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!

Santa Chords

 

Apologies for the recycled post friends, these are testing times… But for those singing ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ alone into French radio silence, this might help you out….

In the voyage of discovery that has been my so-far eleven years in France, I’ve encountered many a curious and endearing custom. At this time of year, that cultural apprenticeship turns festive, and I’ve learned an awful lot about how the French embrace the Christmas period, not least their baffling fondness for holding on to their Christmas trees for dear life until the summer months, refusing to let them go until every last needle has fallen.

Kim carols 4This year though, my education intensifies as I’ll be spending only my second Noël in my adopted homeland (thanks for the strikes to mark the occasion SNCF, RATP et al). Mostly, I’m not going to lie, I’m looking forward to the good food, Champagne and feasting, not to mention the best French lesson a person could have, spending Christmas Eve as I am (the Queen ‘turkey’ on France’s December calendar) around a table with 25 talkative Frenchies. English will be as rare during that meal as a flaming Christmas pudding, bread sauce and paper hats.

But it dawned on me the other day, with every Christmas card I wrote, that the glaring lump of coal in my Gallic Christmas stocking, was the French Christmas soundtrack. Or more accurately, the lack of it. I may be denied seconds by my hosts when I proclaim that the music culture in France is one of the country’s weakest points (at least when compared to the motherland’s efforts), and it seems that even a dollop of festive cheer hasn’t been enough to get the nation’s songwriting heavyweights to lift up their pens. Back in the UK anyone who’s anyone has a Christmas song under their belt. Even East 17.

Kim carols 3There are some that exist of course, we’re not talking full-on Scrooge here. One of the most well-known and best loved is the tinkling classic Petit Papa Noël, though anything by Bing Crosby knocks that right out of the snow. Jingle Bells loses most of its Christmas charm when translated into its French version Vive le Vent, more a meteorological observation in lyrical form as it celebrates that, erm, delightfully biting winter wind. Even French legend Jonny Hallyday has had a couple of pops, but I’m not providing you with any links to save your ears.

Joyeux Noël from the Granny Flat!

Joyeux Noël from the Granny Flat!

The religious crowd get their fix with some classics carols, but these, and most of the holiday song efforts are mere translations of various international versions, with lyrics forced in like stuffing into a plump bird. For a gal who’s used to The Pogues, Nat King Cole, Chris Rea and Shakin’ Stevens keeping me nodding through Christmas dinner, I simply won’t be having a wonderful Christmastime in the music stakes this year. And don’t even get me started on the glaring Wham!-shaped hole, though in retrospect travelling to see friends and family on a stuffed-to-the-gills train means Club Tropicana may be more appropriate than Last Christmas.

I promise I will try to get in the spirit and not spend the 24th pining after Elton John et al (though I’m sure the oysters and foie gras will go some way towards helping), but I can’t promise I won’t try and teach my fellow French revellers how to sing Fairytale of New York when my head is merry with bubbles. By God, they’d better know how to play Charades…. 

Spiritual commodity

If you witnessed the scenes at Les Halles on Black Friday (I certainly did not, and glad to see that French lawmakers are pushing to ban it) then you’ll know that consumerism is (sadly) the new religion of the day. But in that very central quartier of the 1st, the old religion serenely surveys the new in the form of Saint-Eustache, the 16th-century church occupying the spot just next to the monstrous undulation that is the modern shopping centre.

Now let’s get it out of the way. I’m not a religious person per se though I do possess a healthy sense of spiritual curiosity and respect for tradition, and especially at this time of year I love ducking into one of the city’s churches to have a wander around, light a candle or reminisce about carolling in the school Christmas concert as a young pup. There’s nothing more welcoming than a religious building, and when it comes to Paris, its churches are buildings like any other – old as the hills and chock-full of history. So religious or quite the opposite, you’d do well to head inside to appreciate the tranquil beauty, and give all the plastic tat in the shopping centre a wide berth whilst you’re at it.

As we discovered in the last post, Les Halles was the site of a medieval food market famously captured in Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris and finally dismantled in 1971 (see freize above and picture, left). But commerce and worship have been close siblings as way back as 1213 when the first chapel was built next to the original Les Halles built in 1187. Back then it was known as the Chapel of Saint Agnes, but was changed to Saint-Eustache in 1303 after the church received relics (which are still there) relating to 2nd-century Roman general Placidus who was burned along with his family for converting to Christianity.

The first stone of the current structure was laid in 1532 and a lengthy construction followed until it was finally consecrated in 1637. Next, proof that dodgy builders are not a modern phenomenon, two chapels were built in 1655 that nearly brought the whole thing tumbling down, and coupled with significant damage sustained in the French Revolution and then a fire in 1844, the church arrived at the mid point of the 19th century in a sorry state and in need of serious repairs.

Whereas sister church Notre Dame had two saviours to champion her restoration in the same era (Napoleon and Victor Hugo), Saint Eustache had one in the form of architect Victor Baltard, the same chap responsible for the design of the iconic Zola-era Les Halles market pavilions just next door. He oversaw the church’s complete restoration between 1846 and 1854, and despite another fire in 1871 and revisions of the façade in 1928/29, its Gothic exterior, and Renaissance and classical interior remain happily intact today.

Head inside for some quiet contemplation by all means, but take in some of its most famous charms too, including the beautiful Chapel of the Virgin (pictured above), France’s biggest pipe organ, its huge vaulted ceilings and a plaque commemorating Mozart’s mother, who was buried here in 1778. In a nod to the food heritage associated with the area, don’t miss either the Chapel des Charcutiers (Chapel of the Butchers) dedicated to the tradesmen of the quartier. I’ve never seen pork butchery depicted in a stained glass window before, and I bet you haven’t either. Food takes on a more philanthropic guise at this time of year as it’s the site of a soup kitchen serving 32,000 meals each year between December 1st and March 31st.

If you really can’t resist the bright lights of the shopping centre, bear in mind that Saint Eustache is a patron saint of hunters, so maybe he has something to do with your predatory consumerist urges. But he’s also one of the figures depicted on the Jägermeister logo too, and I know which one I’d choose…

2 Impasse Saint-Eustache, 75001. For more info, click here

Post originally published 11/12/2019

To market, to market

We have to admit, those of us who live in Paris are incredibly spoiled (I’m turning my mind away from the crowds, dog mess, transport strikes and hellish commutes, naturally). Croissants and wine aside, such beauty and history surrounds us, and the most amazing thing is that it’s pretty much all still here since jammy Dame Paris has managed to preserve most of her treasured bounty over the years where countless other cities have sadly failed. And all of this in the face of centuries of foreign invaders, world wars and natural disasters, still threatening her very bones today, as was sharply called into focus in April with the devastating fire that nearly razed Notre Dame completely.

One historical gem we have lost though (and the list is amazingly small) is the behemoth that was Les Halles, a huge iron, brick and glass market complex in central Paris finished in 1874 and razed in 1971, and immortalised in Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris). Having outgrown the capital as the city grew around it and the way in which people shopped for food changed, the structure couldn’t withstand the tidal wave of progress, and was destroyed just before the preservationists found their strength and put a stop to the demolition of historic buildings in the name of boring functionality (the Musée d’Orsay, then Gare d’Orsay was amongst the first to be saved by this change in thinking).

Now as much as it would be appropriate to focus on what we do have rather than what we don’t, forgive me for not writing a post on the massive, soulless shopping complex and rat-filled gardens that now occupy the space, because well, that. So in a roundabout way we arrive at the subject of this post, the marché Saint Quentin in the 10th on Boulevard Magenta, the best surviving example of the Les Halles-style covered market, giving us a handy portal into the lively market spirit of Paris’ past.

Whilst the famous Les Halles was designed by the at-the-time chief architect of Paris and mate of Baron Haussmann, Victor Baltard, Saint Quentin was designed by an architect named Rabourdin, though despite being oft-quoted in this context, I can find absolutely nothing more about him, so that’s where that story ends I’m afraid. Though whoever he was, he faithfully followed the Baltard style and completed the building in 1866, and today it remains one of only three examples of the style along with slightly smaller markets Saint Martin and La Chapelle (10th and 18th respectively).

And isn’t a market with a roof on it just what we need in these wet and wintry times? Head inside and you’ll find perhaps less vegetable urgency than in Zola’s day, but there are plenty of stalls and fresh produce galore to fill your belly just as full. The usual selection of fruit, veg, meat, fish and plants are lovingly displayed, though no need to dash off too quickly out in to the rain with that lonely cauliflower, take a load off and have a bite to eat or glass of wine while you’re at it at one of the cosy bistros dotted about. Heck, you can even get your shoes repaired whilst you’re tucking in, and don’t forget to search out the Wallace fountain nestled in the centre.

As for that lonely cauliflower, if you’re cooking I’ll have a hot dish of cauliflower cheese nicely browned and bubbly on top, and don’t forget to pick up an orange for the vin chaud, too. Call it a finder’s fee…

Fall into place

‘I Love Paris in the Springtime’ is the old refrain, and Cole Porter certainly wasn’t wrong in his affection for the season of abundance. But meandering through the rich hues of spring’s opposite number is one of life’s most colourful pleasures, and whilst Paris may not be able to compete with the kaleidoscope of autumnal colours lighting up say, Vermont, the city promises rain-free skies 90% of the time (so says my leaflet on bike riding produced by the mairie, they obviously didn’t mean this week) so a stroll in the cool autumn wind is just crying out for a spot on this month’s schedule.

Yes, my love of forests is well known, but sometimes a good old urban balade is what is called for (official rules on flâneur-ing can be found here) to reconnect with my Parisian persona. And at the western end of the Île de la Cité in the 1st arrondissement, you’ll find Place Dauphine, one of the oldest and prettiest spots the capital can muster, just aching for its leaves to be kicked and its quaint terraces and benches to be occupied.

When your mind conjures images of Paris, this is where the fictional you will be strolling, with a belly full of croissant and a mind singularly occupied with choosing where to have your early evening apéro (and for film fans, it’s where Emilia Clarke’s character reads the letter at the end of Me Before You, said restaurant pictured). And Paris’ revolutionary-rich, bloodthirsty past won’t even be able to get a look in, as in this little slice of Paris, its history is unusually tame; except for being renamed Place Thoinville during the revolution in 1792-1814, and having its eastern edge destroyed by fire during fighting in the Paris Commune in 1871, that’s all the drama you get. Yes, for Paris that is remarkably subdued.

Henry IV’s second public square project after Place Royale (now Place des Vosges) it’s not actually a square at all, but a triangle (the oxymoron inside me twitches very uncomfortably at this fact) and was completed in 1616, carrying the name of his son, the then dauphin and future Louis XIII. In stark contrast to its decadent elder sister originally intended to appeal to the upper echelons of society, the houses lining this square (shudder) were built not as luxury homes for the rich, but cosy dwellings for mere merchants and common folk. But, given its slap-bang central location, these days this patch is naturally prime real estate where the price for a slice of bricks and mortar will set you back in excess of an eye-watering €20,000 per square metre, making it ones of the city’s costliest addresses.

For those of us without piggy banks the size of Texas, a stroll is a more budget-friendly option, though given the well-to-do location, you might want to do a few turns and then head elsewhere for a coffee and sticky bun. Or why not come prepared and spend an hour or so people watching with a flask of warming hot chocolate, or push the boat out and fill it with vin chaud? Once sated, head towards the western entrance back on to Pont Neuf, making sure you clock the two houses nearest the road which are the only two remaining originals. Then you can continue your stroll across Paris’ oldest bridge, being careful of course, not to fall in. Actually, maybe the vin chaud isn’t the best idea after all…

Place Dauphine, Île de la Cité, 75001, metro Cité (4) or Pont Neuf (7)

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.

Post originally published 06/09/2019

Water, water, everywhere

In the great yin and yang of things, the firm terre on which we tread our adventure 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) 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 you’d want to come to Paris and 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 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 stokes, rather than subdues, the flames in my fiery heart. Cheers!

Post originally published 15/08/2019

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