Category Archives: Travel

Plastered in Paris *

You may (or may not) have noticed that Eurostar have their return to Paris (or Brussels) for £59 and I thought now might be the time to do a recap of my trip to Paris last year when I took advantage of said same deal.

First all, it’s 59 quid, that’s nothing, peanuts, cheap as chips! A train ticket to my dad’s house in Dorset is more expensive. It’s bargain-aeous in the extreme. Am I making myself absolutely clear??

It is also one of the most beautiful cities in the world (after London obviously) I mean how many reasons to you need to go? More? (It’s like Oliver Twist here). Okay I shall oblige.

I’m not going to pretend that I’ve got the inside gen on everything that’s going on in France’s capital and of course, your interests may be different, but what I do want to do is share some of the lovely places we visited (shopped at and ate and drank at obviously!)

We stayed in Le Marais, the cool district stretching over the 3rd and 4th arrondissement, with a villagey feel not unlike Soho in London, and equally access to walking everywhere by foot.

The Le Relais du Marais, was clean, friendly and right by the Temple Metro stop and stone’s throw into the heart of the Marais, with its boutiques, brasseries and boulangeries (sorry, naff eh?). And very reasonable. Three nights’ accommodation and travel for just over £200. Can’t say fairer.

We arrived late on Thursday night, the 7.30pm train, gets in about 10ish and by the time we had found the hotel and freshened up (I am turning into my mother – and I’m not afraid) it was almost 11.

I found an amazing guidebook, which is updated seasonally (Autumn/Winter, Spring/Summer) , so it includes  things that might not be in older books like Lonely Planet or Rough Guide (which are also brilliant). It was particularly useful if you’re looking for gigs/bands are playing. I had earmarked Le Mary Celeste as a bar/restaurant of choice. We decided on a bottle of wine, as we felt that we couldn’t do the cocktail list justice (although amazing). Our decision may have had something do with the second bottle of Prosecco on the train. A tad overenthusiastic on our part. Holiday fever and all that. I heartily recommend an unsozzled visit. Although we didn’t eat (too late) this was one of the reasons I wanted to visit and lots of people seem to (still) be constantly praising both the food and cocktails. everyone from David Leibovitz to Rachel Khoo rates this place.  Our loss.

Although we didn’t have a strict itinerary (who does?) but we did have an idea of the places we wanted to go. Walking featured heavily, after all want better way of soaking up that atmosphere and getting your bearings, wherever you are (possibly war zones accepted).

I’m a bit fan of French pharmacy brands (La Roche Posay, Embryolisse, Nuxe, Bioderma). The prices (in the UK certainly, but thank God for Escentual sales, actually Escentual in general) not so much. Enter Citypharma. An humungous and jampacked pharmacy in St Germain. This has become rather infamous, as ‘the’ place to go, so much that you really do have to sharpen your elbows to compete again Parisienne Grandes Dames, beauty bloggers and tourists alike. The aisles are very close together too, so all and all it’s a bit of a bunfight. Words to the wise. Fuel up on coffee and croissants and get there early. Make a list of want you want before you go. Get in and out as fast as you can. Done. The assistants are very helpful too. Also if you’re travelling by Eurostar you have no restrictions on liquids but bear that in mind if you’re tramping round Paris all day without planning to go back the hotel. (schoolgirl error – immediately rectified by dumping an enormous bag at the hotel and vowing never to darken Boots’ door again).

Also don’t forget that French pharmacies are everywhere, there were at least four on the street we were staying. Citypharma is not the be-all-and-end-all. Also they all have offers on different things and if I can send my little brother to Paris with a list and he can come back with the right stuff you can.

Second must do (for me anyway) was to find Le Camion qui Fume , as in London, street food has taken a huge leap forward (understatement or what?) and this is a burger van that travels round Paris serving burgers to discerning (and hungry) punters. Have tracked it down through, of course, Twitter, we hot-footed it to La Place de la Madeleine. A tense 15 minutes ensued where I paced round the church, searching for the elusive red and cream van. Apparently relief was etched on my face when we round the corner and we saw a queue and a plume of smoke. Nous sommes arrivées!

And here they are in all their glory.

20131122_132001The Outside

phone pics 120And the Inside

Can I just add as an addendum, that it was absolutely freezing with the wind howling round so not only did they taste divine, they warmed us up.

We then proceeded to walk down Rue Royale towards Place de La Concorde, taking in the amazing Christmas decorations.

20131122_134032How stylish are these decorations!

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Then turning left opposite the Tuileries Gardens we visited Angelina’s for THE hot chocolate. And it really does deserve the definitive article.

20131122_140342Okay. There was cake too.

Laden with goodies it was back to the hotel to rest feet, charge phones and find a bar before dinner.

If Le Mary Celeste was more a bar of the moment, Le Petit Fer a Cheval. (The Little Horseshoe Bar) was its old school equivalent, with a restaurant out back, the front is a small room with, you’ve guessed it, a horseshoe-shaped bar. With four pavement tables outside. We spent a very happy hour and a half with a carafe of house red between us (I don’t think the bar man approved of our wine choice, but hey), people watching. Glorious. There was a waiter from one of the other cafes who kept running over to shop opposite with glasses, wine, then cheese and what looked suspiciously like canapes. Maybe we should have gatecrashed?

Dinner this evening was at restaurant recommended by some French (Parisienne? – I’m not sure) suppliers of some family friends. Robert et Louise (for that is it name) was a short stroll down the same road as the bar. Booking is essential and I was in two minds whether to give you the name at all. It’s that good.

Here the meat is the thing. Don’t go here if you are squeamish either (foie gras is on the menu). It’s very French. And yes, I know that’s a cliché, but it was full of French people and that is recommendation enough for me. The food was amazing too and we got chatting to two charming Frenchmen. (WHAT?)

20131122_194407The foie gras terrine, which came with spiced brioche and, oh yes, a glass of Sauteurnes

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This is no ordinary fire, *this* is a wood-burning open fire, where they cook all the steaks/meat (Dervla Kirwan should be quaking in her boots after that voiceover)20131122_195812MEAT!20131122_201155POTATOES (WITH MEAT!)

After this I had to be rolled home. Fit to bust.

20131123_104359Next day we hit Merci. I want that car.

Merci is a Parisien ‘lifestyle’ shop, for wont of a better word. It’s a bit like Pinterest in that it makes you want to throw ALL your clothes and furniture out and start again. At vast expense obviously.

20131123_104408All the trees were covered in little white fairy lights….

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As you can see it’s achingly cool and gorgeous. Those chandeliers would look right at home in Tooting don’t you think?

20131123_131259Lunch

20131123_141550Their very cute and vintage van

20131123_165434And it was nearly Christmas so of course mulled wine was obligatory

And then then it was time (after going to the French version of Winter Wonderland and drinking more mulled wine), we decided to admire some of the Christmas lights…

20131123_185952Cartier

20131123_192926Do I really have to say?

The best lights of all were the ones on the Eiffel Tower, every hour on the hour, it twinkled. Yes, twinkled!

20131123_194210Non-twinkly

20131123_200055 20131123_200036 20131123_200022Twinkly!

It really was quite breathtaking.  And beautiful. I’m really pleased we went all the way to the actual Tower.  We may have had a glass of mulled wine sitting under the Eiffel Tower, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

By this time it was quite late and we had walked for miles, so got a cab back to La Marais. We hadn’t planned anywhere for dinner (big mistake), all the places that looked nice (think, bistro, checked tables cloths, etc etc) were heaving. In desperation we ended up in a very non-descript, and empty, brasserie, having said that, I had a delicious Poulet Bresse casserole, it was just lacking a little in atmosphere – and customers, but we were so knackered we just wolfed it down and headed back for some kip.

Our last day, Sunday we spent mooching round Le Marais and the various ‘brocantes’ which line the streets every Sunday.  It’s also worth remembering that not all shops are open on Sunday as they are in the UK and some are only open until 2 or 3pm so check before setting your heart on something only to find the shop isn’t open. If in doubt – BUY IT!

20131123_103245My birthday, spooky huh?

20131124_111517No surprise at the number of amazing food stalls

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20131124_113256Just look at those chickens, they smelled even more amazing!

20131124_114240Bit of house hunting – one can but dream!

20131124_11430320131124_133107A delicious final lunch with the steak perfectly sangé, I nearly licked the plate clean

20131124_145404Le Marche des Enfant Rouges

We also discovered Paris’ oldest covered market, where you could eat, and buy, food from all over the world, and also surrounded by a number of different more formal restaurants.

We finally, sadly, made it back to the train. And obviously to prolong our holiday we *had* to use our Euros up:20131124_173307

So there you have it, a fantabulous long weekend in the City of Lights. I’m off to buy my ticket. And I suggest that you do too!

*We weren’t really!

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Curiouser and Curiouser, an adventure in Wonderland

I know I’ve paraphrased Lewis Carroll, but I really could think of no more appropriate heading after spending the weekend at the gorgeous Pylewell Park near Lymington. And there was a man wearing white bunny ears so I rest my case. There was also enough of a whiff of the magical about it, but more of that later. Why here? It was the setting for the inaugural Curious Arts Festival, the home of the Roper-Curzons. A friend was lucky enough to win a pair of tickets through Whitefox and Clare Conville (thank you!). I was also fortunate enough to been the beneficiary of that friend’s generosity. Thank you Sarah.

20140719_155749Pretty nice setting, huh?

We arrived on a fabulous day, and chose to ignore the forecast of thunderstorms and rain, luckily we had booked a pod from Podpads, meaning  that we would be dry and secure. I could stand up inside (I’m 5 foot 3) and I banged my head a few times, but it was a small price to pay. I’m too old to sleep on the ground.

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 Our accommodation for the weekend, aka The Wendy House. See? All very fairytale!

The programme was amazing. The only difficulty was deciding what to do first. Hendrick’s Bar won.  A tent. Entirely devoted to GIN. Imagine the joy.

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I think there are worse places to be sipping this on a Friday afternoon. In the sunshine. Wouldn’t you agree? As well has laying on luscious drinks, there were a number of talks on, you’ve guessed it Gin. And literature…
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The Authors’ XI Cricket match  we missed, purely because we simply had no idea where the cricket pitch actually was, so we decided that the best course of action was to relax, kick back and enjoy the sunshine, whilst sipping gin and perusing the programme. Things may have become a little on the hazy side after that as we immersed ourselves fully in the spirit of the festival. Some might say quite literally! Suffice to say, bonhomie abounded and we met lots of very interesting and (probably) very important people, whilst dancing in the main tent to Eaves, Bear’s Den and Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit.   The rain only materialized once we were safely tucked up in bed and we could watch, it has to be said, spectacular, lightning flashing over the Solent.

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Rain? What rain?

The next day the festival geared up a level ie. we actually made it to some talks. Matt Haig was talking about his wonderful book, The Humans with his editor, Francis Bickmore, publishing director at Canongate and the editor/author relationship gave it that edge, well I think so.  His new book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ is out in 2015 and Matt spoke frankly about his history of depression and anxiety and how books quite literally ‘saved him’.  For anyone who follows him on Twitter, I’m sad to announce that there are no plans for him to publish his insightful and prescient writing tips (mainly because they are all on Twitter), like this:

The only unfortunate thing about festivals is that you can’t go to everything, so so something’s got to give. At the same time as Matt was talking, we missed out on Nathan Filer, Costa-prizing winning author was in the main tent. You can’t win them all.  We also missed out on seeing Viv Albertine, ex-singer with The Slits, as the programme was altered, which it was wont to do – but schedules do change and that’s understandable. Note to self: keep an ear out for Paul Blezard’s dulcet tones giving witty and refreshing updates, via the medium of megaphone and check the blackboards outside the tent more frequently.

Curious Arts had the air of a big village fete, and I mean this in the best possible way.  Without gazillions of people, and a relatively small site, we kept bumping into those we’d met the night before and swapped notes on who we’d seen.  We got to chat to the authors and performers, make friends with  the charming bar staff and really appreciate our surroundings. It was so lovely and friendly. I was dying for a dog show to be announced at any moment. We also clearly didn’t receive the memo that dog ownership or at least having one with you were compulsory! Undoubtedly, one of the stars of whole festival was this fella:

20140720_123726Dougal. Top Dog.

The resident pooch at Pylewell Park, he made sure everyone knew about it. Strutting around with his tail in the air, at the sound of applause he rushed to the tent in question, with a flurry of barking, he would then do a lap of honour. I don’t believe there was a single guy rope on the whole site that he didn’t mark. Dougal, we salute you. You are Top Dog.

My ‘must see’ was John Niven and Emma Unsworth in conversation with Clare Conville, their agent and one of the masterminds behind Curious Arts Festival. The film of John’s book ‘Kill Your Friends’ is currently in post-production and ‘Straight White Male’, his latest novel has just come out in paperback. Emma’s novel ‘Animals’ is also just out in paperback (f0rgive me if my timings are out but you can buy it NOW).

Clare introduced them, saying that the recurring theme through all of these was ‘bad behaviour’. As Matt Haig had said to me earlier, this was going to be ‘entertaining’. Masturbation featured heavily and also a debate on whether any of the content of their books were suitable for their immediate family members (not really). Also copious swearing.  ‘Twas hilarious. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house (and possibly even seat). And I mean this in a good way.

Here they are being lovely and signing books:

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The wonderfully entertaining John Niven and Emma Jane Unsworth

Evening entertainment provided by Luke Sital-Singh, Ed Harcourt and Joan as Policewoman was phenomenal. Ed came into the audience to serenade us and Joan absolutely rocked the tent. Had a nice chat with Ed Harcourt, as you do, then retired to bed….

IMG_3274 Luke Sital-Singh

20140719_210208 Ed Harcourt

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Joan As Policewoman

Sunday, another even more beautiful day arrived….and if possible this was the most diverse by far, I managed to fit in:

A Gin Anthology talk (thanks Duncan!) which was fascinating. Gin has a lot to answer for.  Gin a spirit to have fun with, unless you were in the 17th Century apparently, which is where it got the name Mother’s Ruin. Fact fans.

A talk on his time-travelling books by Dominic Dibben (think fantasy that adults can enjoy – his reading was particularly gripping) and finally,

Fay Weldon and Roger Clarke in conversation with Rowan Pelling talking about ghosts and the supernatural. BOO!

How eclectic is that?

To round the weekend off, Rae Morris and Nick Mulvey got us all dancing in the main tent. Again.  As Rae commented on the setting, she said ‘I thought I was at Downton Abbey’. Sums it up really. But perhaps Downton Abbey with interesting speakers and great music. And no-one dying in a completely unbelievable fashion, obviously.

20140720_20002920140720_092042Locally-made sausage rolls and pork pies

20140719_145442A drink with a view

20140718_180425Everyone needs a cucumber pot. No? (sorry it’s a bit blurry)

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Some alternative interior design, er, outside

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20140720_094944It was a weekend with an air of fantasy about it. Hendrick’s staff ferried people in sedan chairs, and cycled round delivering the Curious Times.  Wearing tweed and flat caps. Natch. Life drawing took place under the trees. Both children and adults played with a giant chess board. All we needed was the Red Queen….

It  reminded me of the Port Eliot (this weekend!) and Wilderness Festivals, both of which are set in the grounds of beautiful houses and have a similar cultural foundation. However, this one was on a much more intimate scale, which I think you can see from the pictures. And that I loved.

It can only get bigger (and better), but I am very pleased to say I was here at the beginning. See you next year!

Marrakech – or is it Marrakesh – who cares? It’s warmer than here and it’s great!

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This weather is glorious, but just a few short weeks ago, when it was snowing/raining/hailing/sleeting  I was sitting in the warmth of the sun on a rooftop in Marrakech.  It was lovely….

Our riad was called Riad Jonan – which I took as a good sign – it’s my childhood nickname and it was off the Rue de Kasbah, so I suppose I can legitimately say we were rocking the Kasbah.  I like this.

We had decided to pay extra to have dinner at the Riad on the first night and they certainly didn’t let us starve….a tagine if my memory serves me correctly, with lamb .

Come Dine with Me would never be the same again.

Come Dine with Me would never be the same again.

The next morning, after the most divine breakfast, think homemade yogurt, stewed fruit, fresh pastries (the French influence is evident here – YUM), Moroccan pancakes (I’m still trying to find a recipe for these they were SO good).   We haven’t finished yet: the omelette or scrambled eggs.  All included in the room.

The next day we decided to walk to the New Town before we hit the madness of the Souk.  The difference is palpable, it’s very colonial/modern – La Grande Cafe de La Poste where we stopped is a good example – as you can probably tell from the name it’s the old Post Office, converted to a restaurant/cafe.  I kept forgetting that it’s a ‘dry’ country as they are Muslim – no alcohol is served outside Westernised or tourist places – if we were sitting inside it would have been acceptable to have wine, not outside, but to be honest it wasn’t really an issue.  Yes, really.   It was stranger seeing people smoking – INSIDE, even though I no longer smoke, I was almost tempted. Almost.

Next stop, feet rested, – we walked all the way – was the Majorelle Gardens, which were bought and restored by Yves Saint Laurent.  Unfortunately they were renovating parts of it, so we didn’t get to see it in its full glory, but nothing could detract from the AMAZING colours. As you can see here.

Blue

Pots

I don’t know if they would like quite so stunning in a grey and rainy Tooting flat (I had all sorts of grand plans!), but here they were stunning!

We caved and a taxi back to the Riad and decided that before we finally ventured to the Souk we should go to go the Government Emporium , where prices are fixed so we could get an idea of what we should be paying in the Souks – and how much we could expect to barter.  You could buy absolutely anything, and I mean anything – from model aircraft and tanks fashioned from bullets (good luck getting those through customs) to Virginity soap, formulated to help you keep it – yes really (*raises eyebrows*).

Got hopelessly lost in the souk.  (A word of warning:  If anyone says they are doing anything for free and they don’t want any money – THEY probably DO – which is fine if you’re happy to part with your money by the way – lots of people do.)  We eventually found a bar/restaurant, Le Terrasse des Epices, it was very quiet, in fact we were the only people there – it had taken us so long to get there, we had omitted to remember that at night anywhere in the middle of the Souk is going to be both.  We decided revisit it in daylight which was much more worthwhile!  Straws hats supplied against the strong sun.

We tramped, exhausted back to Jemaa el-Fnaa, which EVERYONE calls The Big Square (there are enormous signs with arrows to ‘The Big Square’, specifically for numpties like us) for food.  Sadly Hassan’s was a bit packed and this seemed like the place to be.

Kebab and chips twice please, but hold the sheep's head

Kebab and chips twice please, but hold the sheep’s head

On our final day we found the ‘real’ souks, the workshops and the skins’ auctions.  This is what we’d come to see, although we hadn’t realised it until now.  The Souk des Teinturiers (Dyers’ Souk):

A Knitters' paradise

A Knitters’ paradise

and the Souk Hadaddine (Metalwork Souk):

 
What do you mean you've seen them in Hombase?

What do you mean you can buy them in Homebase?

We finally found something that wasn’t available in Camden market, and bought a lovely hand-stitched Moroccan pouffe from Jamal (see below – stuffed, you buy them empty) – bartered down to half. Result.  The bartering process is great fun – Jamal certainly seemed to be enjoying it, including my pitiful initial attempts (which he wasn’t shy in pointing out) and it’s the practically the law –  but be warned it is a slow process, it took us the best part of two hours before we left with our purchases.  ‘Souked out’ we decided to head back.

A pouffe in Majorelle blue.  A little bit of Morocco in Tooting!

My pouffe in Majorelle blue. A little bit of Morocco in Tooting!

The best thing we ate all trip were the meat skewers cooked on a charcoal grill in the street.  What the locals ate, no lamb, just beef or heart/offal (ewww), we unsurprisingly opted for beef in our best French. Served in large bap, (for want of a better word).  Served with red onion and coriander and sprinkled with zaa’tar (we think). To die for.

On our last night we went for a  meal at ‘smart’ restaurant, Le Marrakchi – all black and burgundy (I think) it was quite dark and seemed to be lit solely with enormous candelabra – which nearly set some pensioners alight several times, all it would have taken was a waft of Elnett and ‘woof!’.  The views over the square were amazing but if you want a window seat, made sure you book.  It doesn’t matter if there is no one else sitting there.  You want window, you book.

Stuffed with lamb and fig tagine and with a very passable bottle of red, we rolled back to the Riad to sit on the room terrace and reflect on our days that had just flown by.

There is still so much to see and do: The Atlas Mountains,  the Saadian Tombs, the windy coast of Essaouira, have a Hammam and of course – more shopping…..There’s always next time.