Return to Paris: reasons to love the City of Lights
The French captial remains the perfect city to stir the senses and whet the appetite
“C’est bizarre,” observed the female passerby as she looked in the window of Cafe Philippe alongside the medieval market of Carreau De Temple. She was watching the president of France and the King of Morocco sitting down to lunch together in the busy restaurant. What else, after all, do you on the last day of your tenure, the day before the presidential election.
Whether it was the oysters or the seabass, we cannot confirm, but François Hollande sure looked like a joyful man as his security detail whisked him away for one last time.
(I am sure the irony isn’t lost on him that Cafe Philippe is located just metres from where Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and the Dauphin were imprisoned from in the Temple area, 1792 to the date of their execution in 1793. Careful now.)
We clicked our smartphone cameras at the waving president surrounded by umbrellas and snappers, surprised that the security is apparently low key, and it was good to see such a resounding vote of confidence in an area that hasn’t had the best of times over the last two years.
The area is the north of the 3rd arrondissement, on the edge of the 11th. As the crow flies it is less than a kilometre from the scene of one of the worst terrorists attacks in Europe – the Bataclan theatre and cafe; the former offices of Charlie Hebdo are only a few hundred metres further away, down a quiet lane.
Philippe is one of a plethora of restaurants and cafes along Le Carreau, in this now increasingly popular quartier for Les Bobos (French hipsters) in HoMa (Haut Marais). We lived here a few years ago, when such an American acronym would have been deemed as impossible as the existence of a vegetarian restaurant, but this weekend we found tea houses, gourmet burger bars and even vegan pizza on offer in the area. Times change: there are fewer tourists in Paris, waiters speak smiling English with enthusiasm; needs must.
We lived on Boulevard Voltaire, along the axis of protest between Place de la Republique and Bastille, just along from Rue Oberkampf. Happily the area is visibly shaking off the legacy of events and getting on with its vibrant multicultural life.
Up the left below the hill is the beginning of Canal Saint Martin with its wonderful wrought iron footbridges, Hotel du Nord of the movie fame, and Quai de Valmy where Chez Prune is the perfect spot for a cafe. Meccano Bar and Cafe Charbon on Oberkampf are still drinks and brunch meccas for the Bobos, along with tons of new establishments to sample as you meander toward Père Lachaise Cemetery to visit the lipstick kissed grave of Oscar Wilde, as well as those of Simone de Beauvoir and Jim Morrison.
The canal heads somewhat disappointingly underneath Boulevard Richard Lenoir, a mostly dull perfunctory residential and commercial stretch, on its journey to emerge magically as a basin beyond Bastille. But, the stretch is host to the best markets in Paris. Thursdays and Sundays it has the city’s biggest fresh food market; perfect for Air BnBers, aparthoteliers or just a picnic. Occasional Sundays host the brocante or random antiquities market. (I got an ancient Paris Monopoly there.)
The magnificent Place des Vosges, one of the oldest squares in Paris, is just off the other side of Boulevard Beaumarchais; perfect for eating your picnic fare in the garden of the Sun King. You are now deep in super-chic Le Marais, the pre-revolutionary marsh area.
While there, pop into the cour of the Hôtel de Sully or head back along the chichi boutiques of Rue des Francs-Bourgeois and take a right up to Rue Thorigny and the Musée Picasso. If you hit peak-art, and happen to have table tennis bats with you, head around the back to the small park on Rue Vieille du Temple with a permanent ping-pong table. So you can slice a serve while eyeing Picasso’s goats between the horns. (Go Sports on Place de La Republique sell table tennis sets.)
Boulevard Beaumarchais surely deserves the most improved award for an artery in the area. ‘Merci’, the eclectic, expensive yet philanthropic boutique shop and cafe has raised the bar and others have followed. Grazie and Le Beaumarchais (original!) are terribly trendy and this new brunch thing has really caught on. Américains indeed.
I mentioned vegetarian restaurants because, as the partner of a veggie, we both still have memories of being a) politely but firmly ushered off a premises after an enquiry for veggie food, and b) refused a request for the meat dish without the meat but with the gratin dauphinois. Non.
The latter incident happened in Le Clown Bar, where Beaumarchais and Rue Amelot connect. It seems highly unlikely to occur now since it reinvented itself in 2014 with a new modern hipster French menu, an example of the increasing gentrification of the area.
Next door, Le Cirque d’Hiver, the permanent winter circus run by the Bouglione family, defiantly survives the digi-entertainment age. Le Cirque bar also remains, where fully made-up clowns can be seen enjoying a quick break from the ring, with a verre and a smoke, their giant shoes crossed over. We enjoyed an evening glass next door outside the new Pasdeloup cocktail bar, where they serve popcorn and cauliflower pierogi, if you don’t mind. (You get the trendification picture.)
We noticed the traditional alimentations or corner groceries are rapidly disappearing to be replaced by wine delicatessens and galleries. All this gentrification is offset by the fact that cheaper accommodation is now a real thing.
Smaller cheaper hotels are noticeable and let’s face it, you don’t really visit Paris to stay in your room or have the tepid coffee and bouncy croissant petit dejeuner.
No better place for such morning libation is just across Beaumarchais and on to Rue Bretagne, one of the great foodie streets of Paris. Cheese shops, patisseries, cafes, the Greek traiteur, the Spanish ham tapas bar, all sit cheek by jowl perpendicular to the small park in Square Du Temple.
On Saturday it was teeming with business and most were heading into Le Marche des Enfants Rouge, the oldest indoor market in Paris, to queue for bread and pastries or buy a plate of couscous and tagine with a glass of red to be eaten at communal tables.
Across the street is the great Cafe Charlot; if you have been to certain establishments in New York it will look familiar. It is the original of the oft-copied French style subway tiled and distressed mirror restaurants. But it’s a good one.
From the traditional to the trendy, we enjoyed an evening meal in Derriere on Rue Grevelliers off Rue Beaubourg. Furniture was eclectic; a bed, your granny’s armoire, paintings of bottoms and of course a ping pong table, but the fish was great.
Finally another word for art buffs. For a nearby feast of classic modern art, cross over Rue Beaubourg (3rd) to the Centre Pompidou. As the Contemporary Collection is currently closed for renovation, try the Modern Collection for a selection box of jawdrop art. Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Miro, Kandinski, Delauney, Oldenburg, Giacometti, Pollock, Rothko, Warhol are your starting eleven. Allow at least two hours for immersion. Then retire to Cafe Beaubourg for a glass of Sancerre and Pompidou people watching.
Our friends living in Paris say it took some time for people to relax again in the outdoor seating areas of cafes. They said they remind their five-year-old daughter that the frequently seen groups of heavily armed police are “their friends”. Paris and France remain in a state of emergency. Armed police and occasionally soldiers patrol the major tourist sites. Large gatherings of people, for example at markets, are usually heavily policed.
Bag checks are the norm in all museums, department stores and public monuments.
Restaurants now commonly employ extra discreet security personnel.
Paris is dotted with plaques commemorating events of the second World War. Now there is another plaque on the wall outside Bataclan. The cafe remains eerily dark and shut, but the theatre reopened as a concert venue last November.
We stayed in the small but perfectly-formed Marais Home boutique hotel on Boulevard du Temple just off Place de La Republique. Rates for a comfortable double room with shower run from €120 a night. A Nespresso machine in the lobby is a handy freebie.