Please enjoy my Travel books – LINK TO YOUR COUNTRY : https://bit.ly/bookneal
This chapter is from my book A DREAM OF PARIS available on Amazon
At the outset I have to make it clear that some of my best friends are American, as indeed are a good number of my wife Niamh’s extended family – the Irish get everywhere. However it seems to me that even you adventurous American tourists are complaining about the number of your compatriots that populate Rue Cler in the 7th Arrondissement, a now famous street within sight of the Eiffel Tower. It is as so many of you point out – the Rick Steeves effect. So is it worth going to this area of Paris or is it devoid of a true Parisian experience?
I have to say that I like Rue Cler even though it has something of an ‘American in Paris’ theme about it. If that comes across too strongly for you then be assured there is life beyond Rue Cler in this fascinating arrondissement. I hope you don’t mind but this part of the book will veer towards reading a little more like a guide book but I think this area of Paris repays a little more exploration than seems to be given to it by many visitors. Anyway, dining especially is a serious business in Paris. Like anywhere that is popular with tourists Paris will always have areas that certain groups will congregate in. Montmartre may be an area where more English tourists will find accommodation. You may find that the Japanese will gather more centrally in Paris. It has to be said that Rue Cler is most certainly an American enclave just as Lourmarin in Provence is a place they love and gather. The English in Provence will head for Menerbes, the village that Peter Mayle called home in ‘A Year in Provence’. On Rue Cler you have two cafés in particular that have become American clubs in reality – Café Du Marche and Le Central. It is true that some restaurants on Rue Cler have dumbed down their menus and are providing very standard unambitious fare, photos provided for the timid visitor. The waiter you will see is languidly placing the change on the table, his eyes looking elsewhere for another victim, daring the diners to pick up the change but also making it clear that the coins should be added to, making a larger tip before leaving. There are however places to eat even on Rue Cler that can be very satisfying and authentic.
Le Roussillon is one such establishment situated at the corner of Rue Cler and Rue Grenelle and is a bistro where we enjoyed a most enjoyable lunch with attentive service. Where Rue Cler scores highly is that away from the congregated throngs around Café Du Marche there are so many authentic Parisian shops. Wine and cheese stores, vegetable and grocers shops, butchers and delicatessens and of course the regular street markets. You will really get much more out of this area however if you look beyond Rue Cler and these are a few places we have found and enjoyed over the years in this popular neighbourhood of Paris. The very first time we stayed in this arrondissement the hotel we chose was located just behind Rue Cler on Rue Valadon at what is now Hotel Valadon Colors. It has been completely refurbished from the time of our stay and has changed in its character but is still rated very highly. Rue Valadon is a quiet street, a virtual cul-de-sac, so is an excellent choice for the area. When we stayed we had a room with an Eiffel Tower view so it is certainly a place to consider. Just at the top of the street around the corner is a most wonderful cheese store and even if you do not go inside you will find the shop window itself is worth a few moments of your time.
My interests in any arrondissement in Paris are always connected to food, finding a fine restaurant in Paris is one of the utmost joys in life. Also you may have gathered I have a great love of history and that is well catered for in this area. Recently we made what can be viewed as a slight mistake in visiting Paris in August, the very time that most Parisians leave Paris and that includes many waiters and restaurateurs. We were very limited in our dining choices and did not really want to eat at the popular spots on Rue Cler. We were staying just around the corner from Rue Cler at the Hotel de la Motte Picquet and the clue to its address is in the name. This is a lovely unpretentious three star hotel that gives excellent friendly service, clean rooms and welcoming public areas with interesting views on to the lively Avenue de la Motte Picquet. It does not however have a restaurant so it is always a case of dining out for the evening. We passed the boisterous tables and bars of the upper end of Rue Cler, giving thanks that we were not eating there. There was the thought that there appeared to be little else on offer –‘les vacances d’été’ were in full swing and the closed signs were out in profusion.
Farther along Rue Cler we reached Rue de Grenelle and going to the left you come to number 167 where there is a small Italian restaurant called Le Den. It was open and it had three tables out in the street and on a balmy evening this seemed like an oasis in a dining dessert. This super little restaurant also seems to double as a deli. It serves wonderful Italian food including pizza of course, food made with fresh seasonal ingredients. It was in total contrast to the mainly conveyer belt tourist food just round the corner on Rue Cler. We were given lovely service from the young ladies who coped smilingly as extra tables were spread out along the street to accommodate all the diners that kept on coming. You did feel a little like you were an advertisement for the restaurant as people stopped to look and admire the dishes on the tables. The raviolo especially was wonderful and I would also encourage you to try the risotto. The panna cotta was definitely the dessert to go for and the house wines are a cut above the standard you may have expected. This was a very popular place and will be more so if they get the name confusion sorted out on the awnings and shop front. I am not quite sure where Le Den comes from as a name but if you are searching for it that is the name to enter in Google. So it is a case of going early or making a reservation. We ended up on our three night trip dining here every evening and we don’t usually do that on our travels. Yes I would have to make the point that it is on a fairly busy street but it still has a great ambiance especially as the light fades and you feel that you are in an authentic Parisian neighbourhood. We found this to be a hidden gem of a restaurant in this touristy part of Paris. You can also book on Le Fork which is always a bonus.
If, unlike ourselves, you are sensible enough not to visit Paris in August when the heat is humid and sensible Parisians have abandoned the city, then you have some exceptional choices of eating venues. There are two in particular that are the epitome of classic French restaurants, in different ways as perfect a Parisian dining experience as you will find. They are also very close to one another just a short stroll from Rue Cler across Avenue Bosquet. The first one is the most charming (and petite) restaurant Le P’Tit Troquet at 28 Rue de l’Exposition, a quiet virtually car free cul-de-sac of a street. Think of going to someone’s home for a meal, a table spread modestly but attractively and you are the special guest to be fussed over and pampered. This is Le P’Tit Troquet. On the occasion we dined there we went with two friends who trusted me that I would make a memorable choice for them and they were not disappointed. We walked into the small dining space set out with a few tables, a scene that seemed to be out of a French movie, so intimate and welcoming. The first and obvious impression we gained was that all the tables were occupied and as I had booked in advance this was a little disconcerting. The lady in charge of front of house (and it is a very small house) came over offering us a large beaming smile of welcome and led us through the tables to an even smaller room at the back of the restaurant. This room had only four small tables which were all beautifully prepared. This was exactly like someone’s dining room at home and the feeling that you were a welcomed guest was enhanced every time you had an interaction with the lady or the waiting staff – a special place indeed. The menu is classic French cuisine, beef bourguignon served temptingly en cassolette, steak, duck, monkfish, sea bass and vegetarian options. The desserts are classics with a twist, Rum baba, chocolate mi-cuit and a Crème Brulee which does not have a twist – pure classic French. The wine is expertly chosen and complimentary to the meal. The room feels as if it is unchanged from seventy years ago. A room that could double as a film set from the war years and just after. Probably in those days totally smoke filled and each table occupied with romantically involved couples. It is a quite captivating ambiance and one exploited to the full in this intoxicating restaurant by the welcoming owners. Not to mention a chef with a repertoire steeped in the fine culinary history of France and Paris. He is a craftsman producing dishes that are firmly in context with the restaurant and the atmosphere of this super little establishment. As we left that evening, my companions found it very difficult to find words that fully expressed the experience they had just savoured. We noticed for the first time a small galley type kitchen to the left – I do mean small. There was the chef and one assistant who incredibly produced this classic French feast in such a tiny space. He smiled as we peered inside, confident that all was well with the dishes he had sent out to our table. He was totally justified in that confidence as we bid him good night and stuttered our grateful thanks.
Classic but on a slightly different scale and setting is the popular La Fontaine de Mars just at the end of the same street at 129 Rue Sainte Dominique. This restaurant has entertained presidents and celebrities but is not in the least pretentious. Again the classic French theme is portrayed by the red checked tablecloths and the wood panelling around the bar and inside the restaurant. It is a restaurant that in summer becomes open plan and spills tables out onto the street. The service is warm and friendly but it is very Parisian and just as you would expect in such a restaurant very rooted in its tradition. The menu is not experimental, just straight out of the French cookery school manual. Steak of course, duck confit, coq au vin, blanquette de veau, Burgundian snails, sole meuniere, foie gras if you wish and desserts following the same tried and tested traditions. All accompanied by wine by the glass and all the traditional aperitifs and digestifs on offer. It is relatively expensive but not overwhelmingly so. If you wish the wine list does stretch to some eye watering levels and if Chateau Petrus is your desire then you will find it here at a price. On the night we dined there I had the special on the menu which was a gorgeous fresh loin of cod with a perfect aioli sauce and simply cooked turned potatoes. To follow it was that most perfect of French desserts – Iles flottantes ‘Fontaines de Mars’ and very fine it was. Eating on a table outside and virtually on the street is not without its challenges though. On the night we were there the restaurant and surroundings were ‘entertained’ for a while by a fairly inebriated beggar who was making a nuisance of himself by going back and forth along the street hoping for a few coins to be tossed in his direction. He wasn’t aggressive but a bit loud at times and lacking in tunefulness and not really helping any romantic atmosphere that some were certainly hoping for. It all ended by the loud sirens of a police van that screeched to a halt and instantly ‘scooped’ him up into custody. At last peace reigned but as with any city Paris sadly does have its darker side and there are many unfortunate people that do not have the luxury of dining in the way we have been able to do this evening. The whole episode was a little comedic in how it was enacted and unfolded but still left you dismayed and sad that in our society there are ones reduced to this state. From a historical or architectural standpoint you cannot avoid the fact that this area is totally dominated by one structure and that is the large tower at the end of the Champs de Mars.
Once you are at the tower and you have taken all the photos from every angle and perhaps gone across to the Trocadero and taken the shot from the vantage point of the Palais de Chaillot, a view that I feel gives the most dramatic -aew of the tower as you look through it down to the Ecole Militaire and Les Invalides then take a moment to find some more recent history. A pause for thought and reflection. If you go to Bir Hakeim Metro station which is to the right of the tower looking from the Trocadero you will find a monument to a tragic time in French history – a memorial that was only erected fairly recently. It is a statue to commemorate the appalling events of July 16/17 1942 – the “Vel d’Hiv” raid – the roundup of over 8000 Jews (Rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv) to the Vélodrome d’Hiver that stood near to this spot. The tragedy was compounded by the fact that this crime against humanity was carried out mainly by the French police and not the Germans. This was only recently fully acknowledged to be the case and remains deeply controversial in France. In slight mitigation it was also clear that a few brave police did try to give an advance warning about the action and some also allowed a very small number to make their escape from the Vélodrome but the stain on French history remains. I always find these places in Paris very poignant and I make no excuse to returning to this theme throughout my writings about Paris. I feel that you can only understand this amazing city by taking time to reflect on its past and the recent history of Paris in particular. Take a reflective moment to make that connection and remember these people and events.
The natural progression from here is back to the tower and to walk up the Champs de Mars to the Hotel des Invalides and Napoleon’s tomb. France of course still reveres Napoleon (strangely enough he inspires a good deal of respect in England) and he possibly alongside De Gaulle is the most dominant figure in French history. Of course if you are reading this sat in the sunshine and holding a glass of Dom Perignon you may want to make a case for him as well. And then there is Joan of Arc ……. Anyway back to Napoleon. Or rather another event that Les Invalides is notoriously famous for and that is the trial of Alfred Dreyfus. This Jewish army officer was erroneously and wilfully convicted of espionage and treason – another event that although occurring over 120 years ago has not disappeared from French consciousness. Admittance to Les Invalides is free of charge although you have to pay extra for viewing Napoleon’s tomb and the main area around that. Entering from the gardens on the Rue de Grenelle you make your way into the main courtyard. This is the area where Alfred Dreyfus was humiliated in front of his peers by having his sword ceremonially broken. He was then dishonourably discharged from the army prior to his barbaric incarceration in exile before being ultimately exonerated and released some years later. The British TV personality Davina McCall was featured in a ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ episode relating that she had a family connection to one of the men who fought and ultimately succeeded in proving his innocence. If you can find it online or procure a copy it is a fascinating insight into one of the most controversial events in relatively recent French history. In any case take a moment to visualize the scene in that parade ground and reflect on an innocent man in this standout case of deliberate miscarriage of justice. Around the courtyard you will see lines of heavy cannon. It is quite a display and they date back over some 300 years or so. I can set you a small challenge. Walk around the perimeter and look at each cannon and somewhere you will find that one of them has a spelling mistake in the casting. When you find it just spare a thought for the man who cast that vast lump of iron, hoping that it just resulted in a fleeting embarrassment for him rather than him being sent into exile or worse. Unfortunately it was not too fleeting as we can still clearly see it today. At the far end of the courtyard you will find a small church or chapel. Again up to this point it is free admission. If you go inside this building you can at the far end get a sense of how Napoleon’s tomb is laid out and it gives quite a dramatic effect without actually having to go inside the tomb area itself. When you leave Les Invalides by the same route you may wish to go to the right and then right again alongside the buildings and here you will find the Rodin museum which also includes sculptures in the garden area. This is a place that is often missed by the casual tourist but Rodin is very important to the French in art history . It is worth a look if you have any interest in French art and culture. I always smile at the mention of Rodin because of that amusing scene in ‘Midnight in Paris’ where Gil argues a point about Rodin in favour of the tour guide (Carla Bruni) over the pompous Paul played by Michael Sheen.
Perhaps I can now take you back to Rue Cler via Avenue de la Motte Picquet and return to my theme of the time of the occupation of Paris. Before heading to your hotel and getting ready for a fine meal in this endlessly fascinating and rewarding arrondissement just stand and reflect in front of the Elementary School on the Rue Cler side of the road. Pause and read (in French) the black plaque on the school wall. Like most of the schools in France some young pupils were forcibly taken from this school never to return, part of the over eleven thousand children that were taken from throughout France. There is no shame in shedding a tear and you will no doubt leave the scene as you return to your hotel with a deeper relationship and understanding of Paris.
Taken from my book ‘A DREAM OF PARIS’ available on Amazon