You’ve come a long way, baby

After 10 years in Paris, I’m still utterly fascinated by its paradoxical nature. What’s regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in the world reveals a much darker and grittier underside the more you get to know the place, with the tourist version being entirely different to the daily reality that us residents experience. And it’s not just comparing the pristine streets of the Champs-Élysées with the turd-splattered lanes in the bits the visitors don’t often see (i.e. chez moi), but realising that much of the beauty and splendour of Paris comes complete with some quite blood-curdling stories that proves that grit and grime are as part of her DNA as any other city in the world.

Take the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in the 19th arrondissement, whose undulating elegance hides quite the gruesome past. If turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse warranted prizes, this gorgeous green space would take the bacon. It’s nice to imagine that this natural oasis has always been there, a part of the rural outskirts purposely ring-fenced as the urban sprawl swallowed up the space around it, but no. In fact, in its past life, this patch of Paris was nothing but a bare, bleak hill (or chauve-mont, from which it gets its name) thanks to its inhospitable plant-repelling soil, not to mention for 500 years the site where the bodies of hanged criminals were displayed to dissuade the masses against any wrongdoing. If ever there was a part of the city ripe for development, then this was undoubtedly it.

Back in the mid-19th century this sorry excuse for a postcode wasn’t even part of Paris proper. Then known as the independent commune of Belleville, it wasn’t until the rejigging of the boundaries by Napoleon III and our good friend Baron Haussmann in the late 1850s that it was integrated into the city when the number of arrondissements grew from 12 to 20. Along with its macabre past, the site had worn many a grim guise from refuse dump to horse carcass processing centre and exhausted quarry, a lot less attractive than the city its bounty built. The Baron sure displayed ambitious, rose-tinted vision when he decided this spot would be perfect to create a new city park.

Work began in earnest by chief Paris park-maker Jean-Charles Alphand (responsible also for bois Vincennes and Boulogne, and parks Monceau and Montsouris) in 1864, though transforming this ugly duckling into a beautiful swan required two years of terracing (partly achieved via dynamite – no mucking about here), 200,000 m3 of topsoil and a thousand workers. A couple of rakes and a hoe just wasn’t gonna cut it. Once the heavy lifting was complete, gardener and architect duo Jean-Pierre Barillet-Champs and Gabriel Davioud took the baton and went to work creating a beautiful landscape filling it with as many floral and architectural delights as they could muster between them.

Finally opened on 1st April 1867, enter via the main entrance in front of the mairie of the 19th, and you can marvel at a stunning selection of exotics plants and shrubs, and many a majestic tree that can provide some respite from the current canicule (heatwave). Explore further its 61 acres via nearly 8 kilometres of paths and roads, and you’ll stumble across the (often hidden) architectural gems, including the famous Temple de la Sybille haughtily overlooking the park and its artificial lake from its perch on top of the central Île de la Belvédère.

Its signature grassy slopes offer plenty of picnicking potential with their built-in reclinability, though there are a trio of bricks-and-mortar eating and drinking spots for the more discerning diner. Waterfalls and a grotto complete the charm with their tinkling water music, and the idyllic urban oasis is complete. Or so you’d think, but remember the dark side of Paris we talked about earlier? Well just to sprinkle a little bit of gloomy drama into the serene scene, one of the park’s two bridges (not the Gustave Eiffel-designed suspension one, the 12-metre masonry one, pictured) is dubbed the ‘suicide bridge’ after being favoured by a few too many jumpers. Let’s keep that one for going under, shall we?

Place Armand-Carrel 75019, metro Botzaris, Buttes-Chaumont or Laumière

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Head-ing for the hills

In this fraught modern world, it’s easy to lose our heads from time to time. And if you’re looking for a place where that feels strangely appropriate, then Paris would have to be it. Not in the literal sense you understand, those chop-happy guillotine days are gone (though amazingly it took them until 1977 to quit the slicing; try and wrap your still-attached head around that). But in that brain-exhausting metaphorical sense, be it from politics-induced malaise, commuter rage, or a just-stepped-in-a-thoughtfully-left-dog-turd-right-outside-my-front-door meltdown.

As a capital city, Paris provides us with much that we need in life, and when it comes to a ‘lose your head’ mascot, then damn, she’s even gone and given us one. And lo and behold, you already know the chap having no doubt seen his name dotted around the place – enter Saint Denis. Seeing as though there’s a statue of him not far from Granny Flat HQ, I have a grandfather called Dennis, and that I’m these days only ever an inch away from losing my head in these tumultuous times, I thought he’d make an excellent candidate for a blog post. Hold on to your hats (more importantly the heads underneath them), and away we go.

One of the patron saints of France (there are a handful, including Joan of Arc, depending on who you ask) this 3rd-century Christian martyr was allegedly crowned the first bishop of Paris in around 250 AD, though details about this (and his life in general) are sketchy, given how far we have to travel back to meet him. It’s accepted that he travelled to Paris, then a city in Gaul known as Parisius after its inhabitants the Parisii tribe, with his disciples Rusticus and Eleutherius to convert the masses to Christianity. This naturally didn’t go down too well with the Roman occupiers, and the three men were arrested, questioned and imprisoned for their efforts.

Never an era for punishing crimes lightly, the trio were sentenced to death by beheading, and marched up to the highest hill in the city, which then after became known as Mons Martyrum, ‘the hill of the martyrs’, or as it’s better known today, Montmartre. Normally a beheading is a fairly definitive full stop in a human life, but Saint Denis had other ideas, and the most widely-circulated legend says that next, he picked up his head and marched north, preaching as he went, until his body gave up and he fell and died at a spot in what is now known as the suburb as Saint Denis (coincidence, no?).

Here he was buried and a shrine erected in his honour (no mention of the other guys) and in 475 Saint Genevieve (another patron saint, but more of her another time) built the first chapel in his name. His relics were transferred there in 636, and by the 12th century the beginnings of a new, much grander church were under construction, elements of which are still standing today. From quite gruesome origins now stands a much-celebrated gothic cathedral (not far from the modern temple that is the Stade de France), the burial place of most the the French kings, and their significant others, from the 10th to 18th centuries.

Those au courant with the French tradition of saints days can raise a toast to Saint Denis on October 9th, though to pay your respects in person, you’ll find statues on the façades of the cathedral at Saint Denis (and his relics inside) and on Notre Dame. Though it appears Saint Denis decided to make the walk back to the site of his gruesome end one day, and a stone effigy now stands in the tiny park/square of Suzanne Buisson in Montmartre. A great place for a spot of pétanque while you’re at it, and pretty handy too – not only was Saint Denis a patron saint of France, but also of frenzy, strife and headaches. So no matter if your boules skills need a bit of polishing, you’ll be in good company…

For more info on the cathedral at Saint Denis, click here.

Say what?

In today’s fast-paced, politically unstable, shallow, social media-obsessed times, breaking news in the linguistic world rarely garners much mass interest. Often a whimsical nugget might slip through, able to hold the attention of those outside the word-nerd circle like myself, and this month, you lucky, lucky people, is one of those occasions.

The French take their language extremely seriously, so the release of the new 2020 Larousse dictionary on 21st May is pretty high-adrenaline stuff, in a country where an ultra-strict council rules the linguistic culture with an iron fist. The Academie Française is that quite terrifying authority, though what they think of Larousse’s 150 chosen new recruits  – including slasheur (someone exercising more than one profession), bigorexie (addiction to sport), divulgâcher (to divulge TV show spoilers) and the growing cult of adulesence (adults stuck in the teenager phase) – we don’t yet know. Their official dictionary (the ninth) isn’t released until 2021, expected to be an extremely mighty tome, given they began edits of the old one in 1986. They won’t be releasing a pocket version, surely…

Now you may have an idea of a bunch of university professors chugging back the coffee into the night trying to decide on which words on the whiteboard get to grace the hallowed pages. No friends, the reality is far, far fancier than that. Springing from an informal 17th century literary group, the council of words officially came into life in 1635 when bossy-boots chief French minister Cardinal Richelieu decided to create an organisation to protect, preserve and promote the French language. And so the academy began, enjoying unimpeached regulation of grammar, spelling and literature until 1792, when the French Revolution stopped it in its tracks. Napoleon Bonaparte and then Louis XVIII soon restored the good work when the ruckus was over, and since 1816, it has been smooth sailing ever since.

Part of the wider Institut de France, from the original nine members, there are now forty ‘immortals’, as they are officially known (or at least forty available seats; numbers fluctuate due to deaths and new elections). Potential candidates have to apply or be invited, and are then subject to a vote, may be from any profession, and not necessarily a French citizen. Don’t be thinking just knowing a few big words and moving in the right literary circles is enough to get you accepted; some of France’s best minds never made it in (for various reasons) like Sartre, Balzac, Decartes, Molière, Proust, Baudelaire, and Zola, who tried and failed to join a record 25 times. Tough gig. Lucky winners on the other hand counted Voltaire, Hugo, Dumas (fils) and Pasteur, amongst other intellectual heavyweights.

If battling over grammar rules hardly sounds like a good reason to join, then perhaps it’s the uniform that’s tempted so many adroit brains (average age 81, apparently). L’habit vert, worn for formal ceremonies, officially comprises of black trousers or skirt, complete with black tailcoat richly embossed with elaborate green leaf motifs. Those not members of the clergy also get an individually-commissioned ceremonial sword, though with the uniform alone rumoured to be around €50,000 (paid by for the candidate themselves), you’ll have to be rich and brainy to make the cut (ha).

But it’s the metaphorical sword of control that ultimately makes these linguistic guardians so powerful in their secret deliberations (hence no photos of the natty get-up – us mere ‘mortals’ aren’t allowed in). Now meeting every Thursday, they reverentially do battle with French language traditions being threatened by various invaders, most notably those pesky Anglicisms, regional languages and dialects (decisively batted away in 2008) and more modern gender-inclusivity pressures. With Macron pushing for French to overtake English on the worldwide stage, it looks like there won’t be time for the crossword for any of these fine minds anytime in the future…

Institut de France, 23 Quai de Conti, 75006. For more information, click here.

You can’t keep a good woman down… #2

How the world can change in a couple of hours, hey? There we were, on an inconsequential Monday afternoon, just winding down and thinking about dinner, when the news hit us that our beloved lady of Paris was burning. The images and unfolding footage touched every corner of the world, but those of us in Paris felt the tragedy scar our hearts keenly, with many of us having visited the old gal more times than we’d be able to count. Like a member of the family, albeit close and precious, maybe proximity and familiarity had led us to take for granted that she’d always be there.

For me, she was, every time I turned up to work as a tour guide a few summers ago, her expansive forecourt designated as the meeting point for our eager sightseeing cyclists. Anxious to part on time and distracted by introductory tour guide patter, I would look up and peek at her only sporadically. Quite the opposite to 8th January 2015 (pictured) when my unbroken gaze tried to search for answers in her ancient contours when her bells sounded for 15 minutes to honour those lost in the previous day’s Charlie Hebdo attacks. I’d never scaled her heights, and vaguely remember venturing inside to wonder at the magnificent interior only once or twice, and that a while ago. You truly don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

But gone she most certainly isn’t, and as Paris has proved time after time, you just can’t keep a good woman down. I’m not going to wade into the people vs building debate surrounding the colossal amounts of funding that have already been pledged by some of France’s richest businessfolk, that’s prime Twitter fodder. Instead I’m going focus on Notre Dame’s patchwork history, proving that this fateful day is just another breakneck turn in her fabulously checkered story. Notre Dame it seems, just would be the same thing without a healthy dose of drame.

Her story began around 850 years ago when in 1163, a grand medieval cathedral on the Île de la Cité began to take shape, an ambitious plan to create a much larger place of worship than the four churches and Roman temple that had stood before it (she was built out of their ruins). Construction was largely completed by 1260, and by the 14th century, her famous towers, rose windows and buttresses were firmly in place. Additions and modifications continued in earnest for the next couple of centuries as different religious leaders and architects came and went, all responsible for meanderings in her design history.

From the 14th to the very end of the 17th century, she enjoyed a safe period of worship with the occasional grandeur of royal coronations and weddings. However thanks to changing styles in the Renaissance and the rioting of the Huguenots who damaged some of her statues, the first cracks had begun to appear, and in 1699 King Louis XIV decided on an extensive renovation project. All was well until the French Revolution in 1789, when having being confiscated by the state, she fell into a state of serious disrepair.

Napoleon decreed her return to the church in 1801, though as Victor Hugo was writing his 1831 masterpiece Notre-Dame de Paris, she lay severely battered and bruised. Due to the success of his novel and her return to popularity, serious restoration began in 1844, with Eugène Viollet-le-Duc as one of the chief architects. It was then the original spire was replaced, and she remained again glorious and unscathed until sustaining minor damage in WWII.

Increased air pollution in the modern era (and the passage of time, of course) meant that restoration in the 20th and 21st centuries has remained relatively constant, and we arrive at the present day project which sadly led to the fire, but also ironically served to save many of her treasures, removed to protect them from the work. Sadly the oak frame, lead roof and 19th century spire were lost, but miraculously, her famous towers and rose windows were not, along with a huge number of religious art and artefacts, including the magnificent 8,000-pipe organ (albeit slightly water-damaged) and Christ’s (alleged) crown of thorns. All is most definitely not lost, and there’s still a great deal of life in the fair lady yet.

Thanks to Anthony Atkielski for the last two photos.

Making Sens of it all

Being from the UK, it’s fair to say I’m a big fan of a sturdy ol’ stately home, practically dripping in history and tales of yore. France, of course, is a veritable castle-sized library of chateaux, with thousands of stone masterpieces dotted throughout the landscape in various states of repair. Paris, as we sometimes discover though, does have some glaring holes in her CV, and a lack of castles is one of them. At least when it comes to remaining in the forcefield that is the péripherique; visiting chateaux Vincennes and Versailles mean bravely stepping outside the city limits to get your history fix, and us capital dwellers know just how much of a scary prospect that is.

Head to the 4ème though (1 Rue de Figuier, metro Pont Marie or Saint-Paul), and you’ll find medieval pile Hôtel de Sens will more than indulge any castle-y desires one could harbour. Translation trickery might lead you to believe you could spend a night sleeping in the lord’s private chamber, but hôtel in this case refers to its original status as a hôtel particulier or private mansion. But long gone are the days of the Gallic dukes, and the building now houses something way, way more valuable – books a-plenty as it’s now home to the Forney art library.

Not quite an authentic brick-by-brick medieval original, though a hôtel of sorts has existed on the site since 1345, when the first building was conceived as a private residence for the Archbishop of Sens (a city 100km south-east of Paris). Later to be inhabited by kings, it was destroyed after Team Royalty preferred to hot-foot it to the Louvre, but a replacement appeared in the late 15th/early 16th century.

Playing host to aristocrats galore for a hundred years (most famously Margaret of Valois who sensationally abandoned husband Henry IV of France), its golden hour came to end when Paris became an archdiocese in 1622, and the religious folks from Sens weren’t so inclined to make the trip. The revolution plunged it into much darker times when it was confiscated by the state, and years of neglect pushed it into a state of disrepair. It was only in 1862 when it became officially protected, and its progressive decay was addressed, being properly restored in 1930.

Unlike many of the classic stone behemoths of the motherland, having a poke around inside to see four-poster beds of old delightfully demonstrated by scary starey mannequins, isn’t the go here. Unless the library is hosting one of its small occasional exhibitions, you’ll have to make do with the outside, and amuse yourself with turrets and knot gardens instead. But luckily it’s on the outer walls where there are a couple of gems to be seen, if you look hard enough.

Head to the front door (non-garden side) and cast your eyes above the heavy iron gates, and locate the hole-come-chute. Pigeon cubby? Unfortunate design oversight? Nope. As legend has it, this handy channel was used in the event of unwanted guests, when hot oil was poured down it onto their heads to shoo them away. Drastic, but efficient I can imagine.

And they were right to assume the building would be under siege, cast your eyes up and to the left (just to the right of the turret where the wall meets the roof) and you’ll hopefully spot a cannonball wedged in the wall, a remnant of the July revolution or (2nd French Revolution) of 1830, with the date dutifully engraved underneath. Hard to know if it was a decent shot or not… For those less inclined to ponder on violent histories, the gardens round the other side make a lovely spot for a moment of calm contemplation, or at least a nice spot for a jambon beurre. Chance of attack in 2019 happily greatly reduced.

Click here for more info.

Inside the bakery #1: Nothing compares to choux…

Bakeries and France are like peas and carrots. It’s unthinkable to imagine the country without their intoxicating displays and heady smells, and they’ve shown they can hold firm, clinging on to France’s streets with unwavering authority no matter what big supermarket chains can throw at them (i.e. not bloody much). Nothing compares to tucking into the nubbin end of a warm baguette on your way home, and as for the pastries, well, the reason for many a gym membership. You could almost say heading to one is a religious experience…

When talking about simple delights, food is naturally at the heart of the French philosophy. Whether an expertly constructed croque monsieur in a neighbourhood brasserie, or a plate of pain perdu washed down with a steaming coffee (ok tea, British tradition holds strong) a few euros is all it takes to transport yourself to gastronomic heaven. And if it’s that you’re explicitly after, then the bakery provides you with a dizzying array of tickets.

But what to choose? Forget the road to heaven, trying to decide what to have, and then trying to get it home before you cave in and devour the thing in two whole bites is a special kind of hell. Luckily, I have selflessly conducted extensive research on the matter, and can now introduce you to one of my bakery counter favourites – la religieuse. Shake her hand, give her the bises, and if you don’t like her, then keep in the loop as I’ll be presenting other delicious candidates as the year progresses.

When thinking of choux pastry (so called since the little puffs look like mini cabbages or choux), it’s the humble eclair or profiterole that normally springs to mind. But the choux family has another, rather pious member, dressed to the nines in honour of your gustatory pleasure, usually cruelly overlooked in favour of her better-known cousins.

Literally translating as ‘nun’ a religieuse is a two-tiered choux delight, complete with natty little outfit and a tender heart of crème patissière – that thick pastry cream with a calorie count worth running a couple of marathons for (but c’mon, who’s counting?). It’s designed on purpose to resemble a good sister, with a head and body covered in an icing habit delicately joined together by a piped buttercream ruff.

Said to have been invented in 1856 at famous Parisian café Frascati (perhaps the chef had a few sins to absolve but a shift schedule that didn’t factor in time for confession), this edible abbess typically comes in chocolate or coffee flavour, though luxury bakery La Durée often flies in the face of conformity and peddles colourful morello cherry and pistachio versions (amongst others). Pricey at €7.50 a pop, it’s a bold move when dicing with such a traditional food heritage, and frankly, as an expert, I don’t think much of their ruffs.

All wrapped up in a dainty little package from around €2.20-€2.50 (depending on the postcode, obviously) all that is left after the all important selection process is complete, is to transport la soeur home, and decide, whilst swiftly whispering a prayer, whether to eat the head or the body first (I hope you can appreciate just the sacrifice I made in delaying my personal gratification whilst I took photos). The singing of hymns in praise of French bakeries afterwards, is entirely optional.

Coeur Blimey

It seems to be one of the quirks of the universe that the closer you get to a place, the less you see it. Dream of travelling across to the world to see Sydney Opera House and the landmark becomes the most magical thing in the world. Live just down the road from it and pass it every day on your way to work, and it curiously fades into the background. As it is with many of Paris’ most famous spots and monuments; it’s easy for those of us who live here to forget that they’re even there.

So it happened recently, when approaching ten years of life in France’s capital, I decided to finally, finally, finally take a trip inside Sacré-Coeur, my immediate neighbourhood’s crowning glory. It peeks round the corner every now again whilst I’m on my way through the quartier occupied with life’s more mundane errands, bringing my geographical reality into fleetingly sharp focus. So beautiful it is on the outside, but just like people (and fondant au chocolat, obviously) sometimes the best of a thing is to be found on the inside.

Despite lauding over the city like a grand old dame, our ‘sacred heart’ is actually a relatively young pup on the Paris monument scene, officially consecrated only 100 years ago this year (though construction ran from 1875-1914). Technically a Roman Catholic church and basilica in the Romano-Byzantine style, it has both religious and political significance, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and at the same time a symbolic monument of penance for the French loss of the Franco Prussian war in 1870.

From its terraces you’ll get some of the best views of Paris (from the bell tower too, but that’ll cost ‘ya), but it’s inside the walls you’ll find her most beautiful delights. You won’t be able to help being captured by the 475m² gilded blue Apse Mosaic high up on the ceiling, one of the largest in the world, and the biggest in France. Framing this breathtaking work are the obligatory stained glass windows, though sadly not the originals thanks to the carnage of World War II.

Music nerds will stare wide-eyed at the 1898 grand organ, officially recognised as a national monument in itself, and designed by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, the most famous organ builder in France in his time and responsible for pretty much all of the best examples in the churches of Paris. There’s time as well for quiet contemplation (‘quiet’ being the operative word of course in a place of worship) and candles are available (with a donation) to light in remembrance of those who can sadly no longer be with us.

Now you might be wondering why I haven’t furnished you with any photos of this interior magnificence. Rather than being an attempt to describe such grace and elegance through words alone, it’s because in this case, the lens of a smartphone simply can’t do it justice. Plus when the sign says ‘cameras strictly forbidden’, the goody two shoes inside me respects the rules (and internally frowns and tuts at those who don’t). There’s nothing for it, you’ll just have to go yourself (smartphone dutifully tucked away). Free stuff in Paris doesn’t get much better than this.

Click here for more information.

Last Tree Standing #5: O Come All Ye Faithful…

…the annual dead Christmas tree hunt begins again!

Bonne année World Wide Web! I trust the new year diets and good intentions are still holding strong in this early stage of January. Amongst my personal goals for the coming year include ‘drink as much tea as is humanly possible’ and ‘try to steer well clear of Brexit before actual steam starts to pour from my ears’. Oh.

After a generous and suitably boozy sejour in the UK for Noël, I’m now back at Granny Flat HQ with a furnace of 2019 ambition keeping me toasty and warm. I certainly feel like I have a fifth year of blog in me, and my list of simple Parisian delights to discover gets longer each passing month, rather than shorter. I hope you’re equally keen to leap aboard the good ship Paris: Small Capital and join me on a voyage of exploration, uncovering the best, and cheapest pleasures France’s capital has to offer.

Though I wouldn’t blame you if you declined my offer, given my shamefully scant posting schedule in 2018. I can only protest being held to ransom by a charming combination of technical issues, other writing projects biting at my ankles, and drawn-out deliberation as to where to steer the good ship next. Paris’ sights are all well and good, but this year I’d like to explore some of my original ideas that were promised, but never really got off the ground, namely expeditions into the best of the city’s (and country’s) food and wine, that invaluable fuel that keeps everything running, and the citizens largely content. We’ve dipped our toes in in the past (exhibits A, B, C and D), but 2019 marks the start of a much more enthusiastic culinary tour.

But to respect January’s spirit of restraint, and to gaze in puzzlement at one of Paris’ strangest customs as we must at this time of year, we’ll focus instead 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 clash saw a fruitful first few months of the year, with solid spots up until April. The summer saw no (documented) sightings at all, presumably because the heat caused all discarded specimens to spontaneously combust in the heat. The autumn failed miserably too. This year’s winner is therefore officially Louise Abbott (again!) with her April spot, though Max Legeais is awarded a distinction for his spot of 23rd December, though its greeness points to a pre-ski holiday indulgence and subsequent rejection, rather than a 12-month old kidnap-ee.

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!

Bank on it

Hello from the other side… of summer that is (and apologies for the long absence!). I sincerely hope you all survived the season intact, picking up happy holiday memories, a light bronzing, and minimal bodily singeing or sense of humour failure. Safely into the cosy months of autumn and the temperature is still relatively buoyant, but rapidly falling and taking the evening sun with it.

Those keen on grasping a last couple of sessions of waterside supping/dining whilst the warmth holds will do well to head to the Canal Saint-Martin, spanning the 10th and 11th arrondissements, as a quaint alternative to a Seine-side apéro. You’ll be waving goodbye to the thrilling show that is the river police zipping along in their patrol dingy looking for the bad guys, or sporadic fishing spectacles (not from me for a while, catfish you’re safe for the moment), but that’s a small price to pay for on-the-canal-bank relaxation.

Its southern tip connects to the Seine via the Pont d’Arsenal at Bastille and it extends 4.6 km north east, finishing up at its junction with the Canal de l’Ourcq at Jaurès. There’s banks a-plenty for strolling along, though half of the canal is actually hidden underground, covered up in the mid-19th century in favour of creating wide boulevards and public spaces up top. Those intent on embracing the flâneur spirit would do well to join it at the point between Jacques Bonsergent and Goncourt when it pokes its watery nose into the fresh air again.

Those keen to get closer to the water (swimming is a big no-no, I’ll explain later) can hop on a canal cruise and pootle along its length at leisure, with a bonus foray into the Bassin de Vilette and under the Crimée bridge further north, complete with soothing commentary. Those with a claustrophobic disposition might not be so ‘delighted’ by the subterranean section, but if you can stomach the underground prelude, a trip through four double locks and two swing bridges (and not to mention under numerous bridges) can only be experienced via gently floating boat travel, though it’s always fun to spectate from the banks too, if only to see the motorists either side turn increasingly redder as their road rotates away from them.

Originally conceived by Napoleon in 1802 to provide fresh water and a transport link to the Parisians of yore, its construction was funded by a new tax on wine. Despite its vital purpose of avoiding diseases like dysentry and cholera, the concept of turning wine into water must have played games with the French psyche back then, and not being finished until 1825, that’s a whole lotta liquid sacrifice. These days wine takes a starring role as the drink of choice for relaxing on the banks, equally on the terraces of the charming bars and cafés lining the waterway on either side (including the famous Hôtel du Nord at 102 Quai de Jemmapes, just near the canal’s ground-level bend).

Other highlights along the route include Paris’ very own ‘muscle beach’ with iron pumpers galore flexing their pecs on the municipal gym equipment near Rue Louis Blanc at the top end, plus the nearby firehouse further up near Jaurès where the pompiers partake in similar between shouts. But one of the most charming aspects of the canal is its dredging and emptying every 10-15 years (last completed in 2016) where its contents are revealed in what’s akin to an enormous aquatic archaeological dig, its fishy residents being located elsewhere beforehand of course.

Obligatory shopping trolleys, pushchairs, vélibs (shockingly plentiful), mopeds, suitcases and road signs aside, some of the more unusual sludgy discoveries have included a couple of safes, washing machines, ancient gold coins, two WWI shells, and a lone gun (dead bodies are no doubt quietly left off the list). Amongst the other 40-odd tonnes of rubbish found in the polluted soup during the last dredging (see, swimming a terrible idea) were thousands of cans and wine bottles tossed in by careless bacchanalians. There are simply not that many clumsy people in the world. Enjoy your apèro but don’t let your empty wine bottle be the spaghetti in Canal Saint-Martin’s minestrone. Please.

For canal cruise information click here.

All good in the wood

Sunny day, everything’s A-ok… Well now that June’s thunderstorms and lightning (very, very frightening) have long since disappeared, yes Big Bird, you may have a point. Though try swinging round mine for rise and shine one day and see how you like the daily chorus of randy pigeons, upstairs elephantine neighbours and a team of builders who enjoy knocking down walls at 8am (and how many damn walls can a small Parisian apartment have?!). No, not very A-ok.

So as is my want to do when I’m teetering on the edge of the precipice of insanity, I head out into fields of green to calm my soul and recalibrate my neighbourly tolerance. This time, a mere postage stamp of grass wouldn’t do it, so I directed my adventure shoes to the eastern edge of the city in search of the calming glades of the bois de Vincennes. And please ignore self-professed oracle Wikipedia that claims it is ‘the largest public park in the city’. It is neither a park, nor in the city. It’s so very, very much more.

Just a short tram ride away, and the breath of nature soon began to work its magic as I hit the north western corner near the lac de Saint-Mandé. Nature was also calling in quite a different way, so before beginning my much needed forest bath, I hunted for that elusive beast, a public toilet. Now before I begin extolling her virtues, I’ll just tell you this. Get this ‘step’ out of the way before you head into the forest’s deep embrace – failing to find said facilities (twice round the lake I went) I was saved by a group of Polish workmen who let me use their hole-in-the-ground style portaloo when I asked for directions. You have been warned.

Lack of toilet facilities aside (though plenty of water fountains, work that one out), there’s not much else this massive green space can’t offer. Three times larger than New York’s central park, there’s no way in the world you could get round it all in one visit (I’m not even going to mention its famous chateau – that’s for another post). And for somewhere that tourists to the city hardly register, it gets 11 million visitors a year and could easily offer a week of activities.

Head towards the western side near Porte Dorée and the biggest lake, Lac Daumesnil offers a chance to mess about on the river for €13/14, with bonus lifeguard swans (also an option on the eastern Lac des Minimes). Further to the south east is the hippodrome for more energetic pursuits, though be sure to check the gee-gees are running before you go. For a more cerebral workout the resident zoo, arboretum, farm and botanical gardens (Parc Florale) will teach you about the herbs, birds, bees and trees, though it’s the cycling and walking opportunities that are really at its heart.

With 2,500 acres and 50 miles of paths just crying out for hikers and cyclists alike, it’s easy to meander through the trees and find a spot for quiet contemplation, and plenty of trees to hug if you’re into that sort of thing (don’t knock it ’til you try it). Though given its popularity, there is plenty of traffic in the form of scamping dogs and their owners, serene (and sometimes not so serene) strollers, and plenty, especially at this time of year, of those Tour de France guys making Lycra look as serious as possible. Bizarrely I also spotted plenty of tech-neck afflicted head lolloping smartphone addicts wandering about. Lost, obviously (well you’d certainly hope so).

For five-star centering and calm, away from the forest traffic, head to the buddhist temple or ”Grande Pagode du Bois de Vincennes’ where you’ll find Europe’s largest buddha. Sadly it’s only open during special festivals, but if it’s those you’re really after, the Parc Florale leads the way with the city’s biggest summer jazz and classical music festivals. If all of that isn’t enough to lead you to a state of zen, then I don’t know what will. After the drama of this world cup, you’re certainly going to need it…

Find out more here.