Vignettes de Paris

Ten days ago we were having fun in Paris – very difficult not to have fun it has to be said. Rather than write a “first we did this, then we did that” kind of story, here are a collection of places visited and great restaurants.  Hope you enjoy them as much as we did.

Chez Bérber (71 Boulevard du Montparnasse)

This is a North African restaurant near the Gare de Montparnasse where the order of the day is couscous with everything. We’d been here on a previous visit to the city so we knew exactly what to expect. And, as on the first occasion, the place was bursting at the seams, always a good recommendation.

Almost immediately the maitre d’ told us to follow a particular waiter and he would show us to a table. Follow we did and the next thing we were entering the kitchen. Ooooops. We had followed the wrong waiter. After that little mishap we were soon sitting at a window seat.

The seating arrangements are rather cosy. Couples are sat at two-seater tables facing each other and next to other couples. The tables are pushed together but separated by a half-width table that will be used for the food as it is delivered. Apart from a little nod of hello it is not the custom to strike up conversation with your neighbours.

The servings here are very generous so there was no question of ordering starters. For main courses, we both chose lamb, one in brochette form (on skewers) and the other as chops. Along with this we were served with larger dishes of couscous, a dish of chunky potatoes and carrots in a broth plus white beans and chickpeas. The food was hearty and delicious. At other tables we could see people having chicken and sausages. The house speciality was a plate of all three.

There was a choice of beers and wines. The house wine was from North Africa so we decided to keep to the theme and have a carafe of rosé and another of red. They were unlabelled and tasted rather young but otherwise very drinkable. After coffee, two full stomachs left the restaurant.

Le Jardin du Palais Royal (8 Rue de Montpensier)

In the way that serendipity works, our local, top class, French restaurant in Richmond, Brula, put out a link to some hidden or less frequented gardens in Paris just a few days ago. I don’t know why they did it as it’s not a regular feature of their newsletter, but the timing couldn’t have been better. One that we didn’t know, although it is slap bang in the middle of tourist Paris, is Le Jardin du Palais Royal. It’s only a short way north of Le Louvre and fairly close to the national institutions of the Banque de France (the central bank of France) and the Bourse (the French stock market). The famous Comédie-Française is located on the southwest corner.

The Palais was built by the infamous Cardinal Richlieu and completed in 1639. The cardinal died in 1642 and it was then handed to the royal family of France and used as a residence by kings and queens. Today it houses a number of Government Institutions and the National Library.

As we entered the first courtyard of the Palais it looked like a building site. To one side there were hoardings shielding work to restore some of the facades. In front, spread over the whole courtyard, were regular columns of various heights and painted with black and white stripes. We assumed it was part of the reconstruction project. Later we learned we had actually been looking at one of Paris’s more controversial art installations of the 1980’s. Its official name is Les Deux Plateau and is by the French artist Daniel Buren. We had thought it had an artistic quality but assumed that was accidental.

Moving through to the larger courtyard surrounded on three sides by arcades of up-market shops we reached the goal of the Jardin du Palais Royal. The term “jardin” is used more in the sense of open space than just garden. The most obvious feature is the trees and the most dominant of these are four double rows of lime trees. Down the centre are flower beds although not a flower was in sight on this cold December day. Towards the middle is a large, modern, circular fountain with pool. Next to this was a roped off area where workmen were putting the finishing touches to a temporary exhibit. This turned out to be a lighting display that would emulate the Northern Lights. It was sponsored by Ikea and was to be opened that evening by none other than the King of Sweden. Pity we couldn’t stay but we had a very important dinner engagement.

If you are looking for a place to relax quietly while in central Paris this must be one of the best places.

Place du Séoul (Place de Catalogne, Montparnasse)

The Place de Catalogne, is a short way uphill from the front of the Gare Monparnasse. It is a large roundabout with a great view to the Eiffel Tower. Round one side is a modern, sandy stone building with classy shops and restaurants at street level. If you go through the archway to the right of the building and then turn left through a security gate that seems to be open during daylight hours, you enter an enclosed area. This is the Place du Séoul. You are now surrounded by the most stylish glass fronted apartments. The glass is essentially one-way so the privacy of the flats is maintained but no doubt the occupants have a beautiful view out on to the formal gardens that fill the open space.

Notre Dame de Travail (36 Rue Guilleminot, Montparnasse)

This imposing church close to the tracks coming out of the Gare Montparnasse (Montparnasse station), has the nickname of the “industrial church”. There has been a church on this site for many hundreds of years but at the end of the 1900’s a complete rebuild was necessary. The visionaries wanted a church that would be a tribute to industry and the workers. This was the time when the Tour Eiffel was being built and the idea of using steel for a major project was gaining ground. So they chose steel as the main internal structural material. From the outside it looks like a conventional 17th/18th century religious building but once inside you are immediately struck by the use of steel columns and arches to support the roof. This might sound strange given that we are used to seeing stone columns inside a church but the steel really does work from an aesthetic viewpoint. This church is well worth a visit if you want to see an excellent tribute to engineering skills at the start of the 20th century.

Galerie Vivienne (Rue Vivienne)

This gallery, of mostly expensive shops, runs from the north side of the Jardin du Palais Royale towards La Bourse (the French stock exchange). It’s the sort of place that you wouldn’t know was there if passing on the adjacent streets. You have to be a little inquisitive, turn through an archway and suddenly you are in a long, glamorous, well-lit, arcade of shops. It was very busy with people who seemed to be regulars. There were few visitors like ourselves. The gallery seemed to stretch into the far distance but, in fact, is less than 200 metres long. The shops sold anything from high-fashion clothes, to works of art, to French memorabilia, and second-hand books. An eclectic mix.

We emerged through a side passageway into a narrow but busy street. This was part of the Paris rag trade area. A plaque on the wall of a school in the street commemorated the many Jewish children who were taken from the area during the 2nd World War and died in concentration camps. A poignant reminder of events in our own lifetime.

Fondation Louis Vuitton (Bois du Boulogne)

The Fondation Louis Vuitton is a brand new cultural centre built by the wealthiest family business in France. It’s located in the vast urban park of the Bois du Boulogne right next to the Jardin d’Acclimatation, a recreational area with everything from donkey riding to petting llamas. When we visited it was exactly a month old.

The building is the work of the renowned architect Frank Gehry. The galleries, auditorium, shop and general public areas are relatively conventional spaces. The outstanding part, from an architectural perspective, is the outer shell which is made out of massive curved sheets of glass that give the overall impression of a large ship ploughing through the ocean. The verisimilitude is enhanced by a water feature that makes one think of rolling waves and, along part of one side, is a large bubble of glass containing golden, papier-mâché or moulded plastic fish. The whole building must be over 200 metres from end to end and 100 metres across.

Visitors are encouraged to go out onto the roofs of the galleries which are of varying heights and interlinked by staircases and causeways. You can virtually walk from bow to stern of the “ship” at a high level. It also gives the opportunity to view and admire the steel and wood structures that support the glass of the outer skin. Scattered along the roofs are small beds of shrubs and a few trees. And should you want a wider perspective, there are gaps that give views out over Paris. Of particular note are the Tour Eiffel and the skyscrapers of La Défense.

Apart from one gallery devoted to architectural models of the construction project, the other galleries were all closed to the public whilst an exhibition was being hung. This lack of specific distractions gave us time to descend to the lowest floor. From here you could look out towards the waves of water coming towards the prow. And, as if this isn’t enough, along one side at this lowest level and stretching about half the length is an installation piece by the world-renowned Danish artist Ollafur Elasson. It consists of columns made up of rectangles of yellow light and mirrors and the columns are arranged in a gentle curve that follows the line of the ship’s hull. A stunning end to a memorable visit.

La Madrilene Bar Tabac (Neuilly-sur-Seine)

For a simple birthday lunch we went to the suburb of Neuilly which lies on the banks of the Seine and straddles the wide avenue that runs from the Arc d’Triomphe to La Défense the modern commercial centre on the western fringes of the city centre. Neuilly is an area I knew well in the seventies when working on a project that was based in an office there. The Neuilly of today looks little different but memories of the bars and brasseries that we used are a bit hazy to say the least. We saw a friendly looking bar/tabac and went in. It turned out to be a good choice.

As we entered the barmaid asked what we wanted. “Quelques chose a manger” (something to eat) I said and she told us to take a table and someone would come and take our order. Very quickly the proprietor appeared with a black slate on which was written today’s menu. A great feature of these sorts of place is that the menu changes every day. Although I understand a bit of French and am used to reading menus, the problem usually is that the flowery language can be a bit impenetrable for the non-native speaker. The patron did not have any English but he said he would bring out the chef who could help. It turned out that the chef’s English was very limited but he was able explain the menu in French but with a little less hyperbole. That worked well and we were soon able to order starters and main dishes plus, of course, a glass of sauvignon for madame and a draught Kronenbourg 1664 for myself.  The food was excellent, especially the starters.

Le Martignac (109 Rue de Grenelle)

This is a small bistrot in an area heavily populated by French Government departments including the headquarters of the army and the navy. We found it by chance on a previous visit and were keen to find it again. We hadn’t remembered the name or the address but I knew it was somewhere between the Quai d’Orsay art gallery on the banks of the Seine and Les Invalides with the Tomb of Napoleon. I could remember how we had found it, more or less, from Les Invalides but this time we were approaching from Quai d’Orsay. With the aid of a map and memory we found it with only one wrong turn. Great.

It was lunchtime and Le Martignac, which is very small, is popular with the civil servants from nearby offices. Stepping in through the narrow door we could see that every seat was occupied as were the bar stools. The wife of the husband/wife combo who run the place, called out from behind the bar. We said we wanted a meal. She called to her husband and immediately, by some miracle, he was directing us to a small table near the end of the bar.

The menu, which of course changes every day, was scribbled in virtually uninterpretable words on a board. The patron explained that, in simple terms, the choice was chicken, ham or kalamari. We ordered one ham and one kalamari and within seconds our plates were on the table along with a bottle of water, two glasses of wine and a basket of bread. And whilst he was serving us he was handling several more tables and finding seats for new arrivals. A human dynamo in a beret.

His only help was a young man – his son? – who cleared the tables and an unseen person in the kitchen cooking and plating up the meals. Combined with the patron’s wife who handled the drinks, served snacks to people at the bar and took the money, this must be the most efficient restaurant in Paris or even the world.

After our main courses which were delicious, the patron suggested we had a dessert. Rather than explain every option he suggested we tried a bit of each one. Ok, we said, and off he dashed to a display in the window, sliced up a selection of patisseries and brought them back to the table, whilst seating two men who had been waiting at the bar. Coffee was served next with the efficiency we had come to expect, then the bill arrived. The total was just under €50 (approx. £20 each for two courses, two glasses of wine each and coffee). We will be back.

La Coupole (Boulevard Montparnasse)

We’ve got into a bit of a rut but it’s a rut we are in no hurry to get out off. On every trip to Paris we have to make a visit to La Coupole, a classic French brasserie where time has stood still. It’s so popular that we have got into the habit of making a reservation at the same time as we book our hotel and travel.

When you arrive there is a reception desk where they check your reservation and take coats. They don’t reserve specific tables although I’m sure regulars can have favourite tables. We were quickly shown to a table, an order of two Kir (white wine and cassis) was taken and we were left with menus. Shell fish are a speciality of the house and you can chose anything from a serving of oysters to a multi-tiered platter of just about anything from crab to lobster to langoustine and all served in their shells.

My choice was a tray of six Fines de claire no 2 Huîtres (oysters). They were large and meaty and tasted as though they had just left the sea. Along with them was served a dish of finely chopped onion in a light liquor and very dense brown bread with fresh Normandy butter. Margaret, not a lover of seafood in shells chose Œuf poché, crémeux de châtaigne et champignons de saison au magret de canard fume (a poached egg, cream of chestnut and season’s mushrooms with smoked duck breast). She declared it to be utterly delicious.

For entrée my choice was a fish platter (Plancha de poissons : Saumon, Cabillaud sauvage, Noix de Saint-Jacques) which included Cabillaud (chunky white cod), grilled salmon and coquilles St Jacques (scallops). Margaret went down the red meat route and had duck breast (Magret de canard du Sud-Ouest, pain perdu pomme mangue et sauce miroir au porto). This was washed down with a fine, dry bottle of Pouilly Fuisson.

There was no space left for a dessert, although the choice was very tempting, but the cheese board couldn’t be resisted. A trolley was brought to the table with about twenty different cheeses. We have catholic tastes when it comes to cheese so asked the waiter to make a representative selection. He chose well. A glass of Bordeaux proved an excellent accompaniment. And finally we ordered two coffees, a café crème and an espresso, both excellent brews.

All that was left now was to sort out the bill. The least said about this the better but it was a birthday dinner and we just felt like spoiling ourselves. We left feeling replete and vowing to stay in the rut on our next visit whenever that may be.

C & A (in front of Gare Montparnasse)

C&A is a Dutch clothing store chain that used to have shops in the UK but alas no more. I say alas, because in student days their Glasgow store was a great place to buy affordable outdoor clothing. Anyway they are alive and kicking in mainland Europe. After a day of bitter cold Margaret decided that she needed much thicker gloves and, seeing a C&A store, we headed in that direction.

A pair of thick woollen gloves were quickly found and purchased then we decided to have a look at the other clothes. Margaret went off and found a fitted, padded coat that filled a hole in her wardrobe. I found myself looking at caps, very French. They were arranged on hooks that climbed up a pillar far beyond the reach of the tallest customers. Naturally the one I fancied was on the very top row and there was no obvious way to reach it.

By this time Margaret had rejoined me and we looked around for someone to help. And help was at hand. When we asked a member of staff, he indicated he would be able to get any hat down and promptly disappeared. A few moments later he reappeared half hidden behind a giant mobile climbing frame. Soon he was climbing up the frame and asking which hat I would like to try. Excellent service and, of course, I then felt obliged to buy it.

Actually it has turned out to be a very good buy, being warm over the bald spot and pretty well water proof.  We’re going to start a “Bring Back C&A to the UK” campaign.

The Sun (somewhere up above I guess)

In Paris we saw some fascinating sites and ate iat some great restaurants but the one thing that was missing was the sun. The only proof that the sun was somewhere up in the sky was that there was daylight some of the time. On one occasion, on our last day, there was a brief glimpse of blue sky but that was it. The sun did not put in a single appearance.

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About Clashgour

With my wife Margaret I am spending a happy retirement divided between our flat in Richmond, London, our villa in Kalkan on the Turkish Mediterranean coast and travelling mostly in the UK, Turkey and the US. When travelling we use public transport where possible, resorting to a car when it is the only viable option. This blog is an occasional diary of our travels.
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