Saturday, 25 January 2014

Stag Do Wild Games

Last night, Understanding Frenchman was telling me about the stag party of one of his friends that he attended in his younger days. The groom-to-be in question being a notorious party animal, the weekend was packed with the usual practical jokes and embarrassing dares, and much alcohol was consumed.

"And the first thing we made him do," UFM told me, "was make him eat sardines and saucisson for breakfast!"

That's those crazy French boys for you - swimming in public fountains, skipping down the street wearing nothing but women's underwear and, most daring of all, eating something mildly difficult to digest for breakfast.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Mes Amis de l'apéro

What makes for a good night out in Paris? The options are more or less endless: there are thousands of great restaurants, clubs for every musical taste, and so many shows, films and concerts that you could spend your entire evening just reading the listings and never go out at all. But in my Parisian life, if there's one thing that makes up more than anything else for the early starts long hours spent in the tunnels and corridors of the metro, it's the abundance of evenings spent in a friendly bar with a nice bottle of wine or a good mojito or two, putting the world to rights in the company of good friends. In my old age, my requirements also include a place to sit down, music that isn't so loud you lose your voice and good selection of planches or assiettes to nibble on.*

Luckily, I have a wonderful group of friends with similar preferences, so the only thing left to find once we've chosen the night of the week is a suitable location. And this is where comes in. This site containing bar listings and user ratings has been the origin of many a great find ... as well as a few somewhat quirky experiences. Here are a few that we've tried:

Le Barav is one of the highest rated on the site, and with good reason. This little bar is connected to a wine shop, where you go and choose your bottle. For an extra five euros, you can take the bottle next door and have it served to you at your table by friendly bar staff who haven't used their commercial successes as an excuse to get snooty. There's a good selection of food as well, with one of my favourites being St Marcellin au miel. My only regret is that I didn't discover this place before it became so well-known, as you now have to book your table in advance if you want to stay much beyond 8pm or go out on a busy night. (Tip: In Paris, Thursday is going-out night and Fridays are actually quieter.)

Another gem is L'Imprévu Café. Hidden away from the bustle of Châtelet down a little back street, it's a cosy little place in an area where the bars tend to be loud, crowded and occasionally violent. Seating ranges from comfy sofas to tippy-up cinema seats and the cocktail list is just as creative, but I have also occasionally regretted not forgoing alcohol for one of their delicious spiced hot chocolates. 

If it's interesting cocktails you're after, I can also recommend the Royal Beaubourg, near Arts et Métiers metro. It has fabulous wallpaper, a baby grand piano, and a long happy hour where the drinks don't mysteriously shrink just because they happen to be cheaper. It's more of a restaurant than just a bar and, although I've never eaten there, the food I've seen going past to other tables has always looked good.

More towards the quirky end of the scale, Understanding Frenchman and I have had a couple of nice apéritifs at Au Petit Moulin  up in the 9th. It's not a place to go with a big group of friends because the main upstairs bar area is tiny (apparently there is a cellar that you can rent, but otherwise it's not normally open). Nice drinks, tasty nibbles ... It's all so normal until you read the list of tariffs for a 19th century prostitute on these windowsill, which includes a detailed explanation of why certain services, although appearing to be expensive, are actually very good value because many women don't like to provide them.

The prize for quirkiness, however, actually goes to a bar that my friends and I tried out just this week: Le Lèche-Vin at Bastille. Friendly service, small but potent happy hour cocktails ... And walls entirely covered with the kind of religious images and statues, ranging from pictures of Jesus himself to postcards of Jean-Paul II. The description on these website recommends going to the toilets for further surprises, but I have to admit that the one real drawback of the place was an unpleasant smell emanating from behind the WC door, which was presumably not what was being referred to on the he site.

This list only just begins to scratch the surface of the fun places my apéro buddies and I have discovered over the past few months, never mind the places that are still on our list to try.

What about you, readers? What are your favourite places to go out, in Paris or wherever you are?
* Actually, this has probably been my ideal night out for my whole adult life, but not I have the chronological age to match my tastes.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Belleville At My Feet

Over the past few years, I've developed a special appreciation of the first few days of January. Those days when Christmas is over, Hogmanay has been and gone and the world is getting over its collective hangover and gearing up to go back to work. It can be a wonderful time to travel. I once went to Venice in the first week of the new year and experienced three days of crisp, icy blue skies, haunting mists over the canals and a city that was refreshingly free of the tourist hoardes. Sometimes, it's a great opportunity to curl up on the sofa, watch DVDs and take advantage of the fact that there is absolutely nothing better do to.

This year, back in Paris after two weeks of travels, I seized the opportunity to go out and discover Belleville. When I think of Belleville, I tend to associate it with the 20th arrondisement, but in fact it incorporates parts of the 10th, 11th and 19th as well, in that far-flung north-east corner of Paris where the tourists never go.

If it wasn't for the frequent glimpses of the Eiffel Tower, you could forget that this was Paris. More than any other part of the city, it gives the impression that local community comes first, with the fact of being in the country's capital as far on the horizon as most of the famous tourist sites.I started my walk at Couronnes metro station and made my way up through the Parc de Belleville. I was initially just looking for a nice view but was treated to surprises along the way, like the group of older Chinese ladies practising dance moves to music from a ghetto blaster (if you've seen the film Casse tête chinoise, it was the Parisian version of what the hero of the film sees in the park in New York every day. From the top of the hill, you can admire not only the Dame de fer but also some great tiled artwork, a homage to Piaf, who was born in Belleville, and this quirky map of Belleville's points of interest.

Strolling up the rue des Envièrges, I came across this miniature garden at the entrance to a courtyard, admired these colourful yarns in a tiny tailor's shop where two people were having a huge argument, and saw what I think was my first real-life example of le bookcrossing, as a lady flicked through a selection of paperbacks that had been left casually on a windowsill. 

Making my way along the rue des Pyrénées and back down the rue de Belleville, I had a real sense of the multiethnic nature of this part of Paris. Some blocks seemed almost entirely Chinese, others were full of North African businesses, while further down towards Belleville metro station, several buildings had the Jewish Star of David on the front. My last discovery was this little street where graffiti artists are officially allowed to unleash their creativity:

The perfect antidote to a grey day in Paris!

Friday, 3 January 2014

The Last, Wild Days of 2013

Understanding Frenchman and I spent Christmas at my parents' house in Scotland. It was a week of wild, windy weather with flurries of snow which didn't lie in the town but rested on the hills for a few hours each time, gleaming in the intervals of bright sunshine. We alternated long walks in the (very) fresh air with cosy hot drinks by the fireside, family board games and lots of mum's delicious cooking.

For New Year, we more or less repeated the same winning formula at Understanding Frenchman's parents' house in Brittany. There wasn't any snow, but there was plenty of impressive flooding, as you can see from this picture of our walk by the Nantes-Brest canal, where the river has flooded almost far enough to meet with the canal

The water at the front is the canal; behind is the river and the flooded fields.

Sunset beyond the flooded fields.

For the last day of 2013, we visited the Côte Sauvage on the Quiberon peninsula. I hadn't seen the sea in winter for a long time, and we were lucky enough to arrive just before high tide and be treated to the awesome spectacle of the waves roaring in from the Atlantic, pounding and exploding against the rocks - the perfect way to chase away the cobwebs of the old year!

After an hour or so out in the raging wind, rain and salt spray, we felt that our 5 course Hogmanay dinner was well deserved. Understanding Frenchman's mum had prepared smoked salmon, foie gras, duck breast with potatoes, cheese and salad and mini Christmas logs made out of chocolate mousse, washed down with champagne, Montbazillac and a delicious Bourgogne, and we finished off with a wee nip of whisky as we rang in the new year. It was just the four of us, and I have to say that, having spent Hogmanay over the past few years at the Edinburgh street party, watching fireworks (and having them chucked at us) in the centre of Milan and dancing til dawn then waiting half an hour on freezing cold station platforms for the train home, it was, along with last year's event with my family in Scotland, one of the best ever. (If this is what getting older means, bring it on.)

I hope that all my readers and fellow bloggers also had a good one, and wish you all the best for 2014. Following all the positive responses to my last post, I've resolved to blog more often and worry less about having something breathtakingly original to say. Together we can keep the world of little, personal blogs alive!