On the right track

Kim Station 2Hey you! You with the terrible sunburn over there. Have a good holiday? Great! Me? I’ve still got a week in Sardinia to cope with, as my milky English skin can’t cope with the August rays on the beach (it’s a hard life). This month though I have been holidaying in a fashion, kicking about in Paris trying not to complain too much about the city’s face-melting heatwave, and making the most of the deserted streets (for my guide to a super Paris stay-cation, click here). I’d have been in touch, but I couldn’t risk you spilling your cocktail all over my blog, so for both our sakes, I’ve left it until now. But now, here we are, a wee pick-me-up post to cushion the blow of the rentrée let’s call it.

So, modern holidaying often requires being stuffed into a metal tube and catapulted through the skies to somewhere hot and sunny for a couple of weeks. Well, that’s the case for most of us, but the clever French have refined their holiday game to quite another standard. Most vacationers largely avoid the lo-cost cattle-esque aerial option preferring to head to the south of their own glorious country, where the sun shines bright and the need to master tricky foreign phrases dissolves into the sparkling blue sea. Air travel is possible from north to south, but any savvy traveller here knows that the car and plane are for chumps, and that the train is where it’s really at; one of France’s proudest, chest-puffing achievements.

Kim Station 1Being from the UK, my train-travel norm is paying hundreds of pounds to take the most long-winded and illogical route on an always-late train from one depressing station to another, without even the promise of a seat. Jeremy Corbyn has just made it political, for Christ’s sake. France offers quite the opposite thanks to the lightning fast (ok, not quite) TGV and a well-ordered nationalised rail network, meaning it’s possible to get from Paris to Montpellier (747 km or 464 miles) in a shade under 3 1/2 hours. To travel the same distance on a train in the UK (lost for words as to why you would though) would take at least twice as long and cost at least twice the price. Madness.

Kim Station 3Next time I’m on a TGV, I’m going to head to the bar carriage, order a glass of wine and ‘cheers’ the inside wall in appreciation of this seamless efficiency, that after nearly eight years of living here, is easy to take for granted. But this is a blog about Paris rather than train appreciation, (thank God), so I’ll turn my gaze instead towards the city’s major stations that quietly and skilfully assemble and disperse the nation’s passengers from and to all corners of the country, in a display of relaxed and scenic effortlessness.

Out of Paris’ six major station hubs (including stations at Austerlitz, Montparnasse and Saint-Lazare), it’s the big three gares Nord, Est and Lyon that deserve a visit even if you’re not planning on going anywhere. All 19th century constructions (Lyon was the latest, completed in 1900) pay homage to the cities their tracks serve, with the most ornate being Gare du Nord, featuring sculptures along its top edge dedicated to individual towns or cities, including some of the trains’ European destinations. Long regarded as a less than attractive or inviting part of town (and that’s being extremely kind), it’s sad that most passengers try to flee to the nicer parts of Paris without truly taking in the stunning architecture of Europe’s busiest station.

Kim Station 4The charms of Gare de l’Est and Gare du Lyon are often similarly ignored as visitors and commuters alike pass by their beauty thanks to underground train links, but the latter’s imposing clock tower still strikes me quiet as one of the most stunning structures in Paris. If (somehow) the combination of aesthetics and travel isn’t enough to steam your train, then the larger stations are becoming shopping malls in their own rights (but remember, it’s all about doing, not having!), and you can hardly argue with the pull of that trio in destination terms.

So I might not be able to take the train to Sardinia, but I’m sure my journey will be the poorer for it. After all, isn’t how you get there half the fun?

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Colour me happy

IMG_2624I’m a girl who likes to have a bit of colour in her life (and no, I don’t mean ‘blue’ movies…), though Paris isn’t playing ball at the moment, coating each May day in grey clouds and dull drizzle. Luckily a comprehensive redecorating programme of the Granny Flat is underway, with paint colour tester patches springing up everywhere, but leave her loving arms and venture outside in these times of questionable weather, and everything feels a little bit beige.

If you’re scouring the streets for happier hues, then the metro is usually the last place you’d think to find them, what with all that concrete casing, those grimy white tiles, and the icy cold stares of packed-in commuters. But for another month, that’s exactly where you need to go looking as RATP play host to another artist in their RATP invites… exhibition series, furnishing selected metro and RER stations with photographs from Belgian artist Harry Gruyaert.

BELGIQUE. Boom. 1988. © Harry Gruyaert/Magnum photos

BELGIQUE. Boom. 1988. © Harry Gruyaert/Magnum photos

Now if we’re talking colour, he’s a chap who has devoted his artistic life to the study of it; he was one of the first pioneers of colour photography way back in the 1970s. Whilst us amateur snappers may rely on the black and white setting to give us that professional edge, Harry sees colour photography as more physical and affecting, exploring all of the different shades, tones and intensity that he can find.

BELGIQUE. Anvers. 1992. © Harry Gruyaert/Magnum Photos

BELGIQUE. Anvers. 1992. © Harry Gruyaert/Magnum Photos

Starting his career in Paris taking photos of the fashion industry, Harry was soon drawn towards travel, and the exhibition adorning the walls of the metro platforms in his career’s first port of call show the results of his work in his native Belgium, Morocco and London. Not only do you get the chance to explore the aesthetic journey he has taken, but you literally follow him on his physical journey as his photographs are arranged into four distinct sections and seven metro stops, meaning that you get to travel too if you want to see the entire collection.

BELGIQUE. N1 Malines-Anvers. 1988. © Harry Gruyaert/Magnum Photos

BELGIQUE. N1 Malines-Anvers. 1988. © Harry Gruyaert/Magnum Photos

Part 1, Maroc, (Luxembourg, RER B) is the culmination of 40 years of travel through the rural landscape of Morocco, the artist enchanted by the inexhaustible palette of colours laid out before him. At station Jaurès (line 2) the inspiration comes from just across the channel in a series of photographs called TV Shots, which capture his London experiments disrupting TV sets and zapping through the various colour TV programmes of the era, influenced by the time’s Pop Art movement.

FRANCE. Fort Mahon. 1991. © Harry Gruyaert/Magnum Photos

FRANCE. Fort Mahon. 1991. © Harry Gruyaert/Magnum Photos

Part 3, Made in Belgium, can be found spread over three stations (Hotel de Ville, La Chapelle and Saint Denis Porte de Paris) and has its roots in the country of Harry’s youth. It displays his work there in the late 1970s, where he tried to put his painful past behind him and endeavoured to find the different nuances in a less-than-vibrant landscape. The final part, Rivages (shores), located at Saint-Michel and Bir Hakeim, captures the subtle shades of nature’s colour wheel between the sea and the sky at some of geography’s lesser exotic seashores.

50 Shades of Grey is so last year, colour’s where it’s at. The exhibition sticks around until 15th June. For more info, click here.

A metro-ode to Paris transport history

IMG_2203So I’m a woman and therefore allowed to change my mind as often as I want. Now before you menfolk start rolling your eyes, I’m sure you’ll thank me for this happy affliction. This post was originally intended to be about where to find the most delicious seasonal tucker in the cutest streets of Paris, but that can sit for another day. This is France after all, and if you can’t find decent food around the place then you probably don’t deserve to have taste buds.

IMG_2207Instead I found a hidden gem, completely unrelated to Christmas (which let’s face it, begins to grate like nails down a chalkboard after a while). It came about as I was snaking my way through the city on the metro, forced underground by the chilly drizzle. As the train ambled into my home station, a flash of vintage colour caught my eye – unusual given that the platform is currently under construction and therefore a bloody mess. But underneath the layers of grime twinkled forgotten memories of the past, that practically begged for further investigation.

IMG_2217See, my station Marcadet-Poissonniers actually used to be separated in two, with unconnected stops at Marcadet on line 4 and Poissonniers on line 12 (christened after the above-ground roads which bear their names), that were eventually connected to form the twin station in 1931. As a result, in a bit of a bodge job, the old single-titled platforms had to be renovated and the old signage hastily covered up to make room for the new, swanky double-barrelled name. Forget removing the old and replacing with new, the out-of-date tiles and hoardings were simply boarded up.

IMG_2211Recently though, as renovations have started (and we’re just talking on the platform of line 12 here for the time being), all of that framework has been taken down and the old (albeit crusted with years of dust) glory revealed once again. And not just the old ‘Poissonniers’ tiling either, there are old advertising posters and official information notices that have remained hidden for all these years. There’s even a list of ghost metro stations that didn’t quite stand the test of time.

IMG_2213It’s at this time of year we all have a tendency to scratch back through the year’s calendar and reflect on the past, and it was an awesome vintage treat to see Paris revealing its bygone layers in a similar way. There were old holiday posters, flyers for concerts past, adverts for cars once modern, now classic, and official literature produced by RATP typists of yore, sadly all ripped and half-fallen, but still bathed in the vibrant colours and archaic print of the era.

IMG_2216It’s hard to know exactly when they were pasted for the eyes of commuters gone by, but the tiling certainly dates back from the 30s and the advertising has a distinctive 50s artistic flair. Some of the stations on the closed list met their end as early as 1939, and those that reopened didn’t feel commuter footsteps again until the late 60s.

IMG_2208I’m harbouring a wish that a bit of spit and polish will bring the old decor back to its original splendour, but it’s likely that given the presence of the antiquated station title signage, it’ll be a case of tear it down and start afresh. For the moment, I get to hop off the metro and into a glorious time warp, reminding me that this transport system that is so easy to take for granted has a colourful, event-filled past just like the rest of us. If you happen to be in the ‘hood in the next few weeks yourself, I hope you’ll take this rare trip down metro memory lane too.

The art of the underground

Kimwinnogrand1Last week was a busy one in Granny Flat HQ, so apologies for the delayed post. But there are two very good reasons for this. Last week’s major time-sucker was a stunning two-for-one bonus showing of ‘My First Migraine‘, enjoyed in complete surround sound with a team of hammer-and-drill-wielding builders who went to town renovating the façade of my building as if their lives depended on it. Secondly I’ve been distracted by a new cream-topped yoghurt dessert with a salted caramel butter centre that’s just appeared in my supermarket, akin to liquid gold on a spoon. It’s been a roller coaster week.

Kimwinoogrand4So I’ve been depending on the metro more than usual to save time, rather than tackling the hour long walk from work to home that I like to indulge in to keep me ol’ buns in check. Regular travellers through the bowels of the city know you’ve got a few socially acceptable options available to you whilst you pass the time holed up in your carriage. Read, snooze, listen to thumping tunes and to hell with the other passengers, examine your fingernails… i.e. any activity that promotes avoiding the ultimate public transport sin – making eye contact with your fellow commuters.

Kimwinnogrand2But hurrah! Rather than depending on staring at inane adverts for stuff you don’t want or need as you wait patiently at various stations along your route, RATP (those public transport dudes who like striking) have brought the culture underground and provided us with a magnificent black and white photo exhibition to look at, which started in mid-October and lasts all the way until February 8, 2015.

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The art is on display in the following stations

A retrospective of the American photographer Garry Winogrand (1928-1984) and put together in association with the Jeu de Paume, 16 stations around the city display huge billboards of his famous photographs on their platforms, depicting life on the street of 1960s America (check out the map to see exactly where). It’s the 4th time Paris’ major transport organisation have exhibited throughout their transport network since 2013.

You’ll come across curly-haired, pointy glasses-wearing dames gossiping in the street, a smiling President Kennedy unaware of what the near future would hold, trilby-sporting commuters on their way to a Mad Men style day at work, and a monkey in a Cadillac (probably) cruising down the strip, amongst other vintage delights. It might be a world away from Paris, but it sure beats staring at the used chewing gum on the metro floor.

For more info, direct your mouse here.

No no, no no no no, there’s no limits

Navigo passI was a child of the 80s, so I hope you’ll let me have that title… So, I hope everyone has recovered from the Bastille Day weekend and had a suitable red, white and blue time, wherever in the world you may be. Sadly I have been struck by the illness wand lately, hence the long overdue post. But Granny Flat worked her defensive powers, and now I am as right as rain and ready to get my adventure shoes on once again (well, adventure flip-flops if the sun would stick around).

And my timing couldn’t be more perfect. As mid July engulfs us, those in Paris may have noticed the thinning crowds on the streets (not near the Eiffel Tower of course where they always stick like glue), and the general calming down of things. Indeed, holiday time has arrived, and many of the city’s residents (the ‘early shift’ let’s call them), have packed their bags and headed for warmer climes for their yearly summer break – something Parisians take extremely seriously.

From now until the dying embers of August, Paris empties out as if somebody pulled the plug in a 20 arrondissement-sized bath, and those of us who are left can enjoy the city in relative peace and quiet – as much as a capital city can ever be serene and deserted. Now is the time to explore the parts you’ve always been meaning to, without the threat of being caught up in the usual human treacle hanging over your adventures.

And the best bit is that the city transport authorities furnish your expeditions with your own set of explorer wings via the annual dézonage of the Navigo pass which means that the inner zoners can travel all the way out to the outer zones of the city (that means the suburbs and beyond – don’t get dizzy now) for no extra cost. There are some awesome locations to see as well so far out of the centre that you feel like you’ve left Paris far, far behind, and you have until the end of the dézonage, the 17th August to check them out.

I haven’t had the chance to get my tourist boots on yet and check it all out, but when I do, I’ll let you know some of the best places around to visit; countryside, village backwater and historical sights galore. You can bet your ordnance survey map on it.

For more info check out http://www.navigo.fr

The only way to see Paris in a day

IMG_1635I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about our favourite metro lines (amongst waaayyy more interesting topics I might add). I went with 12 due to its lush racing green colour and ease of seat-getting each day on my way to work. She went with 4, that hot pink rollercoaster of a line where hanging on dearly to the nearest pole is extremely advisable (another friend told me that it’s such a stop-start thrill ride due to the fact they train the new metro drivers on it – sure explains a lot).

Before you start pointing at the sheer insanity of her choice (surely only line 13 is a more-hated beast), hear me out – there’s a pretty cool philosophical sentiment behind her choice. “It’s the only line that show you a complete cross-section of Paris”, she said, “from top to bottom”. A good thirty seconds later after I tried to work out how you could ‘see’ the very essence of Paris from a deep, dark underground tube, I realised that she was absolutely right. You’ve just got to pop your head out every few stops and you’ll see all the colours, textures, smells and sounds that the city has to offer.

Porte de Clignancourt, the northerly terminus of the line, starts you off with the flea market to end all flea markets, at the limit of the peripherique. Head downwards and within a couple of stops you’ll hit Marcadet-Poissonniers (literally fish-market, what the area used to be back in the day), where I’m told all the best people in the city live… From here you’re right on the edge of the popular part of the 18th arrondissement, but far enough removed from the tourist treacle to be comfortable.

Continue south and you’ll hit three of the ‘rougher round the edges’ stops (which in the opinion of some is being quite kind); Chateau Rouge, Barbès Rochechouart and Gare du Nord, where you’ll find yourself in one of the poorest parts within the city proper, known as Goutte d’Or. Now despite what Hemingway would have you believe, poverty doesn’t really equal romance, but here you’ll get to see the real multicultural foundations of Paris in their raucous, buzzing glory.

Stop by Strasbourg-Saint Denis to check out one of the old city gates (Porte Saint Denis) and then head to the commercial, pedestrinised centre at Châtelet-Les Halles where you can wander round the wonky buildings overlooking the brand new whatever-it-is-they’re-building above the underground shopping centre, and imagine what is was like when the area was home to a stinky old cemetery.

Cité is where the seeds of the city started growing, and is home to its iconic old lady Notre Dame. Head across (well, you’ll be under actually) the river and instant gentrification will be in the air as you head into the 6th and the Latin Quarter, taking in the la-di-da bits of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and Odéon (if you can find strolling space on the pavement), gazing in at the see-and-be-seens lazily grazing at the terraces of some of the city’s most famous cafés.

Montparnasse is dripping with artistic history almost as much as Montmartre, and you can scoot up the tower if you fancy trading your sewer rat’s-eye view for a bird’s-eye one. Denfert Rochereau is probably the last exciting-enough-to-surface-for metro stop what with the catacombs hiding in all their gothic glory below street level, though the markets at Raspail are a bio-lover’s dream (though as pricey as you’d expect). The line ends snaking through the residential comfort of the bottom of the 14th, bringing you to a atop at the new lower terminus, Marie de Montrouge.

So my friend was totally right. Follow the line and you’ll get to see every corner of Paris laid out for you (remember to stick your head above ground though, you’ll see naff-all if you stay on the train); the modern pockets, the way-back famous historical bits, and a complete cross-section of all of the social demographics the city has squeezed into itself. And if you spend a day metro surfing with a Navigo pass, you get to enjoy your Parisian visual cocktail for free. Oh yeah, and don’t forget to hang on (don’t say I didn’t warn you).

Navi-gone: #1: Fontainebleau

The free metro for a weekend was AWESOME no? In the 2nd most expensive city in the world (as Paris was recently declared), doing anything can be fairly pricey, so a few days of free public transport, phew, that’s like getting the keys to the city or something.

For those who are in possession of a Navigo card though (monthly public transport pass similar to the Oyster in London for the uninitiated), it didn’t really make too much of a difference to us given that we’re paid up and ready to go for the whole month anyway, but the gesture is still a wonderful thing to appreciate.

But in non-polluted, normal times, the weekends for Navigo pass holders is a bit like the pesky-pollution-solution-open-barrier policy that we’ve all been privy to for the last couple of days, given that at weekends and a WHOLE MONTH over the summer, Paris becomes entirely zone-less. For folk already living in the outlying areas of Paris, then it might not mean too much, but for those of us living in Paris proper, in possession of a Navigo pass zones 1-2, that means we get to jump on a train and explore the weird and wonderful parts of the Ile-de-France for absolutely FREE.

Now looking at the RER map and deciding on where exactly to head can be riddled with problems, given that the French language makes even the grimiest parts of the outlying suburbs sound like quaint little French villages. Doesn’t Sevran-Beaudottes sound simply charming? It really, really isn’t.

A bit of research and guidance if you’re wanting to head out on a pleasant day trip into the country is extremely useful. So here I am. Now that we’ve exited the cold tunnel of winter misery and entered into a happy, sunny Disney-style spring, then the time for exploring the green fringes of the city is nigh. And the first stop in this balmy March weather you should head for is Fontainebleau, just over an hour away from the city.

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For Navigo holders, you can take the transilien out there and jump on a bus from stop Fontainebleau-Avon direct to the Chateau (the palace and the park are on the UNESCO world heritage list), and spend the day either taking in the history and walking around the vast grounds, or head to the delightful town for a spot of sunday market shopping (they even sell kale!). For those who have a more active adventure in mind can explore the vast forest and give your lungs a break from the airborne ills of the big city.

It’s a very popular spot, so even car drivers might want to consider using the public transport option as the queues back into Paris after a sunny day can be a nightmare. More delights to be found along the RER network perfect for a day trip out of the city, coming soon.

For more information, check out http://www.fontainebleau-tourisme.com.

Cycling never felt so good…

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It’s hot (well warm really, but for this time of year, it might as well be 30-odd degrees). Aaand, sadly that means that Paris is currently crazily polluted. That ‘summer haze’, making you feel good? No, that’s not a cosy warm spring weather blanket, that’s pure, French smog. Ah.

Now pollution is a pretty difficult one to solve, but the city authorities have come up with a splendidly green idea. It would be a super idea to get one of those motocrotte things (the big hoover street cleaning contraptions that inhale all of the dog mess – that seem to be making a comeback after their glory days in the 80s and 90s) and point it towards the sky to suck up the offending cloud. But, hey, they’ve got enough work to do as it is.

Instead, the wheezing citizens of Paris, torn between filling their lungs with city goo or foregoing the lovely sunshine, can do their bit for the planet by pootling around on a Velib for a day, with the powers that be picking up the tab. From today (Thursday 13th March) and into Friday, for 24 hours the Velib is free. Free, for a whole day! I simply don’t Velib-it. Ok, so it’s only close to 2 euros you’ll be saving (the price of a day ticket), but it’s usually the authorities taking money from YOU, so appreciate the gesture while it’s here.

The normal Velib rules apply; you get your free day ticket, and the first half an hour is free. But you can plug in and reload as many times as you want, meaning that you can scoot about all day if you so desire. Though you’ll need to be within close distance to a Velib station approaching the end of your free half an hour, so don’t be thinking this is a cheap option for a day trip to Lille or anything like that.

If you’re a brave old soul, then the Autolib is also free (restrictions apply, check their website http://www.autolib.eu), but whizzing round the city in something that looks like one of those old disposable cameras on wheels, simple scares the bejesus out of me. If you do fancy taking up the city’s generous offer and doing your bit to make Paris a greener place in the process, then check out this link http://blog.velib.paris.fr/blog/2014/03/12/pollution-velib-sante/ for more details. They’ll even furnish you with tips on how to stay safe in these polluted times. And remember kids, be safe. The Tour de France isn’t until June.