Tagged in: paris

Christmas Letter 2010

I’m sitting in the computer room (not allowed one in the living room) trying to think of a new way of putting this letter together.  Once again my good intentions of writing it in sections throughout the year has failed miserably and my original start got lost when the PC crashed. Yes, I do have backups but this bit was missing somehow!      

I left you last year anticipating reports of our impending New Year Rhine cruise. This was almost eclipsed by the demise of the our leader Peter Robinson’s Dynasty following the disclosure that the “holier than thou” Iris, doyen of Dundonald Society and famous for offering to get homosexuals cured, had been having a quiet affair with a 21 year old and had lent him about 50 grand to set up shop in a council owned restaurant.

Actually the Rhine cruise was a great success with amazingly good food and wine.   Probably the highlight was getting out of the rain in Rüdesheim and having the local speciality coffee made at the table – sugar caramelised in the glass by flambéing a v large Asbach brandy, coffee and lots of cream! There was a great crowd of “oldies” like us including a very large Welsh contingent who were intent on having a good time in spite of the rather poor entertainment on board. Needless to say the bar bill at the end warranted a mortgage.      

The photo is of a very big music box at the famous Siegfried’s Mechanisches Musikkabinett. An amazing museum of mechanical music machines.      

Later in January Peter, having somehow managed to survive politically and having  moved Iris quietly into a sanatorium, shook hands with Martin. Wailing and gnashing of teeth in Ballymena; what was the world coming to?

We managed to survive into February and escaped off on a tour of Cambodia. After Vietnam Cambodia was definitely hard work.  Either that or we are getting old. I would not have missed the experience and the highlights were the trip by boat from Battambang to Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat. The downsides were our travelling companions, a pair of septuagenarian retired schoolteachers from London, the
female being christened “the witch” by all the guides, and the hotel in Kratie which had no lift, cold and cold running water and an ancient and very noisy air-conditioner. I’m not sure which of bit of the air it conditioned.  The geckos were extremely efficient at insect control!      

We did have a good time on the whole and the guides were absolutely super. Anybody for fried tarantulas?

From Cambodia we flew back to Bangkok to meet up with Sandy and Kay McKinnon, 13 and 9, ’61 to ’69, who had very kindly offered to put us up for a week and show us the high life of the city.  It was wonderful to just relax in good company.  We did make a memorable excursion with them and their friends to The Bridge on the River Kwai. Sandy and I also managed to fit in a game of golf (Note the very efficient caddie) whilst the ladies went off for a coffee morning. Go to Bangkok, it is an amazing city.      

Whilst we were away the ubiquitous dissidents bombed Newry court house.      

March brought the announcement that the Queen is planning a trip to Ireland.  With hindsight one wonders how they will afford it.      

Just to give Easter a boost the nice new MI5 HQ at Palace barracks near Holywood was car bombed. Bet nobody saw that coming!      

Business was not getting any easier either.

In May we flew to Venice with friends to pick up the Orient Express to Paris. Venice was amazingly wet, from above and below, but the food and wine were unsurpassable.  The Orient Express is a train everybody should travel on once in a lifetime, but not more than that! I was really impressed with Paris and it exceeded my expectations in trumps. Two wonderful days and then we returned via Eurostar to London and then home.      

This was also the month we had the council elections and poor Peter Robinson lost his seat to an ordinary local person who was not under the impression that she owned East Belfast.      

In June I went off to join a happy band organised by Tom McMahon, to walk along the canal from Liverpool to Leeds in aid of the Birgelen Vets Charity and Macmillan Cancer. I just completed the last 15 mile leg from Bingley to Leeds. A great time was had by all. Mick and Lynne Shepherd, of 9 Sigs Rugby fame met me along the way to make a contribution and also forced me into a couple of pints of real ale – well it was lunch time.        

The rest of the month and July were typical.  As a warm up to the marching season a 400lb bomb was left outside the Auchnacloy police barracks and following the 12th marches there were 4 days of carefully orchestrated rioting in north Belfast.        

In August the funeral of Alex Higgins brought the cream of the snooker world to Sandy Row to pay their respects. Personally I reckon they should have named the city airport after him; but then he didn’t die quite soon enough and footballers always get the glory anyway!

In September we joined up with friends to go the passion play in Oberammergau.  I reckoned it was our last chance as the next performance will be in 2020; which is rather a long way ahead. There were 47 of us altogether and we had a great week touring in the Tirol, going to the play, which everyone, be they religious or not, should experience, and culminating in the Hofbräuhaus in Munich.        

Our Great granddaughter is now a year old!        

We found out, during October, that one should be careful which beaches one picnics on, following the discovery and exhumation of the body of one of the IRA victims who had been buried by the dunes in Red Bay on the North Antrim coast some 37 years ago.

November brought the 50th anniversary of my joining the army (actually it was September ’60 but we’ll not quibble over a couple of months) as a boy soldier in the REME.  One of the squad, Barry Johnson had spent the last two years organising a reunion in Wokingham, close by the camp at Arborfield, Berks. It was a great evening followed by a conducted tour of the Corps Museum on the Saturday.  Josephine and I then took off up to London for the rest of the weekend.        

Workwise things are pretty slow at the moment and do not look like improving to any great extent for the foreseeable future, however, we have enough work to keep the factory going for another month and one keeps one’s fingers crossed that something will turn up. At least it’s not as bad as the Republic.        

O'Neill Park November '10

We’ll that’s a sort of commentary on our year and the local events of passing interest.  Cannot really complain as we have managed to fit an awful lot in around work and golf: yes I’m still finding time to play although I’ve definitely become a fair weather player!        

We are off to the Med on boxing day and will see in the New Year in between Alexandria and Olympia all being well; so that all that’s left to do now is wish you a great Christmas and health and happiness for the New Year.      

Michael & Josephine

Paris, May 2010

Gare de l 'Est

None of us have been to Paris before so this was a new experience. Our first venture, having collected our luggage, was to acquire a taxi to take us to our hotel, the Opera Franklin which is off the Rue La Fayette. We took the next available from the rank which was driven by a gentleman of unknown origin who had never heard of either the hotel or the street. Luckily his satnav was able to direct him, though with my limited French, I disagreed with his interpretation of the final leg.  It did not make any great difference as we arrived safely.  The Opera Franklin, as I discovered from their welcome pack, is one of the Ibis group hotels and lives up to their reputation for basic, clean tidy accommodation. They are currently refurbishing the top three floors so there was a bit of a smell of fresh paint and the occasional crash of drilling, but nothing to to upset one unduly.  The receptionist said that they hoped to have the bedrooms completed by July and the foyer area by September.

Having booked in and parked our cases we bought the two day tourists tickets for Les Cars Rouge (€24 unlimited travel) and set off to walk to the Opera, this being the nearest stop. This is Paris so nothing is as easy as it should be and we took a little time to find our bearings, even with the courtesy map!  The bus is red (surprise, surprise) and similar to all other city tour vehicles except that this one offers complimentary earphones has a commentary system in a choice of eight languages.  The French version definitely differs from the English but I am not sure by how much!

Although it was dry there was a biting wind and I was the only one who braved the upper deck and even then I made forays down stairs to get my fingers working again. We went round the complete circuit, Champs Elysée,  Grand Palais, Invalides, Louvre, etc.  and ended up for lunch in the brasserie of the Cafe de la Paix. This is decidedly on the posh side but the menu was pretty good and Trevor and I settled for the cappachio of beef with parmesan and capers which came served on a sheet of slate, Josephine had a croquet Monsieur and Helen settled on the home made Burger. Trevor and I finished off with coffee viennasoise. We did consider an Armagnac but at €40 a shot felt this was a little excessive.

We wended our way back to the hotel where we indulged in the said Armagnac at €4.80. I wondered if it were just a matter of the decimal point.

We had asked the hotel concierge to recommend a restaurant that evening and she sent us to Hugo a small bistro on the Rue de la Papillion about 10 minutes walk away. This is a truly memorable little restaurant and is described in more detail in the Eating Out section.

Day two started with breakfast which I was pleasantly surprised to find included salami, ham and cheese as well as the inevitable croissants and jam.

Following this we set off again to catch the Red Bus with the intention of visiting the Louvre and then the Musêe d’Orsay.  We had noted quite a swish tailors the day before and I nepped in to see if I could get a bow tie (papillion, en français) but was  a bit taken back to find they only sold ready tied. I tried a number of shops after this, including Galeries Lafayette, with no avail.  So much for French savoire faire!.

We arrived at the Louvre which was not at all what I had expected. One it is a huge building set round an imposing square which then extend on two sides to form the Cour Napoléon which contains the fountains and three glass pyramids which look down into the the entrance to the museum itself. Froom here one moves out across the Jardin du Carrousel towards the Tuileries Gardens. We never did get to visit the museum itself as the queue was enormous. The visit was well worth it just for the arcitecture and overall view.

We headed over the Pont du Carrousel and down the Quai Voltaire for lunch in La Frégate, a typical brasserie with the usual parisian varieties on the menu. The Soupe à l ‘Oignon was a meal in itself, none of your dainty croutons, 3 slices of crusty topped with melted cheese. Trevor’s omelette aux champignons got lost in the system somewhere but turned up eventually! Everybody was very friendly and helpful as usual.

Following this we headed down to the Musêe d’Orsay.  The queues there were even longer than those at the Louvre.  It is definately a must to get tickets in advance! The rest of the party decided to take the bus back to the Opera but, haaving had enough of buses I elected to walk.

It is definately the way to see Paris once you have got your general bearings from the bus tour. From the Quai d’Orsay across the Pont de la Concorde and on across the great square with it fountains and statues and central obelisk. Across the road I noticed a Nicolas wine shop.  My first bottle of red wine was bought from an “offy” in Birmingham around 1957 and was Vieux Ceps by Nicolas. Strangely for those days it had a plastic stopper.  From there past the Marie Madeleine Church and Maxims. It was when I reached St. Lazare station that I realised that I should have taken a right at the Madelaine! Ah well It was a straight run back to the hotel past La Trinite, I would not have seen had I gone the right way.

Thinking that the rest of the party would already be back and resting I ordered a large Armagnac and collapsed into a chair in the lobby bar with a bowl of nibbles.  Surprise, surprise the rest arrived five minutes later having stopped off to buy a handbag.

We had booked for a Seine Cruise and dinner with Bateaux Parisians as our farewell to Paris and an excellent evening it turned out to be. The service and food were excellent.  I had not remembered that wine was included in the price and was a little taken aback to see that the cheapest red on the wine list was €75!  On being seated we were served with a Kir cocktail and our waiter for the evening, Jacques, introduced himself. The menu is not extensive; one would not expect this on souch a tour, but it coveres most tastes, you’d be pretty miserable not find something suitable. Starters included a “cappuchino” style soup with lobster and slow cooked morels,absolutely delicious, and duck foie gras with asparagus.  The veal with madeira sauce and truffle essence was robust and cooked to perfection and my companions reported the same about the Beef tournedos in a Bourdelaise wine sauce.  The vegetables and potatoes passed muster with no complaint. My Crêpes Suzette, orange butter with Grand Marnier were flambéed at the table, nice touch, and I believe that the Cantai maature cheese with apple and grape condiment were not to be sniffed at (no pun intended). The wines, a 2008 Medoc and a Château la Capitelles Chardonnay, all French of course, complimented the meal perfectly as did the coffee.  In fact the food was so good one was to be forgiven for not watching the Paris illuminations glide by.  There was, in addition a very competent singer accompanied by a small combo to ensure that we did not get bored.  We arrived back at the Eiffel tower to the spectacle of a fireword display which wound up the evening perfectly. On our way to the taxi rank at the tower we encountered our first roller skating gendarmes and security guards, neat!

On Saturday morning we set off to the Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar.  This station does not rate as one of the top 100 stations I have been to.  It did not help that there had been some sort of alert in the tunnel and that all trains had been halted.  The poweres that be had roped off access to the Eurostar section of the station which is on the first floor and there seemed to be a general lack of information.  Luckily, about 45 minutes later, it was announced that the problem had been cleared and that trains would begin to run again.  In true French style the put up seperate queue notices for the two trains that were due to leave.  After about fifteen minutes they changed the notices round so nobody knew which was which. Happy days!

We eventually boarded about an hour and a half late.  We had booked Leisure First tickets which, seeing as we are all pensioners, coast about £15 a head more than the standard fare and gave us big comfortable seats free wine and an excellent three course meal.  My choice  of with a gorgonzola sauce was a definite hit. Not that I am obsessed with food you know. The rest of the journey was uneventful and Trevor was able to increase my knowledge of British rolling stock to quite a degree, but I was starting from a very low base.
I would recommend Eurostar; even with the delays it was smooth and quick and dropped us into the centre of London without the hassle of transfers.

As a final note we got a cab to Liverpool Street to catch the Stanstead Express and were treated to a true East End commentary on everything from the way to improve the economy to his holiday in Spain. Priceless and a great end to the holiday.

Click on the photo below to go to the full album and then choose slide show.


Back to Orient Express

Simplon Orient Express, Venice to Paris

This was to be an “experience of a lifetime” holiday with our friends Trevor and Helen Rankin; with them celebrating their 45 wedding anniversary and for us, Josephine’s (if you don’t know, don’t ask) birthday.  After a completely uneventful journey, all flights being on time and the Aviance business lounge at Gatwick North being a haven of peace and quiet whilst dispensing restorative alcoholic beverages, we arrived at the Hotel Kette in Venice by water taxi in the pouring rain.  22⁰ mind you. 

It is an old fashioned hotel with a charm of its own.  The staff are friendly, the rooms comfortable and the prices reasonable. We dropped our bags and hied us into the bar for a much needed cool drink.  No local beer, but they do a great line in 7.7 proof Danish Ceres! 

We elicited the concierge’s help in picking a restaurant for dinner and he recommended the Antico Martini.The report on this can be found as a separate post.  It was magnificent! 

Having got back to our room we discovered that it was only nine pm so we ordered a bottle of Chianti from room service and endeavoured to stay awake until a reasonable hour for bed. I will not  enlighten you with further details of the evening.

We awoke early to the sound of the hotel service boat exchanging laundry three floors below. The weather had cleared so I decided to go out for a stroll and found that St. Marks square was about a 3 minute walk away. Six thirty in the morning is the ideal time to wander the streets of Venice. The only people about are the early shop keepers, joggers and a few hardy tourists. The clean smell of the sea wafts between the buildings and one can take in the sights without being bustled along. 

I collected Josephine and retraced the walk before meeting up for breakfast at eight.  A goodly spread it was; fruit, cereals, cold meats, cheese and coffee to die for. 

We were collected by a water taxi to take us to the station to embark on the next stage.  We thought that it would just run round the Grand Canal, however, we were treated to a tour of the one way system which short cuts the curves of the major thoroughfare. 

Our bags were collected from the taxi and transported to the booking in desk for the Orient Express. A word of warning;  do not use the currency exchange on the station – I was offered €47.60 for £60. I know sterling is not particularly strong but that is ridiculous.

The train, 17 coaches long,  is everything that you would expect; even before one embarks it exudes an aura of opulence, added to by the liveried carriage stewards who greet you at the door.  The cabins are luxurious without being large; with built in washing facilities, complimentary dressing gowns, fan etc.  As we had adjoining cabins we opened the connecting door which gave the appearance of far more room. Our carriage steward duly instructed us as to how everything worked. 

We went to the first sitting for lunch, a three course extravaganza starting with asparagus lasgne and followed by monkfish tail on a sweet pepper crepe with a curry sauce, fennel and basmati rice in a red pepper shell. Josephine and I chose a Chianti Classico whilst Trevor and Helen went for the Sancerre. The sweet was a mixture of fresh berries with ice-cream and splashed with fresh prosecco. Yum! 

We retired to our accommodation to take a snooze and watch the passing scenery. If you are contemplating a trip on the Orient Express do pick the Venice to Paris option. We have spoken to people who have taken the London to Venice route but the views are of flat countryside and by the time it reaches the Alps it is dark. 

Dinner is a black tie affair, although this is not de rigueur , and it was disappointing the number of people who appeared in lounge suits.  This did not detract from the food.  We opted for the 7.00 sitting which proved a good choice.  This time four courses, opening with sautéed filet of Turbot meunière, tarragon and tomato sauce and diced vegetable ragout (not my favourite accompaniment). The main was a roast rack of lamb with pesto and simmered purple artichokes, accompanied by a lamb spring roll with parmesan cheese and crispy potato “Anna” cake. The lamb was perfect. I would normally cremate mine but this managed to be medium and still fall off the bone. A cheese board followed, fairly frugal but tasty and then came the coconut blancmange with cardamom scented mango. If this was not enough coffee (or tea) was served with pastries. 

We hied ourselves down to the bar for a nightcap.  The bar seats 39 people approximately and the second dinner sitting were there.  We managed to acquire seats and get served.  What followed can only be described as Pythonesque. more people came from our sitting and passed down the car towards the bar and the piano. This continued for some 30 minutes. At about 9.30 they called the second sitting for dinner and people began to file back up the carriage.  I am still do not know where the came from as once again there was a steady stream. I am just glad that we did not opt for the 9.00 dinner as it was served nearly 45 minutes late which meant it would not have finished before 11.00 – not too good to sleep on! 

We returned to our couchette which was now transformed into a sleeping compartment with bunk beds.  I had the top.  Given that it was a strange environment we slept remarkably well.  Note that these are Victorian and there is no en-suite toilet.  They supply dressing gowns (€40 from the boutique if you want to take one with your) and slippers for night time excursions. 

We had booked breakfast, which is served in the compartment, for 7.00 so at 6.45 our steward arrived to convert it back to a sitting room. A class act that took no longer than three minutes!  Breakfast consisted of fruit juice, fruit salad, yoghurt, rolls, croissants, honey, cheese, jam with coffee and tea on the side! 

We rolled majestically through the countryside for a further hour and duly arrived at the Gare de l’Est around 8.20. 

Our luggage was delivered to us at the end of the platform and the next stage of our adventure began! 

Click on the photo below to go to the album for the trip and the choose “slideshow”.

Orient Express Trip

To read about the Paris adventure click here.