Friday, 12 October 2012

Encore France: Day 4 - Train Tickets, Comedie-Francaise, Exchange Rate Rip Off

After another great night’s sleep we woke up fairly early today, our last day in Paris before heading off to the Picardie region for our canal boat trip.
Breakfast yesterday was so good that, being the creatures of habit which we are, we headed down to the same place for another delicious start to the day.  Then, happily replete, we wandered down the boulevard, onto Blvd St-Michel, along by the river, just being there, basically. We caught a bus that took us through the 6th and the 7th and up to the Eiffel, where we just loitered with absolutely no intent whatsoever around the gardens for some time, watching the crowds and the African souvenir sellers. We then decided to take a walk down rue de l’Université to check out the location of the apartment which we had rented for our time in Paris post-boat trip. It is in an excellent location, just on the corner of rue de l’Université and rue Malar, so very close to a couple of supermarkets, buses, the river, some great shops, excellent bakeries – oh, and of course rue Cler, that favourite street of Americans (mind you, we did pick up some marvellous cheeses and pates there, so they are on a good thing with that particular spot).
Deciding it was time to go get our train tickets, it was a case of jump on another bus, one that took us down to Opera, where we changed buses for one that would drop us at Gare du Nord. Now, I know you are probably saying, “Why not the metro?” Were we in a hurry? Were we keen on seeing only the faces of other travellers? Were we so jaded with Paris that we didn’t want to just feast our eyes constantly? No, no, and no. We like catching buses with the locals, getting around cheaply, and with the bonus of actually seeing where we are going, or perhaps where we wish we were going.
Now, I was pretty well prepared for the whole business of buying the tickets. We hadn’t booked them in advance, but I had checked on train times, possible routes, etc, and I had written down for myself an idiot’s guide to asking for what we needed. Referring only briefly to my notes, I managed to get through, “Good morning. I would like two tickets, return, Paris-Albert for tomorrow, on the xxx train, please.” Smooth as silk, honestly. The woman behind the counter understood me perfectly, and in no time at all I had the tickets in my hot little hand. I did wonder why at every other ticket window such a simple transaction seemed to involve much drama. I have since discovered that that is really quite normal in France, and adds to the colour of the place.
Wandering out of the station to grab a coffee from one of the many restaurants thereabouts, we were amused to watch a few Roma women playing their letter game and then playing hide and seek with the police. Ah, what’s the letter game? Well, some tourist walking along the street – often easily identifiable with fanny packs, cameras, baseball caps, big happy grins – is approached by one of these Roma, perhaps a woman, either old or young, perhaps a young person, who holds out a  creased up letter and, with such an imploring voice, asks, “Please, please, you speak English? You speak English?” They manage to look so pathetic that I imagine lots of people are only too pleased to assist with whatever is the problem. Now, it hasn’t happened to us, but from what I have heard the scam is that they then tell you that they have received this letter, in English, about some family tragedy back home, and they need money to assist with whatever the disaster may be which has befallen their loved ones. Of course, good-hearted tourist reads the letter out to them, feels guilty that they have so much and these poor people have so little, and generously hands over some money. Three words here: DON’T DO IT! And I’ll tell you another time about the gold ring scam; that’s a real doozy that catches lots and lots of tourists.
The French seem to get very up in arms when anybody suggests that these scammers on the streets are unacceptable, almost as if they are earning an honest living and not living off the French government. They are dishonest, they often makes hundreds of Euro a day, and a lot of the money goes straight back to their crime bosses in Romania or wherever. As far as I’m concerned, while it might be a bit amusing to watch them working cons like this, it’s a real negative for European cities.
Enough, already! 
Park Pierre Cardin
After our coffee we caught a bus back to the Madelaine and then walked along rue Royale and across Place de la Concorde so that I could check out the little park at the start of the Champs Elysees which I had been promising myself to visit. It’s called, I think, Park Pierre Cardin. It’s small, it’s absolutely lovely, and it was a joy to spend some time there after the noise of Gare du Nord. There were, as is usual in Paris parks, people reading books, people drinking wine, young men kicking soccer balls around, and young lovers kissing. It’s a great spot.

We then wound our way through our lovely Jardin des Tuileries, crossed rue de Rivoli by the Louvre (God, I love saying things like that), and made our way to the marvellous Palais Royale/Comédie-Française. We had visited CF on our last trip, but somehow managed to totally miss the lovely Palais Royale gardens. How is that possible? I have no idea. The little park is just lovely, and it was wonderful to watch the locals just peacefully sitting around on benches reading their newspapers at the end of the working day. The surrounding apartments and shops are just beautiful. We saw the most wonderful specialist music-box shop which sold the most exquisite items, and I really wished that there was a little girl back home somewhere who we could buy one for, but such is not the case. Oh, and not to be overlooked are the incredible designer clothes. This is not cheap shopping, but it is totally gorgeous.
Marvellous Comedie Francaise - love this photograph.
By this time it was well after midday and we were absolutely starving. Remembering that great little bistro from our previous trip, we headed down rue St-Honoré, and there it was, just around the corner from rue St-Roch, looking no different, and with the same husband and wife team running the place. The day was quite cool and we felt like some good, filling country type fare, so we ordered accordingly – you know, cassoulet, lentils, that sort of thing – and of course I just simply asked for our usual, a pichet of rosé. The owner reeled back in horror and let out the loudest, “Non, madam. Non.” He was horrified that I would even think of pairing a rosé with such food and told us he would bring us the red. He was right, of course: the food was hearty, and the full-flavoured red was just the perfect accompaniment.
Back to the park for this
wonderful piece. Fabulous, isn't it.
It was time to change some money as we didn’t want to risk running out of Euros while on the canal. We knew that there were a few money changers on rue de Rivoli (of course), and so we headed for the one just around the corner from rue St-Roch. Thinking that there may be quite large discrepancies in exchange rates, I checked first on how much we would receive there for Aus$500. The man behind the counter fiddled with his calculator and told us he would give us 228. We thanked him and moved on to the next place – and Amex cash changer. Again, we asked what we would get for our 500. This time we were offered only 200. We were disgusted and told him that we had just been offered 228. He offered to match that, but we refused the offer, telling him that as he had been willing to rip us off for 28 we were not interested in doing business with him. We then walked further up the road to the money changer we had used a few times previously, and there we received the lovely amount of 247 for our Aus$500. Now, bearing in mind that we can buy a delicious, big, breakfast for two for only 22, or that we can get perfectly good wine for about 4 a bottle, that’s one hell of a difference. I always tell people to shop around before exchanging money, but still see people just automatically tripping into those Amex type places. What a way to waste money.
A bit more of that oh so lovely park.
With our train tickets in my handbag, our tummies filled, and our cash reserves topped up, we decided to head back towards the hotel, this time on foot to walk off some of that fantastic food. As we walked along Blvd St-Germain we noticed a street full of restaurants and decided to check it out for later reference. Now, I know that those of you who have been to Paris a few times will be crying out, “No, don’t do it. Don’t go there.” Well, luckily, there was nobody calling out such warnings to us at the time and so we ambled along that street, taking in all the different cuisines and characters.  The choice was endless, and the prices were great and so we decided to come back in the evening for dinner.
Back now to the hotel for – yes, the usual – a long bath, a good book, and a couple of glasses of wine (of course, the man knocked out the usual zzzzzs while I luxuriated).
When it was time for dinner we made our way back to the street of eats. The restaurant we chose to dine in deserves an award. I could call it a Greek restaurant, but I think actually it’s probably a Cypriot one, albeit Greek Cypriot. I have never in my entire life, nor in my dreams, nor even in my childhood fantasies, imagined such a place. You can’t speak about the décor, because that word just doesn’t cut it. This was like a whole bunch of old ladies had been let loose to overdo everything to their hearts’ content. There was stuff everywhere, and I mean stuff, and I mean everywhere. You could not see the ceiling, for instance, because every sort of light shade and fitting imaginable hung from, stuck out from, or was attached to that ceiling. The walls, which are of that particularly ugly stucco, are then very “lavishly” decorated with paintings, plants, plates, mirrors, dolls, musical instruments, etc. etc. etc. On every available bit of shelving there is more junk, even gnomes of every persuasion, even plaster American Indians. Honestly, this place is A MUST. You will not see anything like it in your travels. I just wish I had kept their card so I could pass on the name to you. My mind was so boggled I could have forgotten to eat. This was architectural theatre, and it was so bad it was wonderful!
Final one from Park Pierre Cardin,
but so worth waiting for.
Now, you may not believe it, but the food was really quite yummy – not wonderful, but yummy – and was excellent value. I had moussaka, and it was as good as I’ve had in most Greek restaurants back home. We washed our meal down with a bottle of Cypriot wine, which was clean and delicious.
Once again full as googs, we walked slowly arm in arm back to our hotel, down streets still abuzz with people and life. It was time, though, for us to hit the sack after another lovely, lovely day.

Come with us tomorrow as we set off on another fantastic canal boat trips in beautiful France.

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