Paris Series: Thaly Train to Brussels

I learned another French word, Gare du Nord. That’s French for North Station. :-) I took the train from this station which is known to be one of the busiest train station in the world. The Gare du Nord even have an airport-like departure/arrival schedule board.

[Note: About a week after I left Paris, there was a major riot in this station where a few hundred people battled the police for roughly handling an African immigrant who did not have proper papers. When I was in the station, there was a large presence of police and military armed to the teeth. I can feel the tension.]

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My plan for the day is simple. Get an early train ride into Brussels and then spend a part of the evening exploring the city. Well, I did not count on needing to book a seat — I thought that it’s just to show up at the station and then you’ll get on the next available train. For that I had to wait two hours to get on the next available train.

I thought it was just an ordinary train from Paris to Brussels but it turned out to be a TGV variant called the Thalys. They run on dedicated high-speed rail track and on certain section on the same track that EuroStar uses.

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Although I had myself a first class ticket which just costs a bit more from second class, I did not expect the comfort at all. I thought it was just only wider, more comfortable seats. For one, there were free newspapers given out by the stewardess (yeah, they had stewardess on trains!). After so many days of French, I was glad to see an English newspaper.

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They came by with some disposable wet towels. Nice touch …

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They even served food on board. This is included as part of the ticket price. I was told that there will be snacks on board but I did not expect this.

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Paris Series: Breakfast at Paul

Ooops. I said that yesterday’s blog entry was my last on Paris. Well, I found a few more photos I missed and this means you gotta bear with another Paris blog today.

Never much of bread fan, I found myself falling in love with Parisian bread. Everywhere I go in Paris, I inevitably come across the chain of bakeries called Paul. They seem to be as prevalent in Paris as McDonalds and Starbucks in North America.

They have bakeries of every size. They have small counters at train stations and there are some full fledge bakeries. They are always busy and filled with a lot of people. There was one Paul bakery that had lines that snaked out the door. Their bread and pastry looked so tasty — the variety is bewildering.

The morning I left Paris, I stopped by the Paul at the Gare du Nord station. The one thing that I remember was that there were a lot of young gypsy girls asking me if I speak English. i always sternly tell me “No, I don’t speak English”. :-) Does anyone know what they really want? Are they just asking for money?

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This Paul outlet is just a small counter which is more than good enough for me. The board list a bunch of stuff they sell. I can’t tell what is what except for the Pains — that’s bread for French. See? I did learn some French here. :-) BTW, Paul was founded 120 years ago, believe it or not.

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My fav? The baguette. There are so much I learn about the humble baguette. Did you know why baguettes are shaped the way they are? Well, apparently there is a law in France that prohibits bakeries from working before 4am. This makes it impossible to make enough bread in time for breakfasts. The long slender baguette bakes faster than the rounder bread and thus it became what it is today. Does this story sound credible? Continue reading

Paris Series: Climbing the Eiffel and Gyros Dinner

After all these days in Paris, I had not climbed the Eiffel. I was at the base of the Eiffel a couple of night before but did not climb it because I was so dead tired. This time, I timed myself to start the climb before sun sets.

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There are three platforms on the Tower. The first two floors can be reached by stairs or by lifts. Taking the elevator to the 2nd floor costs 7.80 Euros while stairs costs 4.00 Euros with double the fun.

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Climbing up Eiffel is not easy. There are signs on the tower’s trivia after couple of landing. It was interesting reading and also a good chance to catch a breather.

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The first floor has the largest platform. There is quite a few displays and exhibitions of past and recent history here. There is also a post office on this level. Weird … is there a story behind this post office?

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The view from the second floor towards the Champs de Mars Park looked so beautiful. As much as I wanted to walk all the way to the end to take a picture of the Eiffel Tower from that end, I balked at walking all the way to the end. It must have been at least 3/4 of a mile end to end.

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Paris Series: The Palace of Versailles

Did you know that the city of Versailles was virtually the unofficial capital of France in the past? It is in his royal city that the seat of government was located although the official capital is Paris and the official palace was the Louvre. Versailles is extremely rich in history. It is located about 10 miles west of Paris and can easily be reached via RER trains.

Versailles is best known for the Chateau de Versailles (the Versailles Palace). I spent a good part of a day at Versailles. I have heard a lot of this place and its grandeur but had never knew much about it. When I reached the entrance, I was practically awe-stricken. I knew it was grand but I have never imagined how huge it was until I saw it with my eyes.

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I signed up for a guided tour and knew it was well worth every Euro. It indeed was. The guide assigned to us was not just any guide but a curator of the Versailles Palace. Man, she sure knew her stuff and amazed us with the answers that we threw at her. Because there were so many people around, we were given listening devices so that we can hear everything she was saying even though we are not within earshot. People who signs up for the tours gets to a different route and different places that is not opened to the general public.

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For three generations, from Louis XIV to Louis XVI had ruled France from this grand palace. As in the Louvre the opulence from that era shows. There were precious paintings still remaining in the Versailles but most of them had been sold by the government after the French Revolution. The Versailles is trying to restore this palace to it original but it will take a lot of money and a long time, if at all possible.

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The Versailles Palace is currently undergoing extensive renovations and refurbishments. Continue reading

Paris Series: The Paris Metro and the Sacre Coeur

Getting around Paris is primarily using the Metro. The Metro in Paris (does any French people use the word Metropolitan or just Metro?) is one of the largest system in the world. I find it very bewildering reading the maps (yeah, not map but maps) of the system. London’s Tube while equally large is so easy to read because there is only 1 map and the station names are short. In Paris, there are three maps and I spend a lot of time reading it trying to get to where I wanted to go. And the pocket map they issue, they are practically useless to me because the prints are so small — it is printed in something like 3 points.

The Art Nouveau entrance to the Metro blends very well with the general architecture in Paris. It does not shout in loud bright colour “here is the the subway”. Problem is sometimes I walk past a station entrance because it was so well camouflaged!

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I had heaps of problem using the Metro. One tip … never, ever try to take the Metro during rush hours. I mean, I know that any subway system is packed during rush hours but in Paris, you’ll be lucky if you could squeeze into a train. There was once I tried to get on like a Vancouverite, I could not get on for three stops. That was when I decided I act like a Parisian, push and shove my way past everyone, ladies and old men included. If you think it was OK once I got on … no … the train was so packed that I swear that it’s worse than trains in 3rd world countries. I am not exaggerating … it was a lifting experience … my legs were practically not touching the floor!

The network uses all kinds of trains in the system — there are double deckers and trains of all shapes and sizes. Oh yeah, one quirky feature of the trains here. The doors does not automatically open, you had to pull an old fashion handle to open the doors.

One thing about the Metro though, there are a lot of stops. This makes it easy for me to get to where I want because it practically stops at the doorstep to the places I wanted to visit.

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Today’s post is primarily about the lesser known church in Paris, the Sacre Coeur. Getting to the Sacre Coeur requires a climb up a steep hill. There is a funicular railway operating on that hill. I find it amusing that this short railway is actually part of the Metro system. This must have been the shortest Metro line in the world.

Unfortunately when I was there, the system was not working. Oh … climbing that hill is not easy.

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The name Sacre Coeur means Sacred Heart. It is located in Montmartre and on top of the highest point in Paris. Paris as you have seen in my earlier pictures is flat. Unlike a lot of other European churches, the design of this church has the Romano-Byzantine influence. Does resemble more like a mosque, doesn’t it?

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One thing I did not like about the area around and outside the Sacre Coeur. There were a lot of touts and scam artists. For one, there was this group of people who wanted to draw me to their makeshift gambling table — I have seen these people at work before and they target innocent tourists. Also there were a lot of Africans who tried to stop me and wanted to loop some coloured strings on my fingers — I don’t know what the heck they actually wanted and I did not want to wait to find out. Does anyone know what’s this thing about them wanted to loop coloured strings on your fingers?

My primary intention to visit this place is the dome. The dome is opened to the public.

Before I went up the dome, I entered the church. It was the most solemn and serious church I’ve been in so far. They are very serious about keeping complete silence and have people with suits and white gloves standing everywhere reminding people to be silent. The interior is dark and looked really interesting. I did not learn much about this church because most of the signs are in french.

Getting to the top requires climbing up steep winding steps and through narrow walkways. I was thinking that it’s almost impossible for someone slightly overweight to make it through.

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At the top of the dome, the place was just filled with graffiti. This reminds me a lot of the “broken window syndrome” — have you hard of this term? It is a strategy adopted by the City of Vancouver to deal with vandalism. The theory says that a neighborhood deteriorates starting with a single broken window. If a window is broken and is not repaired promptly, then it sends a sign that people do not care and this in turn will lead to another broken window until people starts to be indifferent and the entire neighborhood just turns into a slump. This theory applies to littering, graffiti and other vandalism in general. So, someone need to care enough to quickly clean up all the graffiti in this dome. It’s a shame because now people thinks it’s OK to deface since everyone is already doing it.

I digressed … sorry.

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The view was spectacular from the top of the dome. See how flat the entire city is? I took this picture to mimic Ken’s (my photography guru) shot he showed me. So, Ken, how does this compare to yours? He he he … I think this composition is better because I used the 70-200 zoom instead of the wide angle. The Eiffel looked closer here.

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I am glad to see how much foresight the city planners have to strictly regulate the height of buildings in the city core. The wide tree lined avenues is so pedestrian friendly. Paris is a beautiful city but I felt the people need to care to deal more aggressively with the littering and graffiti that is marring their own beautiful city.

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Paris Series: Escargot Appetizer and Lunch in Latin Quarters

Now … this blog entry is about food and only about food … how’s that sound to you?

I did not expect that there were so many eateries here along the narrow streets at the edge of the Latin Quarter. I don’t really know what the street is called or the restaurant I went into. It was so hard to choose because it appears that everyone of them had such great deals. What I like is that they are fixed price menus … all around the 12-18 Euros price range for three courses.

I already know what I wanted … something I had never seen before let alone tried but had heard so much of … snails, or in a better word escargots.

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Ordering the drink is a no brainer … Perrier, the carbonated spring water bottled somewhere in France. It’s French … that’s all it matters to me. Ordered a large bottle because I was so darn thirsty. This sure beats any pop drink when you’re thirsty. This bottle is 5.50 Euros … expensive right?

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It is in France I discovered what the baguette should taste like. I mean, we had baguette at home, sometimes bought from the supermarket, sometimes Suanne baked ready made ones. They are OK and had never understood the fuss about the french loaf.

But holly molly, the baguettes I had in Paris is like a million-trillion times better … no kidding. They are so good I could have just have a meal on them alone … no spread, no butter, nothing … just plain naked baguettes. The crust are so crusty that it splinters apart breaking it. The insides is so soft and airy. I fell in love with baguette and looked forward to them at every place I went in Paris and Brussels.

Back home, I learnt that there is actually a law in French that defines what a baguette is — and that it must contain ONLY water, flour, yeast and salt. Nothing else! If the baker is to put in a single raisin, then by law it is not a baguette. Can someone from France confirm this?

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Escargot is normally served as appetizers but to me this is the main meal. There are just six pieces of small snails. I expected the snails to be bigger. They came with snails tongs and fork. I was fumbling trying to figure out how to use that thingy until some guy came over and showed me how. That looked easy enough but after he walked away, I tried again … I got it all wrong again.

I put down the tong and used my fingers instead. That was easy.

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Paris Series: Quiche Breakfast and the Notre Dame

Just across the road from my hotel was a patisserie. Unlike in England, frankly, I really don’t know where to go for breakfast. I could have breakfast in the hotel but it costs 15 Euros — too expensive for me.

So, I just went across the street to get something from the patisserie. It was my first time and I can see what the fuss were about french bakery shop. The place smells so nice and there were so many types of bread alone that it’s bewildering.

I just got something familiar — Quiche, vegetable quiche.

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I walked over to the Metro station to get a seat to eat before I head to my destination. That’s all I had for breakfast … quiche and chocolate milk. The quiche is much better than any I’ve ever tasted before. The warm pastry was so soft that it flops down. The quiche and choc milk costs 3.80 Euros.

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This is a day I planned to visit the two most famous churches in Paris, the Notre Dame and the Sacre Coeur. The Notre Dame is located on a small island on the River Seine called the ?le de la Cit? (don’t ask me how to pronounce it). It is here where Paris was founded. Compared to London’s Thames, this river seem so idyllic whereas the Thames is so chaotic.

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The word Notre Dame in French means Our Lady (Virgin Mary). Continue reading

Paris Series: The Eiffel Tower

It was a long day … I finally made it to the base of the Eiffel Tower just as sunset. Ken, my photography guru, told me to make sure I get to the Eiffel at about this time and boy, was I glad I took his advice. As I emerged from the subway station, my jaws literally dropped at the sight of the gold lighted tower.

The Eiffel Tower was the tallest building in the world when it was built 120 year ago. Back then it had just surpassed the Egyptian Pyramids in height. The tower held the world tallest title until it was surpassed many, many years later by the Chrysler Building in New York.

There are three levels. The first two levels are climbable by stairs with about 300 steps between each level. To get to the top level, one has to take a lift.

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As much as I wanted to climb the tower, I was in no shape to do so. I had just spent 5 hrs at the Louvre, walked all the way to the Champs-Elysees and then climbed Arc de Troimphe. No siree … I am going to leave that to another day. But I had a great time taking pictures … it’s so beautiful.

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These are all HDR pictures — which is so perfect in a lighting condition like these. I think there are not many pictures of the Eiffel similar to these I took. Try googling Google Images (or following this link).

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Paris Series: Champs-Elysees and Arc de Triomphe

This is another long blog entry but it has some food elements to it … not a lot but “some” :-)

After the visit to the Louvre, I started down the Axe Historique which is a line of buildings, monuments and thoroughfares. This whole line is perfectly aligned east-west. My first stop was the Tuileries Garden where it used to be a palace but was burned down. It is a Saturday afternoon and there are lots of people out on this crisp nice weather.

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Further down, the Champs ?lys?es is something else. There were so much traffic along this world famous avenue.

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This is also where the largest Louis Vuitton departmental store is located. All along the avenue are cafes, and luxury stores. I am glad Suanne is not around. :-)

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Paris Series: The Louvre

The first thing I did in the first morning in Paris was to collect the 2-Day Paris Museum Pass that I had pre-ordered from Rue de Rivoli. This pass allows me access to over 60 museums in and around Paris. This is a very useful pass to have because it allow one to avoid the queue at the ticketing office. However, you have to remember that most museums in Paris is closed on Mondays.

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My main stop for the day was the Louvre Museum. Continuously built over 500 years and previously a palace, the Louvre is one of the largest art gallery and museum in the world. The latest extension is the Louvre Pyramid built less than 20 years ago.

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You have to be there to see for yourself the immense size of the Louvre — what you see below is just a part of the Louvre. There are more behind the back facade.

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At the west end is the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel which was built by Napolean. This is the start of the long wide avenue leading all the way to the Arch de Triomphe 9 km away.

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The Louvre Pyramid is the main entrance to the Louvre. There were tight security checks the day I was there where most bags were checked.

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