The 26th was planned for another move, this time to Nancy but yet again I had checked the train timetables and found them to be frequent and running late in the evening and so I negotiated with my charming landlady to deposit my case with her as I went for another ramble round Metz.
This was inevitably accompanied by a few “pit stops” on the way including a thing I rarely do. I went in to the Shannon “Irish” bar right in the middle of town.
I generally do not like so-called Irish bars as they are usually so fake and bear no resemblance to what I was used to as a young man in Northern Ireland and so what prompted me to pop into The Shannon I really do not know. I suppose I just fancied a beer.
I could have described this place to you before I ever went in the door as it is constructed from the identikit Disney concept of what an Irish pub is like. It had all the requisite advertising like Guinness posters, Beamish signs and some Bushmills whiskey promo stuff although bizarrely the huge bottle featured in the centre of the top shelf was Jack Daniel’s with a Bushmills sign hanging off the optic. There were the several obligatory large screen televisions showing sport, the dartboard and they even had a pinball machine. It was all depressingly predictable.
Whilst I don’t like the concept at all I have no complaints about the bar per se as it was clean and well-maintained, including the “facilities” when I had occasion to use them. The service was quick and friendly enough. Very deliberately avoiding Guinness I ordered a large beer of whatever generic international brand they were selling, Heineken if memory serves, and this is where I really decided I was not going to spend long here.
Yes, I know The Shannon has a very central location on one of the main streets in town. Yes, I know it is a “theme” bar and I would expect to pay a little more for my beer but what they charged me was ludicrous. I cannot now remember the exact sum but it was considerably more than I was paying elsewhere, even in the centre. A complete ripoff all round.
Apart from my imbibing escapades, I did manage to see a beautiful city centre garden with a fantastic water feature, a fine old city gate (now standing alone with no walls), some interesting statues and as much charming old architecture as you could wave a stick at. I do hope the attached images do it some sort of justice.
Reclaiming my baggage from the wonderful place that I was quite reluctant to leave, it was time for me to be back on the road, still with no plan other than a vague notion to head South in search of some sun, which had been in short supply all through this trip.
A walk back to the station or “gare” as my increasingly French-speaking mind was calling it, stopping to examine a poignant memorial to those deported from here by the Germans and then another punctual and very comfortable trip to Nancy, one more city I had never visited.
Arriving in Nancy by train in the early evening I had my route to my hotel planned and written down (I cannot manage all this ‘phone technology like maps) and had intended to go straight to the hotel, dump the kit and get out and about but, in the words of Robert Burns, “The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley”. In my case the plan, such as it was, foundered on the rock of the Ambassy Cafe and I blame it on Richard Mique. If, like me at that point, you have no idea who M. Mique was, he was the architect of the magnificent Porte Stanislas which I shall come to in a later instalment of this journal. I had stopped to admire his work when my eye was drawn to an establishment literally adjacent proclaiming itself to be Brasserie Ambassy which looked inviting (don’t they all?). Well, a quick one wouldn’t hurt, would it?
I dragged my little case past a group of younger people outside smoking in the pleasant al fresco area to the front and it was clear from the sweet smell on the air that there was more than Gitanes being smoked there. It is not particularly my gig although I have no problem with it and I merely mention it as if it is not to you liking then you may want to swerve this place. It definitely is a young hangout although I never felt out of place at all in my several visits, despite my advancing years.
I was just looking for a beer and so ordered a large glass of the “house” lager which turned out to be SAS pils which I had never heard of but subsequent research shows to be from a Belgian brewery dating back to the 16th century. The Belgians know a thing or two about brewing and this was a fine brew which also transpired to be the cheapest beer I drank in Nancy, indeed probably most of France. I really don’t know how they can sell it that cheaply.
I have to say that service was a little slow but this is not a criticism of the friendly staff who were going as hard as they could, it was just that the place was absolutely rammed that evening. I suspect it might have been some sort of “student night” or whatever and it also made finding a seat difficult but I managed it eventually which gave me a chance to have a bit of a look round. The word that sprang to mind then, and still did when writing this some months later, was cosy as it really fits the bill. They have sourced some of the comfiest chairs I have ever set my posterior on in a bar and I have been in a few!
In an act of willpower not normally associated with me I left after one but with a mental note to return which I did several times, I really did like this place. My return in the afternoon of the next day found the bar much less crowded but none the less welcoming and I spent some time there doing nothing but drinking beer and watching the world not so much go by as sit and enjoy themselves as well. There is something about the Ambassy that is just very comfortable, I would say a “je ne sais quoi” and I am going to descend further into this French farce by saying that it has an ambience that most other bars can only aspire to. OK, that is the appalling linguistic nonsense hopefully out of the way.
Dragging myself reluctantly away from the Ambassy I headed for my hotel, the New York, which was about half a mile away. This was OK for me as I was travelling very light but it would be a bit of a trek with heavy luggage. It was just as well I arrived when I did as the reception keeps very erratic hours but do not ask me exactly what they are as there are two signs displayed in the front windows showing different times and the website, which I have attached purely out of interest, is dated 2010 and therefore of limited use if any. Entry at other times is by means of access code.
The receptionist was friendly and efficient and directed me to my room which entailed lugging the case up the stairs as there is no lift which may present a problem for the mobility impaired. I do not know if there is an accessible room on the ground floor and anyway there are a couple of steps up to the front door and again, I do not know if there is a separate mobility accessible entrance. I subsequently found out that I was lucky that I had found the receptionist as I very rarely saw one there even during whatever the opening hours were supposed to be.
I had booked the room on the basis of price and location and it was about what I would have expected in this area at €55 per night for an ensuite single occupancy although it was actually a double room so that meant that the comfy bed was easily big enough for me. The ensuite was a shower which produced plenty of hot water at a reasonable pressure on demand and the wifi had a reasonable signal so all in all the room was fine. It was pretty basic but clean enough. The only slight problem was that it was to the front which did lead to a little road noise in the evenings as this is a very lively street and this leads me on to my next point.
The hotel is situated in an area that is very predominantly immigrant and contains many ethnic restaurants and shops which suits me fine. The only reason I mention this is that there are usually groups of young men standing about on street corners and behaving in a fashion that some people might find intimidating. I must admit I liked the vibe round the area and it was easy walking distance to the centre and the main sights but I feel it only fair to point it out.
I took myself for a walk and although I restricted myself to the immediate area, I did fond a couple of great bars and then I did a thing that some of you may consider unforgiveable.
Picture the scene. There I am, rambling fairly aimlessly further and further into France which is arguably the culinary capital of the world. It even gives so much to do with cooking it’s vocabulary, not least the term haute cuisine. Think all the way back to Escoffier and up to today with the Roux dynasty, Raymond Blanc, Alain Ducasse, the list is endless and I have to say here that chefs are up there in my estimation with great musicians, sportsmen and all the rest. Yes, I am a completely unrepentent foodie who will happily watch ten year old episodes of Masterchef on Youtube even when I have seen them before. I love cooking although I am merely competent at it but to my knowledge I have not poisoned anyone yet.
On this first evening in Nancy I had gone for a wander about and passed some fine looking restaurants and brasseries, drank in a few cafes and bars that seemed to be serving up some lovely looking food and had not eaten a bite all day, so what happened? Literally 50 yards from my hotel I spied a kebab / burger shop open, La Patate Gourmande, and that was it. I wasn’t really hungry but nothing would do except a burger. I know it is appalling.
I went in, ordered my burger and had a look round what was a very clean and not unpleasant “restaurant”with the obligatory football on the large screen TV whilst my “gourmet meal” was prepared. At least it was prepared fresh and not sitting under lights, they had taken the care to griddle the bun and the salad was fresh. No big deal, nice burger after I had had a few beers and a fairly tiring day but the whole thing didn’t end there as I reckon that in a five night stay in this wonderful French city with restaurants literally every 20 yards apart in the area I was staying that this is the only place I ate. Crazy, I know.
On another occasion I fancied a kebab although just a snack so it was the small doner. Firstly, the meat was beautifully cooked and neither burnt nor dripping grease as such fare normally is in the UK where kebabs are the preserve of late night drunks. I freely admit I was a late night drink but I still appreciate quality.
Second were the potatoes which I must admit surprised me and much of this may be to do with language. People from North America refer to fries which is a contraction of French fries and are those ludicrously thin things as served by global conglomerates that I shall not name here. In UK we eat chips which word North Americans would understand as things that come out of a sealed bag (confusing isn’t it?) but in this establishment it was what I would understand as sauteed potatoes back at home and they were utterly divine, I mean it. How good can a sauteed potato really be? The simple answer is this good.
Lastly was the method of serving which consisted of a tray covered in a paper towel and the kebab (in a nicely grilled pitta this time), the superb potatoes by whatever name you wish to call them and a most wonderful sauce that I can only describe as being something like a cross between a Marie Rose and a burger sauce, it was beautiful. Certainly saves on the washing up. I should mention that on yet another occasion I ordered the assiette of doner which did actually come on a plate with the same beautifully cooked meat and potatoes and a selection of whatever sauces I fancied, I think chilli and garlic were the options that night.
With a bellyful of beer and “junk” food that was far from junk, it was a short walk home to bed and another sound sleep.
I’ll take you for a look round Nancy in the next instalment so stay tuned and spread the word.