Friday, June 12, 2009

Diary of a Holiday, 2009 (1)

June 9th: To Paris

Departed St. Pancras at 12:29 – our first journey from the new Eurostar terminal, and very slick it is too. I was even more impressed by the sight of the Dartford Crossing about fifteen minutes after departure; those trains can move. So we reached Paris a couple of hours (and a bit) later, grabbed a coffee at the Gare du Nord, and then made our way to the Hotel Jeanne D'Arc. This turns out to be a bit scruffy round the edges – there seems to be some refurbishment work going on at the moment – but it's certainly come up in the world since we first stayed here, twenty-five years ago. Symptom of its location in the Marais, I guess.

Anyhow, we checked in, and then took a walk, down and over the river, along past Notre Dame and back to the right bank, and then as far as the Louvre before we turned round and headed back to the Marais. Dinner was at Pitchi Poi – yeah, eating East European (herring salad, duck casserole, a weirdly nice poppy seed cake called “Nuit Profonde” that was as dark as its name implies) on one's first night in Paris, but we've been there before and we happen to like it.

June 10th: In Paris

One advantage of staying in a backstreet hotel (and in a room which looks onto a light well) is that it's quiet, especially for central Paris. So we slept well, thanks, and headed out for breakfast at a branch of Le Pain Quotidien – some streets away, but this is another taste we've developed in this city. (Though you can now get their hazelnut spread in London – well, from their branch in exile in St. Pancras.) Then we decide what to do with the day.

Contemplating the map, we realise that we've never previously got around to seeing the Jardin des Plantes, so we head east along the Left Bank, skirt a Victorian (?) statue of Lamarck with a plinth proclaiming him the discoverer of the principles of evolution (yes, well), and discover a rather nice botanical garden. Definitely a working site (associated with a museum/research institute), not generally overly pretty or cleverly laid out, but well labelled and with a nice rose garden and an even nicer alpine garden. Emerging from there, we see the central mosque of Paris – which turns out to have a restaurant attached, so lunch involves tagines and mint teas. (Look, we did eat French at breakfast.) Emerging from that, we discover that the morning's occasional showers have developed into a full-blown inundation – so we find a metro station and head back to the heart of the city.

After we've spent a little time browsing in the shops that now lurk under the Louvre, we find that the rain has now let up enough to permit a stroll round the Left Bank. That leads to a beer in a brasserie on St. Michel, and by now we've walked enough that heading back to the hotel to put our feet up seems like a good idea.

The rain does then let up a bit, but we don't trust it and we seem strangely to be feeling quite well fed, so we go looking for a creperie for dinner. The first we find is Page 35, which turns out to count as a good choice. Hmm... I still haven't had any French wine, though. (I assume that, when ordering from a Breton menu, cidre is indicated. Well, tomorrow should be different.

June 11th: To The Pink City

First thought for the day; Does anyone in this country, when in need of an English translation, for a menu or a hotel brochure or whatever, actually think to employ anyone who actually speaks English?

The first part of the train journey took us through a few hundred miles of pleasant enough French countryside, but with few sights to grab the attention apart from one big bridge as we approached Bordeaux. The second part, up the valley of the Garonne, promptly plunged us into a landscape of vines. I think that I'd better get around to that French wine tonight.

We reach Toulouse at 5 pm, and find the Ours Blanc Victor Hugo with only a small struggle with the non-rectilinear local street plan along the way. This is another fairly basic hotel, but comfortable enough – and as we've shifted a few hundred miles south, “fairly basic” now encompasses air conditioning. (This one also runs to free WiFi, in theory. Practice may be another matter; taking my netbook down to the lobby eventually seems to help.) Anyway, we drop some stuff off and head out to look around the town.

Second thought for the day, from Angela: The trouble with these medieval streets is that people have nowhere to put their wheelie bins, really.

But in truth, the place is very picturesque; in a medieval-plan, student-infested sort of way. The “pink city” tag evidently refers to the local fondness for brick as a building material, incidentally. We get to see the basilica and the river, and then decide to take our guide book's word about Chez Fazoul for dinner.

Oh yes – we're in France. So a little backstreet restaurant in a student town naturally does a really unctuous cassoulet and a delicious pear tart.

June 12th: In Toulouse

Morning: Breakfast at a table outside a cafe on the fine town square, then a stroll that takes us round the Basilica of Saint-Sernin. I've seen big churches, and I've seen Romanesque, but a church this size that's managed to retain its Romanesque purity, without Gothic impositions, really is something fairly new. It feels like a real piece of the early Middle Ages.

And there's a covered food market opposite the hotel. French provincial towns do love their covered food markets. I can see why.

A Bit Later: The interior of the basilica turns out to be as elegant as the exterior, with the odd bit of very old art for interest. We weren't planning to pay to see the collection of medieval reliquaries anyway – we're not great fans of medieval carving and such – but I'd swear that seeing the entrance to the exhibition area stirred the ghosts of of my Protestant ancestors to utter disdain.

On the other hand, we did pay to go into the Musee Saint-Raymond, nearby, which turned out to be better than the guidebook suggested, having not just a good exhibition about pre-Roman Toulouse on the top floor, but a pretty magnificent set of Roman sculptures from a local site on the floor below. I'm surprised this isn't publicised more. Anyway, we then took a walk down to and over the river, and found our way to Les Abattoirs.

Which isn't as bad as it sounds, because the town's old abattoirs have been cleaned up and spruced up to high-vaulted, red-brick magnificence, and converted into a gallery for exhibitions of modern art. I'm not really qualified to comment on what we saw there; some of it affected me, some didn't, but I can't analyse the subject with any credibility (especially as the labels and any explanatory notes were all in French). I will say that, at the time of our visit, they had some very appealing aboriginal art, and some installations that were at the least striking or fun to wander round; also, some installation artists lean rather hard on the use of “disturbing” ambient sounds, which seems to my ignorant judgement like it's turning into a cheap cliché.

Oh, and the gallery has a really nice cafe/restaurant attached. When we were done there, we crossed the town, pausing to take a few pictures, and ended up feeling warm enough that the idea of taking an hour or two in the Musee des Augustins seemed quite appealing. Actually, it was a very good idea; this museum is a converted monastery, and the layout involves some cool cloisters and a peaceful central courtyard with a garden in it.

Oh, the museum exhibits? Well, there were some medieval carvings... And some mostly second-string but not actually bad 19th century paintings. And a number of Victorian academic sculptures, mostly on mythological themes (i.e. a lot of marble bottoms).

Dinner: Saveurs Bio, which despite what our guidebook says, turns out to be organic but not vegetarian. At least, there was poulet mentioned on the menu, and my main course turned out to include fish. Nice food, leisurely service no doubt related to local custom of one waiter per restaurant.

1 comment:

Antoni Ten said...

Hello, I'm a Spanish GURPS player (an retired MiB) who just managed to stumble into your blog.

Nice trip! as I said, I'm Spanish, but French is my second language, and I have been a number of times to France. BTW, if you think that the English in French brochures, menus and all is bad, you haven't seen Spanish ones. I'm sure that babelfish would do a better job. Hell, you could ask babelfish to translate it into Rusian, and then to English and it would still be a better translation.

Good luck!