Living in the Meaux-ment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liberation station

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, 75014

For more info click here.

The dame of the game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the Bakery #3: The Puff Daddy

In these difficult and unprecedented times, it’s like we’re relearning how to fully appreciate the simple things around us. Here in France our trips outside are severely limited, but thankfully, our precious bakeries are still open and they offer us valuable solace in lieu of trips to the park, or wine and a meal in a local brasserie with friends. Never before have those crisp, fresh baguettes seemed so essential to daily life, or those neat lines of sweet things and pastries so comforting as confinement treats. So with this long overdue post, it’s off to the bakery we go, and this time we can ignore no further the Billy Big Balls of the bakery gang, the humble croissant.

As French as Camembert right? You’d certainly think so given the citizens’ love affair with the curved and puffy pillow. But hold the phones mes amis! The croissant is, in reality, about as French as the Yorkshire pudding, and nothing but an ex-pat pastry if you will, having set up home in France after moving in from Austria in the 18th century. And as if to rub un peu de sel into the wound, legend has it that the person responsible for its introduction is none other than disgraced queen Marie-Antoinette. It’s a bit like finding out your favourite childhood toy was made by Miss Trunchbull or something.

As is the case with culinary origins, accounts of the true beginnings of the croissant vary as much as the tastes of the people who eat them. But our backward-pointing curiosity telescope tells us that crescent-shaped baked goods have existed since pagan times, as a nod to the goddess of the moon. They were also a regular feature on the menus of monasteries as far back as the 10th century, and were known as panis lunatis, and took the form of a small crescent-shaped bread roll traditionally baked for Easter. Just out of the corner of our lens, we can see ye olde fake news legend of the shape of the bread echoing the crescent found on the Turkish flag, adopted during the Ottoman siege of Vienna, but we’ll throw that in the waste disposal where it belongs.

Fast forward a few centuries, and our magic carpet of baking discovery arrives in Vienna in any case, in the 13th century. Here we meet the kipferl, the grandaddy of our precious croissant, a similar curved bread enjoyed throughout the country for breakfast or with coffee. Here the gentle townsfolk enjoyed their simple treat for a few centuries more until a certain young daughter of an Austrian Empress scored a match with French King Louis XVI. Much as I panic buy Marmite when I’m back in the UK, Marie-Antoinette was keen to keep her beloved home comforts close, and thus shipped them over the French court where they were greeted with open mouths and tweaked over the next century until the croissant as we know it came to be.

Named after the waxing moon (second culinary bombshell coming up) there’s quite the debate in France over whether croissants should actually be straight, with some preferring the linear version to the curved original (with the word ‘croissant’ literally meaning ‘crescent’, this is utterly baffling). And get this, rather than a simple treat knocked up in a couple of hours, croissants actually take days to make, with an endless stream of rolling and resting steps the dough has to soldier through. Which is why in most bakeries in France the pastries you buy are actually (shock horror!) frozen and prepared when needed, though the quality is so high, even the Frenchiest French person is unable to tell the difference.

So there’s ‘making croissants from scratch’ struck off the lockdown to do list. Best to save one of those precious daily outings for a special trip to the bakery, and I guarantee in these circumstances, it’s going to be the best croissant you’ve ever had.

*Apologies for the lack of personal pictures, but I’ve actually been putting off a trip to the bakery until I’m utterly desperate, due to a mixture of fear of infection, civic duty and realisation that once I start eating croissants in isolation, there just isn’t any going back, and I may not be able to get out of the door again once it’s all over…

101 ways with a baguette #7: The Winter Warmer

January was the longest year ever. Sadly there’s no reward for enduring it, and cruel February turns up next in line with its capricious weather. But hey, at least it’s short. And it forces us to search for those little moments of pleasure buried deep in the cold, and a steaming bowl of soup has to be one of the most universal (and budget friendly). And what would a bowl of soup be without a baguette as its wingman? Now dunking is all well and good, and if you have time to whip up a batch of those crispy little dice we call croutons, more power to you. But if we’re talking the perfect cold-weather marriage between soup and bread; at this time of year, in this part of the world, there’s only one clear choice. French onion soup.

A favourite of the Romans and Greeks way back when, simple onion soup has been around for donkey’s years due the humble ingredient’s widespread availability, cheap price and restorative and nutritional powers (put those goji berries down!). Originally a chunk of bread was used as a type of absorbent submarine onto which the broth was poured, as with most soups in days of yore (this is where the word ‘soup’ comes from, referring to the ‘sop’ or piece of bread soaked in the liquid). Its promotion to cheese raft status is highly debated so we won’t enter into that, but simply bow down to the person whose ingenuity elevated a humble soup to a quite legendary culinary experience. Merci beaucoup stranger.

A staple of French cooking throughout the centuries, it’s perhaps America we can thank for its enduring popularity today on the world stage, being championed in the 1960s as part of a wider culture celebrating Gallic cuisine. A stalwart on brasserie blackboards throughout the land at this time of year, you’ll have no trouble finding it, but for even the wobbliest of cooks amongst us it’s a breeze to make, and though it technically takes a while on the hob, chef input is happily minimal. Recipe interpretation is as widespread as the soup’s appeal, and much freestyling is encouraged. I’ll give you the basics and you can let your inner Escoffier do all the rest.

Sliced regular yellow/Spanish onions enjoy a long caramelisation (like 45 minutes) followed by the addition of a liquid, be it a good beef, chicken or vegetable stock (or even a spoonful of marmite if you’re me) or for the purists out there (and Raymond Blanc) plain old water. An optional alcoholic element is next in the pan, choose from white wine, cider, Cognac, port, Madeira, Calvados or whatever your booze cabinet dictates. Use flour to thicken, or not, and leave to bubble away whilst you slice the baguette and prepare the cheese rafts (toasted beforehand to make them sturdier). The traditional cheese choice is Gruyère but Emmental works just as well, or even a dog-end of Cheddar or Comté could be put to good use.

The final steps are as divisive as the rest, and the simplest is probably to place pre-grilled or baked cheese rafts on top of a full bowl and leave it at that. The renegades take it one step further by placing the toasts on top and covering the whole thing in grated cheese with reckless abandon, then baking bowl and all in the oven until bubbly and delicious. Though this option includes a 30 minute wait staring at said delicious bowl of soup before it cools down enough for your mouth to enjoy it. In Lyon they go off piste further and get a blender and egg yolks involved, choosing it specifically as an after-pub crawl snack. I’ll leave you and your googling skills to find the recipe that suits you and your own particular culinary persuasions.

If we’re talking Valentine’s Day on a budget, cook up a batch of this steamy stuff served alongside a bottle of non-Champagne fizz (see here for a quick guide) and any self-respecting partner will be putty in your hands. Plus it works excellently as a hangover cure apparently so save a bit for the morning after, if you can muster the willpower. Or what better way to administer a self-hug in you’re riding solo? Retro onion soup bowl à la Granny Flat, optional.

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.

Post originally published 06/09/2019

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.