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Journal of No. 118


July 10th, 2015

France 2015 - Part III @ 04:03 pm


Alas, the French train system has finally let us down. Something slowed down our train on the way to Bordeaux, and we slowed to a crawl and paused for a time, and then crawled slowly toward our destination. Can't make a 20 minute connection when your train is 39 minutes late.

We crammed into the information desk line (with lots of other travellers) and finally got to the counter and received our new tickets and instructions. Bordeaux to Toulouse and Toulouse to Carcassonne. With a 10 minute connection in Toulouse. There was still a half hour before the next train, but at least we had a new plan, and it wasn't like waiting hours for the next train.

But then of course we get to the new train, and the cars have no electricity. A minor annoyance is that the seat numbers are all electronic (for some reason) I mean why!?! The seats can't really change from day to day, and even if they did you couldn't change the numbers, because they match the existing seat layout. But a greater annoyance was that the AC was not on, and had not been on. Did I mention that France has been pretty hot this whole time? Although Mont Saint Michel was 'cool' (high 70s) from being out in the sea, everywhere else has been 80s and 90s, and it's supposed to be high 90s in Caracassonne, and it is expected to hit 100 the day we return to Paris (last I checked). After the unlit numbers and the AC, the last remaining strange obstacle was the pigeon on the car, but a civic minded fellow passenger caught the pigeon and released it outside.

Of course, above and beyond the numbers, the AC, and the pigeon, the very last thing is that the train is late leaving Bordeaux. They're estimating 10 mintues late. We'll see if you can make a 10 minute connection when you're ten minutes late.

I'm beginning to think I should not have worn my CityRace t-shirt.


And yes, you can't make your 10 minute connection when the train actually leaves 20 minutes late. (I think there is no such thing as making up lost time on French trains. Their speed is set for every section of track and that's it and that's all.)

So in Toulouse, we're back in the information kiosk trying to get to Carcassonne. The next train is too late for our dinner reservations, but grudgingly the attendant allows that the Lyon train will stop there, but we will have to pay a supplement because of blahblahblah. Whatever, Jacques. Back to the platforms and onto train number 4 of the day. Dr. Pookie has started a countdown to the reservation time at the restaurant. She's been looking forward to this meal, and nothing will stop her. Not French trains, not 95 degree heat, not a husband who suggests that it is fashionable to be a little late to restaurant reservations.

The train travels through some very pretty countryside...

Grapes

...and drops us off in an hour or so in Carcassonne. Dr. Pookie calls 57 minutes.

We drag our bags outside hoping to find a taxi. There's a stand, and people waiting, but no taxis. Let's give it a few minutes. At 51 minutes, and no signs of change, we go to plan B. I take a photo of the map of town; Dr. Pookie draws a crude map, and off we go towing our suitcases through the pedestrian streets. At 43 minutes we cross a plaza and can see the street that will take us to the street we want. At 37 minutes we arrive at the hotel. Dr. Pookie calls 33 minutes as we enter the door, and we change into slightly fancier clothes.

28 minutes, she calls, as she leads me back out of the hotel and across the old bridge over the river toward the old part of town. Now it's still a billion degrees outside, and our restaurant is in the old castle part of town, so that means we have to scale the hill and get inside the walled inner city.

21 minutes, she gasps breathlessly as we halfway scale the hill. 18 minutes, we tread upon the incline to the gates. 12 minutes, as we enter the outer and inner gates. 6 minutes, as we navigate the medieval streets. 2 minutes, as we sight the old basilica that adjoins the plaza in which the restaurant is located.

"ZERO!! WE HAVE RESERVATIONS FOR EXACTLY RIGHT NOW", a slightly shiny and fetchingly bedewed Dr. Pookie exults, dragging a sweat-drenched Mr. Dr. Pookie into the Michelin-starred restaurant. They seat us in a corner of the terrace as far away from everyone else as possible. I don't blame them.

But after a Campari and soda and a half liter of water, and a little time on the breezy and fortunately shaded terrace, I'm largely dry and composed again, and can focus on the business at hand -- some world-class food. We are greeted with a tiny beaker of vichyssoise, a tiny soup spoon with a dollop of blended peas with a delicious sprig of ham embedded in it, and a little cube of sheep's cheese with a tiny cherry. The soup was only so so, but the other elements were miniscule delights.

Then an amuse-bouche of a cube of garlic-infused potato resting on truffle sauce arrived to also help get the party started. I think sommeliers are trained to praise any selection made by a guest, but right or wrong I was happy with my choice of a Mourvedre grown in the region. Dr. Pookie opted for the seasonal menu based on carrots and potatoes, while I ordered a la carte. My starter was some lightly fried vegetables with truffle slices and tiny croutons with truffle sauce. A wide variety of veggies in the dish: artichoke heart, asparagus, freakish baby beet, carrot, onion, mushrooms... I don't remember Dr. Pookie's, but you can bet it had carrots and potatoes in it.

I didn't have a fish course, but she had Artic char with the tiniest carrot bits and tater tots you ever saw.

For the main course, I had something that was sort of a fancy variation on the tournedos de Rossini I had in New Orleans, but they had gone further with fancying it up. It arrived as a perfect cylinder, like an impossibly perfect filet, but it was actually three layers. Meat cake! The bottom was a disk of filet. The middle layer was shredded filet meat in a rich dark sauce, and the top layer was a ring of filet, with a plug of foie gras filling the punched out middle. I really enjoyed it a lot. The foie gras had a more appealing texture, to me, than what I'd had in New Orleans, which was too runny/fatty. But the sauce is what really made the dish so good in the shredded meat. The solid parts of steak were perfectly good, but because they were thin, it was hard to appreciate them as steak, and I'm not sure whether it even mattered that I asked for it medium. Still I did enjoy it quite a lot.

For dessert I had the strawberry tart, and it was really quite impressive. About ten different ingredients all put together into a little merry-go-round. Tart base with strawberry creme, and another cookie, and a layer of strawberry slices, and a punched out disk of white chocolate with little creme poofs topped with sort of a strawberry fruit jelly. Pretty fantastic.

To aid in digestion, I had a chartreuse. Lovely herbal fragrance, it's almost as fun to inhale as drink. La Barbican did a great job of wiping away the terrors of travel that had plagued us for most of the day.

The setting of the Barbican is also fantastic, being on the terrace behind the Hotel de la Cite. The setting sun gave vibrant hues to the building and the neighboring castle. Like in Rennes, as the light faded, swallows came out to eat the early evening bugs. At first in singles and twos, soon there were little groups and temporary swarms of swallows swishing and swooshing through the air above, silhouetted darkly against the sunset sky, making their occasional war-cheeps.

After dinner, we strolled (much more sedately) back down the hill toward the hotel. The moon was bright, as was the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter.

I had intended our stay in Carcassonne to be a slower paced stay, and we may go slower still. The thought of getting on a train, even a short one to Nimes, now seems foolhardy. So we'll spend a couple days in town before returning to Paris.

Carcassonne near sunset

The next morning, we slept in, and then set off into the city. Warm, but not yet hot, there was a strong wind that has kept up most of the day so far. We stopped for a bite for breakfast, and then ran into the square where a farmers market was open.

Market, Carcassonne

We checked out the produce, and bought some apricot preserves to take back home. We stopped briefly at the train station to get our tickets to Paris squared away. We will keep our fingers crossed, but we have decent tickets all set.

Near the train station, a canal flows through the town, and there are tour boats there. We were at a convenient time, so we took a 1.5 hour cruise through a couple of locks and back. The views had been perhaps overestimated, but it was still a fine way to spend a little time. The Midi canal actually runs quite a ways, connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Like Carcassonne itself, the canal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Midi Canal

On our return, we managed to find our way around to the cemetery behind the train station, and walked around a bit soaking up the gothic atmosphere and blazing sun. By then, it was really getting warm, and rather than fight it out and tramp all over in the heat, we declared a siesta. We got some sandwiches from a shop, and a bottle of cider from the supermarche, and headed back for the hotel to wait out the hottest part of the day, before venturing forth again.

That was nice lunch break, and afterwards, we strolled about the old city, taking the other route into the Aude Gate, which is steeper, but possibly shorter than the walk around to the Narbonne gate. Most of the sites (and even the shops) were closed for the day, but it was still nice to walk through the streets, especially since most of the tourists had vanished.

Basilica of Carcassonne

Checking around the nooks and crannies, we found a way to get down to a grassy area beneath the 'drawbridge' connecting the medieval town to the actual chateau. There was a garden down there with flowers and vegetables.

Garden

We had spent some part of the day idly looking over the menu of the restaurants in town, and eventually drifted over to the Jardin de Carcasses, which seemed to have a nice menu, and the spot was a lovely outdoor plaza. The food was quite good, and for the first and probably only time in France, we had swift and speedy service from beginning to end. I had a Banyuls as an aperitif, which appeared on a few menus hereabouts. It was a sweet port (basically correct from what Wikipedia tells me); I enjoyed it, but I might have chosen differently if I had it to do over again. My starter was a salad with tomatoes and some toasts with a spread and folded ham on top. It was all quite delicious. Then a butcher's cut of beef with some pomme frites. The beef was a bit tough, but otherwise quite good. Dr. Pookie's cassoulet was adorned with a savory looking duck-leg. All washed down with a cheap pichet of white wine. And creme brulee for dessert. It too was fantastic, with a crackly top and a custardy insides.

In the morning we returned to the medieval city to see a few of the things that were closed yesterday. The cemetery is much like the one above the train station, except that it has much better views, being right next to the walls of the city and the Narbonne Gate.

Untitled

Inside, we toured the Basilica of St. Nazaire and St. Celse, and had the place almost to ourselves. With origins from the 6th century, the present building was completed in the 13th century. Some nice gothic elements and stained glass, and a neat pulpit, but not much of the insides was of great interest, apart perhaps from a statue of Jean d'Arc.

Pulpit

The chateau tour is well worth a visit. You don't have free reign, but you get to see a lot of it, and they have restored some interesting bits of the defensive technology, namely the wooden gallery (hoarding) that overhung the base of the ramparts. Crossbowmen could guard from far away through the stone ramparts, but a slotted hole in the floor of the wooden gallery allowed you to shoot anyone who had gotten to the base of the wall. In time of war, they would have been covered in wet animal skins to protect against the enemies setting fire to it.

The wooden gallery

The chateau also holds some statues and architectural pieces saved from previously demolished churches or other relics found in the area, including crusader era sarcophagi, and even older Roman relics.

headstones

After touring the castle, you can also climb the ramparts and walk along them from the castle to the Narbonne gate, about halfway around the entire upper city. Some elements of the wall date back to Roman times.

We're enjoying our slower paced visit to Carcassonne, and looked at shops, and arranged for another canal tour in the afternoon, picked up lunch fixings and headed back to the hotel for a siesta, even though its only supposed to be 89 today. Paris was supposed to be 103 today. But it'll only be 95 when we return there tomorrow.

I don't know that I've mention the wind, but today and yesterday there has been a very strong gusty wind from the sea that is strong enough that I'm glad my boonie hat has its chinstrap. Sandwich and champagne for lunch, and then to our new boat trip.

Lunch was nice, but you really shouldn't trust the 5 euro champagne you can get at the train station... I think it gave me a headache that lasted the rest of the day. The second boat trip was nice, going the opposite direction along the canal from the previous one. This one went a bit further, and also seemed to get out of the city faster. There were woods on either side of the canal, although the large trees lining the canal had been planted by the canal builders in Napoleonic times. We traveled through a nice green lane and passed through a lock before returning. The boat made a stop at a maison that offered drinks and snacks, and you could take a little stroll. The house really only caters to the canal trade, and it was pretty remote from anything else, or at least that's how it seemed.

Canal

Back in town, we worked up our courage for one last climb up the hill, to have dinner at Dame Carcas, named after the apocryphal eponymous pig owner. Dr. Pookie ordered a hypocras to start with, and graciously shared a few sips of this reputed aphrodisiac with me. The taste was something like port with mulling spice and Unterberg, served cold. After, we had a bottle of the house rose, which was fine, but nothing special.

I started with the Assiette Roma, a tomato salad with ham, mozzarella, olives, and a drizzle of pesto. It was very tasty. Dr. Pookie had a baked chevre salad. My pork filets were okay, and Dr. Pookie wrestled with her tiny lamb chops. Neither of us thought much of the little pot of ratatouille, but the potatoes were very nice indeed. For afters, she had the cheese plate, while I opted for raspberry and lemon sorbet, with a little mixed fruit and sauce and cream. It was a really splendid end to a nice meal on a hot day.

The next morning we checked out and struggled off to the train station, where again the French train system is trying to hex us. We had a 17 minute connection in Narbonne. And the train was not at the station when it was supposed to leave. I've been thinking of a new gameshow, sort of like Name That Tune, where you say how many notes you need to identify the song. This game would be Make That Connection, where you bid on how many minutes you need at the train station. Ultimately the train left 15 minutes late, which whittled down our connection time to 2 minutes. Fortunately, the engineer made the shortest possible stop at the one station in between, and we actually had about 5 minutes to get to the next train. This was just enough, though it was a bit trying since our assigned car was far down the track. But now we're on it, and on our way to Paris. We've scouted out the next hotel, and providentially it is quite close to the train station (Gare du Lyon) where we arrive in Paris.

The Marceau Bastille hotel was a pretty short walk from the train station. After a short rest, we ventured forth again into the Metro and the greater city. We had looked up potential brocantes, or pop up flea markets, and found one today outside the Bourse. Exiting the Bourse Metro station it was right in front of us, which was pretty convenient. Dr. Pookie has had a mad plan to add to her uranium glass collection with a French souvenir, and sure enough, we found a pitcher with 6 glasses for a pretty bargain at 15 euros. Now we just have to get them all home in 7 pieces, and no more.

From there we Metroed again to the Arc de Triomphe. We got some views of it, and then took the underground walkway (trying to cross the traffic circle around it is certain death) to get right under it. For a few euroes you can climb up to the top, but we wimped out and settled for the ground view.

Arc de Triomphe

The Champs Elysees leads off from the Arc, so we walked along it for some ways past the expensive shops, and the extremely gauche A&F. Although it wasn't 103 like yesterday, it was still pretty warm, so we zipped back to the hotel for a siesta, and then walked out to the Île Saint-Louis for dinner. The waiter was a bit lacking in communication and listening skiils, but we managed to salvage a meal out of it all. Charcouterie and choucroute made for a lot of sausage, but it was mostly pretty good stuff and the sauerkraut was mild and tasty. A chilled gamay washed it all down. And now we're winding down our last evening, and have our plans for getting to CDG in the morning.

The train from the Gare du Nord to CDG was the nerd train. There were a lot of people on the train and they clearly were not going to the airport. Cosplayers, furries, a guy with his nose in a manga the whole trip, a guy in a French gamergeek t-shirt. The stop before the airport was the Parc du Exposition, so there must have been something going on there [Ah, now I see it was the JAPAN EXPO.]. Not just the obvious weirdoes, but most of the train got off there. Finally, we made it into the horrible CF that is Charles de Gaulle. Long walks everywhere and too many people to dodge. The line at Air Tahiti to check in wasn't too bad, and we learned we would have the safest possible flight, since France's award-winning national MMA team will be on board. I'm not sure where they found Frenchman that big. Loaded up and in the sky, I've already tasted some indifferent beef and mashed potatoes and look forward to getting home.

So far the big excitement on the flight has been one of those calls for 'Is there a doctor on board? A passenger has a medical problem'. Oh then a French guy was yelling at a little kid next to him, and then the parents had to get up and start yelling, and then someone else got involved. And so on... Dr. Pookie and I had dialed all but the last digit of summon a flight attendant. Of course there is only one digit to that, but still. Anyway, down safe, and back home.
 
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Journal of No. 118