In Paris this summer my family rented an apartment in Montmartre, near the Métro stop Abbesses. The first photo shows the entrance to the station, one of two remaining original Art Nouveau stations in Paris. Leave it to the French to make a thing of beauty out of something that could be simply utilitarian. Abbesses is also known for being the station with the most steps to the platforms, 285. Most people only take the stairs going down.
The Place des Abbesses is located in the 18th arrondisement, at the base of the butte topped by the more touristed part of Montmartre, the Place du Tertre and the magnificent Sacre Coeur.
Montmartre was originally a vineyard, but better known for the many famous artists who loved this arrondisement for its light and life. No less than Picasso, Dali, Van Gogh, Renoir, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Modigliani and Degas called Montmartre home. These days, you’ll still find the remains of a few of the area’s windmills, but in place of of those well known artists the Place du Tertre is crowded with unknown (at least for now) portraitists and caricaturists ready to capture your image in just minutes. Our neighborhood, just off the Place des Abbesses, has not traditionally been considered a tourist destination, at least not in comparison to either the Place du Tertre or the neighborhood it borders at the other end, garish Pigalle (famous for Le Moulin Rouge).
Things are changing now. Abbesses is becoming a trendy neighborhood, home to young artists and families with an eye for design. It’s considered “bobo,” the French nickname for “bourgeois bohemian,” which in America I guess we’d call a hipster. During the fortnight we stayed there, T, the New York Times Style magazine, ran a story on the many vintage clothing shops (in French,“friperies” (secondhand clothing shops) and “depôts-ventes” (consignment shops)) running the length of the Rue des Martyrs. I haven’t been all that interested in vintage since I was a college student, but French vintage– that has un petit plus d’allure.
But the most wonderful surprise was that our neighborhood is also a gourmet utopia. Down the block from the friperies on the Rue des Martyrs and along the Rue Abbesses are dozens of patisseries, charcuteries, boulangeries, and stalls of too perfectly arranged fruits and vegetables. I could have stayed within a 5 street radius and happily spent my entire two weeks in Paris.
Gontran Cherrier, Paris’s breadmaking It-Boy
Even closer, three of the most recent “Best Baguette in Paris” (Le Grand Prix de la Baguette de Tradition Française de la Ville de Paris) award winners were steps away from our apartment. In case you are not familiar with this competition, it’s held annually and is not only a great honor, but the winner gets to supply the Président with baguettes for an entire year. We tried them all (not out of disloyalty but because when the closest, 2011′s winner, Au Levain d’Antan, closed abruptly for its annual congé, we had no choice but to find another). Our favorite was 2010′s winner, Le Grenier du Pain. The simple 1 Euro baguette had a thin and crisp crust yielding to a toothsome and yet still moist interior, light enough to make a sandwich that is easy to wrap your mouth around. Our family went through at least a baguette a day– with butter and jam or chestnut paste for breakfast, and later for sandwiches or impromptu picnics with camembert, paté, jambon and fruit.
I miss those baguettes. San Francisco is rightfully well known for its bread, most famously for the sourdough, and I am grateful to have easy access to Acme and Tartine bread. But– as even my 9 year old daughter will attest– none of the “baguettes” we have had since returning home comes close to even the simplest, non-award-winning baguettes in Paris. ”That’s not a baguette, that’s baguette-shaped bread, ” we sigh. We’ll adjust. Yes, we understand that there is more to Paris and to life than a perfect baguette. Our longing for baguettes is just a symbol and a symptom of what we miss of Paris.
What captured our hearts– baguettes, gourmet shops, the beautiful, chic and stylish– all of these simple pleasures in our little neighborhood captured the best of the Parisian lifestyle. Perhaps it’s because of the enduring influence of the great artists who captured the beauty of the people and buildings of this arrondisement, whose spirits surely haunt these winding and hilly streets. If you pause long enough to listen past the noise of the tourist masses and look beyond the glare of the endless souvenir shops, you can imagine yourself back in those golden days, when art and ideas, not commerce, reigned supreme. And from the Sacre Coeur, you can see the Eiffel Tower sparkle.
This is part of a series on the French-themed trip I took this summer, which included two weeks in Paris. In my first post, I fill you in on how I became such a Francophile. Read also about a Parisian food tour inspired by David Lebovitz and his recipe for pain d’épices au chocolat.
Thanks for reading and please check back in, there’s a lot more to come!
-Linda, Beautiful, Memorable Food
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