More free culture!

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It’s really been a month since the museums of Paris opened their doors and let us all pile in for free? Yes indeed. This sunday (2nd March) is once again ‘free museum day’ in Paris, and a golden chance to soak up some culture gratis.

We’re all no doubt ecstatic to see the first signs of spring appearing throughout the city, though the arrival of the good weather means that on the down side, the list of places open on the first sunday of the month for free becomes increasingly more limited as the weather improves and the year progresses (or until it gets cold again).

March is the last opporutinty to take advantage of the open door policy at some of Paris’ best loved sights, including the Arc de Triomphe, the Conciergerie, Saint Chapelle, the Pantheon, the towers of Notre Dame, and slightly further afield in the suburbs; the basilique at Saint Denis, and Chateaux Vincennes and Versailles. So when planning your cultural itinerary this weekend, bear that in mind and save some of your other must-see places until later on the year given that they maintain their tariff free programme all year round. Whatever your cultural persuasion though, they’ll be something to capture your attention.

For a list of participating venues, check en.parisinfo.com.

Notes for coins

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There’s nothing like going to watch live music. Whether it’s an intimate pub gig, a rousing choir or a full-blown orchestra, you gain so much over the likes of You Tube by seeing a performance in all of its wonderfully imperfect, as-it-happens glory. Now Paris being Paris, the programme of things to choose from is just mind-boggling (hurrah), though the dogged pursuit of live music could end up costing you a pretty penny if you end up concert chasing more than a couple of times a week (boo).

But all is not lost, as in Paris, there is music around every corner in the shape of the humble busker. Now Paris, being again Paris, prides itself on excellent taste, and high standards. For the love of God, people in this city risk death every day whilst riding their Velibs, refusing to wear helmets because they’re just not chic. So when it comes to buskers, we can expect the level of talent to be pretty high. And it is. Most of all because the buskers that you see on the streets (the official ones at least) have to audition in front of a panel to secure a permit and a spot on Paris’ famous streets. So the short of it is, you’d better be good or you’re just not allowed to play.

Some of the best talent is to be found near the touristy places where a receptive audience is guaranteed. But the metro is brimming too with live performers of varying genres, disciplines and from many different corners of the world. Scurrying rat-like through the long pipes of Chatelet metro station one day, one of the largest underground stations in the world, my ears were invaded by a haunting, bass-laden sound, reminiscent of some kind of Russian folk choir filling the air with song (lyrics obviously a complete mystery to me in their foreign disguise). As I rounded the corner, I came face to face with the source, a group of male musicians and singers, belting out some kind of eastern European folk classic. It was wonderful.

Buskers being buskers, they appear one day and disappear the next, save for some of the old faithfuls who have earned their right to the same spot over the years and stay stubbornly fixed. Therefore, it can be challenging to catch repeat gigs from the same performers, not knowing where or when they’ll pop up from one week to the next. But after a few years and plenty of time spent changing lines on the metro, I have at least managed to pin this particular group down.

They’re called ‘Les Musiciens de Lviv’, and hail from the Ukraine, specialising in a delightful repertoire of traditional Russian and Ukrainian songs, delivered in their trademark deep voices. There’s an impressive range of instruments accompanying the tunes too, which seems to change from day to day. If you’re a frequent traveler on line 1, then you’ll probably know them well, they’re most often found at the major stations on that line; Chatelet, Concorde and Nation (or at least that’s where I’ve seen them, there are probably others). If you’re a proper fan, maybe you’ve even purchased a copy of their CD (though I think it’s a bit pricey – more than 20 euros, the language barrier when I stopped to do a bit of research didn’t really help with the sales pitch).

They’re pretty awesome to watch though, and for the price of a euro (because that really is the point of course, to give them a bit of cash in exchange for your aural pleasure), you get treated to a musical experience you’ve probably never heard the likes of before. For those who aren’t lucky enough to be roaming through the bowels of Paris, you’ll find some clips of their performances on You Tube, and a CD on Amazon if you’re feeling flush. If you’re fortunate enough to encounter these particular musicians, then all the better, but if not, you’ll no doubt find something else to tempt your ears. Recommendations more than welcome…

The sweetest road in Paris

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Now, I would class myself as an über-tourist. When I go to a new place, I like nothing more than tying up my most comfortable shoes, pounding the pavements and exploring every inch until my feet can take no more. This has led me to consecutive 15-mile day treks across New York, and some hairy times in three-lane road tunnels in Hong Kong – a high-level-living wonderland definitely not made for walking in – but those are tales for a different blog.

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Honestly, you could spend a small fortune in Paris shipping yourself from tourist sight to tourist sight, holing up in a typical Parisian bistro every evening, and have a super old time. But that’s not how I roll as a tourist, and most definitely not how I operate when I’m a local, filled with a desire to avoid the well-trodden path and get right down into the city’s unseen crevices to find the real heart and soul of the place (the grimy and mundane, as well as the good).

IMG_1354Strolling around near Gare de Lyon one fading summer evening in the 12th arrondisement, my curiousity was rewarded as I turned from one of Paris’ main transport arteries, lined with generic hotels, shops and hurrying pedestrians, into a small street so delightful, I almost instantaneously forgot I was in Paris. (It’s worth noting here that I don’t own a smart phone, and I tend to rely on an old paper pocket map, preferring the ‘pot luck’ method of city exploring. Seems to work). Had I not been meandering around as many streets as my feet could take that evening, chances are I would have missed it.

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It’s name is Rue Crémieux – which suggests it might mean ‘Creamy Road’, which would have been fitting, given how the bright and pastel colours of the charming houses lining the sides conjure images of fruity ice-creams and sorbets, making the mouth water. But in reality (and here goes to prove that there actually isn’t romance round every corner in Paris), the road is named after a lawyer and politician Alphonse Crémieux, a member of the Government of National Defence, who gave jews French nationality in Algeria. It’s almost like discovering candyfloss is actually named after an accounting technique.

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The road was opened in 1865 (though named after Crémieux in 1897), and it still bears the marks of the great flood of Paris in 1910. It’s lovely to have a walk down at any time, and is thankfully pedestrianised so you don’t have to dodge the brazen Parisian traffic. The best time to check it out though is in the balmy sunshine when the colours are at their best, and the unbelievably fortunate residents spill out onto the pavement in front of their dwellings to enjoy a glass a wine, a round of cards, or to watch the people go past that aren’t lucky enough to live in an actual house (for those non-Parisians, houses are extremely rare in Paris – central at least, where shoebox apartments are the norm). Once at the end, find the nearest tabac, but a lottery ticket, and maybe next year, it might just be you sitting there instead.

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101 ways with a baguette #1: The Mothership

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Ah, the humble baguette. So quintessentially French. And happily, so wonderfully inexpensive. Thankfully the price of a classic baguette is protected by the French administration too, so heureusement it will always stay a cheap treat. But what to do with one? I’ll let you in on a few of the best ways to make your baguette satisfaction explode off the charts.

#1 The Mothership

The classic image of Paris just wouldn’t be complete without a baguette. That lowly stick of bread, whether poking out of a stripy-jumpered bicycle rider’s basket, or nestled under the arm of a hungry body heading towards a steaming pot of stew, the baguette is as French as it comes. This being the case, you will have no trouble whatsoever getting your hands on one, even in the summer months when the locals drain out of the city to the south, where there is always a handful of noble bakers willing to remain to hold the fort.

But the procurement of your baguette should never be taken lightly – this is a very important undertaking (is there anywhere in the world where food is held with such reverence than in France?), and your pedlar of yeast products must be selected very carefully. There are boulangeries around every corner, and there is nothing quite so pleasurable as doing the rounds of them when you move into a new quartier, pitting their goods against each other.

When you find a good’un, stick with it. As much as the baguette is held in very high esteem in the city, it is easy to fall upon some bad examples, given that not all bakeries are skilled/bothered enough to make from scratch, instead buying them in frozen form and shoving them in the oven. Hmmm. And definitely avoid the ones sold in supermarkets (unless it’s an absolute last resort), which are hardly worth the price of the paper sleeve they’re sold in.

Visit your chosen baker as many times a week as your appetite demands, waiting patiently in the queue (always a very positive sign that the wares are of a high quality – Parisians are very picky), trying not to be seduced by all of the patisseries on offer at the same time. You’ll soon enjoy sharing pleasantries with the baker as they get to know your face, and you theirs – what a lovely way to work on your language skills! Even in a capital city like Paris, it’s amazing how this little ritual makes you feel part of the local community, almost as if you were living in a small French town, and not the country’s biggest city. Next time, how to handle your baguette like a true Parisian….

(Free) love is in the air…

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Ok, when I say ‘free love’, I don’t mean in the partner swapping 60s flower power way. I mean that since Valentine’s Day is rapidly approaching (this Friday), and Paris is billed as the most romantic city in the world, then the mood is right to profit from the spirit of amour that hangs thickly in the air, without the need to spend 300 euros on dinner in a packed brasserie with your chosen loved one.

Sure, you can fork out for flowers, expensive chocolates or the latest gadget if you’re feeling flush (what do people buy each other for Valentine’s Day these days??), and if you want to chance a swish Parisian restaurant, then good luck to you (if you haven’t booked by now though, you might be in a bit of a pickle…). I fully understand that Valentine’s Day is not the day to be trying to save a few bob if you want relations between you and your significant other to remain warm and toasty, but for the mere price of a padlock, you can experience one of Paris’ most romantic spots, whilst making your cherie’s heart go all warm and fuzzy.

Over the last 10 years or so, a strange phenomenon has been gradually creeping onto some of Paris’ loveliest bridges and providing couples the chance to cement their hearts together forever – the love lock. The idea of covering a bridge with padlocks is not some kind of elaborate plan to stop the bridge from escaping, but a way of proving that your love is solid, by locking two hearts together for all eternity (and this is true of friends and families too, not just starry-eyed lovers).

The idea became popular via an Italian book ‘Three Metres Above the Sky’, a story of two young lovers in Rome, though there is evidence of the same ritual in Serbia dating back to World War II. Love-filled hearts around Europe decided they liked the idea too, and over the last decade, padlock-loaded bridges have become a common sight in many popular cities, with many municipal authorities actually erecting structures specifically for the purpose.

In Paris, the most famous lock-laden bridge, and one of the prettiest, is the Pont de l’Archevêché near Notre Dame, though the trend actually began (and still continues) on the Pont des Arts. Other bridges have followed suit, and given the popularity of the ritual, it is difficult to find a free spot to attach your own personal love token, though the Pont de Solferino near the Musée D’Orsay offers plenty of space and some smashing views of the river and the Eiffel Tower.

So embrace the chilly weather (the warmth radiating from the padlock manufacturers’ hands rubbing in glee should help with that), take your sweetheart by the hand and pick a spot to perform your own romantic ritual this Valentine’s Day. Grab your hunk of metal, write your names on it, lock it to the bridge (you should probably kiss at this point) and throw the key into the water, staring dreamily into each other’s eyes contemplating your wonderful future together. If it’s early days and you’re not quite sure whether your future together has legs yet, then maybe a combination lock might be a better choice, giving you that all important back-out option…

In season: February

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It’s getting warmer – hooray ! But it’s not quite summer yet, and there’s a little bit longer to wait until all of those delicious berries arrive on the market stalls of Paris. There’s still plenty of tasty stuff to fill our faces with though, here’s a list of seasonal fruit and veg currently available.

Blood orange – orange sanguine
Broccoli – brocoli
Brussels sprouts – chou de Bruxelles
Cabbage – chou
Carrot – carotte
Cauliflower – chou-fleur
Celeriac – céleri rave
Celery – céleri
Chicory – endive
Jerusalem artichoke – topinambour
Kale – so difficult to find in France, it doesn’t have a translation. But check out http://thekaleproject.wordpress.com/ to find out where you can buy it
Leeks – poireau
Parsnip – panais
Potatoes – pomme de terre
Pumpkin – citrouille/potiron
Swede – rutabaga

Stews, soups and roasted winter veg are still definitely on the menu as the great thaw begins (mind you, it’s not like we actually froze at all this winter…). Here’s a recipe for a proper French classic though, that doesn’t require hours and hours of cooking, and is a perfect starter if you’re having some friends over for a dinner party.

Leeks vinaigrette

Choose 1 or 2 leeks per dinner guest and try to select straight ones of a similar size. Bring the largest pan you have, half-full of salted water, to the boil and get on with cleaning the leeks. Remove the tough outer layer and thoroughly wash. Cut off most of the green top, leaving an inch or two above the white. Where the green colour finishes, cut from here to the end of the leaf end and fan out the leaves under a running tap to get rid of any trapped grit and dirt. Cut off the root as close to the end as you can, to keep the leek whole.

Cook for around 8 to ten minutes, until you can pierce easily with a knife. Drain the leeks (some chefs place them in an ice bath for ten minutes or so first, but it’s up to you if you can go that extra mile), the best way is to prop them up root towards the sky so all of the liquid can easily drain out of them. Now make the vinaigrette. Take 3 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard, and salt and pepper, and mix together (a used cornichon jar or suchlike always works well). This makes enough for about 6 leeks – adjust the quantities if you’re making more.

Place the leeks in a shallow cooking dish, or even a flat Tupperware container, and drizzle the vinaigrette over them. Rotate the leeks so everything is nicely covered and marinate for anywhere between an hour or a few days (make sure they’re in the fridge if you’re going for the longer option though). The longer they marinate for, the more delicious they’ll become. Serve on a plate with the remaining vinaigrette drizzled over and some chopped parsley if you’re feeling fancy.

Is it 1940 again?

Paris is full of unusual little quirks, and that’s why we love it. But one of the most arresting, and definitely the most audible of these has to be the eerie sirens that test their lungs without warning every first Wednesday of the month, blanketing the city in sound.

You’re walking down the street, perhaps on your way to peruse some cultural delight or another, or maybe the lunchtime gurgle has kicked in hard and you’re contemplating parking your bottom at a café somewhere before the midday rush to satisfy your hunger.

As the clock strikes twelve, a curious wailing fills the air and lasts for a few minutes, giving you ample time to be confused, eyes darting around to make sure that this strange noise is in fact penetrating everyone else’s ears, and not just yours. It’s a sound you know, eerily familiar, yet it somehow doesn’t seem to belong in this context.

Ten minutes later, at 12.10pm on the dot, it happens again, and you wonder if the city is falling part and you should be running in the direction of safety, wherever that might be (and you never thought to ask…). Your eyes scan the crowds again, but hardly anyone seems to give the strange siren another thought.

And then… you make a mental note to ask someone what on earth it was the next time you think of it. And then, you never think of it again. Until the next first Wednesday of the month when you find yourself still none the wiser.

The good news is that one day I actually remembered to ask someone what it was, and so now I can pass on the wisdom. The sirens are in fact original air raid sirens, originating from before World War II, and still operate as an emergency population warning system, ready to warn us of any impending danger that might befall the city (like if we ran out of baguettes, say. Only kidding). The system is tested once a month to make sure everything is in good working order, and all in all, there are over 4,500 sirens throughout France that exist for the same reason.

FYI, if the sirens do actually sound at a time other than 12pm or 12.10pm on the first Wednesday of the month (ie. in a real-life emergency), then apparently we sit tight, stay calm and wait from further instructions from the police, city authorities or the local TV and radio stations (and no doubt Facebook and Twitter, right?).

But let’s hope it never comes to that. For the practice signals, all that we can do is appreciate a very unique part of Paris’s aural history, and try to imagine what it might have been like to be in the city way back when. And as soundtracks go, you can’t get more authentic than that.

Post originally published 04/02/14