Paris is a city we have visited on many an occasion. Our first visit as a family was in 1971 when, on our way back from a holiday on the Côte d’Azur, we camped in the Bois de Boulogne at a very well appointed campsite. It was within walking distance of many of the big sites including l’Arc de Triomphe and La Tour Eiffel. After that, work took me to Paris every year, sometimes for extended stays, and we have been in the habit of taking short breaks there every two or three years. So we’ve seen all the well-known sites, walked the main boulevards and explored some of the back streets. But one of the beauties of a major city is that there are always new places to find.
On this trip we were staying in the Montparnasse district w hich is a hilly area on the south side of the city. Our hotel was the TimHotel in Rue d’Odessa a few yards from a Metro station (Montparnasse Bienvenue) and less than 5 minutes walk from the Gare Montparnasse. This mainline station serves the West of France including the Normandy Coast, Brittany, the Atlantic Coast down to Bordeaux and Toulouse near the Spanish border. We had decided to stay in this area because on the fourth day of this trip we will be catching an early morning train to Poitiers on the line to Bordeaux.
On day one in the evening we had arrived in Paris at the Gare du Nord by Eurostar from London and caught a Paris Metro train on Ligne 4 which took us straight to Montparnasse. Very convenient. It was already about 8pm when we checked into the hotel, so it was time for a quick change and freshen up, then out to find somewhere to eat.
Almost immediately we came across an Algerian restaurant, Chez Bebert, where couscous seemed to form the basis of every dish. A good sign of quality was that the place was very busy. As soon as we entered a waiter came over, checked that we were just the two, and seated us at a table near the back of the restaurant with a good view of our fellow diners either directly or through the many mirrors. Despite the place being so busy, our orders were taken straight away and within less than 5 minutes food started to arrive. First there was a massive bowl of couscous, enough for an army, a big bowl of chunky vegetables – carrots, turnip, potato, courgettes – then a bowl of chickpeas and another of haricot beans and, finally, the piece de resistance, a platter loaded with several chicken quarters on the bone, several mutton shanks, a couple of blood sausages and a couple of skewers of diced lamb. The platter was put onto a heated stand. Finally the wine and the tap water arrived and we were ready to go. The food was delicious with the meat just falling off the bone and the vegetables all having a good bite to them. Try as we might, by the time we were full to bulging, there was still enough food left for the aforementioned army. They must have hearty appetites in Algeria. And the total bill including food, wine and service came to just over £40 – very good value.
A short walk round the block took us up a short, narrow street to the Odessa Bar at the top of the street of our hotel. Time for coffee and brandy to round of the evening. Then back to the room and a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, our first full day, we had nothing specific in mind other than to start the day at the nearby Jardin du Luxembourg (Luxembourg Gardens) and to take a guided walk in the afternoon around the Rive Gauche (the Left Bank). But first we had to find a cafe for le petit déjeuner – breakfast. There were plenty of places to choose from and we selected a moderately busy place of the main Boulevard Montparnasse. For breakfast we had a cafe crème for Madame and a double express for Monsieur plus lovely flaky croissants.
Then it was time to set out for the gardens, a walk of some fifteen minutes through narrow streets where every other shop seemed to sell shoes. We entered the gardens by a small gate which led into the ‘sporting’ area of the park. There were tennis courts, cycle tracks, a quiet wooded part for tai chi and a very well equipped children’s play area. One area that amused us was the part set aside for playing boules, that very traditional French pastime. No one was playing at that time, it being mid-morning on a Thursday, but between the pitches there was a set of rails, such as you would find in a clothes shop, with dozens of solid plastic hangers. These were clearly waiting for the jackets of the players who would arrive at lunchtime. It was a scene of expectation.
We moved on to the more formal part of the gardens and came to the large circular pond in front of the Palais du Luxembourg that now is the home of the French Senate (the upper house of parliament). The pond had been purely in its heyday but now it has been put to use as a boating pond for young children and a few not so young. The boats, which are hired from a kiosk, are yachts about 60 cms long (two feet) which are placed in the water and blown across to the other side. The child follows the boat round the side of the pond and when it reaches the opposite banks, pokes it with a stick to turn it around and set it off again across the water. Totally mindless but, by the faces of the children and their fathers, quite absorbing and enjoyable.
It was now just after mid-day and the planned guided walk was at 2.30 so it was now time to do something about lunch. A ten minute walk took us down to the Seine at St Michel, a very busy tourist trap. Another five minutes walking through the back streets to the West took us to a business area. The first cafe that we stopped at had no seats left – the French take lunch very seriously – the second didn’t appeal then we came across a gourmet sandwich takeaway with a queue, always a good sign.
When we got to the front of the queue, a member of staff came forward and guided us round the mouth-watering offerings and helped us to select what we wanted. Madame chose a sort of pastry stuffed with a ham & cheese sauce whilst I selected a rustic baguette, dried Italian ham and hard cheese. The pastry was heated and the baguette stuffed and in very short order we were back in the street.
We set off to find a place to sit and quickly reached the Pont Neuf across the Seine. This bridge, which despite it’s name is the oldest bridge across the Seine, was built by Henrys III and IV at the end of C16 and the beginning of C17. It has small alcoves with stone seats – exactly what we needed. It was a great place to sit as we could watch the river traffic passing below – the world famous Bateaux Mouche – and look round at the Parisian architecture of the nearby buildings. As we sat that all too familiar phenomenon of rain made another appearance. So it was time to put up umbrellas, don waterproof jackets and abandon plans for the formal walking tour.
The last time we were in Paris there was the Grand Magazin (big department store) of La Samaritaine. It has succumbed to the recession and is now being converted into modern retail units. Hopefully some of the internal architecture will be preserved. This closure presented us with a more pressing problem – where to find a toilet. A quick (and I mean quick) march round the nearby streets did not hold out much promise until we came to one of those modern toilet cabins that you find in many cities.
The idea is good but in execution these loos leave a lot to be desired especially when most customers are in various states of urgency. They only cater for one person at a time, and in this case, there was already a queue of two people and a man had just entered the contraption. That didn’t seem too bad until another ‘feature’ reared its ugly head. After each customer has used the facility, having mastered the various buttons for closing, locking and opening the doors, the doors close and the cleaning cycle begins. All very worthy as you know that by the time it’s your turn the whole toilet will be spotlessly clean, but it does nothing for urgency bordering on desperation. The full cycle from someone entering to the next person entering took a minimum of 3 minutes. Bring back the French Pissoir, a practical and speedy facility if a little public, grubby and smelly.
Now feeling a little more composed, we walked into the area of Les Halles (the Paris equivalent of Covent Garden in London) until 1969 the home of the Paris central fruit and vegetable market. When the market left the area was largely paved over with a few cafes, etc. Underground, there was a new Metro station and a few shops. The whole area is now a massive building site, with lots of mess at the surface level and a shopping mall underground. It may be a good place to go in the future but not worth visiting today.
Close by, however, there is the large edifice of St Eustache church. It is magnificent in size but is in need of a lot of restoration. One feature is the Colbert Mausoleum. I could imagine that a lot of American politicians, who have been lampooned by the current Colbert of “Colbert Report” fame, would like to see him joining his forebears. A poignant modern addition is an alcove where a large relief has been constructed to commemorate the departure of the nearby fruit and vegetable market.
It was now getting a little late, the legs were beginning to ache and an important reservation at La Coupole, a famous Parisian restaurant, was beginning to call. So it was back to the hotel for a shower and change of clothes. Tonight was to be our treat to ourselves.
La Coupole is one of the finest restaurants in Paris. Quoting from their own website La Coupole is “A true Art Deco masterpiece”, “The most famous Parisienne brasserie in the world” and “a key component of the art of living and socialising and in Paris”. The speciality of the house is seafood but by way of contrast they have a signature Indian Lamb Curry which has been served since 1927.
The whole ambience is relaxed and welcoming. You will not be intimidated by the menu or the wine list. Although the room is vast and there is a real buzz, it doesn’t feel overcrowded and the waiters are very attentive. However, unless you are a regular, a reservation is essential and it’s very easy to make one on the web. We made our reservation before leaving London and were glad we did. Although there were a few empty tables, when we arrived, they soon filled up. Unlike many London restaurants, even some pricey places, there is no policy of rushing you through your meal to get a later booking seated. As they say it’s all about “living and socialising” and they might add “taking time over delicious food and an excellent selection of wines at affordable prices”.
Two Kir Royals were ordered to keep us going whilst we perused the menu. For the record our selections were :-
- Avocado with a citrus mousse and crab meat
- Normandy No. 2 Oysters
- Farmhouse Veal on Thyme and Tarragon
- Scallops on Orchietta Pasta with Rocket and Parmesan Cream
- A Selection of Cheeses
All washed down with a fine bottle of Pouilly Fuissé, a ½ bottle of Magnon red from the Rhone Valley and Paris tap water.
It was all utterly delicious. Regrettably, I didn’t take a note of the wine labels – sufficient to say they did not disappoint. We will be back – when the wallet can bear it!!
[By way of a bit of a contrast I am writing this just over a week later on a crowded train travelling from London to Inverness, drinking British Rail mass-produced coffee and, at this very moment, crossing over the mouth of the River Tweed that divides England from Scotland. And rather incongruously two lads sitting across the aisle from us and who joined the train at Newcastle have just popped a bottle of Moet. What are they celebrating??]
There are three ways to explore a major city. You can take guided tours by bus or on foot and be shown a selection of the attractions. We particularly like the walking tours as you get close to the sights and the guides usually are a little eccentric and have their own takes on the attractions of an area. You can use a guidebook to find the things of interest and map out your time. This can work well but usually you try to do too much and you’re off the agenda not long after the start. Or, you can start walking and let serendipity be your guide. We really do like this approach. You get to the “off the beaten track” places that often tell you more about the city, you keep going till you’re tired and then you find your way home.
Just a quick word about serendipity. Roughly translated it means “get lucky” or “have a happy accident”. There was a wonderful definition given recently by Simon Hoggart, The Guardian diarist and lobby correspondent. He said serendipity is when looking for a needle in a haystack, you find the farmer’s daughter. Excellent.
So on our last full day in Paris we decided to follow our noses and see where they would take us. As a vague plan we resolved to head gently downhill towards the Seine a distance of about 3 km (2 miles). It should take about ½ hour plus a short break for breakfast, say a leisurely hour. In reality it took just over 6 hours. That’s serendipic travelling for you. [I’m not sure that ‘serendipic’ appears as a word in the Oxford English Dictionary but I hope you like it as a word.]
The first stop was to find a place for coffee and croissants. Immediately luck took over and we came to “Au Chiens Qui Fume” (the smoking dogs) a small Parisienne bistro chain dating back to the beginning of the last century. Over the years we’ve had many a good and affordable meal in another branch near Les Halles. They are run as family franchises with lots of individual flavour. This one was no exception. We were quickly seated and the madame came to take our order, one cafe crème, one cafe, croissants and pains au chocolat. Monsieur stayed behind the bar and manned the coffee machine, a very important job in a French cafe.
Just a small aside, my French language skills leave a lot to be desired but having spent a lot of time in France over the years, I can just about get by. Brittany was always a good place to go as the locals always tried to understand one’s attempts at French, maybe because, for many Bretons, French is their second language. Paris was always the worst place as waiters enjoyed making life difficult for you and certainly didn’t put the customer first. That has all changed. With one exception (and it was the place where we had the worst food experience), the waiters and waitresses listened carefully to my, no doubt, excruciating French and we always got what we wanted. Vive La France!!
After the petit dejeuner we set off down the road towards the river. This area is dominated by Government buildings. The first we passed was the Ministère des Outre–mers– the offices of the administration of the French overseas territories. Over to the left there is a large complex of buildings, mostly one or two stories, with a central church-like building topped by an elaborate gold-plated dome. There’s a wall separating the complex from the road. We wonder what we’re looking at. To the right there was another wall behind which was a semi-formal garden with interesting pieces of sculpture. Presumably some Government retreat – although later we are surprisingly proved wrong. On the left we can see a break in the wall with a military guard. We cross the road to have a look if only to find the name of the organisation. As we get closer it becomes clear that we can walk through the gateway and into the site.
It turns out that we are in Les Invalides, the military hospital for war wounded and the church-like building in the centre is in fact the tomb of the most famous French soldier, Napoleon. Of course, it soon becomes apparent that we have entered through a side gate and that over to the left is the main visitor entrance clearly marked by the row of tourist coaches. There is a tourist office selling tickets to view the tomb but just seeing the outside is enough. Two or three rooms form a small museum of French military uniforms. There are very realistic, life-sized models dressed in, what seems like, every uniform ever worn by a French soldier. Very well presented. This turns out to be part of the National Musée de l’Armée which occupies a large section of the Les Invalides site.
From here we moved into a cobbled square with buildings on all sides. Round the perimeter are collections of cannons presumably dating back to the Napoleonic Wars. On closer examination one side of the square turns out to be under renovation and what we are looking at is a very realistic painted screen depicting how the building will appear when the work is complete.
Going through an archway out of the square we are at the front of the building and realise we have been taking an unconventional route through this national monument. The most fascinating feature of the facade was the decorations around the attic windows. Each window appeared as an opening in the chest of a suit of armour, complete with helmet acting as a sort of lintel.
So, out of Les Invalides by the same side gate we head back across the road to see if we can get into the gardens with the sculpture. There’s no obvious gate but on turning a corner into a side street the mystery is revealed. We have stumbled across the Auguste Rodin Museum, one of France’s most famous sculptors. How lucky can you get?
The next hour or so is spent happily looking round the formal galleries with a specific exhibition focusing on his marble works and then out into the gardens where many of his famous pieces are exhibited. Not least amongst these is “The Thinker”, a sculpture we had first seen in the Glasgow Botanic Gardens. Strangely it didn’t look exactly as remembered, not least because this was a much larger statue. We then learned that he actually produced many of his sculptures in multiple forms and using different materials. Mystery solved. Rodin was a true and exquisite master of marble as a material.
It was now definitely time for lunch. Outside the museum was a reasonable looking cafe/restaurant but we were put off by the menus in multiple languages and waiters who addressed us in English. This was not going to be a great experience. We walked a couple of blocks and into a side street with military buildings and government offices. Here we found “Le Martignac”, a very traditional lunch spot for local office workers. Inside the place was crowded – always a good sign – but we found a small table for two beside the bar. The place was run by a couple where, in contrast to our breakfast place, “Au Chiens Qui Fume”, the wife ran the bar and the husband worked the floor. A lot of the clientele were regulars and there was lots of Gallic banter between tables and between the customers and the owners. To test our French, there were a series of cartoons/mottos pinned around the bar. We had fun translating them. Basically they were all along the theme of “If you want to know who is the boss, just ask the wife”. Our guess was that they had been supplied by the regulars as a well meant comment on the management.
The patron/waiter was soon at our table, explained today’s specials and took our order. Glasses of wine were ordered and a most excellent, tasty lunch was served. Towards the end of our meal the street doors opened and in walked the local curate in flowing black robes accompanied by his assistant, a short, thin, young man dressed in a suit. This was clearly a daily ritual. People moved to give them a table and the assistant fussed around making sure that the curate was properly catered for. All part of life’s rich pageant, Paris style.
After lunch we continued our amble towards the Seine along a couple of narrow streets until we emerged into a square dominated by the massive Basilique Ste-Clotilde. This was a magnificent piece of gothic-style architecture with superb flying buttresses. Inside it was cool and quiet with some fine stained glass and organ music playing very quietly in the background. Back outside we could hear the sound of more music coming from a small park on the other of the square. On investigating it turned out to be members of the band of the Troupes de Marine – the overseas based part of the French Army – practising in preparation for the next day which just happened to be Bastille Day (know in French as La Fête Nationale), the biggest public holiday in the French calendar. Another bit of luck!!
So we sat on a bench and listened, our eyes were drawn to the sight of a car “flying” through the air. What on earth was happening? We soon found out. The Police were clearing a street of cars ready for some military parade the next day. They had a big job ahead of them as there were at least 30 cars in the way.
Walking on round a couple of corners and we found ourselves at the back of the National Assembly, the building of the French lower house of parliament. There was an increasing presence of people in military uniforms and a military helicopter flew overhead. To one side of the building a protest group from one of the French colonies in Africa was setting up camp. They seemed to protesting about corruption in their country that was being sponsored by the French State. No doubt they were hoping that being around on Bastille Day they would get lots of publicity.
The Seine was now only yards away and it had only taken us six hours to get there but what an interesting time we had had!! Crossing the river took us into the Place de la Concorde, the large area between the end of the Champs Elysee and Tuilerie Gardens. There was a lot of frantic activity here as the finishing touches were being put to temporary grandstands being set up for tomorrow’s parade. We walked behind them up a very muddy promenade.
After a short distance and we came to a public toilet. Not one of the “automatic” variety of the previous day but one with its own French idiosyncrasies. Although this is a free facility – with a big notice above the entrance saying “gratuit” – the doorway is almost blocked by a woman in uniform, apparently the attendant cum cleaner, holding out her hand for money. Needless to say this was ignored by yours truly but not by some of the other foreign visitors who presumably didn’t understand the sign. Once inside it turned out to be a unisex affair with rows of stalls along each side and a couple of urinals at the end. All very public and very French.
It was shortly after this that disaster hit us in the face, or rather hit me in the knee. The Champs-Élysée is a grand, wide, tree-lined avenue. Normally there is plenty of space for pedestrians but today large areas were roped off for the parades so it was very congested. Each of the many trees along the pavement has a solid metal grille of about 2 metres diameter round the base and designed to fit flush with the flagstones. At least that’s the theory. Not noticing that one was about 5 centimetres proud of its surrounding pavement, I suddenly found myself crashing down on the metal grille, right knee first. It was excruciatingly painful and humiliating in about equal measures. Fortunately nothing was broken – as was confirmed by an X-ray at our local A&E when back in Richmond a few days later – but my knee was swelling up so rapidly that it was now virtually taking up all the slack in my trouser leg.
[As I write this account of what had, until then, been a great day, the pain has only partially subsided. As they said at the hospital, “Don’t worry, at your age it will take longer to heal. If it’s still painful in three months go and see your GP.”!!!!]
The next day we were catching an early train to Poitiers to continue our short-break in France, so a quick dinner and early to bed was the order of the day. As it was now pouring rain we repaired back to the Odessa Bar at the top of the street and had a simple meal washed down with a little wine to the sounds of the rain thundering off the canopy. The clientele, mostly French and young were remarkably un-phased by the weather. We were a little less blasé as we were hoping for a little sunshine in France.
It had been a great trip to Paris. For a city that we know fairly well, we saw so many new places, soaked up new aspects of Parisienne life and had some very good food and drink. We arrived by Eurostar, the high-speed train from London, and left by TGV, the French high-speed rail network. A much better way to travel than flying with no baggage restrictions and minimal security checks – much more relaxing .