Tag Archives: France

Eurostar….the adventure continues

Our love affair with Eurostar continues…..

On Monday June 1st we left St Pancras at 07:19 on a fresh, grey London morning.

Just under 6 1/2 hours later, we pulled into the Gare Saint Charles in exotic Marseille, cloudless skies above and Mediterranean heat wrapping itself around us, like a comforting blanket draped over an exhausted marathon runner.

Eurostar have run a summer service to Avignon for several years but from 1st May 2015, this has been extended to Marseille. From here you can explore the south of France in all its Gallic glory, make other TGV connections to France or continental Europe, or jump on a ferry to Corsica or North Africa.

On the train trip down, entertain yourself in any number of ways to make the time fly as quickly as Sepp Blatter’s final Presidential term at FIFA.

I overdosed on old-fashioned printed newspapers, buying the I for its Independent journalism and quick crossword, before realising I could get a free Daily Telegraph with a bottle of water at Smiths. And then finding free copies of the Guardian on the train. Still, you can never be over-news’d, can you?

A tradition for Gill and me on Eurostar journeys is to play crib. And for Gill to beat me at this old favourite card game, all pegging, 15-2, 15-4, 15-6, 3 for the run and 1 for his knob.

We had long conversations with our friendly fellow passengers, a retired couple disembarking at Avignon for another train connection to pick up their French river cruise. With a company they use and like. A lot. He was the sales and marketing manager for Agfa, the photographic company owned by the German conglomerate Bayer, and who single-handedly grabbed significant market share for them from Kodak before taking an impossible-to-refuse early retirement package.

We found out a little too much about them, to be honest, but we were a captive audience and I couldn’t face another newspaper.

We also immersed ourselves in books. I’m enjoying Ian McEwan’s The Children Act, savouring every page of his sumptuous writing in this short book, that I’ll need to talk about at my first meeting at a Book Club shortly after we get home.

Gill is reminiscing about our epic trip to Tasmania earlier in the year, through reading Chasing Rainbows, a fascinating autobiography by the daughter of a family who first lived in Palestine before leaving England for Australia with the wave of 1960s emigrants.

We like to indulge in a little Eurostar treat, whenever possible. For the Marseille trip an upgrade to Standard Premier class rewarded us with a comfortable seat, free newspapers and magazines, a history of the development of the photographic industry in Europe before the digital revolution, and meals served at your seat.

Shortly after easing out of St Pancras we were tucking into croissants as flaky as Jonathan Lees’ punctuality, jam, chilled orange juice and strong coffee or a choice of teas.

And somewhere between Lille and Avignon, we could choose between a surprisingly tasty vegetarian pie, with a provencale sauce to ease us into Marseillais mode, or a cold chicken salad.  Washed down with a Sauvignon Blanc or a Minervois red. With pudding and tea or coffee, naturellement.

And all served by a very jolly and entertaining Eurostar cabin crew, mangling their English vowels un peu, but all providing a polished, fun service.

We found out as we approached Avignon that someone had jumped onto the line somewhere in France. Ours was the last Eurostar train through before services were suspended. Lucky, especially as I had been stuck at St Pancras on a Eurostar train for 5 hours in March, as a result of an English Jumper at Ashford.

But what a service this is. 777 miles to Marseille. Brief stops only at Lyon and Avignon. Great service. The ability to walk the length of the train, at any time. Access to all your luggage. The ever-changing landscapes through the window…….of Kent and the length of France, from the bland plains of the Pas de Calais to the rolling hills of Provence. And all at very reasonable prices, from as little as £99 return.

Eurostar, je t’aime.

 

Eurostar – we salute you

How did we ever live without Eurostar, the high-speed train diving under the Channel since 1994 to link us more closely with our European neighbours?

Remember the clanking old ferries criss-crossing their turbulent way between Dover and Calais, lorry drivers swigging cans of Carlsberg for breakfast and day-trippers throwing up in the detritus-strewn café?

Or the cushioned hovercraft lifting its noisy skirts above the Ramsgate tarmac, with engines as noisy and whining as Janet Street-Porter?

We’ve been lucky to be fairly frequent users of Eurostar over the years. For leisure rather than for business trips.

To Brussels, for a delightful long weekend In Bruges after a pain-free transfer on a local Belgian train.  Sightseeing and chocolate eating, rather than killing time with Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell.

To Paris several times, recently to see the French Open tennis at ultra-cool Roland Garros. After a full day’s work in London, we checked into our hotel in the Marais still in good time to enjoy a few late night drinks and a couple of Gauloises in a louche jazz bar. Actually, we don’t smoke. But it sounded better.

In the summer there’s a special direct service all the way to Avignon, within touching distance of the glamorous Riviera. In just under 6 hours you’re transported from the grimy streets of north London to the sun-baked walled city of the legendary Pont and the imposing Palais des Papes, the epicentre of the Catholic church in the 14th century before migrating to Rome.

And from 1st May 2015, the direct service will also extend to Marseille. So just 6 hours 27 minutes after leaving St Pancras you can be in this edgy, exotic Mediterranean city – France’s 2nd largest – with an easy ferry link to Corsica, should you want to extend the adventure.

But our favourite Eurostar memories are the skiing trips. Leaving St Pancras on a Friday evening, indulging in a glass of fizz or Côtes du Rhône with a decent 3 course meal, grabbing some intermittent seated sleep before arriving in snow-laden Bourg Saint Maurice at 6 am on a crisp Alpine morning.

After good old Taxi Capucon has whisked you up the mountain at breakneck Gallic speed, you can hit the pistes by 9 o’clock….at roughly the same time as everyone else is cursing the long frustration-filled Easyjet queue at Gatwick, still 2 hours before flight time and an all-day transfer.

The Eurostar on-line booking and check-in systems are as well-oiled as a WD-40 salesman. St Pancras has been restored to its Victorian splendour, and an hour or two browsing its high-class shops or eating in its bistros is a pleasure, rather than a travelling chore.

On-board, the service is quietly efficient as the land- and soundscapes shift from city outskirts to Medway in-filling, orchards in the Garden of England, a gentle hum underneath the busy Channel and the bland flatlands of northern France.

The trip from London to Paris can now be done in just under 3 hours. Unless somebody jumps off the platform at Ashford, of course. In which case you can be sat on the train at platform 10 for 5 hours, as I did recently.

Imagine the carnage at Heathrow or Gatwick with those delays.

But Eurostar brought us lunch early – together with extra free booze – as we all sat reading, chatting with other passengers or the on-board staff, playing cards or discussing preferred suicide options.

Eventually arriving in Paris, one team greeted those who had missed connections and needed help with transport options, while another handed out free boxed suppers.

And a few weeks later, they confirmed I would be given a free return trip AND 50% compensation. Despite having no control over depressed jumpers.

Now that’s customer service.

Eurostar, we salute you. Next stop Marseille….

 

 

 

 

 

Movie review – Suite Francaise

Another free preview screening, thanks to those nice people at Times+

Somehow everything tastes sweeter, feels better, looks sharper if it’s free. You feel like you’ve won a small victory in the middle of a long and challenging life, inevitably laden with more losses than wins. A bit like Millwall FC, if they were ever awarded a walk-over for someone playing an ineligible player against them.

So here we were on a Monday night at Guildford Odeon, along with a load of other grey-haired Times readers, spontaneously watching a movie for which we’d seen an enticing trailer just a couple of days earlier.

Gill had read the book, written by Irène Némirovsky, a few years ago. It’s an incomplete book, written in real time as the author, a Russian Jew, lived through the German occupation of France in the Second World War. It’s incomplete because she died in Auschwitz, and the manuscript only surfaced many decades later.

The movie must inevitably take a few liberties with the original text, in order to get it onto the silver screen….but Gill reckons the conversion has worked well.

It’s essentially a love story, but also makes some sharp observations about loyalty, betrayal, self-preservation and other very human emotions when the natural order of a small, rural community is put through a tumble-dryer.

A great cast tells the story well. Kristin Scott Thomas plays a buttoned-up French lady of a certain age to perfection.  The versatile Michelle Williams is her daughter-in-law, caught in a moral maze. And relative newcomer Matthias Schoenaerts is the reluctant German officer, a musician rather than a soldier and trapped between love and duty.

Poignant, romantic, sad and yet ultimately hopeful that not everyone is destroyed by war.

A nice escape on a Monday night. Especially as it was free.

 

 

 

Paris – 5 more things to do off the well-trodden tourist track

Below is an article I’ve just written on Hidden Paris for Silver Travel Advisor, a travel website for people of a certain age…..

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What do you think of when someone mentions Paris? The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, the Moulin Rouge….and 50 other sights, or museums, or galleries or bistros that everyone has on their must-do list?

But scratch the Gallic surface and you can really get to know the city, and feel that you’re seeing it more as a shoulder-shrugging local than as a Nikon-toting tourist.

Here are a few more ideas for you from a recent trip I made to this glorious city (with 5 others in an earlier article). Some I stumbled upon myself and some I was led to by a great book (Quiet Paris by Siobhan Wall). I explored them all, in the interests of helping other Silver Travellers get off the well-beaten Parisian track:

1. La Grande Epicerie – rue du Bac and rue de Sèvres, 6th/7th arrondissements
Shopping and me are poor bedfellows. Normally, I’d rather carve a rustic pattern on my index finger with a Swiss army knife than go shopping on holiday.
But – quelle surprise – la Grande Epicerie du Bon Marché in Paris is retail heaven, even for a disbeliever like me, and drew me into its foodie bosom like a hungry child to its tea.
First opened in 1923 as the food counter for neighbouring legendary department store du Bon Marché, it has now – since an impressive makeover in 1999 – become “an unmissable treat, an unadulterated delight and a unique experience”. How true. With a scarcely believable 3,000 square metres of retail space, from which they sell 30,000 gourmet products, la Grande Epicerie is a cross between Selfridges and Harrods, but more chic and without the bling factor.
The entire ground floor groans with exquisite fresh produce – seafood, cheeses, vegetables, meats, fruit, bread, patisseries – and posh groceries, beers and ciders. Affluent Parisians shop here, but Silver Travellers can sit at one of the high tables, dotted discreetly around the emporium, and indulge in a dozen oysters, or an éclair crafted with as much love as Heloise showed Abelard.
Downstairs is the wine cellar, together with an intimate champagne bar and apparently “further hidden treasures in the vaults for more devoted connoisseurs”. I obviously wasn’t devoted enough to find those.
And on the 1st Floor you can drool over kitchen equipment, gleaming crystal and silverware that would adorn Versailles as fittingly as a small maison in Montmartre. There’s also a beautifully light and airy bistro, should all that food browsing whet your appetite for a lunch befitting the surroundings.
It was like a religious conversion for me, so I hope you’d enjoy this off-the-beaten-track gastronomic temple too.
2. The Montparnasse Tower – Avenue du Maine, 15th arrondissement
The Eiffel Tower draws tourists to it, “comme des abeilles à un pot de miel”. Not surprising, given its iconic design and closeness to the Seine.
But the lesser known “Tour Montparnasse” arguably provides better views across the whole of Paris, being located right next to the Montparnasse station in the 15th arrondissement. And definitely has shorter queues. What a shame it’s such an ugly structure, causing so much public outrage that building regulations were subsequently changed.
Completed in 1973, it stands 689 feet high and contains office space for over 5,000 Parisian workers. Visitors can pay €15 for the exhilarating 38 second lift ride up to the 56th Floor, where the whole city is spread out below you like a table-cloth for a picnic. And after a short walk up to the 59th Floor you can access the highest roof terrace in Paris.
Zut alors, what amazing views.
The graphic boards really help with orientation, although it’s quite strange trying to spot such large iconic landmarks as the Sacre-Coeur and Notre-Dame on the flattened horizon.
The size of the Montparnasse Cemetery took my breath away, as did the beauty and structure of the Jardin du Luxembourg. And you can also eyeball the Eiffel Tower to the north west, each structure co-existing like Cinderella and a Very Ugly Sister.
3. Musée de la Vie Romantique – rue Chaptal, 9th arrondissement
Far from the madding crowd, enjoy an hour in quiet exploration of this tiny piece of historic and artistic Parisian life.
Tucked away, down a narrow cobbled street in the southern foothills of Montmartre – in a district known as “New Athens” – is an exquisite property that was the home of the Dutch artist Ary Scheffer throughout the first half of the 19th century. He hosted Friday salons, with guests including Delacroix, Liszt and Rossini.
Two of his most regular visitors were George Sand and her lover Frédéric Chopin. Somewhat bizarrely, you can see a plaster cast of her right arm – and the musician’s left hand – in one of the 8 small rooms forming this understated museum.
Don’t expect the Louvre. You’ll see a collection of Ary’s paintings, some sculptures from his contemporaries and a collection of personal memorabilia for George Sand.
But free entry (although not always the case, according to Trip Advisor), an insight into genteel 19th century society in this interesting Paris location, and a delightfully peaceful tea garden make this a worthwhile detour en route to the more touristy Moulin Rouge or Montmartre.
4. Seb’on – rue d’Orsel, 18th arrondissement
Fancy a piece of real French cooking, in a small restaurant in the heart of Montmartre, with amazing food and none of the “hauteur” you get in more famous bistros?
Then head for Seb’on. Only open for 6 months, Sebastien in the kitchen, and Dorota out front, have worked culinary magic in the rue d’Orsel since opening just 6 months ago. They do everything themselves and already seem to have created a well-oiled, finely-tuned culinary machine.
In a narrow dining room with only 11 tables, the décor is simple. White-washed plaster and brick walls, a couple of mirrors, an old plaster “cabinet” displaying some wooden skittles, fire sticks, wooden balls and a glass lamp. And a couple of blackboards with the all-important – and often-changing – menu.
There are only three choices for each course. Here’s what I chose and really enjoyed on my final night in the city:
  • lentil salad with veal, a foie gras crumble and honey vinaigrette
  • supreme of chicken fermier with violette mustard, smashed potatoes with mushrooms and a (divine) chicken juice/gravy
How can such a humble chicken be elevated to such giddy, satisfying heights? And as moist as the crowd’s eyes after the guillotine has fallen on another innocent head? The smashed spud (écrasée sounds so much more exciting) – is superbly textured against smoothness of the fowl’s flesh, and is infused by a sauce that delivers a warm, satisfying depth of flavour beyond anything I’ve ever put over our Sunday roast at home.
After a few days of foodie excess, I stepped away from the sweets but those options were:
  • green lemon meringue
  • caramel and cream cake
  • mascarpone and lemon cream biscuit
Dorota speaks excellent English and there’s an English printed menu if you don’t want to fumble your way through the French blackboards.
My total bill, including a generous glass of vin rouge and a palate-stripping espresso was a reasonable €43. Magnifique.
5. Un Dimanche A Paris – Cour du Commerce St André, 6th arrondissement
Head here, in the heart of bohemian Saint-Germain, to worship at the altar of chocolate.
Tucked away, in an almost hidden cobbled street more famous for le Procope – the oldest bistro in paris – is this chocolate heaven.
Part laboratory, part shop and part restaurant, it oozes class from every sweet pore.
I was there too early for lunch, and succumbed only to a large thimble of hot chocolate so rich and perfect it should be illegal. Or used as an incentive for recalcitrant Parisian youths. Just €2.20 for a petit morceau of heaven.

 

Paris – 5 things to do off the well-trodden tourist track

Below is an article I’ve just written on Hidden Paris for Silver Travel Advisor,  a travel website for people of a certain age…..

————————————————————————————-

What do you think of when someone mentions Paris? The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, the Moulin Rouge….and 50 other sights, or museums, or galleries or bistros that everyone has on their must-do list?

But scratch the Gallic surface and you can really get to know the city, and feel that you’re seeing it more as a shoulder-shrugging local than as a Nikon-toting tourist.

Here are 5 ideas for you from a recent trip I made to this glorious city, with a few more to follow in a separate article. Some I stumbled upon myself and some I was led to by a book along the same lines (Quiet Paris by Siobhan Wall). I explored them all, in the interests of helping other Silver Travellers get off the well-beaten Parisian track:

1. Cinema La Pagode – rue Babylone, 7th arrondissement

http://www.etoile-cinemas.com/pagode/salles/

What would you do to impress the woman you love?

Take her to dinner at the hottest place in town? Whisk her away to a château in the Loire for the weekend? Paint those shelves she’s been nagging you about for 18 months?

How about building a completely authentic Japanese theatre for her in the heart of Paris, with an ornate pagoda and a romantic garden?

Photo Jardin 2

Thought not.

But that’s exactly what Monsieur Morin, a well-to-do Director of nearby posh store du Bon Marché, decided to do in the 1890s. He commissioned architect Alexandre Marcel to use the finest materials from the fashionable Orient (China & Japan, rather than Leyton) to create a little piece of surprising magic in the 7th arrondissement.

La Pagode is now a beautifully restored independent cinema, showing interesting films either in the main salle Japonaise (212 seats) or in the smaller salle 2 (180 seats).

Look for the VO sign (Version Originale) to see films in their original language, with French subtitles.

Enjoy the romance and history of this quiet place, take tea or champagne in the bamboo-forested garden before the movie….and forget that Mme Morin left her generous husband in the year of the Pagode’s inauguration.

2. Coutume – rue Babylone, 7th arrondissement

https://www.facebook.com/Coutume

CoutumeRightly or wrongly, I’ve always had the impression that the French are resistant to change. Some of their cafés and bistros, for example, cling proudly to their 19th century origins, or refuse to dust the chair Ernest Hemingway sat in for 15 minutes in 1926.

So imagine my surprise at finding somewhere in Paris that has embraced 21st coffee culture, where you can find an espresso micro-lot or an extraction à froid as lovingly prepared and à la mode as anything now on offer in the global caffeine hot-spots of Melbourne or London.

Coutume is on rue Babylone, a quiet backstreet in the 7th arrondissement. Along with your caffeine fix, you can grab an excellent breakfast or brunch….but it’s the coffee most people are here for.

It’s a very cool, understated place that immediately – though sadly only temporarily – makes you feel 20 years younger. Shabby chic décor, plain white tiles that wouldn’t look out of place in the loo, and hip music playing quietly in the background all combine in perfect harmony with your espresso from Brazilian and Burundi blended beans.

Head to the communal table and Slow Bar at the back of the café to hang out with the real coffee cognoscenti, sipping an aero-press as you swipe your tablet screen or argue about French politics.

3. L’Affineur’ Affiné – rue Notre Dame de Lorette, 9th arrondissement

You’re not going to Paris to enjoy a low-calorie, cholesterol-free, clean-living few days, are you?

Cheese, wine and bloody red meat are as de rigueur in Paris as a hamburger in NYC. Or as a lettuce leaf on a Champney’s detox break.

Sober vegetarians, tear up those Eurostar tickets now!

Take some time out to worship at the altar of cheese at L’Affineur’ Affiné on rue Notre Dame de Lorette in the 9th arrondissement, just south of Montmartre.

With over 120 fromages available, the charming young owners Morgane and Matthieu will help you decide what to buy from the shop for your picnic, or to take back on the train if you fancy an empty carriage.

But for a really good experience book a table and linger in the small restaurant for brunch or lunch. From a limited but interesting menu, I went for the 5-cheese platter. They serve up what they think is “thriving” that day, together with a matched wine, like a sommelier recommending a Monbazillac with the foie gras.

 

I enjoyed decent sized servings of Sainte-Maure (goat’s cheese from Touraine); Tartufo (truffle-infused Italian from combination of cow and sheep); Napoleon (sheep’s cheese from the Pyrenees); Munster (creamy cow’s cheese from Alsace); and Roquefort (classic creamy southern French blue from sheep milk). All with excellent, unlimited artisan breads and a fruity jam. And a green salad to delay hardening the arteries for a few hours….

Eat in the recommended sequence. Drink a glass or two of matched wine. Die happy.

4. Shakespeare & Company – rue de la Bûcherie, 5th arrondissement

Love books? Hunt down Shakespeare & Company, a place with so much literary history you can hear Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller whispering in your ear…

Now located on the city’s left bank, just opposite Notre-Dame Cathedral, there are two separate entrances.

On the left is the antiquarian book store, with musty first editions and a space so so small they ask you to respect the 5-person limit.

Next door is the main shop, crammed to the ancient rafters with English-language books and well worth a couple of hours of your Parisian time.

The current premises were opened in 1951 by American Francophile George Whitman, on the site of an early 17th century monastery. I think some of the original floor tiles may still be there…

This reincarnation was founded to carry on the legacy of the legendary Sylvia Beach, another American who set up the original Shakespeare & Company in 1919, in nearby rue l’Odéon. Here the most famous writers, artists, poets and flâneurs of the day would gather, and it was only the occupation by the Germans in 1941 that extinguished the place’s literary spirit.

Today, Sylvia Whitman carries on the legacy of both her father and Sylvia Beach, preserving a very special oasis for book-lovers amongst more notable and well-trodden Paris landmarks.

Don’t leave without buying a book. They’ll affix a special stamp, insert a poem and a little piece of history from the many writers and travellers who have spent time at Shakespeare & Company for almost the last 100 years.

5. Hidden Paris Walking Tours – www.hiddenparis.fr

I’m sure all adventurous Silver Travellers enjoy exploring a city, wandering aimlessly from museum to museum, café to café, via labyrinthine streets and alleyways in which you’ll inevitably get lost.

But sometimes it’s also good to have a little local expertise to help you find your way around an area, and to dig deeper into the local history, culture, nooks and crannies.

Hidden Paris Walking Tours provide such insight, three Parisiennes leading walks around Montmartre, Saint-Germain-des -Prés, the Latin Quarter, Belleville and the Marais.

I went on the Saint-Germain tour with Eglantine. She led me and just two other inquisitive travellers through hidden alleyways, into exquisite chocolate shops and past the house where Monsieur Guillotin lived, practising his new invention out on sheep in the cobbled street outside. She showed us the cafés and bistros where intellectuals and artists have hung out for over a century. She led us into the covered market to chat with stallholders. And she took us to an underground car park, down several levels on a dingy staircase, so that we could see some of the original city wall from the 12th century.

90 minutes for just €20, and a discretionary tip. Good value for real local knowledge…especially if you can persuade her to give you the digital key that opens the door to all their own favourite secret places in Paris.