Sulpice and quiet

What with a new ‘lockdown’ to contend with, a major house move recently completed and a special milestone birthday fast approaching, it’s accurate to say I find myself in a period of deep reflection. Extremely happy reflection I might add, my contented philosophising gratefully pushing modern day worries and stresses into second place. But not that second place is such a bad thing (though try telling that to the girl I beat to the crown of Fordingbridge Carnival Princess in 1991) and the perfect place to illustrate this is the magnificent church of Saint Sulpice, the second largest in Paris and the perfect place for indulging that mood of profound pondering.

A Roman Catholic church nestled in the Latin Quarter in the 6th, it’s slightly smaller than our beloved Notre-Dame though considerably younger, the construction of the current building beginning in 1646. Dedicated to Sulpitius the Pious, a 7th-century bishop and do-gooder of the highest order, progression was plagued with money issues and subsequent delays, not to mention serious structural issues with the original bell tower threatening to crush the entire construction below it before it was removed, and it wasn’t eventually finished until 1870.

Stand outside and gaze at the front façade, and you’ll have a chance to mull over the imperfection of life thanks to its mismatched towers, inspired by London’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral. This was not a deliberate design feature, but the French revolution got in the way of finishing the work on the south tower, and well, they just never got round to fixing it match the other one. Whilst enjoying the air take a stroll around the nearby fountain, built in the 19th century by the same chap who designed Napoleon’s tomb, and intended to celebrate religious eloquence through its four famous sculpted bishops.

Churches aren’t just places of religious reverence though, and harbour all manner of delights if you’re looking to fill that gaping hole left by Paris’ shuttered museums. Just by the entrance you’ll see two halves of an enormous shell serving as holy fonts, a gift from the Venetian republic, with bases sculpted by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (yes he of red-light district fame). Peer into the Chapel of Holy Angels on the right and you’ll find a trio of Eugene Delacroix murals colouring the walls and ceiling, painted decades after his most famous work, Liberty Leading the People, currently housed in the Louvre.

Cast your gaze up high in the main body of the church to marvel at the great organ (re)built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1862, the most famous organ builder of his time, responsible too for those at Sacré-Coeur, Notre-Dame, Saint-Denis Basilica and l’église de la Madeleine. Talk about cornering the market. Big names can be counted amongst the church’s historical guests too, with Baudelaire and the Marquis de Sade being baptised here, Victor Hugo tying the knot, and the funeral of Jacques Chirac taking place in 2019.

Perhaps the most famous artefact is the gnomon (left), which Dan Brown would have you to believe marks the Paris Meridian and is known as the Rose Line (nope, and non). In reality the structure was designed in the 18th century to use the sun to calculate the exact date of Easter and tell the precise time to ring the bells. There’s no point looking for Tom Hanks’ fingerprints in the vicinity either; requests to use the church as a filming location for The Da Vinci Code were denied and what you see in the film is merely CGI trickery.

Worthy of a blockbuster film plot was the fire that broke out on 17th March 2019, amazingly just one month earlier than the blaze that nearly razed its sibling church. Arson was identified as the cause, and luckily only a door, bas relief, stained glass window and staircase were lost. Happily though these days all the drama seems to be happening outside the church doors, so if like me the much lengthened and loosened tether of the most recent lockdown finds you wandering the streets in this neighbourhood, duck inside for some restorative culture and reflective rest. Mask obligatory, pious pondering optional.




Bringing down the Hauss

It’s no understatement to say that life has changed pretty profoundly of late. The cannonball of Covid has been mighty efficient in blowing holes in all our lives, and who knows if the dust will ever settle again. Paris might bear a big chunk of the French pandemic experience, but this scale of disruption is nothing compared to what the old Dame herself went through in the mid-19th century (when you really wouldn’t have wanted to catch anything), when her daily rhythms and very foundations were well and truly shaken. If drastic change is the order of the day, then she’s got more tales to tell than all of us put together. And in that story was a man with the biggest wrecking ball of all, Baron Haussmann, he of Boulevard Haussmann fame, and maybe that Miley Cyrus song. Who knows. Like a true Parisian pothole, allow me to fill you in.

Back in the early 19th century, most of Paris was a squalid, congested mess. Crime, poverty and severe overcrowding were rife, and living conditions for the city’s poor were as bad as they could get, making it a hotbed of disease, riot and revolution. Even a century before the problem of its fetid and filthy narrow streets had been a major concern, and with a rapidly rising population, plenty of renovation plans had been suggested to improve the situation, though none were put into action until Napoleon I came into power in the early 1800s.

During his reign some major works were started including the city’s canal and the famous Rue de Rivoli, though his downfall soon stopped progress in its tracks. For the next 35 years during the restoration of the monarchy and reign of Louis Phillipe, little more of substance was achieved (compared to what would come after at least) until Napoleon’s moustachioed nephew came into power in 1848 as Napoleon III, and then things really got moving.

Keen to further the project and make his uncle’s ambitious plans a reality, the new Emperor had none of the financial or bureaucratic contraints of his predecessors, thanks to his coup d’etat in 1851. His first project boss, prefect Jean-Jaques Berger, was moving too slowly, and so we meet his replacement Georges-Eugène Haussmann (pictured left) in 1853, an imposing 6’3″ figure of a man, employed for his energy, tenacity and problem-solving brilliance. And so the scene was perfectly set for 17 years of enormous upheaval and radical renovation that saw the old city practically demolished and a new one double the size spring up in its place.

There’s far too much to detail here, but the works were as extensive as they could get. Much of medieval Paris was brutally swept aside, 12,000 buildings were razed, and kilometres of straight, wide boulevards cut through old neighbourhoods, lined with strictly regulated and uniform Haussmannian buildings (those on the Rue de Rivoli serving as the model, pictured right). Some of the city’s most famous sights were constructed or improved during this time, including the Palais Garnier, Baltard’s markets at Les Halles, gares du Nord and l’Est, and many of the city’s theatres, mairies, bridges and places. New street furniture including lampposts, trees, kiosks and public toilets were added, as well as much-welcomed areas of green space in the form of improved city parks, quaint squares and the two bookend woods of Boulogne and Vincennes.

The city also doubled in size when in 1860 the annexation of Paris turned 12 arrondissements into today’s 20, adding overnight 400,000 residents to its tally. Updated infrastructure was needed, and a new water distribution system, sewers and gas supply were swiftly installed. Not all opinions of the drastic change were positive however, and criticism had been mounting from the start, despite the new-look metropolis being lighter, more open, cleaner, healthier, more efficient and less congested. By 1870 it had reached crisis point, and with a change in the political wind and the Emperor increasingly bowing to pressure from his opposition, Haussmann was shown the door that January.

Work on his projects continued long after he was gone, and today you can’t travel far through the capital without seeing his legacy at every turn. It’s only in the Marais that you can get an idea of the narrow wiggling streets that existed before the wrecking ball had its way. And whether it’s the Parisian streets of old or new that you prefer, until the leash of another lockdown tightens, I plan on taking full advantage of his light-filled avenues whilst I still can.

Last Tree Standing #7: Spiny the elder

O crispy tree, O crispy tree…

Bonné année you brave little soldiers! And good riddance to a properly merdique 2020. Let’s hope 2021 can offer a more positive…. oh.

It’s been a while since the words have hit blank blog paper, but being safely tucked up in Meaux with Christmas biting at my trouser legs like an excitable puppy has meant that time has far too efficiently slipped through my fingers of late. But here we are for a new year with an ideas folder stuffed to bursting hoping to bring you more of Paris’ simplest delights, and given my current location I’ll be spreading the net a little bit wider this year. Not that we’ll really be in a position to be going anywhere in the near future I would think. Sigh.

I hope you all enjoyed a relaxing Christmas and New Year break, understandably much quieter than usual. The Beau and I stayed in Meaux and I secured my role for another 12 months with my stunning triumph of an English Christmas dinner, cooked to perfection. It took him a while to understand what I meant when I kept referring to pigzin-blankiss but we got there in the end, and my performance has secured my place at his side for Christmasses to come (and he at mine with his quite stupendous washing-up skills).

Now my Mum’s amazing hand-knitted crèche de noël has been safely tucked in its box and the galettes de roi have again taken centre stage, we can begin to gaze again in puzzlement at one of Paris’ strangest customs (but is it just Paris dear readers??) and focus on another year of Last Tree Standing; that addictive and unique activity of sorry, brown Christmas tree spotting, taking time to ponder exactly what would possess someone to abandon their festive fir on the street in the middle of October (the legend began here).

Last year’s competition was truly a nail-biter, with spots thin on the ground but consistent throughout the year. Repeat confinements perhaps upset the balance but with peeled eyes working hard we went all the way through to autumn yet again, and tree-spotting champ Max Legeais takes this year’s crispy pine trophy with his 6th October spot on Rue de Bièvre (pictured top left). Congrats! An honourable mention goes to second place Marjorie’s early September spot in the 5th. This year’s clash look set to be a classic, with the possibility that if 2021 promises to be half as bleak as 2020 (signs pas trés bons) then perhaps no-one will let go of their trees AT ALL. Peepers polished and at the ready all the same, please.

Seeing as we’ve passed the 6th and thus the deadline for acceptable tree custody, the games can once again begin for another year, with all entries invited on the Last Tree Standing Facebook page. The Christmas tree crumbs wherever you look, not to mention mountains of spent firs at dedicated recycling posts, point to a January full of green. But anyone worth their dead tree-spotting salt knows the game really begins in the spring.

For newcomers, a quick recap of the rules….

1. Photographic evidence required.
2. No artificial trees. Or conifers.
3. No planted specimens.
4. No repeat claims.
5. Trees must be obviously abandoned, put out for, and accessible by the binmen, though all submissions will be considered and are subjected to jury approval.
6. Honesty prevails. If you want to keep a dead Christmas tree in your apartment until September just so you can win, you need to get out more.

Bon Chance!

Living in the Meaux-ment

Except for some notable examples (here’s looking at you Home Alone 2 – the Trump cameo erased from our collective minds of course) movie sequels tend to be inferior to the originals. But as far as I’m concerned, Lockdown 2: Winter is Coming has been a great improvement on the first instalment. A far more relaxed affair this time around, I’ve been lucky enough to escape Paris entirely for the second confinement, heading out east to Meaux chez the new beau to enjoy a much less frenetic, and less rabbit hutch-y way of living. Once the rules have been loosened and I can return to the big smoke to explore more of her simple delights, I’ll share them with you, but for now I’ll take you on a brief tour of Meaux, a fine choice for a day trip when an attestation-free life beckons.

40km east-north-east of Paris and only 25 minutes on the train from Gare de l’Est (a mere €16 return), this historical city of 55,000 inhabitants is located in the Seine-et-Marne department, part of the wider Île-de-France region. It can trance its history back to pre-Roman Gaulish occupation by the Meldi tribe, when its occupants were known as the Meldois, as they are still are today. It was the former capital of the ancient region of Brie (roughly corresponding to the bounds of today’s Seine-et-Marne) and food production is still at its heart, with 60% of the region’s land used as farmland. 

Technically a city (the second largest in the department after Chelles), Meaux has a more rural, small town feel, but like its big sister Paris has history in spades. The central old city is where most of the sights are located, itself divided into the southern Market Quarter and northern Cathedral Quarter by a dramatic meander in the river Marne. A large portion of the old city walls remains, and within you’ll find the famous Gothic Saint-Étienne cathedral, in which you’ll find a shrine to Saint Fiacre, the patron saint of gardeners (that one’s for you, Mum). You’ll also find all of the statues on the outer walls without heads (pictured), a gruesome reminder of the French Revolution during which the city’s other ecclesiastical heavyweight, the Abbey of Saint Faro, was destroyed.

Just next door is the episcopal palace and gardens, the old seat of the chapter, art and history museum Musée Bossuet and for fromage fanciers, the Maison du Brie de Meaux cheese museum. A walk south through the quaint old town will take you to the river, the eastern meander of which will lead you to the open green arms of the Parc Pâtis, more of a wood than a park and full of small lakes and wildlife with a chance to borrow free bikes or rent small motorboats to fully explore its beauty. There are two canals to stroll along too, the 13th-century Canal Cornillon and the Napoleonic-era Canal de l’Ourcq, which’ll lead you all the back to Paris if only you could rustle up a peniche.

The covered market in the south quarter is responsible for my 2nd lockdown weight gain, with local producers peddling all manner of delicious things from the traditional fruit, veg, meat and fish fare to the famous Brie de Meaux and the regional wines and ciders. The city is also famous for its mustard (never before have I seen an individual consume mustard like the native Meldois that is the new beau) which comes in gorgeous pots and delicious flavours including green pepper and Cognac. (Dear family and friends this was what you were all getting for Christmas had I been planning on coming home in December.)

The biggest draw further out of the centre is the Musée de la Grande Guerre du pays de Meaux, the largest WWI museum in the world, built here to commemorate the First Battle of the Marne when the Germans were stopped at the gates of the city, changing the course of the war. Just nearby is what the French call The American Monument, a statue in honour of the French victory, also known as ‘Tearful Liberty’. 

I hope you’ll pay a visit to this wonderful city if you get the chance once the shackles of lockdown are off. And if anyone can explain to me why on earth such a charming place was chosen to be twinned with Basildon of all places, a lifetime’s supply of Brie awaits…

Raclette it be…


Happy autumn readers! Yes I know it started ages ago, but what with Covid madness and falling in love with a Frenchman, the ol’ schedule has been a bit disrupted of late. But I hope you’re all healthy and happy, and ready to fill yourselves with melted cheese in the name of French cuisine. For some inspiration, here’s a post from the archives to whet your appetite. A new one coming soon!

When I was young, I was told repeatedly not to play with my food. But that didn’t stop me from constructing elaborate sculptures out of fish fingers, mashed potato and peas, that at the time I thought were worthy of inclusion in whatever was the culinary equivalent of the Louvre.

Whilst having dinner next to a Parisian mother and her child a few months back, it dawned on me that such dinner time creativity is much less tolerated on this side of the Channel, where meal times are a much more civilised affair. For the love of God, this six-year-old fledgling was eating steak tartare and slender fries (minus ketchup I might add) and making a rather organised job of it (i.e. the half-eaten remnants were all still on his plate and not mashed together in a big lump).

IMG_2166Imagine then my surprise when I encountered the DIY, dump-it-on, seemingly-invented-by-a-child melted cheese free-for-all that is raclette; an established French favourite when the weather gets chillier and thoughts turn to snow and skiing. Originally from Switzerland (and named after the cheese with which it’s made), it’s a dish about as far from sophisticated as you could get; a get-your-hands dirty culinary build-’em-up where the main aim is to get as much melted cheese over the assembled accompaniments on your plate as possible. If that’s not playing with your food, I don’t know what is.

IMG_2168Most of us anglophones are far more familiar with fondue, though those slender little fork things don’t insure against drips on the tablecloth or lost bread chunks sacrificed to the bottom of the pan. Raclette is a turbo version of the dish if you like, omitting the wine (which is for drinking, obviously) and the various seasonings, and concentrating on pure, unadulterated melted cheese.

IMG_2171To prove its heavyweight status, you’ll need a piece of special kit to make it happen, though in the olden days all you needed was a massive wadge of cheese, an open fire and something to scrape the melted bits off with (I’d just use my tongue, but etiquette dictates some kind of tool). These days you have an electric machine, akin to a kind of grill, under which you slide individual trays with a thick slice of cheese nestled inside, and wait for it to melt.

Some potatoes are happier than others to be part of the molten glory

Some potatoes are happier than others to be part of the molten glory

Whilst you’re trying to keep your mouth from watering all over the table as you watch the magic slowly happen, the idea is to stack your plate full of boiled potatoes (handily kept warm in the specially-designed place on top), assorted cured meats, gherkins and pickled onions, and pour over the melted cheese-lava as soon as it’s bubbling to your liking, submerging every morsel in its wake. Pop another slice of cheese in to get cooking whilst you’re tucking into the first lot, and repeat until skiing the following morning looks like a near impossibility due to sudden, dramatic weight gain.

The French may still be famed for their foie gras, Champagne and oysters, a holy trio of deliciousness that spells class like nothing else, but at this time of year, I’m living amongst a people who love nothing more than getting down and dirty with as much melted cheese as they can swallow. Now that’s my kind of sophistication.

Post originally published 10/12/2014

Liberation station

As the holiday season draws to a close and la rentrée arrives once more, it’s time to reflect at the start of a new term just what a year it’s been so far. Phew! You couldn’t have written that one…  I trust you’ve all flexed your vacation wings appropriately, and after our lockdown spring, the freedom to roam around unfettered (mask et al) has never felt so sweet. Well that’s what our selfish modern minds would have us believe anyhow, but during the last week of August Paris knows different, as the 25th of the month commemorates the liberation of the city in 1944, when it was freed from the clutches of the Nazis. If we’re talking freedom, liberty doesn’t scream much louder than that.

The occupation had begun in June 1940, and the Nazis set up central commands in the most luxurious hotels, changed the capital’s signage and adjusted the clocks to German time. For four long years Parisians endured shortages of food and supplies, rationing and curfews, with the City of Light turning dark every night at 9pm. Many fled to the provinces if they could, and thousands of Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, remembered via black plaques throughout the city today. All in all, pretty bleak days for old dame Paris.

The path to liberty was unlocked by the allied invasion of Normandy on 6th June 1944, which led to an uprising by the French Forces of the Interior (FFI – the military arm of the Resistance) who eventually achieved freedom after a bloody six-day battle with the help of incoming American troops. Germany soon surrendered and it was up to Charles de Gaulle to take the mic and give a rousing speech, followed by four days of much merriment (and wine presumably) and victory parades. Paris was at last free. Viva la France!

Such memories will never fade, but sadly the lives of those present on that joyous day will, so happily there is a dedicated museum in the 14th that relives the event through their voices. Originally opened in 1994 at Montparnasse, in 2018 the collection was moved to a new home at Place Denfert-Rochereau, in a building that used to serve as one of the ancient toll gates for the city, and under which the command headquarters for the liberation of Paris was located. The new Musée de la Liberation de Paris opened its doors in 2019 to much fanfare on the 75th anniversary of the event, bien sûr.

Whereas you might be used to a polyester-suited guide leading you around proceedings in any other museum, here you’re invited to take the arm of two of the time’s greatest figures; key Resistance figure Jean Moulin and military great General Leclerc, or Phillipe Leclerc de Hautecloque (pictured, right) as he was known to his bank manager. Beginning in 1918, the exhibits take you between the two world wars and behind the famous names via photographs, documents, clothing and a whole array of personal artefacts helping you to understand Paris’ journey from peace, to war and back again. Those unafraid of steps can head down below to check out the secret defence bunker occupied by the FFI and serving as a command post for Colonel Rol-Tanguy (after which the Avenue above is named). The museum is free for access to the permanent collection, though a programme of ticketed temporary exhibitions is also available.

While you guys are busy dreaming of being Resistance fighters in the 40s, I’ll be organising my Petit Nicolas pencil case and ironing my PJ bottoms in readiness for a new term at Granny Flat HQ. A bientôt mes amis!

4 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, 75014

For more info click here.

The dame of the game

Summer is the very Frenchest of times, all things considered. With the 14 juillet celebration as the mid-summer tentpole, the hallowed holiday period showing national devotion in travel form, and the array of summer produce putting good food and endless chat about it at the top of the menu, man it’s quite a time to be French. Or woman, I should exclaim, as it’s the female of the French species that takes centre stage in this post, coming to you from the most peaceful of cities as the vacationing flocks have abandoned the good ship Paris in search of more tropical climes.

Though the French government is more gender-balanced than many, when it comes to the top job,  it’s always been men at the helm, and let’s face it, with far-right Marine Le Pen the only female presidential rival around, let’s hope it stays that way for the time being. But right at the very, very top of the pile, albeit in strictly symbolic form, is a woman that gets often overlooked, though is there lurking around every corner whether you tend to notice her not. Enter stage left in all her finery, sporting her trademark Phrygian hat and generous décolleté, the national personification of France, Marianne.

Gods and Goddesses have represented all sorts of ideas and concepts since classical times, with the female figure of liberty being heartily embraced across the ages, and in particular during the French Revolution (for stunningly obvious reasons). Rather than being adopted as the national symbol directly, the figure picked up some allegorical accessories on the way, with her traditional slave cap being thought to represent freedom and emancipation, and her (often) bare and buxom chest representing motherhood and nourishment. The figures of reason and democracy added their symbolic flavour too, and this mighty emblem of a new revolutionary age was official adopted as the symbol of the new regime in 1792.

It took a while for it to properly catch on, and she’s morphed considerably in line with political priorities of the time, but she is now found all around, in town halls and schools, on stamps, coins, and atop those evil letters from the bank we’d all rather throw away. She also makes up a third of the official government logo along with the red, white and blue of the tricolore, and the national motto Liberté, égalité, fraternité (three really IS the magic number over here it seems). To see her in the ‘flesh’ as it were, head to either the Place Nation or Place République where you’ll find a bronze sculpture and statute respectively, or brave the Louvre and search out Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (above), painted to commemorate the revolution of 1830, depicting her in full battle mode.

As the country’s republican symbol (Joan of Arc her monarchist equivalent) the fact that she’s a woman is in direct opposition to the line of male rulers that dominated for centuries, and her name Marianne is thought to be a nod to the popular working class names of Marie and Anne found at the other end of the social hierarchy to the likes of the ruling elite. For a long time she was a mostly anonymous figure, bending her look to satisfy the issues of the moment, but since 1969 official busts of her have been based on real-life famous females, beginning with Brigitte Bardot, and including the likes of Catherine Deneuve, Letitia Casta and Sophie Marceau.

Her current look (pictured above) was unveiled by President Macron in 2018, and she’s soon to appear as part of the official emblem for the 2024 Olympics due to take place in Paris, unless emerging zoonotic viruses have other ideas that is. With so many guises over the years, pick the one which best matches your inner French woman, and roll with it. I’ll be picking out mine whilst embracing another (unofficial) symbol of the country, doing my bit for the nation by helping reduce the Champagne mountain left in the wake of Coronavirus. France, you are WELCOME.

Full steam ahead

And we’re off! Lockdown has been lifted, and the desperate scramble for holiday places begins. Maybe you’ve spent months dreaming of exotic climes, or a germ-free country break away from the confines of a disease-ridden city. Me? I’ll always choose the train as my vacation vehicle to transport me somewhere green, though with the frantic peak holiday months of July and August soon upon us, I think I’ll sit tight for now and scoot off somewhere later in the year.

But you needn’t be tied to a travel itinerary to fully appreciate the beauty of Paris’ railway stations, worth a visit on their own merits. We’ve already dipped our toe in here, but this time we’ll don our curiosity specs and take a look at Gare de l’Est up close. We’re not heading there for a hardcore trainspotting sesh you understand (though if that punches your ticket, go right ahead) but to have a wander around the building itself, appreciating its architectural charm and rich history.

One of the six major stations in the city along with gares du Nord, Lyon, Austerlitz, Montparnasse and Saint-Lazare, it was built by architect François Duquesnay, who wasn’t known for much else. He sadly departed for the platform in the sky at the end of 1849, the year the station opened, so never lived to see it used to its full potential. Originally conceived to serve the Paris-Strasbourg line and called ‘Embarcadère de Strasbourg’, it soon expanded its service to serve the city of Mulhouse near the German/Swiss border, and was renamed ‘Gare de l’Est’ in 1954. Significant further expansion and renovation happened in 1885, 1900 and 1931, and today the station welcomes nearly 38 million passengers a year, carrying them mostly eastwards to major French and European cities.

The intricate mouldings on the façade depict many of the cities it serves, and its crowning glory are two magnificent statues representing Strasbourg on the western side, and Verdun on the east. If you’re hanging outside the main entrance to have a look, you’ll either be standing on the place du 11-Novembre-1918 or further back on the rue du 8-Mai 1945, both so named in memory of the two world wars. And it’s WW1 in particular that’s at the heart of the station’s history, as it facilitated the mobilisation of huge numbers of French troops towards the Western Front (the statue of Verdun remembers the longest and bloodiest battle of the conflict that ended in French victory). Head inside to the main hall to have a look at Albert Herter’s gigantic mural Le Départ des poilus, août 1914 (above), depicting the infantrymen’s departure with the artist’s son centre, holding his cap, rifle and flowers aloft.

In happier times, the station lays claim to having been the starting point for possibly the world’s most famous train journey, the first voyage of the Orient Express in 1883 from Paris to Istanbul (then Constantinople). The luxury service ran from the capital until 2007 (and stopped entirely in 2009) and inspired enough legends, stories, films and documentaries to fill one of its own carriages. There is still a privately-run version in operation using original carriages from the 20s and 30s, though you’ll need serious coin to afford an overnight cabin. Maybe a gold-plated corona mask is included in the price…

However you decide to travel this summer, don’t forget that the journey is just as important as the destination, and keep yourselves and your loved ones safe along the way. Bonnes vacances!

Grain dance

Now that we’re happily saying goodbye to it (permanently let’s hope) we can reflect on the many things lockdown taught us. Proper Zoom etiquette, the superfluous nature of underwear at home, how incredibly hard it is in fact to focus when working from home, undercracker-less at the kitchen table. It also taught us a great deal about the importance of flour, or rather the lack of it (still can’t get any wholemeal for love nor money), and since I’m useless at Zoom etiquette and not enthusiastic about sharing my underwear habits, that’s what I have chosen to talk to you about today. The focus thing? We’ll see…

Living near Montmartre, centuries ago I’d have been well placed to easily solve my flour woes thanks to the 30 or so windmills that littered the village’s hillside at one time or another. As time ticked by and the city swallowed the area up, either buildings or the ravages of years passing destroyed most of them, and only two now remain (though meant as a nod to the area’s milling heritage, the Moulin Rouge one doesn’t count) – the Moulin Blute-fin and the Moulin Radet.

Now, you think yeast science is a complicated subject, but researching these two has been surprisingly tricky, and a bit like looking into the murky pool of history wearing a dough-covered snorkelling mask. First of all sources can’t even agree on which one is which, but I’ve cracked the crust of the problem, and can confirm that Moulin Blute-fin built in 1622 (right) can be found on Rue Lepic (kinda, it’s behind the trees up the slope), and is best seen at the bottom of Rue Tholozé. Whereas it is inaccessible to the public, its sister Moulin Radet built in 1717 (below) is now a restaurant, and can be found at the corner of Rue Girardon and Rue Lepic. You’d be perfectly forgiven for being confused too given that the signs outside each one say ‘Moulin de la Galette’, and here is where we break bread together and find out the real story.

The milling Debray family acquired the two functional mills at the beginning of the 19th century, and they happily whirred away for a while grinding grain, squashing grapes from the neighbourhood vineyard and processing ingredients for the local parfumerie. City folk would come up the hill to the village for a bit of country air, and the Debrays provided them with small rye bread galettes and liquid refreshment as they relaxed and enjoyed the view. So far, so serene.

Fast forward to 1814 and the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when Montmartre was attacked by Russian forces. Three of the four Debray brothers were killed in the initial assault, but the fourth held on only to be killed too, and (allegedly) viciously hacked to pieces, his remains nailed to the mill’s sails as a gruesome warning. Crumbs. Their remains are buried in the nearby cimetière du Calvaire, next to Sacré-Coeur (another time, friends).

His son lived to tell the tale, luckily having survived being stuck with a lance. A keen dancer, in 1834 he moved the Radet closer to its windmill sibling and turned the tranquil family farm and country rest stop into a guinguette, or open-air café and ball. The party venue was quickly popular, and soon became known as the Moulin de la Galette after the small bread the millers were famed for (useful dancing fuel presumably). The punters came in their hordes, along with artists and painters who immortalised the scene, including Van Gogh, Utrillo (buried nearby at cimetière de Saint-Vincent), Picasso, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Later it morphed into a full-on cabaret (complete with roof) and by 1924 was a dance hall, delighting locals until 1966 when it morphed again into a TV and radio studio. The music finally stopped in the 70s, and the Radet was turned into a restaurant, as it remains today. The Blute-fin was surrounded by residential buildings, and now looks out over the city with its musical ghosts, happily untouched by tourists. Only the two entrances outside on the street explicitly point to their fun-filled past.

Now that exploring the city is back on the menu, make like a local and dance your way over to pray to the party gods that the good times might soon roll again…

PICTURED: (1) Vincent van Gogh, Le Moulin de la Galette (1886), (2) Vieux Montmartre – Les Moulins en 1850, (3) Moulin Blute-fin, (4) Moulin Radet, (5) Moulin de la Galette, 1885, (6) Ball poster, 1900, (7) Vincent van Gogh, Le Blute-Fin Windmill (1886)

Post originally published 01/06/20

Train of thought

Way back in long-forgotten normal times, my favoured mode of transporting myself around the city was on foot. Clad in a pair of comfy adventure shoes, I’d whizz around the streets (no flâneur-ing for me) darting from errand to errand, leaving crowds of dawdlers in my wake. Sometimes though, time and distance would prove too much for even my athletic paws and I’d have to rely on the metro to magic me where I wanted to go instead. Under lockdown law I’ve have no choice but to rely sole-ly (ha!) on my trusty pieds and I’ve already worn out one pair of trainers as a result. A very strange thing has happened my friends, a very strange one indeed. I actually miss the metro.

Rush hour push-and-shove, unsavoury characters with wandering hands (or mouths; a friend of mine was bitten on the behind on the metro once), urine-scented platforms, or the living hell that is line 13 – what on earth is there to get so sentimental about? Well yes, excellent point, but no one’s perfect. It’s easy to be negative and point out its flaws, but even easier to take the whole thing for granted. Rendering pretty much the whole of Paris (intramuros) accessible within a 40-minute time frame for a mere pittance (er, yes it is compared to many other cities in the world) is nothing short of a luxury when you think about how long the journey would take by car. So here goes a blog-ode to the Paris metro, whose hallowed platforms I have not graced for months on end, and am unlikely to for the foreseeable future (not being essential in my case).

It’s hard to imagine the city without it, but metro-less it was back in 1845 when the first ideas of an underground transport system were being bandied around. The ultimate aim was to extend the existing (overground) rail system, though the powers-that-be fell foul of the charming French habit of endless circular talking about stuff without achieving a single thing, and it wasn’t until, incredibly, 1898 that construction began (hopefully Brexit negotiations will follow a similar pattern). Even the likes of Victor Hugo, Guy de Maupassant and members of the Eiffel Society (yes, the tower guy) weighed in with their two centimes’ worth.

Civil engineer whizz Fulgence Bienvenüe (pictured above) was given the momentous task, later known as Le Père du Metro. (Yes, the Montparnasse metro station is named after him, it doesn’t mean ‘welcome’. You can pay your respects there, or at Père Lachaise cemetery.) He had help from Jean Baptiste-Berlier, the chap responsible for Paris’ pneumatic tube postal system, and well, you can see the connection there. Intense and difficult construction of the initial 10 lines, mainly due to the challenging soils under Paris, was mostly completed by the 1920s, with the first line, line 1 obviously, opening on 19th July 1900.

Line extensions linking the inner suburbs began in the 30s, much to the distaste of true-blue intramuros Parisians (are they ever satisfied?). WWII scuppered further plans, and many stations never reopened after the conflict. Forget your images of plucky Parisians huddled together on metro platforms sheltering from the bombing above, in reality Paris was never bombed much in the first place, and most stations were far too shallow to make efficient bomb shelters anyway. Modernisation and extension began again in the 50s, and in 1977 the metro became a real somebody with its own mascot, Serge the Rabbit, who loves to tell us to ‘mind those fingers!’.

Roll into the station ‘today’ and the 215km-long system comprises of 302 stations (including one of the world’s largest at Châtelet) and 16 lines. The 2nd busiest in Europe, it shunts around 6.5 million people a day (outside of pandemics) and is due to add another 200km of track to its network by 2030(ish) with four new lines as part of the ambitious Grand Paris Express plan. The paper tickets will disappear from daily life next year, and the drivers will soon follow suit.

It might not work as well as you want it to all the time, but we must give credit where credit is due. Not only does it wonderfully spirit us from A to B, but it gave the world the word ‘metro’ (a contraction of its full name La Compagnie du chemin de fer métropolitan de Paris – phew) and exported its rubber-tyre system to build other metro systems all around the world. Plus where would the cityscape be without Guimard’s beautiful metro entrances inviting you into the city’s bowels?

Until I can descend once again, I’ll be watching Youtube videos of metro journeys on my favourite lines from the comfort of the Granny Flat (yes, very much a thing). I’ll also be preparing a post on the wonderful stories behind the metro stations themselves, but hey, it might take a while. In the meantime, remember kids M is for ‘metro’, but also for ‘mask’…

Post originally published 12/05/2020