Eurotrip Destination #14: Paris

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 2:55 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 14th and final entry from my 2011 Europe Trip.

With 18 days in Europe starting in London, passing through the UK, the Netherlands, and Belgium, it seemed fitting that Paris would be the final stop.  I arrived in Paris with 3+ days left, a fair amount of time to explore and eat my way through the French capital.

By most quantitative measures, Paris is the world’s most touristed city, so I’ll spare a lot of the details surrounding tourist attractions which everybody is probably already familiar with anyway.  What I was equally interested in were Paris’ neighborhoods, ethnic enclaves, transportation systems, and of course the food.
But nonetheless, let’s start with the basics.  I spent my first day visiting the requisite tourist attractions, of which Paris has many.
When I was about 10, I saw the Sears Tower for the first time on a family trip to Chicago.  For some reason, I had always envisioned the Eiffel Tower to be of comparative stature.  In fact, it’s quite small (by standards of 21st Century architectural tallness), but no doubt an architectural masterpiece.
Ascending to the top would have necessitated several hours of standing in line, so I opted to appreciate it from below.
Next on the list was the Arc de Triomphe.  If I hadn’t known better, I probably could have been convinced that the Arc was located along the Third Ring Road of Beijing, as it was completely surrounded by Chinese tourists taking snapshots.
Also on the list was the Louvre, the world’s premiere art museum.  More than a museum, the place feels like a compound.  It’s absolutely gigantic, and one could literally spend a full week looking at all the exhibits.
As I discovered, this is not a museum where you can get much out of a casual walkthrough.  To truly appreciate the Louvre, you need to do some homework, figure out what you want to see, where it’s located, and how to get there, because otherwise the magnitude of the collection is simply overwhelming.
The Centre Pompidou is one of Paris’ more aesthetically pleasing modern landmarks, and the public square in front is prime for people watching.
After 2 weeks of exploring cities, I was already a little cathedraled out.  But fortunately the best came at the end.
Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral is a stunning specimin of Gothic architecture, and completely open to the public taboot.
I’ll let the images do the talking.
Paris is centered around two islands in the Seine River, Île de la Cité and Île St. Louis.  This was where the medieval city first emerged and today is the oldest remaining part of Paris.
Paris is often billed as “the world’s most beautiful city” but in this regard, the area along the Seine was underwhelming.  To me, it looked like a bunch of cement, lacking much architectural ingenuity.
The islands, and the areas surrounding them do make for good wandering and exploring territory however.
Vendors along the Seine sell locks, which couples purchase and then attach to the bridges to affirm their love…I guess.
I spent a couple hours trekking through the area until everything (especially my pictures) started to look the same.
There were several streets on the islands which were somewhat reminiscent of a medieval city (minus all the souvenir shops).
Negativity aside, the area surrounding the islands is worth checking out, but Paris is a city of neighborhoods (or arrondissements if you will), and it would be a big mistake not to get outside of the central area and explore some of the less touristed spots.
…and Paris’ phenomenal metro system makes this easy to do.
In all my travels, Paris might be the most subway accessible city I’ve ever visited.
The Paris Metro doesn’t have the world’s longest network, the most stops, or the highest ridership.  And it definitely doesn’t have the best infrastructure.  But what makes it so useful is the sheer density of trackage and stations.
There is hardly any destination in Paris which is more than a 5 minute walk from a Metro stop, and there was rarely a time I waited more than 1 or 2 minutes for a train to arrive.  I was literally bouncing from one end of the city to the opposite end several times per day, and rarely spent more than 25 minutes in transit.
The trains themselves are old and rickety, especially by European standards, and most run on rubber tires as opposed to steel wheels.  Paris city planners have seemed to prioritize comprehensiveness over modernity, and the result is a system with both character and utility.
…and the occasional abandoned subway station
Paris is also served by an extensive commuter rail system as well as long-distance rail links all over Europe.  Trains link up to one of 6 terminals such as Gare Du Nord (above).
Inside the station, the long-distance and commuter lines link directly with the Metro providing seamless inter-modal transportation.
Well, now that we’ve covered tourist attractions and transportation, let’s get to the neighborhoods!
Through dumb luck, the neighborhood where my hostel was located, Montmartre, fit my expectations of Paris closer than any of the areas I had listed on my itinerary.  Alive with cafes, street life, a touch of bohemia, and narrow winding streets as opposed to the broad boulevards crossing much of the city, spending evenings in Montmartre was my favorite way to experience “Paris.”
Thanks in large part to Baron Haussmann, Paris is one of Europe’s more architecturally monotonous cities.  Montmartre provided some departure from the typical form.
Most buildings rose 4 or 5 stories, with commercial activity such as cafes, bakeries, vegetable shops, and the occasional Turkish schwarma shop on the first level.
Here are some residences in the typical Haussmann-style apartment blocks
The Montmartre neighborhood lies upon the slope of a precipitous hill, which provides for fantastic vistas looking North.
Few neighborhoods in Paris can be found which are not inundated with cafes.  Cafe culture is simply the way Parisians role, for lack of a better way of putting it.  While many cafes are also full service restaurants, Parisians often sit for hours, at all hours of the day, chatting with friends or reading the newspaper with no more than a cup of coffee or a coke.
more random city shots…
Paris is a hotbed for international migration, but it’s easy to miss this fascinating aspect of the city if one sticks to the tourist trail.  I spent a good day and a half exploring some of these ethnic communities which generally surround the central core of the city.  While immigrants generally live separate from the native population, at casual glance there appears to be more mixing among the various immigrant groups than tends to happen in North America, and one example of this is Belleville (above).
Belleville is home to many ethnic groups including one of Paris’  two largest Chinese communities.  Paris does not have an area specifically labeled “Chinatown” but rather has several small Chinese enclaves scattered around the city.  Most of these enclaves are heterogeneous with immigrants from around the world living in close proximity.  Case in point:  Just across the street from this shot was a tasty Lebanese sandwich shop, where my Argentinean cum Parisian friend Pablo took me for lunch.
Probably the most interesting ethnic neighborhood I explored was Goutte d’Or in the 18th Arrondissement, commonly known as Paris’ “Little Africa.”
Generally speaking, Goutte d’Or seems to be a neighborhood which native Parisians avoid and are afraid of.  I was told by multiple people not to go there.
Most of the storefronts cater to Paris’s African immigrant population.
Taking a jaunt through the central market of Goutte d’Or is an easy way to forget you are in Europe.  Most of what I saw in this market felt straight out of West Africa.
Goods hawking, shamans for hire, the sale and slaughtering of live animals, pretty much anything flies in Goutte d’Or.
Here are a few more shots of Goutte d’Or and the 18th Arrondisment.  To see the “other” side of Paris, I strongly recommend a trip to this fascinating area.
Another hotbed for immigrant activity is the St-Denis district which is home primarily to Moroccans and Turks.
The broad avenues and free air restaurants make St-Denis an excellent place to enjoy a schwarma or kabob.  Like Goutte d’Or, this was also an area which local Parisians appeared to be afraid of.  Just south of St-Denis, I inadvertently discovered another Chinese community, as well as a vice district where prostitutes stand in front of buildings showing off their goods to perspective Johns.
While prostitution isn’t legal as it is in the Netherlands, it is quite out-in-the-open in Paris, albeit confined to specific vice districts.  Quartier Pigalle is Paris’ most famous of these vice districts with the main streets lined with sex shops and massage parlors.  Along the side streets, prostitutes can be seen displaying themselves to passersby.
The concept of a “suburb” is very different in Europe than it is in North America, and Paris is a prime case.  In North America, we tend to associate suburbs with affluence, native populations, and low residential densities.  In Paris (and much of Europe) on the other hand, suburbs are often the home of the poor, the down and out, and recently arrived immigrants.  This is implied in the connotation of “banlieue” which is the French approximation of “suburb.” They also are tend to have residential densities similar to the city centre, as opposed to the urban sprawl which dominates the North American suburban landscape.  Parisian suburbs look very different from the Haussmann-esque architecture and streetscape of the city centre.  For example, high-rise residential buildings such as these are generally only built in suburban districts.
This is partly due to laws which restrict the types of buildings which are allowed in the city centre.  Notice the striking architectural difference between these shots from those above.
My friend Yahan Chuang is currently conducting doctoral research on the banlieue district of Aubervilliers, just outside of Paris proper.  Originally a site of textile production and wholesaling run by Ashkenazik Jews, the area has rapidly turned over and is now home to mostly Chinese garment wholesalers from Wenzhou.
The area is starting to emerge as a sort of suburban Chinatown.  Notice the street name.  Just across the street, I found a street vendor selling 王老吉 (a popular Chinese tea drink).
These are the wholesale shops where garments are sold (only in bulk) at rock bottom prices.  Unlike in North America where most Chinese business owners are either from the areas surrounding either Guangzhou or Fuzhou, the entrepreneurs in Aubervilliers are almost exclusively of Wenzhou extraction.
more garment shops
A typical street scene from outside Aubervilliers…not the image people usually conjure when they think of Paris.
got bling?
Here are a few more random banlieue (suburban) shots.
Well, if you’ve made it this far, I appreciate your attention, and I’ve saved the best part for last, because Paris is a foodie’s paradise.  I think Samuel L. Jackson sums it up pretty well in Pulp Fiction when he says “They got the same shit over there that we got over here.  It’s just the little differences.”  There isn’t much food in Paris which would be unfamiliar to the typical American.  The difference is in the overall quality of ingredients and preparation.

Take this tart for example.  I could buy something which looks just like this at most bakeries in Chicago.  But in Paris (and I’m generalizing of course) it’s going to be made with finer ingredients, no preservatives, less sugar, and fresher raspberries.

Each morning I enjoyed delicious tarts, breads, and pastries for breakfast.  On several occasions, I made the mistake of buying baked goods at night and found they tasted quite different than they would have just 10 hours earlier.  Baked goods in Paris are made to be consumed within a few hours after leaving the oven.  This focus on freshness sacrifices longevity, and the result is obvious the minute it hits your mouth.

And one item which shouldn’t be missed is the crepe.  My friend Pablo emphasized to me that there are 2 kinds of crepes in Paris:  the ones bought from street vendors and the ones eaten in sit-down restaurants, of which he recommended the latter (pictured above).  Crepes come with a wide variety of possible innards, and restaurants specializing in crepes offer many permutations of meats, cheeses, and vegetables to go inside.
There is no shortage of good finger food in Paris, and I could have easily spent 3 days there without picking up a fork.
shopping cart corn cobs, a popular snack in ethnic neighborhoods
Without looking at the next picture, see if you can guess where this shot was taken?  When you give up, scroll down.
Yup, it was taken at a McCafe, the requisite pastry shop located in most Parisian McDonald’s.  Parisians indeed love their baked goods, even when patronizing the Golden Arches.
Again calling on the wisdom of Samuel L. Jackson, I had long known that “In Paris you can buy a beer at McDonald’s.”  Consider me a sucker for all things Pulp Fiction related, but I had to give it a try.  Sure enough, they do sell beer at McDonald’s in Paris.  But the part they don’t tell you in Pulp Fiction is that they won’t sell you a beer unless you buy something else.  Hence the P’tit Wrap to go along with my can of 1664, which was incidentally one of the worst beers I’ve ever tasted.
This just looks like a bad idea.
Here’s another peculiar French take on fast food.  These advertisements were literally everywhere during my stay in Paris.  I didn’t actually try a “Strong Bacon” though, nor was I able to decipher what the red specks on top of the bun were.
Yeah, yeah, I know.  It’s a Vietnamese sign, in a French-speaking country, but I still got a good chuckle out of this one.
I don’t know why, but I really like these big green crosses on every pharmacy.
To be frank, I found Paris to be overrated in regards to the typical reasons it draws visitors.  London has better architecture.  Amsterdam’s streets are more romantic.  And the central area along the Seine is so over-touristed (not to mention architecturally underwhelming) that I didn’t truly feel like I was in Paris until I started exploring the more peripheral arrondisments.  Paris does have a unique charm to it, and this is best experienced in the cafe and street life of districts like Montmartre.  I also found the ethnic and culinary diversity to be far more engaging than anything I saw in a museum or along the Champs-Elysees.  In these regards, Paris was one of the highlights of my trip.  One regret is that I was not able to see anything else in France outside of Paris.  Another is that I would have liked to have more time to enjoy French fine dining.  These was not a conscious choice, but rather the result of time constraints.

Well, that concludes the Europe 2011 series.  I’m hoping to resume the Europe adventure in the summer of 2012.  Thanks for reading.



Eurotrip Destination #13: Leuven

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 8:54 am by Benjamin Ross

This is the 13th entry from my 2011 Europe Trip.

Like Bruges and Ghent, Leuven is another easy daytrip from Brussels.  Only 20 minutes away, via trains which run multiple times per hour, Leuven is close enough that its many of its residents commute daily to Brussels and vice versa.

Leuven is home to Belgium’s largest student population, and in addition to being essentially a commuter suburb of Brussels, has many of its own sites as well.
The University of Leuven, founded in 1425, is Belgium’s oldest university.  Here’s their main library.
Leuvenites play “Petanque,” a popular street game of French origin.
continuing on through the city centre
Leuven’s city centre is dense and compact and this entire series was shot within roughly a fifteen minute walking radius.
Leuven’ Oude Markt is one of the primary venues for entertainment.
This is the ideal spot to relax outside with a delicious Belgian beer.
Here’s the tasty beer my Belgian-American friend Daphne introduced me to.  It’s called Nondedju (triple), tastes like heaven, and is somewhere in the double digits on alcohol content.   I drank one bottle and was moderately intoxicated.
Above Oude Markt are also some of the finer examples of Belgian architecture I encountered.
One of Belgium’s most famous contributions to the world of culinary arts is stoofvlees, a beef stew slow-cooked with bread, mustard, and brown abbey beer…Highly recommended!
…and a shot of Oude Markt at night.
Leuven is just a hop, skip, and a jump from Brussels, so there is little reason not to include it in a trip to the Eurozone’s capital city.  Leuven provides many of the same Belgian cultural amenities as Brussels, but in a smaller, more-student oriented package.  It’s well worth a day trip, or possibly longer, for a break from the hustle and bustle of Brussels.  Had I more time, I would have stayed a week solely for the beer and stoofvlees.  Next (and final) destination:  Paris

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