Thursday, June 30, 2011

Day 5 in Paris - Orsay Museum, Les Invalides, Rodin Museum, La Defense

We had our first breakfast at Hotel Porte Doree which cost 10E that was not included in the price of the room. This was definitely better value than the one that cost 8E in Hotel Lyon Mulhouse and better than some of the hotels we stayed under the Cosmos Tour. There were 3 types of cereals, 3 types of juices, 2 cold cuts, hard boiled egg, yogurt, bread, croissant and other pastries, fruits (orange, kiwi, banana, peach and sometimes strawberry) plus either coffee or hot chocolate. Since this was served buffet style, you can eat as much as you want. You can probably get a decent breakfast outside for less but here it is more for the convenience and the variety it offers.

After a leisurely breakfast, we started our journey to the city. Since the weather forecast was cloudy with showers, I decided to visit museums in town and reserve Versailles for tomorrow that was forecasted to be sunny. Sure enough, it began to shower as we left the hotel. Morning was meant for Orsay Museum and the nearest stop is the RER stop at Musee d'Orsay so we had our first taste of the RER. This was at the Metro interchange wth RER at Gare d'Austerlitz. After some difficulty in identifying the correct platform, we boarded our first RER train. This was a double-decker train and looked rather ancient compared to the Metro trains.

We arrived at the Orsay Museum and we were met with many topless ladies. Sorry guys, no need to rush there, they were just statues outside the museum.

There was a big crowd outside and it was then that I realised the usefulness of the Paris Museum Pass. Look at the queue at the ticket counter
and also at the entrance for the Pass holders.
It may not be so clear in the photos but the one for Pass holder is definitely shorter. In any case, we still need to go through the security check. I missed a great videoing opportunity here since photography is totally not allowed inside the Orsay. As a responsible tourist, I followed the rule but I saw some visitors sneaking some shots. So we went through the major paintings in the museum, the Manets, Monets, Van Goghs, Gauguin and so on. A paradise for art lovers apart from the Louvre. In addition to the great paintings and sculptures, the Orsay also has good free public toilets!

From the Orsay, we walked to Les Invalides. On the way we passed the National Assembly where part of the French Parliament sits.

There was some event going on as I saw the broacasting van of BFMTV, my favourite TV channel for checking the weather in Paris.

We passed the ornamental Pont Alexander III (supposedly the most beautiful bridge across the River Seine)

before turning into Les Invalides.

There were many cannons in the courtyard and in fact all over the complex so you know this place must be connected with warfare.

We skipped the Army Museum

since we were a bit short of time and my wife may not be too interested in all the arms and the 2 World War stuffs and we headed straight to visit the Tomb of Napoleon at the Dome Church. We walked straight in with the Museum Pass as there was no need to queue for tickets. You have to bow and pay respect to Napoleon since you need to look down at his tomb that was placed at a lower level from the entrance to the church.

Looking up, there is a beautiful painted dome.

Napoleon is surrounded by his other family members. This is the tomb of Joseph, his brother.

A monument to Napoleon III, his nephew.

There was a beautiful altar at the back of the chapel.

From here we walked across a small garden outside the Invalides Hospital and crossed the street outside to visit the Rodin Museum. Again we walked straight in with our Museum Pass bypassing those queuing for tickets. (I hope by now you see the value of the Museum Pass!)

The main attraction was of course the Thinker sitting in the beautiful rose garden.

There are many more famous sculptures inside the museum building, some in sensuous mood.

Evoking a different mood are those located with the outdoor setting in the rose garden,

including his Gates of Hell.

It was time for lunch after we exited the museum. There was only one restaurant opposite the museum and it was jam packed with the lunch time crowd. We walked down the surrounding streets and found nothing suitable until we saw this Chinese Restaurant on Rue de Grenelle called Le Grenelle de Pekin.

We ordered just two dishes since we were not sure of the size of the portion. One was the barbecued pork spare ribs with honey sauce

and the other one was the stir fried Chinese pak choy (literally, white vege). This vege was rare in Paris since the only green vege we saw in all the Chinese takeaway shops was broccoli.

The portions came out pretty big, enough for the two of us with the white rice. So we had a good lunch, amply refuelled for our next walk. The rain began to fall again and I decided to do some indoor shopping so off we went to La Defence, at the end of Line 1 as I read somewhere about the shopping mall Les Quatre Temps there that has one of the largest Toy R Us in France. Our elder daughter has requested us to get for her some French kiddie stuff.

La Defense or rather the Grand Arch was surprisingly very quiet, maybe because of the pouring rain and we made our way to the shopping mall. It was pretty big and more upmarket compared to the one at Les Halles. After the mandatory queue at the public toilet (especially for the ladies), we headed straight to Toys R Us. After some searching, we managed to get what our daughter wanted - the all-rubber Sophie the giraffe! She (Sophie, not my daughter) is now celebrating her 50th anniversary this year and she is supposed to be a favourite toy for babies. Anyway, I have never heard of her until now.

For those interested, the small one cost 5.99E and the big package cost 16.99E, a value buy discounted from 29.99E (if I remember correctly). There were more packages in Galeries Lafayette but with different variety of items.

Because of the heavy rain, the shot of Sophie is the only photo I have to remember my trip to La Defence.

From here, we went for another round of shopping, this time back to Champs Elysees to visit another flagship store of French designer handbag, Gucci, to satisfy the shopping needs of my wife. Yes, the Metro makes it really easy to move around!

This store is at the corner of the junction between Champs Elysees and Avenue Montaigne and it was rather quiet. Along Avenue Montaigne there are many more upmarket stores like Christian Dior, Valentino and even a branch of LV if I am not mistaken. We walked to the end of the avenue to take another Metro back to the hotel for a rest to recover from all the walking today. My only captures here of note were the hotel Plaza Athenee and the Theatre des Champs Elysees along this avenue.

Since we were too lazy and a bit tired, we decided to have a casual evening stroll in the area around the hotel. Before that, two views from my window to put you in a relaxing mood.

The tranquility of our walk was broken by the screaming of fire engines and we followed the sound and came to the street where about 5 fire engines had gathered but we saw no fire. So we hang around just like the locals were doing, hoping to see some action. I supposed we blended in well as even one local French lady came and asked us (in French) what was happening. I, of course, could not answer and she went away disappointed. We still do not know actually what caused the gathering of fire engines there.

After that, we had our dinner at another of those Chinese takeaway nearby. Here, the braised duck was pretty good. After confirming with the weather forecast on TV that there would be sunshine tomorrow, we went to bed happy that we'll see Versailles in a better light, literally, come tomorrow.

Ronald Kowk

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Day 4 in Paris - Shopping Day, Hotel Porte Doree and Paris Museum Pass

Today was the last day of our Cosmos Tour of France and after breakfast, everybody started their own journey either going home or onward to another trip. For us, we would continue our stay in Paris and moved to another hotel so this would be actually our Day 4 in Paris on our own. We had a leisurely breakfast and checked out after that. No knowing the taxi situation here, I thought we could just hail a taxi outside the hotel anytime we want but it was a mistake. This is because Hotel Mecure Porte de St.Cloud is located off the main street and not many taxis come all the way in. Worse still, it was a Monday and it was also raining so there were more demand for taxi service in the city. I had to request the hotel to call a taxi for me; this would cost more since the taxi will start charging once they leave for the hotel from wherever they are. Even then, we waited for about 45 minutes before the taxi turned up. So if you need a taxi to catch a flight home, make the arrangement with the hotel earlier.

The taxi driver could not speak English so it was a quiet trip to our new hotel, the Hotel Porte Doree at the end of Avenue Daumesnil, Porte Doree. This is one of those small, old boutique hotels that has been refurbished with lifts, bathroom and other modern amenities. In fact, it is very cosy and atmospheric but it must have the smallest lift in Paris (if not the world) as it can only take 3 passengers officially! Anyway, I managed to squeeze myself in together with 2 x 20kg luggage to get to my room.

It is located in a very peaceful neighbourhood and very accessible as the bus to Gare du Nord stops right in front and the Metro stop Porte Doree is just 1 or 2 minutes away.

There are many eating places nearby, including MacDonald, Quick and Subway for fast food fans, Italian and Vietnamese restaurants, some Chinese takeaway (traiteurs), a mini market and pastry shop right in front and a French restaurant around the corner that served traditional fare where we had a fantastic dinner on our last night in Paris. More about that in my Day 7 Paris post later. 

This is an ideal small hotel for a relaxing stay except that it is located a little away from the city centre (7 stops to Bastille where we stayed the first time) and I could hear the rumbling of the Metro train at times but not enough to disturb my sleep. The Park of Bois de Vincennes is just across the ring road (some construction going on nearby) that borders the end of the block. Highly recommended unless you prefer those modern chain hotels or a very lively, happening neighbourhood.

We arrived at about 11am and though it was before the announced check-in time of 12 noon, we were able to moved straight into our room. The room is small but clean and very tastefully decorated. The corridor and staircase have some period charm.

Free WiFi is avaialble in the room and worked during all my 4 days' stay albeit slow at times and there is a free computer for use (as long as nobody is hogging it) but it has a French keyboard that needed some getting use to. They even printed my boarding pass for my home trip for free at the reception. 

Since today was designated as shopping day (the wife's idea of not wanting to shop at the last minute) we went straight to Galeries Lafayette for her to continue her shopping survey. While she was comparing designs and prices at GL, I went to look for the Paris Museum Pass. There is a Tourism Office near the Opera shown on the map so I made my way there. Don't bother, it turned out to be Office of the Tourism Ministry and I could not find a way in, they probably do not serve tourists directly. Then I stumbled upon the American Express office that was just next to the Roissy shuttle bus stop for CDG Airport, near to the Opera. Here they sell the Museum Pass among other services on offer. No queue here and English is gladly spoken so this is the best place to get the Museum Pass if you are near the Opera.

The Paris Museum Pass cost 35E for 2 days and 50E for 4 days and I regretted later that I should have taken the 4-day instead of the 2-day Pass as it would have given me more opportunity to visit additional museums and sights in Paris. If you intend to stay in Paris for more than 2 days and you wish to visit some of the popular sites, do get a Museum Pass. Not only will it save you some euros (if you do the maths right), it will save you a lot of time. Here's how. Some of the popular museums require you to buy a ticket and then go through a security check so there will usually be 2 queues, one for the ticket and for the security check. By having the Museum Pass, you bypass the ticket line and go straight to the security check (joining other ticket holders.) For some sights, there may even be a separate entrance for Pass holders. The other advantage is that you can enter a museum repeatedly (within the validity of the Pass) or visit museums that you may not have entered otherwise since the entrance fees are already paid for.

The PMP is just a neatly folded list of museums and sights where the Pass can be used sandwiched between two covers. You validate it the first time you use it by entering the date so they will check the validity of the Pass based on that date.

After my purchase, I met up with my wife in GL and since we did not want to eat at the self-service restaurant at the 6th floor again, we went to another restaurant nearby. I had the salad nicoise, the green salad with the salted anchovies, as starter and fish as the main course. My wife had a normal salad and omelette as the main dish.

The ladies here must be wondering, were is the shopping? OK, after lunch we continued on Boulavard Haussmann to look for Hard Rock Cafe as it was customary for my wife to buy T-shirts for our relatives and guitar-pin for our son as souvenirs from Hard Rock. Finally we reached Boulavard Montmartre and suddenly Hard Rock popped into view. BTW, this is actually nowhere near Montmartre where the Sacre-Coeur is located, don't know why they used the name.

A bonus for me was that there were two passages nearby, the Passage Jouffrey just next to Hard Rock,

and Passage Panoramas was just right opposite where I could shoot more videos.

Passages are shopping malls of bygone days and as they are covered, they would be good for visits during rainy days. Both have seen better days and Passage Jouffrey seems to have aged better, judging by the flooring. 

After my wife's haul at Hard Rock, we went to the Holy Grail of designer handbags, the flagship store of Louis Vuitton in Champs Elysees. A visit here is the dream of the everyday housewife and a nightmare for the everyday husband.

Before reaching LV, we passed another flagship store, this time that of Laduree, the maker of the famous macaroons and also the celebrity cafe, Fouquet with the striking red awning.

In fact, branches of Laduree seem to be everywhere, in Galaries Lafayette and even in the Palace of Versailles. So while my wife was doing her battle in LV, I, like many faithful husbands, sat waiting patiently at the benches that were thoughtfully provided at the sidewalk in front of the store, taking in the Parisian air of Champs Elysees and the fumes of the endless traffic. Thankfully, the purchase at LV was at the request of a relative and not her own. Phew!

As it was raining on and off that day, the LV store provided a plastic cover over the normal paper bag so it was very thoughtful of them. After the purchase, I thought it would be wise to make for the safety of the hotel and not parade the spoils all over Paris.

After some rest in the hotel, we went out for our dinner. My wife seemed to have taken a liking for the Chinese mixed rice takeaway so we had that at a traiteur near the hotel.

Her reason is simple, you can see what you are ordering and maybe she was worried about the E.coli outbreak. After dinner, we watched the Paris weather forecast to plan for tomorrow's activities. Since the forecast was for cloudy and rain, we decided to do some museum visit for tomorrow and reserve the next, brighter day for Versailles.

Ronald Kwok