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)

Spine-al tap

Over the years (if you’ve tuned in) you’ll have no doubt read a few posts on my blog about books (exhibits A, B and C). Well, to bring you the latest, the obsession continues and on a recent trip to the UK I managed to buy no less than 17 books, and that was 11 in the first two days alone – jeepers. In my defence, three were presents and I’ve already inhaled another four, but that still leaves me in double figures. Good job those long, cold winter nights aren’t too far away, and I’m someone who can read (and more importantly needs to read or-else-I’ll-go-mad) 50-odd a year (not that I’m smug or anything).

If it’s books you too are after, English language in particular (the French are pretty obsessed with books too – seems we’re a great fit – but if you don’t read the lingo you’re a bit stuck) then the American Library is the literary Mecca you’ve been looking for. The largest English-language lending library on the European continent, you’re spoilt for choice with over 100,000 books looking for temporary companions, and that’s not even taking into account periodicals, audio-visual and myriad other reference resources.

Just a year shy of its 100th anniversary, this vital non-profit cultural association came into being in 1920 thanks to the American Library Association, tasked with bringing books for US troops fighting in WWI to Paris, through donations from libraries across the pond. Their official motto reflects the cause – Atrum post bellum, ex libris lux: After the darkness of war, the light of books, though the idea of books as light counteracts any kind of darkness there is as far as I’m concerned. A concrete base at 10 rue de l’Élysée soon followed, with Edith Wharton amongst the first trustees, and Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein as patrons.

A brave tale of plucky resistance played out during WW2 and the library was responsible for providing books to 12,000 British and French troops. It refused to close its doors and stayed open during the conflict, albeit in a limited capacity, defying rules to exclude Jews from using the service, hand-delivering books to Jewish members who were forbidden to cross the threshold. Americans who fled Paris with library books in their possession wrote back, promising to return the books safely upon their return.

Post-war prosperity saw the library move to the Champs-Élysées in 1952 and in 1965 it moved again to its current premises in the 7th. And just like there are too many books in the world to read, there are simply too many notable names that have been indelibly printed on the pages of the library’s history to mention. Visiting writers, members and speakers over the years have included Samuel Beckett, Colette, Salman Rushdie and David Sedaris, amongst a thousand others. It’s probably easier to write a list of notable literary figures that haven’t in some way been involved over the years.

Continuing today in its chief mission to celebrate the written word and life of the mind, after several modern renovations, the library currently counts over 4,000 members (membership for an adult is €12 a month, much cheaper than bankrupting yourself at WHSmith, no?) able to enjoy its books (obviously) as well as reading rooms, work and conference spaces, and an impressive schedule of events and talks. Their twice weekly Evenings with an Author program attracts writers as famous and renowned as you can get, and is open and free to the public (with a suggested donation of €10), though no chatting at the back or I’ll throw the biggest and heaviest dictionary at you. Then you’ll learn a bit about the power of words…

10 rue de Général Camou 75007 (metro École Militaire or Alma-Marceau) For more information and details of membership and events, check the site here.

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.

Water, water, everywhere

In the great yin and yang of things, the firm terre on which we tread our adventures shoes would be nothing without a bit of water for balance. And so it is with Dame Paris, with a vital liquid life force running through her very heart (no not wine, behave), the majestic river Seine. Why it’s taken me so long to dedicate a post to what is probably the simplest, most delightful and goddamn free-est part of this fair city, je ne sais pas. But investigate it in the name of the written word I surely have, so sit down, grab a glass (no not river water, behave) and I shall begin.

Let’s get the all-important stats out of the way, you can’t take selfies with those. 777km long running from its origin at Source-Seine (north-west of Dijon), France’s 2nd longest river (after the Loire) flows into the English Channel between Le Harvre and Honfleur in Normandy. Divided into five distinct parts, its middle section the Traversée de Paris weaves through the capital at 24km above sea level with an average depth of 9.5 metres. Here you’ll find river-going vessels a-plenty passing under 37 bridges, five of those strictly pedestrianised (posts on the honourable mentions coming in the future).

Named after Sequana, the river’s Gallo-Roman goddess, the Seine’s very existence ensured the origins of Paris itself, being an important trade route for the city’s first settlers, the Parisii tribe, way back in 250 (ish) BC. Historically speaking, the old gal (yes, she’s a la) has seen all the trials and tribulations of the birth and growth of a major city, from Viking invasion, too many conflicts to count, and many a poor soul destined to rest on her bed for all eternity (including Joan of Arc; her ashes were allegedly scattered in the river at Rouen in 1431). Many a flood has shown her darker side, most notably the big one in 1910, and as well in ’24, ’55, ’82, ’99–’00, ’16 and January 2018. Despite this constant threat of deluge, her banks were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.

Why I haven’t quite appreciated up until now just how much the Seine reflects my simply delightful (and free, most importantly) ethos, I can’t tell you. Perhaps born under a fire sign I’m unconsciously wary of her powers. But as I’ve recently walked along the banks taking photos in preparation of this post, I find it hard to believe why you’d want to come to Paris go anywhere else. She quite simply has it all (ok, apart from Sacré-Coeur) as the lion’s share of the city’s heavyweights line her bank proudly, reflecting their beauty in her sparkling waters. We’ve seen how metro line 4 can give you all of the capital’s flavours north to south, but the Seine can do the same from east to west, so even if you’re (un)lucky enough to be in Paris for only a couple of hours, follow her contours and you won’t miss much.

There are of course many ways to do this (though I’ll put my foot down, those maddening electric scooters will NOT be tolerated). The river boat bateaux mouches will glide you briskly (though not cheaply) past the sights, with the added bonus of unique under-the-bridge vistas (mind your head). Given that much of the lower banks have been developed and fully pedestrianised, cycling and strolling are much finer choices, with ample entertainment provided for pensive pauses gazing at the water flowing past, and sun-tan-tastic Paris Plages for self-bronzing devotees. Many have been so charmed by the banks that they’ve decided to make them their home, and many a be-floraled houseboat can be spotted too, especially the further out of the city proper you go.

Those interested in more artistic pursuits (beyond gazing at the outside of museums) will revel in ambling by the hundreds of bouquinistes selling their literary wares on the banks at street level. Dancers can get their teeth into a tango at the Jardin Tino Rossi down by the river in the 5th (pm), and fish botherers can fill their boots (well, waders perhaps) if they rock up with permit and rod in hand (salmon allegedly returned to the water in 2009, but I wasn’t that lucky, and this is all I could tempt onto mine). These days sport takes on a whole other dimension as preparations for the 2024 olympics are well underway, with the river earmarked for swimming and triathlon events.

There’s a whole tourist boat full of stuff about the Seine that I’ve missed here (I didn’t even get to the part about the dead bodies), enough probably to warrant another post (I’ll add it to the list..) In the meantime here’s my glass (of wine, naturally) raised to the watery maiden that only expertly stokes, rather than subdues, the flames in my fiery heart. Cheers!

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.

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

…the annual dead Christmas tree hunt begins again!

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

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

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

But to respect January’s spirit of restraint, and to gaze in puzzlement at one of Paris’ strangest customs as we must at this time of year, we’ll focus instead on another year of Last Tree Standing; that addictive and unique activity of sorry, brown Christmas tree spotting, taking time to ponder exactly what would possess someone to abandon their festive fir on the street in the middle of October (the legend began here).

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

Seeing as we’ve passed the 6th and thus the deadline for acceptable tree custody, the games can once again begin for another year, with all entries invited on the Last Tree Standing Facebook page. The Christmas tree crumbs wherever you look, not to mention mountains of spent firs at dedicated recycling posts, point to a January full of green. But anyone worth their dead tree-spotting salt knows the game really begins in the spring.

For newcomers, a quick recap of the rules….

1. Photographic evidence required.
2. No artificial trees. Or conifers.
3. No planted specimens.
4. No repeat claims.
5. Trees must be obviously abandoned, put out for, and accessible by the binmen, though all submissions will be considered and are subjected to jury approval.
6. Honesty prevails. If you want to keep a dead Christmas tree in your apartment until September just so you can win, you need to get out more.

Bon Chance!

Bank on it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For canal cruise information click here.