DM and MM's Italy/France 2012 Diary

Day 20 - Canal Saint-Martin

Thursday, 17 May, 2012

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This morning we slept in very late, not getting up until almost 10:00. The plan was for an easy day. After breakfast, we went out to get coffee for M., avoiding the place we went to yesterday morning. Instead we went to Cafe des Initiés, where we'd had the burgers the other night. M. ordered in French "Je voudrais un cappuccino et pour mon ami un chocolat chaud, s'il vous plait." I laughed at her calling me her "friend". She said she used that word because she wanted to order in French and didn't know how else to refer to me, getting the phrase "mon ami" from the TV show Poirot. She said the coffee here was much better.

A la Samaritaine
Poster on wall at Cafe des Initiés

After our drinks, we used the Metro to go to Gare de l'Este, which was near our destination for the day's exploration of Canal Saint-Martin. But first since we were at a major rail station, we thought we'd buy tickets for our excursion to Giverny on Saturday. First I tried a ticket machine, which worked fine to get us tickets to Vernon, the closest town to Giverny, until it came time to pay. The machines only took credit cards with chips, so I could only try Visa and not American Express, and it said my Visa card was declined. The same thing happened when we tried M.'s Visa card. The same thing happened a day or two ago when I tried using Visa to buy Metro tickets, but then I'd just switched to cash and thought nothing more of it. But now the possibility arose that our Visa cards had been cancelled, despite me phoning the bank at home to inform them we'd be travelling and thus there would be unusual card activity from foreign countries. Since the machines didn't take cash, we had no option but to go to a ticket office.

The first one on the eastern side of the station was closed and we knew today was a public holiday because Kristyn had told us last night, so we were a bit worried that we'd have no way to buy tickets. But the office on the western side was open and we joined a queue of about twenty people. This took some time to process and while waiting I noticed little flags above the service counters indicating what languages the servers spoke, the one nearest the queuing point speaking English and Spanish for example. When my turn came, the free server had no flags, presumably indicating she only spoke French. I asked if she spoke English anyway and she indicated a tiny bit. I thought buying the train tickets in French would be too challenging so let the people behind us in the queue go through, electing to wait for another server, all of whom had English flags on their counter. Monsieur English-Spanish said to me, "It doesn't matter, we all speak some English."

Of course, the next free counter was Madame Tiny-bit-of-English again. So I plunged ahead and asked in as best French as I could for two tickets to Vernon on Saturday. Mme. Tiny-bit-of-English turned to M. English-Spanish with a puzzled look. He said, "Vernon," with exactly the same pronunciation I'd used. A look of sudden comprehension dawned on Mme. Tiny-bit-of-English's face as she repeated, "Ah! Vernon!" again using exactly the same pronunciation I'd used. She showed me a selection of departure times for Saturday on her screen and I selected 08:20. The tickets cost €13.30 each. We didn't get return tickets because we'd have to specify the return train time, and we weren't sure what time we'd want to come back to Paris, so we'll get those on the day at Vernon.

Having procured our tickets, we walked east of the station towards Canal Saint-Martin. We stumbled across a public toilet which I needed to use. Then we walked through Jardin Villeman, a small grassy park, to the canal. The grass area had large undulations in it, with people sitting on the ridges, about a metre above the valleys. The ripples had a wavelength of about four or five metres and were curved, as though water ripples spreading from a point a little bit outside the park. It was very curious and the only reason I could think of for it besides sheer whimsy was that it might be designed to prevent people playing soccer there.

Canal bridge
Canal Saint-Martin

Outside the park was the canal and we turned right to walk south along its western side. Here were several interesting boutiques and other shops with arrays of knick-knacks and things, although some were closed for the holiday. M. browsed in the colourful trio of shops of Antoine & Lili, which had funky homewares. We traversed some side streets looking for interesting shops and picked up baguette crudités sandwiches for lunch while we walked. Over the canal were picturesque iron footbridges, which made good places for photos. There were also sets of locks for raising and lowering boats, and plenty of ducks swimming in the water.

As we reached the south end of the open canal, where it disappeared into an underground tunnel, a large boat full of tourists appeared, heading out of the tunnel and into one of the locks. We watched as the lock operated, letting water flow from the up-river section into the section where the boat was, lifting it up. The process took several minutes, and was then only half complete as the boat had to go into the second half of the lock and do it again to gain the full height of the northern part of the canal.

Canal Saint-Martin lock near underground portion of the canal

We turned west and walked towards Place de la République, a large square with a monument in the middle and roads all over the place. This place wasn't marked as anything interesting in our Lonely Planet, but was bustling with shops and people. We walked around the square, taking a long detour to avoid the snarl of traffic in the middle, then continued walking south-west towards the Pompidou Centre. At one point we took a small street across between two main roads and were amazed by the fact that almost every single building on this street was a handbag shop. At first we noticed there were three or four bag shops right near one another, then as we continued walking, we kept racking them up on both sides of the street. We must have passed thirty or forty bag shops in that one little street. There were a handful of other shops selling jewellery or belts, but everything else was a bag shop.

Pompidou fisheye
Pompidou Centre

Shortly after this we arrived at the Pompidou Centre, which stood out amongst the older buildings around it with its 1970s primary coloured scaffolding and tubing exterior. We'd really only come to see the outside, which was fortunate since the queue to get into the building was quite long. Inside is a modern art collection, but the exterior is a work of modern art in itself. We walked around the large square facing the building and to a smaller square on the southern side, which contained the Stravinsky Fountain, a pond with dynamic and colourful sculptures that twirled and sprayed water. Here there were two artists doing large chalk drawings on the pavement. One had nobody watching him, while a big crowd was gathered around the second. We watched for a while and dropped some change in one of his collection trays. On the way between the squares we stopped at a cart selling crepes and bought a nutella one to share. It was hot and chocolatey and gooey, very nice.

Recreating photo from Lonely Planet
Stravinsky Fountain

From here were walked home via the Les Halles area, which the Lonely Planet said was a bit dodgy, but which was undergoing large scale renovations. The area around it was buzzing with activity as many people strolled around past open shops, restaurants, and dozens of food stalls. We were amazed by the "hot dogs" at several of them, which was essentially a baguette about 40 centimetres long with an even longer sausage in the middle, the lot covered in a thick crust of molten and resolidified crispy cheese. Whatever the Lonely Planet said, this seemed to be a happening part of town on a public holiday Thursday evening.

At home we had showers then prepared for dinner somewhere on one of the islands, followed by a session of night photography. We took the tripod and walked over to Île de la Cité, where we explored the four restaurants that looked on to Place Dauphine, the small triangular square at the western end of the island. After looking at the menus of all of them we settled on Restaurant Paul, which had a salmon option that M. decided would be good. It came with buerre blanc and resting on a bed of spinach, with half a lemon cut in a crown shape. I ordered the duck with a sauce of honey and coriander, which sounded awesome. It came with a separate bowl of small crispy roast potato pieces. The meals were both good, but we swapped a lot of the vegetables. The duck went well with the spinach. We had a basket of bread with the meals and were interested to see the waiter slicing bread and filling up the bread baskets like waiters fill up water glasses elsewhere. For dessert I got a crème brûlée, which was good because I knew how to pronounce it when ordering, and because the sugar crust was still hot from being freshly flamed. It also tasted really good. M. had a cappuccino to keep me company.

Notre Dame evening
Notre Dame at night

After finishing dinner, we emerged into a lovely blue twilight and proceeded to take photos as we walked down the island towards Notre Dame. This time we got the cathedral before the lights went off, however it started raining on us and we were forced to take shelter a few times when it got a little too heavy to be out taking photos. Nevertheless, I think I got some decent shots of the cathedral, as well as some interesting street shots with the lamplights and bridges and things. While walking we passed a group of a dozen or so photographers out with their tripods together taking photos of lights on the Seine. They seemed to have an instructor with them. As we were walking back home again, we were in a good spot to see the Eiffel Tower sparkly lights go off at 23:00, from the Pont Neuf. After watching that light display we walked the rest of the way home and fell into bed again.

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