On a hill overlooking a bend of the Seine to the west of Paris, the vast Parc Saint Cloud, which once surrounded a royal château, is nowadays mainly frequented by locals. This short walk through the eastern part of the park, just 10 km from Notre Dame at the end of the line 9 métro, produces a real sense of dépaysement on the doorstep of Paris.
You are transported from the stately 17th century French formality of the Grande Cascade waterfall with its panoramic views of Paris to the romantic hilltop Jardin de Trocadéro designed à l’anglaise in the early 19th century as a secluded retreat for the children of the royal family.
In post-Covid times you can also visit two interesting and very different museums at opposite ends of the park, which you will pass en route. The walk continues through the quiet little streets of the old hillside town of Saint Cloud with its church containing the relics of the sixth century saint who gave the town and the park his name. From there you descend by a series of steps to a range of transport options, including the 72 bus which follows the right bank of the Seine in Paris from the Pont Mirabeau to the Ile St Louis, giving you an armchair view of some of the city’s most iconic sights.
Here is the full text of the article which appeared in Bonjour Paris on 23 March 2021
The great attraction of this little-known walk around Sucy-en-Brie is that it combines some unexpected glimpses of wildlife with buildings of historic interest, just 29 minutes from Châtelet les Halles with trains every 10 minutes.
Sucy-en-Brie is between the River Marne and the edge of the Forêt de Notre Dame, partly encircled by two streams which flow into the Marne. The canons of Notre Dame de Paris were the seigneurs of Sucy and the surrounding land from the seventh century until the Revolution and until the late 19th century it remained an agricultural village with a small population. In the 17th century a few Parisian families built châteaux de plaisance there, attracted by this bucolic spot only 22 km from the capital. Madame de Sévigné spent part of a happy childhood in one of them. It was the coming of the railway in the 1870s which led to a population explosion and eventually transformed Sucy-en-Brie a century later into a suburb of Paris on the RER A train line.
But the old village with its narrow streets clustered around the 12th century church is the heart of the modern town and there is a new appreciation of its historic value, visible in its recent restoration and partial pedestrianisation. Four of the original six châteaux are still standing, although put to other uses, and many green spaces have been preserved as public parks. The 19th century fort on the edge of town is accessible to anyone who cares to wander inside. When normal times return I will be trying out the Bistrot du Fort nearby. This restaurant and the café next to the station are open on Sundays, which is another plus as far as I am concerned.
On leaving the train take ‘Sortie 1, Place de la Gare’. Cross the road diagonally to the left towards the pharmacy with its green cross on the corner of Rue Montaleau. A baker and a small grocery store in between the café and the pharmacy are useful sources for picnic supplies, open on Sundays.
Follow Rue Montaleau uphill and take the third left into the Rue de Sévigné, past a distinctive house with a cupola.
Madame de Sévigné was orphaned at the age of seven and spent part of her childhood in the Château de Montaleau, the home of her grandfather, Philippe de Coulanges. The château is on the hill at the end of Rue Montaleau and you will pass it on the way back. It now houses the Tribunal d’Instance, the magistrate’s court.
Turn left into the Rue de Sévigné and then right into the Rue des Fontaines. Take the first left onto a rustic little GR footpath, the Sentier du Vieux Val, which winds around people’s back gardens, one of them containing a few inquisitive hens.
At the end of the path turn right onto the Rue Maurice Berteaux and continue uphill to the traffic lights. Cross at the pedestrian crossing and take the first left into the Rue Raspail. At the end of this street cross the Rue Thiers onto another little GR footpath straight ahead and continue to the Rue Chevreuil. Turn right and keep straight on down the Rue Pasteur until you see a pond with a bench, overlooking an islet accessed by a footbridge, a favourite place for ducks. The pond is grandly named the Lac du Grand Val and is fed by the Morbras. A bras mort, literally ‘dead arm’, means a backwater.
After a while if you look hard at the islet you will probably spot a coypu or two, camouflaged by their colour to blend into the water’s edge. In fact on my recent visit we saw so many that we named the islet Coypu Central. A coypu looks like a cross between a beaver and a large water vole. Originally brought to Europe from South America to be bred for their fur, coypu are now considered an invasic species and have been eliminated in England, although not yet in France where the word for them is ragondin. The ones in Sucy were absolutely fearless and came out of the water to nibble the grass only a few feet away from us and some passersby.
Turn left from the bench and follow the water right round to its end on the opposite bank, where you will see a pedestrian crossing. Cross it and look up to see steps above you. Climb these and turn left, over a small bridge across the Morbras which cascades noisily here over a little weir. The entrance to the Parc du Morbras is a little further, on your right.
The Morbras flows through the bottom of this park, which feels beautifully untamed although it has a children’s playground, two picnic tables and is overlooked by some houses. I first visited it in November, when it was deserted and covered with colchiques, wild autumn crocuses, a rare sight in urban areas.
On my February visit it was full of planted spring crocuses and local people enjoying the sunshine but the parts near the river still felt more like the countryside than like a park. Take the lower path close to the Morbras and follow it for the length of the park and through the inevitable car park to the exit.
Turn right and follow the road downhill, cross at the pedestrian crossing on the left and turn right into a busy road, the Avenue Maurice Schumann. Follow it across the Morbras and left into the Rue de Noiseau. Cross the road here and take the GR footpath on your right into a wood bordering a little stream, the Rû de la Fontaine Villiers. Follow the stream on your left for just over a kilometre, through a kind of straggling park, frequented by locals. The footpath forks at the end, from where you can see the D136 ahead.
Take the righthand fork and follow the path until it ends at a small road, the Avenue de la Fontaine de Villiers. Continue along the road for a few metres to a pedestrian crossing. Cross and follow the footpath straight ahead under pine trees, parallel to the busy main road, Avenue Charles de Gaulle. You will eventually come to a roundabout and a restaurant on your right, Le Bistrot du Fort. I have never tried this restaurant which is of course closed at the moment but its terrace and traditional French menu look promising.
Continue along the main road and take the first right, an unmarked footpath which follows the moat around the Fort de Sucy on your right and leads straight to the entrance. The fort was one of a series constructed to defend the capital between 1879 and 1881 after the disastrous siege of Paris by the Prussians in 1870. It did not play an active part in the First World War and was occupied by the Germans for most of World War Two.
They blew up their munitions and part of the fort before their retreat in August 1944, but enough is left to give you an interesting glimpse into late 19th century French defensive architecture. It is managed by a voluntary association who dress up in military uniforms of the period for the free guided tour at 3 pm on the first Sunday of each month. I happened to arrive at the right time on my first visit and found the little museum inside rather touching. It is closed at the moment but you can always wander round the fort on your own. On my recent visit one of the courtyards was being used for practice by a local archery club, which seemed fitting.
Turn left from the fort entrance and return along the Allée des Douves towards the main road, Rue Ludovic Halévy. Take the GR woodland footpath on your right which parallels the main road and continues past some attractive old buildings. This walk is used by local people walking their dogs and astonishingly, given the busy road close by, we heard an even noisier woodpecker which was attracting everyone’s attention above our heads.
The footpath leads to a car park and passes a handsome 17th century building now used as the salle de mariage for civic weddings. It was formerly the Château de Haute Maison. After 1893 it was the home of Ludovic Halévy, the librettist of Carmen, and his family who entertained many distinguished visitors there.
Cross the main road ahead of you, the Avenue Winston Churchill, at the pedestrian crossing into a quiet little street straight ahead, still the Rue Ludovic Halévy, into the heart of the old village. Turn left into the Rue Guy Mocquet, follow it round to the right into Rue de la Porte, whose name recalls the town’s former ramparts, and turn left into the Rue de Boissy. The Eglise St Martin is on your right. Go round it to your right to find the entrance.
I have always found this church open and it has a very peaceful atmosphere, perhaps because it has stood here for so many centuries. There seems to have been a church dedicated to St Martin on this spot since 811 although the earliest parts of the present church date from the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1793 three of its four bells were melted down by the revolutionaries to make cannon but they left the biggest one, called Martine, which dates from 1658. Three more have been added since 1997.
Turn right from the church into the Rue du Moutier. At the end turn left downhill into the busy Rue Pierre Semard. Continue downhill past the Tribunal de Proximité on the right, the former Château de Montaleau owned by Madame de Sévigné’s grandfather, which dominates the hill.
Cross at the pedestrian crossing and take a path straight ahead, indicated by a sign for the car park reading ‘P Montaleau (sous-sol)’. Follow it past the château on your right and turn left to go through the park along a straight path leading downhill. You will eventually pass a stretch of water on your right and soon afterwards the path becomes the Rue Montaleau. Continue downhill, past the house with the cupola on the corner of Rue de Sévigné which you passed earlier, to return to the station.
RER A trains to Boissy St Léger run every 10 minutes from Châtelet les Halles, taking 29 minutes to Sucy-Bonneuil. Details on https://www.transilien.com/
Free app using GPS to track your route on IGN maps, IGN Rando
Here is the full text of the article which appeared in Bonjour Paris on 11 February 2021
Exploring the River Oise in the footsteps of the Impressionists
It was the coming of the railway that made the sleepy agricultural villages and towns along the River Oise so attractive to the Impressionists. They were dedicated to painting in the open air and mostly short of cash because their new style of painting did not sell. The region offered varied landscapes which were just beginning to be affected by industrialisation but had not yet become suburban and it was within easy reach of Paris, with lower rents.
What was true for the Impressionists is still true for today’s Parisians looking for a rewarding day out in the country. The creation of the new town of Cergy Pontoise in the 1960s led to the building of a second railway line, the RER A, but development and population expansion have been mainly inland. The banks of the river have changed remarkably little in over a hundred years. They are still lined with 19th century villas and often the only sound is that of birdsong as huge working barges slide silently past. Even in winter, in the rain and with restaurants closed because of the current restrictions, you can be sure of spacious views, not many people, most of them local, and a railway station within easy reach.
Dr Gachet, the doctor and friend of many Impressionist painters, moved to Auvers sur Oise in 1872. His friend Camille Pissarro settled in Pontoise in the same year. Known affectionately as ‘the father of Impressionism’, he invited his younger painter friends, Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh among others, to paint with him there. The railway also turned obscure villages such as Eragny into popular destinations for weekend visitors from Paris, who came to fish along the banks of the Oise. The fondue restaurant O Châlet was once a guinguette from where a ferry took fishermen across the river, and something of the guinguette holiday atmosphere still lingers in its cosy interior, packed with local families at the weekend.
The suggested 7½ km walk along the left bank of the Oise starts at St Ouen l’Aumône station with a detour to the 13th century Abbaye de Maubuisson, then follows the river past Pontoise and the views painted by Pissarro and his friends to the fondue restaurant at Eragny, ending at the SNCF station of Eragny Neuville, with an alternative walk to the RER station of Neuville Université. But you could skip the Abbey and Pontoise and start the walk at St Ouen l’Aumône Quartier de l’Eglise station instead, ending at either of the two stations at Eragny (4½ km) or just walk to the restaurant for lunch from either station and back (3 km). You could also prolong the walk along the Oise from the restaurant, crossing the bridge to Cergy Port for the RER stations at Cergy Préfecture (5 km) or Cergy St Christophe (7 km).
7½ km walk from St Ouen l’Aumône to Eragny Neuville
From the station take the exit marked ‘Rue du 8 mai 1945’ and turn left, under the railway bridge. Take the pedestrian crossing into the Rue Guy Sourcis opposite on your right and follow the railway line until you reach a level crossing. Cross the line and turn left, following the sign for ‘Abbaye de Maubuisson’ into Avenue Richard de la Tour.
Follow the path right round to the park entrance, from where you will see a long low building, the former chapter house which now functions as an arts centre.
This building is all that remains of the once extensive Abbey which covered 79 acres, but it is impressive enough to make the visit worthwhile, even though the current restrictions mean that you cannot go inside. With the little stream of the Liesse flowing through its grounds and even fewer visitors than usual, the Abbey is a good place for a picnic.
It was founded in 1236 by Blanche of Castille, the pious wife of Louis VIII and the mother of Louis IX, Saint Louis, close to her château in Pontoise. It was both a Cistercian convent for up to 120 young women of royal or noble birth and an occasional royal residence. It was from here that Philippe le Bel issued the infamous order to arrest the Knights Templar in 1307. But by the end of the 18th century it had fallen into decline, with only a few nuns left when it was closed on the order of Louis XVI in 1786.
Retrace your steps to the level crossing and continue downhill to the very end of the Chaussée de Maubuisson. Cross the main road and take the footpath opposite, marked ‘Chemin de Pothuis’ which leads to the Oise.
Turn left along the towpath. Across the river you will soon see the gracious silhouette of the 12th century cathedral at Pontoise. Eventually you will pass some concrete bases with an information panel beside them explaining that they were part of the ‘Ligne Chauvineau’, a line of military anti-tank defences put up along the Oise in 1939 to protect Paris from invasion.
A little further on you will pass reproductions of eleven paintings done between 1872 and 1908, nine of them by Pissarro in the 1870s, placed at the spot where they were painted.
Pissarro lived across the river in Pontoise at 85 Quai du Pothuis. The views have not changed as much as you might expect, although some of the factories shown in the paintings have disappeared. The sight of the bridge and the ramparts at Pontoise, in the Middle Ages a frontier town defending the borders of the kingdom of France, immediately explains the appeal of this spot to a painter.
Continue along the towpath, past the lock and another bridge. About 250 metres after the bridge you will pass a former inn, Le Goujon d’Eragny, with a worn stone memorial tucked under a side window, facing the direction in which you are walking.
It was put up by the inhabitants of Eragny in memory of one of the seven crew of an RAF Lancaster bomber whose body was recovered here after the plane crashed on 6 June 1944. It was on a mission to destroy the station at Achères to hamper German communications during the D-Day landings but was brought down by anti-aircraft fire. It exploded over the 11th century church at Eragny, which was completely destroyed, although no civilians were killed. Six of the airmen are buried together in the new cemetery at Eragny; the body of the seventh was never recovered and must have fallen into the Oise.
Soon afterwards you will pass O Châlet, with a row of skis outside and the red and white flag of Haute Savoie, a reminder of the regional dishes of raclette and fondue in which the restaurant specialises.
I first passed it on a Sunday walk along the Oise last February and went inside to ask for their card. It was like stepping into a 1950s time-warp, packed with local multi-generational families in festive mood and pervaded by the delicious smell of melting cheese. Modest family-owned places like this are fast disappearing in the Ile de France and I made a mental note to go back and try it out. I did go back on a rainy Sunday several weeks later, with my family who were over on a visit from England. The six of us were the only foreigners but we immediately felt at home. The kir was made of rosé wine flavoured with griotte cherries and it was generous and good. So was the fondue and the very reasonably-priced house wine. When the owners discovered that we had come all the way from Paris by train in non-stop rain they offered us a lift back to the station, which we gratefully accepted. I have not been able to return because lockdown intervened but they assure me that they will be re-opening as soon as it ends. My 24 year old niece later told me that the trip to ‘the restaurant by the river’ was the highlight of her Paris visit.
O Châlet is on the corner of Rue de la Fontaine, which leads to La Carrière à Pépin, a former quarry a few metres away. The information panel there reproduces a photo of Débussy and his wife posing in front of the quarry on a visit to Eragny in 1902.
To reach the SNCF station at Eragny Neuville follow the Rue de la Fontaine uphill, past the quarry. The street is named for a local spring which never freezes in winter, making it a valued resource in the days before piped water was supplied to every house. A lavoir (wash house) was built around it in the 19th century, and until the 1950s professional washerwomen came from other villages to do the washing for Paris weekend visitors to Eragny. It is located just after the bend in the road, down steps on the left, with an information panel showing a rare photo of a lavoir in use.
Continue to the end of Rue de la Fontaine and turn sharp right uphill into Rue de la Gare. At the little roundabout take the first right into Rue de Neuville. There is a good view of the Oise from here just before you turn left into the little Rue des Belles Hâtes, which leads to steps down to the station. Cross to the other side for trains to Paris.
NB: If you are heading for the RER station at Neuville Université, continue from O Châlet to the next bridge. Take the road under the bridge, the Chemin de la Carrière à Pépin, follow it uphill and round to the left and go up steps on your right onto a main road. Cross at the pedestrian crossing on your left and turn left past the Parc Relais car park, then take the first right which will lead you through the bus station to the RER station.
Trains from Gare du Nord to Pontoise run twice an hour, stopping at St Ouen l’Aumône 38 minutes later. Trains from Eragny-Neuville to St Lazare run two to three times an hour, taking 35 minutes.
Here is the full text of the article which appeared in Bonjour Parison 27 November 2020
Discovering the River Yerres: mills, menhirs and the Maison Caillebotte
In between confinements this year, I began following the tributaries of the Seine and the Marne in search of new walks near Paris. These minor rivers are generally not far from a railway station, stations which I had always assumed served faceless built up suburbs. Wrong. Yes, suburbs have sprung up around the medieval villages and hamlets on these little rivers but at the heart of them you will find traces of a many-layered past, existing side by side with modern infrastructure. And usually the closer you get to the river, the further back you journey in time and the more surprising and picturesque the walk becomes.
Brunoy on the River Yerres, a tributary of the Seine 21 km south east of Paris, is a good example. In the seventh century it was mentioned as a royal possession, prized for the good hunting to be had in the nearby Forêt de Sénart. Its famous château was demolished in the Revolution but Brunoy continued to attract successful Parisians who built several imposing country residences there, some still standing although put to other uses. It is still essentially a residential town.
5 km walk along the River Yerres from Brunoy to Yerres
From Brunoy station take the Place de la Gare exit marked ‘Bus’ which will bring you to the Rue de la Gare with a big brasserie/tabac on the corner. Follow it round to the right, past the modern Mediathèque and a small war memorial. You will see the spire of the church above the skyline on your left. Turn left to face the grandiose Mairie (1898) set in a little square with an imposing plane tree in front of it and the Tabac de la Mairie beside it in the Grande Rue on your right. This is a good place to stop for a drink, savouring the relaxed, almost provincial feel of the scene in front of you. In the Middle Ages this part of Brunoy with its 12th century church, built on the site of an earlier one, was surrounded by a rampart along what is now the Grande Rue, and it is still the heart of the modern town.
With your back to the Tabac de la Mairie turn into the first street on the left, the little Rue Pasteur, then take the first right, the tiny Rue St Nicolas. Turn left into a narrow un-named cobbled street, more like a passage, which will bring you to the back entrance of the Eglise St Médard, built in the 12th, 13th and 16th centuries, embellished in the 18th century and restored in 2005. Turn right and go down steps into the Place St Médard. The main entrance to the church is up the steps on your left.
From the church main entrance turn left and follow the Rue Montmartel round to the left. At the crossroads turn right downhill onto the Rue du Pont Perronet. You will pass a picturesque old mill which is now a hotel, on the site of an earlier mill belonging to the château.
Continue across the bridge and take the pedestrian crossing onto the Ile de Brunoy, passing a restaurant called Le Pavillon de l’Ile on your right. It would be a good place to have lunch as it is in a beautiful setting and modestly priced. I have only had coffee here but the food has enthusiastic reviews on French TripAdvisor. Its terrace has an excellent view of the Neolithic menhir, La Pierre Fritte, on the opposite bank of the River Yerres. Continue along the path a little way and walk down to the river on your right, opposite the children’s playground, to see the menhir.
La Pierre Fritte dates from around 3000 BC but its function remains a mystery. The name derives from la pierre fichée (figée) en terre, literally ‘stone stuck in the ground’. At 2.5 metres high, with another metre buried in the soil, it is the tallest stone visible of a group of three There is a much smaller one next to it and a bigger one submerged in the river beneath it.
Further along the path you will see a wooden barn, La Grange de l’Ile, which dates from the 19th century and has been recently restored. You could continue for a little wander along the island, which is an attractive public park with two picnic tables and paths along the Yerres on both sides, crossed by an impressive viaduct built in 1849.
Retrace your steps to the Pavillon de l’Ile and cross the bridge to the other side of the river. The Pont Perronet, built around 1784, is named after its engineer who also designed the Pont de la Concorde in Paris. It has a tasteful Greek border running along its parapet. Take the steps down from the bridge and follow the path with the river on your right.
You will pass quite a few locals en route but the walk feels rural rather than suburban, with towering trees, leaf-strewn paths and the sound of ducks and moorhens.
You will soon have another view of the mill with the church at Brunoy behind it. There is a heron visible in the photo if you zoom, down from the church spire.
The path ends at the picturesque Pont de Soulins, built in 1745 and painted by Caillebotte in 1874.
Cross the road and turn right onto this bridge, which has a footpath on the left leading to a gateway into the Parc de la Maison des Arts. The Maison is a villa, Le Réveillon, built in 1870 and now an arts centre, which you will eventually pass on your right.
The path soon goes under another impressive viaduct. Continue following the river, watching out for a discreet GRP left turn sign which will take you across a footbridge and up an embankment onto a main road. Cross the road straight ahead of you, if you can (the pedestrian crossing is further away) to a small road directly opposite showing a height restriction of 1.90 metres for cars. This is the unmarked continuation of the river footpath, next to a children’s playground in the Parc des Deux Rivières at Yerres.
Cross the next little footbridge over a dam and turn right to follow the Yerres onto the Ile Panchout. There are extracts from poems along the path which I personally found rather irritating, although well-intentioned. You may glimpse a fenced-off herd of Highland cattle, introduced here for ‘l’éco-pâturage’ i.e. to crop the grass in a sustainable way.
Turn right across the next footbridge and continue to follow the river. When you see a roadbridge ahead leave the path and take the steps on your right up to the bridge and a bus stop. Cross the road and turn left, over the river. The Maison Caillebotte is the white building straight ahead on the right.
Admission to the grounds, which contain some remarkable trees, is free. I have not visited the house but the grounds alone are worth the trip.
The Caillebotte family bought the property in 1860 and spent their summers there until they sold it in 1879. It had been transformed by a previous owner in 1824 who turned the extensive grounds into a landscaped jardin à l’anglaise, complete with orangery, ice-house and other fashionable fabriques. The former ‘chalet Suisse’ now houses the restaurant and tea-room and the walled kitchen garden, where I helped myself to some raspberries, has been beautifully restored and is run by volunteers.
Like most of the owners of elegant villas in Brunoy and Yerres, Caillebotte père had made his fortune in Paris, in his case by supplying the French army with sheets and blankets. His second son, Gustave (1848-1894) became a talented painter of independent means, champion and patron of the Impressionists. The bucolic river and garden setting at Yerres inspired several of his early paintings. His outstanding collection of Impressionist paintings now forms the heart of the collection at the Musée d’Orsay.
To return to Paris turn right from the Maison Caillebotte onto the main road and continue on the right past La Grange au Bois, a 19th century villa in the fashionable ‘rustic’ style, now a music and dance conservatory, along the long Rue de Concy. When you come to a roundabout, turn left into Rue de la Gare and continue uphill. Cross the road and take steps up on the right to the RER station at Yerres.
RER D trains from Gare de Lyon to Melun run two to three times an hour, stopping at Brunoy 28 minutes later. Trains from Yerres run every 15 minutes, taking 24 minutes to Gare de Lyon. www.transilien.fr
Free app using GPS to track your route on IGN maps
I spent the three months of the first lockdown with my family in the Oxfordshire countryside, so had no experience of lockdown in Paris. I felt rather like that generation of young men born just too late to fight in the First World War who spent the 1930s feeling less than heroic. So when Lockdown Two was announced I decided to stay put and see if I could survive alone in my walk-up studio on the fifth floor on the Ile St Louis.
The veterans of the first lockdown in Paris all agree that this second version is nothing like the first. The schools are open, some people are still going to work and the streets are not sad and deserted. Most important for me, walking along the quays of the Seine has not been banned, as it was before. The biggest challenge was to get used to filling in the permission form every time I wanted to leave the house. But now I have it down to a fine art. I fill in the form online and save a screenshot to my phone. I tick the box saying I am buying essential supplies (usually bread) and always carry a shopping bag. The limit of one km from home for a maximum of an hour only applies if you tick the exercise box. Aha!
All museums, cinemas, restaurants and cafés are closed and all non-essential shops. My dance class has been suspended and my local swimming pool is closed. But I am carrying on with my gymnastique douce (gentle exercise) and sophrologie (relaxation through breathing and meditation) classes on Zoom, as well as with my university class in literary theory. The Barthes-influenced reading list for this class, called ‘Penser l’objet’, is nearly killing me, but lockdown has already had some good effects. It’s easier for me to speak up in French when I can see everyone’s face, and that is better on Zoom than in the classroom, where French students have a tendency to sit in rows. I have been forced to read extracts from Proust and have overcome a lifelong reluctance to even open A la recherche du temps perdu. And on being invited to write and read out a Proustian description of an object, set as optional homework, I rediscovered parts of my brain that I haven’t used since ‘A’ level. Unlike the literary theory, that exercise took no time at all and it was fun. Now that I and the class know that I can write creatively in French, even though I speak it with an English accent, I feel much less like a foreigner.
As for my beginners’ class in modern Greek, I have never met the other students or the teacher. We correspond by email and are sent audio clips. My homework is returned promptly every week with detailed encouraging comments. I haven’t had this level of teacher attention since leaving university and I am thriving on having a simple but challenging set task to accomplish every week, translating from French to Greek.
But by far the best immediate result of lockdown has been that I go for at least an hour’s walk along the Seine every day. Pre-confinement, I sometimes spent the entire day in my studio working but I haven’t done this once since lockdown started and think I will never return to my bad old ways. I am appreciating the play of light over the river in a way I never did before, when I would give the sky a passing glance on my way home. Now I notice how the clouds and the light change with each passing moment, especially at sunset, in a way which seems to be in harmony with the rhythm of my walking and the other strollers I pass en route.
It was on one of these walks along the river that I saw a young man skipping. He gave me a sheepish smile and I smiled back. But when I saw another young man skipping on a different walk I began to think that there might be something in it and bought myself a child’s skipping rope. It’s strenuous exercise and I have to limit it because my arthritic feet complain if I do too much. I also get out of breath in a way I never did as a child. But unlike other strenuous exercise I have tried that is supposed to be good for you I find it is such a pleasure that I am continuing to do it.
I was a little concerned that I would wilt from the lack of live human contact. Then I discovered a new oyster bar round the corner from where I live that does takeaway. I’ve taken to inviting a friend or a neighbour round every Friday to come and share a candle-lit shellfish supper in my studio, with home-made aioli for the whelks and prawns and a bottle of Muscadet. It’s cheap and it’s fun. It’s technically illegal as we are not supposed to be mixing but I feel that it is a calculated risk and people can always say no. So far no one has.
I’m also continuing my Sunday walks during lockdown with a friend who feels the same as me about the need to get out for a proper walk at least once a week. We wear masks and keep our distance and so far no one has stopped us. Both of us are appreciating details we have never noticed before. Here is a view from the Promenade Plantée, a disused overhead railway line near the Bastille. It’s a walk I have done before but never noticed this astonishing statue
And this is the sky last week where we parted at Bastille, after a walk that began in wind and rain and ended in yet another glorious sunset
The other day I rushed out to the post office at Hotel de Ville and it was only when I saw a group of gendarmes that I realised I had forgotten to fill in the permission form on my phone, for the first time. Then to my horror I saw that I had left the phone at home. One of them noticed the dismay on my face, so I thought I had better explain. Hearing my accent he switched to (quite good) English. Humbly I offered to go home and get the form, adding that it was up five flights of stairs. On hearing that, he looked even more sympathetic and let me off. I thanked him profusely, complimented him on his English and beat a hasty retreat. The fine is 135€ so I felt rather relieved.
And cheered to be spending my second experience of lockdown in Paris.
I learned how to make traditional bitter English marmalade from my grandmother, who liked it so much when she first tasted it in England that she learned to make it herself. Home-made marmalade, like home-made mayonnaise, tastes infinitely better than the shop-bought varieties, which usually contain additives and are too sweet. I had been making it for myself since my student days, but in Paris I just learned to live without it, until one February I noticed the familiar Seville oranges on sale in my local greengrocer, labelled ‘oranges amères’ (bitter oranges). I bought some and made a few jars as an experiment. From that year onwards, my fate was sealed. I now make marmalade in my Paris studio every year, in two batches so that I will have a year’s supply for myself and a few jars to give to deserving friends in Paris and London who clamour for it. But when, one year, I offered to give one of them the recipe instead of the marmalade, he recoiled in horror.
It is in fact not difficult to make, even in a studio, but the process is time-consuming – and extremely rewarding, as you will get a result that cannot be bought. Seville oranges are only on sale for about three weeks from mid January to early February, in a few Paris greengrocers, so that making marmalade is a very seasonal ritual. Over time, in response to people’s requests, I have modified my grandmother’s version, which was a classic tawny orange containing chunky peel, to produce a more translucent golden jelly with thinner strips of peel suspended in it, but with the characteristically sharp fruity tang that comes from using the minimum quantities of sugar I can get away with. I have found that if I use less sugar than the quantities given here, the marmalade will not set. I have also experimented with quicker methods but have reluctantly concluded that there are no short cuts to getting the results I want.
Seville orange marmalade
Makes about ten 1lb/250g jars
The only essential equipment, apart from Seville oranges, lemons and sugar, is a very sharp knife, 2 pieces of cheesecloth or muslin and 2 large saucepans or casseroles with lids. I use the only deep casserole I possess, one medium sized saucepan and an old tea towel cut in half to improvise two bags for the pips. You will also need about 10 empty jam jars with lids. I usually end up with an assortment of sizes, hoarded or begged from friends in advance.
1 kilo/2 lb Seville oranges
2 kilos/4 lb granulated sugar
Scrub the fruit in cold water, removing the little stem button at the base of each orange. Cut the oranges up as finely as you can on a chopping board, reserving the pips. This is the most time-consuming part of the whole process, taking about an hour unless you have help, but essential if you want a beautiful translucent result. Put the shredded peel into two saucepans, along with the juice that will keep running out onto the board as you throw the pips into a bowl. Cut up the lemons last, distributing the peel between the two pans. Now divide the pips, tying them up into two pieces of material so that they can’t leak out. Bury one in the centre of each pan and fill to the top with cold water. Leave them to soak overnight.
The next day, bring the contents of each pan gently to the boil and then cover and simmer slowly until the peel is quite soft – about 1½ hours. The scent of simmering oranges permeating my studio is one of the reasons I make marmalade every year.
Lift out the bags of pips, squeezing their jelly-like pectin-rich liquid into the pans before discarding them, and turn up the heat until the marmalade is quietly bubbling. Cautiously pour in the sugar in a steady trickle. It should be evenly distributed between the two pans, with more in the bigger one if they are not the same size. Stir with a wooden spoon to prevent the sugar from catching and burning while you bring the pans to a fast boil. This is the trickiest part, as the weight of the sugar will bring the water perilously close to the top of the pans and as they get hotter the contents will start to splutter. Maintain a fast boil just below maximum heat, stirring fairly constantly until ‘setting point is reached’ as they say in recipe books. This is supposed to take about 20 minutes but I have found that it can take longer, up to 40 minutes, and occasionally an hour. If it is taking longer than 30 minutes, add the juice of half a lemon to each pan.
Keep testing by putting a teaspoonful on a saucer to cool. I put mine outside on the window sill. If it wrinkles when you blow on it, it is ready and you must switch off the heat immediately. These saucer-blowing moments are the most nerve-wracking but magical part of the whole process, as if you continue cooking after setting point the marmalade will burn and instantly turn brown, although it will still taste much better than any shop-bought marmalade. If you lose patience and decant it into jars before setting point is reached, you will find that it never sets at all. If this happens, you can rescue it by pouring it all back into the pans the next day, adding the juice of 2 lemons and boiling it for a little longer.
Once setting point is reached and you have switched off the heat, you can relax and enjoy the alchemist’s pleasure of ladling the marmalade into jars. Put a metal spoon or knife into each jar first, to prevent the glass from cracking. I use a mug to pour in the marmalade as I don’t have a ladle. Stir the jars once and leave them to cool for several hours, preferably overnight. I don’t find waxed circles or frilly paper covers necessary and just use the original lids. The marmalade will keep in the fridge for a year, although you are unlikely to find that it lasts that long.
The wild versus the tame: swimming in the Thames and the Seine during Covid-19
In recent years I have been dismayed to find what I think of as real swimming – in ponds, lakes, rivers and the sea – referred to as ‘wild swimming’. But on reflection perhaps it is a revealingly apt term. The opposite would be, after all, ‘tame swimming’ in chlorinated heated water in an indoor pool with artificial lighting. This is now the norm.
The tendency towards a tame risk-free existence has been exacerbated by the effects of Covid-19 and now seems irreversible. In our new virtual world, who would want to get their feet tired or dirty and experience the shock of icy water running between their toes?
Well, I take heart from the fact that an atavistic, almost anarchic tendency has also emerged from the pandemic: a longing for the real versus the artificial, for the wild versus the tame.
I spent the three months of lockdown with my family deep in the English countryside, with a few days in London towards the end of June and I’m now back in my Paris studio. My London and Paris friends all tell me how much they came to value their neighbours and their garden or balcony during confinement, how magical it was to live in a city without traffic or tourists, and to hear birdsong.
For me the stand-out experience of lockdown was the joy of discovering several bathing spots in the rural Thames, a mile away from our house in Oxfordshire. My favourite river beach was nearly always occupied by a few other people, but as a solitary swimmer in unfamiliar waters I found their presence reassuring. On my first visit I was slightly irritated by the music coming from a little group of adolescents but after a while they turned it off and surrendered to the warmth of the sun and the deep seductive peace of the river and the water meadows. I overheard one youth suddenly say to his mates as they prepared to cycle home, ‘It’s so beautiful here.’ It was.
In mid-June I spent four hours rambling with a friend on Hampstead Heath in north London. My favourite ‘wild swimming’ spot, the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond, was closed, but our wanderings took us to the Viaduct Pond, a stretch of water I had never seen before. The sight of such a peaceful place in a city of nearly nine million people just emerging from lockdown felt deeply reassuring. It was as if the water possessed magical healing properties.
When I returned to Paris a few days later, a heatwave struck and I spent as many hours as I could in my favourite spot by the Seine, overlooking the Left Bank. To my annoyance my privacy was invaded by two young men who took possession of the bench behind me. Then I saw that they were stripping off to reveal bathing trunks and sent them an amused glance. We started laughing and chatting and they offered me a beer.
They turned out to be Algerian, which might have explained their ignorance of the Seine’s reputation for pollution. But they said they didn’t care, they were so desperate to swim after three months of lockdown. In fact, because of the prolonged absence of river traffic the water was clear enough to reveal the stones on the riverbed for the first time. They gingerly picked their way over these and then launched themselves into a brief but joyous swim. Full of envious admiration, I gave them my paper handkerchiefs to dry off with.
On a sunny Friday evening in July I strolled with a friend along the Right Bank of the Seine which was packed with young people picnicking by the water’s edge. Near the Bastille we came across the unexpected sight of an older couple who had set up a table in a quiet spot overlooking the water, complete with a tablecloth, wineglasses and candles. They were clearly expecting company, as the table was laid for four. We could not imagine what the gendarmes, who were patrolling the riverbank and telling people off for bringing their own alcohol, would say to them when they got there, but I did not envy them that task.
What these experiences have highlighted for me is the importance of spontaneous social contact and of the natural world to people’s well-being. And especially the value of human contact IN the natural world.
The sudden spike in the demand for flats with gardens or balconies in both London and Paris reveals a heightened awareness of this fundamental need, exacerbated by confinement in the virtual world. It seems that ordinary people, as well as the environmentalists, are appreciating the healing power of an unpolluted natural world more than ever before. If, among other things, that will mean cleaner rivers in which to swim, Covid-19 will have had at least one beneficial effect.
Just a year after the fire that nearly destroyed Notre Dame, the cathedral is once again at the heart of a far bigger worldwide disaster. What can we learn about life after the Covid19 pandemic from the fire that almost destroyed it – but didn’t?
I live on the Ile St Louis, the little island connected by the Pont St Louis to the tip of the bigger Ile de la Cité on which Notre Dame is built. From this footbridge there is an excellent view of the Seine, dominated by the lovely apse of the cathedral. It is a favoured backdrop for films set in Paris, for wedding photographers and for tourists, with rival musicians and street performers often occupying both ends at weekends.
Of the four bridges connecting the Ile St Louis to the mainland, the Pont St Louis is the one closest to my studio, so I pass Notre Dame almost every day. In 28 years I think I have been inside the cathedral itself only four times. But every day I have leaned out from the seclusion of my top floor window to see the tip of its spire, which is at the same height. In fact, when I first moved there I actually thought the spire was a tv aerial, as the rest of the cathedral is completely hidden by houses. Once I realised what it was, it became a personal landmark.
At 7.15 pm on 15 April last year a neighbour phoned to tell me that Notre Dame was on fire. I didn’t believe her, but went to the window to check. I saw a poisonous yellow-grey pillar of smoke belching rapidly upwards into the blue sky of that spring evening, with the spire – my spire – briefly outlined by flames.
I gaped in disbelief and frantically took a series of photos. Then the spire was hidden by smoke and when the smoke cleared not long afterwards it had gone forever. I felt exactly as if I had lost a friend.
Over the next few days access to the Pont St Louis was barred. I asked the policeman on duty when it would re-open and then to my horror realised that I was about to cry. He said, ‘On a tous la même réaction’ and patted my arm. Two nights later I joined a crowd of silent Parisians on the Ile St Louis listening to a choir singing hymns opposite the burned out wreck. But at least the towers were still standing. Unsolicited, I made the largest donation I have ever made in my life to the fund set up to restore Notre Dame.
Although full access from the footbridge to the Ile de la Cité was only reopened in January 2020 and the damaged building itself was soon surrounded by a temporary perimeter wall, the crowds, if anything, were bigger than usual. People gazed in silence, and took pictures to reassure themselves that it was still there. I neither overheard nor exchanged any comments on the disaster with my neighbours, not even to talk about the dangers of lead poisoning. It seemed fatuous to comment on such a shocking and unexpected disaster which had touched people all over the world. Notre Dame looked very sad and sorry for itself, ‘as if it were wearing crutches and a mac’ according to my sister, to whom I sent this photograph
And now, almost exactly a year later, Notre Dame is once again surrounded by empty streets and at the heart of a much bigger worldwide disaster. It reopened briefly on Good Friday for a service in the burned-out nave, with just seven people allowed inside, to broadcast a worldwide Easter message of mourning, comfort and hope.
The global effect of the COVID 19 pandemic on daily life, especially in cities, is beyond anything we could have imagined. It is clear that when it is over nothing will ever be quite the same again.
But the story of the disaster which befell Notre Dame last year is also a story of human ingenuity, co-operation and resilience. By November everyone had got used to the scaffolding surrounding Notre Dame and the Pont St Louis was once again filled with people enjoying the view and the silver and gold Christmas lights strung in the trees overlooking the Seine (too subtle to be seen in this photograph unless you zoom)
By January 2020 the perimeter wall surrounding the cathedral had been cleverly used to display an exhibition of huge photographs showing the extent of the disaster and the scale of the restoration work, with explanatory text in French and English. The reopening of the cathedral is planned for 2024. Until the lockdown emptied the streets of Paris on 17 March, I saw passersby, both tourists and locals, slowing down to read it and I felt uplifted to think that Notre Dame will rise again.
What does a fondue restaurant by the River Oise have to do with the coronavirus pandemic? Nothing at all, and that is the point. I am currently in an Oxfordshire village in England, sitting out the lockdown at my sister’s house, having decided to leave my Paris studio just hours before the travel ban came into effect on 17 March. Like everyone else, I don’t know how long this will last. But even though no one can travel within France at the moment I’m posting this blog as a reminder of the good things in life Before Coronavirus and as an affirmation of their continuity After Coronavirus.
Back in February, while trying out a Sunday walk along the River Oise 30 km north west of Paris, not far from the village of Auvers sur Oise made famous by Van Gogh, I came across a modest little restaurant with a garden
The tables, gay with red and white checked tablecloths, were packed with local families, and when I went inside to ask for their card I noted that the house wine was half the price you’d pay in Paris and the place was pervaded with the delicious smell of melting cheese. They specialise in the Savoyard dishes of fondue and raclette. My friend and I didn’t stop but I made a mental note to go back and try it out. Soon after that we passed the Carrière à Pépin, a former limestone quarry
which displayed a photograph of several Parisian visitors posing outside it in 1902, including Claude Débussy and his wife.
I found out later that Eragny, like Auvers, had become quite popular with Parisians when the train line to Cergy made the villages along the Oise easily accessible. We continued along the river until we reached the bridge to Cergy Port, a modern but attractive little marina with several cafés, before taking the train back to Paris.
Several weeks later my family came to visit me for a few days in Paris. I booked the fondue restaurant on the Oise for Sunday lunch, feeling sure that it would be a success. But when I went to collect them I found my niece and two nephews, all in their twenties, looking very fragile. They had been out clubbing the night before, had got home at 3 am and were clearly suffering from hangovers as well as from lack of sleep. My sister and her husband had slept badly too, as their luxurious-looking bed was uncomfortable. It was raining again and the forecast for the day, which turned out to be accurate, was that the rain would be continuous.
I got them onto the RER train at St Michel and watched as the 30-minute train ride had its usual calming effect. My youngest nephew slept off his hangover while the rest of the family started to take an interest in the rural scenery opening up around us as we left Paris behind. But I didn’t have a clue about how to get to the river, as the station was one I had never been to. The millennials took over, whipping out their phones to locate us on Google, and we three elders trailed after them through a nondescript suburban landscape, washed by rain.
And then we found the path to the river. Abruptly the noise of traffic ceased and we heard birdsong. The family, who are used to birdsong, pricked up their ears. ‘It’s not the same’, they said, and ‘How loud they are!’ We concluded that some of the woodland birds might be different from the ones found in Oxfordshire, and for all I know this is true.
By the time we had walked the kilometre along the River Oise to the restaurant everyone’s mood had changed. We were all fascinated by the huge working barges silently sliding past us along the the grey river, through softly falling rain. My sister was intrigued by the grand nineteenth century houses with gardens sloping down to the towpath, probably second homes built by Parisian escapees. My brother-in-law stopped to read a notice giving the history of the restaurant and excitedly informed me that it was a former guinguette. These were modest riverside restaurants with a dance floor, patronised by working class Parisians spending their Sundays boating, walking or fishing, which reached the peak of their popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I was not surprised, as the busy friendly atmosphere of the restaurant was far removed from the ‘traditional’ half empty restaurant in Paris, also sporting red and white checked tablecloths, where we had been ripped off the night before.
We dripped inside, where a table for six had been laid near the window. Every other table was taken, full of multi-generational local families, so although we were the only foreigners we were not particularly conspicuous.
The rest of the afternoon was pure pleasure. The apéritif was a generous glass of rosé wine flavoured with griotte cherries, something none of us had tasted before, accompanied by little home-made canapés, and it was good. The bubbling fondue arrived, and it was very good. So was the house wine. The charcuterie tasted like charcuterie, not like something taken out of a packet. The salads were freshly made. My youngest nephew, in between appreciative mouthfuls of fondue, asked whose idea the restaurant had been. I modestly acknowledged that it was mine, to general approbation.
As we were nearing the end of the fondue the owner’s wife came over and showed me how to stir it properly to prevent it sticking. I explained that I had been doing that, but clearly not well enough. She smiled, so I volunteered the information that we had come from Paris by train just because I liked the look of the restaurant, and that we had not been disappointed.
‘You came from Paris by train in this weather!’
I explained that five of us had actually come over from England, let alone Paris. She went away, and a few minutes later her husband appeared and offered to drive us back to the station, as it was still raining. I was about to politely decline when I saw the family’s faces and realised that this was an offer not to be refused. Meanwhile my sister had noticed the old photos of the restaurant and of barges on the walls and asked the owner about them. His face lit up as he told her that several generations of his family, including his own, had made their living from the river.
His car held three of us and the remaining three elected to walk. Not for long, because he passed us trudging through the rain on his way back and offered to drive the second batch too. I hesitated for only a second this time and we were whisked away to join the others at the station, where our English voices elicited fascinated interest. Clearly, Eragny doesn’t get many international visitors, unlike Auvers or Barbizon, where you can sometimes feel that you are in an over-visited theme park.
Later my niece wrote to me that the high point of her Paris visit had been the trip to the fondue restaurant. As I think it was for all of us, even though we had abandoned the planned walk by the river. The short stretch we had walked in the rain to a genuinely local restaurant had been all that was needed to transport us to a different time and a different world and the whole family had appreciated the experience.
Now that all six of us are likely to be sitting out the coronavirus pandemic in isolation together for an indefinite period, that happy memory will be even more precious.
Below are details of the walk for when better times return.
Savoyard restaurant on the Oise: www.o-chalet.fr, tel 01 34 66 02 51, open noon-2.30 pm Wednesday-Sunday, except August.
Nearest stations, around 1 km from the restaurant: Neuville Université RER A, every 20 minutes or less, taking 30 minutes from Châtelet-Les Halles or Eragny Neuville SNCF, every 30 minutes, taking 35 minutes from Gare St Lazare.
The recommended walk is 2.5 km along the river from the SNCF station St Ouen l’Aumône Quartier de l’Eglise (38 minutes from Gare St Lazare) to the restaurant. It’s worth visiting the 12th century church when you arrive. After lunch at the restaurant (booking essential) you could return via either of the above two stations or continue for another 5 km. Follow the river and cross the bridge over to Cergy Port to reach the RER A station at Cergy Préfecture, from where it is 37 minutes to Châtelet-Les Halles.