Friday, November 30, 2007

Adventure #8: Paris

It's easy to lose yourself in Paris: gazing at the works of Monet and Van Gogh at one of the city's stunning museums, strolling the Grands Boulevards, or just sitting at a sidewalk cafe, sipping a glass of red wine, people watching and contemplating life. We only had three days to explore this amazing city, so there wasn't much time to truly immerse ourselves in the often relaxing Parisian way of life. But we did spend some time admiring the works of the world's greatest Impressionist painters.

We arrived late on Thanksgiving evening and checked into our tiny hotel in the 9th Arrondissement called Pavillon Opera Lafayette on Rue de la Tour d'Auvergne. Small and simple, clean and cheap. Then we popped into a little Italian restaurant around the corner from our hotel called Pizzetta on Avenue Trudaine. It was recommended by a writer for Gourmet magazine who has an apartment nearby. (He also lives in San Francisco.) It was a little strange having pizza for our first meal in Paris, or for Thanksgiving dinner for that matter. But it was a casual place, unlike most restaurants in Paris, and that worked well for us. The pizza and ravoli were fabulous. We then walked down to the Louvre museum and took pictures of all the building lit at night, and sadly, the lights went out at midnight, so we returned back to the hotel.

Our first day, your Black Friday back home, got off to a slow start, getting our bearings, finding the nearest Hop On/Hop Off Bus Stop (where we purchased 2-day tickets), dodging a little rain. (And Damon needed to sleep in, of course. ;p) After a ride around on the bus tour past the L'Opera Garnier, Trinite Church, Pigalle and Montmartre, we had a long, exceptional luncheon at Casa Olympe on 48 rue St-Georges (9er), a restaurant owned by Dominique Versini (aka Olympe), one of the few female chefs in Paris to achieve celebrity status. It was highly recommended by our friend at Gourmet and not too far from our hotel. Most restaurants in Paris serve prix fixe menus, 3-course luncheons and 4-course dinners with a set price. I had a pumpkin soup, lamb chop and cheese plate; Damon had some amazing appetizer with a poached egg on it, then sea scallops and a chocolate cake oozing with chocolate. All dishes were delicious. I adopted this as our Thanksgiving meal. By the time we finished with lunch in the afternoon, we decided it was best to hop on the Hop On/Hop Off Bus again and try to squeeze in as many sights as possible. When it got dark outside and even colder outside, we went to the Champs-Élysées, looking in the windows of all the shops on this main street and grabbed a hot chocolate at McDonald's, of all places, but they have a cafe inside - it's so different from the U.S. They even serve beer in mugs and coffee drinks in ceramic cups. We walked to the end of the Champs-Élysées to Place Charles de Galle to see the Arc de Triomphe. A daily military service under the Unknown Soldier's tomb was taking place, so we couldn't get under the arc, but we did go to the top and take some great photos of the city streets that fan out from the roundabout at the Arc de Triomphe. By then, we'd frozen enough for the day, and Damon didn't have gloves or a beany, so we took the Metro, Paris' excellent underground train network, back to the 9er to Cadet, the Metro station about 5 minutes from our hotel. We also found gloves for Damon at a shop in the Metro. We freshened up before meeting Erwan Faiveley, the director of Domaine Faiveley, one of Wilson Daniels' clients, for dinner. We had a fabulous, ritzy Parisien dinner with Erwan and his girlfriend Charlotte - wonderful wines, seared scallop amuse buse, a killer chestnut soup and delicious entrees, but I can't remember what they were.

We headed to the Louvre early on Saturday, hoping to beat the crowds. After buzzing through the top sights in the museum - Venus de Milo, Mona Lisa, The Raft of Medusa and the Napolean III Apartments - we walked over to the Ile de la Cite, the stunning little island in the middle of the River Seine, to see Notre Dame. We stopped for crepes along the way, then photographed Notre Dame and workers trimming a Christmas tree in front of the church. I showed Damon the art sellers' booths along the River Seine by Place St. Michel and Notre Dame where I purchased art last year, then we hopped back on the bus and took a long tour of past all the top destinations - Assemblée Nationale, Musée d'Orsay, Place de la Concorde, Champs-Élysées, Arc de Triomphe, Dome des Invalides and Hotel des Invalides, Grand Palais and Petit Palais, La Tour Eiffel, Parc du Champ de Mars, Palais Chaillot and Trocadero, etc. We considered going up the Eiffel Tower today, as it was quite sunny out, but the lines were terribly long, so we walked through the Parc du Champ de Mars, the park where the Eiffel Tower is located, and took lots of great photos of the tower with blue skies and puffy white clouds. Then we walked about 10 minutes east to find Rue Cler, a street I'd read had a wonderful market on Saturdays. We strolled down Rue Cler and looked at all the produce and food, then grabbed a Croque-Monsieur and Chevre Quiche, two delicious snacks to try in Paris. (Croque-Monsieur is a French hot ham and cheese sandwich, typically made with gruyère and sometimes tomatoes.) We took the tour bus over to a stop near the Pantheon, so we could photograph its impressive facade, and then we walked down to Jardin du Luxembourg, one of my favorite places to visit in Paris. Every time I've been to Paris, I've strolled through this park and had my picture taken in front of the pool outside Palais du Luxembourg. We grabbed a few chairs in the park and relaxed for a few minutes, then walked through the gardens on the southside of the park, Jardin R. Cavelier-de-la-Salle, Jardin Marco Polo and Place E. Denis, where we photographed a beautiful fountain, Fontaine de l'Observatoire. I did some research, which indicated this fountain was designed by Davioud, Carpaux and Frémiet in 1873. The fountain includes a statue of a globe supported by four women, each representing a continent.

Late that afternoon, we took the Metro to Pigalle and Montmartre to see the Sacre Coeur church, overlooking Paris from the north - the highest point in the city. We walked through a busy street filled with fabric stores and discount clothing shops up the hill to the church. We had no idea this was the place to be on a Saturday night. Hundreds were gathered on the terraced steps leading up the hill to Sacre Coeur, including a group of 50 or so with a guitarist singing American hits like "Brown Eyed Girl." Girls were dancing on the lawn and drinking wine from the bottle wrapped in brown paper bags. Crazy scene. We watched a lame puppet show, took beautiful pictures of the sun setting and then walked through the red-light district of Pigalle (didn't feel scared or get accosted), before heading back to our hotel for a nap before dinner.

After resting in the room, we walked about 20 minutes south to find Chez Georges, an institution known for its traditional French bistro fare that transports diners back in time. It had been recommended by two friends. Sadly, it's closed on weekends. So we went to Juveniles, a wine bar I'd read good things about online from San Francisco blogger Chez Pim . The English server would not let me speak French - every time I tried he would answer in English - but he was really friendly and the food was great - tapas style. We had an excellent goat cheese crostini salad and prosciutto crostini with tomato and pesto, which I have replicated twice for Damon since we got home. (I always find simple French appetizers like these to be so inspiring that I try to recreate them for weeks after the trip.) We finished the day by taking pictures of the Eiffel Tower at night from the two bridges closest to the tower, Pont d'Iena and Pont de Bir Hakeim. The Pont de Bir Hakeim bridge has two levels: one for motor vehicles and pedestrians, and a viaduct above, through which passes Line 6 of the Paris Métro. We used Line 6 twice to visit the Eiffel Tower.

Damon needed some sleep on Sunday, so I walked down Rue des Martyrs to find some pastries for breakfast. I absolutely love this neighborhood and would live here in a heartbeat. The road is lined with chocolate shops, patisseries (French bakeries), wine shops, cheese shops, markets, hair salons and clothing stores. Why go anywhere else? I stopped into the local Nicolas wine shop and purchased two bottles of Champagne (way cheaper than in Ireland), and I even found a studio apartment we could purchase outside in this area, if only we could sell our house. There I go, dreaming again. I digress. Sunday was originally going to be our day to travel out to Versailles, but we realized on Saturday we still hadn't seen several important tourist destinations in the city, so we vowed to return in the spring to see Versailles, as well as Les Halles, Bois de Boulogne, Palais Royale and many other sights we either didn't get to, or could not go inside to see. We started our day at the Eiffel Tower, hoping we could avoid the crowds. Lines had already formed by 10 a.m. at the elevator entrances, but the escalier entrance (stairs) had no line, so we decided to walk up two levels of the tower - nearly 700 steps! - to reach the next set of elevators. Good exercise, and it beat standing in line for an hour, plus there are historical factoids posted in the stairwells for climbers to stop and read. The first level of the Eiffel Tower has pictures and story boards along the railing, so tourists can learn about the buildings they are seeing. Although it was very cold, it was a beautiful day in Paris, and we got some great pictures of the city from the Eiffel Tower to show for it.

We left the Eiffel Tower and walked along the River Seine, past river boat docks and stumbled upon a photography exhibition outside. (I'd read November was a big month for photography exhibits in Paris.) Lots of interesting photographs of people from all over the world hung on white temporary walls in the middle of the walkway by the river - a nice diversion during our walk down to Pont Alexandre III, the gilded bridge considered the most extravagant in Paris. It connects Grand Palais with Les Invalides. Musee d'Orsay was our next stop, a nearby museum known for its exceptional Impressionist exhibition. Along the way, we grabbed some traditional grilled sandwiches on banguettes and ate them on the steps of Musée d'Orsay. I could have spent another hour at Musée d'Orsay, gazing at the works of the great Impressionists - Renoir, Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Degas. Definitely a highlight of the trip for me.

After a ride on the tour bus again, we hopped off and walked through the Jardin des Tuileries, Paris's most central garden. It connects the Louvre with the Place de la Concorde and forms a part of the large central axis between the Louvre and La Défense. The sun was about to set, and a column statue near the garden's north exit caught our eye - it was Place Vendome - another place I'd wanted to visit. It's now a swanky mecca for jewellery and shopping with amazing stores set around the large granite slabs of the square. Damon could hear the Ferrari engines revving up a mile way. We snapped a few pictures of the Place Vendome column (amazing colors in the sky), and continued walking toward the Opera and its shopping district, hoping to find some shops to buy gifts, but forgot that almost everything in Paris, except some museums, is closed on Sundays. Tourists should always plan their Paris trips around what is open on Sunday, and then fill in the other days. Lesson learned. We were hoping to squeeze in a nightime boat ride on the Seine during this trip too, but decided to save it for the next visit.

We had dinner at that at Astier in the Oberkampf area (44, rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud), mainly because it was open on a Sunday. The place is known for its cheese plate, which did not disappoint. There were probably 12 different French cheeses on the wheel, and you can sample them all. I did, of course. The rest of the meal was so-so. Not a highlight of the trip, but I was proud we navigated the Metro and then found the restaurant in an area we'd never visited before.

The next day was packing, buying pasteries for the trip home, getting around on the Metro with our luggage, then taking the bus back to Beauvais airport to catch our flight. I spoke as much French as I could and realized I have a lot of work to do before my French classes start in January.

A few interesting factoids that complement our pictures:

Arrondissement - If you haven't visited Paris before, the city is divided into 20 arrondissements municipaux (roughly put, "municipal boroughs"). 1er (the shorthand way to refer to them) is in the center of the city, and then the arrondissements fan out from there. We stayed in the 9er, which we liked very much.

Conciergerie - Built in the early 14th century, this palace was part of the residence of the kings before the Louvre. In 1391, the Conciergerie became the first prison of Paris when this residence accommodated the seat of the Parliament and the judicial power. During the French Revolution, nearly 3,000 condemned spent their last days here. They were then transported to Concorde Square to be guillotined. Amongst them were Marie-Antoinette, the Austrian and wife of Louis XVI and Charlotte Corday, arrested to have stabbed Marat in his bath.

Pont du Carrousel ("pont" means "bridge" in French) - In the "Da Vinci Code" a truck on the Pont du Carrousel offers Robert Langdon an ‘escape’ from the police. In real life the Pont du Carrousel, built in 1833 then demolished and rebuilt in 1936 because it was to low for boats to pass, offers the visitor a view of both the Seine River and the Louvre Museum.

Assembleé Nationale Palais-Bourbon - Built in 1722 for the Duchesee de Bourbon, daughter of Louis XIV, the Palais-Bourbon was confiscated during the Revolution. Since 1830, the official seat of the National Assembly (French Parliament) is the Palais Bourbon on the banks of the river Seine.

Place de la Concorde - During the French Revolution (1789–1799), the square was renamed again (previously Place Louis XV) and became "Place de la Révolution" -- the square were many famous people, such as King Louis XVI and Marie-Antionette, were beheaded. The guillotine here was most active during the "Reign of Terror," in the summer of 1794, when in a single month more than 1,300 people were executed. After the revolution the square was renamed several times and in 1830 it finally got its current name "Place de la Concorde."

Grand Palais - The Grand Palais ("Grand Palace"), like the Tour Eiffel, was built for the world fair of 1900, which was held in Paris (Exposition Universelle, also called Paris Exhibition of 1900); neither were intended to remain as permanent additions to the city. Today is houses museum exhibits (Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais), a planetarium, the Palais de la Decouverte and other tourist attractions.

Pantheon - The Pantheon in Paris was modeled after the Pantheon in Rome. When it was completed at the start of the French Revolution, the new Revolutionary government ordered it to be changed from a church to a mausoleum for the interment of great Frenchmen. Twice since then it has reverted to being a church, only to become again a temple to the great intellectuals of France.

Eiffel Tower - The Eiffel Tower sparkles at night until midnight. We couldn't figure out exactly at what hour it starts sparkling, but it's lit earlier in the evening without the sparkles. This might be a Christmas thing. Not sure. When the tower was completed in 1889 it replaced the Washington Monument as the world's tallest structure — a title it retained until 1930 when New York City's Chrysler Building (319 m — 1,047 ft tall) was completed. The Eiffel Tower celebrated its 100th birthday in 1989. The tower is the most visited paid monument in the world per year.

Les Invalides - This is a complex of buildings in the 7th arrondissement containing museums and monuments, all relating to the military history of France, as well as a hospital and a retirement home for war veterans, the building's original purpose. It is also the burial site for some of France's war heroes.

Pont Alexandre III - this bridge was also designed for the world fair of 1900. It's from the era of the elaborate Louis XIV. It's a magnificent example of art nouveau style decorated with nymphs, cherubs and other sea monsters. The four golden statues depict Art, Commerce, Industry and the Sciences.

Jardin du Luxembourg - It's the largest garden/park in the city. Luxembourg is the garden of the French Senate, which is itself housed in the Luxembourg Palace (Palais Luxembourg).

Sacre Coeur - It's a Roman Catholic basilica dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The design has a heavy Romano-Byzantine influence. The church is built of travertine stone, which constantly exudes calcite, which ensures that the basilica remains white even with weathering and pollution.

Place Vendome - It was designed by Denon, Gondouin, and Lepère and modeled in the style of Trajan's Column in Rome. Originally there was a statue of Napoleon on top, which was removed and then replaced over time.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Adventure #7: Rally Ireland, Northern Ireland

This weekend, we took a day trip up to Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, to see the World Rally Championship's first race in Ireland. Ireland anticipated around 150,000 spectators from around the world would be on hand to watch the three-day race through the backroads of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Rally racing is a sport Damon has been fond of for my years; I didn't know much about it before we met, but I would describe it as Nascar meets the Amazing Race. Rally drivers in turbo-charged, hatch-back cars compete against the clock on courses in several countries, primarily in Europe,,,10111,00.html which are usually dirt roads. Some times they drive on pavement too, and races even occur when there's ice and snow on the course. They compete only against the clock and drive like banshees. There are two members per team in the car - driver and co-driver. The co-driver has the map of the course and coaches the driver as to how he should drive fast and not crash.

Here's some information from the WRC web site about the relationship between the driver and the co-drive in rally racing:,,10111,00.html

I'm not really explaining WRC like I should, so you can also read the background on it at

We watched the Saturday leg of the rally in Northern Ireland, near a town called Enniskillen.

It's pretty amazing that part of this island nation is owned by another country, and you can drive from the Republic of Ireland right into Northern Ireland without really knowing it. I thought there might be a check-point or at least signs, but Damon said the only thing he noticed was that the speed limit signs changed when we crossed into Northern Ireland.

Up before the crack of dawn, we drove about 3.5 hours to Enniskillen and didn't hit much traffic until we got into town. Then we followed the herd of cars back to a main road where everyone parked and then walked about two miles into the country to the rally course. The cold, rainy, dreary weather didn't hamper everyone's fun. We bundled up as best we could and trekked back to the course. People dressed in safety jackets, rain coats and rubber mudd boots were everywhere, hanging out on the hills of cow pastures surrounding the road where the cars would buzz through in an hour or so. Okay, so maybe we weren't probably dressed in our jeans, coats and hiking shoes. We also didn't know we were supposed to bring lawn chairs, which we don't have. Most people just stood around the course road, while others opted to bring out bulldozers and sit inside their fork lifts.

The crowds started hooting and hollering when a fog horn sounded, as we first heard the hum of a rally car engine in the distance. It was pretty cool to watch the compact, brightly painted cars fly down the hill on the wet country road and take the hair-pin turn at the corner. We walked along the course, taking pictures from various vantage points. But after about two hours in the rain with no chairs or mudd boots, we decided our World Rally experience was fulfilled, and headed back to the car for the drive home.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

When Swans Attack

Ever since we arrived in Galway, I find myself wanting to walk down the Prom to the Claddaugh on the weekends to feed the swans. It makes me feel like a kid again, beckoning childhood memories of feeding the ducks at the park back home with my family.

Then I learned how aggressive these Galway swans can be.

Damon took me down to the Claddaugh on a beautiful Saturday in November to feed the swans. Here's some pictures of the swans getting up close and personal.