THE size of a postage stamp. That’s why my favourite Parisian bistro is called Le Timbre. It’s a good job its chef/proprietor, Chris Wright, is not un claustrophobe. Quitting Whitefield to pursue his culinary dreams, the world was his oyster. If it turned out to be a periwinkle, so what? In the heart of Montparnasse, this authentic backstreet bistro wears its Michelin bib gourmand with pride and has no problem filling its 24 covers.
The presence of Montgomery Cheddar or proper Stilton signifies 39-year-old Chris’s Anglo origins, but the rest is full-on French. Coquilles St Jacques, rabbit with mustard, andouillette sausages, truffles, puy lentils, modest country wines. Signature dish is a lovely millefeuille pastry. All cooked by him and an occasional sous chef and served by a waitress deft in tight corners, it’s a delight at a fraction of the price of the great Michelin-starred gastronomic temples.
And five minutes’ stagger away are the Luxembourg Gardens, where you can sit and Left Bank people watch. Pick are those impossibly poised young Parisiennes in black polo necks toting portfolios or sharing their Gitanes fug with some bearded boy by a fountain.
Equally delightful and affordable, further down the Boulevard de Raspail is another classic bistro specialising in the rich cuisine and wines of the South West (I ordered, foie gras, hare stew and a dense Madiran red, naturally).
La Cerisaie in Bd Edgar Quinet is almost a giant compared with Le Timbre. Chris’s pal, Cyril Lalanne, gets his own private kitchen! It’s handily placed next to Montparnasse Metro station, so became our base camp for exploring the Catacombes and Montarpanasse Cemetery.
The Catacombes is an underground warren acting as an overflow ossuary, stacked high with skulls dating back to the late 18th century when the city’s main cemeteries were full. By the inner entrance is a sign saying ‘Stop! This it empire of death’. Spooky and mustily claustrophobic (www.catacombes-de-paris.fr/english.htm).
We made the short journey to the fresh air morgue that is the Cimetiere de Montparnasse. The maps, pinpointing ‘celebrities’ last resting places are confusing. We never did find the grave of Serge Gainsbourg, and Baudelaire’s was very plain in comparison with the quirky follies commemorating less famous punters. It was all very inter-denominational with Jews, many of whom had perished during the Holocaust, and Arabs buried alongside each other.
Near the main entrance quintessential Parisian ideologues Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir share an earthen bed in peace together at last one hopes. Admirers still leave tokens and messages, mostly for feminist icon Simone.
We were staying at the Lutetia, at the intersection of the Boulevard Raspail and the Rue de Sevres. Part of the the Concorde chain this century old hotel – with a stupendous new spa facility to celebrate – is a riot of art deco on a foundation of art nouveau.
With a buzzing bar and an epic seafood brasserie it’s a meeting place for the Left Bank’s movers and and shakers. Carla Bruni is an aficionado and Yankee grande dame, Meryl Streep, took a suite there while filming Julie & Julia.
Doyenne of Rive Gauche chic Sonia Rykiel even designed the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant and, more deliciously for us, the Brasserie’s chocolate pudding that bears her name.
Her fashion empire is based in nearby St Germain des Pres in an area that fuses fashion, food, learning and posing in an irresistible melange. It’s no longer affordable for writers and artists to crash out there, but there’s a surprising amount of beards and corduroy hanging about in cafés.
Repeated doses of café au laits and croissants along the Boul’ St Germain can add up in the famous cafes such as the Flore and Les Deux Magots, but for the budget-conscious it is also great picnic-assembling territory.
The original Poilane bread shop is in the Rue du Cherche-Midi behind the Lutetia, while virtually opposite the hotel is the Grande Epicerie food hall of the Bon Marche store. Walk 200 metres further down the Rue de Sevres and you’ll find probably Paris’s finest cheese shops, the Fromagerie Quatrehomme at No 62.
Ten minutes further on, the broad swathe of the Avenue de Saxe not only has spectacular views of the Eiffel Tower and the Invalides, but every Saturday hosts an equally spectacular market with an amazing range of foodstuffs.
Each Sunday the Boulevard Raspail tops this with an organic market that shuts off this busy thoroughfare. Alas, we left the day before!
Back to the company of the deceased in the Rue du Bac. Deyrolle is the sole surviving taxidermy shop in Paris, having been founded in 1831. Today it doubles up as a kind of museum, though every exhibit carries a price tag. A tiger will set you back over €30,000, but you can pick up a butterfly for €5.
This whole Left Bank, home to the Sorbonne and any number of other centres of learning, boasts an abundance of bookshops. For English speakers, Shakespeare and Company on the Rue de la Bucherie (not the original site) is the big draw. Here founder Sylvia Beach was the first to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 and this temple to the printed word still provides temporary lodging for struggling writers in return for them helping out in the shop.
Dan Brown is the antithesis of a struggling writer, but the Da Vinci Code’s Parisian links draw admirers to Saint-Sulpice church in the quartier where we stayed. They come to see the 18th century Gnomon, an astronomical measuring instrument featuring in the best-seller.
We popped in for a peep. Alongside the instructions on how the Gnomon works is a haughty reminder of Left Bank contempt for unrigorous potboilers:
‘‘Contrary to the far-fetched allegations made in a recent novel of some success, the meridian line of Saint-Sulpice is not the extant trace of a pagan temple which it is claimed, once stood here.’’
Le Timbre, 3 rue Sainte-Beuve, Paris 6. Tel: 01 45 49 10 40. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.restaurantletimbre.com.
La Cerisaie, 70 Bd Edgar Quinet Paris 14. Tel: 01 43 20 98 98. http://restaurantlacerisaie.pagesperso-orange.fr.
At both restaurants you can spend well under 100€ for a full a la carte meal for two plus wine.
Rooms at the Hotel Lutetia start from around 175€ a night. Visit www.concorde-hotels.com. Concorde Hotels & Resorts offers a 30-strong portfolio of luxury 4 and 5 star hotels worldwide.
Eurostar operates up to 19 daily services from London St Pancras International to Paris (2hrs 15 mins) with return fares from £69. Tickets are available from www.eurostar.com or by ringing 08432 186 186. For a through tickets from Manchester book via www.virgintrains.co.uk.
I'd recommend booking your trip through Rail Europe, which offers the most convenient way of arranging European rail travel. www.raileurope.co.uk.
To make our early morning train to London we stayed at Manchester Central Travelodge in Blackfriars Street (0871 984 6159). Rooms start at £21 until January 31. www.travelodge.co.uk.
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