Joined July 2017Living in: Queensland, Australia
  • Day35

    The long trek home

    September 27, 2017 in Australia

    In an ideal world, if one wants to go from Carcassonne to Lyon's St Exupéry airport, one would drive it. It takes about 4.5 hours, so if the flight was departing at 10pm, one could leave Carcassonne maybe mid-morning then take a relaxing scenic drive while exploring the picturesque countryside. You would arrive at the airport about three hours before the scheduled departure time feeling relaxed and comfortable.

    Without a car, the schedule is quite different. First, having been let down badly on our arrival by the Carcassonne taxi service, we decided to play safe and use shanks's pony to get ourselves to the railway station. We'd already walked the 1.5km route several times during our stay, so we knew where to go and which were the (relatively) pedestrian-friendly streets to take. In France and many other countries, pedestrians are given a fairly low priority, so one has to do battle with narrow potholed footpaths and parked and passing vehicles in this rather one-sided contest. It can slow things down.

    Our train was due to leave at 1033, and that provided the one and only option for us to get to Lyon airport in time to catch the flight home. We booked out of our great little hotel in good time, bidding fond farewells to the lovely young couple plus cat who run the hotel, and probably own it too. We made sure that we were at the station nice and early for the three hour trip down to Marseilles.

    We then had to connect with another train which took us to Lyon Part Dieu, the city's main railway station. Once there, we discovered that Lyon city runs a marvellous special modern tram which travels the 25km route every few minutes with only one stop en route. We had a six hour wait for our flight, but as we had all our luggage with us we'd already decided the best way was to wait at the airport rather than lug our bags on a sightseeing tour of the city of Lyon, which we'd already visited. The airport is very modern and wasn't too crowded so time passed quickly enough. As in many other parts of France it was impossible to ignore the large numbers of armed police and soldiers patrolling the two terminals. It is a sad fact of modern-day life in so many parts of the world.

    Our flight to Dubai was pleasant enough. We'd heard a whisper that there were a number of spare seats on the flight, so we got cheeky and asked the check-in lady if she'd block a seat off for us. She readily agreed, and that allowed us to spread ourselves across three seats, making the 6hr 20min flight much more comfortable. It was then a four-hour wait for the flight home. With its vast terminals, oversized retail areas and long distances between departure lounges Dubai is a place that one could easily grow to dislike. One thing we won't miss, either there or at the other airports, are the long queues and the intrusive security checks. Sadly, they are necessary, but they still take the edge off modern airline travel. From the time we booked in at Lyon to the time that we boarded our flight to Brisbane we went through five security checks of ourselves plus hand luggage, all of them requiring us to wait in long queues then go through the rigmarole of emptyng pockets and removing belts and shoes. It used to be that transit passengers weren't subject to these checks, but now, with the tightened security checks, everyone has to go through them for every flight. Every so often, it seems that an additional unscheduled security check gets thrown in at random.

    Helen has an impressive range of friends and contacts, mostly in the travel industry but elsewhere as well. When we had checked online before leaving Carcassonne we discovered not only that the airline had stuck both of us into middle seats, but that we weren't even sitting in the same row for our long flight from Dubai to Brisbane. Not happy. As soon as we found out we messaged Helen to see if there was anything she could do to help. Not only did Helen's contact get us seated together, but we found when we boarded that we were in one of the bulkhead rows, Apart from it giving us 2-3 times as much legroom as usual it meant too that we could get up and wander round without having to clamber over or disturb any fellow passengers. As a result we arrived home feeling reasonably relaxed. We were happy.

    We now have to start thinking about our next trip. Watch this space.
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  • Day34

    What a difference a day makes

    September 26, 2017 in France

    Waking up and looking out the window, we saw that it was a fine clear day, a contrast to the previous day. Things were looking up already. After breakfast we headed off for the 25 minute walk to the station, planning this time to catch the train to Narbonne, another place we'd been recommended. Would it prove to be any better than Limoux?

    The half-hour train ride was through really picturesque countryside, mainly grape-growing. The vineyards all looked so orderly and immaculate. We reached Narbonne and walked the kilometre or so to the Tourist Office. It was well signposted, an improvement already from the previous day's experience. The fellow in the Tourist Office was most helpful and gave us a rundown of the places which could be visited on foot. It was only a few hundred metres to the main square and already we could feel that this was one very pleasant and friendly town. For starters it was spotlessly clean, there were nice open squares with plenty of seating and many mature trees. We started at the Archbishop's Palace complex, which adjoins the square. The Palais des Archevêques was the Archbishop's Palace in Narbonne. It consists of an old Romanesque palace with Gothic alterations. It has three square towers dating from the 13th and 14th centuries. Today the palace hosts a city hall, the museum of art and history and the archaeological museum. Narbonne Cathedral also forms part of the complex. One good thing - maybe the only thing - which religion has given mankind are some truly magnificent cathedrals and artwork, and this is certainly no exception. Very impressive.

    Our entry passes then allowed us to visit the archaeological museum. A lot of ancient artefacts, some dating back to the Stone Age have been uncovered in and around Narbonne. It also has a very extensive Roman history, so there was much to see in terms of frescoes and other items from Roman times. The whole museum is really well laid out.

    We then visited the archbishop's chambers where paintings, mostly from the 16th to 18th centuries were on display. These had been accumulated by the various archbishops, so as one might imagine, they all had a strong religious theme. No problem with that, but we really felt that the works themselves were nothing special, especially when compared with the art we had seen so recently in the Musée d'Orsay and elsewhere.

    Our final port of call within the complex was the so-called dungeon. Now, we always thought that dungeons were subterranean places, but this in fact is a square tower. It was built between 1290 and 1311 by Archbishop Gilles Aycelin. This historical building rises four levels until the upper terrace. This attraction offers tourists a panoramic view of the Pyrenees and the Corbieres, the city, as well as the coast. In fact, this attraction is not a dungeon, but a fortified tower. Not knowing what we were letting ourselves in for, we decided to climb the spiral staircase to the very top. Later, we found out that there are 167 steep steps, so were very proud of our effort. It is not for the faint-hearted but it is definitely worth the climb to get a fantastic 360-degree view of the towns, city and cathedrals over the roofs of Narbonne. The view was great. In the twenty minutes or so that we were up there, only two other couples were brave/foolish enough to make the climb, so that's one way of escaping the tourist hordes.

    Displaying a certain degree of ignorance we next decided to look at the Musée Lapidaire, believing that it would house gemstones or jewellery, which could be of some interest. The entry tickets we'd bought earlier at the Archbishop's Palace complex included entry to this and other attractions within the town, so it all made sense. The so-called museum is housed in an old deconsecrated church, but all it contained were hundreds of carved blocks and other sandstone carvings which had been collected from round the district. The place was dusty, and the pieces were arranged in huge stacks in what seemed to be a haphazard fashion. At the time we visited, we were the only people there. Hardly compelling. It's a museum in search of a good curator.

    Brian was intrigued and felt that we just had to visit a building called the House of the Three Wetnurses. Our tourist brochure told us that it is one of the most outstanding examples of Renaissance private architecture in the region and unique to Narbonne. It was built in 1558 and gets its name from the buxom caryatids framing its south window. We were even more intrigued when we were able to count five such ladies in the facade, rather than the purported three. It was intriguing for its uniqueness, though it is not compelling. The facade is high up, at least one floor above street level, and can only be seen from the entrance to a modern hospital building directly across the street. The building is not open to the public.

    Narbonne is certainly tourism-orientated, and has a tourist mini-bus which runs every five minutes or so in a circuit round the major features of the town. As our final activity before catching the train back to Carcassonne we did the mini-tour. there was no commentary, but it at least gave us a chance to see more of this beautiful town. If we'd had more time - and a car - there were a lot of other tourist features there which we'd like to have seen.

    Reaching our hotel at about 5pm, Brian decided to do the 15 minute climb once more up to the Mediaeval City, hoping to get a few photos while the place wasn't too crowded and maybe picking up one or two souvenirs to bring home. It was still quite busy, though nowhere near as jam-packed as it had been on our earlier visit. He took a few more photos, but didn't find anything compelling enough to buy. Not surprisingly, prices there are high, and there is an awful lot of shoddy rubbish. The really nice stuff is ridiculously overpriced.

    Sadly, sadly, sadly this was the last day of our holiday, so we decided to commemorate it with a special dinner. There was a restaurant, Le Trivalou, a couple of hundred metres from our hotel which we'd tried a couple of times to get into. Each time, it was booked out. Not to be caught out again, we saw that the place was due to open at 7pm, and Brian was right there on the doorstep and made a booking for 8pm. Even then, it was the last available table. No wonder the place is so popular. We had a great meal there that night, and it was very reasonably priced.

    Our last day was a great success, and we ended it on a high. All that remained was the long trip home, and that was something we weren't looking forward to. On previous overseas holidays, by the time we'd reached this point we were well and truly ready to head home and to sleep once more in our own bed. Not this time. It was such a great and varied holiday that we really didn't want it to end, but we had to face reality.
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  • Day33

    Train travels

    September 25, 2017 in France

    With Brian still frustrated by our lack of a rental car, and Mary telling him to forget about it ("laissez tomber," as the French would say), we decided to explore the countryside by train. We'd heard that Limoux was an attractive place worth a visit, so we set off to the station and bought ourselves tickets at €4.25 each at the ticket office. Our local train arrived, and took us on the one-hour trip. While the train was certainly comfortable and quite modern, it was all rather quaint. It stopped three times en route, at fly-speck sized sidings which didn't even seem to have names, let alone proper station platforms. Limoux, our destination, was little better. The couple of dozen passengers got off, and we then had to walk across the railway tracks, behind the departing train, to reach the station itself. Nearly all the passengers then climbed on to a waiting bus and we, thinking that maybe it was a shuttle bus from the station to the town, tried to get on board too. The friendly bus driver indicated to us that he was going to someplace else, and he pointed us in the direction of the town centre.

    So, we headed off on foot, with lots of old buildings around us but nothing to tell us which direction we should be heading. There wasn't even a nearby church steeple in sight. Eventually we found our way to the town square, but probably because it was a Monday at least half the businesses were closed. To make matters worse the overcast sky looked quite threatening, so the town didn't look all that tempting to a couple of Australian pedestrians. We'd seen a sign to the tourist office and tried to follow it. However, there were no further directional signs to keep us on track. By asking a few locals along the way, we eventually found our way to the office, located on the very edge of the business district. The man there was very helpful, giving us maps and brochures. He agreed that the office was hard to find, and said that they'd been complaining for ages to the town authorities about the lack of signage. We were by no means the first ones to complain. Most things in France are done very well, but every so often they let themselves down.

    We then headed back to the town square about 500m away, and by the time we got there it was starting to rain. We had a bit of a look around but there really wasn't very much to see. The only good thing was that there weren't too many tourists - or locals, for that matter - wandering the streets. The tourist office man had told us that several of the town's attractions weren't open on Mondays, and even one museum which he'd said would be open proved not to be. By this time, the rain had really set in and had become quite heavy. Fortunately there were plenty of sheltered chairs and tables to choose from in front of the (closed) restaurants in the square, so we were able to keep dry. We weren't too confident though of staying dry while trying to navigate the kilometre or so back to the station. At least there were a good two hours before the next train out of town, so were in no great hurry. We'd decided though that we would catch that train home as there seemed little point in hanging around a bleak Limoux any longer than necessary. Very likely, on a fine warm day (preferably not a Monday) it's a very attractive place. We certainly weren't seeing it at its best.

    While sitting at our table, we got chatting to an English couple, similarly waiting for the rain to stop. They at least had the benefit of a car to get around in, but they told us that most of the local train and bus trips in the area cost only a nominal €1 each, and that included the €4.25 train trip which we'd done earlier that day. Evidently, there is a red coin in the slot machine at each station where one buys these cheap tickets. As remarked upon earlier, the French train system is spectacularly good, but then there are quirks which let them down. The lack of escalators at most stations is one major annoyance. Another quirk is the peculiar signage and numbering. When we were catching the train to Limoux that morning, the monitor directed us to Platform A. We could see directional signs for platforms numbered 1, 2 and 3, but no A. Eventually we discovered that the station did in fact have a Platform A. Why not simply call it Platform 4? Similarly, it seems that the numerous standard self-serve ticket machines dispense full-priced tickets, but if one is in the know then the same tickets can be bought from other machines for a fraction of the price.

    Anyway, after a half-hour or so wait, and to our great relief, the rain stopped. Even though our train wasn't due for another hour or so, we decided to head back to the station. There was no sign of a red ticket-dispensing machine, but when Brian asked the ticket office clerk for two €1 tickets, she readily handed them over. We'll know for next time. We were amused by the railway track with its waist-high weeds growing between the rails. It looked derelict, but our little train arrived spot on time and delivered us back to Carcassonne. Seeing the weather was so lousy, Brian had planned to trek up the hill from the hotel to the Mediaeval City and look for a few souvenirs to take back with us. He figured that the weather would have deterred the tourist hordes. However by that time the rain had restarted, so it deterred him as well.

    In an action-packed fun-filled holiday, this hadn't been one of our better days, but given that every day apart from this one had been fantastic, we've nothing to complain about. Plans are for the next day, our last full day before we head for home, to include a train trip to Narbonne. We didn't know what we would find, so were approaching it with some trepidation.
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  • Day32

    A quiet day in Carcassonne

    September 24, 2017 in France

    By this time, we'd explored most of the interesting parts of Carcassonne on foot and wanted to find out about areas further afield, Fabro, our host on the river cruise, comes from this area and had already given us a list of must-see places. Some are accessible by public transport, but there are others which can reach only by car.

    We thought that the logical place to start would be the tourist office in this tourist-oriented town, so we fronted up there just as the doors were opening at 10am. The first thing the girl told us was that one needs a car in order to explore the area. Well, thanks for nothing. We explained our predicament, but she couldn't get rid of us quickly enough, throwing some place-names, a couple of railway timetables and a map at us before turning away to serve the next customer. What we did establish was that train services on a Sunday are almost non-existent in that neck of the woods, though that part didn't worry us since we were prepared to go on the Monday or Tuesday.

    We then wandered off to find the Gourmet Market, but that turned out to be a bit of a fizzer, with only about a dozen stalls of nothing very exciting. The previous day's produce market had been far more interesting. It was a fine warm day, so were happy to sit in the square watching the world go by.

    However one can't spend the whole day doing that, so we booked ourselves onto a 2.5 hour boat trip on the Canal du Midi, which runs through the town. These days, the 240km canal carries only tourist traffic, but when it was built in the 1600s it was a major part of the trade link in France from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. It is a major engineering feat, with 91 locks and some very cunning engineering to keep it navigable along its entire length. Anyway, the trip was very interesting and very picturesque, For the most part we travelled in heavily wooded areas with no signs of civilisation. During Napoleon's time large stretches were planted with plane trees, which are now very mature. Their roots play a major part in preventing erosion of the canal walls. A quiet but enjoyable day, indeed.

    On Sundays in Carcassonne most businesses, including restaurants, are closed. Knowing that the restaurants in the immediate vicinity are crowded most nights, we decided that it would be prudent to book for our Sunday night meal. A place we'd been recommended was the Jardin de L'Été, a couple of hundred metres from the hotel. This we did, and as it was shaping up to be a mild night, after a very warm day, we asked for a table in the aforementioned jardin. Per our booking, we arrived at 8pm and were ushered outside to a pleasant walled garden, paved with coarse gravel and at least the size of two tennis courts. It was already quite full, and we could see that the one and only waitress was being run off her feet. There were a couple of large groups, more of that in a moment, and it was a long time between visits to our table to deliver the menu, take our orders, deliver them and so forth. In fact it was approaching 11pm before we finally finished. By then, it was getting quite chilly and we were longing for our hotel room. Our waitress was most apologetic. It seems that the owner had decided to open the garden on the Sunday night as a trial and had been overwhelmed by the response. It wasn't the fault of our poor waitress who'd been running herself ragged serving meals across this large gravelled area.

    It's probably just as well that we were outside because two of the groups were very noisy. We'd heard already that Carcassonne is a popular place for the English, both for holidays and as a place to retire to. Certainly we heard more regional pommy accents in and around Carcassonne, including in our little hotel, than anything else. That was in contrast to the other parts of France we visited where the English-speaking tourists were mainly Canadians and Americans. Anyway, Brian came to the conclusion that the group of loud pommy males was a load of bus-drivers from Birmingham, while the other large table, of about eight couples comprised fruit shop owners and their wives from 'uddersfield. Turning all of that into a running joke certainly helped the time go by for we two impatient hungry travellers.

    Was it worth the wait? Probably not, though we knew that after the magnificent meals on Le Phenicien everything else was going to seem pretty ordinary.
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  • Day31

    Food porn and exploring Carcassonne

    September 23, 2017 in France

    We'd arrived in the dark, so the next morning was our first chance to look around. The hotel is on a quiet street, and it is only a ten-minute walk up the hill to the Cité Médiévale. This UNESCO-protected site sits high above Carcassonne, and its walls dominate the skyline. Since the pre-Roman period, a fortified settlement has existed on the hill where Carcassonne now stands. In its present form it is an outstanding example of a medieval fortified town, with its massive defences encircling the castle and the surrounding buildings, its streets and its fine Gothic cathedral. Carcassonne is also of exceptional importance because of the lengthy restoration campaign undertaken by Viollet-le-Duc, one of the founders of the modern science of conservation.

    Meanwhile down below, on the banks of the Aude River, there is the old town of Carcassonne with its narrow streets interesting architecture. By comparison it is almost new, merely dating back to the Middle Ages, and that's where our hotel is located. In the shadow of its smaller but more famous sibling, the ‘La Cité’ citadel. Known as the ‘Bastide Saint Louis’, it features typically French bars, shops, cafés and restaurants,

    We thought that we'd start out by doing the walk up to the Cité Médiévale. When we got there things were fairly quiet, and Brian was able to take plenty of photos while relatively unimpeded by massive tour groups and narcissistic individuals taking selfies while posing in front of the spectacularly beautiful views. Cité Médiévale is amazing in that no matter where you turn there's a new and photogenic perspective of the place. As the morning progressed, the crowds really started arriving in droves and the place filled up with tourists, Brian still managed some shots which shouldn't require too much PhotoShopping to eliminate all the tourists, though it was challenging at times.

    Like so many of the tourist hotspots we'd visited over the past couple of weeks Cité Médiévale is full of souvenir shops, food shops and restaurants by the dozens, all designed to part the hordes of passing tourists from their euros, dollars, pounds or whatever. In amongst all the cheap plastic garbage and the unashamedly kitsch items there are many quality souvenirs, but they tend to be very expensive at these places. In terms of the food shops there and elsewhere in France, it doesn't matter whether one is looking at boulangeries, lolly shops or patisseries (Brian's downfall) the food is always presented beautifully and it's of high quality. Buy something as simple as a ham and cheese baguette and it will come from a display where everything is laid out with geometric neatness and is irresistibly inviting. One can't help but want to buy it - and a few other items at the same time. When you receive it, it is usually packaged beautifully. The same goes for the patisseries, where you just stand there salivating while deciding which of the many different items on display you should buy. Unlike the cakes in Australia which generally look better than they taste, we found that the French cakes and pastries not only look good but taste fantastic as well. Then there are the sweet shops, which generally also sell small biscuits in a range of flavours. Everything is packaged and displayed beautifully and it is hard to resist the temptation to buy nearly everything in sight. Food porn, indeed.

    We then took a step forward in time, relatively speaking, and browsed the shops and narrow streets of the old town. Again, highly photogenic and very interesting. There are two beautiful squares, Place Carnot which is in the centre of town and filled with old shops, and Square Gambetta which is much more open and modern. Both are very appealing. Three mornings a week there's a produce market in Place Carnot, and we reached the square an hour or so before the stall-holders were packing up. While it was quite a bit smaller than its counterpart in Lyon, everything still looked beautiful and very tempting - more food porn. We noticed some posters stating that the following day, which was a Sunday, there was going to be an annual so-called Gourmet Market in the square and we decided that we must get to that.

    Speaking of food, as we have been, we were determined to try the feature dish of the area, cassouelet. The one we had for dinner contained duck, and fantastic it was too. We really like this place.
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  • Day30

    At the end, the pot of gold

    September 22, 2017 in France

    Sadly, we packed our bags, more or less ready to move on to Carcassonne, our next destination. Our train was due to leave at the civilised time of 1455 from Gare Montparnasse, so we were still able to enjoy a leisurely breakfast Parisian style. After checking out, we gave ourselves an hour more of Parisian exploration before we'd take our lives in our hands on the Metro. We'd already seen enough excitement on the underground, and were fervently hoping for an incident-free trip to the main line station of Gare Montparnasse.

    In the meantime, we decided to explore a few streets we hadn't visited before in the area between Les Invalides and L'École Militaire. What a great group of shops were there, much more reasonably priced than on the Champs Élysées and just as interesting. That included a whole lot of new restaurants less touristy than the ones on Rue St Clair and Rue Dominique. Clearly, Paris was already beckoning us to come back for another visit. Our very helpful and friendly hotel receptionist had already told us that morning that we should try to visit Paris next time in July/August rather than in September. Not only is the weather better then but he said that the place is less crowded and prices are lower. It was the opposite from what we'd thought, but evidently major events such as Paris Fashion Week take place in September and draw huge crowds. We've made a mental note for next time.

    Eventually the time came for us to catch the Metro, a part of the trip which we weren't exactly looking forward to. With all their steep stairways up and down, some of the stations are quite challenging for people with luggage. We'd loaded most of our belongings into Brian's suitcase, and Mary bravely pushed on with her bag, but was struggling. (It wasn't all that easy for Brian either). Fortunately, there were so many younger and fitter passers-by who were willing to help her on those wretched stairs. We reached Gare Montparnasse in good time with about 90 minutes to spare before the scheduled departure time. These major stations are huge, with people milling about everywhere, and it isn't always easy to work out what one should do. Furthermore none of the announcements are in English, and the rapidly-gabbled announcements over a distorted PA system are way too challenging for Brian's basic French language skills.

    We knew that for security reasons or whatever the platform number for each train gets announced only 20 minutes before departure, after which there's a mad scramble to reach right coach on the right train on the right platform. So, when we got to five minutes before scheduled departure and our platform number still wasn't showing on the monitors, we started to get anxious. It was then that another announcement in French came over the PA and all the crowd around us went rushing off in one direction. We kind of followed them, unsure as to whether that was the right thing to do, until we eventually found someone who spoke English and who reassured us that, yes, this crowd was all heading for our train on Platform 7 and that it wouldn't leave until everyone was on board.

    We had booked to travel first class on a really good pricing deal and were in Coach number 1. Just to complicate matters we saw that there were two different route numbers and two trains travelling end-to-end. The back-end carriages would be going only as far as Bordeaux while the front half of the train would proceed to Toulouse, our destination. We assumed that the train would stop briefly at Bordeaux to allow this to happen in a safe and orderly manner, though one can never be sure of these things. It was vital therefore that we boarded the correct end of the train since there was no way that one could walk its entire length as there were a couple of locomotives in the middle. This double-train turned out to be really long, long enough to cover two time zones we reckoned, and it took us quite a while for us to reach the front coach.

    Once on board we were really impressed. The carriage was spacious with big comfortable seats and various facilities for business people to work while they travelled at 300kph or so. On time to the minute, we disembarked at Toulouse station where, fortunately, we had 45 minutes in which to work out how to print our pre-ordered tickets for the next sector and find the right platform. Naturally, that involved several more flights of steps but we got there in the end. Of course our original plan had us collecting an Avis rental at Toulouse, so from this point on we were on Plan B. It involved a commuter train which we caught for the hour-long journey to Carcassonne, comfortable enough but not a patch on the luxury of the TGV. A helpful chap we'd chatted to on the train Googled our hotel and told us that it was definitely a long way from the station and that we'd haveto grab a cab. We therefore wandered across to the taxi rank, which was deserted apart from another couple who were waiting there already. They told us we'd need to phone for a cab - the phone number was on a nearby sign - and the operator told us there would be a wait of at least 20 minutes. Fortunately, it wasn't raining, but we weren't too happy at having to wait in this dark isolated area, particularly after the other couple's cab had arrived and taken them to their hotel. After a good 30 minutes we decided to hell with this. Brian's GPS indicated that it was a 1.5km walk and off we set along a lot of deserted and uneven footpaths. We admit that by then we were feeling somewhat cranky, but managed to reach the Hotel Pont Vieux, an old building overlooking a historic bridge (hence the name) and a quiet street with several restaurants.

    We were greeted warmly by the patron and patronne, who made us feel very welcome. They asked if we minded being on the top (ie third) floor, which we didn't. Thank goodness, the patron carried our bags for us up the narrow winding staircase. They told us they'd put us in a newly renovated family suite, and when we saw it, we were impressed. The main bedroom was quite spacious, and there was a second room with two single beds, which gave us plenty of room to store our bags. The bathroom was big and brand-new. We were certainly very happy with our choice of hotel. After all those dozens of stairways and long walks with our luggage we were shattered, so after a quick meal at a nearby restaurant we hit the sack. At least we knew that after a day of great ups and downs we'd struck gold.
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  • Day29

    Never a dull moment

    September 21, 2017 in France

    We caught up with our good friends Ian and Eileen for a farewell breakfast at the lovely cafe across the road from the hotel. Later, we chatted with them for a few minutes before they went off to do their packing and we set off with a fairly flexible plan to get to know this wonderful city even better. One thing that's certain is that if one is on holiday in Paris, every day is a good day. Some days may be better than others, but all of them are fantastic.

    Actually, we were very well organised for the first part of this, our last full day, in Paris. We'd decided that we wanted to use the Metro the next day to get ourselves plus luggage from La Tour Maubourg to Gare Montparnasse, from where our train would be leaving for Carcassonne via Toulouse. At least half the Metro stations are quite challenging for this sort of activity, with lots of up and down stairways, some quite long and steep, and mazes of long underground walkways. Most of these stations are yet to be equipped with lifts or escalators. Brian had mapped out two possible routes for getting to Gare Montparnasse, and armed with our tourist transport passes we decided that we'd try each of them out and decide which would be the easier one with our luggage.

    It started out well with us catching the Metro to Concorde station, where we'd change to Line 12 to reach our destination. However, two stops short of Gare Montparnasse, at Rennes, our train stopped, the lights dimmed and an announcement came over the loudspeaker. Evidently somewhere nearby there had been a suicide and our train wasn't going any further. Everyone was to leave the train. After some thought we decided the best bet would be to go to the opposite platform and catch a train back to base and at least try the other route. We soon learned that that wasn't possible either as trains had been stopped in both directions. Some of our fellow passengers were most put out, but at least for us it wasn't too big an inconvenience.

    We then headed up to street level and found that we weren't all that far from the Montparnasse area where we'd stayed on our first visit and which we knew to be attractive. However our dramas weren't totally over. As we emerged we saw several TV cameras set up near the entrance, with outside broadcast vans, and large numbers of police and other characters milling round. Evidently, a huge day of union protests at Emmanuel Macron's labour reforms was about to start, and this area seemed to be a focal point. We decided to move right along, and knowing that the beautiful Jardin du Luxembourg was only a short distance away, we headed there, picking up some fruit (including a punnet of Brian's obligatory raspberries and Mary's obligatory grapes) for our lunch. It had been a long time since we'd eaten so healthily so, as well as being very tasty, the fresh fruit helped us ease our consciences.

    We'd spent half a day on our previous trip enjoying the gardens and were happy to return there on this warm sunny day. It was great, and looking extra good as the autumn colours were starting to appear. Both of us even managed a short nap in the sun. From there we took a wander up to the Pantheon, which we hadn't seen before, but decided just to admire it from the outside rather than pay the entry fee. We did however visit the nearby church of Sainte Genèvieve. It was certainly well worth it. From there, we wandered through the Latin Quarter and down to the Jardin des Plantes, where we managed to get ourselves thoroughly disorientated and lost. We weren't so homesick that we needed a fix, but in our travels we wandered past a section of the Menagerie where a couple of dozen wallabies were happily grazing on lush green grass, a diet probably more flavoursome than they would have enjoyed back home.

    It was late afternoon by then, and we were becoming footsore and weary, so we decided to find a Metro station and head back to base. In a final burst of energy, Brian then decided that we would explore the other route for getting ourselves to Gare Montparnasse. This would require us to change trains at La Motte-Picquet station, but when we saw just how many flights of steep stairs that was going to entail, we soon decided that the Concorde option would be the better one. One can but hope that there won't be any other such disruptions to our best-laid plans when we're carrying our luggage.

    We'd certainly earnt ourselves a relaxing drink by that time, so decided to head across the road from the hotel to the cafe where we'd been enjoying our breakfasts. It turned out that they run a happy hour (well, five hours, actually) from 5pm each night, so we enjoyed a half-litre of good beer and a glass of genuine champagne together with a bowl of nibbles for the grand total of ten euros - very cheap by Parisian standards. We sat in the sun at a small table on the footpath watching the world go by and thinking about the great unplanned day we'd just had.
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  • Day28

    Another glorious day in Par(ad)is(e)

    September 20, 2017 in France

    The weather when we woke up was beautiful, so what's not to like about that? Going to our busy little cafe for breakfast, the proprietor seemed a little slow to take our order. Following the bad dinner experience of the previous night - though at a different restaurant - we were getting a little concerned when he suddenly appeared with Mary's cappuccino and Brian's double espresso, followed immediately afterwards by the rest of the Frencj breakfast. Clearly, he'd remembered us from our previous visits and didn't need to ask us what we wanted, and clearly too, we're established here. We could happily stay on in Paris.

    After the four of us hade breakfasted we decided that this would be a day for strolling round Paris and revisiting all the tourist spots. The 15-minute walk to the Eiffel Tower was a good start, and we spent quite a bit of time taking photos and generally soaking up the atmosphere on this beautiful autumn morning. From there, we wandered up towards the Champs Élysées, looking in shop windows at all the grossly overpriced name-brand goods. Even the coffees we bought were double the going rate anywhere else. Still, we were on holiday, so these things shouldn't matter.

    We then headed for the Tuileries Garden, where the crowds were much less, and on to the Île de la Cité and the Nôtre Dame. We had contemplated visiting the nearby Sainte-Chapelle with its fantastic stained glass windows, but the queue was quite long and we didn't feel like waiting. We really weren't confident that Eileen's walking stick would work for us a second time. Anyway,people were starting to flag by then, so we headed back to our hotel, diverting en route to the newly-discovered Karamel Cafe for decadent cakes and coffee.

    Ian and Eileen had very generously wanted to shout us the previous night as our Golden Wedding anniversary dinner, but that of course had turned out to be a total disaster, fortunately at no cost to ourselves. We decided to have another try, but this time to go more upmarket. We'd been recommended a restaurant with the unlikely name of Fitzgerald which was only 100m or so from the hotel, so we decided to give it a try. It turned out to be quite classy and very very enjoyable, and we were grateful to our good friends Ian and Eileen for their generosity. Another fantastic Parisian day.
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  • Day28

    Always carry a stick

    September 20, 2017 in France

    The day was overcast and drizzly when the four of us set off mid-morning, after our leisurely breakfasts. That meant adopting Plan B, a visit to the Musée d'Orsay rather than a stroll to the Eiffel Tower and other significant places. We caught the Metro for one stop to Les Invalides, from where we walked below ground, up and down stairs, to catch an RER train for one stop to the Museum. We probably walked at least as far through the various tunnels as if we'd walked along the streets, but at least we were warm and dry.

    Eileen had been suffering from a bad hip for a few weeks prior to this, and her specialist had recommended she take a walking stick with her to Paris. She wasn't too keen on the idea, but took his advice nevertheless and had borrowed one from a friend in Harrogate. We emerged from the Metro directly outside the Museum only to be confronted with a massive queue of people waiting to get in. It must have been a couple of hundred metres long, though it was moving steadily. We were of two minds whether it was worth the wait, but in the end we decided to do so. We'd been waiting less than five minutes when a security guard beckoned to Eileen to come with him, then gestured for us to follow. At first we didn't know why, but when the guard led us to the head of the queue, ahead of the waiting hordes, we realised that he'd spotted Eileen's walking stick and, probably under instructions, had saved her (and us) from waiting in line.

    All of us had been to Musée d'Orsay previously but were keen to make a return trip as it really is a magnificent place. We and the Lees agreed to go our separate ways to look at the displays we each were most interested in. We'd rendezvous again in 1.5 hours and decide then whether we'd continue in the Museum or move on. When we met up, we agreed that we'd barely scratched the surface, so allowed ourselves a further two hours. After that, we wanted another time extension, so all in all we were there for a good five hours. With all the sculptures, the Impressionist paintings, the van Gogh paintings, the spectacular antique furniture and much, much more it was fantastic. A most enjoyable visit, even if there was much which we didn't get to see. There must have been thousands of people there, but fortunately it's such a huge place that, aside from the Impressionist and the van Gogh areas, it wasn't impossibly crowded. At least Eileen's walking stick had saved us a wait in a very long queue.

    Something which has always puzzled Brian in France is that there are so many spectacular patisseries selling beautiful cakes, but that none of them have tables where one can sit down to eat them. Nor do they serve coffee. Meanwhile, the cafes and bars which do serve coffee never have particularly good cakes. Surely there must be a business opportunity for someone who wants to combine the two? Anyway, Brian had previously spotted a place not far from our hotel which did look like it would meet all those requirements, and as the weather had fined up, we decided to walk back there for a late afternoon tea. The cafe met all our expectations and then some. Fantastic cakes, fantastic coffee and excellent friendly service. Cafe Karamel has the lot. Despite our protests, Ian and Eileen very generously shouted us the afternoon tea as part of their 50th wedding anniversary gift to us. We didn't know it yet, but it was all going to be downhill from there.

    We were all feeling a little weary, so headed back to our hotel to rest, agreeing to meet in the lobby to go out to dinner at 8pm. The two of us must have been more tired than we'd realised, because we got into deep sleeps and only just woke up in time for our rendezvous. We then headed out to find a place where we'd have dinner. Again, this was to be Ian and Eileen's shout to celebrate our anniversary. There are hundreds of restaurants within walking distance, but many of them were already full. Eventually we found a likely looking place, Cafe Central in the restaurant precinct of Rue Cler, and sat down. Nothing happened, and it took a good half-hour before we managed to get a waiter to take our food and drink orders.

    There was then another very long wait before the charcuterie board, which we'd agreed to share, arrived. The various meats were uninteresting and totally flavourless. After that, there was a further very long wait, with us giving the waiters a couple of hurry-ups, before the main courses eventually arrived. And they definitely weren't worth waiting for. Eileen's meal was cold. Clearly, they'd prepared it well before they'd brought it out to us. Ian and Mary had ordered ravioli, but what arrived was something quite unlike anything we'd ever encountered before. Lumps of what we assumed to be plain pasta were buried in a bowl of some sort of white flavourless sauce, and on top of it all sat a tiny piece of anonymous and flavourless meat about the size of a business card. Brian's chicken dish was at least edible though very unexciting. He was the only one who managed to finish his food.

    We have known Ian for many years, and he is a very calm person. By then we'd been waiting so long that the restaurant was almost empty, so we were able finally to attract the waiter's attention. Ian demanded he get the manager, who arrived a few moments later. Eileen insists that in all the time she's been married to him she has never seen Ian so angry, but he and Brian let the manager have it with both barrels, telling him that it was a special occasion for us, that the food was awful and the service was atrocious. Anyway, the manager quickly agreed to do the right thing and waived the whole bill. It's probably just as well, as Brian was prepared to write the most scathing review that he possibly could and post it on TripAdvisor. That at least got them off the hook. The only benefit was that we didn't have to pay for the two beers and two carafes of rose - some small compensation.

    By this time, it was about 11.30pm and most of the restaurants were closing. However, we found one which served us nice desserts and coffee, so the evening wasn't a total disaster, even if it came close to being one.
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  • Day26

    Never a dull day in Paris?

    September 18, 2017 in France

    With the loss of Brian's drivers licence, we would no longer be able to hire a car to explore Carcassonne and the surrounding district, which caused some disruption to our plans. Plan B is for us to travel by train from Toulouse, where we were to have collected our rental car, to Carcassonne. We also needed to organise train travel later from Carcassonne to St Exupéry airport in Lyon so we could catch our flight home. Brian spent over two frustrating hours on the iPad trying to make online bookings, but nothing was working. In the end, he gave up.

    We then went for a bit of a wander round our immediate area then strolled across the beautiful Pont Alexandre III and on towards the Place de la République. Unfortunately, it was still filled with a lot of temporary structures from the previous day's concert, so it wasn't looking its best. We knew that we'd be seeing again (and again) in the next four days before we leave Paris, and by then the place will be looking attractive again.

    We were very much looking forward to catching up with our old friends Ian and Eileen who were coming over to Paris from Harrogate to join us, so we decided to head to Gare du Nord and meet them there. It was a dual-purpose visit, as Brian decided that the only way that he could complete his purchase of rail tickets was to get them in person at a station. That part of the mission was more or less easily achieved, though it turned out that our friends' arrival time was a couple of hours than what we'd understood it to be, so we decided to wait for them back at our hotel instead.

    Not much excitement so far, but that was about to change. Just one Metro stop before our own, we suddenly heard a lot of shouting and saw people sprinting along the platform. Just outside the window of our stationary train, one man leapt onto another one, who was running as fast as he could, and tackled him to the ground in true rugby style. Several others then helped to sit on the fugitive. Our train was stopped at the platform for a good 20-25 minutes while we got a grandstand view of it all. It took a few minutes for the gendarmes to arrive, but when they did, they were swarming all over the place. We assumed that the fugitive was probably a bag-snatcher, and a couple of good Samaritans had made sure that he didn't get away with it. The police were less than gentle with him, which Brian was pleased to see with his stolen wallet fresh in his mind. Unfortunately one of the pursuers appeared to have broken his arm in the scuffle, but at least justice was done and we saw some excitement.

    Late afternoon, Ian and Eileen arrived at our hotel, where they'll be staying for three nights. We first met them at Fibremakers in Melbourne, where we and they were on secondment from New Zealand and the UK respectively. We had young families at the time, and found that we had a lot in common. Since then, we've visited one another on a few occasions, the last time being about nine years ago. It was really great to meet up again like this. We had a thoroughly enjoyable meal at a nearby restaurant while we excitedly caught up with one another's news. A day which started slowly finished really well.
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