the joys of winter: hot chocolate, etc.

What is one thing in particular that I like about winter?  Hot chocolate! This year I plan to test different cocoa beverages around the city.  In February I investigated two places. The first was an Italian gelateria called Pozzetto located at 39 rue du Roi de Sicile near the St Paul metro station.  It’s a cute, homey place; welcoming and warm.  I sat at a little round table and the woman who works there brought me this:Feb 2013 photo exhibit and Marais 081Feb 2013 photo exhibit and Marais 083Feb 2013 photo exhibit and Marais 084

This is what I had been missing all these years…this was the real deal:  Italian cioccolata calda.  Glossy, unctuous, not sweet and deeply joyous.  I sat there savouring each mouthful while uttering murmurs of satisfaction and then I scraped the bottom of the cup with the spoon to get every last drop.  I swear, if the woman hadn’t been looking I would’ve shamelessly licked the cup clean with my tongue.

“Splendido”, I said to the woman who was from Rome.  “Grazie”, she replied.

I will return to that place. Not only for the chocolate, but because it’s a friendly, down to earth kind of place. Sometimes you get tired of pretentious places and prices. Back outside I discovered an adorable Portuguese pastry shop next door called Comme A Lisbonne.  Tiny and immaculate, it serves only espresso and perfect, freshly-made custard tarts called pasteis de nata.  I had one.

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The second place I went to (not on the same day!) is at the top end of the Marais. Called Jacques Genin, chocolatier, it can be found at number 133 rue de Turenne. The hot chocolate came to me on a tray in a white porcelain pitcher.  Accompanying the pitcher was a large, white porcelain cup and saucer, glass of water and sugar bowl.  I’d say this was hot chocolate for grown-ups. The space itself, like the hot chocolate, is minimalistic. I wouldn’t bring kids here.  And a good thing, too, because when I filled the cup only halfway and then drank, I immediately burned my tongue and the inside of my mouth. It was scalding hot. It lacked the unctuosity that I like, but was not overly sweet which is a good thing. If you desire a sweeter taste, just plop in a sugar cube or two.  I paid 7 euros for the burnt tongue.

Another great day in the Marais: photo exhibition, Italian hot chocolate, Portuguese pasteis de nata…

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It was only an afternoon but a full one.  And very enjoyable.  It’s still cold and gray here in Paris on Friday February the 8th.  There’s a photography exhibition currently showing at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, so I jumped on the metro and got off at Saint Paul.

Here’s what’s great about France: the majority of museums and art galleries offer two admission fees – regular and reduced. The regular fee at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie is 8 euros and the reduced fee is 4 euros. The French government believes that while you’re unemployed, you might as well get out and look at art. Reduced admission fees also apply to those over 60, students, large families, teachers, artists and welfare recipients. Free admission is offered to children under 8, journalists, civil servants and PWDs (Persons With Disabilities.)

There are also free days. The first Sunday of every month, for example, entry to all national museums is free. This is to encourage people to enjoy art and to cultivate their minds. The same policy applies in Great Britain. This is a marvellous example of what’s called the “democratization of culture” – to make it populist and not elitist.  But who pays in the end?  We do. Those who live, work and pay taxes in France. We all contribute to the financing of French museums (among other things) through taxes.

Joel Meyerowitz – A Retrospective 

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I love street photography. Especially from the 1960s and 70s, my two most favourite decades. I really enjoyed looking at these captivating, nostalgic images. Frozen in time. I look at the people in the photos and wonder “Where are they now?”

Here’s a brief bio of the artist: Born in 1938 in the Bronx, Joel Meyerowitz is the archetypal New Yorker, embracing the 21st-century with curiosity and empathy. It was in 1962, following his first meeting with Robert Frank, that he began to roam the streets of New York with his 35 mm camera and black and white film. A long trip to Europe marked a turning point in his career. Meyerowitz permanently adopted color in 1972. He also switched to large format photography, often using an 8×10 camera to produce photographs of places and people. This retrospective exhibition presents, for the first time, his earliest black and white photographs alongside a larger body of work in color.

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If you find yourself in this part of the Marais (the lower part), here are a few places that I can recommend, all near the Maison Européenne de la Photographie and Saint Paul metro station.  La Perla is a good Mexican restaurant located on the rue du Pont Louis Philippe in the 4th arrondissement. A tad expensive, it offers a good selection of Mexican beers and a relaxed ambiance. (You’ll never get the quality and range of Mexican dishes in Europe that you do in the States.) This whole road is lined on either side with small, interesting boutiques.  It leads down to the Seine River and the bridges that cross over to the Left Bank.

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At the end of the rue du Pont Louis Philippe is this picturesque bistro called Chez Julien.  I cannot recommend it, though, because I’ve never eaten there.

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Once I got to the end of the road, I retraced my steps and headed back up to the rue de Rivoli.  It was bitterly cold and I was in need of hot chocolate.  I had heard about a place called Pozzetto located at 39 rue du Roi de Sicile that serves divine gelato and hot chocolate. I found it and went inside. It’s a cute, homey place; welcoming and warm.  I sat at a little round table and the woman who works there brought me this:

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Oh, sweet mother of the roasted cacao bean; this is what I had been missing all these years … this was the real deal: Italian cioccolata calda. Glossy, unctuous, not sweet and deeply joyous. I sat there savouring each mouthful while uttering murmurs of satisfaction and then I scraped the bottom of the cup with the spoon to get every last drop. I swear, if the woman hadn’t been looking I would’ve shamelessly licked the cup clean with my tongue.

“Splendido”, I said to the woman who was from Rome.  “Grazie”, she replied.

I will definitely return to that place. Not just for the chocolate, but because it’s unpretentious. Sometimes you get tired of chichi places and prices. Back outside I discovered an adorable vintage clothing shop two doors up from Pozzetto.  And beside the clothing shop, at n° 37, is an equally adorable Portuguese pastry shop called Comme A Lisbonne. It’s tiny, immaculate and serves excellent espresso and freshly-made pasteis de nata, those irresistible custard tarts made with a crispy, flaky pastry.  I had one.

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Off to Brussels

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Paris Gare du Nord train station

Paris Gare du Nord train station

The high-speed train sped across the flat, snow-shrouded fields of northern France. Travel time from Paris to Brussels normally takes an hour and a quarter, but due to abundant snow and ice on the tracks the trip was lengthened by 50 minutes. By the time we pulled into Bruxelles-Midi station it was pitch black and freezing cold outside.  A taxi drove me the short distance to The Sweet Brussels B&B.

Pushing open a massive wooden door, I stepped into a dimly-lit entrance hall where several flights of stairs loomed before me.  I climbed the first flight and was met on the landing by a friendly Dutchwoman named Sofie who, thankfully, lugged my suitcase up two more flights of narrow, wooden stairs. Room number 3 was a massive, high-ceilinged room with marble fireplace, floor to ceiling windows and a gorgeous art deco lamp hanging over the queen-sized bed. Light-hued wooden floorboards stretched into the equally spacious ensuite bathroom. The Sweet Brussels is design-based. Design features, fixtures, and books on Art Nouveau and other artistic styles are everywhere.

Sofie and I chatted until I realized that it was 7 pm and I was starving.  I wanted only two things: a Belgian beer and a good meal.  My hostess recommended just such a place up the road.  I changed my shoes and within 5 minutes was outside again.

The thing about arriving at an unfamiliar address in the dark is you don’t know where the heck you are.  Although the B&B was decidedly hip, it seemed that the neighbourhood was not.  Even in the dark I could see that it wasn’t exactly swank.  Like all districts around train stations, it was kind of gritty. To be fair, I learned the next day that it borders the edgy, revitalized district of Marolles and is also within walking distance of both the Brussels Midi train station and the heart of the historic city center.  (Brussels has three train stations.)  Slipping and sliding on the ice-encrusted sidewalk, I cautiously made my way up the road in the direction Sofie had indicated.

Shining like a beacon in the dark, I saw the lighted sign of the Houtsiplou diner located on the Place Rouppe.  It was exactly the kind of place I was looking for: casual-cozy, funky music playing in the background, and a friendly waitstaff who greeted me upon entering.  Unravelling my multilayers of outer clothing, I chose a table next to a radiator and told the menu-bearing young man that I’d like a beer which, I suppose, is as silly as saying that you want some cheese in France.  “What kind?” he asked, “Belgium brews over 300 different varieties.”  In France I occasionally enjoy a dark ale called Pelforth and told him so.  He let me sample a few brews and, in the end, we mutually decided on Leffe.  Incidentally, the three official languages of Belgium are French, Dutch (also called Flemish) and German.  And if I’m not mistaken, the two official languages in Brussels are French and English.

The next thing to sample was fries because this is another Belgian specialty.  Belgian fries are a national institution. Generously-cut from a potato called bintje, deep-fried in fat (not oil), cooled and fried again, they’re then served hot, salted, and with ketchup or mayonnaise.  To die for.  I ordered a portion along with a gorgonzola cheeseburger.  Happy and warm, I sipped my delicious malty ale and flipped through a magazine while waiting for my meal.  The place was cozy…kinda like home….with a friendly, laid-back vibe.  Paris is a lot of things, I mused, but cozy isn’t one of them.  And “laid-back” isn’t exactly a word I’d use to describe the Parisians either.  My meal came, I ate every delicious morsel and ordered a slice of lemon meringue pie for dessert.

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After a round of hearty goodbyes, I stepped back out into the cold night and skidded along the slippery sidewalk to the B&B.  It was time for sweet dreams at the Sweet Brussels.  It turned out that, being mid-January, I was the only guest there.  Thank goodness Sofie and her family live in a flat on the ground floor because I would’ve felt awfully nervous being the sole occupant of a very tall, 19th-century building.  My room was silent as a tomb.

The next day was sunny and minus 8 degrees centigrade.  In the breakfast room, notes from a jazz soundtrack floated through the air and to my delight I spied a sophisticated-looking coffee machine that shared the counter with baskets of bread, croissants, cereal, cheese, fruit, juices and yogurts (all for me!). Sofie came in and showed me how the machine worked.  It’s Swiss-made, I learned, and the brand name is Jura.  If you must know, I’m a coffee aficionado hence my interest in all things java (or, to be more specific, arabica.)  At home I have a capsule-based Nespresso machine, so was interested to see that the Jura uses fresh coffee beans that are placed in a reservoir and ground for each cup.  It looked expensive.  And it made a divinely creamy cappuccino at the press of a button.

Passage obligé for the tourist visiting Brussels is the Grand Place.  Ringed with splendiferous gabled, gilded 17th and 18th century buildings, this has got to be the most stunning square in Europe.  I learned that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, so I guess it’s the most stunning square in Europe.

My photos don’t give it justice because it’s the panoramic sweep, the gold and grandeur – with you standing in the middle – which makes it so resplendent:

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My next destination was the nearby 19th-century shopping mall called the Royal Galeries.  Here are some random street shots that I took as I walked along, periodically popping into the ubiquitous chocolate shop to warm up and sample chocolates. Notice the absence of crowds; this is why I prefer to travel in the off-season.  I hate crowds.

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Royal Galeries of Saint-Hubert

This jewel of Brussels architecture was constructed in 1847. Wandering through the arcades, you can easily imagine men and women from a past era strolling under the glass-paned roof. I literally spent hours in this hushed, historical space browsing in every lovely shop, buying and sampling chocolates (again), taking photos, and stopping for lunch in a tea room:

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Also inside the gallery (and at other locations) is a marvellous chocolate shop called Mary, preferred chocolate supplier to Belgian’s Royal Family.

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Back outside again, I passed a second-hand clothing shop and bought some shearling-lined mittens for 20 euros. I know I keep harping on about the cold, but not only was I afraid my camera would seize up, my fingers were frozen stiff.  In another shop I purchased a toasty-warm, hand-knitted lambswool Tibetan hat.  I accosted a stranger in the Grand Place and asked him to take my photo.  Here’s me and my woolly Himalayan hat:

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As dusk fell over the city, I made my way back to the B&B to warm up and rest before going out again for an early dinner. I returned to the Houtsiplou at 6:30 pm and had practically the same meal as the night before, substituting the burger for a hearty, homemade beef stew. And then, tired but happy, I walked the ten minutes back to the Sweet Brussels, trudged up the three flights of stairs and settled into my vast, warm, quiet room for the night, tucking myself into bed and watching The Sopranos on DVD.  It had been a great day.