To market, to market

We have to admit, those of us who live in Paris are incredibly spoiled (I’m turning my mind away from the crowds, dog mess, transport strikes and hellish commutes, naturally). Croissants and wine aside, such beauty and history surrounds us, and the most amazing thing is that it’s pretty much all still here since jammy Dame Paris has managed to preserve most of her treasured bounty over the years where countless other cities have sadly failed. And all of this in the face of centuries of foreign invaders, world wars and natural disasters, still threatening her very bones today, as was sharply called into focus in April with the devastating fire that nearly razed Notre Dame completely.

One historical gem we have lost though (and the list is amazingly small) is the behemoth that was Les Halles, a huge iron, brick and glass market complex in central Paris finished in 1874 and razed in 1971, and immortalised in Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris). Having outgrown the capital as the city grew around it and the way in which people shopped for food changed, the structure couldn’t withstand the tidal wave of progress, and was destroyed just before the preservationists found their strength and put a stop to the demolition of historic buildings in the name of boring functionality (the Musée d’Orsay, then Gare d’Orsay was amongst the first to be saved by this change in thinking).

Now as much as it would be appropriate to focus on what we do have rather than what we don’t, forgive me for not writing a post on the massive, soulless shopping complex and rat-filled gardens that now occupy the space, because well, that. So in a roundabout way we arrive at the subject of this post, the marché Saint Quentin in the 10th on Boulevard Magenta, the best surviving example of the Les Halles-style covered market, giving us a handy portal into the lively market spirit of Paris’ past.

Whilst the famous Les Halles was designed by the at-the-time chief architect of Paris and mate of Baron Haussmann, Victor Baltard, Saint Quentin was designed by an architect named Rabourdin, though despite being oft-quoted in this context, I can find absolutely nothing more about him, so that’s where that story ends I’m afraid. Though whoever he was, he faithfully followed the Baltard style and completed the building in 1866, and today it remains one of only three examples of the style along with slightly smaller markets Saint Martin and La Chapelle (10th and 18th respectively).

And isn’t a market with a roof on it just what we need in these wet and wintry times? Head inside and you’ll find perhaps less vegetable urgency than in Zola’s day, but there are plenty of stalls and fresh produce galore to fill your belly just as full. The usual selection of fruit, veg, meat, fish and plants are lovingly displayed, though no need to dash off too quickly out in to the rain with that lonely cauliflower, take a load off and have a bite to eat or glass of wine while you’re at it at one of the cosy bistros dotted about. Heck, you can even get your shoes repaired whilst you’re tucking in, and don’t forget to search out the Wallace fountain nestled in the centre.

As for that lonely cauliflower, if you’re cooking I’ll have a hot dish of cauliflower cheese nicely browned and bubbly on top, and don’t forget to pick up an orange for the vin chaud, too. Call it a finder’s fee…

Fall into place

‘I Love Paris in the Springtime’ is the old refrain, and Cole Porter certainly wasn’t wrong in his affection for the season of abundance. But meandering through the rich hues of spring’s opposite number is one of life’s most colourful pleasures, and whilst Paris may not be able to compete with the kaleidoscope of autumnal colours lighting up say, Vermont, the city promises rain-free skies 90% of the time (so says my leaflet on bike riding produced by the mairie, they obviously didn’t mean this week) so a stroll in the cool autumn wind is just crying out for a spot on this month’s schedule.

Yes, my love of forests is well known, but sometimes a good old urban balade is what is called for (official rules on flâneur-ing can be found here) to reconnect with my Parisian persona. And at the western end of the Île de la Cité in the 1st arrondissement, you’ll find Place Dauphine, one of the oldest and prettiest spots the capital can muster, just aching for its leaves to be kicked and its quaint terraces and benches to be occupied.

When your mind conjures images of Paris, this is where the fictional you will be strolling, with a belly full of croissant and a mind singularly occupied with choosing where to have your early evening apéro (and for film fans, it’s where Emilia Clarke’s character reads the letter at the end of Me Before You, said restaurant pictured). And Paris’ revolutionary-rich, bloodthirsty past won’t even be able to get a look in, as in this little slice of Paris, its history is unusually tame; except for being renamed Place Thoinville during the revolution in 1792-1814, and having its eastern edge destroyed by fire during fighting in the Paris Commune in 1871, that’s all the drama you get. Yes, for Paris that is remarkably subdued.

Henry IV’s second public square project after Place Royale (now Place des Vosges) it’s not actually a square at all, but a triangle (the oxymoron inside me twitches very uncomfortably at this fact) and was completed in 1616, carrying the name of his son, the then dauphin and future Louis XIII. In stark contrast to its decadent elder sister originally intended to appeal to the upper echelons of society, the houses lining this square (shudder) were built not as luxury homes for the rich, but cosy dwellings for mere merchants and common folk. But, given its slap-bang central location, these days this patch is naturally prime real estate where the price for a slice of bricks and mortar will set you back in excess of an eye-watering €20,000 per square metre, making it ones of the city’s costliest addresses.

For those of us without piggy banks the size of Texas, a stroll is a more budget-friendly option, though given the well-to-do location, you might want to do a few turns and then head elsewhere for a coffee and sticky bun. Or why not come prepared and spend an hour or so people watching with a flask of warming hot chocolate, or push the boat out and fill it with vin chaud? Once sated, head towards the western entrance back on to Pont Neuf, making sure you clock the two houses nearest the road which are the only two remaining originals. Then you can continue your stroll across Paris’ oldest bridge, being careful of course, not to fall in. Actually, maybe the vin chaud isn’t the best idea after all…

Place Dauphine, Île de la Cité, 75001, metro Cité (4) or Pont Neuf (7)

Passages of past

We’re living in onerous times ladies and gents. And whoever you are and wherever you live, it’s beginning to become extremely difficult to separate yourself from the many toxic forces at work in today’s world. As you may have read before, when times are tough and positive reflection is needed (when it’s nice out and Downton Abbey re-runs fall short), I often choose to hang out in one of Paris’ many cemeteries. Odd I know, but you’ll soon learn the attraction, and for our lesson to begin we must convene at one of the city’s most famous (and the most visited necropolis in the world) – Père Lachaise.

I haven’t covered it before since it’s never been my aim to focus purely on Paris’ greatest hits, but rather draw attention to the less obvious, but no less delightful locations to be found on the capital’s map. Also on my agenda is a wish to highlight those must-see sites that are free, or at least don’t cost the earth, since we’re in a city with a reputation for being a financial drain of mythical proportions for would-be tourists.

And so we find ourselves in the 20th arrondissement in the city’s first and largest municipal cemetery (44 hectares), established in 1804 and named after King Louis XIV’s confessor, Father François d’Aix de La Chaise (1624-1709). Created on the site of the latter’s Jesuit dwelling by newly proclaimed Emperor Napoleon, it was forged under the leader’s declaration that “every citizen has the right to be buried regardless of race or religion”, and picked up the slack along with the city’s other large burial sites at Montmartre, Montparnasse and Passy after the closure of the central Cimetière des Innocents in 1780.

Designed by Neoclassical architect Alexandre-Theodore Brongniart, although it houses 70,000 burial plots today and has accepted an estimated million individuals over the years, initially it struggled with a bit of an image problem; being so far out of the city it didn’t attract many takers. Thanks to a clever marketing strategy, notables were transferred there to encourage would-be ‘guests’, first revered writers Jean de la Fontaine and Molière in 1804, then philosopher and theologian Pierre Abélard and his writer-nun lover Héloïse d’Argenteuil in 1817 (their tomb, left). Rumour has it if you leave a letter here, your chances of finding true love will be greatly increased.

The plan worked, and the plots were soon hotly coveted, with ordinary working Parisians being laid to rest alongside political heroes, celebrated artists and colourful famous names. ‘Grave spotting’ might sound macabre, but checking out the list before you go and plotting a route based on your own ‘greatest hits’ (printable map here) is a sensible way to negotiate the vast avenues and winding paths (I chose to pay my respects in particular to Paris planner Baron Haussmann and fountain philanthropist Sir Richard Wallace). Say hi to the likes of Balzac, Chopin, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde (his be-lipsticked tomb pictured right before it got cleaned up and sealed off) Edith Piaf and Colette, amongst many other well-knowns, if you happen to pass by.

Alongside avenues of telephone box-sized upright tombs and flat burial stones, you’ll also find many commemorative monuments including beautiful statues in remembrance of (amongst others) victims of war, concentration and extermination camps, aerial accidents, the French Revolution of 1848, and municipal workers. There are dedicated religious enclosures in respect of the different faiths laid to rest here, and the Monument aux Morts is dedicated to the remains of unidentified Parisians. There’s something about being immersed in a place of quiet contemplation with layers of history in the air that introduces a sense of calm; perhaps a reminder of the trials and tribulations, and ultimate fragility and finality of the human experience.

From plaques and simple headstones to elaborate mausoleums, each plot has a story to tell, and it’s in equal measures fascinating and sobering trying to hear them all. Believe it or not yours could still be one of them once you shuffle off the mortal coil, if you’ve lived or die in Paris (still hope for me!) and you have enough cash to purchase a lease. Though if you’re lucky enough to call this your final resting place, there’s not much ‘final’ about it, except if you’re rich enough to afford a perpetual lease, if not, you’re only set for 10, 30 or 50 years, with remains then transferred to the Aux Morts ossuary (a sort of mini catacombs). Not that it’s a good thing to think about death in these negative times, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared….

8 boulevard de Ménilmontant, Paris, 75020, metro Phillipe Auguste or Père Lachaise. For more information on access, opening times and the like, 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.

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.

Jacques of all trades

In my various digital meanderings, I recently stumbled upon the word ‘multipotentialite’, a newly coined term to describe someone with a variety of interests in life, an explorer of multiple fields, a person with not merely one single identity. Gone are expectations of a career for life, with change and progression being the modern religion. But whether multitasking is the future or a plague upon all our houses, there’s one building in town that is as ‘multipotentialite’ as they come, putting the rest of us ‘do-it-all’ disciples quite to shame.

When it comes to towers, Paris can hardly claim a world-renowned collection of cloud-touching skyscrapers, though the Eiffel Tower wins a top ranking on the global list, despite the fact that many Parisians aren’t its biggest fans. Its tallest offering, the Tour Montparnasse, is great for checking out the views of the city with the Eiffel Tower actually in it, though it missed the boat entirely in the style stakes (a product of the 70s, so hardly avoidable), some cruelly dubbing it when it first appeared ‘the box that the Eiffel Tower came in’. Ouch.

But cast your eyes centre-ward dear readers, and you’ll find an elaborate tower-like specimen that puts the other two to shame with its colourful history and the ability to multitask like a champ. And guess what? It wasn’t ever intended to be an independent tower at all, and only allowed visitors to start scaling her heights in recent years, a mere five centuries after her creation. Who said it takes forever to get anything done in this town?

Located on the corner of the huge central traffic artery that is the rue de Rivoli, and rue Nicolas Flamel, the 62m tall Tour Saint-Jacques was originally part of the larger church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie, completed in 1523. Standing proud as a meeting point on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, the church also served as an important meat-ing point (once a punner, always a punner) given its location next to the market quarter of Les Halles, the stomping ground of its wealthy butcher patrons, their deep pockets responsible for its ornate mouldings and decoration.

The French revolution soon put the brakes on nearly 300 years of devoted worship, and the church was torn down in the late 18th century to make use of its stone, though the tower was spared perhaps for its flamboyant Gothic beauty or usefulness as a vantage point. By 1824 it had lost its bells and was being used as an ammunition factory making lead shot (and you can’t get a more dramatic transition than from peace to war) and after being reclaimed by the city of Paris soon after, was declared a historic monument in 1862.

Further beautification occurred in the decades that immediately followed, largely instigated by architect Théodore Ballu, who quite literally placed the tower on a pedestal, to retain its height. Various gargoyles and embellishments were added, plus a statue of Saint Jacques (Saint James the apostle, its patron) placed on top, and a second statue of Blaise Pascal was added to the base to commemorate the period in the 16th century in which the renowned mathematician and physicist used the tower, still then part of the church, as a laboratory to perform experiments on atmospheric pressure. Bringing together the spheres of religion and science? Multitasking gold.

Hosting a meteorological station up until the 1990s, the tower saw in the millennium with little sense of purpose (though with a new title at least, being named as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1998), until in 2000 restoration began in earnest, seeing the tower cloaked in sheeting as it underwent a monumental scrub down. Her new modern beauty was unveiled in 2009, and in 2012, she opened her doors to the public, meaning that (in the summer months at least, and by appointment) you can scale the 300 steps to her summit and make yourself dizzy with her 360° views, and fascinatingly chequered past. And you’re probably best off the ground too given the surrounding park’s (well, more a park-lette) reputation as a hangout spot for inner city rats. You have been warned…

Click here for more info.

Hilltop rest

We’re all allowed to change our minds. And with the last flurry of snowflakes arriving just in time for the beginning of spring, I decided to forgo the toasty magnificently-entranced metro network that I so heartily championed in my last post, for a (carefully) frolicking jaunt in the snow, complete with (almost) waterproof adventure shoes. Who knows when we’ll be able to appreciate the beauty of a white winter covering again? If you’re listening global weather, spring is really NOT the time.

Whilst wandering around my beloved 18th arrondissement enjoying the beauty of Paris, amplified by ten with a generous dusting of the white stuff, I decided to finally pop in and explore a spot that I had been passing for years, firmly stuck in the holding pen of my list of future blog subjects. One day I promised myself, one day I’ll check it out and see what’s what, though time commitments, heavy shopping bags or incessant drizzle usually had other ideas.

I’m happy to report that this particular snowy day I managed to crack that age-old conundrum of converting that unstickdownable one day into the magical ‘now’, and steer my feet through the gate of the Cimetière de Saint-Vincent (6 Rue Lucien-Gaulard) to finally appreciate its sombre charms. And no, before you ask. In my willingness to explore, I failed miserably to make a note of the mysterious formula that can expertly turn a dream into a productive reality. I could have been a millionaire by now if I had only taken the time.

Paris is remarkably generous with her cemeteries, be it in terms of history, beauty or quantity, and though for some a turn around a graveyard seems morbid and curious, her biggest are right up there on the city’s list of popular tourist attractions. Of the three that can be found in Montmartre, Saint-Vincent is the second oldest and second smallest, and a mere stone’s throw away from Paris’ favourite village, Montmartre and its crowning glory, Sacre Coeur.

Finished in 1831 and now containing around 960 tombs, this elegantly sloping resting place is unlike its graveyard cousins in that its not the place to come big-name spotting, as the remains of most of France’s best-known figures are spread between the larger cemeteries of Montmartre, Montparnasse, Père Lachaise and Passy. But the cult of celebrity is nothing if not highly overrated, and instead here you can pay your respects to those historical souls who lived and breathed life into Montmartre centuries ago, from the revolutionary spirits and struggling artists and painters, to the grand families of the past lying in their elaborate familial tombs.

The hallowed cabaret spot Le Lapin Agile (yep, in that blog post holding pen), many of whose past patrons are buried here, looks over the wall at the south-eastern corner where one of it most famous regulars rests, painter Maurice Utrillo, buried with his wife Lucie. Many other creatives types including aspiring chanteurs, stage dwellers and canvas botherers are nestled close by, though thats about it on the fame quota. But not dear readers, quite the end of the drama.

The name ‘Ninette Aubart’ might not mean much to us, but it sure meant a lot to Benjamin Guggenheim, who fell in love with the beautiful nightclub singer and whisked her away for a romantic trip of a lifetime, aboard the Titanic (well he really wasn’t to know was he?). Sadly Guggenheim was one of the sinking’s most famous victims, but his gentlemanly instincts saved Ninette and her maid as he ushered them aboard a lifeboat before dressing in his best and accepting his watery fate. She returned to France a year later, her passage being allegedly paid for by Mrs Guggenheim, keen to bury any hint of scandal that her husband’s mistress could generate.

Left with next to nothing, she spent the rest of her life in France, and as legend has it, threw parties during the 20s that had to be broken up by police. She lived until 1964 when she died aged 77, and was laid to rest here, where the strains of modern Montmartre revels ring through the air. A fitting tribute of ever there was one.

6 Rue Lucien-Gaulard 75018, visit here for practical information.

Making an entrance

Greetings readers from the warm embrace of the Granny Flat, where hot chocolate powder and thermal socks have been solidly dominating proceedings. Thankfully the snow has abated, though the rain ahead is hardly a welcome replacement. Given I’m lucky enough to be working from home these days, I don’t have to venture out too often into the soggy mists, though once in a while stew stocks need replenishing and a spell in the outdoors just can’t be avoided.

Now as much as a bracing stroll is good for the soul, when it comes to self-meandering around a chilly capital, sometimes it’s just the most sensible idea to get down. Not in the James Brown sense you understand (although that may help to raise the body temp somewhat), but ‘get down’ into the bowels of the city, and let the wonderfully efficient metro (most of the time) scurry you around the place, all warm and toasty like.

Now I’ll wager a vin chaud that like me, those who regularly use the metro normally enter the city’s belly, head down and hurrying, without a thought for the magnificence of the portal marking the opening of this underground world. And like me, you’d be a lot poorer for it, ignoring a whole host of aesthetic pleasures and historical texture that could make your mind, and life, a whole lot richer. So next time those grey steps into the concrete underworld beckon, take a thought for the souls who decided that a fancy-pants ‘metro’ sign would make everyone’s day more the nicer.

As with most things in the capital, the collection of metro signs on display is delightfully mismatched, though each marker is a unique product of its own time period. Modern styles tend to make up their own rules (line 14 has been churning out the best examples since 1998) and the future is likely to include quite the kaleidoscope of varieties. But cast your eyes around the rest of the metro infrastructure pointing out the older lines, and you’ll find three distinct styles emerge.

The most modern is the mât jaune, or ‘yellow mast’; that nocturnally glowing M nestled in a circular surround. Cropping up from the late 60s, this canary beacon was intended to resemble a radio antenna, and you never know perhaps it is, listening to our every metro manoeuvre grand frère style. In the red corner are a collection of similar designs, declaring either ‘metro’ or ‘metropolitan’ in a rectangle surrounded by ironwork of various artistic expressions. The most prominent of these are the Val d’Osne mast, recognisable by its ornate frieze (see metro Saint Paul) and the art deco Dervaux style (metro Trocadéro for example), whose much simpler form was a result of the move away from decorative embellishment that took hold in the 1930s. Most variations of the red/dark green design sport a globe lamp on top (Lamarck Caulaincourt pictured), attracting eager travellers down into the depths.

But anyone who’s anyone knows that the real king of the metro portal is Hector Guimard, whose botanically-inspired art nouveau entrances are as quintessentially Parisian as a croque monsieur. Plenty are still available to appreciate, though of the original 141 that were constructed in line with the birth of the metro in 1900, only 86 remain. Though Guimard and his style are much revered today, his critical reception in his day wasn’t quite so positive, with Parisians lacking in enthusiasm for the design when it first emerged (do they like anything when it first appears? Eiffel Tower and Pompidou Centre, here’s looking at you). A victim of media vilification, much of his work was demolished as a reaction against him, though happily there are still come cracking examples to make a beeline for.

Five styles were originally created, from simple railings to elaborate glass pavilions, of which sadly only three remain. Those at Châtelet (a reconstruction) and Abbesses (originally located at Hôtel de Ville) are the best known, but by far the most complete and impressive version is situated at metro Porte Dauphine (an absolute must-visit if you’re on your way to the Bois de Boulogne), a glory to behold with its fan shaped awning and floral paneling intact. They certainly don’t make ’em like they used to.

So in these meteorologically uncertain times, when a metro ride is in order, make sure you take a moment to look up, maintaining necessary vigilance for dog poo spotting of course. In return, the metro gods may even give you a seat…