Sunday, September 5, 2010

Paris Day 5

Today we recovered from our second night out with Paul and Ollie, another late night trying to keep up. We decided to sleep in and start the day out with some macaroons from our favorite neighborhood boulangerie.

We decided to tour the French catacombs today. There is really nothing that can prepare one for the intensity of this tour. We had to stand in line for about 45 minutes and it was well with it. We knew that it was stacks of bones relocated from an old cemetery to far below the streets of Paris, but I was ill prepared for what lay in store.

First of all you descend a narrow spiral staicase (Gregory's favorite) down deep under the street, and under the city. Then you walk down several long hallways with quite low ceilings for what seems at least a mile. Occasionally on the wall there is a plaque with the date listed, usually something to the effect of 1840-something. The hallway is narrow and damp and smells of earth. The stones and occasional support structures are so old, they just have an aura of history.

We finally arrived at the stacks of bodies and as I said, nothing can possibly prepare you for the sheer volume of the experience. I'm talking about millions and millions of bones stacked in the most specific way, skulls degraded by time that have mostly disintegrated merely from having existed for so long. And it just goes on and on and on for what seems like forever, occasionally there are special structures for certain people whose identities were known, or just general memorials, but as I mentioned the catacombs consist of the bodies from several cemeteries.

Eventually the charnel house to end all charnel houses comes to an end--surprising since it literally seems to go FOREVER--and you traverse a loooong wet hallway and reach another spiral staircase that brings you back to the surface. The smell of wet earth and visions of the dimly lit dead fade away to the beautiful sights of daylight on the streets of Paris.

We were reborn with a mission to find lunch, which we chose at a cute little cafe in Port Royal. A kind woman served us blue cheese salad, and a ham and cheese sandwich called a "croque Monsieur" which is bread slice, ham, creme fraiche, bread slice, more cheese, melted and wonderful. It followed up with a French cafe, which is similar to Italian espresso, but much more easy to drink in my opinion. I'm not sure exactly how the process is different, perhaps something having to do with the beans? I will have to ask.

We wandered north, since the catacombs were quite a ways south of our hotel, and found ourselves walking through a park next to the Universite de Paris Descartes. This park happened to lead directly to les Jardins des Luxembourg, a huge public park where people were just sitting enjoying the sunset through the beautiful trees and immaculately maintained flower beds. Children were laughing and playing, and families were enjoying the afternoon. There were a few statues and fountains, and in the center a large pool where people were sailing remote controlled sailboats. It was a truly beautiful park. The closest I have seen in the west is the Getty Center gardens, but honestly I feel even that fails to compare with the sprawling beauty the Jardins des Luxembourg offers to the world. These were where a western park meets a Japanese garden, the interaction of fun, respect and tranquility.

Les Jardins backs up agains the senate building, so there were several armed guards, and it made me wonder, is it a requirement to have beautiful blue eyes to be in the French military?

After the journey through the gardens, we wandered back toward Notre Dame because "Our Lady" is just so darn photogenic. Gregory captured some beautiful pictures of the Seine at sunset and later some shots of both the river and the cathedral all lit up in their evening attire.

For dinner we wandered to the small island to scope out the restaurants in the back alleys--since that is where the best stuff is. We found a restaurant that is AMAZING and crazy wonderful: Nos Ancetres Les Gaulios. Had we known we were going here, we would have starved ourselves for a week. There are parts of the meal that are all you can eat, but there are so many courses... Okay, first of all it is a fixed price of 38€ per person, a bargain for what you get. To start, they give you bread and mayonnaise--this was no ordinary mayo. It was made there and was the best i have ever had. It had the smoothness and lightness of butter, i don't even really like mayo and this was wonderful! The next thing was they handed me a jug, next to us was a large barrel with a tap. We could fill the jug with as much wine as we wanted. That's right: all you can drink. And it was good wine, too. The first real thing that started the meal was the gigantic basket of vegetables. You make your own salad from anything in the basket. They give you some salad dressing that is a creamy vinegar peppery something that is quite wonderful, and you just pull out whatever strikes your fancy. I went for a tomato, an orange pepper, a carrot, some purple cabbage and a few radishes. There was also cauliflower, cucumber, and a few other things, some I didn't recognize.

When you were done, you got to go to the meat table and choose and sample various sausages and salamis, a kind of chicken salad thing that was intense, a pasta salad, and a crab salad, and some loaf of meat that we honestly weren't sure about, but decided to just go for it, and it turns out, surprise! it was delicious.

After the giant meat parade they let you select your main course from a variety of different meats. Yes, more meat. Gregory selected the duck and I had a beef steak. We both went with medium, but medium here equates with lightly seared in the states, or possibly walked through a warm room. I'm convinced there was one bite of my steak that mooed. But who cares; it was really really really good. This and dessert are the only parts of the meal that aren't all you can eat.

After that we got to sample from the gigantic cheese plate, which consisted of seven FULL blocks of cheese, and they brought a gigantic fruit basket, for you to choose anything you like (bananas, pears, kiwi, apples, oranges, and all perfectly ripe and delicious), to go with the never ending wine--did I mention the never ending wine? After that, they took our dessert order. Gregory ordered chocolate mousse and I ordered orange sorbet. They were both incredible, though mine was served in an actual orange. It wouldn't surprise me if they found a way to serve chocolate mousse in a moose.

There is also a wandering musician who plays the guitar and sings. He is very nice and quite a good musician. He took requests, so we just requested something traditional and French. He sang a song called "No Regrets," which must be a popular song since I know I have heard it before. It was just perfect for the moment.

Towards the end of dinner, two women who were staying at a hotel directly across the street from the restaurant came in to have a glass of wine. The host Henry, who was an amazing person and a great host, seated them at our table (actually all the wait staff were great, they spoke really good English and were very understanding when we Americans reached our limits with the French language--Henry was truly exceptional). Since they just wanted wine and the restaurant was essentially closed, we were seated together. The women, Esther and Claudia are Americans from Chicago in town for a trade show, and we talked with them for at least an hour. We had a great time getting acquainted and laughing and ended up closing down the restaurant.

This place is definitely on the MUST DO list for our next visit (and every subsequent visit). Everything was so good. On our return to the hotel, which was 1:30AM, I mentioned we stopped by the Seine and Notre Dame for some night photography. It was a nice end to another beautiful and delicious day in Paris, La Cite de Lumiere, the City of Lights.

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