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