As a recently retired Francophile with a passion for all things Parisian, I found myself in urgent need of a way to convince my wife that I was doing more each day than watching old Seinfeld reruns. Gentlemen of my age group and post-career situation know that it is absolutely vital for a spouse, especially one who is still working, to never find you on the sofa at 5:30 pm in the same supine pose as when she left for work at 8:15 am. The “appearance” of purpose and industry must be maintained, even if from the semi prone position of a couch potato.
SOLUTION: I would take my lifelong passion and avocation as an armchair traveler and translate it into a for-profit hobby – publishing a BLOG on my favorite topic: Paris.
This plan met all the criteria. I could now spend hours scanning AMAZON.COM for books on France and surf the web for obscure trivia about Ernest Hemingway, Louis XIV and Napoleon; i.e., all the things I was already doing. After all, as I explained to my wife, these were now necessary elements of my new job. I even managed to convince her that we could actually make some money in this venture – at least enough to pay our way to Europe each year and cover the monthly credit card charges from AMAZON. This thought, along with her sweet propensity to humor my incurable love affair with the City-on-the-Seine, assuaged her need to keep me “busy”.
It wasn’t long before my web surfing landed me on the shore of a wonderful web site, secretsofparis.com. Host, Heather Stimmler-Hall, is an American expat who’s made her living in Paris for the past 20 years as a journalist, author, blogger and tour guide (Hmmm – this all sounded eerily like what yours truly was hoping to do). As my wife handed me my scrambled eggs one morning I happened to read aloud a provocative ad on Heather’s site: “TRAVEL WRITERS WORKSHOP IN PARIS; 5 days of hands-on writing and research experience, insider tips, and practical advice from professional journalists”.
Heather had me at “PARIS; 5 days”, but surly the rest was just wishful thinking, too crazy, too much of a stretch to even contemplate, let alone openly broach with the Mrs. “You ought to go do that” came the words from my darling wife’s mouth as she topped off my coffee. “Are you sure?” said I, expecting her to recant. “Of course, Sweetie – it’s just the sort of thing that would be perfect for you”. Yes my friends, angels do still walk among us . . . and I just happen to have married one of them.
Frequent flyer points and Marriott rewards covered the air and hotel. Self-deception allowed me to think I would eat sparingly and drink cheaply, so VOILA – price would not be an issue, or not much of one anyway.
On the last Monday morning in May I stood outside the Parisian address given in the brochure. “Tentative” would accurately describe me at that moment. What was I doing? Who were these people and was this really going to be legit? I consoled myself with the thought that in the worst case scenario, if this thing went wonky, I’d still have Paris for 5 or 6 days. Bogie’s “We’ll always have Paris” shot through my head for a nanosecond as I entered and was greeted by Bryan Pirolli, co-facilitator of the workshop.
Skipping forward to five days later, the whole workshop turned out to be marvelous! Heather and Bryan were more than legit. Bryan, at age 28, had just completed his PHD in Journalism at the Sorbonne and Heather’s credentials included countless published articles, assignments for ELLE, MICHELIN, etc., as well as a number of her own published books. The class was small – four charming ladies from Australia, Canada, the Philippines, Cape Cod . . . and ME. 9:00 am to 1:00 pm each day was spent in classroom discussion, followed by dejeuner at local lunch spots. Then, a daily in-field expedition to various hotels, restaurants, boutiques and market stalls to practice the skill sets of travel writers, journalists and bloggers.
The entire experience was a blast! Over the past four decades I had visited Paris at least 30 times but this activity gave me a whole new angle from which to view and experience La Ville Lumiere. It also led to the rediscovery of a neighborhood that heretofore was rather low on my list, but which is now exploding with eateries, shops and activity; namely, the Montorgueil / Saint Eustache Quarter. With our classroom located a few steps off Rue Montorgueil, I got to know the neighborhood in some detail and found the current activity there not dissimilar to the revitalization of the Marais district 25 years ago and the gentrification of Saint-Germain-des-Prés that had begun a decade before that.
If you read no further, take away the need to add this neighborhood to your next Paris visit. The main axis is the pedestrian street of Rue Montorgueil and extends two or three streets to the east and to the west. The Metro stop of SENTIER marks the northern boundary, with the church of Saint Eustache marking the southern edge. Immediately south of Saint Eustache, the old market area of Les Halles buffers this quarter from the slightly tackier, but slowly improving neighborhoods of Châtelet and Baubourg. Métro connections: Étienne Marcel and Sentier.
THE CONUNDRUM THAT IS LES HALLES
The gargoyles of Saint Eustache have looked down for centuries on the ancient quadrangle of LES HALLES. This thirteen acre plot was from the 12th century the fresh fish and produce market of Paris. In the mid-19th century it was famously enclosed in iron and glass pavilions designed by Victor Baltard. Referred to by Emile Zola as Le Ventre (The Belly) of Paris, it was a bee hive of activity and commerce. Famous all-night cafes like Au Pied de Cochon served 4:00 am onion soup and pigs’ feet to the workers bringing oysters from Brittany and produce from the Île-de-France. However, by the mid-20th century, the increasing traffic snarls around this central-city site caused the closure of Les Halles and its removal to the suburb of Rungis in 1969. The Iron and glass pavilions were dismantled and a huge vacant lot presented itself for development.
WHAT TO DO with 13 acres of prime central city real estate? Sadly, the decision for that was left to the same generation of “modern-thinking” government officials who approved the eyesore known as the Centre Pompidou and other catastrophes of modern architecture that blight the historic center of Paris. Almost immediately the semi-subterranean shopping mall called the FORUM des HALLES became a bone of contention and displeasure for Parisians. It, and the modern park that filled the remainder of the Les Halles site, were tacky by day and dangerously seedy by night. For years the City Fathers ruminated on how to give it a face-lift and put lipstick on this pig. Their final decision confirmed that they had not progressed beyond their predecessors of 40 years earlier. The new incarnation is a huge undulating glass roof that looks like an about-to-collapse circus tent and sticks out as an even bigger sore thumb that the original mall. There is some hope yet for the park portion of the project if one can believe the computer generated pictures of what it is to look like when complete.
FOOTLOOSE on FRIDAY
The writers’ workshop ended early on Friday afternoon and I allowed gravity to pull me down to the bottom of Rue Montorgueil where it empties into the ruins of the unfinished FORUM des HALLES and the rubble of the uncompleted park. I had about five hours to return to my hotel, rest, and change for the workshop’s farewell dinner. After a few more moments of lamentation on the sad state of modern urban planning I walked back toward the Métro and happened to look along the length of Rue Étienne Marcel to the large equestrian statue of Louis XIV a few blocks to the west. I was reminded of that greatest of all city planners, Baron Haussmann, and his use of strategic landmarks at key intersections to provide points of reference – Good job, Monsieur Haussmann, one look and I instantly had my bearings. Realizing just how close I was to the Palais Royal which lay immediately past the Louis XIV Statue in Place des Victoires, and since the weather was pleasant, I decided to walk back to my hotel via the Palais Royal. This would give me a chance to update my personal list of restaurants along the way and wet my whistle at a familiar wine bar or two.
THE ROUND SQUARE
The Place des Victoires is one of the five “Royal Squares”* of Paris. The criterion for being a Royal Square requires that the square contain, or have once contained, a statue of a Monarch. I’ve always found it a little strange to call this particular space a “square” since it is a perfectly round plaza of elegant 17th century classical facades encircling a statue of Louis XIV. This was a clever architectural innovation in 1686 when a noble currying favor with the Sun King had it constructed and dedicated to Louis’ military victories. Also, like the rest of the Royal Squares, the statue seen today is a replica of the original which was destroyed during the French Revolution. I made a momentary detour behind the north side of the Place to make sure that one of Paris’ most dependable and authentic bistros, Chez Georges on Rue du Mail, was indeed still open and apparently going strong.
Check – Chez Georges remained in my little black book of preferred eateries.
Sadly, the same could not be said minutes later as I walked along Rue des Petits Champs and found that one of my favorite purveyors of Steak Tartare had gone the way of all flesh. The exterior of Aux Bon Crus had a new coat of green paint and the new name of Kaitleen. I popped in just long enough to ask how long my old friend had been gone . . . “two months monsieur” . . . I felt the pang of one who rushes home to the bedside of a dying friend only to find he has arrived a bit too late.
Scratch – a line through the name of Aux Bon Crus in my little black book.
Fortunately, solace lay only a few steps away. Willi’s Wine Bar had an empty stool and an inviting air as I plunked down at the end of its very narrow bar. Since its opening in 1980, owner Mark Williamson has brought this modest establishment to international renown through an ever changing and innovative selection of wines by the glass, as well as clever marketing and promotion via his signature POSTER series. A competition is held each year inviting would-be Toulouse-Lautrec’s to submit the design for the next year’s affiche celebrating Willi’s Wine Bar. A number of these posters have become quite famous and Williamson sells them as limited edition lithographs around the world. I asked the barmaid about them and was shown the catalogue with price list. 300 to 850 Euros was a bit more than I had in mind for posters that afternoon so she smiled, as I’m sure she smiles at most American tourists, and placed the catalogue back behind the bar.
Check – Willi’s Wine Bar was still doing fine.
Two doors down from Willi’s is Williamson’s other venture, the restaurant called Macéo. I stopped for a moment to snap a photo of its bright red exterior. Just as I was about to click the shutter, someone flung his body and outstretched arms against the interior glass as if imitating a barnacle and smiled for the camera. I was slightly taken aback but figured whoever this restaurant employee was, he had probably seen a thousand tourists do as I did, and boredom and a playful disposition made him ham it up for the photo.
I smiled as he came out and locked the restaurant door behind him. As he turned back toward me, the recollection of old press photos streamed into my head – This was Mark Williamson himself! Haltingly, I asked, “Mr. Williamson?” “No” he said, “I’m Mark”. We exchanged a handshake, I introduced myself and told him I had had the pleasure of hosting a dinner a few years back at Macéo for a dozen friends, and was considering another group dinner in the coming months. Before I knew it, we were inside the restaurant and I was getting the grand tour. Mark was congenial and took several minutes to show all the possible seating arrangements that might work for my group. In particular he was proud of the upstairs banquet room with its registered Napoleon III décor and impressive plaster moldings. I mentioned that I had just come From Willi’s and noted the addition of a new dining room there. He replied wryly, “Hmmm, yes, that may not have been the best timing – we acquired that space about the same time that France acquired M. Hollande as president.” My Yankee pulse quickened slightly to think that there was at least one small business owner in France who was not entirely happy with the socialist direction of its government.
Check – Macéo was a keeper. I underlined its name for good measure.
Turning left down Rue de Richelieu I ran into more heartbreak when I ducked down the side street, Rue Villedo, to see how Chez Pauline was doing. This longtime stalwart of classic French cooking and fin de siècle décor was no longer there. My wife and I had dined there on our Honeymoon. My disappointment was such that I don’t even remember the name of the new establishment that replaced it.
Scratch – was that damp smudge on the page a teardrop?
Back on the corner of Rue de Richelieu and Rue Moliere I paused to snap several pics of the statue commemorating the Shakespeare of France, Moliere. In 1673 he collapsed on stage a few blocks away at the Palais-Royal Theater while performing one of his own plays and was carried to his house in this neighborhood where he died. He rests today in Pere Lachaise Cemetery beside his fellow dramatist, La Fontaine.
Continuing south, Rue de Richelieu merges with Avenue de l’Opéra at Place André Malraux. This busy square, originally Place du Théâtre-Français, was renamed in 1977 to commemorate Malraux; prize-winning author, WWII resistance fighter, art historian and Charles De Gaulle’s Minister of Culture. Most tourists and locals today pass through this bustling intersection unaware and unfamiliar with this man who, as Minister of Culture, put a stop to plans in the 1960’s to demolish large sections of the Marais district to be replaced with modern housing and business blocks. His vision and influence with De Gaulle prevented architectural atrocities like those visited upon Les Halles and launched a renaissance in the now thriving, trendy and historic Marais area; one of Paris’ premier quarters. As I crossed the Place en route to Rue St. Honoré I was reminded of this man for all seasons, whom Jacqueline Kennedy described as the most interesting person she had ever met, and I recalled my favorite quote from him, “Une vie ne vaut rien mais rien ne vaut une vie” (“A life is worth nothing but nothing is worth a life”). France paid him its highest tribute in 1996 when has ashes were transferred to the crypt of the Pantheon, resting place of France’s most honored men and women.
The afternoon was now fading. I was only a few blocks from my hotel on Rue du Mont Thabor but needed to accelerate my flanerie if I was to get the siesta that had become a daily ritual for me since retirement. But first, a quick snapshot of the church of Saint Roch and another scan of its facade in the hope of spotting a pock mark or two from that fateful day in October, 1795 when ragtag royalist forces were on the march to disrupt the revolutionary government. A young unknown army captain and his troops were dispatched to halt this action. Royalists and Republicans converged at the church of St. Roch. The captain directed an artillery volley into the Royalist mob that was ranged along the church steps – a volley that the historian, Thomas Carlyle, immortalized as the “Whiff of Grapeshot”. The Royalists dispersed with a number of dead and wounded. This last unsuccessful action by the Royalists effectively ended the French Revolution. The captain was hailed as a national hero and five months later was promoted to General of the Italian Campaign. His name: Napoleon Bonaparte.
Now in the home stretch, I arrived at the corner of Rue du Marché St. Honoré. A decision needed to be made; continue back to the hotel for my nap or turn right for a quick inspection of my favorite wine bar, Le Rubis. Poor judgement told me I could do both. I stepped up to the Rubis’s nondescript zinc counter at 5:00 pm. The Friday after-work crowd was just starting to form. As I perused the list of wines by the glass, a jovial Frenchman who appeared to want to practice his English said, “Here American, let me give you some wine”. After a moment’s hesitation I accepted and he served me a healthy pour from his bottle of Riesling. Now being stuck for a return-of-the-favor, I spotted a plate of thinly sliced salami and saussison sec. I threw 10 Euros on the counter and directed that platter of charcruterie to the wine cask-cum-table where the Frenchman and his band of compatriots were settling in. One thing led to another and 90 minutes later we were marveling at how six bottles of wine could be consumed between 4 thirsty Frenchmen and one tall American in such short order. As I begged my leave, my host, Laurent, instructed me to call him LoLo and demanded that on my next sojourn to France I must come stay at his vacation home on the beach in Normandy. A clumsy semi embrace and bise-bise on both cheeks from all four of my new friends and I was off. Only a Croix de Guerre upon my lapel and a brass band playing the Marseillaise could have made that impromptu ceremony any better.
It was now 7:00 pm and time to change for dinner. I had missed my siesta, but as my old boss used to say, “You can sleep when you’re dead.” Pleasant Friday afternoons and long strolls through the City of Light were definitely meant for the living.
* The five Royal Squares of Paris:
- Place Dauphine – Henri IV
- Place des Vosges – Louis XIII
- Place Vendome – Louis XIV
- Place des Victoires – Louis XIV
- Place de la Concorde – Louis XV