself committed suicide by overdosing on pills and left behind a note which read, "La vie m'est insupportable... Pardonnez-moi." ("Life has become unbearable for me... Forgive me.")

There is a plate beside the door (see the gray plate in the picture?) which was engraved with "Dalida a vécu dans cette maison de 1962 à 1987. Ses amis Montmartrois n'oublieront pas." ("Dalida lived in this house from 1962 to 1987. Her friends in Montmartre will not forget her.") Since her life was so tragic, it was said that anyone who passed by this house for the first time are all cursed. But not to worry! The solution is just a few steps away. Simply do what the man is doing, and you'll be curse-free.

Then we passed by the Moulin de la Galette but I can't remember what our guide said about it. I just know that it's the other famous windmill in Montmartre. Ah, according to Wiki, this windmill was used to produce flour and later converted into a dance hall and frequented (and immortalised in paint) by Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh. Above is Impressionism's most celebrated masterpieces Bal du moulin de la Galette by Renoir.

Interesting sculptures we saw! Le Passe-Muraille (left) "The Man Who Walked through Walls" was based on a story by Marcel Aymé. The story is about a man named Dutilleul who lived in Montmartre. One day, he discovered that he possessed the ability to walk through walls! Imagine that! He went to see a doctor about it and was prescribed two pills as a cure. Somehow, he didn't eat it immediately.. But anyway at first he had no inclination to use his ability but that changed when his new boss began to make his life miserable at work. Dutilleul began using his power to play tricks on his boss, eventually driving him mad. Dutilleul then started using his ability to rob banks and jewelry shops. He even allowed himself to get caught in the act since he could just escape anyway. Soon, he grew tired of the lifestyle and dreamt of going to Egypt to try the more challenging walls of the pyramids. But he fell in love with a married woman and lost all interest in leaving Paris. Dutilleul used his power to enter her bedroom and spend the night with her while her husband was away. One fatal morning, he had a splitting headache and took two pills he found in the bottom of his drawer. His headache went away but later that night, as he was leaving his lover's house, he noticed a feeling of resistance as he was passing through the walls. It turned out that the pills Dutilleul had thought were aspirin were, in fact, the medicine his doctor had prescribed for him a year earlier. As he was passing through the final outer wall of the house, he noticed he was no longer able to move. The medicine had taken effect and Dutilleul ended up trapped in the wall, where he remains to this day.

Statue of Saint Denis who was the first bishop of Paris in the third century when Paris was still very much a Roman city. He got off the wrong foot with some local priests and so the Roman rulers of Paris had him arrested. He was brought to the highest hill in Paris, Montmartre, where he was to be beheaded. But he did not die there, story has it that he picked up his own head and walked six (some say ten) kilometers to the North, preaching a sermon the entire way. The site where he stopped preaching and died was marked by a small shrine that developed into the Saint Denis Basilica. You can supposedly see see his statue carrying his head frequently around Paris, such as on the Notre Dame but I didn't notice..

The well-known pink La Maison Rose restaurant. And what did you know? There's a vineyard in Paris! But our guide said that he has never drank wine produced there because the air in Paris is very polluted, so the quality of grapes (and hence the wine) won't be good.

We also passed by Place du Tertre where many artists set up their easels each day. Even though they are mainly targeted at tourists, Place du Tertre serves as a reminder of the time when Montmartre was the mecca of modern art. Picasso, Vlamenck, Derain, Soutine, Modigliani, Van Gogh and countless others lived and worked along these narrow streets.

And finally... Basilica of the Sacré Cœur where you get a free view of Paris. For a small fee, you can climb up to the top but I didn't. Oh and almost everyone told me to be wary when going up the stairs to Basilica of the Sacré Cœur because there might be people trying to tie wrist bands on you and forcing you to pay. So that's another reason why I decided to join a walking tour - to hide behind our guide. :p