Fred le Chevalier at the Bon Marché

I have loved the charming and poetic figures by street artist Fred le Chevalier ever since I first came accross one in Menilmontant a few years ago, I snapped a photo of it on my phone and have kept my eyes open for them ever since. Nowadays they often appear pasted on the walls around the Canal St Martin and the Marais, their fleeting presence, as the wind and rain gradually wear them away,  making them even more special.

At the moment in the Bon Marché department store on the left bank a whole collection of his characters are gathered for a great ball. They spin and whirl above the main hall, celebrating the city in which they live, charmed couples of all kinds, reminding us as Fred le Chevalier so often does that ‘love is never dirty’.

Outside on the walls and windows other characters are pasted. It’s perhaps not the same moment of surprise as when you stumble accross one hidden around a corner, but the city they inhabit remains a poetic and joyful one.

  • Le Bon Marché, 24 rue de Sevres, 75007 Paris. metro: Sevres Babylone

Until 15 October

Image

Good coffee in Paris. 3: Coutume Café

Coutume Café was one of the first – if not the first – of the new wave of speciality coffee bars to open in Paris, and is still one of the best. They roast the coffee on the premises and have a wide choice of brewing methods. The space is light and airy, more New York perhaps than Paris – it was a designed by Cut Architecture – and the clientele is eclectic and relaxed. They also serve delicious food, their Sunday brunches are always packed, and you can also enjoy light, healthy lunches and wonderful cakes.

Located in the 7th arrondissement, it’s the perfect place for a stop after some shopping at the nearby Bon Marché department store, and a is just short walk from the Invalides and the Rodin Museum. If you like good coffee, make sure you drop in and try one here.

Coutume is run by the same team that run Coutume Instituutti in the 5th arrondissement, and supplies roasted coffee beans to many cafés and restaurants across Paris.

  • Coutume Café, 47 rue de Babylone, 75007 Paris. metro: Saint François Xavier

Open Mon-Fri 08:00 – 18:00 and weekends 09:00 – 18:00.

Facebook page

Image

Open days – the gardens at Matignon

The Hotel Matignon is the residence and place of work of the French Prime Minister, and has been since 1935. It is a beautiful early 18th century mansion, set in a large park in the 7th arrondissement, at 3 hectares (7.5 acres) it is the largest private garden in the city.

Normally you can’t visit, but this weekend parks and gardens all across France open to the public for the Rendez-vous aux Jardins, and Matignon exceptionally opens the doors of its magnificent park.

The mansion once belonged to the Grimaldi family, princes of Monaco, and was then home to the Duchess of Galleria and later the Comte de Paris. The 18th century gardens are mainly laid out in the French formal style, but in the 19th century a more romantic section was also added, as was a spectacular double allée of 111 pleached limes.  Later an entertaining area was designed in front of the house. One of the gardeners described to us how the lawn was imagined to look like an ocean, with white flowers planted across it here and there in ribbons to ressemble the froth on the waves, and how banqueting tables would be laid under the trees, with carpets spread across the lawn to dance on.

Nowadays it’s perhaps a little less glamorous, especially as the government tries to cut back on their spending, but it’s still an incredible and beautiful garden, and such an expanse of lush greenery is something quite unexpected in the heart of a city.

  • Hotel Matignon, 57 rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris. Entrance to the gardens at 36 rue de Babylone. metro: rue du Bac or Varenne

Rendez-vous aux jardins continues tomorrow. Check their website (in English) for details of gardens participating.

Art deco and art nouveau in the 7th arrondissement

The 7th arrondissement is a great place for a quiet stroll. It is bordered by the Eiffel Tower on one side and St Germain des Près on the other, is home to the spectacular gold domed Invalides (a military hospital and final resting place of Napoleon) and remains very residential and peaceful.

Invalides, Paris

Three main streets run through the 7th: the rue St Dominique, rue de i’Université and the rue de Grenelle, the area I explored here lies between the Eiffel Tower and the Invalides and is known as the Gros Caillou (or big rock, it seems there probably was one here many years ago). The rue St Dominique particularly is a favourite of mine, for its great food shops and lively but relaxed, typical Parisian buzz.

The area is also home to some beautiful art deco buildings, particularly along the riverside on the Quai d’Orsay, formerly the site of a large tobacco plant that we can still see references too in the friezes on some of the buildings.

Some of the city’s most spectacular art nouveau buildings can also be found in the Gros Caillou, most notably those designed by Jules Lavirotte in the early 1900’s.

And as always in Paris, don’t forget to explore the courtyards and passageways, they always hide some hidden treasures and rarely disappoint.

  • Le Gros Caillou. Area between the Eiffel Tower and the Invalides, 75007 Paris. metro: La Tour Maubourg

Serge Gainsbourg in the rue de Verneuil

If you are interested in French culture you almost certainly know of Serge Gainsbourg. His wikipedia page describes him as a singer, songwriter, film composer, poet, painter, screenwriter, writer, actor and director. He’s most famous as a singer/songwriter, his huge output of music covering all genres from rock to funk to new wave – he even recorded a reggae version of the Marseillaise, the French national anthem. His lyrics were compared to poetry, he played with words and was clever, funny and often controversial, in life as well as in his art.  He is regarded by many as the greatest French popular singer ever.

Already a legend in life, after his death he also became a cult hero. The house in the 7th arrondissement where he lived from 1969 until his death in 1991 now belongs to his daughter, actress and singer Charlotte. There were stories that it would open as a museum, as inside it’s apparently left as it was when he died, but this did not happen, or at least has not happened yet. So fans from all around the world travel to pay homage to him on the walls of his house and garden.

The otherwise chic street in St Germain des Près seems to tolerate the colourful and ever evolving graffiti. Every now and then it will all get painted over, possibly by the local residents, but reappears almost immediately.

If you are interested in learning more about Gainsbourg and his work a good place to start is his wikipedia page or this Vanity Fair article. If you already know and love him, a trip to the rue de Verneuil is a must during a visit to Paris. You can also pay your respects at his grave in the Montparnasse Cemetery.

  • 5 bis rue de Verneuil, 75007 Paris. metro: rue du Bac

Iris in Paris

I often marvel at the way the ordinary in Paris can be made into something special. Today I stopped in at the Bon Marché department store to pick up a couple of things, and found myself in an amazing Iris Apfel exhibition. I love Iris Apfel – her style, sense of humor and attitude to life. Here she has imagined 10 occasions that she might take part in during a visit to Paris – fashion week, a visit to the flea markets, a dinner party, a cocktail evening or a night at the opera. She has put together an outfit for each from her own collection, she is seen wearing each one in an interview where she talks about fashion and her memories of visits to Paris. Each outfit has been loaned for the exhibition and is on display.

In the windows outside, the outfits have been recreated by illustrator Eric Giriat, who has placed her at the occasions she describes: in the front row at fashion week, at the opera or in the park. Inside you can buy items from a capsule collection of accessories she put together, including her trademark glasses and a wonderful silk scarf, also drawn by Giriat and depicting the Eiffel Tower wearing her other trademark, a string of bracelets.

Iris in Paris runs until April 16.

  • Le Bon Marché, 24 rue de Sevres, 75007 Paris. metro: Severs Babylone

Open Mon-Sat 10:00 – 20:00

Ai Weiwei at the Bon Marché

Le Bon Marché department store on the left bank is currently home to Ai Weiwei’s first work ever created for a retail space, allowing him as he put it ‘to encounter a new audience’. Er Xi – Child’s Play – begins outside in the department store windows, showing a prelude to the works inside. Depicting fantastical creatures alongside a contemporary storyline, many refer back to recurring themes in his own previous works as well as paying homage to Paris through both his father’s work when he lived in Paris in the 1920’s and 30’s as a young poet (‘Paris, tu es absurde’) and references to Marcel Duchamp.

The delicate and ethereal creatures floating in the main atrium above the cosmetics department were inspired by the 2000 year old Chinese traditional children’s stories Shan Hai Jing (Classic of Mountains and Seas) which Ai Weiwei laments have been lost to recent generations due to the censorship laws imposed in the PRC. Made by master Chinese kite makers from bamboo and white silk paper, the works were constructed using traditional methods and took a year to complete. Several are left in bamboo skeleton form, without paper, so we can better appreciate the intricate craftsmanship.

A 20 metro long dragon, broken into four parts, fills the gallery space. Here you can also watch a short film of Ai Weiwei explaining how the exhibition came about, and how he feels about Paris.

Don’t miss the ‘selfie wall’ upstairs, reminding us of Ai Weiwei’s prolific use of social media. When asked about exhibiting in a store as opposed to a museum or gallery space, Weiwei says “People experience the art as they go about their day and something unconsciously happens”.

Er Xi is at the Bon Marché until 20 February

  • Le Bon Marché, 24 rue de Sevres, 75007 Paris.  metro: Sevres Babylone
Image

Rosa Bonheur sur Seine

I recently discovered what I think is going to be my new favourite café/bar in Paris. Rosa Bonheur in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont is already a firm fixture both during the day for well priced, simple food and at night as a bar and ‘guingette’. Now you can enjoy the same home cooking and atmosphere on the banks of the Seine, just by the beautiful Pont Alexandre III. The café is on a barge moored on the riverside, and on the river bank they also have a wood fired oven where they make pizzas and a take away tapas bar, with plenty of tables to sit and enjoy. At night there is music and dancing, they have a choir, petanque in the summer…. check out their Facebook page for upcoming events.

Not only is the atmosphere laid back and relaxed, the views from the window are spectacular. My favourite thing (apart of course from the delicious and huge slices of cake)? A traditional ‘baby foot’ with a twist – all female players!

  • Rosa Bonheur sur Seine, Quai d’Orsay, Pont des Invalides, 75007 Paris. metro: Invalides

Open Monday – Sunday, 12:00 – 1:30am (midnight on Sunday) Opening hours change depending on the season, check the website below.

Rosa Bonheur website

Hermes pop up exhibition

Flaner is a French verb that is difficult to translate, perhaps because it’s a typically French pastime. It means to wander, to walk with no particular destination in mind, to sit on a café terrace and watch the world go by… It’s something that Parisians excel at, and Paris is the perfect place to practice it.

On the riverside in front of the Musée d’Orsay, Hemés have installed a pop up exhibition curated by the designer Hubert le Gall, ‘Dans l’oeil du Flaneur’, dedicated to this particular French art form. It take you on a walk through an imaginary and  magical Paris, where street lamps hang upside down, a café is home to strange objects left behind by their owners (and has a nightclub for dogs underneath it!), graffiti artists carry their spray cans in huge Birkin bags and you can peep through windows into houses where the objects seem to have taken on a life of their own.

Showcasing articles from their current collections and the Hermes archives, it’s a delightful trip into a whimsical Paris.

  • Dans l’Oeil du Flaneur, Port de Solferino, Berges de Seine, 75007 Paris.  Metro: Musée d’Orsay or Assemblée Nationale

Open 11:00 – 19:00 (22:00 Thursdays). Entry is free, but book online to avoid standing in line. Exhibition ends 5 October.

Website (in French)

Sparkling water drinking fountains in Paris

Recently I discovered that not only are there 1200 drinking water fountains across Paris, but that they are not only beautiful, like the Wallace fountains, they now include fountains providing fizzy drinking water.

Fizzy-water drinking fountain ParisYou may think that this is just Paris, where people are so chic that they even need sparkling water coming out of their fountains, and it’s true that it’s cool and delicious on a hot day, but it’s more than that. The French drink vast amounts of mineral water, producing the equivalent vast amounts of plastic bottle waste. The fountains known as ‘La Petillante’ – or she who sparkles – are actually dispensing tap water that is cooled and carbonated on the spot, in a campaign to try and make tap water more acceptable to locals. And it seems to be making everyone happy, I’ve stopped by 2 recently, one on the Berges de Seine by the riverside, providing a cool drink to happy runners, tourists and locals enjoying the sunshine by the river, and one in the Parc André Citroen, where a woman in front of me was filling up about 10 glass bottles. This one has even gone a step further, and a vending machine sells reusable water bottles (designed by Philippe Starck of course, this is Paris…)

The other nice thing about these fountains, is that currently they are all located in or near beautiful parks or gardens, so you an always find a place to sit and enjoy a drink.

So keep your bottle handy, and check out the map below for up to date details of their locations as more are installed (as well as locations of all the drinking water fountains in Paris including the Wallace fountains). Sitting by the riverside enjoying the views and a cool, fresh drink of sparkling water isn’t a bad way to spend a sunny afternoon in Paris.

map of drinking water fountains in Paris (in French)

Image

Springtime in Paris

It may be a cliché, but it’s hard to resist Paris in the springtime, when the cherry blossoms fill the Champ de Mars, and the flower markets spill over with peonies and hyacinths.

Rose Bakery

Much as I love French pastries, sometimes it’s really nice to have a taste of home. Rose Bakery has managed the seemingly impossible and seduced the Parisians with their British cakes, lunches and brunches. It was the carrot cake that initially made them popular, and people keep coming back for the fresh, organic, homemade food and juices. All the ingredients are sourced locally and change with the seasons, or even daily depending on what is delivered. The kitchenware is handmade and comes from a cooperative in Norfolk. The food is simple, fresh and delicious.

Part café, part grocery shop, you can eat in or take away. Weekend brunches and lunch times are especially popular, go early if you want to be sure to find a table. The atmosphere is relaxed and laid back and the decor minimalist.

There are now 3 Rose Bakeries in Paris, the original one here on rue des Martyrs, one in the Marais and one inside the Bon Marché department store. They are also a great place to pick up English teabags, Marigold bouillon (which I have not managed to find anywhere else in Paris) and some great recipe books.

  • 46 rue des Martyrs, 75009 Paris. metro: St Georges
  • 30 rue Debelleyme, 75003 Paris. metro: Filles du Calvaire
  • le Bon Marché, 24 rue de Sevres, 75007 Paris. metro Sevres Babylone

The Eiffel Tower

There are a few good reasons I can think of for getting up early and heading into the city in the dark. One is to see the dawn breaking behind the Eiffel Tower. With the city almost silent, and the tower and area surrounding it completely empty, you really feel that you are privileged to be seeing something special.

A bit less silent, but no less beautiful, the tower at night is also spectacular when it’s lit up, especially when it sparkles. It’s actually much nicer from a distance when it’s sparkling rather than close up, the best views are from the Trocadero. Be there on the hour every hour from sunset until 1am and see it sparkling for 5 minutes. It’s impossible not to stop and stare, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

Built in 1889 for the world’s fair, initially only intended to stay up for 20 years, it was first reviled and is now loved by the Parisians. It’s a monument you can’t miss on a visit to Paris. The lines can be incredibly long, especially in high season. Book a timed entry ticket on the internet to avoid spending half your day waiting, and don’t wait until the last minute to book, they sell out way in advance. Or take a guided tour, not only do you get to skip the line but you’ll be amazed how much you learn – as you can imagine there are many fascinating stories surrounding this world famous icon. The other alternative is to take the stairs, the lines are shorter and it’s cheaper, and as long as you can cope with the views below it’s a fun option!

Open daily all year round 9.30am to 11pm (midnight from June through early Sept).

Eiffel Tower website

  • Eiffel Tower, Champ de Mars, 75007 Paris. metro Bir Hakeim or RER Champ de Mars. The best way in my opinion is go to Trocadero metro and walk down, you get the best views.

The Musée d’Orsay

If you only have time to visit one museum whilst you are in Paris, I would recommend considering the Musée d’Orsay. Set in a beautiful Beaux-Arts former railway station, the Musée d’Orsay houses the largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in the world, and is also home to some of the world’s greatest masterpieces.

Built for the World Expo of 1900, the Parisians wanted a magnificent station to welcome visitors to their city, and they certainly got one. It was not used for very long though, as the new mainline electric trains proved too long for the short platforms. One of the last trains to arrive carried returning French prisoners of war. It fell into disrepair, and was even earmarked for demolition. Saved in the 1980’s and beautifully converted into a museum, you can still get a wonderful impression of how it must have looked when it was full of steam trains.

It’s less crowded the Louvre, the museum is filled with colour and light. Here you’ll find Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Gaugin, Cézanne, Rodin, Toulouse Lautrec, to name but a very few. These artists changed the face of art forever, and their lives in the rapidly changing city of Paris are as fascinating as their works and the artistic techniques they developed (hop up to Montmartre afterwards to learn more about their lives). The artworks are rotated regularly so the paintings often change, which I really like as it means you can keep going back, which I do. There are 2 cafés and a restaurant. I could happily spend a whole day here. Even if you only have a couple of hours, it’s really worth a visit.

Open Tuesday – Thursday 9.30 – 6.00.  Late opening Thursday until 9.15pm

Buy your ticket online in advance to avoid wairing in the often long lines! Or better still, book a guided tour and have the artworks, artists and the fascinating period they lived and workd in brought to life by a passionate expert guide. It makes all the difference.

  • Musée d’Orsay. 1 rue de la Legion d’Honneur, 75007 Paris  métro: Solferino or RER Musée d’Orsay

Musée d’Orsay website

Pont Alexandre III

Inaugurated in 1900 for the Universal Exhibition, the Pont Alexandre III is the most elegant bridge in Paris and a great place to take some wonderful photos.

Tsar Nicolas of Russia laid the first stone in 1896 – the bridge is named after his father, the Emperor Alexandre III, and commemorates the alliance between France and Russia signed in 1891.

The setting for many famous film scenes and music videos, the bridge itself is richly decorated and is surrounded by beautiful monuments. To one side there is the Esplanade des Invalides with the golden dome of the Invalides housing Napoleon’s tomb, to the other the Grand Palais and Petit Palais, both home to a variety of excellent temporary exhibitions, and the Champs Elysées is just a short stroll away. You can also access the quays of the River Seine from here.

The Rodin Museum

One of my favourite museums in Paris is the Rodin Museum. It is housed in the magnificent Hotel Biron and set in large and peaceful gardens in the 7th arrondissement. It’s also right by the Invalides, as you wander around the beautiful museum gardens you can see the gold dome peeping up behind the sculptures and clipped trees.

The garden has a small café and lots of benches and wooden deckchairs under the trees. It is also home to many of Rodin’s bronze sculptures. If you don’t have time to go into the museum, or just want to sit and enjoy the quiet, for 2€ you can spend as long as you like there.

The Hotel Biron was built in 1727. By 1905 it was falling into ruin, the once beautiful gardens overgrown, and it became a temporary residence for various artists, including Jean Cocteau, Isadora Duncan, Henri Matisse and Auguste Rodin. From 1911 onwards Rodin took over the whole building, and in 1916 offered to donate the entire collection of his work to the state, on the condition that the Hotel Biron became the Musée Rodin.

The museum is small but houses an impressive collection of Rodin’s sculptures, as well as several works by some of his friends and contemporaries – Camille Claudel, Van Gogh, Bourdelle and John Singer Sargent. The inside of the building is as beautiful as the outside, and temporary exhibitions are also frequently held.

Open daily except Mondays.

A tip for visiting all museums in Paris, buy your ticket online before you visit. Lines can be long, particularly in summer, and an e-ticket is one of the best ways to skip them!

Rodin Museum

  • Musée Rodin, 79 rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris  Metro: Varenne or Invalides