La Petite Ceinture

Did you know that you can explore history and discover the secret green spaces of an old Paris train line known as ‘La Petite Ceinture’?

The little belt, as it was called, circled Paris long before the métro. A rail line built in the second half of the 19th century, it was designed to link the different train stations and provide an efficient way of transporting freight around the French capital’s fortifications. It began serving passengers in 1862 and the complete rail loop, 32 kilometres all around Paris, was completed in 1869.

Le Métropolitain de Paris, built at the turn of the century, brought about the decline of the Petite Ceinture. From 39 million passengers in 1900, during the Exposition Universelle, the traffic fell to just 7 million in 1927. Le métro soon became the preferred way to get around Paris.

The old line closed down in 1934 and entire sections of the railway were left to decay for many decades. Access was forbidden but the old ‘chemin de fer’ became a kind of ‘secret’ greenbelt enjoyed by graffiti artists and those seeking a haven of calm within the city.

In recent years stations and sections of the old line have been restored and transformed, some as modern links in new transit lines like the ‘RER C’ at Courcelles-Levallois. Other sections have been taken over by restaurants, cultural centres and urban green spaces. Full history and a chart of all the sections here on Wikipedia.

Today, you can access 6.5 kilometres of parks and cultural activities on the restored Petite Ceinture line at different spots all around Paris.

This Saturday, August 31st is the ‘Fête de la Petite Ceinture’. Entry is free with fun and games, nature walks, concerts and workshops happening at different times and places. Visit the City of Paris website for details (in French only 🧐😠).

If you’re lucky enough to be in Paris this weekend, check it out!

Do you know La Petite Ceinture? Have you ever walked along the old train line?

France’s best baguettes

Baguettes at “Le Capitole” bakery in Nice, France, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

The baguette is the most popular loaf of French bread. There are 32,000 bakers and cake-makers (boulangers-pâtissiers) in France. Like so many things that the French take seriously, the profession is regulated. What this means is that you can’t make it up. Cela ne s’invente pas. There are rules and regulations around the fabrication of the humble baguette de pain and a professional association that sets the standards and governs the making and baking of our daily bread.

Every year, the Confédération Nationale de la Boulangerie-Pâtisserie Française holds a contest to crown the baker who makes the best ‘baguette de tradition’. Now, the traditional French stick is not to be confused with its lesser cousin, ‘la baguette industrielle’. The industrial or ordinary type of baguette can be found in every French supermarket or ‘point chaud’ and while some centimes cheaper is far inferior in terms of quality.

Traditional baguette is made by an artisan baker at a relatively small scale and according to a strict set of rules. The flour must be of a specific type (55), with nothing added other than yeast and salt, then kneaded for a minimal amount of time, weighed, divided and allowed to rise. It is then shaped by hand into the iconic long ‘baguette’ shape before being baked in an oven with a stone floor.

The criteria for the ‘best’ baguette are the following (20 points for each):

  • Aspect – the look or appearance of the loaf
  • Croûte (couleur/croustillant) – the colour and crustiness of the crust
  • Arôme – its flavour or taste
  • Mie (couleur / alvéolage) – the colour and cellular structure of the white, doughy part of the bread (which must not be overly dense)
  • Mâche – its chewiness or mouth feel
The word ‘alvéole’ comes from the cells of a bee-hive but its holes should be irregular.

The best baguette is somewhat irregular looking, with a nicely browned, crusty exterior and a soft, airy interior. It has a bit of character in terms of taste but is essentially a perfect backdrop for other flavours: cheese, sauces, pâtés…

This year’s top prizes at the national level were handed out in Paris on May 15th. The three top bakers are in Franche-Comté, Brittany and Ardèche: https://www.boulangerie.org/blog/concours-national-de-la-meilleure-baguette-de-tradition-francaise-les-resultats-2/

In April, the winners of the 25th annual competition in Paris were announced. The baguettes of this year’s winning baker, Fabrice Leroy, can be found at the Leroy-Monti bakery in Paris’s 12th arrondissement and also grace the president’s table at the Elysée Palace (if you are lucky enough to be invited). https://www.sortiraparis.com/news/in-paris/articles/190183-paris-best-baguette-winner-is-leroy-monti-bakery-in-the-12th-arrondissement/lang/en

How do you like your bread? Dense and doughy or light and fluffy?

Ella, elle l’a

Voici ma chanson pour un samedi — here’s my song for Saturday.

The year was 1987. We were living in Toronto when France Gall released this song, written for his wife by the incredibly talented and gone-too-soon Michel Berger. It became a hit in France along with several countries in Europe.

I must have listened to this song a hundred times before I realized what it was actually about. The song, whose title literally means, ‘Ella, she has it’, is a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, the first lady of song, and an anti-racism anthem. Here are the lyrics, with a bit of a translation in English:

C’est comme une gaité, comme un sourire
Quelque chose dans la voix qui parait nous dire “viens”

Qui nous fait sentir étrangement bien
C’est comme toute l’histoire du peuple noir
Qui se balance entre l’amour et l’désespoir

Quelque chose qui danse en toi, si tu l’as, tu l’as

It’s like a joy, like a smile
that thing in her voice that seems to be saying “Come!”
that makes us feel strangely good
it’s like all the history of the black people
that swings between love and despair
that thing that dances inside of you, if you have it, you have it.

Ella, elle l’a, ce je-ne-sais-quoi
Que d’autres n’ont pas, qui nous met dans un drôle d’état
Ella, elle l’a Ella, elle l’a, cette drôle de voix
Elle a, ou, ou, ou, ou, ou, ou, ou, cette drôle de joie
Ce don du ciel qui la rend belle

She has it, the thing I know about
that others don’t have, that puts us in a funny state
she, she, she has it, she has that funny voice, that funny cheerfulness
that gift from up above that makes her beautiful, she has it

Elle a ce tout petit supplément d’âme
Cet indéfinissable charme, cette petite flamme

She has that extra bit of soul
that indefinable charm, that little flame.

Tape sur des tonneaux, sur des pianos
Sur tout ce que dieu peut te mettre…

Montre ton rire ou ton chagrin
Mais que tu n’aies rien, que tu sois roi
Que tu cherches encore les pouvoirs qui dorment en to
i
Tu vois ça ne s’achète pas

Hit the barrels, the pianos
and everything that god can put in your hands
show your laughter or your sadness
but if you are nothing or if you are a king
if you are still looking for the power that is sleeping inside of you
you see it can’t be bought

Ella, elle l’a… (etc.)

Around that time, my husband and I had the incredible privilege to see Ella perform live at the Imperial Room of the Royal York hotel in Toronto. It had to have been one of her final performances. She used a cane and was helped onstage by her manager. But once she began singing, her voice was as fresh as spring

On that note, here she is singing of my favourite songs.

Paris point zéro

Embedded in the paving stones on the ‘parvis’ or square just outside of Notre-Dame de Paris on Île de la Cité is the point from which all distances in France are measured. This special paving stone bears the inscription ‘POINT ZERO DES ROUTES DE FRANCE’.

The stone is a symbol of Paris as the centre of the French universe. Just as all roads lead to Rome, all routes in France lead from Paris: more than one million kilometres of highways and byways both national and regional. Places all over the country are identified in terms of their distance from it. It is just one example of how the cathedral is the very heart and soul of France.

Officialized by royal order in April 1739, its central symbol is a ‘rose des vents’ or what we call the points of a compass.

Thousands of tourists find this discreet bronze marker and take souvenir photos of themselves or their feet by the famous stone. Thirty-three years ago this month, I was one of them. Shortly after arriving at Charles de Gaulle, armed with a few words of French and a deep conviction that living with my French fiancé would do the rest, I stood there and felt for all the world like I was at the centre of the universe.

I was far from home and far from feeling at home. That would take years. But I knew, somehow, that I had arrived. That year in Paris became the ‘point zero’ for the rest of my life.

Have you seen the famous stone in Paris? Or do you have a special time or place that became your own personal point zero?


Notre-Dame des larmes

Our Lady of tears

They gathered by Ile de la Cité in shock, hundreds and thousands of the faithful, the curious, tourists and locals. For believers and non-believers alike, the gut punch of seeing nearly 900 years of history going up in flames was too painful to bear.


The words in French expressed deep grief and shock. “On est meurtri,” said Stéphane Bern, France’s Monsieur Culture, moved to tears during an interview. Bruised, injured, struck down. That this monument, Notre-Dame de Paris, the most-visited site in France, possibly in the world, should be so ravaged by flames when it had survived eight centuries of history, come through bombings and world wars.

When its proud spire fell, the gasp was audible. Hands flew up to cover faces, the emotion beyond words. It was a knife to our collective heart.

The timber roof structure was called ‘la forêt’ as it was a virtual forest of hardwood beams, each representing a single tree. Work was underway to renovate this structure, known in French as la charpente. Although it had stood strong for hundreds of years, it wasn’t in that good shape and any work on it represented a certain risk. That is why last year, a dry run was held of simulated crisis with a plan in place to save its priceless treasures.

Dieu soit loué, thanks be to god, they were able to get most of the icons and paintings out in time.

So many tears fell around the world as this beautiful building was saved by the brave Paris firefighters through the night. This morning, they are saying that the cathedral’s structure is still sound. It will take decades to rebuild but I have faith in this country and its passion for history that it will be restored to its former glory.

Thanks to all who said a prayer or shed a tear for this grand old lady.

Do you have a memory, recent or far off, of Notre-Dame de Paris?