Flâneries in Paris: Gaiety on the Boulevard Edgar Quinet
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This is the 14th in a series of walking tours highlighting the sites and stories of diverse districts of Paris.
At the top of the stairs of the Edgar Quinet metro station in the 14th arrondissement, I found a bustling market, some cheerfully busy pavement cafés along the Boulevard Edgar Quinet and four enticing little side roads splaying out and beckoning to be explored. Over it all, at the near end of the Boulevard, loomed the Montparnasse Tower.
The market was a delight. Down the center of the boulevard were two rows of stalls, several dozen in total, full of glorious produce from field and ocean. Had everyone in le quartier come shopping? It seemed so. One of the new-to-me cheeses was Sainte Maure-de-Tourain, a sausage-shaped goat’s cheese encased in a black rind. I asked the stall-holder whether you can eat the rind and his prompt “Ba, Oui, Madame,” delivered as he spread both hands out sideways in incredulity, made it very clear that only a foreigner would need to ask. The nearby fish counter spilled over with glistening offerings: pinky-silver squid, the splendidly named daurade royale (sea bream), scallops, huge pink prawns. One stall sold only olives, set out like samples on the green-to-black section of a paint chart.
The food market is open on two mornings a week – Wednesday and Saturday – and it would take months to work through the different take-away options. Wandering down the market, I was tempted by the salade de légumes grillés, a colorful mix of grilled peppers, aubergine and artichoke, but there was also Paëlla Royale, topped off with enormous prawns, and further down, an array of little dishes of hot food: blanquette de veau, boeuf bourguignon and a mushroom dish labelled champignons à la grecque. This is food paradise, I thought, but you can’t have lunch at 11 A.M. Onward!
Rue d’Odessa looked enticing, its entrance flanked by two pretty cafés. On the left, orange flowers and fairy lights cascaded down from the balcony of the Café Odessa, where pretty brass pots on every table were filled with more flowers. Menu items were scribbled in gold all over the windows – digestifs, softs, spiritueux, cocktails premium, bières pression – and so were encouragements to pop in for tea-time or (Sundays only) brunch.
The Café de la Place, just opposite, had also dressed to impress. Balcony cascades of foliage and little white flowers, green and cream striped awnings and table umbrellas, natty cane chairs with a dark green trim. I poked my head down Rue d’Odessa just far enough to note that the businesses there have a Breton flavor, the Hotel Celtic and a trio of crêperies with names like Le Petit Morbihan.
In the next road along, the Rue du Montparnasse, were lots more crêperies, further evidence that some of the many Bretons who arrived in Paris 100 ago or more, settled around the Gare Montparnasse where their train pulled into the capital. Perhaps the Quiberon, Plougastel and Port Manech restaurants were named by their original owners who had just left those exact spots in Brittany? Whether I fancied a classique (pancake with cheese, or ham or egg), a complète (all of those) or something fancier, perhaps a Provençale, with ratatouille, or a Savoie speciality with potatoes, bacon and reblochon cheese, it seemed anything was possible. Sweet pancakes, ice cream pancakes, flambée pancakes, the risk was that this walk would never get going.
Onward, then, to Rue Delambre, the next road off the Boulevard Edgar Quinet. Right on the corner was a wine shop, Le Rouge et le Blanc, whose window display and well-stocked cabinets impressed me even though I had been in Bordeaux the month before. I noticed they’ve been publishing their own magazine since 1983. So, that was another place to pop back to when I’m not trying to have a walk! A little way down the right-hand side, I found an imposing courtyard with a French flag flying, the Villa Modigliani, the most splendid building in the whole street: four balconied floors above the ground floor shops, then a grand fifth storey with a building-wide wrought-iron balcony, and finally a top floor with pretty casement windows, each set in their own alcove. Just charming. Beyond its name, the hotel has another artist connection: it boasts a permanent display of works by artist Piotr Klemensiewicz.
At the end of the road, towards the Boulevard Montparnasse, I came, unexpectedly, to the side of Le Dôme, the famous restaurant. First came the fish shop linked to the restaurant, signaling its presence with huge tiled mosaics of lobsters and a quite terrifying baudroie, an anglerfish with a large flat head and a menacing smile. Next door was the side of the restaurant itself. The wide windows of Art Deco stained glass were stylish, but also useful, as they stopped people like me peering in to disturb the diners. A menu at the entrance round the corner offered a classy, two-course Menu Ernest. Hemingway is so connected to the area that he goes by his Christian name. Both this and the Villa Modigliani were reminders that I was treading the same streets as the writers and artists of the Belle Époque and the 1920s.
Tempting as it was to linger, I still had the Rue de la Gaïté to explore. Who could resist finding out what such a cheerfully named street had to offer? The answer, I soon discovered, included four little theaters. Yes, four! The Rive Gauche was showing a piece on young women working in a 1920s armaments factory, billed as depicting “the birth of feminism,” and at Le Petit Montparnasse, a poster of a winking woman illustrating a play called The Diva’s Couch, promised lighter fare. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was advertised at the Théâtre de la Gaïeté Montparnasse. Reading around later, I found references to this road as the “most sparkling street in Paris,” citing as evidence its sexshops et restaurants branchés. And yes, the atmosphere was exactly that, bustling, a sprinkling of gaïeté, and quite a few trendy-looking restaurants.
The Comédie Italienne stood out. Its sky-blue façade, prettily adorned with gold decorations, was covered in protest posters. The authorities have decided the theater’s upper floors should be repainted to be more in keeping with the rest of the street. The theater director, Attilio Maggiuilli, has launched a petition, complaining this would make it look like “a vulgar pizzeria.” A placard on the wall screamed out that “Hidalgo” (ie Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris) “is destroying the theater” and a poster advertised a play written by Mr Maggiulli himself, called La Diva Hidalgo in which I assume he pulls no punches. For the record, I’m with him, as I thought the theater, which I have seen described as one of the plus belles façades in all of Paris, was utterly charming, a jaunty enhancement to the rest of the street.
This little corner of Paris is perfect for a wander. Exploring just a few minutes down each of the side streets leading away from the Edgar Quinet metro station, I had found the stylish and the saucy, the everyday and the Belle Époque, all jumbled together. I was already planning my next visit, to come back on a Sunday, browse the art market which replaces the food stalls that day, maybe go up the Tour Montparnasse for a panoramic view of the city and work my way through a few more of those tempting food options.
Lead photo credit : Ail rose (pink garlic) at the Edgar Quinet market. Photo credit: Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble/ Flickr
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