New Year’s Eve

We decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Paris at the heart of the celebration but not in the crowds, so we booked a cruise on the river. Actually, the real center of the Paris New Year’s Eve party is on Champs Elysées, where the Arc de Triomphe displays the annual light show. But after two experiences with the crowds there, Lynn wanted nothing to do with Paris’s most famous boulevard.

Bateau Parisiens offers an overpriced dinner cruise but a reasonable regular cruise that includes a split of Champagne for each passenger and an expansive view of the Eiffel Tower at midnight.

After another tasty osso buco dinner at home, we left for the train station early at 8 p.m. to make sure we could get to the Eiffel Tower and the boat dock in time for the cruise. To our surprise, the RER train station and the train itself were all but empty. And the ride was free–metro authorities open up all the trains on New Year’s Eve to move vehicular traffic off the streets.

Once we arrived at our stop, however, the crowds built rapidly at the Eiffel Tower. Street vendors were everywhere, hawking bottles and glasses of wine, lighted plastic Eiffels, hot mulled wine, the hated selfie sticks, glowing self-launched helicopters, roasted nuts and huge bowls of steaming grilled onions and sausage. Altogether, the scene created a sensory overload of people, languages, smells and a generally festive atmosphere, despite the ever-present threat of terrorism. Police were out in force on the bridges, along the river quays and under the Eiffel Tower itself, which was closed except for the high-end restaurants.

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The crowd was somewhat down-scale, mostly young adults and families, many with toddlers in strollers. What was rally lacking was a place to purchase an adult beverage other than wine on the street. The nearest bistro to the Eiffel Tower area is across the Seine and all the way around the back of the Trocadero, which is a walk of many blocks. The boat company could make a fortune setting up a temporary bar for passengers waiting to board.

After passing through the security line twice, Lynn did not want to leave the ramp again, so we wound up being almost the first passengers on the boat, just behind a couple from Huntsville, AL. He was oh-so-friendly and chatty about their various New Year’s Eve adventures that we silently but firmly made sure to go in the opposite direction when we boarded.

Bateau Parisien presented each of us a small bag containing an ice cold split of Champagne, a plastic flute (mine was cracked, so we had to share), a small bag of madeleines, a noisemaker and a party hat. The Champagne was quite nice; the total of a full bottle lasted exactly the length of the trip.

If you have ever taken the boat trip on the Seine, you appreciate how beautiful Paris is from the water. It was especially so this evening, as the Eiffel Tower was awash in lights that changed to a dazzling, dancing LED display every 15 minutes or so.

At the stroke of midnight, all the cruise boats gathered at the base of the tower to ring in the New Year. Most of the passengers climbed to the top, but we could see just fine from the warmth of the inside. Imagine some 15-20 boats hovering for five to ten minutes using only their thrusters waiting for the light show to begin on the Eiffel Tower. I was more fascinated by the skill of the skippers to keep us all from crashing together.

As soon as it was over, the boat docked, we disembarked, walked back to the train station, once again empty, and took the RER C, once again mostly empty, back to our Latin Quarter, which was–you guessed it–mostly if not completely empty.

We really wanted a bit of a nightcap to finish off the New Year’s celebration, but virtually every bistro was shut down for the evening. However, now that we have lived in our neighborhood for better than two weeks, we knew exactly where the bar doesn’t close–The Bombardier, a British pub across from the Pantheon.

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And The Bombardier was indeed festive and noisy, with American oldies music playing in the background, student-aged partiers drinking heavily and two American oldies who just wanted a glass of wine and a Scotch to end a most celebratory evening. We drank up and walked the eerily quiet streets home to our four flights of stairs. Luckily, we had had the foresight to set up the bed before we left, so all we had to do was fall in. We don’t stay up until 2 a.m. very often.

And yet another winner dinner

Another friend who has been to Paris before and is a fellow foodie recommended we try Le Petite Perigourdine, which happens to be located only two blocks from our apartment on the corner of rue des Ecoles and rue Vallette. We have walked by the place dozens of times.

We were seated at a window table on the Vallette side where a row of empty wine bottles was visible from the street. I had wondered about these as we passed by so many times, and now I understood–they were all empty bottles of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild of different vintages.

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Sitting next to us were two young women engaged in a pleasantly animated conversation that did not stop the entire time we were there. They went through a full bottle of wine, then added a pichet for good measure. As far as I could tell, their dinner consisted of one shared plate of prosciutto.

We split an appetizer of the terrine, which the waiter brought out in an entire foot-long dish right out of the kitchen. He offered the entire thing to us, and when Lynn laughed and demurred, he proceeded to slice off about a two-inch section for her. Then another two-inch slice for me. One would have been more than we could eat. Two would have been an entire meal.

The signature dish here is their creamed potatoes, which come out to the table in a copper pot, then ladled out to the plate from far above. The potatoes are so thick, they must be eaten like pasta, twirling a fork around to create a serving. It makes a nice show, but unfortunately, the taste did not live up to the presentation.

The rest of the meal certainly had plenty of flavor, however, putting this little restaurant a good cut above the average.

Lynn ordered the veal hangar steak, which was served in a roasted half eggplant, the entire dish swimming in a foie gras sauce. Every element worked together to perfection.

My steak was equally delicious, nicely charred on the outside and perfectly medium rare on the inside.

A most embarrassing moment came when the waiter politely showed us that we were using our steak knives on the wrong side. All we could do was laugh and blush. The shape of the blades really does look backwards. We felt like stupid Americans, which we are.

 

Rue Cler & the fashion avenue

One of our friends who is knowledgeable about Paris recommended rue Cler to us as his favorite street in the city. Located between the Eiffel Tower and the Army Museum, rue Cler is a short street, most of which has been reserved as a pedestrian mall lined on both sides with retailers of clothing, groceries, fine pastries, seafood and the ever-present bistros. In essence, just like any other block in Paris, but without vehicular traffic.

I actually found exactly the wool sweater I had been looking for since we arrived and at a most reasonable price, the same as a lesser sweater was selling for at Monoprix, France’s version of Target. Since winter will be settling in any day now, my new sweater will come in handy, likely as early as Thursday for New Year’s Eve.

After walking r2015-12-30 12.57.36ue Cler, we crossed the bridge to the Rive Droit and stopped for a mid-day beer at Le Grand Corona on the corner fronting the bridge and the Seine. Grand Corona is grand all right–17 euros for two Kronenbergs. That’s more than an entire meal in our neighborhood.

After downing our beers, we found Avenue Montaigne that runs from the river to bisect Champs Elysées.  Avenue Montaigne is the Fifth Avenue of Paris, lined with stores bearing all the biggest names in fashion from Armani to Vuitton. They all had black-suited security guards standing guard at the front door, likely to keep riff raff like us from entering. Champs Elysees was still packed with crowds milling back and forth among the Christmas village tents of cotton candy, mulled wine, roasted nuts, crepes and various souvenirs.

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When we finally worked our way down to the Pont Alexander III, we walked past long lines of parents and children snaked around the blocks surrounding both the Grand Palace and the Petit Palace.  Both were presenting Christmas shows inside their respective buildings–at 20 eu for adults and 15 for kids.

Military and police were out in force by the dozens, all armed with automatic weapons. Clearly, recent events both here and elsewhere in Europe have everyone on high alert.

 

 

Versailles and an ordinary dinner, Parisian style

We planned to visit Versailles with Clerc Cooper and Ryan Swayze, who are on a two-week trip through France and Italy. Via e-mail, Lynn made arrangements to meet them at the entrance. This is sort of like saying let’s meet at Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Even during off-season in a light drizzle, the  security lines snaked up and down the entry grounds for at least four lengths. Hard to imagine what they must look like in the peak summer season.

Miraculously, not ten minutes after we joined the queue, Lynn spotted Clerc’s red hair and scarf, as she and Ryan entered the grounds. The people behind us in line did not object to having our friends break in to join us.

Versailles is more than just a single spectacular palace. It is an extended village of palaces, parks, fountains and even a farm. Some of the parkland is open to the public, as we watched people old and young walking and cycling through the trails while we rode the mini-train from the main palace to the Trianon palaces and back.

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If you visit, plan to spend a full day at Versailles. It will be your only destination other than a refreshing verre du vin at the neighborhood bistro following a long day of touring the buildings and grounds. Incredibly, the entry lines still stretched out long as we walked out of the grounds at 5 p.m.–at this time of the year, the palace closes at 5:30 p.m.

And it’s a good ride from the center of Paris out to the suburb of Versailles, about 20 km (14 miles) on the RER C train. We left our St. Michel station at the stroke of 9 a.m. and arrived at the Gare Versailles about 9:30. It was about 6:30 p.m. by the time we walked out of our neighborhood RER station at Notre Dame.

While walking up the hill back to the apartment, we decided to dine at Le P’ti Restaurant, a little place right down the street that we had passed many times but never really took note of. It’s not the typical bistro with small tables outside, but rather a conventional restaurant seating about 24 people. The menu looked inviting and most reasonable–14.90 for the after-8 p.m. dinner. (The pre-8 p.m. dinner is only 12.90 but does not include wine.)

Dinner at Le P’ti was ordinary. The starter of pretty tasty duck paté was surely delicious, and the pichet of house wine was enjoyable. My pig’s knuckle (ham shank) was too fatty, although the meat was quite flavorful, and there was nothing at all wrong about the side dishes of smothered vegetables in a tomato sauce and–as always–wonderful potatoes crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Lynn’s fish was too fishy by her estimation, despite the the “lemon cream” (sort of beurre blanc) sauce accompaniment. The French unfortunately do not have the diversity of fish that we enjoy in south Louisiana. And they seem to simply bake it for a few minutes, which develops no crust or crunch to the filet.

However, dessert was something else. Lynn’s ice cream was rich and gooey with even richer chocolate. On my part, this otherwise ordinary dinner in an ordinary restaurant in an ordinary university neighborhood convinced me that the worst creme bruleé in Paris (maybe all of France) is better than any creme bruleé you will have in the U.S. (with the possible exception of Commander’s Palace). Something about real eggs, real butter and the ability to scorch the top while leaving the center cool seems to be universal in French restaurants. I ate every morsel.

 

Another ordinary dinner at home

You don’t think we can eat out every night, do you? Sometimes you just have to endure an ordinary meal at home.

Earlier in the day we had grabbed a really bad panini on the street, so we were ready for a nice dinner at home after cocktails around the corner. (Another adventure in ordering Lynn’s vodka and soda.)

Just across from the Pantheon is a small grocery store that offers only–ONLY–frozen foods. The entire place is composed of waist-height freezer compartments from entrance to check out. They have whatever you want in fine French cooking, but all frozen, ready to heat and serve.

We pulled a box of a dozen escargots de Bourgogne (aka butter and garlic), frozen and ready to heat. 2.95 euros.

Then we walked down rue des Ecoles to a combination boulangerie/bistro, where we grabbed two huge slices of quiche for 3.95 each. With a half a baguette (how else would you sop up the Bourgogne sauce from the snails?), total bill came to 8.30 euros, just below the 8.50 minimum for charging to a credit card.

With a  7 euro, higher end bottle of Bordeaux purchased from the little FranPrix down the street, we settled down to a simple, delicious and incredibly inexpensive French dinner in our apartment. J’aime France!

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Sorry for taking the photo mid-dinner. We devoured the escargots before I could reach for the camera.

 

Watching the Saints!

Talk about your perfect locations. Just down from the two splendid restaurants across the street from us is an underground bar named Pomme D’Eve. The South African owner shows shows the NFL RedZone on a large screen every weekend.

So Sunday night we watched the Saints while drinking the last drop of the bar’s Havana Club rum. They promise to restock Monday. And we promise to return next Sunday for the Atlanta game at 7 p.m. CET.

 

A walk along infamy

It just had to be done.

Our activity for the Sunday after Christmas was to walk the length of rue Voltaire from Place de la Republique all the way down to Place d’Italie, the reverse of the route taken by the barbarians on November 13.

Place de la Republique is still a shrine. Crowds mill around the central statue dedicated to the French Republic, where hundreds of memorials, candles, flowers, messages, souvenirs and personal artifacts are placed in honor of the dead and injured. The sounds are hushed, as if in a church, which in many respects is where we are.

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About a third of the way down rue Voltaire is the Bataclan auditorium, still barricaded off. A smaller knot of people stand in front, gazing and paying respects.

Almost all the way down to the Place D’Italie is one of the bistros that was shot up from the moving car. Nothing tells the viewer that this was the scene of tragedy except for a clutch of flowers grouped around the base of the tree in the sidewalk. People just walk by, the bistro is closed on a Sunday and the building shows no obvious indication of what happened here.

It’s a long walk (2.2 miles–Lynn looked it up), but we felt that we had to do it in honor of the innocents.

For a change of pace, we took the Metro back to our ‘hood, where we trooped up Blvd. St. Michel to the Luxembourg Gardens, which were today packed with Parisians enjoyed the relative warmth and bright sunshine. One young skipper was sailing his model boat in the big pond, mainsail overtrimmed so the boat would round up in the light air and head right back to the wall.

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The French Senate is in the background, guarded by a trooper at each corner brandishing an automatic weapon.

Another Winner Dinner right across the street

We have walked by ChantAirelle (yes, that is how it’s spelled) dozens of times directly across the street from our apartment. The place looks like an old country inn, which turns out to be a deliberate decor.

2015-12-27 11.22.55At the entrance, the restaurant displays various food products, mostly jams and jellies, from the Auvergne region in central France. Past the front counter is the small restaurant that offers a limited menu each day.

Returning from Chartres, we made reservations for a more Franco-friendly time of 8:30 p.m. That meant I needed to trudge down and up the hill and stairs again for pre-dinner wine.

We arrived precisely at 8:30 (did I mention the place is directly across the street?) and were directed to a little table for two in the center of the dining room. The owner/waiter suggested the house wine, which was a delicious blend of Gamay and pinot noir.

We split an entreé of paté smothered in a tomato coulis. For our main courses, Lynn ordered the duck and I could not resist the l’onglet, or hangar steak. Both were spectacular. Lynn’s duck may be the best I have ever tasted, and my hangar steak was everything I could want, swimming in a sea of roquefort cheese sauce. It reminded me of a magical meal so many years ago in Martinique.

Total tab–71 euros, including the wine. (Remember, there is no sales tax in Europe, so at $1.10 or so to the Euro, the price of things here is just about exactly the same as the price in New Orleans with our nearly 10% sales tax.)

We will be back.

Excursion to Chartres

Based on more than one recommendation from friends who have been there, we took a morning train to Chartres to see the Cathedral of Notre Dame there. The mid-13th century building features 176 stained glass windows, some dating before the church itself was built.

A word about short train trips–don’t bother paying extra for first class. The first class cabin is very small, only about 12 seats, and no one bothers to check tickets. If second class is full, people just sit in first class. Some passengers just board the train and go right for first class anyway. There is really very little difference in the two cabins. Our train to Chartres was packed, so we were forced to sit in second class, while other passengers sat in the aisles and entry ways. The trip only takes about an hour, so enduring second class is not that horrible an experience.

OK, as Gothic cathedrals go, Chartres is spectacular.

2015-12-26 12.40.40Unfortunately for us, the center of the church is undergoing renovation and so is shrouded in opaque plastic wrapping all the way up to the vaulted ceilings. What this means to the visitor is that you cannot see across the church to view the spectacular windows from any real distance. The rose windows glow in the low sunlight when you can view them from a bit more distance. Even with our diminished perspective, the effect of the windows is stunning.

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Interesting plaque across the street from the cathedral in Chartres. Mr. Salisbury seems to have had quite the career. Obviously, he needed another job after his first boss was dispatched with prejudice.

But don’t just leave the church to wander off to lunch. It’s important to walk around the entire edifice to view the intricate and countless statuary, especially the gargoyles through whose mouths the rain water drains off from on high.

After circumnavigating the church, we landed upon a restaurant that served a huge hamburger with Roquefort cheese. What could be better?

It was probably not a bad thing that our walk back to the train station took about 10-15 minutes longer than necessary, because we had turned the wrong direction instead of retracing our steps back to the cathedral. Oh well, not the first time we have walked a little extra on our travels.

 

Christmas Day

We slept in until well past dawn, which is saying something, considering dawn doesn’t arrive until about 8:30 a.m. The streets of Paris were very quiet and all but deserted early on Christmas Day. But after lunch, people came out, and by afternoon the streets were active and festive.

Most stores were closed but many restaurants were open. We stopped at one of our summer haunts on the corner of Conti and Dauphine (easy for us to remember) for a Christmas Bloody Mary, which was pretty good, considering the French use only regular tomato juice, not a mix.

Took two days, but I was finally able to liberate the Christmas dinner photo from my Sprint phone.
Took two days, but I was finally able to liberate the Christmas dinner photo from my Sprint phone.

Back at the apartment, Lynn prepared her Christmas feast of pasta, haricots vert and a delicious veal osso buco. The formal dinner portrait was unfortunately taken on my Sprint phone, which has ceased texting, so remains captive inside the phone until the handset works again.