Paris’ Most Romantic Districts – Exploring Marais and Montmartre
Before we do anything or go anywhere, we have words of advice: don’t touch the Chitterling sausage. Don’t look at the Chitterling sausage. Don’t order the Chitterling sausage from the menu. Just. Don’t. We’ll tell you more about it soon, because, frankly, it requires its own explanation.
In the meantime, let’s get into a Parisian frame of mind by saying why, this time around, we’re not going to bother trekking to the Eiffel Tower or waiting in line at the Louvre.
We’re not bothering because experience tells us that cities are more than tourist attractions to tick off on a list. Cities are made liveable and breathable not only by residents and those passing through but also by their physical structures, and if there are any more beautiful parts of a European city than Marais and Montmarte then we have yet to see them.
We begin in Café Rey, which is very close to the Bastille monument, and where we have breakfast two days on the trot as well as a night-time beer (or two).
It’s different strokes for different folks, of course, but whenever I’m in a city for a few days I like to have a trusted café to settle into for about an hour at a time – to become even vaguely familiar with faces makes it feel as if I’m in some small way a ‘local’ (ridiculous, I know, but there you have it).
Besides, breakfast here is great. For a measly €7.50, we have coffee, a bottle of orange juice, fresh croissants, crunchy bread roll and preserves. Such a start to the day makes it easier to walk through the Sunday morning market at Bastille on the way to the picturesque Marais neighbourhood.
We have strolled through Marais before, during much warmer weather, so while we have our bearings we know the cold and sleety rain will impact on leisure time.
Around the Place des Vosges – its 17th and 18th-century mansions now used as luxurious museum and art gallery spaces – there are veins of streets leading to some of the best cafés and restaurants in the city.
We saunter around, looking specifically for Café Breizh, which is so successful from its origins in Cancale, Brittany, that it has ‘branches’ in Tokyo as well as another space in the city. In fact, it’s so popular that we queue for about 20 minutes to get in. Glad to say, the wait is worth it.
A heavy curtain at the door shields the interior from the wind, and the pale wood decor is welcoming – this is not your typically ‘old’ Parisian café, but rather a modern, bright culinary diversion.
Its winning USP is a mix of over a dozen artisanal ciders, and a broad range of organic-filled buckwheat galettes (essentially, savoury crepes). Crisp at the edges, moist with food and textures towards the centre, our Chevre-feuille and Campagnarde galettes hit the spot.
The café is full, the room is warm, the noise level is modest, and outside we can see the queues lengthen. We share a cider, mop up the tasty scraps, and head out into the rain again.
We choose not to have coffee and/or dessert at Café Breizh, and instead make our way to L’Etoile Manquante . On first glance this café/bar (English translation – The Missing Star) doesn’t look like one of Marais’ most hip and artsy, but when you settledown for coffee/dessert that vibe increases as you look at walls adorned with intriguing art works.
As an afternoon haunt it works a treat, and while we reckon it could swing like a groovy pendulum come midnight, unfortunately we have somewhere else to go for dinner.
Actually, there’s nothing unfortunate about it – say hello to Café Armagnac, a charmer of a café straight out of fin de siècle Paris. We discover all too soon, however, that the surroundings are better than the food.
The starter of Triangles de Camembert is similar to eating warm glue; the main of Grillade de Magret de Canard (grilled duck breast) is nowhere near as crisp as it should be, and the accompanying potato squares are not so much deep-fried as depth-charged.
This said, the atmosphere of the café is so gorgeous (and none more French than when Bonnie and Clyde, by Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot, pops out of the quiet sound system) that we have another glass of vino and say nothing.
Just like the wine we are drinking, we are chilling in Paris, and tomorrow is another day. More food, and another mooch around another favourite district: Montmartre.
A village within a city – and once home to artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso and Van Gogh – Montmarte has too many trinket stalls and portrait sketchers/caricaturists (some of whom are superb, let it be said), and at night in certain areas you need to have your wits about you.
This noted, Montmarte also has the Basilica Sacre-Coeur, cobbled lanes, an exceptionally pretty square, and an abundance of cafés/restaurants, any one of which could be the wrong or right choice. For lunch, we pop into Le Deli’s. It’s a good move.
An intimate place that looks out onto stubby-cobbled laneways, Le Deli’s is the perfect place for a quiet chinwag or something more personal.
Such ambience is enhanced even further by a level of discretion from the waiters not seen, surely, since John F Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe had dinner together. We go for the ‘when in Paris’ options: escargots for starters and Beef Bourguignon for main.
The snails, twelve in total, rest in a light sauce of garlic and seasoning, while the beef is as tender and wine-soaked as can be.
Topped off with a half bottle of Verre de St Emilion, we had thought the day couldn’t any better. But then, for dinner, we came across Il Caratello.
Located on a bright backstreet, this Italian restaurant delivers traditional trattoria fare amidst jam-packed tables, friendly service and a cosy, downhome feel.
We have the best food of our trip here: grilled salmon with lemon-infused linguine is one of those melt-in-your-mouth meals that you want to last for much longer than it does.
We know it’s gorgeous and we know we’re hungry, but we take our time to savour the flavours, the textures, and to recognise that the best food is actually the kind that nurtures and makes you feel glad to be alive.
Three nights in Paris? It could be the name of a song, but it’s more a period of time spent getting to know better an area of a city that is much more than the sum of its parts.
Sometimes, a form of micro-tourism is better than trying to swoop up everything too quickly. If you’re always concentrating on big pictures you can easily miss out on finer details. Perhaps it’s time to focus more on the definition of brush strokes than views from a distance? Come closer. They won’t bite.
Speaking of bites – what about the Chitterling sausage, I hear you ask. Regarded by some as quite the delicacy, it is made from pig’s colon, and has, therefore, an aroma that blends the basic composites that contribute to the smell of excrement. Never having heard of it before, and being a reasonably adventurous eater, I ordered it off a menu on our first night in Paris, at a café close to Gare de Lyon. Dearest readers, after one suspicious mouthful that made me gag, I asked to have the plate taken away. When in Paris? Not always.
Tony Clayton-Lea is a freelance pop culture/travel writer. His primary aim when traveling is to avoid obvious tourist traps, to make sure an intriguing laneway never goes undiscovered, and to unearth the perfect place for people watching.
Stay up-to-date with Tony’s writing by visiting his website, tonyclaytonlea.com.