29 Jan 2013

St Germain-des-Près

So back to square one again.  For those of you who haven't caught on, I'm currently living in St Germain-des-Près (the "fashionable area" of Paris), south of the Seine in the 6th arondissement.  But fashionable districts don't come without a big fat price tag, and that doesn't stop at renting an apartment.  Indeed, this infectious price tag has infiltrated bars, coffee shops, high street stores and supermarkets in the area.  In fact, it's home to two of the most frequented and prestigious cafés in Paris - Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore - which compete against each other on opposite corners of a buzzing street near the ancient Eglise St Germain-des-Près, founded in the 6th century by a Childebert I (ruled 511–558).  Tourists swarm the cafés like bees to sip the renowned hot chocolate at Les Deux Magots, once frequented by the likes of Hemingway and other famous intellectuals, or to soak up the philosophy of Café de Flore and its WWII style Art deco interior.  The literary culture of both hangouts is apparently infinite, but the modern-day crowd it attracts seems rather superfluous in comparison.  As Timeout says of Les Deux Magots, “The former haunt of Sartre and de Beauvoir now draws a less pensive crowd that can be all too m'as-tu vu, particularly at weekends”.  Yes; the real attraction is being seen on either terrace, sipping your poignantly expensive cup of coffee, because it makes you feel like you’re somebody.

That noted, I haven't actually been to either café, partly due to the extortionate prices (which is inevitable), and partly because I don't fancy being a sheep, let alone wait half an hour for a cappuccino while the couple next to me fuss about today's special.  There's something quite nice about going to off-the-beaten-track hideaways in a city, rather than squeezing into tourist territory, surrounded by overweight Americans and Germans speaking defunct French, yapping away like maniacs and pronouncing everything wrong.  Not that I've got the best accent or anything, but some of the pronunciations I've heard are almost offensively bad.  I may have snorted over a coffee and a croissant one too many times because of it.

But despite the hyper-lavish crowd, you'll be hard-pushed to find a more idyllic (albeit upmarket) setting in Paris.  For the food-lovers among you, Le Marché St Germain, hidden away from the hustle and bustle, is a daily indoor food market where you can purchase fresh fish, meat, fruit, veg, cheese and plenty more delicacies.  There’s even an Italian stall where freshly made vegetarian and meat lasagnes, ravioli, risottos and blocks of parmesan cheese are paraded behind glass frames.  A Japanese stand is located in another corner where freshly rolled sushi and noodle dishes are available at the point of a finger.  A man carving jambon cru from a pig’s leg serves a short line of customers at another end.  Food is flowing, and cash is being counted.  Although I should warn you; my only purchase there has been an €11,50 slice of Lasagne.  Not exactly the cheapest dinner-for-one, but it’s nice to visit the market from time to time to take in the pleasant aroma and vivid colours.

Passing straight down the middle of St Germain-des-Près is a long avenue known as Boulevard St Germain where you can find yourself bombarded with an influx of tasteful cafés (what would France be without them?), Swarovski crystals, expensive footwear, haute couture clothing and an infinite number of shi-shi bars frequented by Dior-clad diners.  The neighbourhood’s artistic license is confirmed by its number of reputed museums and galleries, notably L’École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts (the distinguished National School of Fine Arts), La Musée du Luxembourg (Paris' oldest public museum which showcases a vast array of the city’s artwork) and La Musée D’Orsay (housed in a former railway station) which is right around the corner.  It was mainly after WWII that the neighbourhood exploded into a hub of existentialist thinking and a haven of avant-garde theatre, painting and jazz, and much of this culture resides to this current day.

Yet while it may be excruciatingly expensive to entertain yourself south of the Seine in St Germain, if you like the words 'suave', 'sophisticated' and ‘swanky’, you've come to the right place.  One of my preferred night-time retreats is Le Pub St Germain, a restaurant-bar which opened here in Paris in 1968 during a time when English pubs were starting to flourish in France, partly due to the political climate in France as well as a revolution in gastronomy across the globe.  At the time, this new genre of establishment attracted many Parisians because of its atmosphere and conviviality.  Its classic décor with a hint of exoticism make it a charming hideout for drinking one of their original cocktails, sitting down to a dinner of roasted duck breast and gnocchi, or for enjoying a more traditional Sunday Brunch.  Whether it’s gossiping over a carafe of red wine with a friend, sipping a liquid nitrogen cocktail, or spicing up a tomato juice with a splash of Tabasco, each rendez-vous at the four-floored Pub Saint-Germain has been equally indulgent.  I need hardly mention the complimentary olives, peanuts and generous supply of cocktail sticks.  Nor the tap-dancer who gave us a private showing à la Singing in the Rain, umbrella and all.

And my favourite street?  Once when I wandered upon the back entrance of the pub, I discovered a charming, rather inconspicuous street arcade, Cour du Commerce-St-André, whose cobbled pavestones, archway and turret from the 13th-century wall of Philippe-Auguste lend it a rich antiquity.  The wall was originally built around the city as a means of defense and in former times, the passageway housed Georges-Jacques Danton, a leading figure in the French Revolution.  To this day, the oldest restaurant in Paris, Le Procope (1686), whose walls entertained the likes of Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau, remains a stunning part of the passageway's renowned aesthetic of picturesque boutiques and living history.

I can’t imagine being anywhere else in the world right now.

Watch this space.


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