I must admit that the last time I visited Paris, a city I loved whole heartedly for decades, I was not impressed and came to the conclusion that, compared to London or Madrid or Los Angeles, it paled in comparison. But, on my latest trip, just a few weeks ago and some 6 months after the appalling terrorist attacks, I have completely changed my mind.
What I saw was a city overflowing with individuality and a pronounced joie de vivre. A city that is embracing non-conformity, that is enjoying being itself and a city that is, above all, real with no amount of balls.
Of late, we’ve all seen developers and property magnates, in an effort to turn our cities into rather enlarged homogenized shopping malls, rip the guts out of London and New York by tearing down the familiar and the beautiful in favour of nondescript, multinational store fronts.
I was overjoyed to see that this is not so in Paris. It seems that the city has achieved this by enforcing a strict code of architectural conduct entirely absent in the UK. They have realized that a real city has diversity and colour that, never a consequence of bending over for huge foreign investment companies, is achieved simply by being itself – a policy that suits both its inhabitants and existing establishments alike.
Going Deep in Paris
I first visited Paris as a rambunctious 18 -year old accompanied by five like minded others and we unwittingly stayed in a super seedy Pigalle hotel favoured by prostitutes; we had our belongings stolen, were overcharged at every turn, given counterfeit change and fought with strangers.
Since then, I have visited Paris at least 40 times and have, via the auspices of Paris nightclub supremo, DJ Albert de Paname and translator Clive Hadley, gotten to know the ins, outs and in betweens of the City of Lights and now fully understand that to enjoy Paris, one really has to get deep inside.
Of course, on the surface Paris looks the same as it ever did – the glorious Arc de Triomphe, the magnificent River Seine, the sophisticated Left Bank, but in contrast to many other cities it seems now to have a lot more soul (an essence that was appreciated by the thousands of black Americans who moved there after WW1) and a lot more substance. At first this was, of course, just a feeling, purely gut instinct, but the more I looked the more my intuition was reinforced with hard facts.
I arrived at a Friday lunch time and, having ducked the miserable Eurostar fare, went straight to a local bistro to see workers not stopping for a quick fix/ 45 minute lunch but enjoying the full 90 minutes. “They, take their lunches and holidays very seriously here and are more productive for it”, espouses my old friend Clive Hadley. “But it’s like everything here. Parisians will not be told what to do by their employees or government and that is one of the reasons why it remains intact. Parisians like their city as is and don’t want to see it changed and I agree,” said Hadley.
In fact, Monsieur Hadley hails from the same Welsh town as I but moved to the city 30 years ago driven by a love of Parisian literature. Since his eldest son, Billy aged 29, has run quite a few bars in Pigalle – the legendary red light area that is home to gangsters, street walkers, drug addicts, sex shops, brothels, gambling dens and ne-er do wells and is certainly the more interesting for it.
“When Billy first took over Le Sans Souci about 4 years ago you’d still get the prostitutes drinking there in the day before their shift dressed in the mini skirts and suspenders,” chuckles Hadley. “Pigalle as a neighbourhood had the worst reputation of anywhere in Paris and was controlled by The Corsican mafia. It’s still not that safe at 4 am but now, youngsters have started going there while many of the streetwalkers and much of the gambling has disappeared and gone online. It’s become a bit like Soho in London was in the nineties.”
Out and about in Paris
And, even though the area still manages to hang on to its rather sleazy façade, beneath lies an underbelly of excellent, groovy bars, such as the tiny Pigalle Country Club, which is full of stylish hipsters – some fifties inamorata, others sixties styled but all grooving to a DJ playing classic funk, blues, soul and Latin vinyl on couple of decks.
Then, just up the street we saw another version at the lovely Le Petite Taverne while just around the corner sits the Rock’n’Roll Circus that delivers insanely cheap booze with a rock n’ soul soundtrack to another stylish crowd. In addition to all this on Rue Pierre Fontayne is Albert de Paname’s new venture, Le Carrousel, a former 1930’s drag bar that proffers forties swing, mambo, jazz, cha-cha and funk.
And if that’s not enough there is the rather gorgeous Chez Moune that, built in 1936, was once the cities top lesbian cabaret club but is now a club full of 20-something fashionista-types diving around to house and nu-disco right through until the early morning. Pigalle sure is funky.
Of course, opposite and up the hill is Montmartre (once home to Picasso, Van Gogh, Lautrec et al) and that, although a bit commercial, still fields the likes of Chez Camille, a typical Paris Dive Bar where folks park their Cadillac’s and scooters outside, pose and chill to accordionists and Parisian gastronomic delights such as Le Hot dog for 4 Euros a pop.
‘There are plenty of these little bars all over Paris,” explains Hadley. “They are not expensive and so the customers are always young, interesting and interested. Billy has a new bar called La Caravane next to République that is really happening and I go to a bar called Le Saint Sauver in Menlimontant, not because its cheap, but because its still got that real Parisian bohemian feel that you don’t get elsewhere,” Hadley said.
Indeed, Menlimontant, is another little area worth perusing. La Feline is a petite bar with a stage that features burlesque acts such as Lulu La Vamp and Lalaloo Du Bois with DJ’s playing 50s and 60’s rock n’ soul with a bit of vintage US garage thrown in while Café La Laverie is a superb bistro bar run by a couple who care.
Dining in Paris
And lest we forget, Paris, also fields some of the finest restaurants that this not so young scribe has ever encountered. Krung Thep in Belleville, serves Thai food unsurpassed in my experience – in or out of Asia- and is worth a trip to Paris just eat here.
For Moroccan you will have a hard job topping, Le Souk in The Bastille – a luscious assault on the senses that will knock you into touch while chef, Laetitia Bret, of the Michelin starred new ‘vintage’ bistro, Restaurant l’Esquisse and, known by locals as the best bistro in Paris in North Montmartre (just a few kilometers from Pigalle) will deliver you a modern French meal the likes of which I have never encountered before.
Of course, for yours truly, any trip to Paris is not complete without a bowl of onion soup, a dish that only Parisians can do properly – festooned with enough cheese so your spoon stands up on its own.
I went to the, forgive the cliché ‘old school’, Aux Pied de Cochon, in Chatelet that since 1947 has rarely closed and was a destination for me back in the day after we finished at that ever so wonderful and legendary nightclub, Les Bains. Undoubtedly this fave haunt of Josephine Baker, Serge Gainsbourg, Alfred Hitchcock and Jean-Paul Belmondo is a beautiful space while the food is pure Paris and the soup never fails to deliver.
In addition to the great bars, great food and the stylish people you will also find truly great shops as, unlike London, the centre of Paris, even around Les Halles and Chatelet, teams with odd little galleries and quirky little boutiques.
Undeniably, Paris seems to have it all
One might discuss the merits of a 1930’s train set with a man who has spent his whole life considering such things or haggle over a clay tobacco pipe with a septuagenarian crone who lives for her store or perhaps buy some vintage clothing by the kilo then rest up in a café not called Costa or Starbucks, but instead next to a cobblers and a button store who occupy prime real estate. Yes, with an abundance of curio and book stores, London it is not and, best of all, they do not charge the earth.
Undeniably, Paris seems to have it all at the moment and, in truth, I was totally gobsmacked and thoroughly envious. The city and its inhabitants seem to enjoy a certain self-reliance, individuality and pride in each other that I have rarely seen of late in other cities. Thank the firmament it’s only just a few hours train journey away from London!
Where to Stay in Paris
Hotel du 7e art — Even though the rooms are small this budget hotel now dedicated to fifties film stars, is located on rue St. Paul just between Les Halles and Le Marais and could not be more convenient. Each room has white walls, exposed ceiling beams and movie posters on the walls while the bar is dazzlingly unpretentious. www.paris-hotel-7art.com/en/
Hotel Mansart — A quite beautiful hotel that, not unreasonably priced, is perfectly situated on the corner of Place Vendome, a few minutes walking distance from rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré, the centre of Paris fashion and a short walk from the Louvre, the Tuileries Gardens and the Champs Elysee. If that isn’t enough the rooms have ridiculously high ceilings and are about 15 square metres in size. www.paris-hotel-mansart.com
Hotel Costes — A fabulously luxurious establishment that, styled in the classic Napoleon III style with purple and gold rooms, is more stately residence than hotel and boasts a wonderful indoor swimming pool, a superb restaurant and friendly staff. www.hotelcostes.com
Le Meurice — When the French do abstemious luxury they do it with dazzling aplomb and nowhere illustrates this more than this magnificently baroque hotel. A 19th century palace turned hotel the massive rooms and suites are more like large inner city apartments while there is no better location www.dorchestercollection.com/en/paris/le-meurice/
Things to do that do not involve drinking or eating in Paris
Les Puces De Vanves — The smallest and gentlest flea market in Paris that runs on Saturday and Sunday mornings till 1pm this is where the locals go in search of old books, old furniture and antiques. www.pucesdevanves.typepad.com
Les Puces de Montreuil — On the end of the Metro line this is simply one of the best flea markets in the world that sells everything, from vintage toys and clothes to old light-fittings and furniture. Be prepared to haggle as if you don’t they will think you’re a few ounces short of pound.
The Church of St. Germain — Even though I am a devout atheist, I still believe that at times there is nothing better to do in Paris than duck out of the madding crowd and find solace in the pews of this, the oldest church in Paris. On the weekends they have choral and organ recitals, which are simply a joy to behold before one hits the hot spots. www.eglise-saintgermaindespres.fr
The Musee Rodin — Even though the staff are stroppy one can visit this wonderful museum – that is more like a house full of statues – marvel at the magnificent Rodin sculptures and have a picnic in the garden. Funnily, as with all Parisian museums, the best time to visit is between 2 and 3pm as the mornings are completely oversubscribed. www.musee-rodin.fr/en/home
Bars in Paris
Le Sans Souci – 6 pm till 2 am daily, 65 rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle
Pigalle Country Club – 6 pm till 2 am daily, 59 Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, 75009
Le Petite Taverne – 6 pm till 2 am daily, 3 Rue de la Huchette, 75005, Phone:+33 1 43 54 67 54
Rock n’ Roll Circus – 6 pm till 2 am daily, 5 Rue André Antoine, 75018 Paris, +33 6 09 81 93 59
Chez Camile – 12 pm till 2am daily, 8 Rue Ravignan, 75018
La Caravane – 11- 2 am daily, 35 Rue de la Fontaine au Roi, 75011
+33 1 49 23 01 86
Le Saint Sauver – 12 pm till 2 am daily, 1 Rue des Panoyaux, 75020
La Feline – Tues to Sat 12pm til 2 am, 6 Rue Victor Letalle, 75020, +33 1 43 66 39 64
Café La Laverie – 1, rue Sorbier, angle 70, rue de Ménilmontant, 75020
Clubs in Paris
La Carrousel – 12 pm till 2 am daily, 40 Rue Pierre Fontaine, 75009 Paris, +33 1 42 82 09 16
Chez Moune – 11 pm till 6 am Thurs, Friday, Saturday, 54, rue Pigalle, 75009, +33 9 67 50 28 44
Restaurants in Paris
(Always make a reservation)
Krung Thep – 93 Rue Julien Lacroix, 75020, +33 143 66 83 74, no website
Le Souk – 1 Rue Keller, 75011, +33 1 49 29 05 08, www.le-souk-paris.com/
Restaurant L’Esquisse – 151 bis, rue Marcadet Paris 75018, +33 1 53 41 63 04, no website
Pied de Cochon – 24 hours seven days a week, 6 Rue Coquillière, 75001 +33 1 40 13 77 00, www.pieddecochon.com/en/