Paris in the snow

Sunday 24th February 2013, Paris
Tonight we are in a tiny flat belonging to Geneviève’s brother Yves. It has served as home to his sons at various times over the past decade during their University education at the Sorbonne. So we are in the heart of the student quarter surrounded by small bars and modest restaurants, lively at night and altogether a very pleasant area of Paris.

Our room is no larger than our bedroom back home with a tiny en suite bathroom and kitchen with a hotplate and microwave. This evening we went for a stroll around the quartier returning with spinach quiche, croissants and a bottle of wine for supper. One thing we forgot. Yves does not drink at all! Nowhere could we find a bottle opener. We did though find his tool kit. Did you know you can open a wine bottle with a hook screwed into the cork and then levered up with a screw driver?

Our journey here was horrid. We left Caen after lunch, Geneviève giving us a lift to the station across town. It cost us considerably more for the return fare to Paris for the two of us – with a discount for pensioners – than we paid for our channel crossing with Modestine and a free cabin. And even that cost more than a return flight from Bristol to Beziers in the south of France on a good day! Kate is hoping to fly out to see us in a few weeks from now and it seems one can find a return flight for around £50 -£60!! Today’s little journey was well over £100 for the two of us.

The train was packed. We sank thankfully into a couple of adjacent seats only to discover they were all reserved and we were obliged to stand for the entire two hour journey to St. Lazare. Around us youths slept peacefully while we ancient travellers learned to sleep on our feet, squashed to the side every time anyone needed to squeeze past. Eventually, thirty minutes outside of Paris a kind mum took pity on me and sat her daughter on her lap so I could sit down. Ian was less lucky.

As we left the metro station and made out way through the back streets searching for Yves flat we encountered Etienne and Audrey hurrying to the metro, having used the flat over the weekend. They’d left the heating on for us. Our meeting was very brief but a delight. They were returning to Geneva where Audrey works and Etienne is job hunting having recently gained his PhD in chemistry. It felt good to encounter friends in Paris by chance.

Over the past few days in Caen we have already seen several friends. We arrived late on Thursday evening. Friday morning we braved the icy cold to shop at the marché St. Sauveur. In the evening Claire and Bertand joined us for supper returning home in the first flurries of snow. Next day the streets and gardens were hidden beneath a blanket of snow. It has continued like that ever since. Today the snow was still falling and the neighbouring cats looked decidedly annoyed with the cold and the wet as they attempted to catch the blackbirds sheltering beneath the garden hedge.

Snow in the garden, Caen

The flat here is near the bottom of the rue Mouffetard with its many tiny Turkish and Greek restaurants. We have explored the area before, in warmer weather, without realising Yves owned a flat nearby. We’d chatted with some of the students while enjoying a beer. They have all been positive about living here and we can appreciate why. We are so lucky to have the opportunity to discover student life in Paris, albeit rather late in the day!

Thursday 28th February 2013
Today has been our last day here. It has been freezing cold the entire time but we have braved the temperature to explore Paris from edge to edge. It really is a city small enough to walk across though there are so many fascinating things to discover along the way that generally we tend to explore area by area. There is still so much to see.

Conciergerie, Paris

Winter in Paris

Panthéon, Paris

On Monday half the museums are closed. On Tuesday the other half are closed. This can be a good idea but somehow everything we wished to visit on Monday was closed – even if we expected it to be open.

2013 marks the 850th anniversary of the cathedral of Notre Dame. To celebrate, new bells have been cast. They are on display standing in the main aisle of the cathedral and make an impressive site. Each one is huge, even the smallest weighs over a ton while the largest weighs nearer five tons. They were cast in Villedieu-les-Poêles in Normandy, about which the region is duly proud. Each bell has been given a name, usually that of the godparent. Apparently all church bells have godparents who have paid substantially towards the cost of casting. The existing bells have lost their tone over the years, becoming cracked and harsh. The new ones aim to recapture the original sound. Quasimodo would be delighted.

Towers of Notre Dame, Paris

New bells, Notre Dame, Paris

Bell Anne Geneviève, Notre Dame, Paris

Our exploration of the Marais, one of the oldest quarters of Paris, proved fruitless for open museums but we discovered the Jewish quarter with a genuine pizzeria selling kosher pizzas approved by the local rabbi! That’s a first for us! We decided to lunch in a Jewish coffee shop selling bowls of chicken soup and kosher rolls. It was pleasant but expensive and Ian felt slightly conspicuous without a skullcap. The atmosphere was pleasant and welcoming.

Genuine Jewish Pizzeria, Paris

Throughout the day the snow continued falling. Once we got used to the cold and stopped gazing hopefully into the dark and steamy interiors of the thousands of little bars selling hot coffees we found we could walk far more briskly than on a sunny day. Heading north is the canal St Martin which winds through streets of huge old houses and flats eventually widening out into the Bassin de la Villette with several barges and a few pleasure craft. Nearby, in the former mortuary of Paris, the centre of Modern Art, Cent-Quatre was also closed. We did though discover the Buttes de Chaumont, a huge park on rising ground with a lake and an island. Even in the falling snow the steep allées of dark green pines were lovely and there were excellent vistas back over the city.

Buttes de Chaumont in the snow, Paris

On Tuesday we discovered all the other museums we wished to see were closed. We gave up and wandered off in search of the Eiffel Tower. It is visible from all over the city until you start looking for it. The nearer you get the more difficult it becomes to find, lurking behind the towering blocks of flats that crowd in the streets of the city.

Of course searching for the tower was just an excuse. We explored the Hôtel de Ville de Paris, with its skating rink in front, the Champs de Mars, the Eiffel Tower, built for the International Exhibition of 1889, intended to last for twenty years and now being renovated and an extra floor added!

Looking up inside the Eiffel Tower to the new floor being constructed, Paris

We crossed the Seine, watched the bateaux mouches plying their way along the river, walked along beneath the Palais de Chaillot passing the Pont d’Alma where a few wilting flowers still recall the tragedy of the road accident that killed Diana, Princess of Wales. We paid a quick homage to Napoleon at Les Invalides and eventually arrived at the Grand Palais, a masterpiece of delicate glasswork on a gigantic scale, built for yet another international exhibition. Opposite, stands the very pretty Petit Palais with its free exhibitions of Art Nouveau glass and ceramics, its collections of paintings by Gustave Courbet and his contemporaries, its Greek ceramics and sculptures and works by Dutch and Flemish painters of the 17th century. The galleries are constructed around a central formal garden with a fountain which would be delightful on a warmer day. We stopped for lunch before continuing up the Champs Elysée where huge posters of David Beckham dominate. He has recently been bought for slightly more than a handful of euros as a star player for the Paris football team. At the Étoile with the Arc de Triomphe we stopped to watch the traffic chaos as cars streamed on and off with hundreds of vehicles making their way effortlessly round with never a crash but with squealing brakes and lots of hooting. We never fail to marvel at the nerve of the Parisian drivers.

Bateau Mouche on the Seine, Paris

Petit Palais, Paris

Staircase in the Petit Palais, Paris

Returning down the Champs Elysée we found our hopes of warming up in some of the interesting shops dashed. They were all shops for the young and chic. Perfume shops, soap shops, a Disney World shop, Gucchi, fashion and shoe shops. We entered a shop with a shiny golden Mecedes Benz four-wheel drive vehicle on display. Another vehicle came in black velvet. Stroking its headlamps did little for us really but helped warm our fingers.

Gold 4x4, Champs Elysée, Paris

By now even Ian was limping and complaining so after struggling on through the Tuileries and as far as the courtyard of the Louvre we called it a day and took the metro home where after supper we went straight to bed and slept for nearly twelve hours!

Yesterday Ian had an appointment at 2pm at the Institute d’Histoire Moderne at the nearby École Normale Supérieure.

Entrance to the Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris

Courtyard of the Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris

We spent the morning locally at the Jardin des Plantes with their huge, impressive glasshouses of tropical plants. It was an excellent way to avoid the biting cold. Orchids were displayed in cascades of colour amongst the lianas, spice plants and thick tropical vegetation while in the arid desert atmosphere of the adjoining glasshouse were agaves, giant cactuses, aloes and huge fossilised trunks of primeval plants. There was also a glasshouse devoted to the flora of New Caledonia, one of France’s overseas departments.

We’d hoped to call off for Turkish coffee at the mosque, just around the corner from our flat, but we ran out of time. In the nearby rue Mouffetard we selected one of several restaurants offering cheap lunch menus. The meal was amazing value, starting with duck paté, followed by chicken with green beans and rice. To finish we had marron glacé and Chantilly cream. I returned home to sleep it off for an hour while Ian went off for his meeting. When I woke I went out to buy a bouquet of spring flowers for Geneviève’s daughter Cécile who lives with her partner in Paris and had invited us for supper.

Lunch on the Rue Mouffetard, Paris

In the evening we made our way across Paris on the metro. Cécile met us near the metro and took us back to their apartment on the 6th floor of a luxury development overlooking the Seine with the Eiffel Tower right in the centre of the expansive view from the lounge window. It was thus we discovered that on the hour the entire tower lights up with brightly flashing white lights and twinkles away for ten minutes. When the French decide to do something special there are no half measures! It was stunning!

We spent a happy evening with them. Cécile cooked a superb rôti-de-veau with peppers, courgettes and carrots and we were delightfully spoilt. It was a memorable evening and, having known Cécile since she and Kate played together as three year olds until they fell asleep on the carpet, it was delightful to see her in her own home surrounded by her own family.

It was nearly 1am before we eventually got home to bed. For someone recovering from a lingering illness my life is busier than I expected but so far I am holding up well. The cold weather helps enormously as far as my eye is concerned.

Today has been our last full day. We haven’t even used the metro but have walked everywhere. We returned to the Marais district to visit the Place des Vosges, perhaps the most beautiful square in Paris. Constructed originally as a royal square from 1612, today the gardens are surrounded on all sides by 36 harmonious buildings framed by arcades with restaurants and art galleries.

On the second floor in one corner is the former home of the writer Victor Hugo who lived there for nearly 20 years. It is now a free museum and provides an interesting insight into his life. He lived here as both a writer and a politician before falling from favour and being sent into exile on Guernsey for many years.

Caricature of Victor Hugo, Place des Vosges, Paris

The rest of the day has been spent in the Musée Carnavalet, another free museum dealing with every aspect of life in the city of Paris. It was fascinating and we quickly realised we needed to spend the rest of the day there.

Voltaire dictating to his secretary during his levé, Musée Carnavalet, Paris

Shop signs, scale models of areas of the city, ceramics, trades, paintings of city worthies, the history of the various revolutions that rocked the city and the whole country, all are included. The section on the Revolution of 1789 and the Terror which followed were particularly fascinating. So many of the great names of the city had busts or paintings displayed. So many of them died on the guillotine under Robespierre in the early 1790s.

Around lunch time we took a break to find something to eat. We discovered a small restaurant – one of thousands around the city, each with its own atmosphere, serving a plat du jour for 9 euros. There was no choice but it was excellent being chicken breast and pasta in pesto sauce.

When we finally left the museum we were exhausted. A brisk walk along the Seine revived us and we made our way along the left bank of the Seine, past the stalls of the bouquinistes, some of whom were braving the cold to sell their books and prints.

Notre Dame. The bridge in the foreground is smothered in locked padlocks intended as tokens of love, Paris

We reached the Latin Quarter and strolled around the streets of souvenir shops and Turkish shops selling brightly coloured sweets and pastries oozing syrup. It hardly seemed worth catching the metro after that so we walked home and collapsed for a sleep until supper time.

Tomorrow we return to Caen. It has been an excellent time though more tiring than I would have wished. We have been so lucky with our accommodation and dining with friends added an extra delight to our time here. Thank you all so very much.

This account is a summary of our latest visit. The links below give a wider picture of this fascinating city.

Related links
Manifestly Paris April 2006
Encore Paris April 2006
Paris December 2009