Jane and I visited Paris back in 2018 and, last week, we had another lovely visit to what is surely one of the most impressive capital cities in the world. I loved being back in a big, busy urban centre (I’m still missing London) and Paris has some tourist attractions that are second to none. The food is excellent again (after what seemed to me to be a dip in recent decades compared to London) and the café culture is thriving.
On the back of BBC weather forecasts in the days leading up to our short break in Paris, we had prepared for three days of rain. In practice, we barely felt any rain. The afternoon of our first day was sunny and we had decent weather throughout our stay; not bad for February and excellent expectation management by the meteorologists!
We stayed in the gently trendy and comfortable Le Pigalle hotel. Having checked in, we used the unexpectedly good weather on our first afternoon to stroll around the nearby streets. As usual when we travel to European cities, we were impressed by the array of independent shops including florists, cheesemongers, bakeries and vegetable and fruit sellers – we barely saw a supermarket chain. We paused our walk to top up with a street-side burger-and-wine lunch and then wandered around Monmartre just to the north.
The Basilica du Sacré Cœur dominates the hill that the shops and residences of Monmartre surround. From the hill there are great views of almost all of Paris. The steps between the funicular and the Basilica were teeming with tourists and hawkers of souvenirs, cigarettes and little locks that adorn – no, litter! – the mesh fences around the slopes.
I was amazed by the numbers of people; it was mid-week and February after all. But as we walked 50 yards away from the tourist hot spot, the numbers fell away quickly. Once we were clear of the souvenir shops, there was peace enough to enjoy the atmosphere, views, architecture and the sight of a great French tradition: games of petanque in the little gravelled spaces between the blocks of flats.
It had been an early start and so we welcomed a pre-booked early dinner at Julien Bouillon, a pleasantly traditional French Brasserie with a solid traditional menu of French food and wine. The stroll back through Pigalle showed how well French city café life has survived Covid and whatever economic travails France may be suffering. For a mid-week night, the streets and bars were very busy.
Next day we tried out breakfast in the Paris branch of Buvette. The breakfast itself was fine but the French seem to eat breakfast relatively late and the café was both empty and cold.
We didn’t linger and jumped on the metro to pay a visit to Père Lachaise Cemetery. This is the largest cemetery in Paris and, apparently, the most visited cemetery in the World. Fortunately the sheer size of the place means that its tranquillity is preserved once one is away from the main gate and into the lattice of paths that divide the cemetery into its 97 ‘divisions’.
We saw some of the famous graves (Jim Morrison, Moliere etc.) but the real pleasures for me are in the scale, extravagance and creative designs of some of the lesser known graves and family mausoleums. Some of the family mausoleums are as big as houses!
Our joint favourite tomb was that for Antoine-Augustin Parmentier who was an 18th century agronomist who, after living on potatoes as a prisoner during the ‘Seven Years War’, became evangelical about potatoes as a staple food. His avid promotion of potatoes was very successful and someone has celebrated this by placing a potato on his grave with the words “Merci pour les frites!” (look carefully below middle right).
As we had in 2018 (when it had been 40 degrees of heat in the cemetery) we walked south along the Canal Saint-Martin. This wide but often tree-lined canal provides a beautiful avenue to walk along with a multitude of bars left and right. We stopped in one (Brasserie au Comptoir) for a quick beer but enjoyed the place and the hoppy IPA beer so much that we rested up for longer than planned and shared a very nice chicken caesar salad. This model for lunch was something we tried to follow the following day but beer that we like (rather than lager) is still quite hard to find in the French café scene.
We walked into the Marais district, past all the pretty shop fronts, and intended to see the Picasso exhibition at the Musée Picasso. We had been thwarted in this during two previous Paris visits due to building works and, although we could get into the museum this time, the Picasso exhibition was not open due to a major rehanging of the work. At least we have an excuse to revisit Paris in the future when the Picasso section of the museum is open.
We sucked up our fleeting disappointment and went into two other temporary exhibitions in the museum. The first was a retrospective of the work of Faith Ringgold.
I had not heard of Ringgold and the first couple of rooms, while interesting, did not seem to offer me enough new on black art in late 20th century America. However, as the exhibition showed how her work evolved into a mix of paint and textiles, and of imagery and text, so I became very engaged. I liked the colours and the subject matter often, pleasingly, a little oblique to the normal activist themes.
The exhibition in the basement of Picasso-inspired works by Pierre Moignard was much less interesting. What would have helped would have been some imagery of the Picasso piece that triggered each of the Moignard works. As it was, it was hard to understand or like them much.
Dinner at Papi that night was a joy. We had spotted this beautiful-looking and busy restaurant during our walks the previous evening and we had booked the two remaining early evening slots. We found that the food quality more than matched that of the minimalist décor. The food and the service to deliver it were lovely and I recommend this restaurant highly.
The dinner capped a full day of Parisian pleasure. We had one more day in Paris ahead of us. The morning was partly planned out with a booking to visit Sainte-Chapelle in the morning followed by us splitting up for a while to pursue different interests after lunch; more on that in my next post.