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.

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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…

 

Autumn leaves… or does it?

Living in France, we do get used to erring on the side of tardiness when it comes to appointments and suchlike (though it does allow time to squeeze in a bonus apéro as an alternative to watch tapping if you’re waiting on a friend on a café terrasse somewhere, silver lining and all that). But the weather? Never have I before seen the summer be quite so fashionably late as it was this year, finally gracing us with his* presence in mid-October just as we’d begrudgingly stuffed our summer garb into the back of the wardrobe and liberated the winter woollens.

Though it may point to worrying variations ahead in our global climate, we did as we all do when the sun appears in an unexpected encore, and without a care for the world weather crisis, re-donned our flip-flops and raced to the nearest patch of grass in the hope of achieving a hallowed autumn tan. But which parcel of green in particular? is always the burning question on fairer days, though one I didn’t have to ask as I was passing Parc Monceau last week on my way to scope out a location for a future blog post (this isn’t just thrown together at the last minute you know…).

Nestled at the very top of the 17th and the very bottom of the 8th arrondissement, you’d be hard pressed to find much else in the immediate area to do, and I must admit I only found myself here on the way to somewhere else, and popped in to use that rarest of facilities – free toilets – housed in the entrance’s imposing rotunda. But having not visited it for a while, I couldn’t resist a turn around the lawns, and dutifully washed my hands and started on my loop.

Now this time of the year most of the green grass in Paris is ‘turned off’ and put into rest mode so it can regenerate into a lush carpet ready for next year’s picnic season, so rolling around on Monceau’s gently undulating slopes just wasn’t an option. But you know, parks simply weren’t design just for collective lounging on warm sunny days, and this one more than most demands you stroll around its confines, trying to spot the myriad features installed for the pleasure of the visiting public, that honestly put the humble picnic quite to shame. So many there are, the city should really think of inventing some kind of Monceau bingo.

Originally completed in 1779, it was the idea of Phillipe d’Orléans, cousin of King Louis XVI and close friend of future English king George IV. Not surprisingly given his close ties to the neighbours across the channel, Phillipe was a lover of all things English, and wanted to fill his public park with architectural follies, or reconstructions of historical and world buildings, typical of English gardens at the time (before Vegas went crazy with the idea a few centuries later). So look hard enough and you’ll find an Egyptian pyramid, a Roman colonnade, a Chinese fort and a Dutch windmill nestled in the landscape, not to mention statues of French luminaries like Maupassant and Chopin, added later in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The level of art was so impressive, even Monet popped down a few times a century after the park’s inception, producing five paintings of it in total.

These days, quiet artistic reflection has given way to almost frenzied athletic activity, though feel free to take a moment to reflect on the property prices of the buildings overlooking the park’s 8.2 acres (clue: win-big-in-Vegas prices). If you’re a visitor here today, chances are jogging is on the agenda, and during daylight hours there is a constant stream of lycra-clad pavement pounders doing the rounds, not to mention the grunt of a thousand sit-ups and lunges echoing through the air. So eager is the fitness spirit here, I spied a guys selling protein powder at the entrance. No kidding. Those with younger models looking to shed excess energy, a carousel and tandem swings will effortlessly get the job done.

Maybe jogging isn’t your thing, though admittedly a better choice than the chosen active pursuit of 1797 – the world’s first silk parachute jump that landed in the history books right in the park’s grounds. Perhaps a turn or two doesn’t look too bad in comparison, though we’ll let the weather decide our level of exertion for now. Where did I put that umbrella?

Click here for more info on times and location.

* summer is masculine in French as are the rest of the seasons, try and work that logic out…

Innocents pleasures

Hi there stranger! A whole season has passed since we’ve seen each other, as life has been busy at the Granny Flat of late. I have a few other irons in the fire (one day I’ll let you in on it…) that have selfishly stolen my attention and left you post-less, but hopefully you’ve overcome the drought by reminiscing through old Paris Small Capital bounty. Yep, I thought so.

So we’ve said goodbye to summer and are waist-deep in la rentrée, that autumnal trudge back to work, studies and reality, kept afloat by distant dreams of the next holiday in the sun. With that return to normality, those pesky stress levels like to head skywards and will stay annoying buoyant until we can finally relax, sherry in hand over the Christmas holidays – for most the next sizeable chunk of relaxation showing on the yearly calendar.

Until then I’m sure to find myself pining for regular half an hour sessions sat beside a trickling mountain stream, to gather my thoughts and get the zen levels up to normal again. Alas, in Paris the only tinkling water streams around come from the Wallace fountains, and that’s not really what I had in mind. No, a more majestic water stream is what I need, and the Renaissance-style Fontaine des Innocents in central Châtelet never disappoints.

Not just the one of the biggest public fountains around, it’s also the oldest, being completed in 1550, and was originally part of a collection of decorative constructions intended to commemorate Henry II ‘s entrance into Paris in 1549 (this was in an age before balloons and ticker tape, obviously). Architect Pierre Lescot was the chap responsible, chosen undoubtedly thanks to his work as chief architect of the Louvre Palace.

Now we generally assume fountains to be fairly static affairs, hardly a natural piece of municipal furniture to keep moving about like an occasional table. But this stone beast has travelled more than most, currently occupying its third home, not to mention second name, having been called originally the Fontaine des Nymphs. Take a second just to wonder how on earth they managed to transport the thing using only a rickety horse and cart…

Thanks to the grizzly history of the area it was originally constructed in, the fountain found a new home in 1787 after the adjacent Cimetière des Saints-Innocents was dug up for sanitation purposes and its ‘inhabitants’ were transported to the Catacombs (expertly recounted in Andrew Miller’s novel Pure). Moving just round the corner to the central square of the former Marché des Innocents (having valiantly fought off plans for its destruction), it moved again in 1858 to its current spot, where it happily trickles away, hoping never to be moved again.

So grab a croissant or a hunk of cheese and bread, and settle yourself in the shadow of its grandeur, and contemplate away. Maybe you’ll ponder the logistical nightmare of its travels, hypnotise yourself watching its gentle flow, or perhaps curse my sending you there to find that they’ve only gone and turned the water off (aside from in winter, naturally). Nope, I have no idea either. Answers on a postcard…

 

 

A right royal sunbathe

It’s that time of year folks – dust off the picnic blanket, grease yourself up in factor 15 and hit the park for a sizzling session or two of self-browning. Paris offers parks a-plenty for the purpose, though those with a more refined sense of outside fun in mind, might want to head to one of the city’s sculpted gardens.

Well hold your cool box right there sun-seeker, Paris hasn’t made this outdoor bronzing business quite as easy as we’d all hope, and actually not every green spot in town is open to receive a tartan blanket or ten. Think you can lounge uninterrupted on the grassy knoll in front of Sacre Coeur? Nope. You’ll get whistled at by killjoy guards before you’ve even settled in. The Jardin de Luxembourg might equally seem like a nice spot, but in fact amongst all that lush lawn, there’s only a tiny parcel that you (and a thousand other sun worshipers) are allowed to sit on. And each time I’ve been, it’s been in the shade.

If you want to keep your foray into the great green relatively central, then there’s only one real option where the grass is fair game, and the surroundings couldn’t be classier – the Place des Vosges, a geometrically perfect square straddling the 3rd and 4th arrondissements. If Louis XIV (aka ‘The Sun King’) had ever decided to take his title literally and mingle with the masses in a sunbathing sesh, then this is surely where he’d have done it.

Originally christened Place Royale (see, told you it was classy), it was the work of Henri IV (or at least his building crew) and was inaugurated in 1612, remaining to this day the oldest planned square in the city. It’s also one of the most elegant, and the prototype for many square places dotted around Europe, and single-handedly responsible for making the Marais one of the wellest-to-do parts of Paris. If it’s typically classically decadent Parisian architecture you want, here’s where to find it in geometric perfectness.

For your lounging pleasure there are ample patches of lawn to spread your picnic on, or plenty of shade under the rows of clipped linden trees if the french sun begins to bite. Play spot the jogger skirting the edges, let the kids battle it out in the sand pit or simply lay back and let the regal fountains trickle you into a reverie. Mostly though, just let your mind wander amongst the lucky residents enjoying such an address and try to come up with ways to make enough money to follow them (you’ll need to budget for upwards of €18,000 per m2 FYI). Tax avoidance to fund your dreams may not be in the spirit of the location however, given that the square was named after the people of Vosges in 1799, the first department in the country to pay their taxes to fund the revolution.

For a sneak peek inside before you get home to count the coppers in your piggy bank, head to the south east side of the square to have a wander through Victor Hugo’s house, where he lived from 1832-1848, just after the publication of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. See if you can get an idea of the creative magic that lived here too – it was here where the seeds of Les Misérables were sown and the fledgling work began to take shape (finished eventually in 1862). Writing a bestseller might be the only chance you’ll ever have of living here after all…

 

 

 

Square Roots

kim-hdv-4Think of modern day politics and you’d be forgiven for thinking the end of the world is fast approaching. We have an orange cartoon villain as the leader of the free world, and concentrating on French soil, the name ‘Le Pen’ is looming uncomfortably large in a reality we hoped we’d never see. Can’t we go back to the Golden Age of politics when everything was just and fair, and made a whole lot more sense?

Yep, I don’t really know when that was either. To try and make myself (and you guys, obviously) feel a little better at the state of the world, I thought I’d take a peek back into French politics through the ages, and perhaps see how good we have it nowadays in comparison, harping back to the days when losing your (actual) head was the punishment for stepping out of line, rather then being roasted on CNN or having your Twitter account suspended. Compared to times gone past, believe it or not, this appears to be that golden age.

kim-hdv-1Now there’s no need to bore ourselves to tears trawling through the intricacies of the French political system (I like my soul and intend on keeping it), but instead let’s take a trip to one of Paris’ most important landmarks when it comes to governmental matters, albeit these days on a more administrative tip – le Hôtel de Ville. When I think of some of the concrete monstrosities that house those pesky paper pushers in the UK, well this beauty puts all of them to shame in quite damning fashion. I can’t imagine heading to a city’s council offices in absence of official business to lure me there, but Paris’ Hôtel de Ville is such a beautiful sight to behold in itself, that I’d quite happily cross the city on a rainy day just to stand outside and ogle at it.

kim-hdv-3But such architectural allure and elegance in fact hides quite a littered and lively past, or at least the square or ‘place’ in front of it does, having played host to events that have shaped modern day Paris since it was first know as ‘Place de Grève’ and used as a gathering spot way back in the 12th century. The word ‘grève’ refers to the gravel or sand that first defined the shorefront location, but also came to later mean ‘strike’ since it became known as a spot for unemployed people to complain en masse about their search for work, coining the expression ‘être en grève’ (to go on strike), now so fiercely engrained in the French psyche.

If we’re talking about gallic stereotypes, then nothing says French history like the bloody story of the guillotine. Well you won’t find a real one here, but stand in front of the Hôtel de Ville and you’ll be standing on the spot where the very first executions by guillotine took place, the bloodiest place in the city for a mere four months until the scaffold was moved elsewhere (more of that another time). Hardly a stranger to death though, the Place de Grève had been the official execution spot for at least 500 years before using various other medieval methods like the gallows or pillory. If walls could talk, eh?

kim-hdv-5Well, luckily enough these days, they kinda can. Not as in the narrators of grizzly legends gone by, but as modern beacons of hope, continually and silently reminding us that there is light at the end of the tunnel via the city’s motto ‘fluctuat nec mergitur‘, found on numerous municipal coats of arms adorning the sides of the building. Luckier still, you won’t find the bloodshed of ancient justice here these days, rather a charming carousel a world away from the horrors of old. It’s also the spot for many a special event, and ubiquitous protest of course, keeping the old rebel spirit alive.

For those heading inside, there’s always an exhibition or two worth a browse around (normally free), and my condolences if you’ve found yourself here (to attempt) to get some actual paperwork done. Whatever your motive, you’re doing the city a great disservice if you don’t take a couple of minutes outside to give a nod to its colourful political past.

Visit the official website here.

High on a hill stood a lonely vineyard

kim-vendanges-1Paris might be the bitchy queen bee of its country, pulling in the tourists like bears to honey with its luxurious superiority over its smaller French cousins, but there’s one notable chink in her armour. Exquisite architecture, yes, galleries galore, of course, and style in spades that looks down on almost everywhere else in the world – France’s capital seemingly has everything you could need for living the high life.

Well, almost everything. There’s an important trump card in the hands of many of the other regions in the country that Paris just can’t compete with. Oh, and it’s a big ‘un alright. Wine. Grape wizardry is what the ruddy-faced country folk lay claim to. But like a cunning madam with a trick up her sleeve, there is a oenophilic heritage to be found in the city, if you keep your nose close to the ground and look hard enough for it.

cimg7182Way, way up in the winding heights of the 18th, happily not far from Granny Flat HQ, is Clos Montmartre, a tiny vineyard that produces the only wine Paris can muster. Bordeaux it certainly isn’t given that fact that grape growing conditions in the inner city are hardly ideal, but it’s more of a gesture to the wine gods anyway, rather than a serious attempt to compete with the vinicultural juggernaughts in the rest of France.

In a nod to the wine-making past of Montmartre, where the industry flourished from the Roman era until the early 20th century when urbanisation and phylloxera soon stomped all over the practice, the vineyard was revived in 1933 by a group of locals led by artist Francis Poulbot, who wanted to preserve the viticultural heritage. Today it still stands, a minuscule parcel of vines of 1,556 sq m, tucked away in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it corner between Rue des Saules and Rue Saint Vincent.

You can only visit by appointment in groups of over 12, but the view from the road is good enough to be able to spy on the progress of the grapes. But who need a private tour anyway when at the start of October the vineyard comes into its own with the Fête des Vendanges, a celebration of the yearly harvest and a new Paris vintage (it’s always a red, but don’t be expecting Margaux or anything).

kim-wine-fair-3The fête officially kicks off on Wednesday 5th and continues until Sunday 9th, though pretty much all of the good stuff takes place at the weekend. There are masses of stalls selling wine and produce from all over France, so you’d be well advised to forgo meals in preparation from, well, now, to make sure you take full advantage. Sadly you can’t get your hands on the Paris vintage though, that’s only available via auction (with all of the proceeds going to charity), and anyway with the price tag punching far above its weight, you’re better off spending your hard-earned on Champagne and saucisson in the assembled tents.

Aside from fireworks on the Saturday night, the highlight of the festivities is a parade through the streets of the 18th from the mairie at Jules Joffrin (where the grapes are eventually pressed) to the foot of Sacré Coeur on the Sunday (3pm start), where producers from around the country don their jauntiest traditional garb and celebrate the joy of growing the good stuff. For once in a city where image is everything, it’s life’s most humble offerings that are the kings. And you can’t say more delightfully simple than that.

On the right track

Kim Station 2Hey you! You with the terrible sunburn over there. Have a good holiday? Great! Me? I’ve still got a week in Sardinia to cope with, as my milky English skin can’t cope with the August rays on the beach (it’s a hard life). This month though I have been holidaying in a fashion, kicking about in Paris trying not to complain too much about the city’s face-melting heatwave, and making the most of the deserted streets (for my guide to a super Paris stay-cation, click here). I’d have been in touch, but I couldn’t risk you spilling your cocktail all over my blog, so for both our sakes, I’ve left it until now. But now, here we are, a wee pick-me-up post to cushion the blow of the rentrée let’s call it.

So, modern holidaying often requires being stuffed into a metal tube and catapulted through the skies to somewhere hot and sunny for a couple of weeks. Well, that’s the case for most of us, but the clever French have refined their holiday game to quite another standard. Most vacationers largely avoid the lo-cost cattle-esque aerial option preferring to head to the south of their own glorious country, where the sun shines bright and the need to master tricky foreign phrases dissolves into the sparkling blue sea. Air travel is possible from north to south, but any savvy traveller here knows that the car and plane are for chumps, and that the train is where it’s really at; one of France’s proudest, chest-puffing achievements.

Kim Station 1Being from the UK, my train-travel norm is paying hundreds of pounds to take the most long-winded and illogical route on an always-late train from one depressing station to another, without even the promise of a seat. Jeremy Corbyn has just made it political, for Christ’s sake. France offers quite the opposite thanks to the lightning fast (ok, not quite) TGV and a well-ordered nationalised rail network, meaning it’s possible to get from Paris to Montpellier (747 km or 464 miles) in a shade under 3 1/2 hours. To travel the same distance on a train in the UK (lost for words as to why you would though) would take at least twice as long and cost at least twice the price. Madness.

Kim Station 3Next time I’m on a TGV, I’m going to head to the bar carriage, order a glass of wine and ‘cheers’ the inside wall in appreciation of this seamless efficiency, that after nearly eight years of living here, is easy to take for granted. But this is a blog about Paris rather than train appreciation, (thank God), so I’ll turn my gaze instead towards the city’s major stations that quietly and skilfully assemble and disperse the nation’s passengers from and to all corners of the country, in a display of relaxed and scenic effortlessness.

Out of Paris’ six major station hubs (including stations at Austerlitz, Montparnasse and Saint-Lazare), it’s the big three gares Nord, Est and Lyon that deserve a visit even if you’re not planning on going anywhere. All 19th century constructions (Lyon was the latest, completed in 1900) pay homage to the cities their tracks serve, with the most ornate being Gare du Nord, featuring sculptures along its top edge dedicated to individual towns or cities, including some of the trains’ European destinations. Long regarded as a less than attractive or inviting part of town (and that’s being extremely kind), it’s sad that most passengers try to flee to the nicer parts of Paris without truly taking in the stunning architecture of Europe’s busiest station.

Kim Station 4The charms of Gare de l’Est and Gare du Lyon are often similarly ignored as visitors and commuters alike pass by their beauty thanks to underground train links, but the latter’s imposing clock tower still strikes me quiet as one of the most stunning structures in Paris. If (somehow) the combination of aesthetics and travel isn’t enough to steam your train, then the larger stations are becoming shopping malls in their own rights (but remember, it’s all about doing, not having!), and you can hardly argue with the pull of that trio in destination terms.

So I might not be able to take the train to Sardinia, but I’m sure my journey will be the poorer for it. After all, isn’t how you get there half the fun?

Gut instinct

Kim Brass 3If you’re currently in Paris in this hazy last gasp of July, I’d bet the last slice of Raclette that you’re relaxing languidly in a rattan chair on a terrace somewhere, watching the people go by (and for the uninitiated, at this time of year, they’re not actually Parisians – they’ve all buggered off down south for the holidays, which is probably why you got a chair on the terrace in the first place). If you’re not currently semi-horizontal in France’s capital lazing with a glass in your hand, then I’d raise you my dessert that that’s where you’d actually rather be.

Kim Brass 6And mon dieu haven’t you got a job on your hands trying to decide which particular one to spend your hard-earned euros in? In rattan chair terms, Paris has provided wannabe loungers with an embarrassment of riches (a termed coined by a Frenchman don’t you know), and as many an inhabitant and visitor knows, trying to pin-down the specific markers of establishment quality is as difficult as avoiding a sun-splashed terrace in the first place. Hell, they can’t even seem to decide amongst themselves what names to go under, meaning the capital’s many awnings are stamped with the seemingly interchangeable terms restaurant, café, brasserie and bistro(t). 

Assuming each establishment offers relatively the same thing is as foolhardy as assuming that you’d experience the same level of warm welcome in Paris as you would in Provence (erm, nope). There’s a fine art to this thing, and you’re lucky things that I’m here to give you a hand in negotiating it all.

A restaurant is much the same as you’d expect from most countries in the rest of the world; the most formal of the bunch, with menus depending on the food type and chosen price range of the place. If you’re sucking up to/trying to score with/grovelling your heart out to someone, a restaurant is where you’d head to. If you know what’s good for you.

Kim Brass 4Don’t confuse a café with the greasy spoon type you get in the UK. Easily identified most of the time as there’s often a tabac (peddler of cigs and lottery tickets) attached, here is where you stop for a quick coke-and-toilet stop or a swift espresso before work (and FYI order just a ‘coffee’ and that’s what you’ll get as standard). Beware – prices are cheaper standing at the bar and take a leap higher if you choose to sit (often higher still if that’s on the terrace), and if you’re after more solid refreshment, the most you can hope for is a menu of lighter meals and snacks like omelettes and croque monsieurs.

Kim Brass 2A classic French brasserie used to be a place that brewed its own beer on site, but is now known for its professional service, printed menus, tablecloths and waiters in penguin-esque outfits. Here you’ll find a static menu of classics like steak tartare, confit de canard and andouillette (only for the brave, you have been warned). They tend to serve food all day, and here’s one thing that will BLOW YOUR MIND – some of them are called Le Such-and-Such Café so you’ll have to make sure you pay attention. Stand at the bar waiting for an espresso like a lemon in a brasserie, and you’ll be waiting a very. LONG. TIME. And just to confuse you, there’s a fledging beer scene in France which means that you might also stumble on a micro-brasserie, which doesn’t mean short waiters and tiny portions, but a (hopefully) great selection of Paris-brewed craft beer.

Kim Brass 5Finally, if you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, then try a bistro(t), a smaller type of restaurant, often with just one owner or family in charge that specialises in moderately-priced French home cooking like traditional cassoulet or blanquette de veau. Bistros were originally thought to originate from basement kitchens in Parisian apartment blocks, but these days they serve to be some of the quaintest eateries in the city. And if you’re still furrowing your brow in dissatisfaction, then the only places left to go are salons du thé for tea, coffee and cake, or bars for hardcore liquor to toast the highs and the lows of your holiday/afternoon/life.

And if you’re still not content after all of that, then I, nor Paris, can help you…