One Sad Duck Confit At Montmartre

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Sandeep’s disappointment was palpable as we ascended the steep cobbled street towards Montmartre. It was my idea to check out the place. Sandeep had been to Paris several times but has not been to Montmartre even once. I insisted that we visit because it used to be the hub of some of our favourite artists, like Van Gogh, Modigliani and Lutrec. I thought it would be a shame not to walk on the streets they use to tread.

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Upon alighting from the taxi, I understood right away Sandeep’s reservation in going there. The moment we stepped out of the car, we were mobbed by ‘artists’ asking to draw our portraits for a few euros. They were incredibly persistent and hounded us for several minutes until they spotted a new prey. Sandeep is passionate about art and has little patience for posers; Montmartre seemed to be teeming with them. A bohemian hang-out turned tourist trap.

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But despite all this, I still found the place charming. In my mind, I stripped down the current touristy ambience of the area and tried to imagine how it would have been back then; the cafes, the pubs and the artists. I imagine it would have been quite scintillating with those colourful artists, writers and musicians swarming the place.

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Before exploring the village entirely, we decided to have some lunch. We were eyeing an outdoor eating area but chose to eat in a proper restaurant where there’s an option to use the washroom. Upon entering the place, I had an eerie feeling that we made a poor choice as there were very few people eating there. In spite of the swarm of tourists outside, the restaurant looked strangely deserted.

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A waiter who looked like the living caricature of Woody Allen came to take our order once we sat down. I stifled my laughter as he scribbled our orders on his notepad. He was very much the embodiment of the ‘French-Waiter’ cliche. Though the scowl on his face dampened the cartoonish hilarity of his waiter uniform, he still looked pretty comical in his cerulean tilted beret with matching cerulean striped apron.

There was nothing funny, though, in the dishes that he laid down on our table after a few minutes. In fact, the duck confit and the side dish of potatoes and veggies looked quite sad and ill-humoured.

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2 duck confit with side dishes plus beer and red wine about 80 euros

I wanted to kick myself for choosing that place when after roaming around, I could see more restaurants that seemed to offer better food. Strolling in between the cafes lining the slightly elevated roads made me feel like I am really walking in a small French village. And the aroma wafting from their kitchens smelt divine and ambrosial. It was just how I imagined a European village would be.

We kept walking aimlessly but eventually reached the Sacré-Cœur Basilica. From the steps in front of the church, despite the huge crowd, you’ll be able to behold a breathtaking panoramic view of the city of Paris.

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IMG_1753.jpgParis looks gorgeous from up there, and no amount of hawkers and posers or bad food could diminish the romance and charisma of Montmartre.

 

Grilled Chicken and The Hangry Hulk at De Pijp, Amsterdam

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“It’s just somewhere around here, honey. Let’s walk a bit more. You’ll love it, I promise you. “ Sandeep reassured me once more as we walk the length of Albert Cuyp Market. I could hear the tension in his voice. I knew he could see me slowly metamorphosing into THE HANGRY HULK and he has to get some food in me as soon as possible. (That was not a typo. If you don’t already know, hangry is the combination of the two words hungry and angry. A common condition in women like myself who lose our shit when starving.)

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It was then three in the afternoon already, and we still haven’t eaten anything yet besides our measly airport breakfast. We were underslept and exhausted. We needed a comforting meal, but Sandeep was dragging it on and on to find this magical food stall that he loves. I told him I would be happy with a burger from McDonalds when we passed it earlier on the way there, but he insisted on finding this gastronomical wonder. He probably thought it would change my life or something once I tasted it. I did understand even then though, that he wanted to share this special treat with me, but during that desperate moment, the sweetness of his gesture was lost on me.

“I think this is it!’ Sandeep announced triumphantly in front of a food truck serving grilled chicken, meatballs and sandwich rolls.

The tall guy wearing a black apron behind the counter was very animated and was calling the women ladies, almost theatrically.

To me, he said, “Are you ready, lady?” as he handed me the enormous burger I ordered.

The stall seemed like a popular spot and was the most crowded food stall among the area. The tables next to it were constantly full. Customers came and went in rapid rotation while we were eating there. Some people were even fine with just standing while they eat their grilled chicken sandwiches and meatballs. Others also came to buy some takeaway.

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Lunch for 2 with cola about 9 Euros

Sandeep loved his grilled chicken wings and chicken sandwich rolls, costing him 2 euros each. My 150 grams burger at 3 euros was a bit dry and had a flavour I am not very fond of, so I did not ‘love it’. I could taste cumin in the patty quite strongly mixed with some other spices I often taste in Indian Kebabs. It was the wrong thing to order I thought later on, and if not for my sour mood, I would have liked the food too, I ‘m sure.

Though I did not enjoy the meal, my energy was replenished. I began to appreciate the quaintness of the market as we strolled back towards the main street.

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Albert Cuyp market offers a variety of items for sale at a fair price. There are stalls for all kinds of souvenirs, clothing and accessories, flowers, meat, cheese, seafood, even CDs, books and vintage records.

We also passed by a huge dried fruit and nuts stall. There were peanuts, walnuts, figs, chocolate balls and the tastiest nougat I’ve eaten so far. It was not so sweet and almost as soft as a marshmallow. We got 200 grams for 2 euros if I remember correctly.

By the time we exited the market, my mood has improved considerably. We sat down for a cup of coffee (6 euros for a cappuccino and latte) enjoying the outdoors devoid of pollution, chaos and jarring noises. That part of De Pijp seemed almost idyllic; filled with people just enjoying their evening, some hanging out with their friends, some passing by on bicycles, a few patiently waiting for the trams that occasionally pass by.

I heard laughter coming from a group of youngsters farther away. The faint laughter sounded dream-like, adding a tone of cheer in the scenery. I leaned back on the chair, relaxing while I sipped my coffee, taking it all in. It was a wonder to witness a peaceful and orderly scene not often seen in modern and bustling cities. I knew right away that Amsterdam is an extraordinary city, very, very special, and that I would love being there.

 

Cappuccino and Cheesecake at Piazza Del Campo, Siena Italy

 

“Honey, you look like Michelle Yeoh in this photo,” Sandeep remarked while reviewing the photos he took of me at San Gimignano. “I look like an inflated Michelle Yeoh,” I replied after glancing at the photo. “Michelin Yeoh,” I added.

Sandeep immediately understood that I was referring to the Michelin man. He laughed heartily as he is always amused at my self-deprecating jokes. Among the things I like about him is that he always gets the most obscure references I use in the jokes I make. It is a relief that I don’t have to explain anything to him, and the punchlines always hit home.

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We were then on our way to Siena on a double-decker bus. I chose our seat on the top part of the bus earlier when we left Florence. I wanted a full view of the Tuscan countryside as we pass it by.

“Siena used to be a very wealthy city before the Black Death killed a large part of its population and before the Medici conquered the city.” Our German tour guide narrated in halting English over the microphone. She took over for Alice, the pretty olive-skinned Italian who initially led the tour.

It was a good thing we got the Tuscan day tour package from Florence itself. The walk-in booking was cheaper at 40.60 euros each. When we were booking it online, the website was charging us 90 USD each for the same tour. The package includes a visit to San Gimignano, Monteriggioni Castle, lunch at a winery in Chianti and then finally a walking tour in Siena. It’s a 12 hour day tour that starts at 8:30 am from the Santa Maria Novella train station.

I was not really excited about Siena when we book the tour, I have not heard of that city before. I thought it was just one of those minor cities they add to the pad the tours. We chose it over the leaning tower of Pisa because the meeting time starts at 8 am rather than 6:30 am.

It turned out Siena was a pleasant surprise for me, and the visit to the city quickly became my favourite part of the trip.

Part of what drew me to India was the intrigue shrouding its historical monuments. Siena has the same appeal to me. As we explored its historical centre, walking on the cobbled streets in between imposing gothic structures really take you back in time. You’ll begin to wonder how the place would have looked like during its Golden Age.

Our tour guide led us to Piazza Salimbeni, in front of the statue of a scowling Sallustio Bandini standing guard in between the first banking houses in Europe. He was a Sienese priest and one of the first Italian economists.

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While standing in the middle of the square, I can’t help but be intimidated as I gazed upwards and saw the marble heads of famous Italian men, poking from under the roof of Palazzo Spannocchi, all glaring down on me. I felt so small and insignificant. It disturbed me to see Leonardo Da Vinci and Dante Alighieri looking so pissed at me. If I were a peasant there in those times, I would be terrified and trembling in my boots every time I am made to stand in that square.

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Our tour guide asked us to follow a blue flag held by a tall guy from our group, so we don’t get separated and lose our way. There were several tour groups along with us. We even got mixed up with a group of Japanese tourists with a Japanese tour guide. Their flag was red. We also came across a group of university students who made fun of us. One of the students raised the bottle of beer in his hands, walked ahead of his friends and shouted, “Follow me if you wanna have a good time.” Everybody laughed and cheered. I told Sandeep jokingly that it would be more fun to follow that group.

What really captured my heart, though, was Piazza Del Campo. I was bewildered, then awestruck after immerging from a dark alley and seeing the medieval square with its lofty clock tower dominating the bright blue sky. It’s difficult to capture its immenseness in the photos. You have to be standing there to witness its splendour.

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I had an intense desire to cross the enormous shell-shaped piazza to reach the coffee shop at the opposite side of where we were standing.

“Twice a year horse races are held here.” Our guide’s voice crackled in the headphones in my ears, interrupting my thoughts.

In the restaurant next to where we were gathered, there was a television where the video of the race was playing in a loop. It seemed like a grand affair. The shell shape area in the middle of the piazza was filled with people cheering as the horses race around them.

After 15 minutes, the guide moved on, and we followed, but I was getting impatient. I wanted the walking tour to end already so we can linger leisurely at Piazza Del Campo. We even skipped climbing up the tower of that beautiful gothic cathedral so we can return right away to Piazza Del Campo. I was glad Sandeep did not mind.

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Sandeep indulged my wish and ordered us a cappuccino and a latte on that café that I was looking at earlier. I wanted to stay longer, so I ordered a cheesecake, which was quite delectable with a hint of citrus on the after taste. We paid 6 euros for the cappuccino and latte, 7 euros for the cheesecake.

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I sighed while I sipped my cappuccino. Ahhh…it was like being in a delicious dream that you did not want to wake up from.

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A cold wind blew a few minutes later, knocking down the wine glasses of the two young girls in front of us. The glasses shattered into pieces as it hit the ground, snapping me out of my reverie. As Sandeep paid for the bill, I felt a twinge in my heart at the thought of leaving Siena so soon. I wanted to stay for a day or two or for the rest of my life.

I left a piece of my heart there at Piazza Del Campo, and the longing to go back haunts me constantly.

 

Breakfast in Paris

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It was a wet Tuesday morning, our second day in Paris. There has been no respite from rain since the day before. It was past 8 am yet the cafe near our hotel, a few blocks away from Jardin du Palais Royal, looked like it opened just then. A guy in an all-black uniform, who I presumed was the manager because of his demeanour, was standing on a chair turning on the outdoor heater hanging under the awning like a lamp. A pretty black waitress in black long sleeves shirt, shorts, stockings and high heels was fooling around with him, pretending to push him off the chair and then laughing. The guy didn’t seem to mind though he did not laugh with her. Her hair was pulled up in a big bun on top of her head accentuating her high cheekbones and elegant forehead. I was amazed at how chic she looked. She greeted us with a cheery “Bonjour!” as we sat down in front of one of the tables lined up outside the cafe. All the chairs were turned towards the street, and I felt like being in front of a theatrical stage where the performers were the passersby who were rushing to work. Continue reading