La Petite Ceinture

Did you know that you can explore history and discover the secret green spaces of an old Paris train line known as ‘La Petite Ceinture’?

The little belt, as it was called, circled Paris long before the métro. A rail line built in the second half of the 19th century, it was designed to link the different train stations and provide an efficient way of transporting freight around the French capital’s fortifications. It began serving passengers in 1862 and the complete rail loop, 32 kilometres all around Paris, was completed in 1869.

Le Métropolitain de Paris, built at the turn of the century, brought about the decline of the Petite Ceinture. From 39 million passengers in 1900, during the Exposition Universelle, the traffic fell to just 7 million in 1927. Le métro soon became the preferred way to get around Paris.

The old line closed down in 1934 and entire sections of the railway were left to decay for many decades. Access was forbidden but the old ‘chemin de fer’ became a kind of ‘secret’ greenbelt enjoyed by graffiti artists and those seeking a haven of calm within the city.

In recent years stations and sections of the old line have been restored and transformed, some as modern links in new transit lines like the ‘RER C’ at Courcelles-Levallois. Other sections have been taken over by restaurants, cultural centres and urban green spaces. Full history and a chart of all the sections here on Wikipedia.

Today, you can access 6.5 kilometres of parks and cultural activities on the restored Petite Ceinture line at different spots all around Paris.

This Saturday, August 31st is the ‘Fête de la Petite Ceinture’. Entry is free with fun and games, nature walks, concerts and workshops happening at different times and places. Visit the City of Paris website for details (in French only 🧐😠).

If you’re lucky enough to be in Paris this weekend, check it out!

Do you know La Petite Ceinture? Have you ever walked along the old train line?

Ile Maurice

The sun was coming up as we touched down at Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam airport in Mahébourg, on the south side of Ile Maurice. After a twelve-hour flight from Zurich, I was happy to see that we were going to get what we came for.

It is winter in Mauritius, which means slightly cooler weather. We mostly had temps around 25 Celsius, a few clouds along with the odd raindrop. Perfect for me as while I love spending time on the beach I am not a huge fan of the heat.

Our destination was Trou aux Biches, a beautiful lagoon on the opposite end of the island. Our driver gave us a guided tour through the mountainous interior during the one-hour ride.

I was surprised to see that English rules of the road apply, with driving on the left side. All of the road signs are in English, but the place names are French. This is due to the island’s colonial past, which switched over several times from Dutch to French to British before becoming independent in 1968.

Most people speak French as well as English, along with Créole and Hindi. The island’s location in the Indian ocean, although it is considered part of the African continent, and its geographic proximity to Asia, make it a popular destination for international tourists.

Fields of ‘canne à sucre’ or sugar cane

‘Canne à sucre’ or sugar cane is traditionally the main industry on the island, and there are fields as far as the eye can see. It seems the crop has suffered of late from competition from the sugar beet, along with the world’s increasing aversion to sugar. Oddly, our driver told us there are also a great many call centers now in Mauritius, taking advantage of the multilingual workforce.

Our resort was a bit of a splurge, with infinity pools and waterfalls, gorgeous landscaping, a semi-private beach (there were still hawkers regularly flogging their wares) and as a bonus, bar service!

This was less of an adventure and more of a beach vacation. All I need is a shady lounger and a stack of books to be happy. It was heaven!

Ile Maurice is two hours ahead of France time-wise, so we woke a bit later than usual. Each day started with bright sunshine and the screeching of birds. Being in the southern hemisphere and the shortest days of the year also meant that the sun set rather early, around 5:30 pm. 

The only inconvenience was mosquitos, which came out in force after dark. We tried to cover up and use deet (yuck) as there have been warnings about the risk of dengue fever. But we sat outside — hey, tropical vacation — and naturally still got bitten. They are tiny little buggers and I neither saw nor felt the bites until they started to itch the next day.

One of the things we enjoyed most on Mauritius was the variety of food. The Indian influence means a lot of spicier options, curries and such, which we both love. Plus the classic French cuisine, along with Italian.

The hotel bar had some fabulous cocktails. My favourite had ginger, brandy and rum. Not too sweet but with a nice kick!

The local beer is also excellent. That’s a Phoenix for me, and Monsieur will have his usual non-alcoholic option.

We left the hotel compound for dinner several times. Aside from the breakfast buffet, which was utterly decadent, the hotel restaurants were overpriced and the food only passable. Also, given the British influence, there was dress code for dinner which meant husband had to wear long pants and shirt with collar – not a win for Monsieur! Fortunately the hotel staff were happy to accommodate by driving us across the resort by golf cart to walking distance from the nearby restaurants. It was a fun ride: those electric ‘voiturettes’ as they call them can really go!

We went back to one place, Le Pescatore, twice. This beet sorbet amuse-bouche was amazing.

The fish was in a light coconut curry sauce. The desserts were to die for!

We took a day trip to visit some sights in the north part of the island. Port Louis, the capital city, served up a mix of old and new.

There was a wonderful market hall with all kinds of fresh produce and goods. As everywhere, the signs are in English.

We are terrible at negotiating so ended up paying way too much for some spices. Ah well, it was fun and at least we supported the local economy!

The surrounding beaches in the north end from Mont Choisy to Grand Baie offered beautiful expanses of white sand flanked by pine forest.

We stopped to see a fishing village called Cap Malheureux (Cape Misfortune) with a history of ships foundering on the rocks and lovely views out to the nearby mountainous islands.

One place on our route was called ‘Balaclava’ and husband asked the driver why. The guide seemed baffled and had no idea what the word actually meant. Turns out that the French had renamed certain places that had been historically dubbed with English names. Thus ‘black lava’ became ‘balaclava’. Nothing to do with the head gear!

Other than that, we did very little. Was it because we had only a week with a long flight on either end? I’m not sure but for some reason, for once I was happy to just kick back and relax. The explorations of the mountains and remote islands will have to wait for a return visit.

On our flight out, despite the clouds playing peek-a-boo, you could see the coral reef that surrounds Mauritius, making it a safe haven for shark-free swimming and snorkeling.­­­­

Au revoir, Ile Maurice! Hope to visit your beautiful shores again one day.

Contourner

Getting from point A to point B is never as simple as it looks in France. One-way streets, traffic jams, road works and demonstrations are just a few reasons why you often need to find a way around.

I quickly learned the words for this on moving to France.

Contourner: to go around something (an object but also various rules and regulations, or the ‘interdictions’ I posted about here.)

Contournement: the act of going around something or, in road terms, a route that takes you around. Most people call this a ring road. It’s also known as a rocade.

When we lived in Lyon and were looking to buy our first home, there was much talk of a potential ‘contournement ouest lyonnais’ (Lyon west ring road). The famous ‘COL’ was a much talked-about project that would have freed up the huge mess of north-south traffic on the A7, the main motorway that serves traffic between Paris and the south. It has the misfortune of cutting through the heart of Lyon via the Fourvière tunnel – a crammed, polluted and sometimes scary experience that is best avoided.

As you can see from this map, the city has no major alternate route on the hilly west side. Which, by the way, is the most picturesque, pastoral part of the countryside.

The eastern side of the city, with its broad plains, has all kinds of highways and byways serving the airport, leading east to the Alps and to parts south. Using these routes can save time when you factor in traffic, but they do add considerable distance. Therefore, many drivers prefer to avoid them. Or look for another way around. Un contourement au contournement. Am I making sense?

So when we were considering buying near a village in a pretty corner of the southwest of Lyon, we went to the city hall to check that there were no plans to start work on a big highway project just beyond our doors. Just to be safe.

Can you tell us if there any plans for the ‘contournement’ in this area? my husband asked the nice lady at the Mairie. Ah oui, she said, nodding her head vigorously. It’s supposed to be just on the other side of the village from where you want to build.

My heart fell. Mais non, sans blague? (No kidding?)

Further probing revealed that she was talking about the ‘contournement du village’. A local way around rather than straight through the village. We were relieved. It was nothing more than a minor road around the village.

Many towns and cities in France have ring roads, rocades or contournements. If your objective is get from A to B as quickly as possible, they’re probably a good bet. If you want to see the local sights, stop and smell the roses along the way, it may be best to avoid them.

But if you want to think and act like a French person, you need to learn to find your away around by using alternate routes. Believe me, I know. I’ve been getting lost on them for years!

Haute gastronomie

Presentation on a plate

France is known for its gastronomy and one cannot live here without indulging from time to time in ‘un bon gueuleton’ – a familiar French expression for a feast or a bit of a blowout.

While I love to eat, I am not a foodie. I don’t follow the latest culinary trends or keep a bucket list of famous chefs whose cuisine I simply must sample before I die. Still, over the years we have celebrated various occasions with something a little special. Having tried a few Michelin star restaurants of the ‘haute gastronomie’ variety, I must confess that most of these establishments fall short of their promise.

Back in the day when ‘nouvelle cuisine’ was still relatively new, I remember my Belle-mère making a comment along the lines of: “Ça coute la peau des fesses* et tu n’as rien dans l’assiette!” (It costs a fortune and there’s hardly anything in your plate!)

Haute gastronomie

It is certainly true that when it comes to la haute gastronomie, the size of the portion tends to diminish in reverse proportion to the prices on the menu.

That said, I am fine with small portions of very good food, as the mere number of courses and accompanying wines means that you cannot leave the table without feeling full. If not entirely satisfied.

Our latest venture into one of these temples of grande cuisine was last week on holiday in Porto, where there are a number of Michelin-starred chefs. Why Portugal produces so many culinary stars is often explained by the quality of fresh produce, especially from the sea, the variety and richness of their wines and a longstanding tradition of fine food.

It begins with a bit of a show. The room with its perfectly toned-down décor, the greeting and introduction by the maitre d’hôtel, the prolific wait staff wearing black gloves. There is no menu, just a choice of 8 or 12 courses. You balk at this prodigy and go for the modest menu, then realize that the thimble-sized servings are really not going to go a long way towards filling you up.

I chose the menu with wine pairings and regretted it. Each course came with a different vino, and by the time I’d imbibed various glasses of sparkling, port, white and red wines, my palate if not my head was spinning. And while the food was very good, I would have preferred a bit more of one or two things, but overall fewer courses of many tastes and tidbits.

Porto wine porto

What it comes down to for me is a preference for real food cooked with flair and a dash of originality, not so much the molecular gastronomy with its emulsions and foams of intense flavours. Just simple, hearty food of excellent quality cooked with loving care.

Presentation matters to me and the French do it very well. You eat with your eyes as well as your senses of taste and smell. But when the show upstages the food, when the presence of servers overly intrudes upon the experience, and when the final bill is several times what you would have paid for just a very good restaurant meal…perhaps I’ve had my fill.

How about you? Do you enjoy ‘haute’ gastronomy?

*Why ‘la peau des fesses’ or the skin of one’s rear end should represent a large amount of money is a mystery that perhaps our friend Phildange can explain?

Cham’ and me

Chamonix, France

We are fortunate to live between two chains of mountains. I awake to views of the Jura, the older, gentler slopes just across Lake Geneva on the Swiss side. In the other direction, to the southeast in France, are the Alps. They aren’t far, although we don’t get many views of the Alpine peaks from here.

Visitors are a good excuse for us to get out and see the Alps close up. That is just what we did when my sister and her family came to visit the other week.

Outside of ski season, it’s easy to forget just how close we are to Chamonix – Cham’ to the locals – home to our highest mountain, le Mont Blanc. We drove about an hour to Valorcine, then parked the car and took a series of chair lifts up. It’s fun to take a chair lift in the summer as you can see all the detail of the green slopes just below. And I enjoy it more when my fingers aren’t frozen.

We couldn’t figure out why so many chairs had spots blocked off but decided it was for all the people with bikes. This is a popular spot for the sport and just below us, we could see mountain bikers descending the narrow dirt trails at break-neck speed. I can see why they take the lifts – riding down must be a lot more fun than going up.

Chair lift near Valorcine

At the top, the views open up to the valley below in a way that soon had us singing, ‘The hills are alive…’ Thankfully no one started yodelling or the Swiss, who share a border just a few hundred metres away, might have changed their minds about staying neutral.

We could see the glacier called La Mer de Glace – the Sea of Ice – and a little bit of the Mont Blanc peak, although there were a few clouds. There were wild flowers and a few mountain cows – although we argued as to whether they were cows or bulls. Do cows have horns? And are there male cows? My daughter the future veterinarian would certainly have a few things to say on that subject.

From the top, we hiked downhill for half an hour to a small mountain refuge that runs a restaurant. This was my favorite moment of the day.

thumb_img_5605_1024It’s enough to make me want to come back and do it again – but don’t tell ZFrenchman, or he’ll soon have me up and out the door to Cham’ every Sunday morning.

 

When was the last time you were in the mountains?