Montmartre, mon amour

As confinement plods on into mid-May and our stay-at-home resolve gets severely weathered, we’re becoming either increasingly grateful or teeth-clenchingly resentful of where it is we’re stuck for the duration. ‘Jackpot! You’re in Paris!’, you might think. But don’t forget that as abundant as the city’s charms are, life here generally comes with a tiny shoebox-sized home to lay your head in. It isn’t all chic addresses, brasseries and coffee on a terrace every day you know. There’s also a distinct lack of green space, and what little postage stamps there are, are closed for the forseeable future. Plus in France our confinement rules are stricter than many, so forgive us Parisian residents for not waking up each morning filled with the joys of spring for being cooped up in the City of Lights during a global pandemic. Still, there are the fresh croissants

That all aside, and despite the 21m² digs I find myself confined in (complete with annoying neighbours, dingy courtyard view and no outside space) I must count my blessings to at least be nestled within the 18th, even before I moved here my favourite arrondissement of Paris. I might be towards the rougher part of it, but happily contained within my allowed 1km radius (never before have I felt quite like a tethered goat) is a big chunk of the hallowed district of Montmartre, and you bet your ass I’m taking fully advantage of it during my pitiful hour of day release (of course entirely necessary and I’m more than happy to toe the line, plus all the stairs work those buns like nothing else).

Montmartre is such an integral part of Paris that it’s often a stand-alone reason to come, though in many people’s minds it doesn’t extend much further than Sacré-Coeur, Place de Tertre and their surrounds. Partly true, though in reality it’s a lot bigger than you might expect (officially established by the City of Paris in 1995) with Rues Clignancourt, Custine and Caulincourt, and Boulevards Barbès and Clichy nicely fencing it off (see hokey picture of my portable paper map, right).

Though as is the case with the wider city itself, it is all too easy to lazily distill it and call it to mind as just a paint-by-numbers sum of its greatest hits and most famous sites. Well it is this, that elevated part of the Paris that was the centre of the Belle Epoque and all of the colour and artistry that went with it, a humble hill where penniless painters found their fame and endless cabarets and nightclubs provided the music. Many tourists head up to the Place de Tertre, take a selfie on the steps of the basilica, and think they’ve done it.

I started this blog with the intention of drawing attention away from the more obvious tourist traps, to try and set fire to that wretched list of things in Paris to do (and Instagram about – ugh the plague) that leads you to believe you’ve really seen the city. Waxing lyrical about one of the top three famous parts seems a complete about-turn from my perspective, but although sky-high property rates have kicked out the penniless painters, this remains one of the best places in the city where you needn’t spend a dime to fully appreciate the magic of Paris.

Strolling along the undulating, wiggly streets makes a wonderful difference to the wide and noisy boulevards elsewhere, and there simply isn’t a part of the city better for strolling around without having pay extortionate entrance fees and queue with a thousand other culture seekers. Most of what there is to see presents itself on the outside, and there are days’ worth of sights to see for free, including (amongst others) the ‘I love You’ wall, Clos Montmartre vineyard, the two cemeteries Saint-Vincent and Montmartre, and the crowning glory of Sacré-Coeur. And the point is that you really don’t need to have an intention to see anything, just walking around the streets and absorbing the unique spirit of the place is as uplifting for the soul as any part of Paris.

It’s certainly keeping my spirits up at this crazy difficult time. Bon courage tout le monde, and see you on the other side!

(We’ll delve properly into the history of the area and various stops along the way in future posts, I hope you’ll join me!)

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.

China in your hand

So far, what with bushfires, strikes and general planetary malaise, 2020 hasn’t exactly given us the best start. But in the cooling embers of January, we have the perfect excuse to wipe the last few weeks off the whiteboard, slap those bad habits round the chops once more, and begin again in the vain hope of turning our fortunes around.

Yes, Chinese New Year is upon us again (officially Saturday 25th January though festivities continue until 8th February) this year bowing to the first animal of the zodiac, the rat. Our rodent friend might not be the most obvious of celebratory mascots, but in fact signifies the beginning of a new day, and wealth and prosperity (and couldn’t we all do with a big dollop of all of that). As a resident of Paris and a huge fan of Roland Rat as a child (yeaaaah!) it seems rather fitting to me.

Celebrated by billions worldwide, the festivities in Paris naturally centre in the 13th arrondissement (check here for event details) known as the city’s ‘Chinatown’, and the largest in Europe. But to set the ‘rat’ amongst the pigeons as it were, here are two fun facts: (1) this is only one of three Chinatowns in Paris, and (2) it’s not really a Chinatown at all, but more accurately the ‘Asian Quarter’ or Petite Asie, home to significant numbers of other Asian populations most notably Laotian, Vietnamese and Cambodian.

Settled first by Vietnamese immigrants fleeing the war in the late 70s and forming a triangle bordered by avenues d’Ivry and Choissy, the area isn’t the prettiest part of town (see above) with distinctly un-Chinese architecture. But never fear, you’ll find plenty of colour in bowls of pho, displays of exotic fruit and veg, and plenty of shops selling lucky paw-waving cats and tea paraphernalia. Add your own colour to various pop hits at ‘Karaoke Laservision’ (I’m so intrigued), green-up the shoebox with a couple of sprigs of bamboo, or brighten up your crockery collection with some beautiful Chinese bowls.

If 70s tower block chic doesn’t light your fireworks, head over to the Chinatown at Belleville (where the 10th, 11th, 19th and 20th arrondissements meet) settled since the 1860s with residents mostly hailing from the eastern Zhejiang province in China, though a great many other nationalities have chosen this spot as their home too, including Armenian, Algerian, Tunisian, Greek and Vietnamese. It would be rude (and nigh on impossible) to leave without stuffing your face, and you’ll be utterly spoiled for choice with restaurants at every two paces. Satisfy your inner Ken Hom at a gourmet version of the famous Tang Frères retail chain, or stock up on noodles and nam pla at sister supermarket Paristore, not forgetting to purchase a cute animal bowl to put your culinary creations in.

The final chopstick in the Chinatown trio is the much smaller Chinese community found at Arts and Métiers in the Marais (3rd arrondissement), occupying just a couple of streets (head for rue au Marie). Originally settled in the 1900s making it the oldest in the city, Chinese workers came over from the Zhejiang province and set up leather and porcelain workshops, particularly during the interwar years, though it’s the restaurant scene that dominates today.

Whilst the rats amongst us will be using their paws to nibble away at the noodle dregs in the alley, you’ll be à table discovering your powers of incoordination whilst wrestling with a pair of chopsticks. Which in French, translates as baguettes. Mind well and truly blown.

Gong Xi Fa Cai rat fans!

Last Tree Standing #6: For pine is the kingdom…

Let’s get down with the brown!

Bonné année scary cyber land! I hope everyone is suitably stuffed and rested like a prize capon thanks to the Christmas break, though in France things have been pretty fraught what with ongoing strikes and a generally unrestful ‘down-with-that-sort-of-thing’ vibe. Christmas in France was swell and I learned a very important new skill – opening a Champagne bottle with a knife. You bring a (full) bottle over, and I’ll give you a free demonstration. Christmas in Blighty was pretty swell too, though I almost shed a tear coming back through passport control as a British European for the last time. There, that’s your lot. Not a sausage about Brexit for the rest of the year. Promise.

Now back in Granny Flat with renovations beginning in earnest (like a tiny patch of wall being sanded at a time to avoid toxic plumes of dust, this is no Grand Designs) I certainly feel like I have an amazing sixth year of blog in me, and my list of simple Parisian delights to discover stubbornly refuses to get any shorter. I hope you’ll join me of course, and if you want to hear a little bit more about me and what this whole blog thing is, check out my episode on the C’est La Vie podcast from the lovely Katie.

We’ve covered a lot of the greatest hits in the last five years, so we’ll be heading in a more off-the-beaten-track direction in the year to come, with a lean towards forests and food, my two saviours when this increasingly bonkers world gets a little too hard to handle. Feel free to post any suggestions on the (probably criminally under-updated) PSC Facebook, Twitter or Instagram!

Now the crèche de noël has been dismantled and galettes de roi have taken centre stage, we can begin to gaze again in puzzlement at one of Paris’ strangest customs (but is it just Paris dear readers??) and focus 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 slim pickings, presumably because the heat caused all discarded specimens to spontaneously combust in the heat, and evidence suggests that that’s exactly what happened as we didn’t get much further, with Nicole McElvain taking the prize with her mid-June spot. Max Legeais is awarded a distinction (again) for his spot of 16th December, though signs point to a pre-ski holiday indulgence and subsequent rejection, rather than a 12-month old kidnap-ee. But in this crazy game, who blinkin’ knows.

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!

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…

Inside the Bakery #2: Simply the Brest

If you’re currently within the confines of the hexagone (France for the uninitiated, in reference to its shape) you can’t help but notice two things. The brutal heatwaves sweeping the nation and the poor (weird? utterly bat-merde crazy?) souls voluntarily climbing up mountains on bicycles in such high 30s-low 40s weather. Yes, the Tour de France is here again, and this time, maybe, just maybe, the French might take it (Update: er, no they didn’t…)

Not only one of nation’s favourite sports and a quite astounding physically demanding challenge to wrap your head around, cycling has managed to reach French cultural spots that other sports just haven’t managed, namely creating a magical partnership between cycling… and patisserie. But to be honest, in a country where food is King, Queen and the whole bloody Royal Family (well they don’t have a real one, remember) it’s amazing it hasn’t happened a lot more often.

Yes, in addition to having its own clothing line (those natty coloured jerseys), cycling has its own official pastry. And it has done since 1910 when pâtissier Louis Durand was asked by his friend Pierre Giffard to create a dessert to commemorate the Paris-Brest-Paris (or PBP) bike race that he had created in 1891. A prolific sports event organiser and journalist, Giffard founded the PBP as a method of boosting sales of his Parisian newspaper Le Petit Journal (after seeing the success of a 600km Paris to Bordeaux race that was created for that very reason) and by 1895 it seemed that his plan had worked and with a daily circulation of two million it was the world’s most popular newspaper.

Officially the world’s oldest long-distance cycle race (the Tour came along a few years later as a publicity stunt for a rival newspaper) the 1,200km event was designed to show off the capabilities of the humble bicycle, then the sharpest of cutting-edge technology, with a ride from Paris to Brest in Brittany and back again.

The fact it takes place on two wheels is essentially all it has in common with the hallowed Tour, and rather than taking place every year with a changeable route, the PBP has settled into a four-yearly cycle keeping pretty much the same itinerary, with the 2019 edition due to roll off on the 18th August. Originally a professional race but now exclusively populated by amateurs, this year more than 6,000 riders will take part, with the sole aim of trying to stay in the saddle and complete the challenge in under 90 hours. Much sleeping under hedges and dogged determination will see the participants through, and you can tell your buddies that you would have taken part, but registration is now closed. Excuses for the next four years until the 2023 edition entirely up to you.

If this all sounds a bit too physically and mentally taxing for you, then direct your penny farthing to the bakery and order the Paris-Brest – two circular wheels of choux pastry filled with praline cream and dusted with slivered almonds and icing sugar (I had to eat two just to check the recipe). Most commonly available in small individual pastries, you can also find a much larger version, comparable in size to the tyres on those weird foldable bike things. Given its high calorific value, it was and still is popular with the race riders (yes, during) though they have the luxury of being able to burn off the calories almost instantaneously. I’ll wait for the stifling heat to pass, and then I’ll jump back on my Velib, promise.

You’ve come a long way, baby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Head-ing for the hills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the bakery #1: Nothing compares to choux…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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