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)

Water, water, everywhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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!

Creative Grace

If you were one of Paris’ 20 arrondissements, which one would you be? The wealthy 8th, the shopaholic 1st? Maybe the hipster 11th is more your bag? Whichever one you think suits you best, I’ll bet my morning croissant that you didn’t pick the 19th – that largely forgotten north-east corner of the city that many a tourist fails to include in their holiday itinerary. Even Parisian residents have been immune to its charms over the years, and honestly who would blame them given the area’s history as the slaughterhouse centre of the city?

But tourist or local, anyone who’s anyone has woken up to the 19th’s awesomely shabby creative chic, and the fact that it has a personality that other quartiers should start to be very, very jealous of. I’ll be taking you round the many of its enchantments in months to come, but for now I want to introduce you to an achingly cool contemporary art space that would turn even the hippest corners of London pea-green with envy.

Jump on the metro if you must, but head east from Marx Dormoy along Rue Riquet to the corner of Rue d’Aubervilliers on foot, and you’ll be given a stunning glimpse into the creativity that’s at work in this part of Paris, when you hit surely one of the best graffiti walls the city has to offer (ancient blog post on exactly that here). It extends all the way up Rue d’Aubervilliers if you have time for a stroll to check it out, if not, head straight for the building on the right, an imposing modern art space offering sanctuary and inspiration, whatever your creative persuasions.

Completed in 2008, this multifaceted cultural centre is a hotbed of local talent, and invites artists of all disciplines to make use of the space to hone their craft, allowing members of the public to see their ingenuity in action. Whether a visual artist, a street performer or urban dance addict, there’s enough room for all to convene in perfect harmony (just watch out for flying juggler’s batons or hula hoops if you’re weaving in between the assembled crowds). Indulging in this creativity-in-progress is happily free to all, whether you’re an observer or an eager participant.

In addition to art in real time, there are also permanent and temporary exhibitions, film screenings, live theatre, dance and music performances (ticket prices vary), and an ever-changing programme of activities open to all from artistic workshops for children in the aptly named ‘Littlie’s House’, to free Qi gong (a close cousin to Tai chi) sessions at the weekends. Those with a more literary leaning will find a free book exchange shed in between to two main halls.

Folk led by their stomachs will find their more basic appetites well catered for with a selection of places to eat, including the main Grand Central Restaurant, hidden café and pizza truck for a fly-by feed. There’s even a nod to our commercial impulses with a book shop and a branch of second-hand wonder chain Emmaüs (see here for my own glowing tribute to my favourite shops in Paris). And the gritty past of the area hasn’t been forgotten either – the site may not have been one of the numerous abattoirs dotted around a century ago, but the two halls used to house the city’s municipal undertakers, processing 150 funerals a day. Maybe the creative ‘spirit’ of days gone past still resides here, I’ll let you be the judge.

Le CENT-QUATRE Paris, 5 Rue Curial (second entrance on Rue d’Aubervilliers), 75019

All the info you need is here (French and English)

Square Roots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit the official website here.

Last Tree Standing #3: Fir the Love of God…

img_3476Bonne Année readers! I hope you’ve been well treated/rested over the festive period, and are ready for another year of Paris Small Capital action. I certainly am. Apologies for the long break, but batteries in both my fingers and laptop keyboard needed extensive recharging, but power bars are now fully restored and there’s a nearly complete blog schedule ready to see us through 2017. I sincerely hope you’ll join me.

Kicking us off this year is the annual launch of #LastTreeStanding, that quite perplexing but utterly addictive game of ‘spot the Christmas tree’. If you’re not sure of the roots of the whole thing, take a peek here at last year’s entry, and all will be revealed.

img_3488Today being January 6th (date of posting at least), means that officially 2017’s tree spotting can begin. For non Anglophones out there, it’s widely accepted that this day, the 12th day of Christmas or Epiphany, marks the Christmas decoration deadline, meaning that you must have vamoosed your tree, life-sized Santa and all other festive trappings by close of play or you risk an entire year’s worth of bad luck. No kidding; when we moved into a new house in March ’94 to find the old owners had left an irritating couple of inches of tinsel in the corner of the lounge room ceiling, my mother flatly refused to remove it until the following Christmas’ end. This is not a date to be casual with, oh no.

In Paris however, despite a rather lukewarm observance of the festive season (no crackers, no paper crowns, no mince pies, no Slade), inhabitants are seemingly very attached to their Christmas trees, finding it hard to set them free until well after the 6th Jan deadline. Sure, they might not be so strict or superstitious as us Anglophones. So that’s January explained. February at a push. But when you start to see sorry brown firs being dumped on the street with alarming regularity in April and May, now that’s just chicken-for-Christmas-dinner weird.

15541874_10154240624729352_2514299915846705292_n

2016’s winner, courtesy of Louise Abbot.

The first year saw us crown the winner a specimen found in Vincennes at the end of August. This year the plot thickens as the winner from Louise Abbot turned out to be an abandoned tree found floundering on, wait for it… December 19th. And that’s really half the fun; putting your sleuth hat on and trying to fathom what on earth possesses someone to get rid of their tree on August 24th, and even more baffling, December 19th.

img_34752016’s winner is going to be hard to beat, and those of us who live (and visit) Paris are going to have the trump card. But last year saw a flood of entries from elsewhere in France and many other countries from around the world. Check out our Facebook page Last Tree Standing (with bonus Twitter coverage at @psmallcapital or #LastTreeStanding) for a rogue’s gallery of withered specimens.

For those willing to participate (and let’s face it, it’s really just a question of opening your eyes as you walk down the street), here are the official rules.

12509333_973431352692621_7240197065082279475_n1. Photographic evidence required.
2. No artificial trees. Or conifers.
3. No planted specimens.
6. No repeat claims.
7. 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.
8. 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.

In the photos you can see (aside from the winner), just a few of the specimens I captured today on my travels. Gauntlet thrown. *cuts red ribbon with a pair of blunt clown scissors* Enjoy!

Gut instinct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The green green grass of home

Kim MontS 3Normally, I’m the sort of gal that doesn’t need an invitation to have a lollop around in a large green space, being a country girl at heart, with fine English sap running through my veins. But a friend with small human in need of celebrating his three whole years on this earth steered me last weekend to a patch which hadn’t previously seen a great deal of lolloping on my part, and picnic blanket and thermos of wine in hand, I headed south on RER B to the resplendent Parc Montsouris.

Literally translating as a very unappealing and frankly incorrect ‘mouse mountain’ thanks to years of linguistic tinkering with its original moniker of ‘Moulin de Moque-Souris’ (meaning the equally perplexing ‘mouse-mocking windmill’), this 15.5 hectare park is nestled in the 14th arrondissement and forms part of the quartet of vast green urban spaces across the capital created by the power duo of Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann (capable of creating much smaller bits of green too), eventually completed in 1878.

Kim MontS2Much smaller than the bookend woods Boulogne and Vincennes, it echoes the hilly contours of sister park Buttes-Chaumont in the 19th, though unlike the others was designed specifically in the English landscape garden style. So far, so elegant and refined. It’s construction story though was a million miles away from its classic, cultivated exterior, being built on the site of a former quarry and a network of abandoned tunnels and mines which came to reveal a gruesome cache of some of the six million Parisians that were buried under the city in the 18th century. Around 800 skeletons were removed to their final resting place in famous catacombs of Paris.

Kim MontS 5Thankfully no hints of its macabre past remain today and you’ll find an undulating park perfect for picnics and frisbee or a good old-fashioned stroll. There’s also a duck pond towards the middle and a café and kiosk for something cold and refreshing should you be stupid enough to forget your thermos of chilled white wine. Kiddles will get all squeaky and excited when they spy the ponies offering rides round the winding paths, and joggers decided long ago that this is in the top five training spots that the capital can muster.

Kim MontS 4As for us, we took advantage of the wide open spaces and spread our picnic blankets under the shade of a giant tree, surrounded by fellow alfresco diners, snoozing citizens and lounging couples. We might not have seen any mice, but the bubbles (of the soapy-water-blow-into-the-air kind) and birthday cake(s) were far more interesting than any mouse-mocking that could have taken place. As English experiences in Paris go, all that was missing was a delicious cup of afternoon tea.

Reach Park Montsouris by taking RER B or tram 3a to stop Cité Universitaire.