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Guinguettes and their history
If your idea of paradise is a French 1950s timewarp. guinguettes (pronounced “gang-ETTE”) are named after the wine of the Paris region which was produced in the 19th century and was cheaper if consumed outside the city limits, avoiding the tax on incoming merchandise. The origin of the word is debatable but the most likely explanation is that the wine made people giguet, ready to dance a jig.
Usually open-air riverside restaurants with a dance floor, guinguettes sprang up to cater for the urban working poor who wanted to relax on a Sunday in a pastoral setting. In their heyday, from about 1850 to 1950, scores of them were to be found along the banks of the Seine and especially the Marne outside Paris, offering the simple pleasures of eating, drinking and dancing at affordable prices.
Only too predictably, few guinguettes survived the impact of television and by the 1960s so many of them had closed down that it looked as if they would totally disappear. But since the mid-1990s there has been an unexpected revival of this most Parisian of popular traditions, with new guinguettes catering to a younger, more middle-class clientele opening up and the older ones successfully adapting to include salsa, rock and reggae influences as well as the traditional waltzes to accordion music.
Guinguette Auvergnate, a day on the Seine shore without the Paris crowds
The Guinguette Auvergnate is a flourishing part of this revival but is less well known to Parisians than the guinguettes on the Marne.
I discovered the Guinguette Auvergnate by accident. I live on the Île St Louis in the heart of Paris, and the thought of all the crowds about to descend on the riverside quais on the first really warm Sunday of spring prompted me to head for the river, too, but in the opposite direction. Equipped with a local bus map, I took a train from St Michel and got off 20 minutes later at the suburban station of Choisy-le-Roi. I crossed the bridge over the Seine, went down the steps to the towpath on my right and set out to explore what I calculated would be an uncrowded stretch of the river.
The walk was everything I had hoped it would be. The paved path past the 19th-century workers’ cottages by the water’s edge soon became a grassy footpath, winding past scores of tiny pebbly beaches overhung by trees. I passed only a few fishermen and strollers and saw the first violets of the year and a pair of swans. Every so often, a huge working barge would slide silently by. A happy hour later, just as I was congratulating myself on my cleverness, the footpath came to an abrupt end.
There was nothing for it but to turn onto the road which paralleled the river, back to civilisation. About 50 yards further on I saw a modest-looking café, promptly went inside, ordered a coffee at the bar and asked to be shown where I was on the map. I discovered that I had walked off its edge. By turning right at the bridge in Choisy I had walked 3.5 km away from Paris, instead of toward it as I had intended.
It was only when I had settled the source of the error to my satisfaction that I began to notice what an unusual establishment I had strayed into. It was half past three in the afternoon. Behind me, at what was clearly the patron’s table, sat several large elderly men in their shirtsleeves, comfortably installed in front of a litter of uncleared plates. The window behind them looked out onto the river.
Off to their right, I glimpsed a darker interior, apparently packed with people, because the girls behind the bar never stopped running backwards and forwards, ferrying wine and coffee to the tables inside. It felt exactly like having stepped onto a boat, a quietly-buzzing, happy, laid-back sort of boat.
Meanwhile, the patron was having a quiet bet with his friends as to whether I was English or American. Calling over one of the busy girls, he told her to show me the terrasse. Terrasse?
Slightly bemused, I let her lead me through the dim boat-like interior, packed with couples and families, who were being brought trays of dice for what looked like backgammon, as a kind of fourth course to round off a leisurely Sunday lunch. A burst of accordion music came through the folding doors at the end, where what appeared to be a private family party was in full swing. The remains of a huge cake reposed on an elaborately decorated trolley, surrounded by an impressive number of empty Champagne glasses. Grandparents, parents, cousins and friends gossiped at the tables, while children ran from one group to another and the younger and not-so-young couples had already started dancing. It looked like something out of a Renoir painting.
People nodded and smiled at me as I and my guide wove around them to get through another door and out into brilliant sunlight, where a spiral iron staircase led up to what was indeed a terrace above the restaurant, with a magnificent view over the Seine. On my return, I complimented the patron, still enthroned at his table, on his establishment. “Ici, c’est un petit coin du Paradis,” came the reply. Pause, swelling of stomach. “Et moi, je m’appelle Dieu.” (‘This is a little corner of Paradise. And I’m called God.”) He then let me into the secret of the bet and was delighted to have won it.
Before leaving, I asked where the nearest train station was, to be greeted by an outburst of hearty laughter. The guinguette is almost opposite a station I hadn’t noticed called Villeneuve Triage, a 10-minute ride from Paris.
Guinguettes today: traditional dining, dancing and music
The Guinguette Auvergnate menu offers traditional family dishes, varying with the season, which is rare in the Paris region. I have tried the saucisse d’Auvergne Aligot (Auvergne mountain sausage with a purée of potatoes, cheese and garlic) and the souris d’agneau au thym (roast knuckle of lamb with thyme) and they were excellent values. It is worth asking for the kir Birlou, an aperitif made with white wine delicately flavoured with a mixture of apple and chestnut, an Auvergnat speciality that avoids the over-sweetness of most kirs.
You eat at tables alongside geranium-framed windows overlooking the Seine, in the convivial family atmosphere that is part of the esprit guinguette. Don’t forget to nod and smile at fellow diners, murmuring “Bonjour/Au revoir, messieurs et dames” as you arrive or leave.
If you are keen on dancing, the newer Guinguette de l’île du Martin-Pêcheur (Kingfisher Island) on the Marne attracts a younger crowd.
Sunday lunchtime is the best time to go to a guinguette. For more about guinguettes visit culture-guinguette.com.
Guinguette Auvergnate (16 km south east of Paris)
19, avenue de Choisy, 94190 Villeneuve St Georges Triage
Tél: 01 43 89 04 64
Rail: RER D trains from Paris Gare de Lyon to Melun or Malesherbes stopping at Villeneuve Triage, approx every 15 minutes.
Île du Martin-Pêcheur
41, Quai Victor Hugo, 94500 Champigny-sur-Marne
Tél: 01 49 83 03 02
© Annabel Simms 2011
PHOTO CREDITS: large photo of Guinguette Auvergnate & accordion player are publicity photos; other photos by @Annabel Simms.
Annabel Simms is a Paris resident and author of An Hour From Paris, an excellent guide to sites easily reached by public transit from Paris and which you can order below. Please click on her name to learn more about Annabel and her next book.