The riots outside our hotel at the Gare du Nord had just been quelled by a ferocious police force. So all was quiet when we arrived for a short stay in Paris with nothing in mind to do except try two restaurants that I had not visited for some 30 years or more.
Even had there been a riot it would have been far below us as we looked from our hotel room across to the splendid Victorian/classical façade of the station, down to newly-formed springtime leaves on plane trees and, not too far away in the distance, the monstrous and unmissable structure of Sacré Coeur atop its hill.
We ate well at the 1925 below and, after a rest, surveyed Paris as it should be – a spectacular view, warm spring sunshine flowing into our room, and with a bellyful of good food and wine.
The district that we were in could hardly be called salubrious. Cosmopolitan would be nearer the mark. So we sat at a local bar for our evening aperitif – watching the passing scene. In a count of about 100 people to pass by, about two thirds were white, one visibly Muslim woman (the men around us were drinking only coffee), one dog and, surprisingly, one cat (on its master’s shoulder and taken for a walk).
Café-sitting in France is an absolute delight – to those of us who like to look at people, their characters, shapes, clothes and manner.
Our café had a palm tree in a pot between its customers and the passers-by. Its fronds encroached on the pavement space. So people either had to duck down as they walked by, or were brushed in the face as they went. A blind man, who walked with a long white stick, and at considerable speed, crashed into a hoarding on the pavement. He made no fuss of it whatsoever and continued as if nothing untoward had occurred.
After our count of people, the dog and one cat, a gang of scruffs passed by, each with a strong dog on a lead. Begging brought them nothing, as people, presumably, thought that if they were able to keep dogs in good condition they must be quite capable of looking after themselves.
Our new addition of the Michelin Red Guide told of two good places to eat quite nearby. So we aimed for one of them – Chez Casimir (the other, Chez Michel, was almost next door). We ate well there, with me choosing the kind of peasant food that we can only cook at home, and usually needing half a pig’s head to do so. An interesting cookery idea for me was that my pig’s cheek came to the table with pearl barley in a sauce as the surrounding vegetable. It made a very nice change from the usual Puy lentils.
We concluded that the food was of a higher standard than our favourite 1925 beneath the hotel – close by, and cheaper.
We expect nocturnal noise where we stay, but our first night was more disturbed than usual. A man, in a most resonant part of the Gare’s concourse beneath us, shouted at the top of his considerable voice non-stop from around midnight until 2 in the morning, when, presumably he either went to sleep or was bonked on the head. One would think it impossible to shout without using a semblance of words. But he did.
Then poor Margreet had to put up with me rising every half an hour of the night to visit the lavatory. As the bathroom door was a squeaky one, I was able to oil the hinges from a small oilcan that I carry to France for just that purpose.
After recovery and coffee the next morning, we set out for the Flea Market at Porte Clignancourt. But despite arriving at 10.30, there were few stalls open for business. So we headed for the Grands Boulevards Metro Station to wander around the adjoining quartier of small eating places, hotels and the Follies Bergères.
The real reason for aiming at this particular district was that in it is my personal favourite restaurant in Paris – Chartier. Its enormous eating hall, left over from La Belle Epoque, its character waiters, its unchanged menu, the proximity of diners (usually sharing a table), and the whole system of delivering the food from kitchen to customer via a concierge who records every item, is, to me just magic. And it is also one of the cheapest places in which we eat.
Then, exhausted after our disturbed night, it was back to our hotel for Margreet to read her holiday collection of women’s magazines, that focus on celebrities, sex lives, fashion, make-up, and how to deal with men. Did you know that to flush the lavatory without the lid down may spread germs?
With our bodies now quite unable to consume more food, we were sitting outside a café for an aperitif (with no meal in mind) when a large spot of rain fell on to the pavement. We had only just reached our hotel entrance when the heavens opened. Which all made for a splendid spectacle from the dry part of our room’s balcony. I had hoped to see lightning strike Sacré Coeur, but the storm was made up of more noise than flash.
A picnic of bread and fresh goat cheese in our room was as much food as we could manage. Unless one’s stomach is in practise to cope with a lot of food, it can not cope (in our case) with two good meals a day. So we find that a hearty French lunch is about as much as we can manage.
Many years ago I ate at Allard with a rather sophisticated girl friend. The wine we ordered was slightly piqué. She sent it back, which rather upset the staff, who said that if we didn’t like it they would drink the wine themselves. I never returned to eat there. Well, this time we went back. And I was sure that after some 30 years they would not recognise me. The house Burgundy was excellent, the food delicious, and the waiting most professional in that old-fashioned way at which the French excel. Naturally, I was not recognised.
It was an afternoon for seeing parts of Paris new to us. We took the No. 2 Metro line from end to end, stopping off at the Parc Monceau, where, on the 5th of May, the foxgloves were in full and glorious bloom.
Around the park stand some of the most select houses and apartments in Paris. So when we went to a café for liquid sustenance, the decoration, staff and clientele were exactly right for the quartier – smart and expensive. We had noticed already that people waiting at Metro stations were surprisingly representative of their area.
The termini of the line were both rather too dull in which to spend time. But we had passed the Saint Martin Canal, so that is where we alighted on our return to its nearest Metro stop. I had heard that the shops, restaurants and accommodation beside the canal were becoming fashionable. But at Jaurès this was not so, it being rather dull thereabouts. But as we walked around investigating, we passed a crowd of clochards sheltering from the elements beneath a secluded colonnade, where a white woman was in bed with a black man and with their companions around them happily imbibing or smoking whatever was available. We had already been surprised (as one probably always is) by the number of vagrants sleeping rough in the streets of Paris. Beneath the colonnade it was touts comforts.
After a light dinner of an omelette we retired to our own bed, having eaten or drunk in seven different venues during the day.
Our tastes in Paris are diverse and flexible, as is illustrated by our final day’s activities. We ate Sunday lunch
at the Brasserie Lipp (the other place where I had not eaten for years). This was eating at the top of the scale, illustrated by our four neighbours, who were discussing the world’s music industry, and how they might change it to make a profit. Then, as we waited for the time of our departure by Eurostar from the Gare du Nord, we drank rather tasteless Turkish beer on the pavement seats of a kebab shop. Here, a man, eating alone and next to us, was asked for a cigarette by a passer-by. The scrounger was offered a bag, from which he took tobacco and a cigarette paper and rolled his own on the spot. It was as if both taker and giver expected it. And having rolled the cigarette, of course he needed a light.
On our return to Waterloo Station we took a taxi home. The cab of this vehicle was even more untidy than the colonnaded quarters we had seen in Paris (no room for a bed). And the driver was as scruffy as any clochard – and probably less civil.