January in Paris: Versailles, Chartres and Reims

We have enjoyed one of the quietest Christmas and New Year periods of our lives! It’s been just the two of us with the occasional lively lunch or evening with our neighbours, like fellow-Australians John and Lesley and fellow-Brits Charles and Joyce and Kay and Josh.

Charlette, Chef Tom , John and Lesley and sumptuous main course. That's Stewart's hand and glass!

A highlight of our January has been ‘sharing’ John and Lesley’s son Tom and his excellent cuisine. He’s a creative and highly talented chef on the rise and he cooked a perfect evening’s dinner for us.

Tom's entrée .. the photo doesn't do this justice!

It took him many days in terms of planning, purchasing, preparation and finally cooking a sumptuous meal using the galley on board ‘Emanuel’ (John and Lesley’s boat) and then bringing all three exquisite courses to ‘Endellion’ .. luckily they were only a few boats away. Another day he cooked beef burgers on our BBQ, something we’d never done before and now we have his recipes they will be on the menu very soon.

Unfortunately for us Tom has now returned to Australia and we are back to rather ordinary fare on board although we have found a few new restaurants for the occasional lunch. One of our new favourites was recommended by John and Lesley, one we wouldn’t have found as it is in a small lane off the Rue St Antoine, ten minutes away, and has only recently opened at this address. It is called ‘Gorille Blanc’ (White Gorilla) and is charming, spacious (a rare thing for a Paris restaurant) and has an interesting and different menu, serving up delicious food. Whilst on the subject of new finds, another recommendation and a lunch shared with our neighbours Charles and Joyce, was ‘Un Jour, Un Chef’, even closer than the Gorilla. Apart from serving up excellent quality food they have a very different business model to any other restaurant we know of anywhere.

Using the graphic (see picture) from their website it goes something like this:

You + Our Experts = Happy Customers - the Un Jour Un Chef model.

You (Vous): The leader of the day, your recipes and your desires

Our experts (Nos experts): A team to accompany you in the kitchen

Happy customers (Des clients heureux): customers and friends amazed by your culinary skills

We asked for an explanation at the time of our lunch but language difficulties meant we weren’t sure we fully understood .. in essence besides being a chef for the day under the guidance of their experts and with a team of support staff in the kitchen you can buy shares in the business. In fact we believe anyone can buy shares in this business. Beyond that we can only suggest you view their website (in French) and if interested give them a call.

When we told the owners about our friend Tom (see above) the brilliant young chef, although back in Australia by then, and asked if he could have taken over a day here .. Yes, absolutely, was their answer, when can he come? Wouldn’t that have been wonderful! Next time he’s in Paris perhaps.

We haven’t strayed far from our boat for these restaurants and in fact we haven’t visited many places outside our usual haunts of last year. Instead we have taken several ‘regional’ trips by train: to Versailles, Chartres and most recently Reims. All a good day-trip and absolutely worth every moment on the train.

Versailles

Versailles is around 21 kilometres southwest of Paris.

The vast buildings of Chateau Versailles in the distance from the river Seine.

We saw the outline of this massive Chateau as we headed along the Seine coming into Paris before Christmas. It looked eerily out-of-place up above us, like something from a fairy story! Anything but of course. There’s a good website all about it but it is most famous as the royal court and seat of political power for almost 100 years (1682 – 1789) and from there Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were dragged off to Paris and later lost their heads via the guillotine.

This trip to Versailles was our first attempt to use the trains since our experience last year before arriving in Paris by boat (see our blog for more). The journey looked perfectly straight forward from guide books and our online searches, one train from Gare d’Austerlitz (just across the river from us, an easy walk) and straight to Versailles in only 15 minutes. Preparation, preparation and again preparation is always our way which is why we went to the station to enquire about logistics and buy the tickets for a departure some days later.  Even that was quite a challenge .. one SNCF (national rail network) staff member, after a long queue at the ticket counter, directed us to the information booth in the main station. At this second stop of ours a lovely English-speaking lady redirected us underground via the lift, to our third port of enquiry. After another queue, now underground, we met a non-English speaking but patient and helpful lady who had no idea whether we could get to Versailles via train with the wheelchair. However, she then spent perhaps 20 minutes on the phone trying to find out more. Finally from her rather fast French we could decipher that yes, all was fine but before we depart we should ring the Mobility number (and she kindly wrote out the same information we have on the little card sent via SNCF).  She sold us our tickets to use any time and off we went full of optimism as usual!

So we trotted off some days later, back to Gare d’Austerlitz with the same confidence .. first having tried to ring the Mobility number but it’s an 0800 number and we can’t get through to those on our mobile or Skype (and of course we have no landline). We will ask when we get there was our only option and we allowed plenty of time to wait for answers. Back to the counter where we bought the tickets and after a short queue we stated our desire to go to Versailles, and definitely with the wheelchair as Stewart smiled back at him. He confirmed “yes, go over there and I will send someone” .. certainly that’s what he seemed to say in a mix of French and English. So over we went to the gate and the lady let us through once she had stamped our tickets and told us to keep going, pointing us in the direction to what we knew was right, the ‘RER C5’. We could then see the sign for our platform and took the lift up. There was a train already there going to Versailles .. but obviously they wouldn’t have time to send someone with a ramp for this one and off it went without us. We could also see the next train was in 15 minutes .. no problem. We inspected the end of the platform where at other stations they store a ramp for us but all we could see was a locked room .. must be for the ramp we thought. And we waited but still no-one came to our assistance and at 10.40am the next train for Versailles arrived and we waved to the drivers in their cabin (three of them) pointing at the wheelchair. One used his finger and thumb to ear and mouth in the international sign for a telephone and off they went… without us.

What is going on? We had just been saying to each other what a good feeling it is when we’re off on an adventure into the unknown, not sure how they will get us on and off but having done our homework we were sure it was all going to happen. However, this time no .. it seemed. Up to the top-level again and back to the gate .. no, there are no ramps here, “can’t he walk” was all we could get from them! And even if he could, how did they imagine we’d get the chair on board??? So back for more homework .. and by asking again and again we found that the only way to get to Versailles with the wheelchair was from Montmartre, a place we knew well from our Prefecture of Police visits last winter.

Finally, we're on board although we have to sit in the passage as the ramp down to the seats is too narrow for any wheelchair.

So .. some days later off we set again for Versailles with our tickets in hand (reluctantly they replaced the ones we’d had to use on our false start). This time we had no problems .. a guide was ready and boarded us before all others (the usual plan) with his ramp. And off we set for the short 15 minutes journey to Versailles.

Arriving at Versailles, finally, the ramp was ready for us along with a huge team of supporters!

Once at the Chateau (about 15 minutes from the station) we were treated like the old royalty! Straight in, no queue for us, and greeted warmly and swept through security with no entry fee (just like all museums around Paris).

The Royal Chapel at Chateau Versailles.

Ramps were where needed, lifts (even though the first one was tiny) and above all guides who were very friendly and helpful. The first asked if we wanted the audio guide and then wouldn’t let us go to get it but set off himself leaving us to absorb the first of the ‘glorious’ sites we had in store, the Royal Chapel.

Our secret passages at Chateau Versailles.

He then took us up one level in the narrow lift, out through a ‘private’ passage and into an amazing room which as he confirmed was closed to the public. In this room was a beautiful scale model of the Chateau .. what a treat for us. He pointed to the small spot on the model where we were now standing.

The beautiful model of Chateau Versailles.

This room appeared to be have been for matters of Government judging by the paintings on the walls .. but we couldn’t find any reference to it in any guides or online.

A small section of the painting on the walls of our secret room at Versailles.

The rest of our tour continued as it started, a total delight, intriguing and by the end quite exhausting with the volume of great works of art and history we had seen.

Chartres

Now that gaining access to the trains was once again under control, by the time we bought the tickets for Chartres we felt comfortable that we could arrive at the station (Montmartre again) and be smoothly escorted to the train with ramp ready. And so it worked out on the day we set off for this 90 kilometres southwest of Paris trip taking one hour fifteen minutes.

Chartres cathedral

Our main aim was to visit the 12/13thcentury cathedral and hopefully explore it with an audio guide or better still a guided tour in English. Some chance at this time of year we thought. However, when we arrived there and asked we were told yes, Mr Miller will conduct a tour today .. but there were only the two of us it seemed. Soon after another couple arrived so there were four, followed by Malcolm Miller (who we later found out is well renowned for his tours) who chatted to us for almost twenty minutes waiting for others to arrive, whilst answering our queries about architecture, the recent renovation and what it was achieving – all extremely interesting and invaluable.

Stewart studying the sculptures at Chartres cathedral.

Once we settled the finances (being only four we paid twice standard rate each) he started the tour twenty minutes late (but extended well beyond one-and-a-half-hours). Malcolm was born in England and first came to Chartres in 1956, as part of his university degree studies in French, when he was aged around 21 or 22. He has been lecturing at the cathedral since 1958 and was, needless to say, extremely knowledgeable and also entertaining. He travels frequently (or has over the decades) and asked where we came from. By coincidence all four of us come from Australia, we from Sydney and our fellow tourists from Melbourne and Malcolm rolled off stories about both cities from his various visits.

Five of the disciples, a few of the thousands of sculptures.

Malcolm explained that as his tours are not scripted if we had attended any of his tours before he would cover new areas of interest.. none of us had. He likened the cathedral to a vast library full of books “they tell the history of the world as it was understood in the Middle Ages when most people couldn’t read or write but could follow the biblical `texts’ told in stained glass …” And to help pay for this brilliant craftsmanship there are `advertisements’, ie, sponsors who are depicted in `their’ section of glass, like carpenters and other tradesman, or local dignitaries. We just wished we’d taken (or hired) binoculars, it was all very special. He also explained that this cathedral is the tallest in France and had pioneered new building techniques with its flying buttresses and other innovations to achieve this height.

As he started to develop his extremely interesting explanation of the church architecture he stopped in mid-sentence and watched a woman walk close by, very loudly clacking her high heels on the ancient stone flagstones. He watched, silently, and likened it to something like “.. a horse going by”!

The labyrinth at Chartres cathedral, mostly covered by chairs especially at this time of year.

There is a quite famous (mentioned in Dan Brown’s book ‘The Da Vinci Code’) labyrinth in the nave of the Chartres cathedral and when our Melbournian tourist asked him for how long it had been covered by the chairs, his answer was “since they made chairs”. He appeared to be very uninterested in it although he said he had recently been asked to research its origins. It is 12th century he confirmed and he’d found some references to how priests would use it for certain rituals which involved tossing yellow balls. Well, his explanation was serious and interesting and it’s only early days. Although he was very dismissive of the people who come to ‘walk’ the labyrinth, and to confirm his views, once again he stopped mid-sentence at a point when some tourist stood in the middle of the small exposed part of the labyrinth spinning around. He said nothing, his expression was enough to convey his thoughts.

We’re planning a return trip as we have so much more to see.. and we feel sure Malcolm will still be leading his tours then, hopefully.

More on the amazing Chartres here.

Reims

We couldn’t imagine a cathedral as special as Chartres .. but, then came Reims!

Cathedral Notre Dame Reims

Again our journey was a breeze (so to speak) as we headed in the opposite direction to Chartres. It is a short 150 kilometres northeast of Paris with the very fast train (TGV), quicker than the journey to Chartres, taking only 45 minutes.

Reims seems to be best known internationally as the heart of the Champagne region (along with Epernay) although it has also been the site of French coronations since 1226 when King Louis IX was crowned there. There have been 25 kings crowned there since then, the last being Charles X in 1824.

Perfect access to the Reims cathedral, despite it being a 13th century building!

A lasting memory of this beautiful place of worship was its icy coldness! Perhaps not helped by having to inspire ourselves and make do with our own interpretation of the stained glass windows (no Malcolm here), the most vivid being the great rose window, and the extraordinary number of statues.

Reims suffered massive damage during WWI when around 80% of houses were destroyed. The city was then mostly reconstructed, like so many of the lovely towns we saw in Belgium. It’s a great city and one we plan to return to in late summer on board Endellion, so of course we also visited the port to ‘reccie’ mooring and accessibility .. all looked good.

Thumbs up for the Port at Reims, we could fit here nicely and good access.

On our next visit we hope to find a tour guide for the cathedral .. although our interest will also lean to Champagne tasting!

 

 

In between our short trips out of Paris we’ve been researching an engine upgrade. Our 70hp relatively new Yanma isn’t up to the task of pushing our 37 tonnes and the recommendation is to increase horse power. Easy one would think, you just have to get the right horse power, pay for it and install it! Well not with our boat .. we have very limited space in the engine hold and there’s no room to expand it, so the replacement has to be much the same size as the existing engine. Luckily, after extremely tedious and hugely time-consuming research, Stewart has found a slightly more powerful engine (effectively the same engine) at 83 hp but it has a turbo charger so should give us around a 20% increase in performance. This is a big job. Meanwhile we’ve been stripping back the engine hold space which, like the roof, was never painted properly so has been growing rust. The good news is we are about to have a series of friends and family visit us, so we will happily have an excuse to enjoy Paris and will have warm and very welcome company to give us a break.  

It’s turned cold and it will be colder in the next few days (some days below zero) .. we hope our fellow northern-hemisphere residents are keeping warm .. and the southern-hemispherers are dry and cool!

All the best for now..

Lesley and Stewart

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About Lesley and Stewart

Loving great waterways of the world.
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