Thursday, February 15, 2007

Paris, February 2007. Somethings to do and see

The Metro in Paris is a splendid way to get around swiftly and cheaply. After buying a combined ticket for Metro and busses for the length of your stay at a station, it is only necessary thereafter to refer to a Metro and street map of the city to be free to travel wherever and whenever it pleases you. One of the few snags is that sometimes there are many steps to climb. So old people and invalids beware. And do not expect to see smiles or hear laughter on the Metro. Passengers tend to be dull, sullen, selfish and inconsiderate. So, although the wonderful Art Nouveau entrances entice you into thinking that below ground will be a continuation of the Belle Epoque, Gay Paree will not be in evidence.
My brother-in-law and his wife came to Paris to meet us at the station. The Dutch are very keen to meet and say farewell – and, in this case, to share in a birthday. In fact, birthdays in Holland are the most important days in anyone’s year. So we planned to introduce them to some favourite restaurants and take them on a short tour of Toulouse- Lautrec’s haunts.
From our room in Hotel Terminus Nord, opposite the Gare du Nord station, we had a view of the dome of Sacré Coeur above the zinc roofs of the ubiquitous seven story blocks that form Paris. And it was beneath this church and around part of the hill on which it stands that was our target area. This, of course, included the Moulin Rouge and the Moulin de la Galette
Waldemar Januszczak, who writes on art for the Sunday Times, described in detail where Degas worked, Suzanne Valadon posed and painted, and where Toulouse-Lautrec slept, painted his cabaret artistes and lesbians, debauched, orgied, and drank absinthe to excess.
With my previously marked map, and the newspaper article at hand, we walked up and down hill to cover a comparatively small area to look at the relevant buildings and studios. The area was a small one, as befitted a man short of leg. And it was not only very interesting and instructive, but introduced us to a part of Paris previously unknown to us.
It was during this walk that we ate at Wepler in the Place Clichy (see piece on Food and Drink in Paris).
The other main quest of ours was a regular one. It was to see, once more, the bronze, Dalou sculpture on the tomb of Victor Noir in Père Lachaise cemetery.
The story is that in 1870, Victor Noir, a popular and handsome journalist, known for his partiality to women, was invited to be a witness to the fixing of terms for a duel between Napoleon’s great nephew, Prince Pierre Bonaparte, and a politician. But an argument ensued and Pierre Bonaparte, pistol in hand, shot Victor Noir dead on the spot.
Bonaparte, because of his considerable connections (he was cousin of the ruling Napoleon III), got off scot-free.
This acquittal so upset the population of Paris that the body of Victor Noir was transferred to the famous Paris cemetery of Père Lachaise and money was raised to commission the famous sculptor-of-the-day, Dalou, to make a life-size bronze effigy of the journalist to rest on the tomb.
Dalou seized the chance of enjoying this much-talked-of commission. The bronze appeared as a very dapper Victor Noir, with top hat fallen to the side as though he had just been felled by Bonaparte’s shot.
However, with Noir’s trousers slightly undone, Dalou had created a larger-than-life bulge within them.
The bulge was quite noticeable to any onlooker, especially to the female sex, who right away saw it as a fertility object. So it was not long before that particular protuberance became well polished as the infertile or sex-starved ladies of Paris rubbed a vital part of their anatomy over it. Also, those with expectations of marriage within the year might kiss him on the mouth and rub the toes of his boots.
Along with these motions it became almost obligatory to place flowers in the fallen top hat.
However, these actions were considered to be unseemly by the authorities, and a fence was placed around the statue. But the female population of Paris would have none of it, and the fence had to be dismantled.
So there he lies, the handsome Victor Noir, fresh flowers always in his top hat, and with the greeny/blue verdigris of bronze all over, except where it has been polished regularly to a fine sheen.
It is one of the more delightful sights of Paris.
The cemetery was about to close when we had, at last, found our old friend Victor Noir. So, with fading light, and calls for visitors to leave, it was a pleasure to say goodbye to this enormous collection of tombs that commemorate people that shortly after death were thought to be of great importance and are now almost all forgotten – except for a very few, like Victor Noir.
We set out to renew our acquaintance with the Marais area, its Jewish quarter and the Picasso Museum.
Starting at the Bastille, the Place des Vosges would be our first target. This large and very grand early 17th century square (the first planned square in Paris) never fails to impress with its arch-enclosed promenade pavements. The brick and stone buildings are unified, yet vary slightly in the colour of brickwork.
The Picasso Museum is housed in the most glorious of town houses. Difficult to conduct onself around without either missing rooms or unexpectedly reaching them again, there are some fine paintings to be seen – yet, I had the feeling that many were the works of a very gifted grown-up child having the most glorious time at other people’s often considerable expense. But the rooms, staircase and especially the vaulted cellar, in a way dwarfed the artist’s work housed in them. To me, Picasso was one of the most gifted draughtsmen of all time. But here there were too few of his drawings to be seen – unless we missed some rooms full of them.
On our way out of the Marais we passed the Pompidou Centre which might, or might not, be covered in scaffolding. We are not museum people, and the Picasso showing was enough for the day.
Because of the lack of “modern” buildings, and the apartment blocks that have formed Paris as it is, it is an unchanging city in which one always seems to feel at home. Though I do rather miss the smells of the drains, the Gitanes Mais cigarettes and the convenience and sniff of the pissoirs of old. At least the balayeuses still turn on the water to run down the gutters from the highest point on their length, and to sweep the detritus from street and pavement into it to run downhill to the nearest drain. But the twigs on their brooms of old have been replaced by bright green plastic. So times do change in Paris.


Friday, February 09, 2007

Paris. Food and Drink. February 2007

Sensible English, who go to Paris for a break to café-sit and eat well, start at Waterloo Station to board a Eurostar train. And sensible English will not travel first class where, admittedly there is marginally more leg room, because the train food seems always to be served at the wrong time of day, and is hardly worth eating anyway.
Starting early enables you to leave the train at the Gare du Nord, cross the road, and descend on the Brasserie du Nord, 1925, for an excellent lunch.
To eat there before catching a train home is foolish when a tight schedule is involved, because the speed of the meal at this restaurant is delightfully slow at the best of times, and rush and digestion are poor bedfellows.
At the 1925 we order white and red wine in carafe right away, to sip as we read the menu. First course is usually Foie Gras or Ceasar Salad, followed by either Choucroute or Steak Tartare (raw minced beef mixed with egg yolk, chopped onions, capers and Tabasco) The Choucroute is a copious dish that includes saurkraut, boiled potatoes, a Frankfurter, a boiled pork chop, a meaty sausage and a deeply smoked piece of bacon. We finish with sorbet, cheese or crême caramel.
Then it is time for an afternoon snooze in our hotel room almost directly above the restaurant. (On this occasion I watched Ireland beat Wales at Rugby Football on television.)
Now, where for dinner?
There is a sign on the Rue Faubourg Montmartre that says Chartier. You look into a courtyard to see at the far end a dark, brass and mahogany-coloured revolving door. Once inside the restaurant, frequented in Victorian days by Parisian workers, you are led to a table that has above it brass racks for coats (and top hats). If you are a couple you share a table with two strangers. They could be professors, bank managers – or even workers. It is a lively, happy, noisy, cosmopolitan mix. We are told that the entire staff numbers over 60. And it seats, in its vast, galleried space, heaven knows how many.
Waiters at Chartier look as if they were born and raised there, as were their parents before them.
Your order will probably be written down on the paper table covering. The addition, always done with considerable flourish, certainly will.
The menu has probably seldom changed since the place’s inception. So Tête de Veau will be there, with all the French café fare. Chartier red wine, by the bottle, is the best bet. Our neighbours this time were a crowd of happy, rotund, ruddy-faced coarse-fishermen.
Margreet, who had overdone lunch, settled for a plate of green asparagus salad and half a dozen snails. I had mushroom soup and the Tête de Veau (calf’s head). Now, Tête de Veau seldom appears on menus nowadays. And I think that Margreet would prefer it that way, as my dish, with sauce gribiche, came as its gelatinous self with the animal’s nostril intact. If the jelly-like skin is edible, then the meaty cheek inside it is usually overdone and stringy. I enjoyed my feast, but couldn’t finish it. As my favourite Mont Blanc (a pot of chestnut purée coated with crème frâiche or crème Chantilly) had been omitted from the menu, I settled for ice cream.
And that was our first day’s food in Paris.
Of course, Paris is not all food and drink, so my next blog will be about peripheral matters to food, like my brother- and sister-in-law’s visit, a walk around Toulouse-Lautrec country, and much else.
It was during this walk that we ate in Place Clichy at Wepler – recommended by neighbours in London. Here the seafood salad, onion soup and confit of duck were exemplary. The Alsace Riesling and Côtes du Rhône were excellent.
Our evening meal was at one of our favourite places, Au Charpentiers, Rue Mazerine. This restaurant is very cosy, very French, and with very French food – like pig’s trotters. (These I had had on a previous visit and found them a little hard.) We chose beef salad and the restaurant’s paté, followed by ox tongue and Toulouse sausage with lentils. The Alsace Rieling and red Rhône were fine.
One feels that Au Charpentiers will be there for ever, serving people who really take enjoyment in their food. But Chartier offers much the same fare, though not as well or as individually prepared. And it is considerably cheaper – and much more fun.
So we lunched at Chartier the following day, this time sitting next to an old boy (86) who had escaped from the Germans in the war four times. He had made wine and smoked pigs. She had worked in a bank for 45 years. So, although I needed Margreet to translate their rapid-fire French, it was a pleasant get-together.
We chose Jambon de Bayonne and beetroot salad, then Steak au Poivre and Escalope de Veau. And on the lunchtime menu they offered my Mont Blanc. Margreet chose Parfait au Caramel – and excellent it was. And, as usual, our waiter used about a third of our paper table covering to remind him of our order, and priced and added it up with such a flourish that a smiling cartoon face concluded his doubly underlined total.
We had decided to visit the Marais quarter to see how trendy it had become, and eat at a neighbour’s recommended place, called the Gai Moulin. But the gay owners must have fallen out as the place was very much closed, despite announcing that it was open seven days a week.
So we wandered away from the Pompidou Centre toward the Jewish quarter. Getting hungry and not knowing where we might eat, we entered a spectacles shop to ask the lady in charge if she could recommend a “restaurant locale”. There was one, a few doors down at 42, Rue Saint-Croix de la Bretonnerie, called Le Petit Picard.
We were about to enjoy our best meal in Paris, and probably the most reasonably priced. I had a wonderful pisaladière (if that is how you spell it), Margreet the best leeks that either of us had ever tasted, followed by trout and steak. To finish, Margreet chose Crème Caramel and I had a black currant sorbet that only the French seem to be able to make. It is absolutely packed with taste (do they add Cassis when making it?) and has black currants mixed in with the ice.
We left the restaurant (done up to resemble a Pompei ruin) to wish a girl with her family a happy birthday.
It was time for our last evening meal in Paris. Neither of us had much enthusiasm for yet more good food. So we thought we’d wander around old haunts on the Left Bank. We passed the Polidor in Rue Monsieur le Prince, near to Odeon, as being a “menu” kind of place and, thus, too much. Then we looked at the Acropole, rue des Medicins, off Boulevard St-Michel, then Allard in Rue St André des Arts (too gastronomic). So we returned to the Acropole (where the clientele, in a fairly bleak atmosphere, consist mainly of Professors and teachers), to sample the excellent stuffed vine leaves and home-made tarama. Spicy meat balls and veal on a skewer was followed by Halva and ice cream.
With plenty of time to spare we ate our last lunchtime meal at the 1925, where we reversed the dishes we had eaten there previously – Choucroute for Margreet and Steak Tartare for me.
Writing about all this food makes me feel rather bloated. But to eat, drink, and blog it, was our aim, and we did ourselves proud.
Next in the blog come descriptions of where we went on the almost obligatory exercise taken in between the blow-outs.