Paris has a reputation of having great food and wine. And what better way to sample both than on a local walking food tour?
When Craig and I were in Kolkata, India, we went on a fabulous street food walking tour, which we found through Airbnb Experiences. I wrote about my impressions of the tour in my article Kolkata: The Road less Traveled, published on 24 May 2019.
So it wasn’t surprising that we decided to find a similar food tour in Paris. And there are lots, believe me!
We finally decided on a food tour of Belleville, run by Paris a Dream. And it was a great decision!
Belleville was originally a small town on the outskirts of Paris – a little like Montmartre in ambiance. Both were integrated into Paris proper as the city expanded. The host of the tour, Isabelle, told us a little of the history of Belleville as we sipped coffee at our first stop…. Along with a delicious pastry.
From there we moved onto what I would have thought was the high point of the tour – getting to see how baguette and croissants are made at a local boulangerie. Isabelle told us about the different grades of flour used in France, and we watched in awe as one of the bakers worked with the dough that would eventually become tomorrow’s croissants. Yes, making croissants really should take two days. No wonder they taste so good in France…. Well, and because of the oodles of butter in the dough.
We also got to taste a baguette that had just come out of the boulangerie’s ovens. And I can honestly say I’ve never tasted a better baguette – direct from the oven is definitely the way to do it, if you have the chance!
Our next stop was a local delicatessen, where we sampled various handmade dips and spreads. And had a chance to shop, as well. At one point I was a little worried that we might have to pay for the whole bottle of preserved garlic since Craig was clearly enjoying sampling it so often. But no, it was all part of the tour.
After walking off our initial tastings, which were surprisingly filling, by wandering through the streets of this fascinating and little-known historic suburb, we arrived at what I took to be our final stop – a wine and cheesery.
Well, actually, it was a wine-shop that offered wine and cheese tastings, which is what our group had. We continued to chat and share travel stories as we sampled 5 delicious French cheeses along with a glass of crisp white wine. Those of you who know me will be amazed to hear that I even tasted a blue cheese… and enjoyed it, much to my own amazement!
By now I’d have been quite satisfied to sit back and relax after a morning of wonderful tastings of food and drink. But it seemed we still had more to learn about the area, as well as a final local delicacy to try – a vegetable and apple digestive juice that rounded out the morning perfectly. Both Craig and I thought we could taste either paprika or chilli in the juice, but we could be wrong. Though we doubt it.
From there we took a slow walk back to our starting point at the local Metro station, said our final goodbyes to the American ladies who had joined us on the tour, and to our charming and vivacious host, Isabelle, and returned to our apartment, ready for our next fun Paris adventure.
But you’ll have to wait till next time to hear about that.
I really don’t understand humans sometimes. Like when mom and I go to a shop or a bank and we see lots and lots of people standing behind one another. Mom calls this queueing.
Dogs don’t queue. Nor do most other animals, though I’ve seen young ducks following their mothers in something a bit like a queue. But at least they’re moving. Unlike humans in shops – they simply stand there doing nothing for what seems like a long time before moving forward a single step and then doing nothing again.
For me, it seems far more reasonable to simply take mom to the front of the line of people. I mean, doesn’t that make sense to you? But mom always laughs, pats me and says we have to wait our turn.
Like I’ve said, it doesn’t make sense to me. But I do it because mom asks me to and I love my mom lots. Besides, as a well-trained guide dog I’m meant to do what she says, even if I don’t understand why.
Sometimes the shops are clever and don’t make me and mom stand in a queue – they send someone to assist mom and we wait by the counter until they help us. Now, that makes more sense to me.
Yet, even at our local shop, where they do this, I often see other people standing in those peculiar lines. But at least mom and I don’t have to do it.
I’ve long become accustomed to the reality that I won’t always understand the way humans behave. They’re not dogs, after all. And that’s okay, because I also don’t understand the way cats, birds or children behave. But it would be nice if someone could explain things to me every now and then.
It may sound macabre to willingly take time to wander through a subterranean mausoleum containing the bones of more than 6 million people. In some ways I guess it was. But that was what Craig and I did when we toured the Catacombs of Paris, France.
Here’s a brief historical note to give you a little context: Paris started as a Roman town – Lutetia for those who, like me, was an avid reader of the Asterix books written by Goscinny and Underzo. In time, as Paris continued to grow, the existing cemeteries became overcrowded. During the 1780’s it was decided to use part of the abandoned network of limestone mines beneath Paris to store the remains.
At first, the bones were simply dropped down a mineshaft and left. Until 1810, when the Minister of Mine Inspections, Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury began to organise the bones and create a more respectful resting place for the centuries of Paris’s dead. As an aside, the ossuary takes up only a small fraction of the network of mines under Paris.
Admittedly, I wasn’t really interested in the ossuary itself. I certainly had no wish to explore the collections of bones using the sense of touch which is how I’d have to have done it due to my blindness – if I’d been allowed to, which I most definitely wasn’t! Rather, what interested me was the history behind the creation of the limestone mines, and the process through which these old abandoned mines had been renovated and became the ossuary that is now a popular tourist site in Paris.
As the story unfolded on the audio guide that was provided as part of the tour, I was enthralled to learn of different events that had taken place in the ossuary and nearby network of mine tunnels. Once the ossuary was open to the public from 1874, it became a popular party and concert venue. The mines were used by the French Resistance during WWII to smuggle information and people, and as a meeting place. In turn, the Nazi’s located a subterranean bunker in the mines. They’ve been used for several movies across the years and Airbnb invited people to spend a night in the mines as part of a marketing campaign. But my favourite has to be the discovery of an illicit movie theatre, complete with large screen, seating, sound rig, a fully stocked bar and restaurant, that was discovered by police in 2004 – they even discovered film reels of recent movies and noir film classics!
It was that history that kept me enthralled during the 90-minute tour of the ossuary.
So, if you still think Craig and I were weird to spend 90 minutes in a subterranean mausoleum for 6 million people, just remember that the Catacombs were visited by 480 000 people during 2018 alone… which means we are by no means the only weird people in the world!
The photo shows me navigating my way through the Catacombs using my white cane.
I wasn’t certain what to expect as I entered the door of the Conciergerie in Paris, France – the grandeur of a medieval royal palace, or the grime of a revolutionary prison. And, of course, the truth is that I found both and neither of these.
The Conciergerie was originally built as a medieval royal residence You can find elements of the original building in the vast hall used by the men-at-arms and the kitchens that still exist and can be explored by visitors. Obviously, they look very different now. Yet I found myself imagining the walls of the great hall covered with colourful tapestry wall hangings, the floor strewn with rushes, and men at arms sitting at tables or clustered near the five vast fireplaces in the room. Yet, of course, none of this remains now.
The Conciergerie took on a judicial role in the 14th Century and was partially converted into a prison. Later, during the French Revolution, which began in 1789, it was used as a revolutionary prison and court of justice. Marie Antoinette, the wife of King Louis XVI, was amongst those who were held here, and it was from here that she took her final journey to the Place de la Revolution, where Madame Guillotine stood.
Having read a few books describing the fate of Marie Antoinette, I could easily imagine her prison being small, dark, dank and miserable. But, of course, this isn’t what you see of the building now. Certainly, the corridors feel narrow and the guard room, with keys hanging from hooks on the wall (seen in the photograph) are a reminder of the use to which this part of the Conciergerie was put. But few signs of my imagined horrors of a revolutionary prison are in evidence.
The walls of one room are covered with plaques listing the names of the thousands of people who died during the French Revolution, including the deposed King and Marie Antoinette. Also listed are several leaders of the Reign of Terror, the first phase of the French Revolution, who fell from favour and were themselves guillotined, including Robespierre who died in 1794.
I’ve often been told that I have an overactive imagination. And perhaps that may be true. Yet it is that ability to create a mental image of a time and place in history that helps me to enjoy visiting historic tourist sites despite my blindness by enriching the way I experience the places I visit.
And so it was that I left the Conciergerie and returned to modern Paris, shaking off the remnants of the ghosts of former times and returning to the here and now.
We didn’t get to go to the Palace of Versailles, the opulent chateau built by Louis XIV, on our last trip to Paris. I was determined not to miss it a second time.
It would be something of a nostalgic trip for me. I went there on a family trip when I was 14 years old and have clear memories of touring the Chateau with my mom in a wheelchair. Somewhere there is a photograph of us in the Hall of Mirrors in the palace. It would turn out to be my mom’s final overseas trip before her Multiple Sclerosis made it too hard for her to travel.
How bitterly disappointed I was when we retraced the footsteps of my younger self. There were so many sightseers that it was impossible to experience the grandeur of the palace. It was more like trying to make my way through a vast crowd at a rock concert – I was jostled from all sides and it was impossible for me to gain a sense of the rooms because I was powerless to stem the unstoppable horde of tourists pushing from the preceding rooms. That certainly wasn’t how I’d remembered it from my previous visit.
The photo was taken in the Hall of Mirrors, at a moment when the crowd around us thinned out a little – and I’m not kidding. I wish I could find the photo from my previous trip to illustrate the difference of my two visits, but sadly it’s long gone.
After about 45 minutes, we managed to escape the crowded palace and fled outside into the chateau gardens.
I will say that the gardens were beautiful. And I’m not just saying that because so few people bothered to explore them once exiting the chateau. We spent a very pleasant hour wandering around the glades and arbors of the gardens past beautifully sculptured trees and classical statues, listening to the sound of bird song… and the inevitable squeals of young children playing happily on the grass.
Maybe my expectations of the palace were coloured by the nostalgic memories of my previous visit. And maybe the mists of time have left me with a kinder impression of what it was like when I was there before. Maybe the chateau wasn’t as quiet and as grand as I remembered. But I found myself climbing onto the train back to Paris with a heavy heart and a feeling of intense disappointment.
Oh well, at least the gardens were beautiful so it wasn’t a completely wasted trip.
Having decided to travel to Paris and Normandy, we then settled down to research what we wanted to do in each destination. As you can imagine, we landed up with an impressive list of things to do and places to see.
Here’s a few of the items on our list for Paris:
• Visit the Chateau at Versailles,
• A boat ride on the River Seine
• Visit the Paris Catacombs
• Return to the Louvre
• Visit Les Invalides
• Explore the left bank of the Seine
• Visit the Conciergerie
• Get a night photo of the Eiffel Tower
• Visit Sainte- Chapelle
• Go on a street food tour of Belleville, a suburb of Paris
• Visit the Arc de Triumph
• Go on a Paris city walking tour
Over the next few weeks I’ll share a few of the highlights of our time in Paris and some of the places we got to visit. Then I’m going to move on to our time in Normandy.
Where will we be off to first?
You’ll have to wait till next week to find out!
Craig and I have a tradition. When we travel to a new country, we buy a small flag of whatever country we’ve been to. These flags are displayed in our indoor braai room –barbeque, for those who aren’t South African. So far, we’ve collected around 20 flags.
This begs the question of why our recent trip was to France, since we’ve already been there and have a flag.
The decision came out of a marathon that Craig wanted to do. It was a marathon through the winelands of Bordeaux, with an amazing array of food and wine at the various water tables. If I’m honest, it sounded almost good enough for me to consider taking up running as well. Almost, but not quite! Anyway, Craig didn’t manage to get an entry for that race, but by then we’d already started chatting about what else we could do when we were in France.
Another factor that played a role in the decision was that both Craig and I are fascinated by history. Granted, my interests focus more on ancient history while Craig tends to enjoy both ancient and modern history. As such, it seemed like Normandy would satisfy both of us – the ancient history being that of William the Conqueror, who became king of England in 1066, and the more recent history of the Allied landings in Normandy towards the end of WWII.
Okay, we also wanted a slightly smaller French flag than the one we had, since our collection – shown in the photographs – is becoming quite full. But that was only a secondary consideration.
And so it was that we spent time in France – a week in Paris and 10 days in Normandy. Over the next few weeks I’ll share a few highlights… and lowlights… of our wonderful trip with you.
Hopefully, we’ll be able to add another new flag to our collection next time we travel. But that remains to be seen – we haven’t started planning our next trip yet.
PS: How many of the flags can you identify? Sorry, no prizes for correct answers.
A Few days ago mom and I were wandering through Facebook and found this image from five years ago, when me and my brothers and sisters started puppy walking. The photo was originally posted by the SA Guide-Dog Association and was shared by my sister Faith’s mom.
From left to right, my litter siblings are Friday (black), Flanagan (black), Faron (black). Next is me (yellow, of course), and my sister Faith (yellow). On the extreme right is Finley (black).
I’m very proud of my sisters Faith and Finley, both of whom are moms of more guide dog puppies. I’m not sure why my brother Fenton and my sister Fia aren’t in the picture but know Fenton and Faith hang out together at puppy class, where they go to teach the puppies all about being a good guide dog.
So much has happened since that photo was taken – I spent a year in Johannesburg being puppy walked, moved to Cape Town and had lots of adventures during training before finally meeting my forever mom and teaching her all about being more independent.
As I stared at the picture of those happy, wide-eyed youngsters of a mere 8 weeks old, I wondered what advice I’d give to my younger self. And realized I’d simply tell her that everything was going to turn out wonderfully and not to worry about anything, to have fun and just welcome all that life was going to offer her.
Oh, and that noisy trucks and busses aren’t actually all that scary – provided you watch them carefully to make sure they behave like they ought to!
Mom asked me to tell you she’ll start posting about her recent trip to France soon.
With wags from a slightly older guide dog Fiji than the one in the photo.
We continue the series about tools that make a blind employee productive in the workplace – this time looking at apps that use artificial intelligence (AI) to convert text and images into an audio format.
There are many such apps on the market, ranging in price from free to approximately R1500. The apps usually take a photograph of the text or image to be recognized and transmit it to the cloud for conversion. The process is usually fast and fairly accurate, though this may depend from product to product. The apps I usually use are Seeing AI, developed by Microsoft and available on the Apple app store at no cost, and Voice OCR Document Reader, developed by Shalin Shah, which costs around R80 at the time of writing.
I’ve also recently been looking at an app called Voice Dream Scanner, which I like since it does the conversion on the phone itself and so doesn’t need an internet connection – an asset considering the issue of confidentiality of information. It retails for around R100 on the app store and I’ve heard great reports on how well it works.
Of course, the far more important question is how apps like these could be used in the workplace.
The answer is pretty much anywhere where an employee who is blind wants or needs to access print material or even get help reading a computer screen, if for some reason the screen reader has stopped working.
Though more and more offices are becoming paperless nowadays, apps like these can still mean an employee who is blind would be able to access print documents like meting minutes and agendas, industry magazines and books, printed reports and some handwritten notes. though I fear we’re still a long way from an app that would be able to decipher my illegible scrawl!
I’m going to be stepping away from this series on tools that make a blind employee productive in the workplace for a few weeks while I share some information on one of my other passions – travel, with a special focus on travel for persons with disabilities.
But I’m far from done on this topic – there are still a lot more tools I’d like to share with you to help raise awareness of the reality that blindness shouldn’t be a barrier to employment with all the tools that are available to us.
I’m going to let you into a secret – right now I’m sitting in a small town in the middle of Normandy in France. Yes, I’m actually taking a break from what has turned out to be a wonderfully busy and exciting year.
I’ve been in France for more than a week already and have lots of stories and experiences to share with you when I get back home to Cape Town. At least Fiji’s still keeping the home fires burning, or there wouldn’t have been a blog post last week!
Anyway, I hope you don’t mind if I keep this post short. I still have lots of things to do and places to see and don’t want to wait a moment longer to get out and see what else Bayeux has to offer.