Sunday, 28 February 2010

Unearthing a Gem

I'm a firm believer in supporting local businesses, so I was delighted to see the renovations that had taken place in a neighbourhood café bar. 'Le Rubis' on the Rue Saint Maur looks like the kind of establishment that has been run by the same family for generations, but this atmosphere is actually the result of the hard work of the new owners.

In Paris it is fashionable to be retro, but most bars or restaurants buy their nostalgia from flea markets. At Le Rubis, the retro decor is completely original, but had to be dug out from behind more contemporary trimmings. It is the rebirth of a 1930s relic, and is now a wonderful art deco environment.

Finding a name for the bar was a simple job. 'Le Rubis' was the name of the original establishment and is still clearly visible, most notably on the door handles and on the magnificent lettering above the bar. It also gave the owners a theme to work on for the decoration, with the walls taking on the raspberry-red tones of the gemstone.

I'm delighted that the structure has at last found a resident who respects its history and design. The bar is the street-level entrance to a wonderfully atypical building which looks a little like a vintage cruise liner. Signed on the outside by its architect, the seemingly little-known J.A. Fouchet, it dates from 1936.

The inside is dominated by an island bar which echos the curve of the building and the road outside. The owners, three associates called Valérie, Marie-Caroline and Stéphane took the decision to cut off one end of the bar so that people could circulate around it. To one side, red bench seats add a slight American-diner feel to the place, a sentiment that is enhanced by rock-inspired decoration and music.

This love of music provides the only frustration for the new owners. The room is not soundproofed, meaning that live concerts would be impossible, 'except perhaps for some acoustic concerts from time to time' Marie-Caroline tells me.

I will come back regularly purely to drink in the atmosphere of the bar, but how do the owners hope to attract other regulars in difficult times and in a district where competition is legion? The choice has been to create a multi-functional space, with breakfasts in the morning, a limited but 100% homecooked lunch menu, goûters and tea in the afternoons, and a more traditional pub ambience in the evening.

"We really want to organise some regular activities" Valérie tells me, "perhaps some quizzes or even bingo!". The idea sounds like a good one to me, and somehow entirely appropriate. There is something a little out-of-sync about the bar, a slightly provincial feel that sets it apart from its noisier and more trendy neighbours on the Rue Oberkampf. This difference can also be summed up in one other word; it is authentic.

Le Rubis
140 Rue Saint Maur, M° Goncourt

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Something for the Weekend (26th – 28th February)

It’s the last weekend of the month, when traditionally money is tight before payday. Don't worry though as here are a selection of activities that won’t cost you a centime!

If you have any events or activities you think should be promoted or which you would like to promote yourself, please add them in the comments. Let me know also if you have any events in the coming weekends you would like to promote.

Brunch on the Metro
I’m a little sceptical about most social media happenings, but this one sounds as if it could be fun. A group will meet at 1pm on Sunday at the Charles de Gaulle Etoile Metro station on the Line 6, loaded up with everything necessary for a brunch picnic. The group will then get on a Metro at exactly 1.15pm and head off in the direction of Nation, sharing all provisions during the trip. Being outside for much of its length, and crossing the Seine twice, it is also one of the most picturesque lines in the city! The event is open to anyone who wants to join in, and it could be an interesting way to not only meet a few people but also to taste some nice food!
More information here:

Get Fit for Free
Winter is coming to an end and it’s time to start stretching a few muscles again. Is there anything more inspiring to do though than just jog around the park? Here are two ideas:

Each Saturday morning between 10am and 11am, women in Paris can sign up for free boxing classes at the Forum des Halles. The classes are run by specialists from hip gym ‘Le Battling Club’ (which bases itself on the traditional New York Boxing Gym) so it should be a good work out!

If you are interested you first need to fill in this form and and return it before the Friday preceding the Saturday you wish to attend. Note however that you will also need a doctor’s certificate proving that you have the necessary physical condition (normally a formality, but a time-consuming hassle none the less).

This Brazilian combat sport is less physical perhaps, but certainly no less strenuous. Within the framework of its Grand Mix du Brésil festival, the Musée du Quai Branly is organising an ‘Atelier Capoeira’ with members of the ‘1 Autre Monde’ company on Saturday 27th at 12pm. The good news is that there is no need for a medical certificate here!
Musée du Quai Branly
37, quai Branly 75007, M° Alma Marceau

Going Chopin
To celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Chopin, pianists at the Salle Pleyel (along with another venue in the town of Chateauroux) will be playing the entire works of the composer over this weekend. The Salle Pleyel will cover the years 1838-1849 on Sunday from 2pm to 11pm. Entrance is free, but actually getting in and being able to find a seat might be the most physically demanding event of the weekend!
Salle Pleyel
252 rue du Fb St Honoré, 75008, M° Charles de Gaulle

If you can’t get in, note that an exhibition on the composer will be starting on Tuesday at the Musée de la Vie Romantique. The location is well chosen as Chopin was a regular visitor to the house which belonged to the painter Ari Scheffer.
Musée de la Vie romantique
16, rue Chaptal, 75009
2nd March - 2nd July, 7€

Works Constructed: 1948 - 2009
This exhibition at the admirable Pavillon de l'Arsenal is a fascinating look at 58 iconic post-war constructions in Paris. Using photos, plans, models and prototypes from the architecture collection at the Centre Pompidou, the exhibition also tries to give the artistic, social, political and economic context behind each structure. Buildings featured include the CNIT at La Defense, the Montparnasse tower, terminal 1 at Charles de Gaulle airport, the Parc de la Villette and the Institut du Monde Arabe.
Until 28/3/2010
Pavillon de l'Arsenal
21, boulevard Morland, 75004, M° Sully Morland
Free entrance!

School of Rock
On both Friday and Saturday evening, the Gibus club, a mythical rock venue in the city, will be hosting six young bands. Entrance is €5 or completely free if you respect the 'winter sports' dress code!
Les Espoirs du Gibus
Le Gibus
18 rue du Faubourg du Temple, 75011, M° République

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Les Lundis de Lutece

This Monday saw the launch of a new event, Les Lundis de Lutece, at the Baron Samedi bar. Run by DJ and amateur historian Sylvanie de Lutèce, the happening features a themed presentation on the history of Paris followed by a funky DJ set!

The event sounded like a fantastic idea, but I wasn’t sure what to expect. Who goes out on a damp Monday evening in February? Pulling up my collars I wandered down to the Baron Samedi, one of the friendliest and most interesting bars in Paris, and was surprised to find the place packed, with around 50 people occupying all available spaces.

Everyone’s eyes were on Sylvanie de Lutèce, dressed for the occasion in the Titi Parisien style of flat cap, striped top and red neckerchief. Hunched around wooden boards of dried meats and cheeses, and with beer or wine in hand, the audience was nevertheless as quiet as a library as our host got the conference underway.

Gangsters de Paris’ was the evening’s theme, a look back at some famous affairs from the beginning of the 20th century. The venue was well chosen as it is situated close to the home of the first topic discussed, the infamous ‘Apache’ gangs who stalked Belleville at the turning of the new century. Sylvanie de Lutèce was able to point out local landmarks that featured in her story, and kept the audience gripped with tales of sharp-dressed hoodlums and ‘marmites’, the girlfriends of the gang members who often gave as good as they got.

The second subject was the Bande à Bonnot, a Belle Epoque anarchist group who were the first ever to use an automobile to escape from the scene of a crime. With the help of mug shots of the gang members and short film sequences on her laptop, Sylvanie de Lutèce rattled off the tale until the final, inevitable, sticky end of the gang.

Despite being propped up against a wall for an hour and a half I didn’t see the time pass. This was not a studious and dry lecture to a group of yawning undergraduates, but rather the sharing of a passion. Questions were encouraged and good-humoured remarks were regularly fired in by the audience. Sylvanie de Lutèce was a bundle of energy and enthusiasm, with an impressive and well-researched knowledge of the evening’s subject.

I’ve already booked a front row slot for the next conference!

Les Lundis de Lutece will take place on the last Monday of each month at the Baron Samedi bar, 12 Rue des Goncourt (75011) at 8pm. Future themes include La Commune, Les Femmes Révolutionnaires and La Mondaine.
For more information, see

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Life at the Crossroads

Beside the Belleville Metro station is a creation by the Belgian artist Bonom. Although I didn't know who he was at the time, Bonom is someone who has already inspired me in Paris. Nicknamed the Belgian Banksy (mostly for his desire to remain anonymous), he creates monumental figures of animals, skeletons and fossils, pictures that often climb 15-20 metres up the bare stone sides of an apartment building. Here in Belleville, they are a tangle of snakes, resembling the hair of Medusa or simply a mapwork of cracks in an ancient wall.

What particular caught my eye here is the fact that they seem to spring from a trace of the past, a name carved into the wall of a neighbouring building. "Aux Quatre Arrondissements" is a reference to the fact that Belleville stands at the crossroads of four different arrondissements (10th, 11th, 19th and 20th), but what was this name promoting? From what I have been able to discover, it was the name of a large shop dating back to the beginning of the 20th century, a store belonging to a group known as the "Grands Magasins de Nouveautés".

Over 100 years later, the unifying nature of this position seems more important than ever. Today a Chinese supermarket occupies the space beneath this sign, but the crossroads shelters a multitude of nationalities and religions. Jewish patisseriess sit next to Vietnamese restaurants and Halal butchers, whilst Bangladeshis sell roasted chestnuts from supermarket trolleys alongside Africans with baskets of steamed sweetcorn. How suitable it seems therefore to find a cutting edge street artist here next to a footprint of the area's past.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Something for the Weekend? (19th – 21st February)

After the Mardi Gras festivities we are now in a period of lent, but that doesn't seem to apply in Paris. A new season of events and shows is just beginning which should keep us occupied until the sun comes back!

If you have any events or activities you think should be promoted or which you would like to promote yourself, please add them in the comments. Let me know also if you have any events in the coming weekends you would like to promote.

L'Impossible Photographie
The Musée Carnavalet is the location of a fascinating exhibition until July 4th. Displayed are 340 photos taken inside the prisons of Paris from 1851 to the current day, an undertaking which was judged 'impossible' by Catherine Tambrun, the curator of the exhibition. Impossible because authorisations to take photos inside a prison are so difficult to obtain (there are nevertheless three recent photo-reportages of life inside the Prison de la Santé, the last remaining prison in Paris), and impossible because a photo can never truly capture the sensation of imprisonment. As well as visions of contemporary conditions in the city's penal institutions, the exhibition also offers a rare insight into the historical jails of the city, such as the St Lazare Hospital/Prison.

Musée Carnavalet
23 rue de Sévigné, 75003, M° Saint-Paul
10am - 6pm daily except Mondays, 7€

Le Festival international des sports extrêmes
Strange as it may seem, the city of Paris is home to one of the biggest indoor skate parks in Europe. This weekend it will be the scene of a series of BMX, skateboard and roller competitions with professional entrants coming from Brazil, the USA and the UK as well as France. Competitions are also open to amateurs if you fancy a go, or if not, entrance is free for spectators.
EGP 18
54, bis boulevard Ney 75018, M° Porte de la Chapelle
Saturday 20th, 9.45am - 8.30pm, Sunday 21st, 9.45am - 6.30pm

A Sunday Tea Dance
A Sunday afternoon 'guingette' dance is a historic tradition in Paris, but in recent years it has become very popular once more. It is more traditionally associated with outdoor venues and warm weather, but once a month (normally the first Sunday of each month - who knows why it is the third Sunday this month!), the Quai de Seine association will organise a 'Bal Folk' in a very friendly local bar/restaurant. If you've never tried dancing a valse or a polka before, this could be your opportunity!
Sunday 21st, 5pm
French K-Wa
6 rue Planchat 75020 M° Avron

The Viennese Vegetable Orchestra
Oddity of the week, an orchestra that performs music solely on instruments made of vegetables! Carrots, leeks, pumpkins, courgettes, cucumbers - everything is put to use, creating sounds that are remarkably similar to drums, clarinets or a double bass. A very natural, primitive experience!

Centre Pompidou
Saturday 20th, 6pm
Click here for ticket information.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Gaslights and Dark Shadows

Although it is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year, the chapel in the Hôpital Saint Louis goes very quietly about its business. It is tucked away in a corner of the hospital site, with piles of bricks and stones at its feet, visible signs of renovations that seem never-ending.

Inside it is no more glorious. The walls are exposed stonework and crumbling plaster, and a net is suspended from the ceiling to protect parishioners from falling masonry. It is sparse and primitive, somehow matching the astonishing level of honesty and candidness in the messages that have been written in the call for prayers book. A mother searching for strength from above to help her deal with two teenage daughters who have become more and more difficult since the death of their father. Another promising eternal devotion if a loved one can be saved. There is a strong sensation of dampness, and an earthy rawness to the interior. It would be like being shut in a cave if it wasn't also so extremely light and airy.

Somewhere at my feet there is a brick laid by a king. The chapel was an integral part of the original hospital structure which was built in 1607. Henri IV ordered the construction of a church that could at once be shared by those living inside the hospital and those on the outside, and he personally placed the first brick of the chapel down himself. However it was not to be a lucky omen. Three years to the day later, the first service was held in the hospital chapel. It was Henri IV's memorial service, a funeral following his assassination by Ravillac.

As with many religious structures, the chapel suffered immensely during the revolution in 1789. Its stained-glass windows and statues were destroyed, and the bells were taken away to be melted down. In many ways it has never recovered from this plundering. Today the windows are still colourless, and there are no bells to ring. The site was though to become the scene of an important moment in history during the midnight mass of 1816.

In a building alongside the chapel there is a clue to what this event was. A plaque commemorates the fact that this was once the site of the first gas-works in France. Two years before the factory was built, the chapel was one of the first buildings in Paris to be lit up by gas powered lighting, a revolution that changed radically how the hospital functioned. A journalist writing at the time noted that "la lumière produite par le gaz est pure, brillante et sans odeur" (the light produced by the gas is pure, bright and without odour) and how the lighting made it much easier for nurses to work than when they had to carry around oil lamps.

The plaque also commemorates one man, Philippe Le Bon, credited with the invention of gas lighting and heating, but like Henri IV, he was not around to share in the glory of his construction. Legend has it that he was stabbed to death on the streets of Paris in 1804, exactly the same fate suffered by Henri IV.

Walls tell many stories. Here they remind us that bright lights necessarily bring long shadows.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

My Favourite Bench

It’s a skeleton without a backbone. The remaining timber joints are scarred with the carved and painted identities of those who stopped by. It sits alone, empty cans of beer and discarded cigarettes at its feet. But this bench is the most romantic in Paris.

Merely getting here is a pleasure earned. It sits above a 100 step staircase, a climb up past people preparing dinners or washing up at rear windows. At the top, a film set of calm domesticity. Rows of houses curve around the hilltop, a sheltered village above the city noise. Turn a corner and there is the bench, alone, facing a strip of white railings. You wonder why it is there at all, but beyond the last building in the row you see the view.

It’s all about location, angles and timing. This bench is a perfectly positioned gnomon on a sundial, a witness to an ordinary scene that becomes truly magical at one particular moment of the day. As evening arrives, the sun slides down the sky and bleeds into the horizon, slowly plunging behind the Montmartre hill. The waves of rooftops glint in the dying orange and the Sacre Coeur, a building I don't even like, becomes shadowy antique splendour.

In biting cold February it’s a shelter or a temporary picnic table, but its apex is in late summer or early autumn. It sits above a pocket-sized vineyard, and when the air is heavy with ripening grapes, the only sounds you hear are the whispers of the wind through the vine leaves.

The scenery behind the bench completes the stage set. Two foliage clad houses, with arms of thick ivy stretching across the road, slowly turning the mineral vegetable.

But where exactly is this bench? I’m not going to tell you. I’ll share most of the city but this part is mine!

Something for the Weekend? (12th – 14th February)

Take a little bit of the Chinese New Year, stir in some Valentine's Day and add a little splash of Mardi Gras and what do you get? I'm not sure, but it should make for a fun weekend in Paris!

If you have any events or activities you think should be promoted or which you would like to promote yourself, please add them in the comments. Let me know also if you have any events in the coming weekends you would like to promote.

Chinese New Year Celebrations
Paris is home to three different Chinese communities. The oldest (and smallest) is situated in a couple of street near Arts et Metiers in the 3rd arrondissement, the largest is near the Place d’Italie in the 13th, and the most recent is in Belleville. To celebrate the arrival of the year of the tiger, each district will have its own festivities (see list here
) with the biggest event of all, the dragon parade, actually taking place next Sunday. There are however two other parades taking place that will join together with the Paris Carnival event happening this weekend…

The Paris Carnival
Each year I forget about this event, but each year I’m thoroughly impressed by the large procession of musicians, dancers and people on stilts winding their way past my apartment. The whole cast and crew will set off from the Place Gambetta at around 2pm, and end up at the Hotel de Ville at roughly 7pm, passing by Belleville and the Place de la Republique. This year the event coincides with the Chinese New Year meaning that the procession will swell in size, firstly at Belleville when it picks up one Chinese group, then again at the Hotel de Ville with a second additional group.

Paris Cookbook Festival
There is no sincerer love than the love of food” wrote George Bernard Shaw, so it seems apt that this new cooking festival should take place on Valentine’s weekend. Spread thickly over four days, this festival will mix the traditional stands displaying books and equipment with signings and cookery demonstrations from an international selection of chefs. The only thing that leaves a slightly bizarre taste in the mouth is the fact that it will all take place in what was previously the municipal undertakers!
Le CentQuatre
104 Rue d'Aubervilliers / 5 rue Curial 75019 Paris (M° Stalingrad)
8 €
12th – 15th February, 9.30am to 6.30pm (except Monday which ends at 5pm)

Roa at the Galerie Itinerrance
Belgian artist Roa has made a name for himself painting large-scale animals across city walls, but here he brings his creations indoors. A visit to this gallery is also a chance to visit a part of the city in mutation as it is in the heart of the new Rive Gauche development.
Photos and information can be found here.

Until February 28th
Galerie Itinerrance
7bis, rue René Goscinny 75013 (M° Bibliothèque Nationale)

Valentine’s Day
Ah yes, Valentine’s Day. It falls on a weekend and you’re in Paris, so it’s difficult to ignore it, but what can you do that doesn’t involve a damp boat trip and a rip-off ‘Menu Spécial St Valentin’? Here are a few suggestions!
  • Post a message on the 173 electronic public information boards across the city.
  • Though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion” wrote Dylan Thomas. With this in mind, what could be more romantic than a visit to a cemetery? Père Lachaise is the obvious choice here, with a monument to doomed 12th century lovers Héloise and Abelard as well as other lost romantics such as Chopin. The tomb of Victor Noir can be visited for other reasons!

  • Make a rendez-vous on the most romantic bench in Paris. I’ll tell you where my favourite bench is in my next post, but I’m sure you’ll be able to find one of your own!

Tuesday, 9 February 2010


Since the beginning of 2010 it seems that we have had nothing but grey skies in Paris, but that makes this colourful new mural on the Rue Saint Maur all the more refreshing. This fresque is the work of an American artist called Matt W. Moore (his blog can be found here) who recently spent a month in Paris, working on a series of canvases in addition to this creation.

He was given permission to paint the fresque, called 'Crystals and Lasers', by the Mayor of the 10th arrondissement, and it is rather amusingly placed on the side of a school. Local residents are apparently delighted to have this work here and it is easy to see why, with the shapes and colours giving depth to a previously non-descript grey surface. As Moore says himself, "geometry is a universal language, and bangin' color is crucial during the cold grey winters here".

Moore's paintings, along similar lines, can be seen in a new gallery situated opposite this mural, the Since Upian Artspace (Monday to Friday, 2pm to 7pm, 211 rue Saint-Maur 75010) until the 12th March.

Inspired by the hypercolours of MWM, here are two more impressive displays I have found in a city which can sometimes be dispiritingly grey!

Saturday, 6 February 2010

What Happened to la Moutarde Bornibus?

Discovering the home of a mustard factory in Paris is amusing but not surprising. One hundred years ago the city was home to many similar institutions, with Parisians producing a variety of things that ranged from paper to cars. Today the smoke and odours have disappeared but several traces of this industrial past, such as this factory in Belleville, remain.

At first it is difficult to see that there was ever a factory here at all. The only surviving clue is the lettering and medals displayed on the street-facing walls, but a reasonable assumption would be to conclude that this was perhaps company offices. In fact it was rare that a factory was allowed to be simply a factory in Paris, particularly this close to the centre. Perhaps for reasons of prestige, the plant which created the Bornibus condiments was hidden behind a traditional Haussmannian neo-classical facade.
The Bornibus label is not familiar to me, but the medals proudly displayed to the street show that these were multi award winning products (Paris 1867, Vienne 1873!). So what happened to the Bornibus products and recipes, and what happened to the factory itself?

After a quick search on the internet, I'm surprised to find that Bornibus condiments are still produced and distributed. There is a large range of products available, including salt-free and Kosher varieties! It would seem that at some point in the past, the family sold up, and production moved out of Paris. The current producers acquired the right to use the name and any original recipes, as well as the rights to use the history of the company for advertising purposes - "Bornibus products : quality since 1865. Le "Gastronome de l'Ile de France". Mustards, condiments and vinegars – 22 products, one of which, the famous extra strong mustard, had the honour of being mentioned by Alexandre Dumas in his dictionary of cooking".

The original Bornibus mustard.

Bornibus mustard today.

Was the factory knocked down as part of the extensive redevelopment of the surrounding area? Passing through the passageway of the more contemporary neighbouring building, I'm pleased to see that the factory is still there, tucked away behind the sheltering facade. It is not possible to enter the Bornibus building for a closer look, so I need to look elsewhere to see what purpose it serves today. This website provides a clue; "c'est une grande artiste française qui a achetée cette ancienne usine pour y faire une bien jolie maison/loft" (a well known French artist bought the factory and converted it into a house/loft).

The outside of the factory today.

Only a little more research is required to discover the identity of this artist - and more importantly, to find pictures of the inside of the factory!

The renovated interior of the Bornibus factory.

The artist (a big word - let's say rather a popular singer who is somewhat 'zen') bought the factory around 10 years ago and has converted the large volumes (300-400m²) into a huge house with swimming pool. She has seemingly left few of the original features and is also apparently happy to live in an environment that looks a little like the offices of a company dealing in plastic plants.

The story is a classic one. Production is externalised, rights and patents are bought and sold and industrial architecture becomes the playground of the rich. What is different though is what has been left behind; the proud display of medals and the proclamation that here was a product that was "la sante sur votre table". It's enough to tickle the nose of passing bloggers...

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Something for the Weekend? (5th – 7th February)

Paris seems to be marking the last days of hibernation before the beginnings of the Spring season with a strangely quiet weekend in the city. Nevertheless, here are a few suggestions to get you out of a warm bed.

If you have any events or activities you think should be promoted or which you would like to promote yourself, please add them in the comments. Let me know also if you have any events in the coming weekends you would like to promote.

150 Years of Orchids at the Jardin du Luxembourg
First of all, a recommendation given to me last week by
Cergie, who is a true "mine de renseignements dans le monde du jardin"! The orchid collection of the French Senat will be very exceptionally (it's normally open for only one day a year) on display to the general public for 10 days to celebrate its 150th anniversary. It is one of the biggest collections in the world, with over 1300 varieties and is situated in the very pleasant Orangerie in the Jardin du Luxembourg.
5th - 14th February, 10am - 5pm
5 rue Guynemer 75006
Free entrance

Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Packaging
Artists have always worked with the world of commerce, but recently there seems to have been an increase in activity, particular in the fashion industry. There are several interesting examples this weekend in Paris:

Keith Haring/Tommy Hilfiger: Snob shop Colette (213 Rue Saint Honoré, 75001) will see the launch this weekend of a range of sports shoes and boots bearing the designs of deceased artist Keith Haring next to the Tommy Hilfiger logo.

Kehinde Wiley/Puma: The Espace de la Topographie d'Art (15 Rue Thorigny, 75003) will host a temporary shop selling four models of sneakers decorated with the designs of American artist Kehinde Wiley.

Pentawards: But what if packaging itself were an art form? A selection of 150 of the best designs in the world will be on display until the 28th March at the Designpack Gallery (24 Rue de Richelieu, 75001).

For the most interesting events this weekend you have to head out of the city (but not too far).

Vitry sur Seine - Living Colour + Last Poets: Afro-rockers Living Colour team up with early rappers Last Poets to pay tribute to the Black Panther movement. (Theatre Jean Vilar, Vitry sur Seine).

Saint Ouen - Serge Teyssot-Gay + Eric Elmosnino: The guitarist of controversial French rock band Noir Désir and the actor who recently starred as Serge Gainsbourg will perform together for one night only. The film (Vie Heroique) about the life of Gainsbourg will be shown afterwards. (Espace 1789, Saint Ouen, 7pm, €5)

Brunch Bazar
Although this new event sounds fun, I'll admit that I've only included it here for one reason - because there are knitting workshops with the superbly named Wool and the Gang! Starting this Sunday, the monthly Brunch Bazar will serve up healthy food with dance lessons, a brocante, workshops for kids...and of course a knitting workshop! Wool is cool!
Au Comptoir Général,
80 quai de Jemmapes, 75010
Free entry

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Rue Maitre Albert

Despite overlooking Notre Dame, the Rue Maitre Albert sees little footfall from the tourist herds who prefer to trek up and down the Rue Saint Jacques or the Boulevard Saint Michel. They are missing little of apparent physical interest, but in mythogeographical terms, this small street is a goldmine!

What significance is there in a name? The Maitre Albert had several! As a European wanderer who was initially born in Germany but who spent time in Italy and France, he picked up many sobriquets. Was he Albrecht Von Bollstadt? Albertus Magnus? Albert de Cologne or Albert le Grand? Or none of these? In fact, it seems that his real name was Albertus de Groot, literally Albert the Great, an accident of birth which earned him the translations of ‘le Grand’ and ‘Magnus’ which contemporaries believed actually related to his achievements in the worlds of science and theology.

What is not in doubt however is the fact that he was a great man. Born sometime around the beginning of the 13th century, he moved to France to become a teacher at the University of Paris. He introduced Greek and Arabic teachings to the school, particularly the works of Aristotle, and produced many tomes on animals, plants and minerals. He later became a Bishop back in Germany and was declared a Saint in 1931 (the Patron Saint of Natural Scientists).

The crooked street which today bears his name, and where it is believed he lived, has been a thoroughfare in Paris for many hundreds of years. When he lived here it would have been an unnamed path, a collection of houses that lead up from the river to the Place Maubert where he gave his lessons to students seated on bales of straw. No traces of his house remain today, and all that has been left behind here are the myths.

Just as his identity is multifarious, so is Albert's reputation. Others have appropriated his story, leaving it almost impossible today for us to decide what is true and what is invented. It is perhaps this aspect that so interested the surrealists who made Albert le Grand into one of their heroes. The story that particularly fascinated them was the legend that Albert created a metallic automaton or android who could speak and reply to questions. The French artist Georges Hugnet created a decalcomania portrait of the robot, which legend has it was destroyed by Albert’s student, Thomas Aquinas.

What else is left behind in this street once known as Rue Perdue (or the Lost Street)? Albert le Grand is sometimes referred to as a magician or alchemist, mainly due to his interest in the sciences which went beyond the normal theologically accepted limits at the time. Much of this reputation comes from a book that was very popular in the 19th century called ‘Le Grand Albert’ which dealt with magic and the occult and which was believed to have originated from the writings of Albert le Grand. It was not his work, but he did write about alchemy “the alchemist will be discreet and silent. He will never reveal the result of his experiments. He will live far from men in a house where there are two or three rooms to be exclusively used for his research" (Albert le Grand, Alkimia)

Did he have such a place here? On the corner of the street is a restaurant called ‘L’Atelier de Maitre Albert’. Inside this restaurant there is a large fire place, thick stone walls and an atmosphere from centuries past, but no mention of alchemy, magic or the occult. In fact there is no mention of Albert le Grand at all. Instead this is a temple to the glory of the well-known chef Guy Savoy, and this is his atelier.

At the other end of the street is the Place Maubert. Some say that Maubert is a contraction of Maitre Albert, but again this remains speculation. What is known however is that it was the site of executions of many printers in the 16th century, as is helpfully shown in the map below from the same period (position of the Rue Maitre Albert in red).

So if you find yourself in this part of Paris, make sure you take a detour down this street. At one end, the rotisserie restaurant and at the other the site where they hanged printers and burned their books. In the middle, an enigma, a scholar, an experimenter and a man who was constantly looking to transform raw information into golden facts.
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