Episode 5: How to travel in Paris: Métro, Bus, RER, and Tramway

Ever since I set foot in Paris as a jeune fille au pair I found that circuler dans Paris — moving around Paris — has been a straightforward task. Travelling around France’s capital city is a rather simple affair. The public transport system is relatively quick and inexpensive. There are four different modes to choose from: métro, bus, tramway or RER (Réseau Express Régional — the Regional Express Network).

Le métro is the heartbeat of Parisian life; it’s the city’s identity. Almost everyone living there uses it. It avoids the mauvaise circulation — traffic congestion — that ‘snails’ from place to place over-ground. Of course as a visitor you might be tempted to walk or catch a bus; tourists usually have more time on their hands! Walking is a great way to see the splendours of Paris – look up and admire the architecture that is so reminiscent of the Ville Lumière — City of Lights.

So back to the métro! For me, it’s the best way to experience and ‘feel’ Parisian life as lived by locals as they dash here-and-there, in-and-out of underground stations. What’s more the métro system is so straightforward. There is none of this ‘northbound’/‘southbound’ exasperating nonsense that have tourists trying to assess which is which. The signposts in the métro provide you with the number of the specific line and its destination, in addition to the list of stations and the connections. Some stations, such as Cluny – La Sorbonne (line 10), are a must see; delightfully decorated with mosaics. It is located in the 5th arrondissement, in the heart of the Latin Quarter. The main fresco, created by artist Jean Bazaine is titled Les Oiseaux — ‘The Birds’. The remainder of the ceiling features the signatures of writers, poets, philosophers, artists, as well as scientists, kings and French statesmen associated with the Latin Quarter for eight centuries. Names such as Molière, Rabelais, Robespierre, and Richelieu can be discerned.

Jean Bezaine Les Oiseaux
Cluny-La Sorbonne train station in Paris

The other methods of transport such as the bus and tramway allow you to sightsee and explore the French capital while going from A to B. Or perhaps if you feel like having a lazy day! You can buy a single ticket that can be used on the different modes of transport within the city and costs €1.90 or you can buy a carnet de dix — booklet of ten. There is something for everyone — daily pass — Mobilis — for €5.80 which is ideal for visitors. For regular passengers there are weekly and/or monthly Navigo pass at €63/month which in my time in Paris was called the carte orange due to its colour! There are weekend passes for youth at €4 and Imagine R student pass for those under the age of 26. The RER is a commuter train connecting outlying suburbs and other destinations such as CDG Airport (RER B), Disneyland Paris (RER A) and Versailles (RER C) to the heart of Paris. Ticket prices vary depending on the zones you are connecting with.

Whether you use the métro, bus, tramway or RER, travel in Paris and Ile-de-France region is relatively quick and simple. I must say if I’m not walking I usually opt for the métro!

Feel free to tell me about your experiences of Parisian public transport and your preferred mode… Thanks for sharing.

Episode 4: The French Food Market and Food ‘tout court !’ – just simply!

Cheese and wine are reason enough to visit France; oh, and a good-tasting baguette or pain de compagne – country loaf. French stalls are so carefully laid out; they take such care with their produce. They recognise the importance of their cultural heritage – leur patrimoine culturel – and food is an integral part of that culture. They are aware of the value of what is old; they take pride in repairing and refurbishing anything from a falling-down wall or a crumbling village fountain where, once upon a time, the local women used it to wash their laundry. It’s about meaning and memories; all this material culture shapes who they are.

Haricots verts of natural and varied sizes; not those uniformly-cut! Even aesthetics has crept into our food. Here, peas-in-the-pod, mmm, the idea of shelling them and creating delightful combinations for this evening’s meal… umm with what? Let’s ramble some more…

I’m after getting side-tracked! A boulangerie – bakery – you will find all sorts of bread. Scrumptious smells wafting from the kitchen – behind the scenes. Les brioches, my favourite – full of salted butter – mouth-watering! You have, no doubt, happened upon the many chocolatiers – craft chocolate makers – or discovered one or two pâtisseries – French pastry shops – on your travels to Paris. I am always enthralled; my eyes are entranced by exquisite gâteaux of all shapes and sizes, mouth-watering, these pastries look as good as they taste!

As I step back in time to when, as a jeune fille au pair, I first set eyes on the mosaic of pastries I was mesmerised, wow, such choice, perhaps too much! Non, there is never too much! I appreciate good, bitter chocolate, and strong, but not-bitter, coffee, and so my choice of gâteau was, for quite some time, an opéra – mmm – just to think about it I can taste the delightful marriage of chocolate and coffee; all those layers… the onctueux – smooth chocolate, the rich coffee, what a mélange – a match made in heaven. So back to recalling this first time… the young shop assistant asking me to repeat, opéra, no less than three times! Of course I was not accentuating the ‘é’ of opéra, and she failed to understand my accent. It’s like the ‘fada’ in Irish; it indicates that the vowel is to be pronounced ‘long’. So in the end I just pointed to it – ce gâteau là ! – getting rather impatient, I suppose that is why I wanted to speak French without my Irish accent! Don’t worry I wasn’t traumatised or anything!

Every time my husband and I take a trip to Paris – or to France in general – the predominant theme that informs our vacances is food. We are constantly in pursuit of that original pâtisserie, bread, café, restaurant that heightens our senses.

Laurent Duchène, 238 Rue de la Convention, Paris XV, is a pâtissier with the edge. His work is colouful, creative, and bien entendu, tasty. The Club pistache griotte is a favourite of ours; L’exodus is a personal choice, go try it out, it’s worth the detour. And there’s so much more; the colourful shop front will entice you. We never leave Paris without having our box of macarons – not to be confused with macaroons. Made with almond flour (ground almond), Pierre Hermé, 72, rue Bonaparte, Paris VI is a renowned name in this speciality. But don’t forget to support small, local food businesses that produce their bread and pastry from scratch in the early hours of the morning, they are just as inviting so check them out. À suivre

Roman Holiday

Rome, what a refreshing city; the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain… there is so much to see and experience… If these ancient structures could talk, I think they would have a lot of secrets.

Finding myself at the Colosseum I couldn’t help but think about Gladiator (2000) and they thought the Celts were barbaric! But I suppose it was all in a day’s work; it was the context in which life evolved. The sheer volume of this edifice; I am in awe, I hear the cries, the shouts, the roaring crowd that fills the amphitheatre… I try to imagine what life was like but it’s rather difficult. Emerging from my dream-like state, the hustle-and-bustle of modernity bring me back to my reality… a plethora of tourists speaking multitude of languages.

If Walls Could Talk!

Next the Pantheon; a former Roman temple and is now a church. What architectural prowess, marble floor with geometric patterns, what majestic craftsmanship. The nine metre diameter hole, called the Oculus is fascinating. The floor is slightly convex so when it rains the water flows away. I respect the fact that even ruins are so important to the local people, they carry significance in their own right.

I like Rome. It’s a compact city. It has kept its architectural heritage; there are no unwanted ugliness creeping its way into Roman architecture. I breathe a sigh of relief at the lack of standardisation, in other words, globalisation is on their terms…

I appreciate the exuberance of the Italians. The notion of far niente is compelling; the sweet idleness, delightfully slow-paced way of life. It reminds me of parts of France where life has a rhythm of its own. I feel lifted by the musicality of their language, but also, I think that the musicality comes from their personality and body language. They drive around the streets like mad yet they appear to soak-up life’s pleasures. The streets are so narrow that almost every car has its ‘signature dent’; they remind me of little laneways in an alpine village.

Rome often reminds me of the film The Scarlet and the Black (1983). It’s based on the true story of an Irish priest, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who saved thousands of Jews and Allied soldiers during World War II.

Back to the present…food is simply delicious here. One thing I remarked was the importance of fresh vegetables. Italy is a great place to eat for a vegetarian. There is great taste in their vegetable dishes, a real delight. Of course, not forgetting pizzas and pasta! My choice is the indispensible Margherita, always authentic. My husband finds the pasta Carbonara irresistible; made with pancetta or pork jowl – guanciale – the name is derived from guancia, the Italian word for cheek – a sweet and moist piece of pork.

I want to return to Rome and explore other parts of Italy; Venice, Florence – indulge my senses in art history – Naples, Sicily… My parents and brother’s family toured Italy last year; gosh looking at the myriad of photos they took was enough to persuade me to take another trip there. My sister has already toured many parts of Italy some years ago but she is ready for another trip! Perhaps we’ll explore together…

Cotton Wool Clouds!

As I sit on the terrace at home it’s a delight to feel the warmth of the sun on my face; a warm breeze touches my skin like a feather cooling me down. Indeed it is one of those rare days when the breeze is a welcoming encounter.

I hear the sound of the ocean against the rocks and the cries of laughter that come floating in the wind from the beach below. The sound of the sea is soothing. While I love to travel, well, today I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else; Ireland is paradise when the sky is blue and ‘cotton-wool’ clouds populace the horizon.

Peace and tranquillity… such bliss. Umm, the bliss is short-lived! The mood is broken! The thundering sound of a plane overhead; I open my eyes and catch the Brittany Ferries on its southbound course… you all know where this story is heading… Ah! Where is that plane going? And what about the holiday makers in the ferry… My imagination is quick to deviate itself from the pleasures of sitting on my terrace to travelling…

Falling asleep in a faraway place, aware of the pleasures that tomorrow will bring, feelings of freedom exploring new places and people, days of discovery fill my imagination. Visiting a foreign city, or distant coastal places, there’s delight in creating narratives of my own as I stroll through the streets sharing my thoughts about art, culture and architecture with my husband. But don’t forget that the ordinary is rich and wonderful. Join the journey of discovering the mundane experiences of new places; Be-in-their-world.

Allowing my feet to take me to where they want to go. Going with the flow, following my instinct, detecting the places where locals go, immersing myself into mundane activities. But, I also very much like to go where the visitors go, checking out interesting spots that showcase the geography, history, and indeed art of the places I visit.  

 I must say that living on the coast entices me to appreciate city escapes; discovering the flurry of activity that city life brings knowing that I’ll return to my quiet haven.  

Weaving together the cultural fabric of places through food, wine, art, architecture, and other elements of distinctiveness that make these places what they are and the people who they are. Threads woven together creating narratives that endeavour to reveal the secrets of such locations. Places mean different things to different people. Sharing experiences can open up new ways of seeing the world around us; and in so doing, entice the visitor to create narratives of their own.

Travelling and writing experiences are, for me, intertwined. I observe the places where my feet take me, be-there; then my feet surrender to my hands. Such encounters, using all my senses, are transferred to the blank page; my hands take over, gliding along its smooth surface. Both pen and page unite to create and archive my memories.