Posted in Europe, France, Paris

Paris, je t’aime – Day 4


24 March, 2010

Another busy day began, finally, with visiting the Louvre. We walked into the courtyard and right up to the glass pyramid, which is maybe even more famous than the Louvre itself thanks to The Da Vinci Code, and got inside.

We bought our tickets and decided to see the Venus de Milo first of all. We spent quite some time looking for it, but in the meantime had the opportunity to view other Greek and Roman sculptures. I have to mention that we recognised the Venus from afar – by the great number of people around it.

That’s when we realised that it was a good idea to find the Mona Lisa immediately, while it was still pretty early, because later there would be an incredible pandemonium around it; and after that take our time and see some less popular paintings. And it paid off – there was already an impressive crowd gathering around the Mona Lisa by the time we found it, and later we wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere close to it. As one Russian guy said to another: “In a crowd like this you can’t really find the hidden meaning behind this painting!” But judging by the photos that I made, the meaning was hidden in the bald head of a man, which was reflected in the painting’s glass 😀

After enjoying La Gioconda for a while, we took our time to see some Italian, and then Spanish paintings (and the latter, we enjoyed the most). In the end we went upstairs to see the Dutch School representatives.

I would say, the optimal time spent in the Louvre should be no less than three days. And spending the whole day there, I believe, would be too tedious, and impressions would get all mixed up. As for a half-day visit, you can either gallop around the museum and not really see anything, or, as we did, choose beforehand what you most want to see, and devote your time to it. By the way, I was impressed by the large number of Russian tourists in the Louvre.

As we were done with the Louvre, we went to Monmartre. Mom was grumbling about the need to climb to the Sacrè-Cœur Basilica, but it was totally worth it, because the stairs were really beautiful, and the view on the city from there was magnificent. Plus, I have to admit that we hadn’t been able to find the funicular. Even despite the fact that, while we were standing near the metro station on Place Pigalle, feeling lost and staring at the map, an elderly lady came up to us and offered her help, and when we asked her how to get to the Sacrè-Cœur, she replied that there was “un petit bus” somewhere around (obviously, she meant the funicular), which accepted normal tickets for public transport and it was better to use it, otherwise there were too “beaucoup d’escaliers”.

Generally, Monmartre is an amazing place! Narrow cobbled streets, a huge number of cafes, street artists, a fabulous view of Paris … By the way, Montmartre is part of that very 18th district, which I didn’t like on the way from the airport. I found the Sacrè-Cœur a lot more beautiful than the Notre-Dame on the outside.

In the evening I met my Azeri friend once again and we went to the Latin Quarter to have dinner. It is also a very interesting and colourful place. Narrow streets are packed with endless restaurants – French, Italian, Greek, Chinese, Korean, in other words, anything you may wish; in front of each there is necessarily a tout, trying to persuade passers-by that their restaurant is definitely worth visiting immediately. After we already had dinner, I found that one of the restaurants on the Saint-Sévérin street served fried frog legs. So tomorrow I will come here again!

Posted in Europe, France, Paris

Paris, je t’aime – Day 3


23 March, 2010

There wouldn’t be need to write anything if the day hadn’t been somewhat… well, stupid. It started quite sensibly though. We took the good old city sightseeing bus again, as the ticked was valid for 48 hours (and thus, the whole previous day we had been using it as public transport, circling and circling around the same places), intending to go to the Arc de Triomphe. But then, just as the day before, our plans changed en route. We learned from the driver that the Seine cruise tickets could be purchased directly from him and decided not to waste time while the weather was so lovely. We got off near the Eiffel Tower and went down to the Seine. Having already bought the tickets, we successfully avoided a very long queue, which included an unimaginable number of school-age children – mostly British, interspersed with a few German and French kids – in short, a pretty noisy crowd.

On the boat we were accompanied by a guide, who was making comments in French, English, Spanish and Italian. An hour later, we disembarked near the Eiffel Tower (again!) and started thinking of the quickest way to get the Champs Elysees (Attention, the first and stupidity of the day is about to begin!).

The idea to take the tour bus again was rejected by me, as in this case we would have to make almost a full circle. The idea to walk was rejected by Mom – although, as it turned out later, it would have been the best one.

Then I suggested taking the tube, as it looked like we’d get there with no changes. So, we reached the station, the sign above which read «RER», with a notice that the Métro station was 300 metres away. We followed the indicated direction until we ended up in a really stupid place, and there was no tube station in sight. I said we should go back to the RER station and take the train there – for some reason it got in my head that it was an RER line indicated on the map, rather than a tube line. Naturally, it turned out that the RER wasn’t going to the Place de l’Etoile from there! We had to try walking in the direction of the sign once again and ask how to get to the tube, and we found out that we had to walk about fifty more metres from the aforementioned “stupid place”. Well, who would have known that the station called «Bir-Hakeim – Tour Eiffel», which was supposed to be the closest one to the Eiffel Tower, was actually a mile and a day away from it?! And then we had to walk even more under the ground until the Arc de Triomphe exit. By the way, the Paris Métro was not particularly impressive.

On top of all the “joys” of the day, I got stuck in the turnstile! I’m sure that the ticket was validated normally, because I saw the words: «Reprenez votre billet», and so I had to push the turnstile, and then the double door gates. Now, the turnstile worked as it should, but the gate simply wouldn’t open! In the end, I somehow managed to slip through a crack between the gates.

When we eventually reached the Champs Elysees, it was already lunchtime in full swing, so we decided to find a restaurant. Among those rejected was an Italian restaurant (it’s ridiculous to go to one in Paris!) and the famous «Fouquet’s» (too few dishes on the menu for too high a price). Looks like we made the correct choice in the end: we really enjoyed the «Chez Clément» restaurant with its nice interior a lot. And most importantly… they had oysters! I was even able to explain what we wanted to the waitress in French. I asked her which ones were the best. She replied that she didn’t eat oysters, but usually the largest ones are the most delicious, and the largest oysters on the menu were the Creuse de Bretagne № 2. She brought us the oysters – six large molluscs on a bed of crashed ice, with vinegar and lemon. The taste was very original. I find it hard to say with certainty how much I liked them, but at least they weren’t disgusting. They had a mucus-like texture and tasted somewhere between black caviar (mind you, I’m no oligarch, it’s just that I come from a country where black caviar is quite abundant and relatively cheap!) and pickled herring (especially if eaten with vinegar).

After lunch, we tried to do some shopping on the Champs Elysees, but weren’t really in the mood for that. Plus, in one of the stores – attention, another stupidity! – I nearly left my camera in the dressing room.

So we decided to walk to the hotel, via the Place de la Concorde and Rue de Rivoli.

Once back in the hotel, I called a friend to meet him in the evening. We met at Saint Germain des Près, where I arrived without incidents this time, albeit in a terrible rush hour.

We wandered through the neighbourhood a bit and then took a tube to the Trocadero square in order to take photos of the Eiffel Tower illuminated by night. And it was really beautiful! It turned out that it sparkles with lights for five minutes every hour, and we arrived just in time to see that. The Trocadero was crowded, much more than in daytime.

Posted in Europe, France, Paris

Paris, je t’aime – Day 2


22 March, 2010

It was a long and rich day full of impressions! It began at 9 am, when we left the hotel after the breakfast. The original plan to go to the Louvre was dropped immediately, because the weather was delightful and promised to stay delightful all day, so spending a day indoors would have been a sin!

And so we walked to the quay of the Seine, and decided to go to the Champs Elysees from there, but this plan was soon changed as well, and we headed to the Eiffel Tower.

The road to the tower was not much impressive, but something strange happened there. Some dodgy-looking guy rushed towards us with a gold ring, asking if it was ours. After he learned that it wasn’t, he began actively trying to foist it on us, pointing at its countersign and insisting it was genuine. And then he began to beg for money to buy a sandwich and a Coke. When we asked a completely fair question on why he wouldn’t take the ring instead and sell it, he said that he was a Baptist. Somehow he managed to wheedle 4 euros out of us (yes, I always knew that the word “DUPE!” was written in large letters on my forehead). As for the ring, we decided to throw it out of harm’s way, as the whole story seemed too suspicious. Thinking back now, I realise that there wasn’t need to worry too much – the ring, according to its weight, was not gold at all, and most probably this is a common scam.

Then we walked to the Eiffel Tower without any incidents. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the chance to go up, as the queue was unbelievable and we didn’t want to waste time standing in it. Especially that there were a lot of gypsy beggars scurrying around, soldiers with weapons, and more dodgy guys selling Eiffel Tower figurines and trying to palm them off on us. However, at some point they suddenly started off to run somewhere simultaneously! Most likely, they were running from the police, but my mom’s comment really made me laugh: “Where are they running? Did anyone tell them that more dupes had arrived?”

The Eiffel Tower itself made me want to take an infinite number of pictures of it. And the sight of this beauty was simply breathtaking. However, if you look closer, the tower doesn’t have any special beauty. By essence, it is a pretty ugly construction. So, I think that its beauty is a purely psychological phenomenon – it is the main symbol of Paris, one of the world’s major attractions, so our eyes are used to considering it beautiful.

After viewing the tower on all four sides and at least a dozen of photos made, we decided to take a bus tour around the city, taking advantage of the good weather (quite unusually, it didn’t start raining with wind, as it always happens when I get in an open-topped tour bus!). And this, I must say, was a very good idea. Such tours should always be taken at the very beginning of one’s stay in a city – it allows to understand its structure and logic, and at the same time to determine the places that you want to visit later. Especially that there are always places that you generally do find interesting, but seeing them from the bus is just enough, and in the future you don’t have to spend time on visiting them. For example, the Place de la Concorde, which we drove through so many times that we definitely didn’t want to visit it separately.

We got off near the Notre Dame Cathedral, looking for a place to eat, but for some reason couldn’t find anything other than sandwiches and croque-monsieurs. So we had to get on the bus once again and head to the Galeries Lafayette.

This area is somewhat like the City of London, where the majority of people are wearing suits and there are lots of banks around – Commerzbank, BNP Paribas, etc. We managed to find a restaurant here.

Looking through the menu, I came across a dish called «Rôti de chapon aux cèpes avec Gratin Dauphinois», and became interested, because I had previously heard of Gratin Dauphinois being a very tasty potato dish. I had no clue what “chapon” was, though, so I asked the waiter. He replied that it was “le coq”, and mimed the process of castration. By the way, the poor cockerel tasted quite good, and the Gratin Dauphinois was absolutely fabulous!

After lunch, replete and happy, we continued our tour bus, to go back to Notre Dame de Paris and get inside. As there was still plenty of time before the 6 pm mass, which we very much wanted to attend, we decided to get off near the Eiffel Tower once again and have a cup of coffee in one of the outdoor cafes.

Then we caught another bus and headed directly to Notre Dame de Paris. On the way, I made a few observations. First, it is the love of the French for their flag. It seems to be everywhere: not only over every state institution, but also over all billboards.

Secondly, it is the huge number of motorcycles on the roads, I’ve never seen that many before! And most importantly, they tend to rush at a crazy speed!

And third, I noticed that the names of shops, cafes and hotels are directly dependent on the location. For example, they are all called “Madeleine” in the neighbourhood of the Madeleine Church, or “Notre Dame” in the area of Notre Dame de Paris.

Speaking about the Notre Dame Cathedral, initially, we were prepared to stand in a long queue for an 8-euro ticket. As we approached the tail of the queue, we noticed a sign, saying that there was no point in joining the queue, as that was it for the day. We got very upset, but then decided to ask how to get to the mass, and found out that the entrance was through the church, and it was free! Frankly, I didn’t understand what these guys in the queue were planning to pay 8 euros for, because inside, we were able to view everything free of charge. Actually, “free” is a bit of an overstatement, as we had to spend money on candles, and metal medals “for luck”, and the entrance to the treasury of the church, and the donation after the mass.

The treasury was well worth the three euros paid for it – it had amazingly beautiful goblets, finger rings, busts of various archbishops, as well as objects of unknown purpose, probably just for decoration.

We highly enjoyed the mass itself too. The service started with vespers at 17.45, followed by the mass at 18.15. Everyone was given sheets of paper with the lyrics of hymns and psalms in Latin and French. Since, wishing to see everything well, we sat in one of the front rows, we had to sing along with everyone. But it all sounded truly divine! The next part mostly consisted of preaching and talking about the biblical Susanna and the two elders, occasionally interrupted by chants such as «Kyrie Eleison».

Generally, looking at all this, I come to the conclusion that if I was a believer, I’d certainly be a Catholic. Because only Catholic churches, services and rituals make me feel awe, albeit minimal. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that I would be able to listen to stories of Susanna, the elders, and others like them with sincere reverence.

Leaving 2 euros as a donation, we left the cathedral just in time to catch the last tour bus, which dropped us off at the Grand Opera, from which we had to walk to our hotel. Once near the Boulevard des Capucines, we decided to have dinner somewhere. Seeing «Le Grand Café des Capucines», I got quite excited about oysters in the menu exposed in front of the cafe, but my mom flatly refused to try them. For the sake of revenge, I suggested Pizza Hut, where the pizza was very, very mediocre.

Posted in Europe, France, Paris

Paris, je t’aime – Day 1


Since I’m not travelling anywhere right now, I decided to dig out some of my old writings. Unfortunately, the photos aren’t as good as the ones in my posts about China – I didn’t have a very good camera back then, and my photography skills were much worse than now too. Voilà:

21 March, 2010

Here is the city of dreams – Paris, ladies and gentlemen! It starts with the Charles de Gaulles airport, with its moderately “jemenfoutiste” (something like “I-don’t-give-a-damn-ist”) staff, who don’t bother doing any unnecessary inspections.

The road from the airport is quite far from dreams, and so is the 18th district, through which we have to drive: dusty worn signs, dirty buildings…

It doesn’t take too long to get to the centre, or, more precisely, the Grand Hôtel du Palais Royal, where we will be staying. The staff here speaks English pretty willingly, thus saving me from unnecessary embarrassment – I am still somewhat scared to speak French.

But right after that, in a restaurant, I have no other choice than to do so. And I realise that I am understood – which is really good! Waiters in Paris restaurants (so far, on the particular example of the Les Fontaines de Saint Honoré restaurant) are totally unlike their, say, London colleagues – they are more fun, more bustling and more relaxed at the same time. So, cheerfully, bustlingly and relaxedly, they served us the famous French onion soup. The whole idea of an onion soup arouses scepticism among some people, but in fact it is something incredible… A thick rich broth + pieces of bread floating in it + melted cheese = something delicious and amazing. Yum!

We were taken for Spanish, and when we explained that we actually came from the former Soviet Union, for some reason all the waiters came into enthusiasm and even said: “Spasibo!”

After lunch we went out to scout the territory. It turned out that the Louvre was literally a few steps away from our hotel.

I was feeling quite stunned by the fact that everyone around was speaking French! I find it hard to break the mental barrier and start speaking it too yet. On the other hand, when I do, I see that it’s considered absolutely normal. That is, the French perceive foreigners speaking French to them as a totally natural thing.

So we walked from the Louvre to the Paris Opera (which we didn’t recognise at once – it looked like the Paris Opera, but the deceptive inscription read “Académie Nationale de Musique”), and then turned to the Boulevard des Capucines. This is a very busy street, with endless bistros, cafes and restaurants, with a smooth and imperceptible transition into the Boulevard des Italiens.

On our way back we dropped in a drugstore to buy some water and toothpaste. I couldn’t find toothpaste immediately, but just as I wanted to “show off” my language skills and ask “Est-ce que vous avez du dentifrice?”, I immediately noticed it.

In the evening, after a good nap, I met with an Azeri friend and we made the same route once again, ending up in the Bistro Romain on the Boulevard des Capucines. My friend strongly advised me to try carpaccio – thinly cut slices of raw beef or salmon, with some sauce. Surprisingly, I liked it.

And of course, I should mention the wine served everywhere – it is magnificent! It has none of the bitterness we are accustomed to, it is full of fruity aroma, in fact it has a “bouquet”, as wine experts call it.

Posted in Asia, China, Hong Kong

Trip to China – Hong Kong – Day 6


31 March 2012, Saturday

This morning, as we had been doing it every previous day, we took a tram to the Causeway Bay station. Today was our last day in Hong Kong – the day of wrap-up.

The first thing in our “to do list” was a hunt for the sailing junk – our “Scarlet Sails” – in order to take a photo of it against the background of skyscrapers. We had been waiting for this moment since our arrival, as on the very first day here we found out that it usually runs along the coast on Saturdays. After we had waited for a while, there they finally were (and not just one!), so I could make a lot of pictures. The view on the photos turned out to be truly symbolic, connecting the traditional and ultra-modern Hong Kong.

When we had just arrived in Hong Kong and looked at the map, it seemed to us that everything was very complicated: a peninsula, a number of islands… Later, after several tours around the city, we kind of got an overall picture of the local topography in our heads, but still were looking at people scurrying on the crowded streets with a bit of envy and wonder – how did they manage to find their ways? But yesterday and today, finally, we decided to delve into the tangled streets of Hong Kong (the island) and Kowloon ourselves.

To be honest, at least in the centre of Kowloon, they weren’t so tangled after all – there were lots of signs and maps everywhere, with an obligatory note saying “You are here”. Following the directions provided, we walked along Salisbury Road and turned onto Nathan Road. The latter is a place where brand stores with sky-high prices peacefully coexist with fake handbags and watches, the falsity of which is not being concealed though – we were literally attacked by several touts (mainly Indian) shouting: “Copy watches, handbags!”

After walking quite a bit, we came across a Shanghai restaurant. Tasting local specialties was exactly part of our “squaring away” – yesterday we tried the shark fin soup, so we still had abalone (edible see snail) and bird’s nest for today. Just to be on the safe side we decided to split the remaining two between lunch and dinner, and to take a different more familiar dish as well each time, just in case the Chinese delicacies turn out totally inedible.

Luckily, the menu of the Shanghai restaurant had an abalone dish (in fact, it is rather a Cantonese specialty). As opposed to the beef (our “safe” dish), which was served in a huge portion, the more expensive abalone dish literally consisted of four slices (each one in the size of a salami slice). The taste was somewhat similar to tender veal, but with a distinct marine flavour.

After lunch, everything we were doing made us think “Here is our last MTR ride”, “This is the last time we are taking the Hong Kong tram”, etc… Interestingly, even though I enjoyed Beijing a lot and saw a lot of unusual and interesting things there, I don’t really have the desire to visit it again. As for Hong Kong, I would so much want to come back and even to live here for some time.

Living here would be good, while living well would be even better. When we had been told that on weekends people were queuing for brand boutiques and jewellery stores, we considered that it was just said for effect. And then we saw this with our own eyes –  despite the fact that there were gobs of jewellery stores here, many of them belonging to multi-branched chains (so multi-branched that there might be 5-10 shops of chains like Lukfook, Chow Tai Fook, Chow Sang Sang on one single street!). And you simply can’t take your eyes off the show-windows with jewellery made of pure gold, or with large pearls, selected jadeite, yellow diamonds, resplendent rubies, sapphires, emeralds, with prices reaching millions. And passing by, we saw that not only weren’t the shops empty, but there were quite a lot of customers at the counters.

On our way back to the hotel, in the overground passage, we observed a “genre scene”: we suddenly heard a clang of breaking glass and saw a red liquid spill. It turned out that one guy accidentally bumped into another and knocked a plastic bag with a bottle from his hands. Immediately, the wronged guy cried “Hey!”, grabbed the offender by the collar and hit his head full throttle against the window. Luckily, it looked like window glasses here were resistant to fights like these. We didn’t stay to see the further wrangles, but the hit guy didn’t try to fight back, looked quite guilty and was clearly preparing to fork out.

Another “loose end to tie up” was visiting a massage parlour. This is also one of local shticks; we had read the most positive reviews in the internet about massage in Hong Kong. We had been planning it for a couple of days, but somehow didn’t have time, so on the last day firmly decided to try it, especially that the nearest parlour was just around the corner from the hotel.

Full body massage took 50 minutes and cost 250 HKD. The massage was purely therapeutic, not relaxing, but quite harsh and sometimes painful (especially in some parts, like neck and lower back, which tend to ache). I was placed face down on a coach and massaged through a towel, by a fragile-looking lady.

Finally, the last item on our agenda was trying bird’s nest for dinner (known as “swallow’s nest”, although in fact only a few species of swifts produce edible nests – they build them not of twigs or clay, but of their own saliva). We didn’t know this fact, so were expecting something hard and even crunchy. However, we were served some white mucous gruel, with sweet almond juice (that was what we ordered, but there are also savoury versions of this dish, always liquid though).

This is the end of our Hong Kong journey, time to lock the suitcases and leave for the airport…