In which our heroine actually has the day she envisaged when she first thought about going to Paris.
(This almost never happens)
And then she goes to Versailles, and finds beautiful gardens and too many tourists, but not the exit…
Wednesday, August 20th – Paris
I will confess that when I first arrived in Paris this time, I was disappointed. My last trip to Paris was incredible; my time in Norway had been magical – and, well, here I was in a much less central and beautiful part of town, and my bed and breakfast place… well, let’s just say that my hostess and I have not bonded.
[Later Catherine: I’m really struggling with what to write here, to be honest, which is one reason it’s taken me so long to get to this post. I don’t like writing negatively about people, but given that I was telling everyone about my excitement about this particular B&B before I left Australia, and I found it really uncomfortable, I don’t want anyone to think that I’m still recommending it. Suffice it to say that my hostess was a kind and well-intentioned person, her apartment was pleasant and her breakfasts were lovely, and she had absolutely no sense of boundaries. But none of this is in my diary for the simple reason that I did not trust her not to come into my room while I was out and read it.]
But right now, all this is in the past. I am sitting in the Bois de Vincennes, and my visit to Paris feels like everything I envisioned.
I started the morning with a trip to the local farmers’ market. My hostess had warned me not to expect much – most stallholders would be away on holiday – and it is true that there were a lot of gaps. But even with the gaps, the market was pretty enormous, and the produce was incredible. I have to come back, and I have to stay somewhere with a kitchen that I can use. I need to play with these ingredients!
It’s late summer here, so the market had all the beautiful berries and stonefruit that my heart could desire – redcurrants, white strawberries (I realise that they are white with red seeds, but they look exactly like someone took a lot of strawberries and wrapped them in tripe), green plums (which taste *amazing*), yellow cherries and flat peaches. There are mushrooms of many kinds, most of which I don’t recognise, though I did see pine mushrooms among them. There are artichokes and lettuces and the prettiest radishes I’ve seen in ages. There are lots of tiny, brightly hued capsciums, and big, multicoloured tomatoes – I could *live* at this market.
Then there are the cheeses. I have resisted the cheeses because there is only one of me, and many of them, but they are varied and gorgeous.
There are meat shops that sell horse – in many different cuts, too – but also quiches and pies by the slice, and potato pancakes. There are wonderful fish shops. There are, in fact, everything a picnicker could desire except for bread. Apparently, all the boulangers really are on holiday.
There are also, flirtatious grocers, which is always fun. “Everything is free for you, because you are beautiful…” “What, you are having lunch all alone? Where are you having lunch? We could have lunch all alone…”
There is a reason I always feel prettier in Paris.
Anyway, after marketing, I decided that a museum or two wouldn’t hurt, assuming I could find one that wasn’t full of other tourists (I am a snob about other tourists – well, actually, I am a snob about long queues.
I can’t think of many things in this world for which I would willingly queue all the way around the block, especially knowing that the entire contents of that queue would be in there with me…). The Conciergerie fit the bill, and also came with a ticket to the Sainte Chapelle – and since I’ve never been to the Conciergerie, that looked like a good option.
This is the old medieval royal palace, turned prison, and was where prisoners were kept, tried and prepared for execution during the Terror. So not an entirely unharrowing experience.
And yes, there were crowds. Not too appalling, but when I left and went to have a peek at the Sainte Chapelle, the queue was more than a block long, and I lost heart. I did, however, take note of the extended opening hours on a Wednesday… and the fact that these only seemed to be listed in French…
Seriously, though, I can absolutely understand why the Parisians leave in August. It’s overwhelming. And perhaps I can also understand why all the people in the shops and museums were so incredibly kind and friendly to me, despite it being horrible tourist season. All around me, I could hear people speaking English, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, and more English. I was the only one speaking French. I imagine that this is something of a relief.
Anyway, I found my way back to the Metro and headed for the Bois de Vincennes. This was the earliest of all my travel plans for Paris: a morning at the market, and then lunch and a walk in the Bois de Vincennes. And it is lovely. A huge, green park that feels a long way from the industrial areas that are in fact just around the corner.
I had my picnic lunch – entirely alone, and not with any flirty vegetable sellers, thank you – zucchini quiche, cherry tomatoes, radishes, white strawberries, green plums, and, of course, chocolate. Washed down with water.
And now I am going to go for a nice walk and see if I can find the chateau.
Thursday, August 21st – Paris and Versailles
I spoke too soon. Yesterday afternoon, I was a sick, sick Catherine. I have a pretty good idea that the little fruit with the pips that a stallholder told me were ‘excellent pour le tracte digestive’ was perhaps a little more excellence than I could handle.
I did not see the chateau, though I did walk around a very picturesque lake. I went back to my apartment, where I spent several hours feeling very sorry for myself indeed.
But I had booked dinner with friends at the fancy restaurant with the chocolate-themed menu, and there was no way I was missing this – and, moreover, I was determined to see the Sainte Chapelle, if only briefly, so out I went.
I’m not sure if the sign about late opening hours on a Wednesday was just well-hidden in its English version or completely non-existent, but it got me what I wanted – a Sainte Chapelle with no queues, and only a small number of people milling around inside it.
I always love the downstairs part best, but the soaring light on the upper storey is still beautiful. I wish I’d had more time here, but I was already running late to meet my friends.
Un Dimanche à Paris really does have a fantastic dinner menu. There is chocolate in every course, one way or another, and there are some fascinating combinations. The food is, in fact, delicious, and my only complaint would be that the chocolate is rather too subtle in some courses.
I had a beautiful mushroom salad with poached egg and cacao bean toast – it was fresh and wholesome and beautiful, but I really couldn’t taste the cacao.
My main was a very impressive veal with roast peaches, potato galette, and a fantastic green pepper and dark chocolate sauce that really was properly chocolatey. This was really good – my favourite meal in Paris so far.
I also liked the pasta with creamy white chocolate sauce that my friend had – the chocolate was fairly subtle here, but definitely present.
Dessert was a concoction involving berries, white chocolate mousse, tarragon (I think?) and meringue, which was amazing. I do like the chef’s tendency to mix herbs with chocolate in his desserts – the one we tried yesterday was similarly fruity and herby and luscious.
I’d definitely recommend this restaurant to anyone who enjoys creative food. There were good vegetarian options in each course (and I liked that they made sure you could have a three course vegetarian meal on the Prix Fixe), which is not something one can rely on in Paris. From memory, I think the gluten-free would be fairly well-served, too. Vegans are probably out of luck – like most French restaurants, this lot really like their butter and cream.
Altogether a good end to a slightly mixed day!
This morning was the bicycle tour of Versailles. Getting there was made a bit more exciting by trackworks on the metro. But look where I found myself as I came out of the station?
Also fun was the person behind the counter who looked at my email address and said “Oh, do you work at WEHI? I used to work in Microbiology.” Given how few people in Melbourne seem to know what WEHI is, I was fairly amused to run across someone in France who did. Apparently, they get a lot of Australians working in this office.
The tour group consisted of 18 people plus the guide. I was the only non-American, and apart from the guide, the only French speaker. This was… rather odd, actually.
We took the train to Versailles, then cycled into the village to buy picnic supplies at the market. I was a bit bemused by the fact that not only would my tour group not attempt to speak French, but when I (very carefully and politely) asked if a couple would like me to help interpret, as I could hear the mounting frustration and miscommunications, I was firmly refused. The strategy of speaking English louder was preferred.
(I did get a discount from the stallholder, however. I have a feeling this was the ‘Thank heavens you aren’t American’ discount. Which was nice, but also a bit sad – the Americans I know online are all lovely people, and I didn’t want to see the stereotype of the Rude American Tourist in action.)
We rode into the grounds and up to Marie Antoinette’s hamlet, where we got a history lesson, and a tour of the farm.
This is still a working farm, and oh, I loved that vegetable garden.
We also learned just a little bit too much about Louis XVI’s sex life. I think that’s going to stay with me far longer than I wanted it too.
Then we rode on to Petit Trianon…
…and to Grand Trianon, for more history.
Finally, we cycled the length of the canal to our picnic spot and a lesson on the French revolution.
And then we rode around the rest of the canal and back to the town square. “This is the only hill of the day,” our guide informed us. I must confess, I gazed at the alleged hill with my Norway-trained eyes, and smiled in a slightly patronising fashion. I didn’t even change gears.
Incidentally, it was an absolute balm to my soul after the glacier to find myself constantly at the front of the cycling pack, wanting to go faster. Maybe I am not the most unfit person in the Universe after all.
As for the grounds themselves, the guide compared them to something out of Walt Disney, and he’s not wrong. They are ludicrously pretty, larger than life, almost painfully orderly, and so very green. Also, did I mention that I really covet Marie Antoinette’s vegetable garden? I could do so much with those ingredients. I’m beginning to feel very kitchen-deprived.
Finally, we went back to the chateau itself, where we were given tickets and let loose with our autoguides.
Oh God, there were so many people. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people before. You could feel the temperature rising as you entered any room, from the heat of so many bodies. Which, I would imagine, is quite an authentic experience, because I can’t imagine it would have been much less full when the entire court was at Versailles.
I’ve never really loved Versailles, but this was really too much. I lasted ten minutes before wanting out.
And then I couldn’t get out. The autoguide takes you in one direction, and opposing the crowd is impossible. I found signs marked exit, but they all took me into walled courtyards full of people. Inside the chateau, I could see the gates, but I couldn’t reach them.
I’m afraid I medicated my profound sense of claustrophobia in the manner traditional to Catherines. I found the Laduree cafe, and went and bought the Sucré cookbook. This made me feel much calmer.
But it still took me another 45 minutes to find my way out…