A Travellerspoint blog

The simpler taste of Paris

sunny 24 °C

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Every city has its landmarks; temples, cathedrals, monuments, palaces and other large edifices that bleed beyond the camera frame requiring a lot of back-stepping to get the full splendour into view. They are great, magnificent and historical footprints in time. A breathtaking show of power and wealth and international icons that identify the city you stand in awe of.

But with every big, bold and beautiful, every city has its smaller, less grand images that also ignite memories of time, place and romantic occasions. In Paris, these are the street cafés, restaurants and bars. They too are icons of the city. Historical in many ways by serving up the culinary tastes of Paris in some of the most quaint locations…the backstreets. I intend to take you away from the wide boulevards with their acres of tables and chairs, the overpowering rumbling of traffic and the taste destroying plumes of exhaust. Come with me into the backstreets, parks and alleyways, pick up a copy of le Parisian, sit down, relax and tantalise your taste buds in some of the most curious, unique and sometimes whimsical eateries of Paris.

Please note, this is only a very small taste of the vast number of Paris eateries and is not an endorsement of those listed below, but only suggestions to start you on your own journey of delectable discovery.

Brasserie au Soleil de la Butte

Address: 32 Rue Muller, 75018 Paris
Metro: Chateau Rouge

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On the summit of Butte Montmarte overlooking the city of Paris is the Sacré-Coeur Basilica. Facing the city from the Basilica, descend the steps on the left under verdant, shady trees to the bottom. There facing you like an isolated island is the Brasserie au Soleil de la Butte.

Deceiving in appearance, this versatile venue caters for lunchtime tourist, night-time locals and the basement becomes an entertainment hub during the weekend. The food is classic Parisian Brasserie and affordable.

Au Bistrot de la Place

Address: 2 Place du Marché Saint-Catherine, 75004 Paris
Metro: Saint-Paul

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As you can see by the bicycles and Vespa in the photo, this is a popular eatery for the locals which means affordable. Facing the leafy Place Saint-Catherine, the sweet sound of birds in the trees sing their praises to the specialties of the house, french Onion Soup, tender lamb and a light and flavoursome Créme Brulee.

Relais Odeon Brasserie

Address: 132, Boulevard Saint-Germain, 75006 Paris
Metro: Odéon

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Here you have a choice of backstreet and boulevard to get the most out of pavement dining and people gazing. Mains range from €16 to €26 but a typical French breakfast is a must from 7.00 am. If the weather is unkind the interior is rich, deep and luxurious.

La Palette

Address: 43 Rue de Seine, 75006 Paris
Metro: Saint-Germain-des-Prés

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As you may tell from the number of photos, this is a favourite. Not just for me, but for Cézanne, Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and lately stars of screen and music. Dark and intimate, works of great artists (some left as payment for their meal) stare down from the walls of the second larger room now listed as an Historic Monument. Still frequented by art students and gallery owners, the atmosphere is sure to inspire creativity.
The menu is in keeping with the creative atmosphere and ranges from tinned sardines and snails to Caviar Alverta “Petrossian”.

Le Moulin de la galette

Address: 83, rue Lepic, 75018 Paris
Metro: Lamarck-Caulaincourt

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Another piece of art history with Renoir's Le Moulin de la Galette painted on site and which Vincent van Gogh, Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec also immortalised. The windmill on top of the restaurant is one of only two left in Paris and dates back to 1717.

After a colourful history, the restaurant, named after the brown bread made from the milled flour, was placed second by the Regional Ile-de-France Tourist Board Paris.

Vins & Terroirs

Address: 66 Rue Saint-André des Arts, 75006 Paris
Metro: Odéon or Saint-Michel

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A small, compact restaurant next to the Hotel St André des Arts continues the connection between food, wine and artists. You can't miss the menus adorning the frontage with a broad variety of tempting and delicious choices, while inside the walls are lined with cartoons from a past era. Escargot and beef bourguignon add to the homely atmosphere.

Le Marché

Address: 2 Place du Marché Saint-Catherine 75004 Paris
Métro: Saint-Paul (Le Marais)

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The green awning blends in with the shade from the leafy trees in Place Saint-Catherine opposite. Le Marché offers a sizeable menu in contrast to the compact and intimate atmosphere. Mains are priced between €15-20 with duck breast with honey, spicy fried potatoes and oyster mushrooms a specialty. The service is friendly and English spoken.

To end, allow me to deviate a little from eateries but remain related. Housed among the stacked shelves of literature – old and new – are culinary tomes in the original cluttered and claustrophobic Shakespeare and Company book store. Set aside some time to linger among the shelves while breathing in the smell of print, paper and leather binding. Find something of interest then head off into the backstreets for a place to sit, read and savour the simpler tatses of Paris.

Address: 37 rue de la Bûcherie, 75005 Paris
Metro: Saint-Michel Notre-Dame

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Posted by DenOS.08 16:34 Archived in France Tagged art trees food restaurant paris park dining music bicycle wine eating cafe vespa shade lamppost waiter alfresco Comments (1)

The weird and wonderful Prague

A city in some detail

-17 °C
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Travel is a wonderful thing. It opens one's eyes to other lives, other cultures, other histories, other sights, sounds and smells. But one thing I find going to a new location is that it can be quite awesome, awe-inspiring and if you’re there only for a short time, overpowering. You’re caught up in the race to see as much of the established and noted ‘sights’ as you can, stare in wonderment, record what you see then move on to the next on the list. If you’re on a group tour, this can be educational if you have a good guide, but even then you’re processed to a formula, a timetable that allows very little, if any, freedom to see beyond.

My recent trip to Prague had me gallivanting around just as described above, but I was also there for another reason, to seek out the quirky Czech personality, their sense of humour, their telltale remnants of the past and their artistic foibles.

So, in the hope that I may broaden your curiosity, open your eyes a little wider to see beyond and to learn to look down and not just up, I share with you some of my quirky finds and maybe expose a little of the latent humour that lies just a fraction below the surface of a long-tormented country.

One sight I came across I feel reveals all this and more, clever, witty and quite a political approach to the recovery of a city that over decades was left to decay.

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As if left imbedded into the pavement in front of the Museum as soviet tanks rolled over to forcefully continue their occupation, this cross points to the Memorial to Victims of Communism.

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A shop window gathering more than dust, vodka and bullets are left as a reminder perhaps? As does the soviet designed buildings that stand embarrassingly and obtrusively out of place beside grand buildings such as the Museum.

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Though, some may say that other, more recent designs are also out of place such as the Dancing Building, but then again, curves have been in for some time.

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And while we’re on buildings, this may seem out of place in this story, but hidden inside this building that houses a casino, and is next door to a McDonald’s, is the Museum of Communism!

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Whether the location for the Museum of Communism is a coincidence or was a conscious tongue-in-cheek choice, the work of sculpture, David Černý is definitely deliberately provocative.

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Other artists abound in this city once called the cultural centre of Europe, some not so well know, or indeed not known at all.

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Then there is the monument to an artist, Lennon’s Wall, and the invitation to leave your own creative tribute.

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Even add your “I woz here” to the Elf Hostel beer garden as he himself looks on.

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But of course wall art (sgraffito) has been around for centuries in a rather more classical style.

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Even earlier remnants of old archways are preserved as wall art and patting the dog not only keeps it well polished, but may also bestow some luck.

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And not to be outdone, Mother Nature contributes her own unique creativity to this remarkable canvas.

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Yes, art is everywhere in Prague, in the hundreds of galleries and the fairytale narrow laneways that appear from above to be sucking their towering buildings into a meandering void.

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But not all pieces of art are easily interpreted, such as the Astronomical clock on the Old Town Hall, but then there is always the one around the corner to help you keep your dinner date.

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So night falls and the underworld beckons you to follow the stare down the stairs to life in the dungeons.

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Here, beer is consumed, rich and filling pork and dumplings are left unfinished and the sound of jazz resonates in the perfect acoustic environment, and if too much beer is consumed, relief is not far away.

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And finally, night has its own palette as you stroll through the quiet cobblestone alleys to your abode, refreshed by the detail observed, enriched with unique images that will remind you forever of the personality of the city.

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Posted by DenOS.08 22:18 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (2)

Transport in Thailand

Trains, planes, boats and more…


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No matter how you plan to travel around Thailand, up-market, budget or just take it as it comes, there’s a way and a means for everyone. You can plan and book ahead or have the freedom to go where you want and when you want and there will be some form of transport to get you to your destination.

My plan was to spend most of my travels in the northern parts of Thailand. I had a list of locations I needed to visit, not as a tourist, but as part of a project I was working on, so time and budget was restrictive. The result was an insight into the movement of a population for a multitude of reasons, from transporting large bundles of wares to business reasons or just plain visiting and which at first appeared a frenzy of casual confusion until I realised the system is well oiled and reasonably reliable.

I’d like to take you with me as I start in the capital, Bangkok, the throbbing heart and the transport hub. A city that is in rapid growth and in a hurry to catch up as I noticed the express rail link to the new Suvarnabhumi International Airport is still under construction and well past its deadline. But never fear for there are taxis for around 300THB ($10 and 45 minutes) and buses for 120THB ($4 and 60 to 80 minutes depending on stops) to deliver you to your accommodation.

The Bangkok main station is Hua Lamphong for long-distance and local trains and a terminal for the new fast, clean, cheap and efficient underground MRT rail network that connects at several points with the convenient and atmospheric Skytrain.

Hua Lamphong main station and MRT underground station.
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The underground MRT line connects with the Skytrain (Silom Line) at Si Lom. From here you can take the Skytrain north, or south to its terminal station, Saphan Taksin on the Chao Phraya River.

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At Saphan Taksin you can take a ferry, a tour boat or a free shuttle boat to experience the hectic activities on the river as everyday working vessels, some appearing too monstrous for the river, ply their trade as high-rise apartments and international hotels peer down from both banks.

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As much as I would have loved to stay longer in Bangkok I needed to head north, to Udon Thani and the fastest and least expensive way was to fly with the Thai Airways discount airline NOK. If you book well ahead, the hour plus flight can cost as little as $30 (which includes all taxes and charges) and you can pick where you sit. Even if you book the day you fly the cost is still cheap at around $65. Of course this is a no frills airline but it does prepare you for the less luxurious transport to come.

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From Udon Thani I took a bus further north to Nong Khai on the banks of the Mekong River. It is here that I quickly learnt how important the bus network is in Thailand. An endless stream of buses of a varying degrees of standards and disrepair cover all regions. First impression is one of confusion, but after purchasing my ticket from a helpful attendant I settled down for an hours wait before my transport arrives. During this hour I come to the pleasant realisation of the unpretentious organization the Thais have in place. Though there are moments of utter frenzy with the arrival of each bus as hordes of taxi and Tuk-tuk drivers converge on the dismounting and weary passengers for their custom.

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From Nong Khai it’s a short distance across the Friendship Bridge to Vientiane in Laos, but this time I’m staying on the Thai side as having been to Vientiane on a previous visit. Here that I have time to slow down, go where I want to with ease, hop on and hop off at will and enjoy the river and the flat terrain – I dined on the river, left a wake in the muddy water and hired a bicycle.

More relaxed forms of transport
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The process is repeated as I fly NOK Air from Udon Thani to Chiang Mai ($77) and take a bus to Chiang Sean and the Golden Triangle. The trip takes four hours to Chiang Rai and another hour to Chiang Saen, so I opt for some comfort and a first class bus (about $8) with air-conditioning, free water, a snack and an on-board stewardess.

Chiang Mai, being Thailand’s second largest city, has an equally larger bus terminal but the waiting is still prevalent with two and a half hours for my VIP transport, though there is a saving of an hour in travel time. This extra long vigil further educates me in the culture of Thai travel. Spuiking is loud for last minute ticket sales as buses prepare to depart. Food of all sorts is purchased and devoured or kept for the journey. I had time to shop for some band-aids to cushion my blistered feet. Backpackers, from all corners of the globe, looked the same as they did in the 70’s in their ethnic, soiled clubber as Monks in their pristine orange garb headed to their special, reserved seats in front of an altar, possibly to prey for the quick arrival of their bus. Patience is a requirement of travel, not only in Thailand but all over the globe.

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At Chiang Saen I take a tuk-tuk the nine kilometres to Sop Ruak and the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Ruak Rivers, the so-called heart of the ‘Golden Triangle’ and where the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet. Sop Ruak is a small village so transport is less frequent with a blue mini bus (about every 20 minutes) the only way to get back to Chiang Saen or maybe the occasional truckie passing by with a load of bamboo may give you a lift. But the Tuk-tuk remains the most common form of local transport. With its colourful driver, the shrill tuk-tuk of the 2-stoke engine and the tight manoeuvrability on three wheels, the ride can be either pleasant or a terrifying thrill. And remember, before entering a taxi or Tuk-tuk, negotiate a reasonable fare in a cheerful manner.

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But, the ‘Golden Triangle’ is an attraction and like most attractions, they attract tourists in large numbers. Groups that can be confused and easily lost, so, how better to make sure they can find their own transport among the dozens of double-decked, diesel-guzzling beasts than to give each its own bright and colourful personality.

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Well, that pretty much covers transport in Thailand. Planes, trains, buses, riverboats and 2-stroke three-wheelers make traversing this country exciting, interesting and totally suitable. But, apart from the obvious omission, your own two feet, the only other form of transport I have left till last is the soft-striding, gentle, nature-loving elephant.

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The colour of a country is enhanced by the culture of its ability to move about and Thailand offers all the colour and efficiency at a very reasonable price. The added prerequisite of patience can only help to further observe and understand a land and its people. My journey had ended and I depart on my last form of transport, on a wing and a prayer that soon I’ll return.

Suvarnabhumi Airport departure gate
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Posted by DenOS.08 15:10 Archived in Thailand Tagged transportation Comments (0)

New bells for Tyn Church

An added attraction in the Old Town Square, Prague


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There’s so much to see when planning your travel itinerary, but when you happen across something totally unplanned, a once-in-a-lifetime event, a special moment in history and you’re an on-the-spot witness, this is the birth of an everlasting memory.

Such was the occasion on my recent visit to the capital of the Czech Republic, Prague, when on a sunny winter's day I walked through the Old Town Square to be confronted by something so out of place in this historic open space, a space featuring more than its fair share of tourist attractions: the Old Town Hall with its confounding Astronomical Clock, the Jan Hus Monument, the Rococo Kinksy Palace, the decorated Storch House, the Baroque Church of St Nicholas and the most distinctive landmark, the Church of Our Lady before Tyn with its Gothic steeples that I’m sure inspired the Disneyland designers. Here, overpowering the aged palette of the past, I’m confronted by a massive, bright yellow crane, its feet firmly rooted trustingly upon the small cobblestones with its extended tentacle stretching upwards towards the Tyn steeples.

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Looking something like a promotion display for a construction company and attracting a large curious crowd, the crane began to lift something from a thin alleyway beside the Church. As soon as the object became high enough for the crowd to see, a sigh of wonderment rippled across the square as they recognized the familiar shape of a large, heavy bell. Silence then fell over the onlookers as they became totally consumed by this historic event.

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Originally the Church towers housed six bells until WWII when the Germans seized control of Prague and proceeded to melt the bells for their metal to be converted into military equipment until only one bell was left. The bell, called Marie, manufactured in 1553 and weighing 6,500 kilograms, is the second oldest bell in Prague. In 1989, after the Velvet Revolution, one new bell was installed and on this day, Tuesday 19 February 2008, three more bells are being lifted to their new home, high up in the north tower. From this point placing and tuning the new bells will take until Easter Sunday, when they will chime for the first time during the Easter Mass. A sixth bell will have to wait until sufficient funds are donated as each bell can cost up to 1 million Czech crowns and take almost two years to make as long as there’s no mishaps as the largest bell being installed today was melted down after the first attempt was slightly off-key.

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Lifting each bell was a nail-bitingly slow, precise operation as the crane operator constantly received instructions from the engineers peering out of the steeple window to ensure that no overhanging ancient ornaments were damaged. This meant that the bell could not be lowered directly into the tower but needed to be hooked and pulled from within, a process unseen from the street, but most likely with the aid of some sort of hydraulic mechanism as the weight would have been to much for the number of men the small space could accommodate.

One bell after the other are lifted until the largest weighing 2,500 kilograms is manoeuvred into the north side window as Jan Hus looks on approvingly in the knowledge that once again multiple bells will toll through the Town Square and momentarily scare off the ever-present soiling pigeons.

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To have read about so much oppression and turmoil over the years, which has meant so much rebuilding, and then to witness this single element of the process brings such resurrection into direct, overwhelming perspective.

Posted by DenOS.08 00:54 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged educational Comments (0)

Elephant walk in Chiang Rai

Saddle sore on the gentlest of mammals


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There is no other image as identifiable of Thai culture than the elephant. This ancient beast has had a long and valuable impact on this country as a working companion and as a powerful attack force over the centuries. But these gentle creatures are in danger of neglect from unemployment and destruction by the still active illegal ivory poaching. Their once valuable contribution to farming and other heavy work related activities has diminished since the banning of logging in 1989, so it was without hesitation that I opted to go on an ‘elephant safari’ to keep one elephant and its mahout employed and fed for at least another day.

The Chiang Rai safari may not be as large as the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang Province near Chiang Mai, but I’m not sure I wanted to go as far as seeing these regal creatures performing tricks, I just wanted to get close to them, to sense their temperament, to feel the texture of their skin, to understand more of their manner. So with my guide, Joy, we set off on an hour-long boat trip to reach the Karen village and our mount.

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It’s a sudden sight as we turn around a bend in the river to be confronted by a gaggle of elephants, saddled up and tethered along the riverbank, a mounting hut dominant and waiting our arrival.

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Before climbing into the saddle be sure to buy at least three bags of elephant food at 20 THB each or three for 50 THB. These consist of bananas and cut sugar cane and help the elephant’s food intake of up to 400 kg a day. The saddle is cramped for two people and one leg hangs over a square steel frame, but you’re too preoccupied at this stage to care as you mount and head off down the main street of the village towards the distant mountains. But, the first thing I learn about our elephant, apart from her name being ‘Rumpoon’, is that she doesn’t like the sound motorcars or motorbikes and starts to turn for home. The mahout gives out a shrill order and a rub behind the ears with his feet, she reluctantly obeys and continues in the right direction after the motorists have passed.

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The ‘safari’ I’m on is for two hours and Rumpoon’s slow, gentle stride takes us through farmland, hillside plantations and into the jungle high in the mountains. The trail followed gets thinner and at various times Rumpoon chooses the trickle of a watercourse to follow. The trail can be very steep and high up in the mountains the drop each side can be worrying, but the elephant is no fool and considers each step taken with great care. Her step is soft leaving little if any foot print in the ground as she shuffles slowly along, sometimes too slow for the mahout who can get a little impatient and gives out with a whack of a heavy chain, a disturbing action that makes my guide Joy issue a complaint.

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As food is thrown in front of Rumpoon regularly she’ll quicken her step to sniff out the offering, deftly curl her trunk around the sugarcane or bunch of bananas and lift to her mouth. After a time the mahout dismounts from Rumpoon and I’m offered his place. Sliding out of the saddle and onto her neck, I now have unencumbered contact as I rest my feet behind her ears and pat her coarse, hairy head, my level of emotion is lifted as I feel the power yet gentleness of this graceful 41-year-old lady. Then as if in protest at the mahout, who is now walking behind her, she aims a 2-gallon sneeze at him. What a wonderful gesture, I feel.

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At the end of the 2-hour trek and after I’d returned to the saddle, we reach our destination on the other side of the mountain. Saddle-sore we climb out, buy three more bags of food, which is devoured immediately and sadly bid farewell to our gentle friend.

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Posted by DenOS.08 22:05 Archived in Thailand Tagged animal Comments (2)

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