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Back on my bike

Last weekend I had a couple of errands to run that took me to Highgate. I went on my bike, mainly because I hadn’t cycled for a while and felt that I should get into some sort of exercise routine. I own a hybrid bike – the type that combines elements from road bikes and mountain bikes and is designed for commuting; I originally brought it with this in mind but the combination of an accident back in January and a subsequent reluctance to cycle in bad weather meant that I have been using public transport to get to work more often than not in recent months.

I ended up at Parliament Hill Fields, which meant that I had two options for getting back to East Finchley. Both involved cycling up a very steep hill to get to Highgate Village. I chose Swains Lane, a street which goes up to the entrance to Highgate Cemetery before climbing steeply to get to the village itself. It seemed a bit daunting but I reckoned I could do it. How hard, I thought to myself, could it be?

In a word: Very.

The first part – getting up to the cemetery entrance – was harder than I thought, and it wasn’t long before I had the bike in the lowest possible gear. I was gasping for breath as I reached the cemetery gates, where the road levels out for a few yards before the really hard part starts. This is where the road narrows and climbs steeply up to the village. It was a hot morning, but luckily there was some shade from the overhanging trees.

There is an expression that cycling commentators on the TV use to describe what happens when a cyclist has done all he can and has nothing left to give – “he’s got nothing left in the tank”. Well I truly had nothing left in the tank on that second part of the climb. I don’t know how I did it but made it to the top without stopping, although by the end I was reduced to a crawl, my pulse was racing and the muscles in my legs were burning. At the top, I had to stop and get my breath back – it took at least twenty minutes for my breathing to get somewhere close to normal.

When I got home, I Googled Swains Lane out of curiosity and found that it is listed on cycling websites as one of the great road climbs of London. The graph showing the height gain makes it look particularly fearsome, especially the part after the cemetery where the gradient reaches 18%. Apparently, climbing Swains Lane 24 times is equivalent to one ascent of the infamous Mount Ventoux, and there are people – probably those guys who can be seen on proper racing bikes and decked out in brightly-coloured lycra every Sunday morning – who regard six goes at it as an adequate work-out! Once was enough for me.

Cycling has been on my mind a lot these past weeks, as like many others I followed the Tour de France. I usually enjoy watching the nightly highlights of this most gruelling of sporting events from the comfort of an armchair, although I’ll happily admit that there are certain things about it that I just don’t get, most notably some of the team tactics and the fact that there would appear to be a tradition of not challenging the leader on the last day. This year I was thrilled by Bradley Wiggins’s fantastic victory; I am sure I am not alone in stating that I never thought I would see a Briton win Le Tour. What a performance!

I must admit to being surprised to learn that the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish were planning to take part in the men’s road race at the Olympics, which was due to take place less than a week after they’d completed Le Tour. Surely Cav, who had once again triumphed in the Paris stage of Le Tour, couldn’t pull off a win in this as well?

Even without the prospect of a Team GB medal hope, I was very keen to go and see part of the men’s road race as I hadn’t managed to get tickets for any of the Olympic events that I’d applied for, and the cycling road races were billed as events where anyone could come and line the route and cheer on the cyclists. Some online research showed that it was due to cross the Thames at Putney Bridge, so that was where I found myself at 9AM yesterday morning.

Crowds were already gathering, many of them with large flags (not just Union Jacks by any means) and quite a few people appeared to have cycled down. The atmosphere built up as the start time approached – the word was that they cyclists would reach Putney Bridge around ten minutes after starting on the Mall. The route had been fenced off, although that didn’t stop one guy from cycling along it, no hands on the handlebars and taking pictures of the crowd with his phone. He certainly didn’t look like an official Olympics person, and everyone seemed to find this hilarious.

As the big moment approached, police bikes started to appear on the route, with some of the riders obviously having the time of their lives, waving at and even trying to high-five the crowd. Helicopters hovered overhead and support vehicles also passed by, and then a roar of the crowd on the route prior to the bridge told us that the main event was about to arrive.

The peloton passed in a matter of seconds, and for those seconds the atmosphere was electric. Here was one of the few parts of the Olympics where anyone could turn up on the day and line the route to watch the race, and according to the BBC over a million people took that opportunity. Even though things did not work out for Mark Cavendish, it was still a fantastic experience for those of us who went to watch a little piece of sporting history.

And me? Well I was inspired this morning to get back on my bike and go for a ride in the City, coming home via the challenging Swains Lane.  I’m sure Wiggo and Cav would approve!


A new way of looking at London

One thing that never ceases to amaze me about London is how the place never stands still – there is always something new being developed or introduced. The place that I am proud to call home has a lot of history but it is always moving forward. The transport network is no exception, and with a few days off work following my return from Paris I ventured down to the Docklands to check out the latest means of getting around in London.

I remember being taken to the Docklands when I was a child, the principal attraction being the (then) new Docklands Light Railway. Back then, I loved the fact as the DLR is fully automated I could sit right at the front, and to be honest I still try to make sure I get the front seat even now on the rare occasions when I get to use it.

This time, the DLR was the means by which I travelled to the cable car service over the River. That’s right, London now has a fully-functioning cable car over the Thames! It links the Royal Victoria Docks with the Greenwich Peninsula – or, in this Olympic year, it allows for easy access between the ExCel Centre (the venue for the martial arts and weightlifting events) and the O₂ (artistic gymnastics and basketball). The idea is that it will be used by commuters as well as tourists once the Games have finished; in this context it’s worth noting that both stations are well-served by the existing transport network.

To my delight, I found that as I have a pay-as-you-go Oyster card I didn’t have to actually buy a separate ticket; all I needed to do was swipe my card at the barrier like I do when entering a Tube station. Oyster card holders get a discounted fare (£3.20 instead of £4.30 for adults going one way), a great idea if you ask me.

And so to the flight itself! Each flight – and yes, as with the London Eye, a journey on the cable car is officially referred to as a flight – lasts for around ten minutes and takes you 300 feet above the River, allowing views of (among other landmarks) the Dome, Canary Wharf, the Olympic Park, the Thames Barrier and the Royal Observatory.

I found the whole thing highly enjoyable – here was the opportunity to get a real bird’s-eye view of some great London landmarks, as well as the boats on the River! I thought it was a lot of fun, and well worth visiting. I walked away with a smile, glad to have seen London from a new perspective. It is definitely worth doing.

On the Greenwich side, I had a quick look around the Dome – not somewhere I have previously had cause to visit – and was impressed by the transport options available for me to continue my journey. As well as the Tube and the buses, there’s the option of taking the Thames Clipper into Central London should one so wish. I got the Tube to Stratford, not to check out the Olympic Park (that’s an adventure for another time) but because I could get an Overground train from there to North London while bypassing the City.

What I hadn’t bargained for was the identity of one of my fellow-passengers, something I was only alerted to when someone shouted out: “Hey Boris, have you got any spare tickets for the Games?”, followed by someone else approaching the well-spoken, suited-up man with the scruffy blond hair to ask if she could take his picture. Yes, the Mayor of London was travelling between his various engagements and appointments by public transport. With no security presence, Boris (note to non-Londoners – our Mayor is universally known by his first name alone) was perfectly happy to chat to people about whatever people wanted to talk to him about, and he was OK with posing for photographs as well.

I told him that Allison thinks he needs to get a haircut. He laughed; apparently, he gets told that a lot.


Going off the beaten track

One of the great things about this Paris holiday is how Allison and I have tried to stay away from the more touristy areas. Not all the time admittedly – we’ve queued with half of Paris to see Monet’s Water Lilies at the Musée de l’Orangerie, got overcharged for water in a café in the Tuileries and got trampled by camera-wielding tourists in Montmartre.

To counter this, we have been renting an apartment in the non-touristy 12th arrondissement where we are self-catering with food purchased in the local markets. We have gone out of our way to speak en francais wherever possible, although in one bar I was told by the (American) barmaid that I could use English if I wanted to.

A people-watching game that we’ve enjoyed playing on this trip has been ‘Parisian or tourist’, where we try to guess whether a random passer-by is a local or here on holiday. In some cafés, the couple at the next table have made it too easy for us by ordering their drinks in very loud English. Sometimes they even have a bratty child in tow. We have learned that in cafés like this you have to specify l’eau du robinet (tap water) in order to avoid being overcharged – lesson learned!

This afternoon, we decided to leave those sorts of places behind and spend our last full day in Paris walking along the Canal St-Martin. It’s one of the more trendy parts of Paris these days, but it’s largely escaped the attention of the tourist industry. In fact, it’s not a part of town either of us had really heard of – we were tipped off by an article in the Toronto Star which highlighted it as a part of Paris that is very much off the beaten track.

To get there, we took the Metro to the Place de la Bataille de Stalingrad, located just north of the Gares du Nord and de l’Est. Our first impression, after we’d managed to find our way out of the maze that is Stalingrad station, was that we’d stumbled on a rough part of town. The walls were covered in graffiti, and there were groups of suspicious-looking young men hanging around along the towpath. The shirtless men doing chin-ups on a climbing-frame were unnerving, to say nothing of the homeless guys with their pit-bulls. Not an area in which you’d want to flaunt your digital SLR.

At one time in the not-so distant past, the whole area was infamous for drug-dealing and the violence that came with it. Just six years ago, loads of illegal immigrants from Afghanistan camped out here. But this part of Paris is undergoing a period of change and is currently experiencing a renaissance. Cheap rents brought in the students, the artists and the hipsters, and as a result the area has become fashionable while retaining a lot of its old character.

The canal itself, built in the 1820s to link the Seine with a canal network to the north of Paris, is very picturesque with its tree-lined locks and a series of wrought-iron footbridges. For part of the way, the water level is actually higher than the streets next to it. We’d definitely picked the right day to do this, as it wasn’t too hot and the rain which we thought was coming in the afternoon failed to materialise.

Gradually, we left the gangs and the homeless guys behind and strolled past men reading the papers on benches and small play-areas where mothers took their young children. Students sat chatting by the water’s edge, and customers from a couple of bars spilled out onto the towpath. Parisians sped by on grey Velib’ bikes, which are everywhere in this city and have revolutionised how people get around (these have been copied by London with the ‘Boris bikes’).
Our walk along the canal ended near the Place de la République where the canal goes underground to continue its journey to the Seine. Close to the end, we chanced upon a cool-looking bar called Chez Prune, where the waiter wasn’t wearing a white shirt and black waistcoat, didn’t address us in English and sang along to the old song that was playing on the stereo as he got our order from the bar. What a welcome change!

It’s a world away from the tourist-trap cafés in St-Germain where people go because the likes of Pablo Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre used to hang out there. To be honest, if Sartre were around today, I reckon Chez Prune is the sort of place where he’d be doing his thinking.

Around us, there were no loud English-speakers – everyone was speaking French. This, it seems, is where the locals go for un café or un verre de vin rouge. Any game of ‘Parisian or tourist’, would not have lasted for very long – in fact, there were only two tourists in the place, who were working hard not to blow their cover! 


I see dead people...

Our exploration of Paris took a turn for the macabre today as we ventured into the 14th arrondissement, south of the Latin Quarter. Twenty metres below street level is a series of underground corridors, well over a mile in length, in which vast amounts of bones and skulls are neatly packed along each and every wall. This subterranean world is Les Catacombes, the result of a plan to empty Paris’s medieval cemeteries and store the dead, or what was left of them, in a series of disused quarries south of the city centre.

The brains behind this idea, interestingly enough, was Louis XVI – the king whose actions led to the Revolution and thus to his being guillotined in 1793. In 1780, he’d decreed that the Cimitière des Invalides (Cemetery of the Innocents, the last resting-place of Parisians since the middle ages and located in what is now the Les Halles district) be closed down on the not unreasonable grounds that it was overflowing with the dead and had as such become a public health risk. Five years later, Louis decided that all of the bones in said cemetery be moved underground – specifically, to the ancient quarries below Paris that by the 1780s had also become a serious problem as they were starting to cave in. In effect, Louis was solving two problems at the same time – an exception as far as this most indecisive of monarchs was concerned.

The plan quickly expanded to take in over 150 cemeteries in the Paris area, and the transferring of the remains of generations of Parisians continued until the mid-nineteenth century. At first, the bones were just dumped in the old quarries, but over time the people in charge of this project – which continued throughout the upheavals of the Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and beyond – started to get creative. Héricart de Thury, who was appointed Inspector-General of Ossuaries in 1810, eventually turned the Catacombes into a proper monument to those for whom it had become a final resting-place. As a result they became a popular place to visit.

Today, it’s still very popular, if the two-hour queue that we encountered was anything to go by. As is usual in such situations, we hoped that some of the people in front of us would get bored and decide to go elsewhere, and we eventually got chatting to the Americans directly in front of us.

When we got to the front, we paid our €8 and descended via a spiral staircase that looked like it had been taken from a Metro station fire exit into the subterranean world – and, after walking through several passages we came to the entrance of what was proclaimed as “l’Empire de la Mort”. Another sign advised us not to touch the bones or smoke. One can readily understand why – back in the day, this place would’ve been lit by gas rather than electricity.

Inside, we encountered rows upon rows of bones, piled up and neatly arranged. Some areas had signs indicating which cemeteries the bones had come from, and when they’d been transferred to the Catacombes. Others were fronted by quotes from various ancient poets, a couple of whose names I recognised.

It’s an eerie place down there, as you walk past hundreds of skulls neatly packed into the walls that seem to be staring right at you. Who were all these people, I wondered? What stories could they have told, and what would they have thought about becoming a tourist attraction centuries after they’d died? Is this the sort of place where we’re all going to end up at some unknown point in the future?

As one sign proclaimed: “Ou est elle la Mort? Toujours future ou passée Apeine est-elle presente, que déjà elle n’est plus

An ossuary, it seems, is a good place for contemplating one’s own mortality. Right in the middle, there’s an altar. Here, masses are occasionally held for the dead, many of whom are no doubt the ancestors of today’s Parisians. Down there, the history of the city is quite literally staring you in the face.
Not that showing marks of respect were the order of the day for all of the tourists. OK, so they’d queued for a couple of hours to get down there, but blatantly disobeying the rules about not using flash photography and doing silly poses in front of the piles of bones struck me as a little disrespectful.

That’s nothing compared to the locals who like to go down there at night for illegal raves and all sorts of other cheap thrills; if caught, these catophiles risk fines of €60. On the plus side, though, the Catacombes have served France well in the past as the tunnels were used as a headquarters by the Resistance during the Second World War. Just around the corner from where we’re staying is a memorial on a wall to one of the Maquis, Jean Tailleu, who was executed by the SS in 1944. I wonder if he spent some time hiding from the Germans below the streets?

Back in the present, I tried to rationalise things and wondered out loud why there were only skulls and bones from limbs. Where were the ribcages and the finger-bones? Maybe they don’t last as long. I tried to take some decent non-flash photographs down there, but it’s trickier than you’d think. Even using the night-time settings can only do so much in a place where it’s always darker than the night.

In the end, we decided that this is one of those places that you only need to visit the once. Like the Eiffel Tower.

After I’d climbed the stairs to get back to the world of the living, an attendant asked in English if he could check my rucksack. There are obviously some people for whom taking photos just isn’t enough.


Where the swifts take us

The sound that I am mostly associating with Paris at the moment is that of the swifts that seem to be constantly flying overhead. They are there when I wake up in the morning, and they’re there now in the evening as I’m typing this.

Allison and I are in Paris for a week, not just self-catering but hiring out an apartment in the 12th arondissement from a Parisian student. If you’ve ever seen a movie set in Paris you can imagine what it’s like – up on the top floor of a pre-war block, accessible only by a set of very squeaky wooden stairs with a tiny kitchen, no air-conditioning and a long corridor connecting the bedroom from the lounge. With the windows open all the time, we get to hear all the sounds of the city. If the best way to experience Paris is to live like a Parisian, then we’re on the right track!

Located at the eastern end of the city, the 12th is one of those places that is described as undergoing gentrification. Among other things, it’s home to the Marché d’Aligre, a market widely regarded in the blogosphere as being the sort of place which is frequented by locals and to which tourists hardly ever venture. Naturally, we had to pay a visit.

The market itself is in three parts – a flea-market, an open-air fruit and veg market and the covered market which is home to the butchers and fishmongers. We took many pictures and used Allison’s French skills to purchase some lovely-looking items for dinner. This done, we did what any self-respecting Parisian would do after buying food from the market. We went for a drink.

But not just any drink! Just behind the Marché d’Aligre is Le Baron Rouge, a wine-bar that the Lonely Planet’s Paris City Guide describes as “just about the ultimate Parisian wine bar experience”. Well, with a recommendation like that it would be rude not to visit.

It’s unpretentious to say the least, and what surprised me the most when we walked in was that they had barrels – real, big wine barrels – against the wall. We soon learned that those in the know just bring along their empty bottles and five-litre plastic jugs, and get them filled up with a variety of French wines. Now, if only someone would offer to carry said wine up six flights of stairs for us…

We made our way to the bar at the back and perused a most extensive wine list which, like in all good Parisian establishments, was written on a blackboard rather than typed up on laminated paper. I had three wines that I had never tried before: a red Sancerre, a Pinot Noir d’Alsace and a Côte du Jura from near the Swiss border – the last one looks so thin it could almost be a rosé. Of those, I most liked the Pinot Noir d’Alsace, which was served cold – unusual for a red, but I figured that our host knew what he was doing when it came to serving each of his wines. Allison opted for white, trying a Muscadet-sur-Lie, a Petit Chablis and a Sancerre. None were more than €3.50 a glass. For what it’s worth, I don’t know why a wine bar in Paris would be named after a German war hero.

In the afternoon, our wanderings in the sun took us down to the Seine, where we followed the swifts across the islands to the Left Bank. We waved at the people on the tour boats and went through the park at the back of Notre Dame in order to avoid the crowds. On the Left Bank, we wandered past the picture-sellers before reaching an English-language bookshop.

Shakespeare and Company is not just a bookshop; it’s the most famous English-language bookshop in Paris and has been selling new and second-hand books to the many Anglophones who’ve found themselves in this fair city for as long as anyone can remember. Bookshops are my favourite kind of shop, so I felt that I just had to visit this one while in Paris.

As well as a selection of new books on French themes and an interesting range of used paperbacks, there is a reference library upstairs where anyone can enjoy reading a book while sinking into a sofa and listening to pretentious exchange students discussing the finer points of literature.

Down in the main shop, I browsed and I must have recalled enjoying some wine in an establishment named after the Red Baron, for I came across a book called War & Wine. Written by American couple Don and Petie Kladstrup, a TV news correspondent and a freelance writer specialising in France respectively, the book is about how French wine producers endeavoured to prevent the Germans from stealing their best wine during the Second World War.  I look forward to indulging in a few chapters tonight over a glass or two of Côtes du Rhône.

I wonder where the swifts will take us tomorrow?