Wednesday, June 21, 2017

How to Beat the Heat in Paris

Paris might be heavenly in the spring time, but this week it's been hotter than hell! At 9 am the outside temperature already matched the inside temperature - a blistering 28 °C (86 °F). 

I've lived in hotter, much hotter, but in a house with air conditioning in a region that cooled down at night. You could open your windows without having to listen to the full-on roar of city traffic going past a dozen feet from your bed (albeit 4 stories down!)

Today it is forecast to max out at 37 °C (104 °F) and hopefully by tomorrow, we will see a decrease in temperature.

So what can I do about it?

Well, I've read the article about 11 ways to cool down in Paris. It's grand - full of good advice like ... hang out in the hotels and drink G+Ts (can't afford the hangovers), go shopping in the big stores (can't afford the cash) or eat ice cream (can't afford the calories!) 

I did like the idea of jumping into a fountain and we do have a nice one beside us. 

But the only one actually in the fountain was a toddler, and I thought I might look a bit out of place lying there all day!

Other suggestions included finding a shady place in the park or a shady terrace, but we are way past "shady" on the thermometer!

I did embrace the suggestion to go swimming in an outdoor pool. I've tried this twice. It would be lovely if most of Paris hadn't had the exact same idea! 

The Piscine Josephine Baker is right on the banks of the Seine. It was two metros away and has a 25m pool - which is fairly standard, but I've been spoiled using the 50m pool under Les Halles, a 6-minute walk from the apartment. 

The Josephine Baker pool was crazy full when I went there a couple of weeks ago - before the heat wave, and it was hard to enjoy doing dedicated laps. It was probably fine to flop about in with your friends though I cannot imagine what it must be like now. I'm using the photo from their website. Even with a fisheye lens, it looks pokey, and it had at least 5 times as many people in it.

And there really is no view of the Seine as you swim. I'm not going back.

The other pool I tried was La Piscine Georges Vallerey de Paris. One shot on the metro but pretty much all the way to the end of the line (second last stop) and so a round trip of an hour.  The opening hours are funky too. Some days it's open in the afternoons and others it not. And the real hours don't correspond to what's posted online. For example, on Tuesdays, it was supposed to be open from 11.45 to 13.30 but they closed it at 13.00. Good job, I was there for 11.45 and hadn't landed any later. 

The two big attractions for me were that the pool was open air and 50 m long. The picture from their website looks amazing... 

The swimming here can only be described as vicious. Each lane has at least 18 people in it - I counted. People shoved, kicked and even shouted at each other. It was worst than the melee at the beginning of any open water race I've ever done. I battled my way through a kilometre swim then sat out in the sun for a bit. Out of the water, the atmosphere was a bit nicer - people made eye contact (and I don't mean with heels or elbows like in the lanes!) and a couple of women even chatted with me. So that was nice, and it distracted me from the 30+ heat that was brewing in the real world.

The other suggestions - go to a church, the catacombs, a movie, hire a boat - all good, BUT at the end of the day, I still needed somewhere cool to sleep and I didn't fancy kipping in the Catacombs or Notre Dame. We did escape last Saturday night to a low priced but very new and air-conditioned hotel just north of Orléans - more about that in a later blog post...

During this heat wave, my days revolve around watching the inside and outside temperatures so that I know when it's time to open shutters and window or close them. I spend my afternoons writing in an over-warm, darkened room - not a great place for the psyche to hang out. But it's only for a short time, I tell myself. It will cool down by the weekend and then I'll have my "lovely" Paris back again.

We have a little fan that we brought from San Jose (and never used there!) If you set it up with a block of ice behind it, you have a mini air conditioner. 

I freeze bottles of water and have a constant supply - when the ice is half melted, the air is at its coolest. It's basically GCSE Chemistry. I could write a whole piece on why this works, but it's all down to the frozen water molecules taking heat energy from the air to break the little bonds holding the ice together. It's cool - literally! And if you don't believe me, you can look it up here.

My Uncle Liam taught me how to make a swamp cooler with a damp towel and a fan many years ago. It was a lesson I never forgot and have even improved upon. I thought, if evaporating water absorbs heat energy then melting it would use even more - so I rinsed a few bath towels in the washing machine, folded them up still wet and put them in the freezer. 

It's important to use the washing machine first to spin the towels because if they are too damp you'll have trouble getting them out of the freezer and unfolding them. Unfolding them is key - you want a large surface area. 

Hang the towels around your room and you will immediately feel the drop in temperature. It's not a lot, and not for long... but better than a kick in the head (for that, you can go to Piscine Georges Vallerey de Paris!)

When the temperatures drop at night - It only got down to about 25 °C (80 °F) last night - we open the windows. That's a whole different world of pain! We live on a really busy road with a vibrant pub and bar scene. The traffic - poor man's ocean- we can kind of get used to, except for the motorcycles who take joy in revving their engines. Then the drunks come out and sing - usually between 1 am and 4 am. I've gotten used to them too. But the thing that gets me riled is the street cleaners at 5.30am. Their little trucks are the noisiest out there and hell bells, can't they clean at 10 am? I have seen them during the day too so it's not that they are off the roads and not obstructing traffic 9 to 5.
Then yesterday morning there was a new annoyance. At 5.30am the bottle bank right under our bedroom window was being emptied. As you can imagine it's not a quiet procedure - lots of smashing and crashing of glass. But again, another thing my brain has learned to filter out in the middle of the night unless it gets obnoxious and wonders why these things need to be done at that time of the morning. But no, that wasn't the thing that kept me awake fantasising about taking pot shots from the balcony (thank God, I don't have a gun because sometimes with those motocyclists.. I'd be like, "Aim once, aim twice, aim bike!") Oh no, it was the wee beep beep beep you hear when a truck is reversing, going on for 15 mins. Eventually, I got up and looked out the window. It was now 6 am and there was a man in a crane with a brush sweeping leaves off the top of the public toilet cubicle across the street. FFS! It took him 45 minutes to do this!

The view from our balcony complete with bottle bank and toilet - and no, that's not my washing machine!

I wouldn't mind all this cleaning if the streets of Paris actually got clean but... well, that's a whole other post and one best written when I'm not all sleep deprived and hot and bothered!

And just when the air temperature dropped to a comfortable 25 °C (80 °F), the traffic noise abated to a gentle purr, the drunks had all passed out and the cleaners had clocked off, just then, well that was the moment the alarm went off and it was time to get up a face another day sweltering in Paris!

Sometimes it's just hot and there's nothing more you can do about it other than stick some more towels in the freezer. Them's the breaks - let's just hope the weather breaks and soon...before I start throwing washing machines off the balcony!

Keep cool folks!

Byddi Lee

Thursday, June 15, 2017

A Weekend in Brussels

Brussels is a relaxing 90-minute train ride from Paris. We bought our tickets through Thalys and left Paris Gard du Nord at 10.25am arriving into Brussels Midi at 11.47am. From here, we hooked into the Metro and made it to our hotel just after noon, where we met with our Californian friends who were travelling in Europe. We stayed in the Mas Residence and were delighted to find that our hotel "room" was, in fact, a mini-suite complete with living room area, kitchenette, giant bed and air-conditioning. Not only was the hotel room nearly as big as our Paris apartment, it was much quieter, overlooking a grassy back yard.

We began our explorations of Brussels at the Grand Place and it was pretty grand!

I was expecting Brussels to be very similar to Paris and pleasantly surprised by the fact that it differed. For a start, the people speak back in French, even when you are stumbling along they seem happy to decipher what you are attempting to say.

Grand Place
There are lot of modern buildings throughout the city. The area with beautiful old buildings feels quite small, but the buildings are very ornate, with lots of gold.

I love this guy's moustache. I wasn't sure what his cart was all about, but the Belgians love this wee statue - the Manneken Pis - a statue of a little boy peeing into a basin.

There were chocolate versions of the statue - though I was a little put off eating the waffles he seemed to be peeing upon!

Some shops had multicolored versions of him.

We went on a mission to find the original statue. When we found him, the street was full of tourists taking pictures of him. He was tiny compared to what we'd been expecting and he was dressed up! Apparently they have loads of little outfits for him and dress him up all the time. I found the whole thing charming, though bizarre!

Belgium is famous for its chocolate and its beer. There are plenty of places to sample both in Brussels.

 Delirium Cafe has over 2000 types of beers - it even has a chocolate flavored beer.

I especially love the cherry flavored beer, pictured here beside the chocolate - It's like a beer Black Forest Gateau! This picture makes my mouth water...

Delirium Cafe is up a little side street. You know you're close when you see this cafe with the tree growing through the terrace!

A very strange thing (apart from the Manekin Pis) that we came across was the fact that you cannot get free water in Brussels in a cafe, bar or restaurant. No such thing as ordering tap water or a carafe de l'eau. All water must be bought and paid for - which I wouldn't mind if you got a big bottle. I was shocked at the tiny wee bottle of Perrier I got. The glass was mini too but have a look at the standard-sized teaspoon beside it for comparison.

So stock up on your own water because Brussels is a city where you will walk the legs of yourself looking at all the amazing buildings.

We started our full day there with brunch at the Wild Geese not realising it was an Irish Bar because neither its name nor its decor was particularly Irish - but the most important thing was - the breakfast! Full Irish with black pudding too. Highly recommended...

After Brunch, we got down to the serious business of sight-seeing and there are tonnes of sights to see in Brussels - massive churches...

St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral, Brussels
 ...With amazing interiors. Each statue is holding something different - I wish I knew what it represented.

You can see cutesy wee churches...

 ...With amazing wood-carving detail!

The Musical Instrument Museum had sheet music on it's exterior along with gorgeous metal work.

And across the street you could sit and listen to nice music for free.

We took a wander around what we think was the European Parliament - there were plenty of flags and so I presumed we were in the right place.

They even had a chunk of the Berlin Wall.

We walked all day and even managed to have a quick look at "the city beneath the city" the Coudenberg where there was a museum and archaeological site on medieval palace foundations underneath/beside the site of the Royal Palace.

Royal Palace of Brussels

As day gave way to evening, we were treated to a beautiful sunset at the quais near St Catherine's Square.

We had dinner in The Rugbyman1 - a great lobster place overlooking the quais.

 After dinner we explored the alleyways and found quaint little bars such as this one down "Diagon Alley" - our nickname for obvious reasons!

The full moon came out and vied with the street lights for our our attention!

We had a great weekend with our friends exploring Brussels, drinking beer, and eating chocolate and waffles! It's a top spot for a relaxing weekend.

Byddi Lee

Friday, June 9, 2017

Armagh Visitor Centre - A Lovely Welcome!

Once upon a time, back when I was in my twenties, an Australian friend came to visit Armagh. I was surprised at how impressed he was with our little city. He thought the buildings and the architecture beautiful, admired the quaint little streets, loved the lush landscape and the rolling orchards, and of course, thought our Cathedrals magnificent. A few years later, he married an Armagh lass, one of my best friends - so perhaps, I felt he was just a tad biased!

Despite my friend's enthusiasm for the city, my eyes were closed to Armagh's possibilities as a tourist destination even though we had the two amazing Cathedrals.

On a recent trip back to Armagh, My Husband and I had "messages" to do in town. We scored a really handy parking spot beside the Armagh Visitor Information Centre and after we had our business done, we decided to pop into, what I dubbed in my head as, the Armagh Tourist Office.

It's a strange concept to go to a visitor centre/tourist office in your own town, weirder still to play tourist-at-home, but in a place like Armagh, I discovered that it is utterly delightful.

The building that houses the Armagh Visitor Centre is beautiful. In fact, this photo could pass for one I'd take in Paris. Inside, the decor, in calming tones of duck-egg blues and greys, complemented the period of the architecture.

Right away, we were greeted with a friendly welcome and an offer of help. Marion was enthusiastic about the charms of my hometown and not one bit phased when I told her I'd grown up here. Of course, we quickly found some relatives and friends in common since she too was an Armagh native. She immediately put us at our ease and erased my strange sense of being a fraud since we weren't tourists as such. It didn't matter to her - her mission is to promote Armagh, and she made it look so easy!

She began by taking out a Map of the City, and right away I was struck by how many things there were to do in Armagh! There were plenty of attractions close enough together for Marion to suggest sending us on a walking tour. She circled places of interest and described, with a wealth of knowledge, what there was to see at each one.

If you're in Armagh and have a bit of time to spare, local or visitor, pop in to see Marion and the team in The Armagh Visitor Centre and ask them about these guys - you'll see them secreted in nooks and crannies about the city.

Even if historical monuments are not quite your thing, there are a plethora of great places to eat in Armagh such as the award-winning Mulberry Bistro beside the Catholic Cathedral... every seat guarantees a stunning view, and the food is amazing.

4 Vicars on Vicars Hill beside the Church of Ireland Cathedral also has won awards and you can get a seat overlooking the "old" Cathedral, as it is often referred to in Armagh. They also have a lovely seating area out back with a view over lovely gardens.

If it's pampering you are after, look no further than Armagh.

Coco Lane is the place to go to relax and unwind with a massage or a beauty treatment. They were finalists in the Ulster Tattler 2016 Awards for the great work they do in their beautifully decorated haven of tranquillity situated near the Shambles.

If your locks need some TCL - Petra and her crew are just back from collecting awards in London for her hairdressing salon, Petra's House of Color.

Venture outside the city - you are in for a treat with lush landscapes and pretty villages. Tassagh Viaducts are very beautiful, and if you go that way, pop into Basil Sheils for a lovely lunch.

If you enjoy good photography have at look at Patrick Hughes Photography on Facebook - some stunning shots of the city here - very inspiring. I keep wondering how could I incorporate one of his pictures into a book cover someday!

Also, if you're after culture there's the Market Place Theatre.

So there's plenty to see and do in Armagh whether you live there or are just exploring. Either way, do consider popping into The Armagh Visitor Centre where Marion and her colleagues will be happy to answer your questions, and do take a moment to browse the lovely Craftswirl gift store - ah go on - treat yourself!

Byddi Lee

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Rooftop Drinks in Le Marais

It was a beautiful evening at the start of May. The night-time temperatures were now comfortable enough to sit outside without a coat.

I'd read about a roof-top bar, Le Perchoir, near us, but had heard that the lines were horrendous. On this particular Friday evening, My Husband and I decided to take a dander down to the BHV Marais to see for ourselves what the queue was like. The bar opens at 8.15pm, and the picture below shows the line at that time. I'd sussed out on a walk-by that the hold up to gain entry was the fact that the lift was only able to take 6-8 people at a time. Seemingly using the stairs was not an option.

We decided to get into the queue and see how far we'd get in thirty minutes - then we'd go home knowing the approximate rate of flow of the line. I wasn't really dressed for posh rooftop drinking and hadn't even put on any makeup. The other people in the line were mostly between 20 and 30 years old with a sprinkling of some older foggies such as us.

While we stood in the line, we had a nice view of a rather spectacular vertical garden across the street. The street art was quite good too.

It wasn't until my next visit, with a bunch of female friends, that we noticed these rather phallic balcony railings right next door - just thought it was worth mentioning at this juncture!

After our imposed allocated time, (30 minutes) we were surprised to find ourselves at the top of the queue. Since we were there an all, sure what was the harm in going upstairs for a drink? Just the one mind!

After winding through some fairly utilitarian corridors between the elevators and the bar, the view from the rooftop hits you as soon as you enter the bar. The decor of the bar itself was quite eclectic with weird touches like sheep-stools (and I don't mean poop!)

The bar was fairly empty, but the regulars have it off to a tee. Most tables had just one person there, trying to make themselves as big and their belongings as spread out as possible. All seats seemed to be already reserved. I hoped that our (relatively) advanced age would spark some chivalry, and we'd be offered a seat, but nope, these foetuses where not for moving!

The Hotel de Ville - not really a hotel!
The bar itself was fairly easy to get served at, despite looking three-people deep. It had more to do with the other patrons lining up before they knew what they wanted. As they hmmm-ed and haaaa-ed over the menus, I was able to catch the eye of the bartender and order. Sometimes being older has its perks - you know what you want!

As it turned out, we fell in with folk in our own age-group - an Irish-American and his wife and friends who were traveling through to Ireland. We had a great night's craic.

A few weeks later, I returned with a bunch of female friends, and again, we had a hoot.

Yes, I may have been old enough to be the mother of most of the other customers, but somehow as I admired their beauty (and young people are so beautiful, aren't they? That skin...) I could also read their anxiety... Am I pretty enough? ...dressed the right way? Does he/she like me enough? How will I pay for this?

And I realize how much effort being that young can be, and how much nicer it is to just roll with the flow and get over yourself. Age actually has it's perks if you look closely enough.

Byddi Lee