There are two kinds of travellers. Those that conscientiously write postcards to friends during their entire trip and mail them promptly. And those that realize on the last day "oh crap, I have to send postcards" and send a stack destined to arrive after the writer has returned home.

Today's our last day in Paris. Guess which kind of postcard writer I am?

  2006-11-29 12:57 Z
We had a truly excellent dinner the other night at La Truffière in the 5th near Rue Mouffetard. An excellent menu of French classics with some emphasis on truffles, but good broad coverage. The room was great, the staff was friendly, an amazing wine list, everything that goes into a comfortable dinner. Often hard to find in combination in Paris!

The one drawback is the place is very expensive. 110€ per person for the big tasting menu, and precious few bottles under 100€. (Note: this is much higher than listed on the web site. Hmm.) The non-smoking room was about half Japanese tourists and only one French table, I suspect their prices generally keep the locals away. Still, we had a perfect meal, so money well spent.

  2006-11-29 12:56 Z
I've enjoyed having the time to take tours from English tour guides in France. A good tour guide adds a lot of depth and detail to a place without overwhelming you by boring or irrelevant detail. There are a lot of experts in France if you have the time and patience to find them. I already wrote about my trip to Chartres to have a tour of the cathedral by the amazing Malcolm Miller. There's good options in Paris, too.

In the cathedral vein, I just finished a very good tour of Sainte Chapelle as guided by Vicki-Marie Petrick. Ms. Petrick is a PhD student of middle ages art with a bit of thespian flair. She did an excellent job of explaining the role of the church and its relics in bolstering Louis IX's claim to the throne. She also gave a good explanation of the stained glass, in particular the Book of Judith window with its proto-feminist story. Her expertise was generously shared, I definitely suggest you take her tour if you are in Paris.

A good source for walking tours of Paris is Paris Walks. It's a fairly casual outfit, interesting and entertaining and with a wide menu of possible tours. I took two, one in the Marais and one in the Left Bank. The guide deftly wove together history specific to the streets we were on with a general view of how the neighbourhood fits into modern Paris. Entertaining, a bit bookish, and a very satisfying 90 minutes. If you're planning on visiting Paris take a look at their schedule and pick a couple that sound interesting. Then just show up and go for a walk, couldn't be easier.

  2006-11-27 16:03 Z
Remember Janet Jackson, the Super Bowl, the "wardrobe malfunction" that gave us a brief glance of a bejeweled nipple? Remember how you laughed at how stupid and inconsequential it was? Except a bunch of people freaked out, and there was a $550,000 fine, and now American TV is even more prudish.
The Tuileries metro is decorated with photos early 20th century Paris. Including a beautiful image of a topless Josephine Baker.
  2006-11-26 13:20 Z
Crêpes are one of France's lovely little fast foods. You see them on street corners made to order with some Nutella or butter or the like and they're pretty satisfying. But crêpes can also be a real meal, a specialty of Bretagne. Jason and I had a great lunch in Rennes during our little trip: ham and cheese crêpe, chocolate crêpe, some cider.

Paris has a zillion crêpe joints, but only a select subset are serious authentic Bretagne places. Like the Crêpe Dentelle, a casual little weekday joint in the 2nd near the charming market street Rue Montorgueil. The delicate buckwheat crêpes were deliciously buttery. The homemade salted caramel made for a delicious dessert crêpe. The cider by the bowl wasn't my favourite. But for 11€50 you can get a full meal of three crêpes served by smiling pleasant people. What's not to like?

  2006-11-25 10:32 Z
I have a French name. I can pass for Minard if I pronounce my name "mee-nahr" with a Clouseau accent rather than the broad Texan "my-ner" my family uses. The silent d makes the name French and apparently common near Bourges. Then again, my name is really Mlinar; my father changed from the Czech spelling some 50 years ago.
  2006-11-24 09:17 Z
I keep saying that I like the countryside of France better than Paris. Nothing against Paris, but the country is so relaxed and friendly and restaurants and hotels are particularly pleasant. But not always, as we learned in Bourges.

On a friend's recommendation we made a special trip to have dinner at l'Abbaye Saint Ambroix, a well regarded restaurant in the restored ruins of an old church. The food was good and the adjoining hotel was fine and I can definitely recommend it to any travellers in the area. But the whole evening felt a bit off. The music was loud and grating. Our drinks were wrong (really, does "mojito" sound at all like "amaretto"?). The food was rushed. Good butter but no butter knives made for awkwardness. The staff noisly started clearing the unused tables before the guests were done. Etc, etc. I'm being picky, but Ken and I enjoy a good restaurant experience so much that we've become aware of when it's just not quite right. Either the Hotel Mercure chain buying the hotel has removed whatever owner took personal pride in the place or else Wednesday night is his night off. Either way it lacked the personal hospitality that can make French places so wonderful. Now I appreciate that personal service all the more.

All that being said, Bourges is a lovely town. It's about 200km south of Paris, midway between the Loire and Burgundy, an old Roman town that was a wealthy power in the 17th century. It's still a lively and healthy city. Too many modern buildings to be entirely beautiful, but the old city center is nice and the impressive cathedral has some excellent 13th century stained glass. And we found an excellent lunch at Le Bourbonnoux with the personal service and comfort we enjoy so much.

  2006-11-24 08:27 Z
Given the number of horrible people milling around inside Paris' most famous cathedral talking into their cell phones, they ought to rename the place Notre Dame du miracle du téléphone portable.
  2006-11-22 11:34 Z
Finding a good hotel in Paris is expensive and difficult. Many places are small, overpriced, and desperately needing renovation. The guides do help you; for me I find that 3 stars on the sign or 2 pavilions in Michelin mean a comfortable room. More is luxury, and 2 stars/1 pavilion is clean but Super 8 quality.

Here's a small list of hotels that I know to be agreeable. Rates are very approximate for a basic double room; in Paris demand pricing is practiced with fervor.

Grand Hotel de Champagne
My friend enjoyed staying here and her room seemed nice, if a bit small and dated. It's in a fantastic location on the right bank in the middle of Paris, maybe 200m from the Pont Neuf. The immediate neighbourhood is good, too; there's a good cafe, restaurant, etc. 215€.
Hotel Royal St. Michel
Another fantastic location, this time on the left bank at St. Michel. You want the heart of romantic Paris? Here ya go. I haven't been there, but my friend Jason liked it. He had an inside room off the noisy street; that seems important here. 250€.
Hotel du Louvre
This place is a bit more upscale / business that the ones above. Again with a great location on the right bank. I've stayed here a couple of times; if you want something with a serious concierge, an American style bar, and not crazy expensive it's a good bet. Rooms are a bit old and noisy though. 250€ to 450&euro.
Hotel de Vendome
The best hotel I've stayed at in Paris. Rooms are luxuriously furnished and spacious, but the hotel is still small and intimate enough to be comfortable. The location is in the middle of the most chic shopping in Paris. Although as a place to stay, it's a bit isolated and far from a Metro. If you can get a good deal here it's well worth it for the comfort. 350€ to 600€.
This list may seem expensive, but so is Paris. It is possible to get reasonable places to sleep in Paris for 100€ but either you're far from the middle of town or else you're in a room you can't wait to leave every day.
  2006-11-20 11:18 Z
It's amazing that a whole country could have a vernacular of bad web sites, but I think France has managed it. Hotels and restaurants regularly have terrible sites that give the user "an experience", complete with Flash and music and precious little useful information. For a typical example, see the text-free site of the luxury restaurant La Tour d'Argent. Or try to "enter" the site for the Petite Nice Passedat.

To be fair, a lot of American hotel sites have stupid "experiences" too. But in France even the informational sites are lousy. For example, Mappy, the main French map site (now obsolete, thanks to Google). Marvel at that front page, with 16 separate text entry areas.

But the king of awful websites is the SNCF, the online train booking. The have a site in English, which is awfully nice, only about a third of the links don't work and give you French error messages. Here's how to book a train:

  1. Go to the home page and enter your travel plan.
  2. Wait 10-30 seconds for a timetable search.
  3. Choose a train. Hey, that was easy.
  4. Fooled you! Enter your travel plan again.
  5. Wait 10-30 seconds for a seat search.
  6. Choose a train.
  7. Enter name, choose to pick up tickets at a machine.
  8. Enter credit card info and get a confirmation.
  9. Stand in line 30 minutes to get your tickets from a person because the machines don't accept US credit cards, even just to confirm identity.
My favourite part is the way you get to go through the time tables twice. Mind you, you better do all the web transaction in 5 minutes, because otherwise it times out and you have to do it all again. And don't try to change anything while in the process, or you have to start over.

I'm sure there are some wonderful French web sites out there, and I personally know some great French web designers. But the examples I keep finding are just awful.

  2006-11-19 15:26 Z
As nice as Paris is, my favourite experiences in France are in the smaller towns and countryside. Life outside the big cities in France is still quite sophisticated with excellent food and art and life. But you also get some rusticness and relaxation.

I made a special trip to Chartres for a guided tour from Malcolm Miller. Mr. Miller is something of a legend; he's made a life's study of the famous cathedral and has been giving guided tours for nearly fifty years. His book about the cathedral was a revelation for me. It explains in brisk detail the iconography of the stained glass and sculptures. He argues that the cathedral is like a library; now I have a hint of how to read the books. The windows are no longer a blur of red and blue with funny faces to me, I now see the narratives and the artistic imperative. His tour was excellent, a 90 minute sampler of his life's work interpreting the cathedral delivered with delicious humour.

The tour alone was worth the trip, but Chartres turned out to be a revelation. The river is beautiful, the Saturday market is impressive, and Le Grand Monarque is a great old road hotel with excellent food. All in all a very pleasant overnight excursion from Paris. The train's only an hour, you could go just for the day. But better to settle in a bit and enjoy the rhythm of Chartres life.

As usual, I took some photos.

  2006-11-18 18:01 Z
There's an amusing dialogue floating around about how simple SOAP is. As someone who bears some past responsibility for well used SOAP services (Google's APIs for search and AdWords) let me say now I'd never choose to use SOAP and WSDL again. I was wrong.

More inside ...

  2006-11-17 08:54 Z
I don't know the area around the Eiffel Tower well. The immediate area is a giant park and tourist hell, and south of there is ugly and inhuman in scale. But it's also a popular place to live and work. And there are some sympa restaurants there, like Le Suffren.

It's a straight-up brasserie, lots of closely set tables and a menu with food options from oysters to fresh fish to steak to my pasta with tandoori chicken. Many of the locals were eating seafood, including an enormous fruits de mer platter, so maybe that's there special thing. The lunchtime crowd is fun, a bunch of Parisians enjoying a good meal without much fuss. And the service and food are a notch above the usual brasserie. Recommended, particularly if you're in the area and want something truly Parisian.

  2006-11-16 08:13 Z
Auberge is French for "inn", traditionally a homely little place where you could get a room for a night and a home cooked meal. There are precious few auberges left anywhere in France, let alone Paris, so the name now implies "restaurant with cozy food". Such as the Auberge d'Chez Eux, a lovely casual little place near the Eiffel Tower in the 7th.

The southwest cooking is strongly on the "hearty" side, not sophisticated. But it's delicious and honest, paricularly the homemade charcuterie and desserts. Our dinner last night included an assortment of homemade salads, a fantastic salade gourmande with cured duck breast and foie gras, an impressively rich stew of deer, and a whole pheasant cooked with morels and girolles.

The hazard of this place is they love serving way too much food. My first time there I ordered the charcuterie sampling, which ended up being 12 kinds of dry sausage, 6 kinds of hot sausage, and a little fresh boudin noir to finish it off. That was the appetizer; my main course of two duck legs was to come. This kind of excess is atypical for France, and frankly a bit unwelcome, but it's done out of a generosity and joy of serving customers good food to make them happy. So you go with it, and just eat what you want, and it works out.

The wine list is surprisingly good; we had a lovely 1995 Madiran. And my friend Richard was crazy enough to finish his meal off with a glass of flaming prune eau-de-vie, a remarkably theatric presentation that ended up nearly burning his lips off. Everyone laughed, we ate a bit more dessert, and enjoyed the pleasure of a friendly auberge. It's no wonder Chirac took Putin here for dinner.

  2006-11-14 15:20 Z
It's not all elegant dining in Paris; today's lunch was a hamburger, fries, and coke at Restaurant Quick, the French take on McDonalds. It's expensive by US standards at 5€90 for the basic burger meal. How is it? Nominally a little better than McD's but nowhere near In-n-Out quality.

But what prompts me to document this ignominious meal is the current "Say Cheese" campaign. Special meals include a hamburger with three slices of cheese, the intense raclette, and some nasty looking goat cheese burrito. Yes, in a land with a fantastic variety of local artisinal cheeses, "now with more goo!" also sells.

  2006-11-14 15:06 Z
In the middle of the Marais in Paris there is a Jewish quarter with a complicated 800 year history. These days it's mostly home to recent Jewish immigrants from the Middle East. It's a great neighbourhood to find a quick cheap lunch, something different from the usual French food. Felafel, schwarma, bagels, etc.

One of the best known places there is Chez Marianne. It's an overgrown traiteur; their primary business is selling premade salads, deli foods, etc. But over time it's evolved into a restaurant with table service and is now quite popular at lunch. My assortment plate had hummus, tzatziki, roasted peppers in oil, feta, and a meatball. And some excellent pita bread. Way too much food, but good.

  2006-11-14 07:56 Z
The best rating Michelin gives a restaurant is three stars, "worth a special trip". But three star places are too perfect, highly scripted food temples with extravagantly complex food. They aren't particularly fun. Which is why I like going to places like Au Plaisir Gourmand, indeed why I made a special second trip to Chinon just to have dinner there again. It ranks one star, which seems about right, but boasts the friendliest staff and most amazing local wine list I've had on this trip.

More inside ...

  2006-11-12 14:54 Z
By no means is Le Lutetia worth a special effort for a short term visitor. But if you're in the neighbourhood of Notre Dame or the Ile St. Louis this little café is a good bet, much better than other nearby options. The folks are friendly, the coffee's good, and you have a wide selection of little snacks or more serious meals. They make a good American-style hamburger, nice meal-sized salads, and had a good looking onion soup. The staff is also very friendly and there's even free WiFi. Le Lutetia is our "around the corner" place.
  2006-11-12 13:17 Z
Paris is expensive. So it's nice when you find something like the Auberge des Deux Ponts, a casual little restaurant right in the middle of the Ile St. Louis. Despite the location the lunch menu is a low 10€90 for three courses. I had a very good salad with warm goat cheese, a decent paupiette de veau (ground veal, spiced), and some ice cream. Nothing too special, but the staff cares about what they're doing and the place is good, nearby, and cheap.
  2006-11-10 12:44 Z
The Rue Mouffetard is what the Left Bank / Latin Quarter would be if it weren't overrun by tourists. It starts at the charming Place de la Contrescarpe and runs south a few blocks on the far side of the hill from the Bd. St. Michel nonsense. The street is home to a bunch of student dive bars, "ethnic" restaurants (Greek, Chinese, Indian, ...) and several fondue joints. Some of these places are hideous (like Chez Papa, whose salad was dressed largely by the lettuce washing water), but if you choose carefully you can have a good inexpensive meal in a fun neighbourhood.

It's been cold, so last night Ken and I went for fondue at Assiette aux Fromages. 15€ gets you more melted cheese than you can eat along with a nice bit of ham and salad. There's lots of other things on the menu, some even not cheese-themed, but it's clear you come here for fondue or raclette. And they do fondue well. We'll go back if we have time.

PS: the blog title comes from an awful marketing campaign by the American Dairy Association. The theme was that any food could be made into a delicious meal just by adding cheese. I can't think of a more succinct summary of the American approach to food.

  2006-11-10 08:00 Z
Email is now a broken medium for me. For the past three months about 85% of my mail was automatically deleted by spamassassin. All well and good, but then 80% of what got through the spam trap is also spam leaving me with a painful manual filtering process.

My spamassassin setup clearly no longer works. What can I do? I'm currently using spamassassin with the baysean filter, Vipul's Razor, pyzor, and nightly sa-update runs. Both Thunderbird and Gmail seem to do a better job filtering spam than this setup, so I must have something wrong.

  2006-11-10 07:17 Z
One of the pleasures of being in Paris for so long is easily taking little trips to other parts of France. Neither Ken nor I had been to Marseille nor much of Provence, so that's where we went. I took lots of photos, too.

We started in Marseille, the ugliest French city I've ever seen. Crazy Mediterranean traffic and nasty 1950s concrete buildings combine to make a beautiful bit of landscape quite unpleasant. It is an interesting old port though, and the Hôtel Passédat - Le Petit Nice was great with a truly fantastic restaurant. We also had a traditional bouillabaisse at Chez Michel, a hardcore fish place. Excellent, even if eating a quart of liquid, 4 fish, and a pint of mayonnaise as a side is perhaps a bit much.

But Ken and I love the countryside more, so we went off north to Castillon du Gard, a tiny restored hilltop town near the Pont du Gard. Ken found us another great hotel / restaurant there, Le Vieux Castillon. Despite the place being only about 5% full (ie: two parties) we were fed and treated very well.

Along the way we visited the 12th century fortress ruins of Les Baux de Provence, the Roman aqueduct of the Pont du Gard and about twenty little Provençal villages. A very pleasant few days, and perfect weather in November.

  2006-11-09 17:41 Z
I just got back from a lovely trip down to Marseille, punctuated with stress because of a planned train strike. Expensive TGV tickets with mandatory reservations? Too bad, the train may not be running for social reasons. Just show up and hope for the best. Fortunately I got lucky.

There are constant strikes in every non-entrepreneurial industry in France. I'm sympathetic to workers' rights, but there's something galling about the persistance of strikes in a country with 35 hour work weeks, relaxed service expectations, significant social programs, and a huge unemployment problem. And for visitors it's particularly frustrating to randomly find the Louvre is closed because there are no ticket takers or the Pompidou is closed for some mysterious reason. Are museum workers really so oppressed?

Apparently there were 482 strike notices for the French trains in a year. Don't miss this blog's sidebar for a list of other upcoming strikes. I hope you're not having a baby after November 20!

  2006-11-09 09:28 Z
One remarkable thing in Paris is the quantity and quality of street art. I don't mean crappy tag vandalism, but thoughtful and beautiful art by folks like Jèrôme Mesnager, L'Atlas and Space Invader. Walking around Paris is fun for all the beautiful old buildings, but look closer at some of the new stuff illicitly stuck to the walls, too.

Flickr is a good place to find images of Parisian street art. The Paris street art group is good, as are the photos of yoyo (and his website), tofz4u, chais, vitostreet and others. But I'm really enjoying stumbling into them myself. Many of the installations are quite big and ambitious; the nights must be quiet.

I've been taking photos of street art when I can. I'm particularly taken by the Kufic stylings of L'Atlas; Arabic calligraphy is beautiful, and somewhat provocative in Paris. And I recently stumbled into a beautiful gallery at 23-25 rue Ramponeau in the 20th. There's an artist workspace nearby, so I imagine this was semi-authorized.

  2006-11-02 17:34 Z
A few days ago I had about enough of French food so I went looking for something "ethnic". Paris is big and there's all kinds of food here, but Indian, Thai, Mexican, even Greek are all a bit dicey. So we ended up with Italian, at a little place near me in the Marais called L'Enoteca. I'd walked by a dozen times, always impressed by the care of the daily menus and wine choices.

Generally in Paris if you find a place where the staff cares about what they're doing, you'll eat well. As it was at L'Enoteca. My strongest memory is of the pasta with duck. Excellent fresh tagliatelle, shreds of duck nicely peppered. Simple, elegant, perfect. The Italian wine list is excellent and modestly priced to match the menus. It's clear the owner has pride, and that translates to a good experience.

  2006-11-01 08:37 Z
The best eating in France is in the country; in Paris what that means is finding places with regional specialities. L'Ambassade d'Auvergne is a good example, simple food from the Massif Central. But while the food is simple this place near Pompidou is elegant, good staff and nice tables.

I started with the assortment of cured pork; some ham, rillettes, blood sausage, and dry sausage. All excellent, particularly the ham. Ken was happy with his wild boar terrine but the best starter was the simple lentil salad with bits of bacon. Perfectly prepared. For a main corse we had duck breast and sausages, all served with aligot. Aligot is a riffe on mashed potatoes, mixed thoroughly with hard cheese to an elastic consistency. Hearty simple fare, very satisfiying. We'll be back.

PS: I've rolled the food posts back into my normal blog. No need for two feeds anymore.

  2006-11-01 08:30 Z