Hiatus

It’s been a long time between posts… Since the last note appeared on the Left Bank in May 2012, a lot has happened. France has voted for François Hollande as president, and Hollande has looked bewildered by the decision ever since.

I’ve moved out of St German, crossed the river and bought an apartment. I’ve been to New Zealand twice, and changed roles at work. I’ve got engaged. Renovations, living for 2 months on a friends couch, the Sorbonne-infused routine of a law school fiançée, supermarket shopping and delays on the métro have all conspired to keep this blog in abeyance. Bref, la vie, quoi.

rue Letort

But now we’ve been living in the 18th arrondissement for a year, and life is finding some sort of routine again, it seems a good moment to recommence the discipline of blogging.

I’m not sure exactly what the posts will focus on. Hopefully some photos of life here in Paris, and travels elsewhere. Maybe a theme will emerge.

Café Rostand

Or, perhaps we’ll just post picture of animals in Paris. Let see how we go. Until next time… miaow.

On the Line 12

Grazing in Switzerland

Summer holidays this year were spent in the Swiss Jura, just across the border from France.

We drove from Paris to Switzerland through some hidden corners of eastern France – like Bar-sur-Aube,

We camped by the Lac de Joux, at 1000 metres above sea level,

Where Camping Cat ruled the roost, and visited us around the campfire,

and visited the once Top Secret Fort de Pré-Giroud, built to defend Switzerland from Nazi invasion in WW2,

before climbing to the high meadows for view of Lake Geneva and the Alps…

Happy Summer, everyone!

Montpellieramblings

More crumbs from the weekend… not only did I visit the Saturday market, I also went to Le Vert Anglais for a burger (according to Ed, the best burger in France, and I won’t contradict him!)

A burger and Orangina under the pine tree on Place de Castellane is a good way to spend a few hours on a sunny Saturday.

The Languedoc summer provides perfect conditions for an outdoor meal of tapas, accompanied by well-selected bottles of Rioja and Pic Saint-Loup in the old town. It’s great to catch up with friends, and after so many months in Paris, it’s nice to remember that the Spanish border is not so far away after all…

My visit to Montpellier coincided with the Comédie du Livre – apparently the second-largest book festival in France – bringing hundreds of authors and BD artists into town.  Fans of all ages flocked to the tents set up on the Place de la Comédie and the Esplanade to get that personal dédicace from their favourite author or dessinateur.

To complement the burgers and tapas, some intellectual nourishment was in order. On Sunday I attended a live broadcast of L’Esprit Public on Radio France Culture, held in Montpellier as part of the festival.

I am fascinated by the particularly French respect for “talking heads”, and the broadcast featured some heavy hitters of the French intello-politico-media-élite: historian and member of the French Academy Max Gallo, politician Jean-Louis Bourlanges, journalist Philippe Labarde, and law professor Dominique Rousseau.

Philipe Meyer played the role of genial animateur, orchestrating the egos and brainpower at his disposal with alacrity and humour.  The topics for the show were the European deficit crisis and reform of the French education system. You can listen here.

The often controversial right-wing polemicist Eric Zemmour was supposed to participate in a live debate on Sunday afternoon. Having seen Monsieur Zemmour many times on television I was looking forward to seeing some sparks fly. But for some last minute reasons he was unable to travel to Montpellier for the festival.

Despite Zemmour’s absence, his “opponent” Jean-Francois Kahn delivered a fascinating session on the dangers of groupthink and la pensée unique – Kahn was highly critical of the French media and its role as a critic and commentator.

Keeping up with all that abstract debate was thirsty work – and there is no better way to round off a weekend in the south of France than with a pastis at sunset!

Bofinger

It was on Monday afternon that my companion suggested visiting another landmark of the Paris restaurant scene.  We were drinking beer on a café terrace on the Place des Vosges, next door to Victor Hugo’s house: the setting perhaps lent itself to formulating grand plans. And this grand plan involved nothing less than Brasserie Bofinger.

Having nothing else planned for the evening, and after much thought and consideration (lasting 5 seconds) I assented to the suggestion. We made a reservation for the slightly-less-Anglo-Saxon hour of 8pm.

We were seated in one of the three upstairs rooms, up a spiral staircase that offers a great view of the Art Nouveau interior. Opened in 1864, Bofinger’s decor still offers the impression that the siècle is about to reach its fin.

However Bofinger’s reputation has preceded it, and there were a certain number of English and American accents on the tables around us. I also got the impression that the “tourists” were sent upstairs out of sight, while regulars were given preference in the grand salon under a spectacular illuminated stained-glass cupola.

For entrée, I chose an aubergine lasagne – tomatoes and stringy cheese in all the right places, while a certain other member of our group ordered half a dozen oysters: a dish that came with half a dozen pieces of special hardware including a dish of ice, fingerbowl and extra sauces of various descriptions. The butter was, of course, appellation controlée, and possibly the best butter we’d ever tasted.

My mistake was to have ordered an entrée. Because my main course was the Choucroute Spéciale Bofinger: a minor mountain range of choucroute with three different kinds of sausage, pork ribs, duck breast and potatoes. It was good, but perhaps a little too much for a single sitting.

We had however chosen the wine well – a moderately priced Alsatian Riesling which matched everything. I was defeated by the choucroute in the end. While my companions ordered dessert, I opted for a decaf espresso and a period of monastic contemplation.

Overall, I don’t think I would come back to Bofinger, unless a visitor to Paris really wanted to experience one of the city’s classic restaurants. The food was good, but not outstanding.

Far more entertaining was the activity in the rest of the restaurant. The waiters expertly shouldered enormous silver trays of food, wine bottles, glasses and napkins without ever dropping anything – even on the spiral staircase which led to the kitchen. The service was, like at Polidor, unfussy and professional.

Most impressive of all were the seafood platters ordered by our neighbouring tables – vast 100-euro-a-head affairs that looked like the entire cast of Spongebob Squarepants had been massacred on a satellite dish. Yes, we took photos.

All too soon it was time to leave. As my friend pointed out, almost nobody ever passes through Bastille métro station compeletely sober, and this time the buzz of Riesling was enhanced by a slow, deliberate waddle brought on by a little bit too much good food.

I’m on a diet for the rest of the week.

Bofinger
3 Rue de la Bastille
75004 Paris
Menus start at 30EUR (Seafood platter for two: 112EUR)
Open 7 days
Reservations recommended

The Wilkis Polish

Every so often, it’s worth checking in with Alan Wilkis, an artist/producer who’s been featured several times on this blog . You can read a little more about his music in my previous posts here and here and here.

Beavering away in his Brooklyn laboratory, Alan seems particularly busy at the moment producing remixes for all sorts of people. I particularly liked his latest project, a remix of Phantogram‘s “Mouthful of Diamonds“:

Once again Alan takes some unlikely raw material (in this case, the trip-hoppy, slightly industrial-sounding Phantogram original) and given it the “Wilkis Polish”: he turns it into a little drop of Orangina-flavoured dance pop that says “There’s a party in my iPod and everyone’s invited!

Coup de blues

Went for a walk down the river this morning. Paris was gleaming slightly in low November sun. It was all rather lovely, but strangely unmoving. It felt like a morning for climbing a mountain somewhere, not walking beside the Seine.

The people spending their weeked along the banks seemed filled with a sense of obligation, rather than joy. Joggers paced the cobblestones, kids clattered on trottinettes beside the dock for Les Bateaux-Mouches. Tourists were taking endless shots of the Pont Alexandre III: its rather monstrous imperial statuary seems to demand attention, as if its designer could never settle on just creating something beautiful.

Paris Dispatch

Well, I’ve arrived in Paris, and am coping with a 10 degree difference in daytime temperature (17C in Paris, 27C in Montpellier). Grey skies and rain are things that I really haven’t seen for 9 months. But overall, it’s going well, even if I haven’t been north of the Seine yet.

It’s good to know that reasonable price food and veg is still available, even here in Paris. I ran down to the marché Villemain (Wednesdays and Sundays on rue d’Alésia in the 14th arrondissement) and picked up the following for EUR4.70:

Red and green peppers, courgettes, muscat grapes, onions and mushrooms, all origine française according to the blackboards. The market can’t compete with the Marché des Arceaux in Montpellier, where you can buy direct from the producers, and one gets the impression that Parisian markets are a little more insulated from seasonality, but at least the marchands were all friendly. I just wish there had been a cheese stall – I could have done with a nice slice of cantal for sandwiches and dessert.

I’m also discovering some unique joys of apartment-hunting in Paris. This afternoon I arrived a little early at a property I was looking at. Hanging around outside, I noticed every few minutes a tourist would come past and take a photo of a rather run-down and graffiti-covered building across the street.

Eventually, the estate agent zoomed up on his scooter (it’s Paris, you really think he’d arrive by car?) and parked on the pavement. He pointed across the road at the colourful wall. “See that place? Don’t worry monsieur, it’s not a squat. It’s just Serge Gainsbourg’s house.”

Bienvenue à Paris.

The Corniche des Cévennes

The first part of the trip towards Paris took me up some back roads from Montpellier to Clermont-Ferrand, over the top of the Cévennes. It was a spectacular and remarkably traffic-free drive, made all the more fun by a computer glitch (I assume) at the car hire company that allocated me a BMW rather than a Peugeot.

It’s an hour or so from Montpellier to St-Jean-du-Gard, winding through the arrière-pays of northern Languedoc. October means hunting season, and the roads were dotted with huddles of parked cars. Hunters were pacing up and down in flourescent jackets, rifles draped over their arm, their dogs tensed and ready to dash into the undergrowth to retrieve whatever furry or feathery things their dayglo-orange masters had just killed.

131 years ago, Robert Louis Stevenson passed through St-Jean-du-Gard with a donkey, but today I just stopped to buy lunch before starting along the twisty high road to Florac, the départmentale route 9 known as the Corniche des Cévennes.

The Cévennes is another one of those relatively under-appreciated parts of France, formed by deep river gorges and high plateaus (called les causses) reaching up to a thousand metres and more above sea level. The region’s ruggedness and isolation meant that historically it was a refuge for French Protestants, and one of the hotbeds of resistance during the Second World War. Even today it’s a remote place: the Lozère département is the least populated in France, and has the highest average altitude of any region.

As the road climbs higher you leave coastal Languedoc behind. Vineyards and terracotta architecture give way to slate roofs, cattle farms and pine forests. When the road emerges onto the plateaux above 800 metres, the vast stretches of high country reminded me of the central North Island of New Zealand: sparse grasslands and plantation forest line the route. All that was missing was a snowy Mount Ruapehu peeking over the horizon.

Even after you leave the Corniche, the route towards Clermont-Ferrand loses little of its altitude. I passed through Marvejols (an interesting-looking town with an old centre that is probably worth a return visit) before joining the A75 autoroute that zaps north-south across the midriff of France, three quarters of a mile up in the sky.

A final detour from the A75 took me past the Viaduc de Garabit – a 120-metre tall railway bridge crossing the Truyère river. It was one of the major engineering achievments of Gustave Eiffel, who completed it in 1884 before starting work on a rather large tower in Paris. But Paris is for tomorrow. Today was about driving across the roof of France.