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.

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.

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.

All good in the wood

Sunny day, everything’s A-ok… Well now that June’s thunderstorms and lightning (very, very frightening) have long since disappeared, yes Big Bird, you may have a point. Though try swinging round mine for rise and shine one day and see how you like the daily chorus of randy pigeons, upstairs elephantine neighbours and a team of builders who enjoy knocking down walls at 8am (and how many damn walls can a small Parisian apartment have?!). No, not very A-ok.

So as is my want to do when I’m teetering on the edge of the precipice of insanity, I head out into fields of green to calm my soul and recalibrate my neighbourly tolerance. This time, a mere postage stamp of grass wouldn’t do it, so I directed my adventure shoes to the eastern edge of the city in search of the calming glades of the bois de Vincennes. And please ignore self-professed oracle Wikipedia that claims it is ‘the largest public park in the city’. It is neither a park, nor in the city. It’s so very, very much more.

Just a short tram ride away, and the breath of nature soon began to work its magic as I hit the north western corner near the lac de Saint-Mandé. Nature was also calling in quite a different way, so before beginning my much needed forest bath, I hunted for that elusive beast, a public toilet. Now before I begin extolling her virtues, I’ll just tell you this. Get this ‘step’ out of the way before you head into the forest’s deep embrace – failing to find said facilities (twice round the lake I went) I was saved by a group of Polish workmen who let me use their hole-in-the-ground style portaloo when I asked for directions. You have been warned.

Lack of toilet facilities aside (though plenty of water fountains, work that one out), there’s not much else this massive green space can’t offer. Three times larger than New York’s central park, there’s no way in the world you could get round it all in one visit (I’m not even going to mention its famous chateau – that’s for another post). And for somewhere that tourists to the city hardly register, it gets 11 million visitors a year and could easily offer a week of activities.

Head towards the western side near Porte Dorée and the biggest lake, Lac Daumesnil offers a chance to mess about on the river for €13/14, with bonus lifeguard swans (also an option on the eastern Lac des Minimes). Further to the south east is the hippodrome for more energetic pursuits, though be sure to check the gee-gees are running before you go. For a more cerebral workout the resident zoo, arboretum, farm and botanical gardens (Parc Florale) will teach you about the herbs, birds, bees and trees, though it’s the cycling and walking opportunities that are really at its heart.

With 2,500 acres and 50 miles of paths just crying out for hikers and cyclists alike, it’s easy to meander through the trees and find a spot for quiet contemplation, and plenty of trees to hug if you’re into that sort of thing (don’t knock it ’til you try it). Though given its popularity, there is plenty of traffic in the form of scamping dogs and their owners, serene (and sometimes not so serene) strollers, and plenty, especially at this time of year, of those Tour de France guys making Lycra look as serious as possible. Bizarrely I also spotted plenty of tech-neck afflicted head lolloping smartphone addicts wandering about. Lost, obviously (well you’d certainly hope so).

For five-star centering and calm, away from the forest traffic, head to the buddhist temple or ”Grande Pagode du Bois de Vincennes’ where you’ll find Europe’s largest buddha. Sadly it’s only open during special festivals, but if it’s those you’re really after, the Parc Florale leads the way with the city’s biggest summer jazz and classical music festivals. If all of that isn’t enough to lead you to a state of zen, then I don’t know what will. After the drama of this world cup, you’re certainly going to need it…

Find out more here.

Jacques of all trades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for more info.

Hilltop rest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making an entrance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Crêpe Expectations

How many French folk does it take to change a lightbulb? Well that question is completely irrelevant on February 2nd as any request for handy help will fall on deaf ears as the whole country will be far too busy eating crêpes.

Kim crepe 1Ah, those delicious golden discs of batter that require such deftness with a frying pan, and untold patience given that most of us only have one with which to manufacture an appropriate stack. Don’t the French eat them between every meal? Aren’t they the warming cold weather vehicle for Nutella in a carbohydrate yin-yang partnership with the fair weather baguette?

Not quite… Crêpes are indeed nestled within the gastronomic heart of France, wafting their goodness via many a batter-toting kiosk, though not something that is considered a daily treat. Once in a while, for sure, but it’s not like the French give a toss even weekly. But that doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to hold a party for our circular, pan-dwelling friends. If food is to be championed, then this is the country in which to champion it in.

Kim crepe 3Exactly 40 days after Christmas on 2nd February is when over here we celebrate La Chandeleur(Candlemas for the non-French speakers), when we do just that. It’s the one day of the year where crêpes are held aloft and idolised, though they can’t claim to be the belle of the ball as there’s a hell of a lot of traditional legend and religious symbolism tied up on the same date in the calendar.

Depending on which religion you subscribe to, the 2nd February is the day to celebrate the presentation of Christ at the temple, the feast of the purification of the Virgin, or the blessing of the church’s beeswax candles. Non-religious traditions dictate that in France, the UK and the USA the weather on 2nd February predicts the forecast for the rest of the year, in Scotland a big snake will appear from the ground (which promises not to ‘molest’ anyone), and if you’re a sailor, it’s a day to give a jaunt on the ship a miss.

Kim crepe 5In France, the ‘crêpe party’ element (as my friend Arthur likes to call it) means that superstition is expressed through the medium of food, i.e. the lowly pancake. It’s not about using up ingredients in time for Lent which underlies the Anglo tradition of Shrove Tuesday (this year 13th February), but more a celebration of light, and the transition between the last dark days of a cold and sombre winter and the fledgling days of the approaching spring. The crêpe is supposed to reflect the image of the round, golden disc of the sun.

As well as making sure your wrist action is on form to indulge in the obligatory tossing, tradition also states that the first pancake out of the rank needs to be folded up and placed in the wardrobe to encourage a plentiful and abundant harvest for the coming year. It sounds to me like that’s just a recipe for attracting an abundance of the neighbourhood mice, but hey, maybe enticing them from the fields and into the home is the whole point.

Kim crepe 6Let’s assume you’re a sensible, rational being and you’ve opted for crêpe worship above any other 2nd February signification. The only choice now is what to fill your spoils with. Banana and Nutella, classic sugar and lemon, or a sinful mountain of cheese and ham? Today I opted for (in practice for the big day) a savoury oven baked roll up of crêpes (made with beerinstead of milk) filled with veg and a goat’s cheese sauce topped with parmesan, followed by a sweet duo of blueberry and honey, and good ol’ lemon and sugar. Now I can’t move (lucky for you my fingers still can).

This Friday residents of France can follow my stunning example, those in a country where pancakes are fashionably late will have to hop on the spot until it’s your turn later on in the month. Just look into the light whilst you’re at it.