Well it is January so I guess it’s to be expected that it would be cold and wet. The temperature was well below 10C and the rain rained at regular intervals. But that didn’t stop us having a great trip. We visited museums and art galleries, strolled through parks, saw some of the classic places of interest, and, of course, sampled the food and drink for which Paris is world famous.
We were last in the French capital a little over two years ago, in December 2014. And as then, we travelled by Eurostar. What other way is there to travel to Paris when you live in London. But we were in for a very nice surprise. I’ve been travelling on this route since it started way back in 1994. In those days, it was mostly for business but, since retiring, the journeys have been strictly for pleasure. And Paris has lots of pleasure to offer. However, at the time of our last trip, the original rolling stock was beginning to look a little tired, or more accurately, scruffy. This time however, those days had gone and we travelled in new coaches with fresh, tasteful décor and more comfortable seats. A much more pleasant experience.
The trip didn’t start well. When we got to our local railway and tube station. There were crowds of people waiting for a District Line train in to London, and no sign of a train. The station staff had no idea as to when a train would arrive. So, we crossed over to the mainline service, along with many in the crowd, and were crammed like sardines into the next train. No chance of a seat, just plenty of sweaty armpits. At Vauxhall, where we changed to the Victoria Line, the crowds were even denser and we had to let four trains go before Margaret could get on. I followed on the next train. We had anticipated this split journey scenario, so the agreed strategy of staying on the platform at Kings Cross/St Pancras worked.
Once we were through ticket checks, UK exit passport control, France entrance passport control and security checks, we were ready for a seat and some coffee. The train was soon called and we were on our way to La Belle France.
As the title of this blog post suggests, the trip had serious amounts of “déjà vu”, and no bad thing. There are so many things in Paris that really can be visited over and over again and still give lots of pleasure and new surprises. This trip was to be no exception.
We’ve taken to staying in Montparnasse district but never twice in the same hotel. Getting to know different streets in the same general locale is a delight in itself. This time we chose well. The Hotel le Chaplain Paris Rive Gauche, is less than two minutes walk from the Vavin Metro station which is on Ligne 4 direct from Gare du Nord. It is located on a quite side street but just a few steps away from a busy junction with no less than seven café bars (three visited) and an Irish pub (unvisited). And, most importantly for us, but six minutes from Chez Bebert, our favourite North African restaurant and three minutes from La Coupole, the very chic brasserie that specialises in seafood.
Chez Bebert did not disappoint for our first evening meal. The place appeared to be full from outside but they found us a table straightaway. As with all the tables in Berber, they are very small but we were lucky to be given a four-seater arrangement so could actually stretch out a little. The menu is simple, either tagine or couscous, with lamb or chicken or both. We chose couscous and, within seconds, a large plate of couscous appeared quickly followed by another even bigger plate of gently casseroled vegetables that included chunky carrots, potatoes and celery. Added to this were two bowls, one of chickpeas and one of white beans. All the vegetables had been cooked in spicy broth. There was also a side dish of harissa to add more heat to suit the palate. And to wash all of this down we had chosen a carafe of Moroccan White and another of Moroccan Red. So within less than five minutes of arriving we were digging in to very tasty food. The meats we had chosen obviously took a little more preparation but even they arrived within about another five minutes.
Our first full day dawned wet and cold. A very short walk took us to one of the café bars at the nearby major crossroads. Breakfast consisted of coffee and fresh bread with jam. Then it was across the road and down into the Metro. We’d decided to revisit the magnificent Frank Gehry designed Fondation Louis Vuitton. Here are a few words from our last visit.
The Fondation Louis Vuitton is a brand new cultural centre built by the wealthiest family business in France. It’s located in the vast urban park of the Bois du Boulogne right next to the Jardin d’Acclimatation, a recreational area with everything from donkey riding to petting llamas. When we visited it was exactly a month old.
The building is the work of the renowned architect Frank Gehry. The galleries, auditorium, shop and general public areas are relatively conventional spaces. The outstanding part, from an architectural perspective, is the outer shell which is made out of massive curved sheets of glass that give the overall impression of a large ship ploughing through the ocean. The verisimilitude is enhanced by a water feature that makes one think of rolling waves and, along part of one side, is a large bubble of glass containing golden, papier-mâché or moulded plastic fish. The whole building must be over 200 metres from end to end and 100 metres across.
Visitors are encouraged to go out onto the roofs of the galleries which are of varying heights and interlinked by staircases and causeways. You can virtually walk from bow to stern of the “ship” at a high level. It also gives the opportunity to view and admire the steel and wood structures that support the glass of the outer skin. Scattered along the roofs are small beds of shrubs and a few trees. And should you want a wider perspective, there are gaps that give views out over Paris. Of particular note are the Tour Eiffel and the skyscrapers of La Défense.
Apart from one gallery devoted to architectural models of the construction project, the other galleries were all closed to the public whilst an exhibition was being hung. This lack of specific distractions gave us time to descend to the lowest floor. From here you could look out towards the waves of water coming towards the prow. And, as if this isn’t enough, along one side at this lowest level and stretching about half the length is an installation piece by the world-renowned Danish artist Ollafur Elasson. It consists of columns made up of rectangles of yellow light and mirrors and the columns are arranged in a gentle curve that follows the line of the ship’s hull. A stunning end to a memorable visit.
The first thing we noticed on the approach to the building this time, was that many of the glass panels were now coloured to give a chequerboard effect. This turned out to be an exhibition in its own right, the work of the French conceptual artist Daniel Buren. It is called “The Observatory of Light”. To quote from the publicity :-
The twelve “sails”, formed of 3,600 individual pieces of glass, are covered by a staggering array of coloured filters that are in turn punctuated, at equal distances from one another, by alternating white and blank stripes perpendicular to the ground. The thirteen selected colours make coloured forms appear and disappear, ever-changing with the time of day and with the season.
Unfortunately, it being a very dull day and heavily overcast, there was almost no natural light even in the middle of the day. Still the colours looked great.
After a half hour queue in the rain (the Fondation provided umbrellas for those who needed them) we got to the ticket desk and then into the building. The entrance lobby was busy so we headed straight for the main exhibition. This was entitled “Icons of Modern Art” and is from the collection of Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin, a Russian businessman of the late 19C and early 20C who collected, amongst other works, a large portfolio of impressionist art. He became very friendly with Matisse and many of his paintings are in the collection. Other artists’ works included Monet, Degas, Cézanne and Gaugin. A veritable display of the great artists of that time.
The exhibition was displayed in more than ten galleries moving ever higher up the building until we were at the roof level. Although it was raining and the canopies of the “sails” did not cover the whole open area, it was a relief to leave the crowds behind and have a bit of space. And, to help us even more, there was a counter selling hot coffee. Being Paris, the coffee was excellent and we sat in a sheltered spot and enjoyed the vistas over the city and, much closer to home, the colouring of the glass panels.
We left the building by an exit into the surrounding grounds and walked through the adjoining Jardin d’Acclimatation back, through the rain, to the main drag of the Avenue Charles de Gaulle. Here we found a small café for a snack of Croque Monsieur and a soupcon of vino. Emboldened by the vino, we decided to strike out across the River Seine towards La Defense but were soon turned back by the force of the wind and the wetness of the rain. A quick retreat to the Pont de Neuilly Metro station saw us en route back to our hotel.
In advance of this trip, a table had been booked at La Coupole for this evening. We’ve got into a bit of a rut but it’s a rut we are in no hurry to get out off. On every trip to Paris we have to make a visit to La Coupole, a classic French brasserie where time has stood still. It’s so popular that we have got into the habit of making a reservation at the same time as we book our hotel and travel.
When you arrive, there is a reception desk where they check your reservation and take coats. They don’t reserve specific tables although I’m sure regulars can have favourite tables. We were quickly shown to a table and introduced to our waiter, a cheerful middle-aged man who provided excellent, friendly service. We chose to eat from the “Josephine” menu which meant that a glass of champagne arrived with a crab appetiser whilst we selected our starters and main courses. Margaret chose a dish of gratiné scallops whilst I had oysters. For both of us this was followed by a dish based on Monk fish. Half was a substantial piece of grilled Monk fish on a crispy risotto and the other part was a Monk fish potato cake in a lobster bisque. All absolutely delicious. The only negative comment about the whole evening was the number of time the lights were dimmed, all table service stopped and a sparkling birthday cake was carried by a team of waiters to the birthday boy or girl. After the seventh occurrence patience started to wear a little thin.
After a stop on the way back to the hotel for coffee and Calvados, it was time for bed.