Munster take on Racing Metro at the Stade de France in Paris this afternoon. For travelling fans, October is the perfect time to visit.
YOU can arrive in a city any number of ways — by plane, train or automobile. But the actual feeling of having arrived — in the zingy, energy-boosting, can’t-help-but-grin-inanely sense of the word — is altogether different. It takes a something special to elicit that.
In Paris, that feeling comes the moment we step off the train at Châtelet. Having flown in on the Aer Lingus red-eye for a last-minute, 36-hour visit, L and I have been slow to shake off the early morning stodginess. But then the RER doors open. A surreal whiff of freshly-baked bread takes us by the nostrils. We float up the escalator, into the City of Light.
In that instant, we arrive. Paris washes through our veins. Stepping onto the street, I feel 10kg lighter. It’s autumn, the perfect time to visit. Temperatures are in the mid-teens, a piercing sunlight washes over elegant architecture, and the summer crowds have thinned out.
Paris feels like it’s been here forever, but our first stop is a new addition. This September, a 16-foot bronze statue of Zinedine Zidane was unveiled outside the Pompidou Centre. It’s no ordinary monument.
Rather than depicting France’s most famous footballer in heroic pose, owning the ball, or scoring one of his devastating goals, it depicts Zidane head-butting Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup Final.
It’s head-melting stuff. The bronze is pitch-black, imbuing the moment of madness with added animalism. Zidane’s head bucks forward, like a bull. Materazzi falls backwards, evoking “the Han Solo-trapped-in-carbonite school of sculpture”, as sports writer Michael Foley hilariously describes it. At their feet, a group of schoolchildren poses for a photo.
Is it an ode to defeat? A celebration of violence? A testimony to a flawed hero undone by his final, fatal moment of weakness? L hates it. I’m intrigued. Either way, Algerian sculptor Adel Abdessemed’s controversial work will remain in place until January.
There are more objects of fascination at our next stop, the Musée des Arts et Métiers (60 Rue Réaumur; arts-et-metiers.net; €6.50). A repository of scientific inventions exhibited in the old Priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, it’s stuffed with fusty, bewitching contraptions.
Clicking ‘What’s on Today’ on the museum website, we note a demonstration of Foucault’s Pendulum at 12pm.
A guide shows up wearing a little black jacket and leather boots, pulls on white gloves, grasps the pendulum and sets it swinging back and forth. I can’t understand a word she’s saying, but it’s an enticing moment.
“You are invited to come and see the earth rotating,” Leon Foucault announced in 1851, when Napoleon set the original pendulum swinging in the Pantheon. Today, our glamorous guide repeats the demonstration. Watched closely, the device appears to oscillate clockwise — but it’s not the pendulum that’s rotating, she says. It’s the ground beneath our feet.
After the museum, we stroll north, crossing the Canal St Martin into an increasingly trendy quarter of the tenth arrondisement. We are in search of a very particular place to eat.
Helmut Newcake (36 rue Bichat; facebook.com), the first gluten-free bakery in Paris — and a godsend for L, who is coeliac. It’s a hip little operation, with pasta served in brown pottery bowls, white feathers suspended on threads from the ceiling, and a mouth-watering array of pastries produced from a little kitchen down the back.
I go for a lemon tartlet, topped with delicately-singed swirls of meringue.
“I can’t tell you how great this feels,” L says, tucking into a chocolate éclair. If the cafe hadn’t advertised itself as gluten-free, I wouldn’t have known the difference.
Phew. We’ve come a long way since 4.30am. After a few hours exploring new and unknown nooks and crannies, however, we feel the need for a good old blast of Paris 101, for the big sights and sounds that shout ‘You are here!’ in the most cinematic sense.
Settling the bill, we take a metro south. We walk by the Louvre, taking jokey photos beside its great glass pyramid. We cross the Léopold-Sédar-Sengho Bridge, its railings bedecked in ‘love locks’ couples have secured before tossing their keys into the Seine. We window-shop our way along the boutiques and cafes of Boulevard Saint Germain.
Another, less enchanting Parisian box is ticked at Les Deux Musées (5 rue de Bellechasse), a cafe just around the corner from the Musée d’Orsay. It’s a foul experience, with a grotty cappuccino charged at €5.50 and waiters hovering like crows, warning non-customers off its subterranean toilets. Paris can be romantic, but it can be pretty rotten too.
We go from the ridiculous back to the sublime in the Musée d’Orsay itself (5 Quai Anatole Franc; musee-orsay.fr; €9). The arching ceiling of this former train station covers an unimaginable trove of treasures, honing in on the period from 1848 to 1914. It’s a more manageable art fix than the Louvre.
The trick here is to arrive early (our first attempt, at 4.30pm, meets horrendous queues, so we return on Sunday morning shortly after 9.30am). Making a beeline for the fifth floor, and the Impressionist gallery, one moment of vibrant recognition unfolds after another — Cezanne’s apples, Monet’s cathedrals, Degas’s ballet dancers, Manet’s nudes.
Downstairs, the squiggly brush strokes of Van Gogh’s hayfields, stars and self-portraits look like psychedelic worms, ready to crawl off the canvas and down the Rive Gauche.
There’s much more to the Musée d’Orsay than impressionism of course. My favourite memory is of visitors silhouetted against the huge fifth floor clock, its minute-hand lumbering forward to frame a classic view of the Basilique du Sacré Coeur in Montmartre. And Montmartre is our final stop.
After some earlier cajoling, we’ve secured a reservation at Comptoir de la Gastronomie (34 rue Montmarte; comptoierdelagastronomie.com), an old-school bistro and deli whose red drapes, wooden tables and high-ceilinged shop are complemented by a menu overflowing with foie gras onion soup, duck, Bourgogne snails (“Very big”) and slow-cooked cassoulet. It couldn’t be in any other city.
In the deli, a dowdy old woman counts receipts in a booth, surrounded by great, plaited tentacles of garlic and dusty bottles of wine. In the bistro, I pay €4 for a warm glass of Côtes du Rhône. I spoon velvety haricot beans from the house cassoulet.
The wait staff are super-friendly, a breath of fresh air after those snappy idiots at Les Deux Musées. Our smiles widen, and our cheeks grow ruddy, like Ready Brek kids fending off the evening chill.
It’s another arrival, and we make the most of it, because it’s almost time to depart.
PARIS: WHAT TO SEE
Paris may have ceded some of its culinary momentum to Copenhagen, London and Tokyo of late, but a little research is all it takes to nail down memorable meals. The set menus at Les Papilles (lespapillesparis.fr), and Marchand’s French’s Frenchie (frenchie-restaurant.com), are definitely two options worth investigating.
After big hits like the Louvre, Eifel Tower and Moulin Rouge, take a morning stroll through Père-Lachaise Cemetery (Metro: Philippe Auguste), where you can spot the graves of Jim Morrison (left), Chopin and Oscar Wilde. With Halloween on the horizon, take a tour of the city’s catacombs (catacombs-de-paris.fr; €8).
The eighth arrondissement is the place for couture; the Left Bank is home to Sonia Rykiel and Ralph Lauren’s 13,000 square-foot store on Boulevard Saint Germain... and bargain hunters will fancy the flea markets at Porte de Clignancourt or Porte de Vanves.
PARIS: HOW TO GET THERE
Aer Lingus flies daily from Cork and Dublin to Paris Charles Des Gaulle. For more information on fares and schedules, visit aerlingus.com. The RER B train (€9.25) takes around 30 minutes to the city centre. For more transfer options, see aeroportsdeparis.fr.
Where to stay:
We stayed at Hotel La Manufacture (hotel-la-manufacture.com), southeast of the city centre off Place d’Italie. It was grand for a three-star, with a compact room and a bit of life to the design, but cost us €190 for a Saturday night. Elsewhere, Hotel Mayet (mayet.com) is a chic but cheap option recommended by fellow travel writers. It has doubles from €140.
Munster play Racing Metro 92 at Stade de France this afternoon. To get there, take a metro or RER from Châtelet and Gare de Nord. French fans traditionally fortify themselves with a beer or two at Gare de Nord before matches. See en.paris.info.com for more.
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