Monday, December 29, 2008

Where I stayed in Paris

After reading different websites,reviews and books I decided to base my late November to December vacation in the Montmartre quarter.I split my two weeks staying at two backpacker/hostel establishments near Sacre Coeur.
Given my limited budget and the fact I only required a bed and shower without the mod cons
I reasoned I'd be out most of the day sightseeing.I only required a bed and a shower.I could endure the lack of privacy and mod cons a dorm room lacks.The money saved Id spend instead on one decent meal a day.

The Caulaincourt Square Hostel
The first week I stayed at was the Caulaincourt Square Hostel.A bed in the six room dorm cost 25 euros a night with breakfast included in the price.
As it was late November I was lucky to have the fourth floor room I was given to myself on two nights.The only night all six places were filled it was quite a jam and space for bags etc was at a premium.
There was no lift,so you had to carry your luggage up the steep narrow staircase.The bed linen appeared to have been washed but its colour didnt inspire me with confidence so I used a sheet Id bought along just in case.The bed was the old metal bunk variety.It tended to creak disconcertingly whenever you turned though the mattress itself was comfortable enough.
There was hot water for the shower though the pressure was variable.As was the apparent cleaning schedule.There were two week old newspapers in the rubbish bin along with creeping,rolling dust bunnies festering in the corners.

The bathroom too had seen better days and appeared to only receive a cursory cleaning if the dirt in the grouting and matted hair and soap in the shower were any indication.The hand basin lacked a plug and there was no hook or place to hang your towel when you took a shower.
There was no place to store your luggage if you arrived before check in except by the front desk and my room security card seemed to need replacing every second day as it wouldnt open my room door.
On the plus side the room was warm enough.The free breakfast consisted of coffee,tea and orange juice with a selection of cereals,rolls and jams.
There were three internet computers available for free use and a small cramped kitchen if you wanted to prepare your own food(though there seemed a lack of utensils and basic equipment).
The Caulaincourt was well located not too far from Lamarck Station.It is also within walking distance of a number of restaurants,bars,shops and obviously Sacre Coeur.
In terms of location I preferred it to the other place I stayed at, the Montclair Hostel,one station down at Jules Joffrin on the Porte de la Chapelle line.

Montclair Hostel
As with the first hostel the Montclair also has six bed dormitory rooms available.I choose to stay in one of these rooms at 28 euros a night with breakfast included.The breakfast provided here had less variety and selection of bread and cereals but was satisfactory enough given the price.
Im glad I was given a lower bunk bed.These creaked like the other establishments but these ones seemed closer to imminent collapse than the previous ones which were of sturdier construction.The arthritic frames creaked and protested at the slightest movement.
That said,at least the linen appeared and smelled clean compared to the earlier sheets.
On the negative side there was again no elevator but thankfully I only had to go up one flight of stairs.
While internet was free at the other hostel here one had to pay 2 euros for thirty minutes.Basically both hostels used the same system only here you had to pay for the temporary login code to get access.
As for the shower unfortunately it was very small and very cold.There was no hot water on any of the three attempts I tried to shower.In vain I went downstairs to the ground floor where there was sufficent pressure and heat to scrub away a days sightseeing grime.
While the kitchen space available for people was larger than the last place again it lacked utensils and appeared besieged by small black flies.

The photo above shows the freezing cold shower unit.The other curious feature was that you had to keep pressing the button to ensure the water kept flowing.While it may be a water saving feature it meant a stop start showering process unless you continuously lent on it.
Again the room was adequately warm with heaters and extra linen was available if you felt cold.The cleanliness was of a higher standard than previously though the room size was probably about the same.Again,being near winter there were only two or three nights when all beds were occupied.
The staff were friendly and helpful.There was a lockable room for luggage available and an area to chill out and meet others.
I didnt find as many restaurants and shops in this area but Sacre Coeur was again only five minutes away on foot and the hostel was literally around the corner from the subway station.
Id recommend the Montclair ahead of the Caulaincourt on the basis of its cleanliness and staff while Caulaincourt certainly was ahead in terms of its setting and location to bars and restaurants.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Few More Interesting Places I Visited in Paris

Apart from the obvious Eiffel Tower and Louvre there are many other equally diverting and unusual art galleries and museums to visit.I'll briefly note here some that I visited while in Paris late November and earlier this month.

This is an interior shot from the Musee de l'Armee,(Military Museum) housed in the Hotel des Invalides.Its a huge comprehensive museum with many varied collections of armour,uniforms and weapons.I spent the best part of a day walking around looking at the ancient and modern weapons on display.

This photo shows the huge courtyard of the Invalides where the Military Museum is housed.In the background is the gilded top of the Eglise du Dome.The Dome Church which can be seen from virtually anywhere in Paris contains the tomb of Napoleon.Napoleons huge sarcophagus like coffin is set in the middle of the Church below ground.

There are many famous people buried around the cemeteries of Paris.If you have the time its interesting to discover the final resting places of such notable people as Edith Piaf,Oscar Wilde or even Jim Morrison who reside in the Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise in Belleville.
Given the size of the cemetery it is wise to purchase a map of the areas more famous internees.Even then it took a bit of legwork to find the graves and tombs among the maze of cobbled lanes.
Above is the oft visited grave of Jim Morrison.As well as a map if you do intend visiting this or any other cemetery in autumn or later wrap up warmly.When I visited it was freezing with a biting wind gnawing at my ears as I strode about looking for various celebrity tombs.

If you need a break from the art and inclement weather the National Museum of Natural History provides a different experience.The Museum is split into three different parts ,one area is concerned with minerals and geology,the second concentrates on fossils and anatomy and the third focuses on evolution and modern issues.When I visited there was a temporary whale exhibition currently on the go.The lion you see above is one exhibit in the Grande Galerie de l`Evolution.
I liked the way the animals were posed.Some thought had gone into imaginatively capturing the individual animals.There were monkeys strategically set climbing between floors or a giraffe craning its neck over a railing.It reminded me of a cross between the Natural History Museums Ive been to in London and New York.
If you visit the other two parts of the Museum as well ensure you show your ticket to get a discount on entering.
I also visited the fossil and anatomy section.You can see a shot below of what greets you as you enter the first floor.It was kind of chilling to see all those blanched white skeletons almost charging at you as walk into the exhibition hall.On subsequent floors there are also dinosaur skeletons and skulls of various creatures.Quite fascinating.And popular with a large variety of people.A number of students were busily scratching away on their pads sketching different beasts while mothers and offspring loitered around the reptile bones and skeletons.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Friday Flash..Christmas Treats

Two more seasonal offerings from a local cake shop in my neighbourhood.The one above is a simple lemon sponge like creation with a kind of creme brulee toffee topping.
The dessert below is a rich cream like creation with ginger cookies and fruit floating in it.

Monday, December 15, 2008

What I Did in Paris.Part 45..Highs and Lows

Tour Montparnasse

The Tour Montparnasse is your typical skyscraper that would be quite at home here in downtown Nagoya or rubbing shoulders with other nondescript structures found throughout Japans urban morass.However as you can see from this shot taken from Montmartre it really does stick out in low rise Paris.

On the top of the Tour Montparnasse is a 56th floor exhibition space and bar/cafe that offers great views of Paris below as well as exorbitantly priced coffee and sandwiches to match the heights.On the 59th floor above the exhibition area and bar theres an open air terrace with 360 degree views of Paris.Here you can see a shot from the terrace.Behind the Eiffel Tower you can see La Defense an area of skyscrapers on the edge of the city.
While I suggest you should look out the windows in the warmth of the exhibition centre Id avoid the cafe due to its prices.I'd also recommend a coat if its windy or winter when you venture to the 59th floor terrace.
The day I was up there I had the place virtually to myself.This was probably due to the fact it was so cold and visibility wasnt the best.
Admission was around 9 euros which was a litle steeper than most museums and other attractions I'd visited.Still it was worth it given the uninterrupted views and the rather strange notice I found in the toilets.Im still pondering what it means.

In the same Montparnasse quartier as the Tour Montparnasse you can visit the Catacombes.While I wouldnt put it on my list of "must sees" if you have some time to kill its certainly an interesting option.Particularly if its cold and you are looking for somewhere sheltered for an hour or so.

From the entrance,(where you will no doubt have to queue,though being the low season the wait was bearable), you wind your way down 130 odd steps to emerge at the start of a series of underground tunnels.Various signs and displays explain the tunnels history and how they came to be used to store the corpses of the citys cemeteries in 1785.

Each of the narrow passages and small alcoves you walk through are lined with bones and skulls all neatly stacked up in rows and different patterns.Its certainly creepy and mind numbing to consider how many corpses have been used and moved to their final underground resting place.
Because of a basic sense of decency and respect flash photography isnt allowed.
Given the low light levels this made getting photos without a flash somewhat of a challenge.I found the best results were those I took near the lights or exit signs
You eventually emerge after walking about one and a half kilometres of these macabre subterranean passages at the exit.I was somewhat surprised to be asked to open my bag as I emerged from the exit.Apparently stealing bones is viewed as a grave offence and those caught are taken to the police.
Obviously such a ghoulish attraction isnt to everyones taste nor would I recommend it to people who are claustrophic as the passages are narrow in places and the ceilings somewhat low.

What I Did In Paris..Part 365..Notre Dame

Obviously one of the places to see when one is in Paris is the Cathedrale de Notre Dame.Notre Dame took over two hundred years to build and offers lots of great photo opportunities from whichever way you approach it.Inside there are three massive rose stained glass windows.

Outside on the narrow walkways on the towers you can get close to many of the gargoyles that perch on the cathedral's ledges.You can also get good views of the skyline.

Admission to the Cathedral's interior is free so you can wander around and take photos of the rose windows and the various altars inside the huge building.
Admission to the towers cost 7.50 euros as well as a chilly half hour wait in the queue and climbing a narrow spiral staircase.

Once you reach the towers via the stairs and through the gift shop you can get views of the skyline.In this shot you can make out Sacre Coeur on the hill in the background to the left of the gargoyle.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Friday Flash..Nagoya Station Christmas Lights 2008

Once again the Christmas Illuminations are burning brightly around Nagoya Station.This first shot shows the big display above the main entrance.

This shot shows in more detail the Christmas town scene that is illuminated.It gradually builds up with more and more lights and buildings lit up and slowly fades away.At its height the scene includes small figures with Father Christmas and his sleigh appearing in a star filled sky.The whole cycle seems to last a couple of minutes at most and drew many "uhs" and "ahs" from the warmly clad crowds below.

Just as many people seemed to be visiting the well lit area to the left of the station.As with last years display its a kind of illuminated garden with lit up teddy bear figures featuring prominently.

There were other smaller lit animals and creatures including this butterfly.

This final shot shows people walking around the garden and through a greenish-yellow archway.If you look closely you can probably pick out at least two or three illuminated bears among the dazzling lights.

Mad about Monet

If you want to see more of Monets works than are on offer at the Musee d'Orsay I'd recommend a visit to the Musee Marmottan or the Musee de l'Orangerie.Or both if you have the time and are interested in this painter.

The Musee Marmottan is housed in the home of famous art historian Paul Marmottan.In 1971 the museum acquired a collection of works by Claude Monet as a bequest from his son Michel.As a result The Musee boasts the worlds largest collection of Monets works.
Some of Monets most famous works are on display in the downstairs area of the mansion.There are the familiar waterlilies paintings but also examples of his work at Giverny and later works.One notable painting on display was Impression-Sunrise which gave rise to the name of the Impressionist school.
On the upper floors are more larger works by Monet including some waterlilies works mounted on the walls as you go up the stairs.Also on the upper floors are paintings from Monets personal collection including works by his fellow Impressionists including Sisley,Pissaro and Renoir.
While you cant take photos of the collection the Marmottan is worth visiting both for the number and variety of Monets work on display.

Musee De L'Orangerie
Located in the grounds of the Jardin des Tuileries is the Musee De L'Orangerie originally the palace greenhouse buildings.
Inside the museum on the ground floor are two oval rooms which house eight huge canvases from Monets Waterlilies series.

The canvases wrap around the walls of the two oval rooms.There are benches in the middle of each room where you can sit and virtually immerse yourself in the paintings as you swivel your head 360 degrees surrounded by the works.

From my notes I wrote that the Museum felt full of light and quite large while I was also surprised at how bright and vivid the paintings were and how close one could get to the paintings to examine the brushwork and strokes.
On the lower levels of the building you can see paintings from a collection of Monets contemporaries including Sisley,Renoir and Cezanne which are an added bonus to the Waterlilies rooms above.
Photos can be taken at the Orangerie as long as you dont use your flash which wont endear you to the Museum staff.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Paris Vacation.. Musee D'Orsay and Centre Pompidou

A quick review of some of the art galleries and Museums I visited on my brief trip to Paris.Id suggest planning which museums and artists interest you beforehand and checking on prices,opening days and hours before you set off.There are various discount options available if you intend to visit many places or for any length of time.Most of the museums and tourist attractions were around the seven euro region.The most expensive admission price from memory was 10 euros for the Centre Pompidou while entry to Rodins Garden was I thought a bargain at just 1 euro.
Id also recommend getting to the places as early as possible to avoid herds of tour groups and school parties and not doing more than one or two places a day.I found a morning of peering at Cubists and Surrealist paintings did my head in and I needed something more diverting.

The Musee D'Orsay is a converted railway station on the banks of the Seine River.It features art from the 1840s to the early 1900s.It takes up from the Northern European art of the Louvre.The airy sunny top floors feature lots of Impressionist paintings as well as PostImpressionist and Art Nouveau artists.Cezanne,Monet and Van Gogh works feature prominently.There are also a number of Manet,Degas and Renoir works.
The lower floors feature decorative art and architecture.There was a small exhibition of Japanese porcelain on show while another temporary exhibit had a collection of various masks on display.
The centre aisle of the museum is lined with various sculptures and busts as can be seen in the shot above.

One of the pieces of sculpture on display at the Musee D'Orsay

Centre Pompidou
This unusual building with a kind of exo-skeleton of escalators,pipes and external supports contains works by Surrealists,Cubists and later schools of artists such as the Futurists.The works on display come after those at the Louvre and the Orsay so its logical to see them in that order if you have the time and interest.
Riding to the 6th floor enables you not only to see the temporary exhibits but you can also get great views of the Paris skyline.
The permanent collection is on the 5th and 4th floors and includes works by such artists as Matisse,Miro,Picasso and Pollack.Not only are there paintings on show but such things as sculpture,collages and mobiles also feature.
There is a library on the third floor with a cinema,public area,shop and cafe on the lower levels.

An example of Miros work on display.There are also some of Miro's mobiles on show.

One of the temporary sculptured pieces on the lower floors of the Centre.After looking at the disembodied works of Picasso and Braque above it came as a relief to see something I could understand and relate to without thinking too much about what I was looking at.
While the Centre Pompidou is a little more expensive than the average museum or gallery I think the building itself and the variety of art work inside more than justifies the extra expenditure.Like the Musee D'Orsay its well worth a visit even if you are only vaguely interested in art.

Paris Vacation..Musee Du Louvre

Musee Du Louvre
This huge,rambling Museum has collections of Oriental,Egyptian,Greek,Etruscan and Roman antiquities,scultpure,objets d'art such as porcelain and European paintings.

I avoided the crowds and the cold winds waiting above ground at the pyramid entrance by using the exit from the Palais Royal-Musee du Louvre metro station.While there still was a queue at the entrance gates to the Museum at least I could wait in warmer surroundings than above ground.

I took this shot to show what a huge place the Louvre is.Even though I set out to only see a few things it took the best part of a day to accomplish my plan.

I took but a few moments to glance at the Mona Lisa,surrounded by camera touting Chinese tourists and encased in glass which reflected the many camera flashes aimed at it.If anything did surprise me about the portrait it was how small and mundane it actually is.
I was more interested in another famous exhibit the Venus de Milo.Again it attracted a crowd of admirers often three deep as one of the ever present tour groups arrived and departed.This shot from behind shows the crowds.Im just glad I came in the off season as Im not sure Id be able to see so much or get so close to the exhibits in the peak season.

Id read about The Raft of Medusa in Julian Barnes "A History of the World in 10 and a Half Chapters" and was eager to see it for myself.Barnes describes the historical background and how Gericault went about the painting of this huge canvas.The figures depicted are life sized.You can get an idea of its scale from the people seated gazing at it.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Friday Flash..A Few Photos From Paris

The first few shots from my recent fortnight or so vacation in Paris.Above you can see the large clock in Musee d'Orsay a former railway station now converted into an art museum.

A creepy photo from the Catacombes tour of underground passages lined with bones and skulls.

One of the many gargoyles that adorn Notre Dame.

One of the many cups of coffee that I drank.

A shot of Sacre Coeur in the Montmartre quarter where the two hostels I stayed could be found within walking distance of this Roman Byzantine basilica.
More on Monday once I get over my jetlag and return to Nagoya and work.