Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Quintessential Tourists in Paris

You can read about it, watch a TV program about it, Youtube it, listen to people telling you about it, but you can only truly understand the level of opulence when you see it for yourself. The Palace of Versailles is simply the richest, most sumptuous…pick a superlative, any one will do…building that I have ever seen. And busy! Tourists, shoulder to shoulder. M and I included. It is not the busiest museum I have been to (that honor belongs to the Vatican Museum), but it was pretty crowded, even though we were there early, before 10am, before the buses arrived to bring in the real hordes of people with their flag waving or umbrella-lighthouse tour guides.

Versailles is not a descriptive place, it’s a visual place and David Gates said it so well in If: “If a picture paints a thousand words…”

I’ll leave you with the pictures...    
Scenes from Versailles with Marie Antoinette’s bedchamber at the top left and right.

Parisian People-watching

Upon our return from Versailles, exiting the metro at St. Michel into glorious, but not too hot sunshine we grabbed ourselves a sidewalk table at the popular Saint Severin brasserie across from the St. Michel fountain and on the corner of rue Saint Severin, and partook in the quintessential Parisian pastime, people-watching. You don’t need a book or a magazine or a newspaper to entertain yourself during your déjeuner or coffee break – the throngs of people on the sidewalk is the cast for this soap opera.  M ordered a large cappuccino while I went for a refreshing few glasses of a Petit Chablis from Maison Simonet-Febvre. We sat there for more than an hour. Totally relaxed and we just let the street opera play out in front of us. We chatted up a Pennsylvanian couple at the next table, who tucked Paris like a Euro note into their travel wallet en route from Rome to London. We watched determined Parisians neatly dressed and scarfed go briskly from point A to point B. I am yet to meet a Parisian without a scarf. We smiled at tired tourist wandering, thinking about ourselves, slowly and aimlessly on sore feet. At about 5 pm we dragged ourselves up onto our own tired feet and slowly cruised down rue St. Martin in the general direction of our rented apartment on rue Chapon. I popped into the Paroisse Saint-Merry church to look for photographic jewels, found none, while M checked out a bookstore here and chocolatier there. At the George Pompidou Centre I watch a one man sidewalk show while a lonely guitar player was belting out French songs from under a tree a little further down the street. It was actually a very pleasant walk and it felt like a continuation of the people-watching at Saint Severin.
Versailles in the early morning. Virtually no tourists outside.

During the vacation’s planning stage I promised ourselves at least one dinner in one of Paris’s many top class restaurants, stylish French cuisine in a romantic setting. After Versailles and a short rest in our apartment we walked around the block to L’auberge Nicolas Flamel at 51 rue de Montmorency. Again we were traveling by the skin of our pants. According to my Internet research booking is essential at the restaurant, but because I had no prior idea which night we would have the time or be in the mood to go to the restaurant I made no prior reservation. So when I opened the door of the oldest house in Paris I was there in positive spirit and hope. You see, although I always have an itinerary for when we travel, we more often than not just get ourselves lost in a city. The French has a beautiful word for it: “flânerie”. There is no real English equivalent for flânerie, as there are many other French examples without true English equivalents to express the mood, like bon voyage, but that’s for another post. Flânerie falls somewhere between loitering and drifting or wandering, being nomadic. Cornelia Otis Skinner describes it so well in her book Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals.

There is no English equivalent for the term (flânerie), just as there is no Anglo-Saxon counterpart of that essentially Gallic individual, the deliberately aimless pedestrian, unencumbered by any obligation or sense of urgency, who, being French and therefore frugal, wastes nothing, including his time which he spends with the leisurely discrimination of a gourmet, savoring the multiple flavors of his city.

Dinner in the oldest house in Paris

The L’auberge Nicolas Flamel Restaurant is located on the ground floor of the oldest still existing house in Paris. It was built in 1407 in the 3rd arrondissement of Le Marias and although the building has been renovated the façade has been preserve for its historical background. The house was built for famous French alchemist Nicolas Flamel whose name appeared in several books, among other Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and The Da Vinci Code.


Upon entering I could understand why reservation is essential. There are only about 12 or 15 tables inside. The place is tiny. Decoration is typical Paris, mostly white with splashes of old wood beams, exposed stone and beige pictures of cutlery against the wall. Subdued and classy with candles on the tables and glasses and silverware arranged like chess pieces on white linen tablecloths. We were probably a bit underdress in our best traveling clothes while most of the people in the restaurant were dressed in their Sunday best. Although no reservation they graciously welcomed us and I guess we had Lady Luck on our side that evening because the place was eventually a full house. I found the place on Google map near the apartment and read mixed but mostly good reviews on Trip Advisor.  M decided to take a three course meal a la carte, but I was more adventurous and selected a five course dégustation menu, each course paired by different wines and all to be determined by the chef. My attitude was: Amaze me. Give me your best shot…err, food.
Versailles’s famous Hall of Mirrors.

M settled for pressed duck foie gras with apricot chutney and toasted bread as an entrée (in France entrée is the first course), followed by encrusted Cod with mixed vegetables as her le plat principal and for dessert the Nicolas Flamel Chocolate Gold Bar with chocolate ganache, Breton sablé, and gingerbread ice cream. Gourmet art pieces. I tasted some of her food and it was all very good, especially the Cod. Really excellent! I did not get to taste the dessert, it was too good to share I guess.

I started off with what I thought was beef marrow, removed from the bone and formed into a square and then fried and topped with shredded orange, which was served with a white wine from Alsace. I say “thought” because I am not sure what I ate. It tasted like bone marrow. Unfortunately I didn’t catch the wine’s name either. The waitress had a very heavy French accent and she showed me the bottle and then quickly disappeared again. Don’t expect much English to be spoken in non-touristy restaurants. However, melt in the mouth food and the food/wine pairing was spot on. My second course was sautéed mushrooms with a hint of garlic and cream on a thin layer of scalloped potatoes and served with a white wine from the Languedoc region in the south of France. It was well prepared, beautifully presented but perhaps a bit too subtle. I am sure I would have ruffled the chef’s feathers just a wee bit if I had asked for a little bit of black pepper.

The third course was grilled sea scallops topped with red caviar on a small bed of sweet potato mash and served with a glass of Chablis (Chardonnay). O la la! The sweet of the sweet potatoes and the salty flavors of the caviar played off well against each other and were well balanced by the wine. Absolutely divined! Unfortunately it was a bit downhill from here on. My le plat principal was wild boar in a red wine reduction on mash potatoes and it was served with a full bodied red Beaujolais Villages. The wine was good but I didn’t care that much for the meat. It still had a too strong venison taste as if it was marinated too short a time. I didn’t finish it. The dessert I didn’t like at all and the pairing was not to my liking. The frosted peaches with purple carrots topped with gingerbread crumble are just not a combination that my taste buds favor and the champagne was too dry.

Overall it was a great experience. The food was well presented and well prepared. The taste was good, but not exceptional. The chef got the pairing right most of the time, except for the dessert, and the service was very good. My review of the restaurants is very similar to the mixed reviews on Trip Advisor; Good quality, but not all French regional food might be to one’s liking.

Neither was it the best food we have had in France. That would come three days later in the Le Chavel Rouge restaurant in Chisseaux near our rented gite in the Loire valley. But that’s for another post. The only criticism I can maybe mention against L’Auberge Nicolas Flamel is the lack of background music to enhance the romantic atmosphere of the place. Subsequently we would discover, at least that’s the way it seems to us, in France they don’t play background music in top class restaurants. Everything is very subdued and whispers. If you want music with your dinner eat in a café, bar or brasserie.    

The King's bedchamber takes centre stage facing the rising sun 
A real up and down kind of day in Paris and Versailles. Some good, some bad (me misunderstanding French directions which ended in a long walk to nowhere) at Versailles. People-watching was good and the evening dinner was overall a pleasant experience. A quintessential touristy and sunny autumn day in Paris. 

No doubt who stayed behind these gates

Versailles's Chapel, Upper level

1 comment:

Tourareas said...

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