Monday, September 26, 2011

The Rive Gauche and Flambe Meat

"'s 9:30...." Neal whispered in my ear on Wednesday morning.

"Huh. I guess we should get up then." My well-laid plans for an early start to the day had vanished while I was still dreaming.

Neal slid back the black-out shades and opened the window. Paris was waiting.

We pulled on the stale and sweaty clothes from the night before and stumbled down to breakfast.

Now, it's common knowledge that Parisians don't eat least not in the American sense of the word. A croissant and a tiny cup of coffee at the neighborhood cafe and they are on their way. So, hotels like the Hilton try to make up for this by offering a fairly large continental breakfast. On the buffet each day was a variety of freshly diced fruit, a sideboard of meats (including smoked salmon, turkey, ham, and an unidentified white fish...basically a Cavegirl's wet dream), scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, stuffed tomatoes, hashbrowns, baked beans (yeah, I never understood that either...nor could I bring myself to eat baked beans before noon), cereals, oatmeal, crepes (with a healthy dose of toppings), and 2 tables of pastries and breads. On day 1, I stuck to my Hunter/Gatherer diet...fruit...eggs...meat...a little smoked salmon..all washed down with a cafe au lait. Approximately 30 minutes later, I realized that au lait is French for Hey lactose-intolerant lady....that's WHOLE milk in there! 

Our first stop after breakfast toilettes...was Notre Dame Cathedral on the Ile de la Cite...or the island between the left and right banks of the Seine. Let me stop and say that when you look at a map, the right bank is north of the river while the left bank is south and in my tiny, American brain, rive sud and rive nord make a lot more sense than rive gauche and rive droit....but apparently they are named according to the direction the river flows...which I guess is as good a reason as any.

Technically, our first stop was at a souvenir store a block north of Notre Dame to buy Neal a hat. He started shaving his head in Iraq when the contracted barbers packed up shop and left town. In the breezy, misty Paris mornings, the dome de Neal was exposed and cold. We settled on one, said our s'il vous plait's and au revoir's and headed to the spires in the distance.

"You read The Hunchback of Notre Dame in high school right?" I asked Neal on our way past the Hotel de Ville.

"I don't think so. I don't remember. There was like a short, ugly guy as the main character?"

"Um...yes...a hunchback."

"That's not very politically correct."


"Oh...and wasn't it like a love story or something?"

"Never mind." My apologies to all of Neal's high school English teachers as he seems to have retained nothing.

The line to climb to the top of Notre Dame stretched down the side of the cathedral, approximately 50 people deep. We weighed our desire to climb stairs and get a 3 story-view of Paris against our desire to stand in line after eating smoked salmon and diced pineapple.

We did not climb to the top of Notre Dame.

We did, however, cruise right on past the line with our Museum Pass. There are not a ton of inside photos from the big camera because most were, unfortunately, taken with our other smaller Sony Cypershot (the one that seems to have crawled out of my purse on the metro). But here are a few...

 And who would have thought that the rose window, with all of its pie wedges of vibrant color...

looks like this from the outside? 

Further proof that more often than not, breathtaking beauty is on the inside

By the way, Notre Dame...or Our dedicated to the Virgin Mary who is depicted front and center of the rose window, cradling a baby Jesus and flanked by angels. Notre Dame was completed in (just) 2 centuries and as the Rick Steves joke goes...the Parisians did much of the grunt work themselves, creating the real hunchbacks of Notre Dame. Hardy...



Now let me direct your attention to the row of kings directly below the rose window...

The French Revolution was an often bloody and sometimes confusing time where the motto of the day was "behead now, ask questions later." These Biblical kings were mistaken for the despised French kings (which, of course they are French kings...because including Biblical kings on a cathedral is just lunacy) and the citizens attacked. They lopped off the entire row of heads, leaving a disturbing scene of headless statues for decades. Fortunately, a schoolteacher who lived nearby, collected the heads and buried them in his backyard...y'know...just in case. In 1977, they were accidentally unearthed and stuck in the Cluny Museum for viewing and safekeeping. It does beg the question...where did these heads come from?

Notre Dame is also known for her (are buildings considered "feminine"...or is that only for boats?) gargoyles, protruding from the balcony.  They represent the lost souls, caught between heaven and earth. They also serve a secondary function as handy little rainspouts during the occasional French downpour. 

I look at this and all I can think is Carol Anne announcing, "they're heeeeere." 

If Notre Dame published an annual yearbook, this little guy would win "Most Photographed" every year.

Walking around the side of Notre Dame, you see a series of green men...some apostles...some evangelists...and one is the architect, looking up at the spire and admiring his own work. 

 Once around the back, the well-known flying buttresses of Notre Dame are visible. OK...maybe the flying buttresses are only well-known to me...but I vividly remember a high school teacher ranting endlessly about the importance of their design. Neal looked, nodded, and then went to look for a bathroom. 

From the left bank, the cathedral is even more's not until you cross the Seine do you really grasp the size and complexity of this Gothic dedication to Mary. 
 The Pont Archeveche, the bridge behind the Notre Dame that crosses over to the left bank, is littered with an array of hand-scrawled and etched locks. We later learned that lovers of all ages will scribble (or in the case of serious love...engrave) initials, dates, and messages on locks, attach them to the fencing, and toss the key into the Seine. 

And, as luck would have it, for those unprepared travelers, there is a roadside vendor just a block away who sells a variety of locks with keys. We decided against the 10 euro lock and vowed to do this next time

As we found ourselves officially on the left bank, we plugged in the headphones and fired up the Rick Steves left bank walking tour that I had downloaded from iTunes. It's starting point? Notre Dame...of the other end of the island. We held out, listening to details of Notre Dame from the Pont Neuf bridge, before finally caving in and sauntering back to the cathedral as he discussed points of interest that we hadn't initially noticed (like the Point Zero...the tiny inset medallion in front of Notre Dame that serves as the origin point for all distances in Paris. Apparently, a popular photo op is to stand with your feet on the plaque and take a picture. Sidenote: I have determined there are no more original photo ideas. We do have photos of Point Zero...on the other camera).

Thirty minutes later, Rick brought us back around to Shakespeare & Company. Although it is not the original bookstore that was opened by Sylvia Beach in 1919 and hosted the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and James was a charming tribute to the once-famous haunt that never re-opened after the German Occupation.

The bookstore/reading library specializes in English literature and, I have to say, is a welcome reprieve after strolling past stall after stall after stall of French literature along the river. To glance at a stack of books, scanning the spines and reading the titles without struggling for a translation is liberating...if the brain could sigh in relief, it would. There is, according to Gabrielle, a sweet little reading nook upstairs, but with Neal's protruding backpack and the crush of American students waiting for a signing to begin, we had hardly made it past the first shelf before Neal declared it too crowded to browse and carefully squeezed back out the door.

He also declared it lunch time. 

So, you can approach eating in Paris in a variety of ways. You can venture out each day, armed with suggestions from friends, family, the hotel concierge, and Trip Advisor (I would not rely solely on Rick for this one as his dining chapter is skimpy and sad) or you can pick a cafe based on number of patrons who look French and/or the name of the cafe and/or the location of the cafe. We did a little of all of this. Sometimes it worked out well. Sometimes it all went horribly wrong (as in dinner that evening).  The amount of research we put in to finding our next meal was directly related to how starving we were when we decided to look for food (read: "Let's go there. It's on a busy street, those men are all wearing scarves, and his food looks really good."). This was our first lunch in the city and we were on the left bank, much further south than I realized. After wandering aimlessly, we picked a cafe on the corner of everything and had a seat. 

Two things I should note here about dining al fresco at Parisian cafes. 1) There is no need to hunt down the hostess and ask to be seated outside. Just pop a squat at your favorite table. They will find you. The French wait staff know everything that goes on at their tables all the time. It will take approximately 45 seconds for someone to appear with napkins, eating utensils, and menus. 2) The smokers have been kicked out of all of the cafes in Paris. So, be willing to contract a little lung cancer during drinks or opt to be inside. 

Lunch at Cafe du Metro (clearly chosen for the name) was pretty divine, actually. I had my first (and sadly, only) croque monsieur of the trip and Neal had poulet basquaise, a tender chicken dish that I can only assume hails from the Basque region. When my sandwich was delivered, Neal did mention that I had basically ordered a Kentucky Hot Brown. I beg to differ. When restaurants begin adding bechamel sauce to their hot browns, then we'll talk.

As you can see just over my right shoulder, there's a dome. Neal captured it in this photo although I think it was by accident. After lunch, we strolled on with Rick and my iPod, twisting down streets and passing famous landmarks (the Sorbonne, anyone?) all along the way...until we emptied out into a intersection, or place. And there sat the Pantheon...which just happens to be the dome behind me in the photo.

Looking out from the Pantheon. All roads (seemingly) lead to the Eiffel Tower. 

If this building looks vaguely familiar to you, it's probably because you've seen it Rome.  It was originally constructed by King Louis XV in tribute to St. Genevieve, but the time it was finished, religion was out and the age of man was in. It was revamped into a mausoleum honoring the "Champions of French Liberty"...including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Descartes. Inside is a who's who of the French Revolution...murals of Joan of Arc, paintings of St. Denis, and...of course...Napoleon. In 1851, Leon Foucault first demonstrated the rotation of the earth with his pendulum...and here it swings at the end of a 220' cable suspended from the dome. 

It is appropriate to "ooh" and "ahh" here as Neal was very proud of himself for capturing it in the millisecond that it held at dead center. 

Buried in the crypt is stars like Marie Curie, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Louis Braille (of the Braille script). There are pictures of the crypt...on the other camera

It was getting late...time to go in search of a noisette (hazelnut coffee) or a kir (shot of creme de cassis...or blackcurrant...and topped with wine). But first, I am going to bore you with several photoshopped versions of the same photo. Because I can. 

Our last stop of the day was at St. Chapelle...which is, essentially, a cathedral of glass. It was built by King Louis IX to house the (supposed) Crown of Thorns (which are now kept at Notre Dame). He paid 135,000 francs for the crown and 40,000 francs for St. Chapelle. He was clearly concerned about erecting a home worthy of the relic. 

We actually kind of stumbled upon St. Chapelle while we were looking for the Conciergerie, the former prison that housed Marie-Antoinette. We stood in a line under a sign that was all in French. Everyone seemed to think that we were queuing for the Conciergerie. We went through security and a hellacious metal detector that beeped at my bra hooks, and proceeded down a vast corridor with marble floors. We made our first right...into, what we discovered was, the French Supreme Court. We sat on a bench outside the court room and listened to Rick talk about the Conciergerie while French attorneys strode across the room, heels echoing all the way. 

We were in the French Supreme Court. And no one asked us to leave. 

We decided not to take pictures here...considering it was a court of law and all. And then we determined that we had definitely taken a wrong turn somewhere. A little backtracking, down a stairwell, and across a courtyard and we were finally at St. Chapelle (for the record, I have no idea where the Conciergerie is).

When you first enter St. Chapelle, it is sort of a letdown. The alter lays in ruins and the painted columns with rows of the fleur-de-lis are peeling. It's dark and damp and you think "I'm so glad we saw this on the Museum Pass because no way in hell would I pay 11 euros to see this." Humble is a gentle and kind adjective for the lower room. But climb the stairs and prepare to lose your breath over the walls of stained glass. 

This is where the royalty worshiped. Climbing up from the dark and depressing chapel of the staff and commoners, it is impossible to not feel elevated to queen status just by standing in this room. The 15 separate panels of stained glass depicts over 1,100 different scenes, mostly from the Bible. From the Creation in Genesis to the end of the world, shown here:

the entire effect is overwhelming. You have to sit down. Fortunately, they have provided chairs just for that purpose.

I realize it looks like I'm playing on my phone here. In reality, I'm reading about the stained glass...because I'm not a moody teenage tourist....

As we were preparing to leave, they opened up the 15' doors at the rear of the chapel, the doors leading to the passageway the royalty used to enter the church. The palace and passageway are long gone, but the effect from standing outside, looking in, is still inspirational.

It had a been an exhausting day, full of French history and magnificent architecture. Dinner time was approaching and we needed a plan. As we were miles from our hotel, we hopped the metro back to our room and searched Trip Advisor for a dinner spot. 

Let's say there are 4000 rated restaurants in Paris on Trip Advisor. Our hotel was situated squarely around many that were rated somewhere in the 3000's. This did not bode well. Neal found one, about a mile from the hotel, that was rated in the 300's. We'll take it! Standards, be damned. We dragged our weary, blistered feet the 1+ mile to a cramped and crowded cafe. Not a table to be had. We had 2 options...stand at the bar and wait for a group of Parisians to give up their wine and table to a couple of tourists (hahahahahaha) or stroll across the street to a deserted restaurant with plenty of tables and a staff that was camped at the bar. 

Option 2 it is.

So into Le Paris-Madeira we walked and were shown a lovely 2-person table by the window. I urged Neal to order the steak tartare, as the French are famous for it and he thrives on the intensity of an experience. What could be more intense than raw beef with a side of fries? And on the eve of my 33rd birthday, I threw caution to the wind and ordered the same. To which the waiter declared, "NON! It is BAD! No order! Order dis!" A steak that was priced 5 euros more. Imagine that. Fine. Who are we to argue with the man in his own restaurant? So we ordered the steak. Then he firmly suggested the "chourico flambe" which I could only translate as sausage flame. It's meat on fire....what could possibly go wrong? 

As he returned with our flaming appetizer, I was mesmerized by the fire and the smell of roasting cognac. He set it on the table, without a word of caution or advice, and left. I looked at Neal, who in turn looked at the fiery pork. 

"What now?" I pondered. 

"I don't know. Is it cooked?" Neal answered back. 

"I have no idea. I'll cut into it." As I ripped my steak knife through the middle of this sausage, and then again on either end, sawing to get through the tough outer layer and into the rubbery center, the waiter came running and screeching across the dining room. "NON! Dis not DONE!" 

You brought a raw sausage to our table? Are you freaking crazy? How do you say e. coli in French? 

He then turned the sausage to encourage roasting on both sides...except instead of flipping the meat in one suave move, he had to turn it in the 3 sections that I had chopped it into. I had butchered his mojo. And then he left. 

It was about that time that we heard cackling at the table behind us. A mother/son duo on vacation from Utah had ordered the same dinner, told "NON! It is BAD!" then ordered the same steak and the same flambe appetizer. They had then proceeded to hack into their raw sausage assuming that no sane waiter would ever serve uncooked pork to the table. We had a good laugh and quietly questioned why they hadn't said something earlier...preferably before I defaced the sausage sculpture.

As we dined on the toughest, chewiest, saltiest sausage I have ever had (Neal: "It's like summer sausage!"...yeah! Except...NOT.), we noticed that this passionate waiter of ours had talked at least 3 tables of Americans and French alike into ordering the flaming starter. And each time, he had to halt his diners from contracting worms from an uncooked slab of pork. 

He must love his job. 

As we sauntered back onto rue Caumartin, rolling our meat-laden selves back to the hotel, we saw him sprint across the dining room, yelling "NON! Dis not done!" to yet another couple perched at a window table that looked out onto the street. 

The dinner cost 60 euros but the entertainment was priceless. 

I may never eat sausage again, though.

If you go....
  • Notre Dame, we've heard, can have some wicked long lines. We went at 10 AM on a Wednesday morning and walked right in. But this is not something to save for the weekend. 
  • The audio guides are 5 euros each. They don't take credit cards or break large bills. There is a Rick Steves podcast that covers Notre Dame under the Historic Paris Walk title downloadable on iTunes. 
  • Climbing to the top (400 steps) is covered by the museum pass, but you don't get to skip to the front of the line. 
  • The church still holds mass and you will not be allowed to take pictures during the service. Also there is an understood "dress appropriately and use your inside voice" guideline here.  
  • Included in the Historic Paris Walk is a stop at the Deportation Memorial behind Notre Dame. It is a memorial to the 200,000 French victims of the Nazi concentration camps. It was under renovation when we went, but I would highly recommend stopping for a few minutes if it's open. 
  • St. Severin, another stop on the Steves walking tour, has a lovely playground behind the church. It is a perfect pause in the long as that day isn't Sunday, when the gate is locked, we discovered.
  • St. Chapelle offers concerts throughout the summer and fall. Although the posters and brochures hung all over Paris to advertise them may mislead you, know that the tickets are about 30 euros each and you need to make reservations in advance.


  1. I absolutely loved Notre Dame too. I never really thought about how the glass is colored on the inside only, but then again, I was a high school kid when I went. Oh my word, Saint Chappelle!!!!

    I can't believe that sausage fiasco!

    I love this, I almost feel like I was there!
    I know you're gonna do more of these posts, right? Or I will have to say, "NON! Dis not done!"
    ; ) That was lame. Sorry.

  3. I don't know what it is about stained glass that's so moving, but outside of Versaille that's the one major memory I took away from the trip at 15. Churches really know how to do it! I think that waiter was there solely to screw with the Americans!

    What's next?? :)

  4. Quel bon jour! I think that is right. Sounds like a great trip. Can't wait for the next installation.

  5. Had to laugh at your dinner experience!!! Dirty, rotten waiter! I think we'll be "safe" as most meals will be eaten at Disney, but I'd rather have the adventure! This might be our only Paris trip too....we'll have to see. Lots to see in southern France too...

    Loved your pics and I'm so sad your other camera "walked away". Who steals cameras anymore???

  6. That stained glass is one of my favorites. I am actually leaving for Paris today (last-minute trip with my pops!) and am SOOO excited I had the chance to stop by here and check out your recap and see your pictures. You totally have me over-the-moon with excitement now. SOOO glad you guys had a great time (and I'll be sure to take it easy on the Cafe au Lait's, too, as I'm also having a bit of a dairy prob these days).


  7. Sounds like a wonderful day - is it bad that I am a TINY bit jealous?
    Though I'm sure we could have seen a flaming sausage or two in San Francisco...

  8. I love that you saw the actual locks. I saw that on Pinterest and decided I wanted to go to France, just to see that. (I know, I know... but I'm not good at history.)

  9. Whew I'm exhausted too. I'm glad we finally headed back to the hotel. :)

  10. Who needs Paris when we have Ally!


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