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

Storm Lorenzo has gate-crashed…

Starring as a hurricane in the Caribbean, Storm Lorenzo has arrived on Irish coasts even though he was not invited! Following the same trajectory as Storm Ophelia two years ago, he has swept its way across the north Atlantic hitting the Azores on Wednesday. Moving slowly north east, it had been downgraded to an extra-tropical storm upon arrival to Ireland’s shores early this morning.

Winds picked up during Wednesday night; status orange warning has been issued for the western and south-western counties. Our emergency services are on stand-by. The country braces itself for yet another storm. The last number of years has observed an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather conditions worldwide. Ireland has not escaped…

As I settle myself cosily, I watch the waves surge upon the rocks and the shoreline below. The frothy splashes remind me of a cappuccino; it’s time for coffee. I switch on the espresso machine… mmm the smell of coffee brewing pulls me away from the window. Coffee in hand I settle down to writing.

There are, no doubt, many of you who have experienced tough weather conditions. However, here in Ireland we have never been used to extreme conditions; summers never too hot, winters never too cold. Yes, plenty of rain and mist in winter, but, generally we’ve been accustomed to a predominantly mild, stable climate. Due to global climate change the Atlantic is warming up; such hurricanes that previously headed into the Caribbean and eastern coastlines of the United States are now finding their way to the east of the Atlantic towards Europe. This change in trajectory is said to become a more common occurrence.

The last few years, perhaps even seven or eight, there has been a change. Of course, we’ve had the odd storm but they were far from being frequent. My husband has spent the past few Festive Seasons in France with his immediate family and I have spent it with mine. Each time, prior to going away, winds and rain would intensify “will the flight be delayed?” or “will the flight actually take-off?” I’d leave my husband at the airport, somewhat reluctantly, and head-off on my two-hour drive to my parents’. The winds were so strong that they would shake the car and rain so heavy that I’d have to use the windscreen wipers at the fastest speed position. I could feel the car being moved by the wind. It was always a sigh of relief to arrive at my destination; and once I heard from my husband, well, I could relax!

It’s supposed to get worse tonight; I do hope we don’t have a power outage! Last storm there were parts of the country, including where we live, without electricity for over a week due to fallen trees. À suivre…

Sorry I’m late with this post; wanted to post it last Thursday evening! Something unexpected came up and had to go… hope you enjoy reading it even if a little late! Thanks. P.S. The north-western part of the country was the most affected; they experienced gale-force winds and a lot of rain and many places got flooded. At least yesterday and today are dry with sunny spells.

Culture Night – Our Local Craft Makers

Culture Night started in 2006 as a rather small-scale event concentrated only in Dublin. This annual occurrence has become an important and all-encompassing public event across the island of Ireland. It celebrates culture, creativity and the arts. Special and exceptional activities are scheduled at participating locations and everything is available free of charge.

I would like to tell you about my experience of it here in Cork this year – September 20. There was a plethora of activity throughout the county and city, however, I spent time at the Cork County Hall where there was a fantastic craft fair organised by Cork Craft and Design. From 2:00 pm, craft makers from around the county were busy setting-up their stands. Table cloths of all colours and patterns embellished the stands. By 4:00 pm all makers were operational, ready and waiting. There was an astonishing amount of crafters selling their creations from ceramics, and wood to jewellery makers, from lace and knitwear to greeting cards as well as artists putting their creativity into giving new life to organic objects found in nature.

As I meandered around the foyer of the County Hall, I was drawn towards the array of crafted objects, neatly arranged, and so appealing to the eye. I paused at each one, contemplating the items that were imagined, created, and produced by resourceful and artistic individuals. I chatted with some of them; sensitive to the personal stories about what inspired them and continues to motivate them to embrace such an aspiring livelihood. It must be highlighted that creative activity is not easy and many craft makers are regularly challenged in their daily enterprise.

I would encourage anyone reading this post, no matter where you are in the world, to support local industries. These small businesses are often the heartbeat of our towns and villages and without them life in such places would dissolve. Next time you are invited to a wedding, or a birthday party, or perhaps you would like to treat yourself, think of all those craft makers and artists in your local area creating unique work that merit your support. Let’s help sustain our local communities.

If you have not yet participated in Culture Night, come along to experience it for yourself, it’s a great way to celebrate and promote culture through creativity. Check out: https://culturenight.ie/. Bring on 2020…

Les Estivales

What I appreciate about France is the mosaic of associations; the French tend to be creative when it comes to the ‘collective’. From summer estvales to Christmas markets, France has a lot to offer… Here I would like to tell you about one place in particular – Le Guilvinec – in south Finistère, Brittany.

Les Estivales – summer festivities take place every year. They are a creative expression of the local people and place. Every Friday evening, during the month of August, different associations organise their own event around food and music. One particular Friday night I helped out the Twinning committee. People queue to choose and pay for their ‘menu’; in receipt of a ticket they then head to another queue for the ‘grub’.

Large wooden benches and tables are lined up in the car park near the pier. As locals and visitors alike settle themselves they begin their tasty meal, usually seafood chowder, mussels and French fries, followed by the incontournable – not-to-be-missed – Far Breton, a traditional Breton flan habitually made with prunes. Conversations between old friends and new acquaintances start in earnest; some of whom exchange mobile numbers et voilà, new friendships blossom.

There is a great crowd. I listen to the buzzing sound generated by the multitude of conversations floating through the atmosphere. The music commences; a mix of Breton traditional and contemporary. It really gets the crowd going. Young and not-so-young gather on the ‘dance floor’ – the car park tarmac but it does the job! Fingers are linked, arms are raised and feet begin to move to the beat, a Breton beat. The novices are guided by the experienced. While I enjoy dancing I just want to watch and soak it up. It’s enchanting; I’m mesmerised.

June had been extremely hot; July and August were cooler, with a misty day here and there, thrown in for good measure! As the evening draws to a close, the crowd disperses. Tables and benches are folded and stacked and put away until the next time. My host and I arrive home after midnight. Both body and mind are ready for a good night’s sleep. We bid one another ‘goodnight’; and I awaken the following morning to the sound of the Church bells chiming, it’s 8 o’clock!

Le Guilvinec has a lot to offer in terms of quaint seafood restaurants, a delightful beach and coastal promenade, and a maritime visitor centre called ‘Haliotika’. This visitor centre is worth the trip; plenty of things to see and do – go check out the website: https://www.haliotika.com/

Episode 3: Le Café Parisian – The Ultimate Café Culture

Every time I return to Paris I get great amusement from sipping coffee at a café terrace watching the world go by. It brings me right back to those first years when I was a jeune fille au pair. There is a natural elegance about the French; perhaps particularly the Parisians. That French Flair! How they appear to ‘throw’ an outfit together that looks chic, yet, effortless – c’est instinctif

Getting back to the Parisian café… my first experience of sipping tea, à la bergamote, – rather than coffee back then – at a Parisian café is the garçon de café – waiter – with his bonnes manièresnot! My gosh, anyone who has visited Paris is well aware of these ‘can-be’ ill-mannered garçons de café. But, to be honest, that is part of the Parisian scene. I quickly grew to understand it and be amused by it. I was, no doubt, so immersed in Parisian way of life that very soon it didn’t bother me. Even now, during my multiple return trips to Paris, I continue to be amused, it’s what makes these cafés so Parisian. Having said that, I would like to highlight that there are friendly waiters; a little respect between both parties – customer and waiter – goes a long way. So next time you sit at a Parisian café, or any café at that matter, please give a smile to the waiter! By the way, your coffee will usually be accompanied by a glass of water which I tend to appreciate, merci.  

There are countless cafés to choose from. You’ll never be short of options no matter what your mood. Obviously, there are many trendy and renowned cafés dotted around the city but you needn’t stray too far as there are great local ones too. If you’re staying in Paris for a substantial length of time then get to know your local café – there will be a few to choose from; the advantage being, over time, you will build-up a rapport with the patrons and staff alike. You’ll soon be a Parisian…

On a warm sunny day, with a great book in hand, I settle myself comfortably into a seat. The odd time I’m distracted by the on-street activity. I get a great entertainment from the ‘conveyor belt’ of people going by; inventing life stories… The café begins to fill. Tourists having a glass of wine; groups of locals having an aperitif; some going solo, like myself, having an espresso and the best of the latest summer read to hand. The experience is one of fascination. I feel immersed in this Parisian scene, I feel at home. These places are packed with local vibes and culture; there is a pleasant community-feel to them where worldly philosophical debates materialise. The café is, in a sense, an extension of who we are. À suivre… Please feel free to share your experiences of the Parisian café scene.

Sherkin Island: The Ancestral Home of the O’Driscoll Clan

Sherkin Island – Inis Ascain in Irish – just a ten minute ferry journey from the charming coastal village of Baltimore. Sherkin Island is where my father and his siblings grew up. Although my grandparents came from the mainland they moved to the island in to rear their family. Unfortunately I don’t get to visit Sherkin as often as I would like to but when I do it’s a day-long cultural and historical trip.

When my husband and I were living in Courtmacsherry, a quaint seaside village just ten minutes from Clonakilty, West Cork, we set off early one Saturday morning to Sherkin Island. The drive there is delightful; feeling the warmth of the morning sun through the windscreen is heavenly. Less than an hour later we arrive in Baltimore. With ample parking in the village we have no problem parking the car. As we stroll over to the pier the excitement is mounting, I shall be my spouse’s personal tour guide for the day; it’s his first time visiting the island, the ancestral home of the O’Driscoll clan. Backpack full of goodies in case we, or should I say I get hungry! And especially water, I’m never without a bottle of water in my bag!

The ferry is quickly filled, engine roaring, the course is steered across Roaring Water Bay… Ten minutes of seaspray on my face, I can feel the taste of the salt. There’s a sense of being ‘homeward bound’, a return to the source so to speak.

We arrive at the slipway, we disembark, the ruins of the Franciscan Friary , the ‘Abbey’ as it is known locally, is on the left as we commence our journey around the island. The Friary was established in 1460 by Fineen O’Driscoll, chieftain of the area at the time. There is a lot of history surrounding the O’Driscoll Clan and Dunalong Castle – Dún na Long – which is located on the east side of the island, overlooking the entrance to Baltimore Harbour. If you’d like more information I’d encourage you to visit https://sherkinisland.ie/.  

The Franciscan Friary, know as ‘The Abbey’

For those of you who prefer to travel by ‘taxi’ there’s usually a local with a tractor and trailer, which on a wet day is very welcoming indeed, direct transport to the Jolly Roger traditional Irish pub and restaurant, forget about the scenic route! We are indeed very fortunate with the weather; the sun gleams upon us. The day is off to a great start.

The island is home to many artists, from painters and photographers to writers and craft makers working with a myriad of materials such as silk and wood. Their work can be purchased at the Island Crafts Shop that is situated on Baltimore pier. Sherkin Island offers an interesting and unique experience through its BA in Visual Art programme (BAVA) http://bavasherkin.com/. It is a four-year honours degree course proposing a dynamic and creative education in an exceptional location; an opportunity – and what an opportunity – that combines studio practice workshops on the island with a range of online distance education technologies. The principal aim of the programme is to provide students with an advanced knowledge of the nature, role and potential of contemporary art. This BA programme is jointly developed with TU Dublin; for more information please click on the link hereafter: http://www.dit.ie/studyatdit/undergraduate/programmescourses/allcourses/visualartsherkinislanddt589.html

We happen upon Silver Strand on the north-west side of the island, splendid views of Cape Clear Island – Oileán Chléire in Irish – and the Atlantic Ocean; a perfect place for a swim followed by a picnic. This is a spectacular ‘playground’ for the islanders; it was the playground of my father’s and his siblings and what a playground! I close my eyes; I can hear their shrieks of laughter.

The ‘Playground’ of my father’s and his siblings

After a morning of walking, taking in the theatrical views, we head back to the east coast for a well-deserved bite to eat and a drink at the Jolly Roger. We have a couple of hours to spend peacefully before returning to the mainland. We have worked up an appetite! We sit facing the village and harbour of Baltimore; splendid views… come see for yourself.

We observe the arrival of the ferry and so we make our way towards the pier. It is early evening and we bid farewell to my ancestral home. What a day; we’ll return soon…

Map of Sherkin Island

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…

The Regatta: A Cultural and Social Encounter

While I prefer exploring places off-season for their authenticity, summer can have its benefits as it reveals the connection locals establish with visitors. Coastal towns in summer are vibrant. There is always some kind of festival going on; the connection with the sea is significant to developing and enhancing these places and key to attracting tourists.

Regatta… a word that evokes the coast, the sea, sailing boats… In Castletownbere, West Cork, the ‘Regatta’ takes place annually, on the first Monday of August – a Bank Holiday in Ireland. Let me take you on a trip down memory lane… It’s not sure when this event first emerged but many retired locals tell me that it is reminiscent of their childhood. I found newspaper articles referring to the ‘Regatta’ dating back to 1912.

A few people to whom I spoke recall a time when there were gig races only prior to the event becoming part of the wider Festival of the Sea. A lot of fishermen used to be involved; my dad recalls there being a specific fishermen’s gig.  

Back to today’s event… there are both senior and junior, ladies and men’s gig races taking place over the course of the day. At intervals there are pillow fights, swimming races, greasy pole among other fun events. The festival not only attracts tourists but also a large number of the Castletownbere diaspora. The Regatta reveals a sense of ‘togetherness’. Fundamentally, this festival is about these people and for these people − permanent residents and visiting members of the Castletownbere diaspora − as a celebration of their maritime culture. People’s attachment to their heritage is revealed through their regular return visits to their native place.

It is a time and a place for all locals to meet and transmit the local heritage to future generations. As many people do not meet with one another outside of this festival due to professional and personal commitments in addition to geographical circumstances it is through the act of socialising during this festival that heritage and identity of the fishing community in Castletownbere is maintained. The festival is important to fishing culture as an agent that strengthens the ties between an increasingly dispersed ‘community’. It is interesting to observe these events take place. As crowds watch the ‘unfolding’ of different events some gasp in awe at the tenacity of certain competitors. The sheer resolve of the contestants offer a ‘theatrical performance’ to the spectators.

People invest emotionally in these events. Events like these reveal a collective sense of attachment to the pier as a place for social gatherings. When the last gig race is patiently awaited you can sense the excitement mounting. The atmosphere is electric, almost emotional, especially when Castletownbere teams are involved in the final effort to cross the line. So why not come visit us and experience for yourself the Regatta, a day-long celebration of maritime culture which is part and parcel of the wider Festival of the Sea.

Atlantic Irish Mist

For me, a place can never be neutral; landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes…we are shaped by whatever ‘-scape’ surrounds and envelopes us. We come to mirror our environment so to speak.  Have you ever thought about ‘place’ in a profound and philosophical sense?

A rugged terrain appears to characterise its people as tough and hardy; never fearful of getting their hands dirty or their feet muddy.

Coastal in habitants tend to never take for granted the mysterious element that is the sea – calm or chaotic – it will always take its quota of lives.

Lament of a rugged landscape or calamitous sea can be read on the faces and bodies of those working the land or heading out into the vast ocean.

Have you ever felt the scent of the sea waft under your nostrils when you’re journeying through the coast? I’d like to hear about your experiences. ‘Tasting’ a place, literally and metaphorically, is about using our senses to imbue ourselves with the sense of place.

The coast and the sea are important to me. As I sit, I watch the grey clouds travel across ‘an already grey sky’, from the south-west, bringing with them rain from the Atlantic. As they sweep across the sky, Atlantic mist is forming, creating a curtain or rather a blind that closes down on the sea, and thus, shutting out the horizon.

The coast is busy with cargo ships ‘ebbing and flowing’ as the pilot boat transports the local maritime pilots to and from awaiting vessels, each containing specific freight. It’s amusing to guess the size of the boat, from where it came and its onward journey once it leaves the Port of Cork.

The curtain continues to sweep across the bay. I never tire of this view or any sea view for that matter. It is ever-changing; no two days are the same. The curtain draws back, the blind swings up; the clouds are a much lighter shade, yet still no sun in sight, but I don’t mind. That is the beauty of coastal Ireland.

By the way, if you get a chance to view an Irish TV programme called Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland, it is really worth watch. The presenter, John Creedon, explores the true meaning behind some of Ireland’s most unusual and famous place names; each episode is a journey of discovery as John surveys and strides across the island of Ireland for lost meanings in everyday place names. It’s a 3-part series on Sundays at 18h30 for one hour on RTÉ One. You can view it online: http://www.rte.ie/player. Check out my review…