The Gourmet Student’s Guide to Paris: A Weekend

 If you’re anything like me, visiting a foreign city is an excuse to gorge yourself on all the local favourites, in the name of ‘experiencing culture’. Sadly, when you’re travelling alone or on a budget, and in a limited time frame, it can be hard to find an obliging grandmother to cook you all the traditional meals you read about, and with the added barriers of language and not knowing the area, it’s hard to figure out how to sample local delicacies without paying too much or ending up in total tourist traps. Fortunately, I’ve spent enough time living in Paris whilst being simultaneously very poor and very interested in eating well to give you the low-down on what those Parisians are really eating, and how much you should be paying for it. Even if you’ve only got one weekend, you should be able to try most of these French favourites, without wincing too much at the state of your wallet afterwards.

Viennoiseries

Being perhaps what France is best known for, it only makes sense to start off a trip in Paris with viennoiseries – what you’d probably call pastries. The traditional croissant is a firm favourite, frequently eaten with nothing by way of accompaniment except perhaps some steaming espresso coffee. But if you’re seeking something a little sweeter, branch out and try a pain au chocolat (aka a chocolate croissant for us Anglospeakers), croissant aux amandes (a croissant filled with a sweet pastry cream made with almond meal and covered by finely sliced almonds), chausson aux pommes (rather like an apple turnover), or, if you’re game, a pain Suisse, which combines the sweet pastry cream of croissant aux amandes with small chunks of chocolate to give you plenty of sugary energy for your day.

Find these sweet treats and more at a boulangerie – most also sell coffee and hot drinks, and may offer mini-formules that let you buy one viennoiserie and one coffee at a reduced price. Try to avoid chains like Paul’s, La Croissanterie or Pomme de Pain, and if you’re staying outside of the actual city don’t hesitate to stop by the local boulangerie before heading to Paris for the day.

Prices: 90c (for a croissant or pain au chocolat) to 2 euros, 2-3 euros with espresso coffee

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Croissant aux amandeé

Crêpes

Perfect for breakfast, lunch or just a snack, crêpes are a go-to food for many travellers and native Parisians alike. Generally available in a wide range of both sweet and savoury varieties, they’re a cheap and warming way to fill your stomach whilst on the move. For a savoury snack, opt for jambon-fromage (ham and cheese, usually either cheddar or Emmental) or swap out the ham for oeuf (egg), poulet (chicken) or thon (tuna). If you’ve got a sweet tooth, sucre (sugar) and Nutella crepes are probably the most commonly appreciated, but it’s worth trying crème de marron (chestnut cream) or caramel au beurre salé (salted butter caramel) for a really French taste. Personally, I can never resist a Speculoos crêpe if I see it on the menu!

Crêpe stands abound throughout the city, wherever you might be. They’re also sold in restaurants, but I find it more fun – and cheaper – to watch them make it in front of me at a stand or small specialised shop. Specialised restaurants called crêperies are also plentiful, and offer more choice plus warm interiors. They  often have formules which include one savoury crepe, called a galette, one sweet crepe, and a drink – be sure to try cider, if it’s on the menu, as it’s the most traditional accompaniment.

Prices: from 2 euros (crepe au sucre) to 8 euros (if you’re getting something with lots of fillings), 8 to 15 euros for a formule at a crêperie

Baguette Sandwich

Sometimes the thought of a crepe, dripping with melted cheese or oozing sugary spread, while delicious, sounds altogether a little too rich. Fortunately, if it’s still lunch on the go you’re looking for, Paris has a perfect alternative: the baguette sandwich. Made either on custom-baked rolls nearly a foot long, or simply on a baguette sawn neatly in half, they provide a convenient way to consume some good French bread and can be stowed in a bag to be eaten while queuing for a museum, or in one of the many public parks that throng the city. Fillings range from the simple, with just one star ingredient complimented by beurre (butter), to more complex concoctions. If you’re after something traditional, choose combinations including your favourites from below:

Jambon (ham)

fromage (cheese)

saucisse (salami)

camembert

chèvre (goat’s cheese)

mozzarella

tomates (tomatoes

crudites (fresh salad ingredients, usually lettuce and tomato)

poulet (chicken)

thon (tuna)

saumon (smoked salmon)

These satisfying sandwiches are sold in the same places as viennoiseries, the ubiquitous boulangerie, but in smaller shops are not always displayed, rather made fresh upon request. Look for the word ‘sandwich’ if you can’t see rows of them lined up in the glass window. Formules are frequently available, usually consisting of a sandwich, a drink and a sweet – listed as ‘dessert’, or sometimes ‘patisserie’.

Prices: 3 euros (for single-ingredient) to 6 euros (unless you’ve gone somewhere very fancy), 5 to 11 euros for a formule

 

 

Pastries (Patisseries)

Now, what would Paris be without its famous patisseries? From the Paris-Brest to the macaron, from the sumptuous Royale to the humble éclair…it would almost be a sin to stop in Paris without sampling at least one of these delicate, rich treats. There’s an almost limitless variety to be found, whether glinting with gold-leaf in patisseries on Avenue de l’Opèra, or simply neatly arranged in a back-street local store, but a few crowd-pleasers are almost sure to be among the ranks in every display. The big sister of the éclair is the religieuse (this translates as ‘nun’, being what the little desserts are supposed to resemble), offering the same sweet custard encased by crisp choux pastry. Mille-feuille is a good option for the wary, but not the weak-hearted: layers of thick custard, pastry and sugar make it delicious but nothing that can be described as light. The Paris-Brest was named in honour of the race of the same name, and consists of delicate praline cream with a crunchy pastry exterior. To round off the Paris-centric cakes there’s the Royale (sometimes known as Trianon, being named after the miniature palace at Versailles), perfect for chocolate lovers with its layers of chocolate mousse, chocolate ganache and crisp dacquoise (a meringue-like substance made with almonds) while those preferring the rich flavour of coffee can opt for an opèra, named for the famous Opèra Garnier and involving multiple levels of coffee-soaked sponge cake and chocolate.

Patisseries, confusingly or conveniently enough, are found at patisseries, made by patissiers. Most boulangeries are combined boulangerie-patisseries and as such it’s child’s play to find one, but look out for a salon de thé if you seek the creature comforts of warmth, a table to eat your pastry at and perhaps a pot of tea. It may cost a little more to eat in, but the extra fraction is well worth it on wintry days!

Prices: usually 2.20 euros to 5 euros, though at the big names like Lenôtre or Angelina’s expect something in between 6 and 10 euros. Yes, for one pastry.

 

 

 

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Déjeuner Formule

If you’ve got the time, money and appetite for a full French meal, be sure to take advantage of the numerous formule déjeuner (lunch menus) available. Some, unfortunately, run only on weekdays, but many restaurants still offer them on weekends. Their form can vary slightly: the basic premise is that you pay a lower price for a fixed menu, choosing from combinations of entrée-plat (starter and main), plat-dessert (main and dessert) or all three (for a higher price, of course). Sometimes there are multiple options for each dish, and sometimes you get the plat du jour (meal of the day) with no choice about it. They’re a great way to sample some of the French classics, but if you’ve splashed out on three courses, take your time – the rich food, even when offset by the basket of complimentary bread, calls for tranquil, languid dining habits.

Look out for:

soupe à l’oignon (onion soup served with a crust of bread and melted Gruyere cheese)

escargots à la bourguignon (Burgundy style snails served with garlicky sauce)

salade au chèvre (salad served with goats cheese, generally drizzled with honey)

oeufs à la mayonnaise (devilled eggs)

cuisse de canard or confit de canard (duck thigh cooked in traditional style)

boeuf bourguignon  (traditional beef stew originating from Burgundy, like the snails)

crème brulée (super thick vanilla custard covered by a layer of caramelised sugar)

fromage blanc or fromage à la campagne (soft white cheese the consistency of thick yoghurt, often eaten with sugar or jam on top)

assiette de fromage (cheese plate)

mousse au chocolat (rather easy to guess, but very traditionally French)

Restaurants with formule-déjeuners are found all over Paris, but prices and quality will vary hugely according to your location. For budget travellers, go ahead and try Montmartre or the Latin Quarter for 10 euro menus aimed at tourists, but be aware that your servings will be small and the quality questoinable. Otherwise, venture out to less popular suburbs such as Belleville (19th/20th arrondissement) or anywhere outside the arrondissements of Paris.

Prices: starting at 10 euros for entrée-plat-dessert, but average prices hovering around 15 for two courses.

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Oeufs à la mayonnaise

Planche fromage/charcuterie/mixte

Paris is host to an innumerable quantity of bars, brasseries and other drinking establishments, many of which provide food as well as endless aperol spritzers. When out for a drink, the best choice for something to nibble on alongside your wine is indubitably a planche (board). Generally found in three types – fromage (cheese), charcuterie (cold deli meats) or mixte (both cheese and meat), the servings are usually generous and the bread plentiful.

Consult almost any menu in a bar or brasserie serving meals – they’re often listed under its own heading, A Partager (to share).

Prices: 10 – 20 euros

Chocolat à l’ancienne et glace à l’italienne

Depending on the season, you may well have need to warm yourself up with a good hot drink or find something to refresh you after long treks down cobbled streets. Accordingly, grab yourself a chocolat chaud à l’ancienne (old-fashioned hot chocolate) to discover the real difference between hot cocoa and hot chocolate: one’s chocolatey flavoured milk, the other feels like you’re drinking melted chocolate. Sometimes sold by chocolatiers (especially chains like Chocolat de Neuville), but also found in cafes and salons de thé, these can be a dessert all by themselves. Chocolat chaud onctueux is another name for the same thing – but just glance behind the counter: if you can see the whirling vat of warm chocolate, you know you’re in the right place.

Alternatively, if the weather’s warmer, cool down with glace à l’italienne (Italian-style ice cream). Soft serve ice cream is hugely popular in the warmer months, and available in far more flavours than boring old vanilla, such as salted caramel, strawberry and pistachio. Often, the machines will allow you to combine two flavours for a beautiful – and delicious – colour contrast. Seen only once the sun shows its face, the machines pop up in boulangeries and chocolatiers (chocolate makers) or can be found on the street, especially in busy areas.

Prices: for ice creams, 2.50 euros to 6 euros (for larger sizes). For chocolat chaud, 3 euros (takeaway) to 9 euros (check out Angelina’s for their famous African hot chocolate, coming in at a neat 8.20 euros)

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Glace à l’italienne choco-vanille

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Chocolat chaud à l’ancienne chez Angelina’s

A word of advice: if you want to profit from all that Paris has to offer in terms of gastronomic delights, you won’t be leaving the City of Lights feeling the least bit light – but I promise it’s worth it!

St-Germain-des-Prés (6th arrondissement)

This area is known for its connections to art and literature, as well as hosting some impressive architecture like the Palais de Luxembourg. It’s on the more expensive side, and appeals to those interested in culture.

Start at Metro stop St-Germain-des-Prés (line 4), and admire the church immediately beside you, Eglise de Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It dates from the 6th century, when it was erected by Childebert, the son of the first King of France, Clovis. The tomb of René Descartes, famous mathematician and logician, can be found in its side chapels.

If you’re in the mood for something sweet, pick up a traditional waffle or crêpe at the stand right outside the Metro entrance – it has a long established reputation for delivering cheap, sugary pleasure. If you’re looking for something more lux, head straight down rue Bonaparte towards Ladurée’s, a famous patisserie and tea salon that’s been around since 1861. It’s especially known for its macarons, though the cakes are delicious as well, but prices start at 2.50 for a mini-macaron and around 6 euros for the cheapest cake. That’s at take-away prices, too!

 

 

If money doesn’t concern you too much, and you want to relive the lives of famous authors, look across the street from the church to find the first of the three cafes patronised by long-gone intellectuals. Les Deux Magots is particularly known for playing host to Rimbaud, Picasso and Hemingway, while Café des Flores right next door was the favourite of luminaries such as Apollinaire, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Trotsky. Each café lays claim to particular known names, but in fact the writers and thinkers generally frequented both businesses. They serve traditional French café fare, such as chocolat chaud a l’ancienne, but beware: a simple espresso starts at around 4 to 5 euros. Just across the road, the Lipp brasserie was also part of the handful of establishments beloved by the artists. Founded by an Alsatian couple, it was known for its food from that region – think sauerkraut, remoulade and beer – and now is famous for its excellent mille-feuille.

Moving eastwards along the Boulevard St Germain, you can take a left turn at Rue de l’Echaude to seek out the National Museum of Eugeune Delacroix, the famous painter. While it doesn’t have many of his famous works, it’s interesting to see his studio and house (and free for EU residents under 26), chosen specifically for its proximity to Eglise de Saint-Sulplice, where he painted one of the chapels. That’s worth a visit too, and is a short walk down the same rue Boneparte that leads to Laduree’s, but in the southerly direction.

Keep heading down the Boulevard if your stomach’s rumbling now, and just a few steps down Rue de l’Ancienne Comedie on your left, you can peek at the marvellous creations at Éclair de Genie, which features éclairs with fillings and toppings a little beyond the regular chocolate pastry cream. Le Procope, which holds the title of the oldest restaurant in Paris, is just before it.

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The éclair au caramel, one of the specialities of Eclair du Genie

Alternatively, turn right at rue de l’Odeon and walk towards the imposing Odeon Theatre. Behind it, you’ll find the Palais de Luxembourg and its famous adjoining gardens, which feature large basins used for toy sailing boats in summer and plenty of people, both locals and tourists, whenever the sun is out. The palace was built by the Italian wife of King Henry IV, Marie de Medici, after her husband died and is modelled on a palace from Marie’s native Florence. Now, the building is the seat of the French Senate, and the former orangery has become the Musée de Luxembourg which holds regular art exhibitions. The Boulevard Saint-Michel, so named for the huge decorative fountain found at its northern end, marks the end of 6th arrondissement, and the beginning of the Latin Quarter.

George Sand (née Armandine Aurore Lucille Dupin)

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George Sand aged 60, photo by Nadar

George Sand (1804-1876) was the pseudonym of perhaps the most famous French female writer of the 19th century, a lady of strangely contrary ancestry known as Aurore. With royalty on one side of her family and street vendors on the other, Aurore knew controversy from the very beginning of her life and never stopped embracing it, as she flouted social conventions to take the lovers she chose, dress as she pleased, and do what she wanted.

Aurore’s father was the grandson of the Maréchal de Saxe, who was himself the illegitimate son of the King of Poland. Despite this glowing heritage, he married Antoinette Sophie-Victorie Delaborde, believed to be a former prostitute and certainly descended from a humble background, as her grandfather was a street hawker. Her father died while Aurore was young, and her paternal grandmother, who was the Châtelaine of Nohant, raised her on her large estate in Berry, which would become the scene of many of Aurore’s novels.

After a disillusioning marriage to Casimir Dudevant in 1822, Aurore unofficially separated from her husband in 1831 to embark on an affair with young writer Jules Sandeau, with whom she collaborated on articles for Le Figaro as well as her first novel, Blanche et rose (1831). These joint works were published under the pseudonym J. Sand, but when she began to write independently with the publication of Indiana (1832), Aurore adopted the alias by which she is remembered today.

Once she had left her husband, who she officially divorced in 1835, Aurore began a string of affairs of varying duration and importance, and the list of her lovers features many a famous name, from Alfred de Musset to her most well-known and longest-lasting companion, famous composer Frederic Chopin. Unfortunately, a growing dispute between the two former lovers, thought to have been exacerbated by Aurore’s supposed characterisation of Chopin in her novel Lucrezia Floriani (1846), led to Aurore refusing to attend Chopin’s funeral in 1848. Aurore has often been depicted as bisexual, thanks to a highly publicised relationship, presumed to be lesbian in nature, with the beautiful stage actress Marie Dorval, but it is only certain that she was a passionate lover who had many different partners, often much younger than herself, and who valued highly the concept of love.

There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved.

-George Sand

Aurore reinforced her reputation as someone heedless of society’s opinion through her choice to wear men’s clothing, which she claimed she did for pragmatic reasons – it was more comfortable and cheaper than conventional lady’s attire. However, it’s likely she did it partly so as to be able to gain access to the parts of the city – and life – that were usually barred to her sex. This desire to escape her social milieu and find out the truth of life, in all its forms, was a defining trait of Aurore and is reflected in her work, which often features cross-rank relationships and explores taboo topics such as sex, sexuality and even incest.

What a brave man she was, and what a good woman.

— Ivan Turgenev

Though she had a prodigious output, numbering nearly 50 novels and around a dozen plays, Aurore is most known for the books written in a later period of her life, referred to as ‘rustic novels’, that draw heavily on her experience of the countryside at her estate in Nohant, which she inherited after the death of her grandmother and which became her permanent home. These often focus on encouraging a sense of compassion for the poor or working classes, a theme on which Aurore was vocal not only with her fiction, but with various political essays, even going so far as to create her own newspaper so as to publish her opinions more easily. With her strong views on the need to end class divides and her support for women’s rights, combined with her severely unconventional behaviour, Aurore was frequently criticised for being too manly or too opinionated for a woman. However, despite her many detractors, Aurore enjoyed the praise and respect of many of her contemporary intellectuals, who were able to recognise her valuable attributes of determination, fearlessness and innate kindness as more important than following the superficial demands of the era.

Guard well within yourself that treasure, kindness. Know how to give without hesitation, how to lose without regret, how to acquire without meanness.

-George Sand

Aurore died peacefully on her estate at Nohant in June of 1876, aged 71. She remains buried in a private graveyard there, though in 2003 it was proposed that her body be moved to the Panthéon, which houses the remains of important French figures such as Balzac and Louis Braille.

Famous works:

La petite fadette (1849)
Lélia (1833)

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Portrait of George Sand (1838 – Eugène Delacroix)

On Productivity

Did you write anything today? Make anything? Do your homework or catch up on readings or study for a test? Practice piano?

If the answer to all those questions is no, and you’re anything like me, you feel guilty about it. After all, everyone knows how life works: if you want to get good things out of it – if you want to be able to play an instrument or speak a language or graduate with good marks or make money – you have to put the hours in. And god knows I want to be able to do all those things, preferably at the same time. At the same time, though, I don’t want to live under the burden of a hundred self-imposed and unrealistically expectations when I could – and probably should – be proud of what I can already do. That leaves us with the same timeworn issue that so often rears its ugly head – how do we find the right balance?

Obviously, there’s no tried-and-true, step-by-step guide to finding that equilibrium that works for anyone and everyone, or else, as the saying goes, we’d all be doing it.

That doesn’t mean there’s not a few tricks for figuring out whether you need to step down or step up, though.

The first is easy – ask. Look to the people you respect, people who you consider seem to be striking an alright balance themselves and who know you. It’s difficult to judge your own efforts, and particularly so when we’re so constantly inundated by other people’s results. Though everyone you know might only be doing one noteworthy thing – getting an award at uni, or a promotion, or just being really excellent at making their own dresses – the cumulative effect of seeing so many people’s sole achievement ends up making it seem like everyone can, and does, do everything better than you.

Asking the people around you whether or not you seem to be holding your own against the onslaught of Other People’s Achievements can help give you back some of the perspective you might be missing. Frequently, we underestimate ourselves by downplaying our own accomplishments – over time, they come to seem so naturally a part of you that you forget other people would find them impressive.

Consider your goals. In the end, we want achievements because we imagine they’ll make us happier. But the work involved to attain them can end up making us unhappier than the joy we gain from having them. Acknowledging that, no, you can’t do everything – and certainly not all at once – is vital, because you need to be able to consider the achievements you’re aiming for and whether the end-goal is, ultimately, worth the work. Not everything is, and the goals that matter most are different for everyone.

Some achievements, like graduating, might be reasonably necessary to your future. But if it’s something you’re doing only for the sake of being able to do it, well, don’t stress about not having practiced or studied if you were doing something else that brought you pleasure. Just ask yourself, every time: will you gain more enjoyment, in the long run, by being ‘productive’ for an hour or by procrastinating? After all, you can still enjoy your life to the full without a list of achievements as long as your arm – more so, even, than if you constantly torture yourself with remembering what you haven’t done.

Don’t waste your time. Often, when we do have to do something, we waste our time stalling and being distracted. Three hours at home rarely means three hours of uninterrupted leisure, let alone productive work. Instead of trying to get your work done in bite-size intervals, dedicate the necessary time to it – give yourself instant objectives, like finishing a book this week, practicing for a full half hour today, or not getting up till you’ve written 500 words, and stick to them. It really is easier to get things done if you give them your full attention, and it leaves you with more time to spend doing absolutely nothing productive, but with one important difference – you don’t have to feel guilty about it.


It will still never be easy to judge how well you’re doing. But if you’re content with the way you actually spend your days, and with how people see you, there’s no point worrying about amassing achievements to your name. Just try to consciously enjoy every moment that you can, and when you can’t escape the necessity of some boring or difficult work, keep in mind the reasons you’re doing it. Finding the balance will still be tricky, but at least you’ll be a little more aware of what you need to be weighing up.

 

On science, and why we should respect it

We’ve all sighed in resignation, spluttered in indignation or rolled our eyes in straight-out derision when someone reveals a belief we find ridiculous, like that chlorophyll supplements are re-energising or that wifi causes cancer. Our dismissal of their crazy notions feels righteous, because, after all, we have science on our side – only fools argue with facts. Science is the one institution that should be wholly trustworthy, based as it is on evidence, on only believing in results we can see and recreate.

How is, it, then, that even in the educated echelons of society, we’re still in constant disputes of how much we can trust science, or which science to trust?

It’s true that science is all about being willing to rewrite the accepted rules if any contrary evidence is found to disprove them, and that there’s been more than one occasion where science hadn’t advanced enough to recognise the dangers in something it touted as perfectly safe, like that time when we thought putting radium in chocolate and makeup was a wonderful idea.

But the idea of people outside the scientific community refusing to believe the testimony of experts is not only ridiculous, but dangerous. Yes, challenging ideas and questioning assumptions is important. Yes, further research may change currently accepted facts. That does not excuse the cherry-picking of what scientific truths you may or may not believe in, a phenomenon becoming all too common in a socio-political culture insistent on allowing everyone their ‘voice’, regardless of qualifications.

Of course, people are generally not consciously trying to promote ‘alternative facts’. Sometimes their misbeliefs are rooted in partially-understood concepts where context or disclaimers have been conveniently forgotten, or their information comes from a source with enough graphs and statistics paired with information written in professional-sounding terms to appear trustworthy, despite not necessarily following appropriate scientific method.

While this isn’t too much of an issue if it’s your neighbour warning you that drinking tea will make you anaemic (it won’t, not by itself) or a single housewife not buying GM food for her family, it can have much wider consequences and become a grave issue. On an individual level, extreme diets founded on inaccurate information, like the Paleo lifestyle, can be personally dangerous, not to mention expensive. GM food is vilified worldwide, potentially undermining the vital role it could play in managing famine and unpredictable harvests. Climate change obviously affects the future of literally every living being, and suffers hugely, just like Tinkerbell, from people not believing in it.

Problems like global warming urgently need to be addressed, and for that they to be acknowledged and funded. When significant proportions of the population, or even just individuals significant in decision-making, do not trust the science and facts laid out before them, these problems do not receive the attention and support necessary for them to be resolved.

Most of us have constant access, grace of the internet, to almost all the knowledge of the human race. Our actions, small though they may seem, can affect our health, the lives of the others, and even the fate of the planet. We need, perhaps now more than ever before, to be encouraging trust in experts and in science. We need to be criticising those who propagate information from unreliable sources or incomplete facts, even if it regards a relatively minor topic, because we cannot allow the belief of inaccurate ideas to become normal. Every time we ignore a qualified scientist so as to interpret information in a way more pleasing to our personal ideologies, we are making it that much easier for dangerous misinformation to become widely believed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Woman of the Week: Suzanne Valadon (née Marie-Clémentine Valadon)

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Self-portrait (1927)

‘Suzanne’ Valadon (1865-1938) was born as the bastard Marie-Clémentine Valadon, and only acquired the name by which we know her today as an adult, when her work as a live model for the artists of Montmartre earned her the nickname derived from the biblical story, Susanna and the Elders. She graduated from modelling to using models herself as a painter and artist, and became known for the individuality lent to her work by her female perspective, although she is, somewhat sadly, perhaps best remembered as the mother of Impressionist painter Maurice Utrillo.

Though born in Bessines, Suzanne moved to Paris as a small child. She began to work when she was just 11, finding various jobs including waiting tables and factory work, until she ended up performing as an acrobat in a circus around the age of 15. Though she wanted to continue in this line of work, a serious back injury obtained from a fall whilst on the trapeze prevented her from pursuing this passion, and she turned instead to modelling.

Her first known employer was Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, with whom it is generally assumed she had some kind of romantic or sexual relationship. However, she also had a relationship with Miguel Utrillo, beginning in 1881, and it was he who eventually claimed paternity of the illegal child that Suzanne gave birth to in 1883. Maurice Utrillo, as he became known, was raised largely by his grandmother as Suzanne continued to model and started her career as an artist.

Though her career started with Puvis, Suzanne had become a popular model for many other artists, including Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir, who is attributed as the inspiration behind her nickname. She cultivated strong relationships with many of them, being romantically involved with Lautrec while becoming firm friends with Edward Degas, one of the most ardent advocates of her work. Through her observation of their techniques while they painted her, and with their instruction and influence, Suzanne became a self-taught artist who specialised in the female nude and frank, candid portraits.

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Danse à Bougival (Pierre-August Renoir, 1883) features Suzanne Valadon as the principal dancer

As models, Suzanne frequently used her own mother and son, depicting domestic scenes with a gratifying sincerity that can be found equally in her female nudes. Criticised by some for her bold style, with her figures being accused of being ‘too masculine’, others consider her startling honest treatment of the female form as the evidence of her talent. Although other female artists, such as Berthe Morisot, also favoured female subjects, Suzanne’s lower-class background gave her the liberty to paint nudes where their bourgeoisie roots held them back. Thus, Suzanne provided some of the first widely known representations of the female form produced from a female perspective.

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Catherine reclining nude on a leopard skin (1923)

In 1894, Suzanne became the first woman to ever exhibit at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, though it was only after her marriage to stockbroker Paul Mousis in 1896 that her new-found financial stability gave her the time to dedicate herself to her art. It was in the early 20th century that her perhaps most famous tableaux, such as Adam and Eve, Casting the net and The joy of life were finished. These large-scale oil paintings became famous for daring to show men as an object of desire for women, and for being the first pieces by a female artist to focus on sexual pleasure in general.

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Casting the net (Le lancement de fillet) – 1914 (Centre Georges Pompidou)

The subject of these paintings was her significantly younger lover, a painter named Andre Utter who was a friend of her artist son’s. She divorced Mousis in 1913 to remarry Utter, and the three artists lived together in Montmartre, where their former atelier now forms part of the Museum of Montmartre, supporting themselves off their work. By the 20s, though, their relationship had declined, and the pair eventually separated unofficially. Suzanne died in 1938, suffering a stroke whilst painting at her easel and dying in hospital shortly after.

On Provins: Gallic roses and the fairs of Champagne

Where and what?

Have you heard of Provins? I hadn’t, unless perhaps it was mentioned in my hearing but, thanks to my still-imperfect grasp of French accents and pronunciation, filed  under references to ‘Provence’. Which may have led to some confusion if we were talking about how to get there, seeing as Provence is in the south of France, about 4 hours by train from Paris, whereas Provins is a mere 1 hour and 25 minutes by the same vehicle.
That’s how I got there, on a beautifully sunny day in late winter that had us all convinced that spring had arrived early (in fact, winter put its bitter claws back into us a week later, so I was intensely glad to have profited from the sunshine).
To start with, let it be said that I wholly recommend the place in general. It’s quite touristy, but in a more quaint and charming way than Paris, and with largely French visitors – although I do my best to harbour no bias to a particular country and the tourists it may produce, it’s still nicest to be surrounded by people of the country you’re actually visiting when you’re sightseeing.
I had the luck to be there on a market day, so even the ‘new’ part of town was bustling with activity as clothes and books and fresh produce spilled abundantly from fold-up tables in the main street while the market hall hosted butchers’ stalls, baked goods and long rows of fish and seafood lying glassy-eyed on their banks of ice cubes. Although Paris has wonderful fresh food markets, I couldn’t help but appreciate the wholesome simplicity of an average small-town Saturday market, free from any pseudo-traditionalism.

What’s there to see?

In terms of sightseeing, I bought a 12 euro Provins Pass which gave me access to everything apparently worth seeing in the old part of town. That includes, specifically, les sousterrains – ‘the underground’ – one-time quarries converted into storage that stretch beneath the town; the town museum, the small fortified tower (la Tour César) and the somewhat kitschy grange aux dimes (tithe barn) which has mocked-up displays of various tradespeople surrounded by their work – weavers, potters, merchants, etc. Each display is accompanied by a short dialogue between the figure and a very conveniently curious 13th century visitor, giving you a basic understanding of the roles the workers played in a medieval context. The audio is easy enough for kids to follow, but still informative enough to be interesting to adults – assuming you don’t happen to be an amateur medieval expert already.

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La Tour César (right) with the dome of St. Quiriace church in background

The town museum is essentially just a collection of oddities related to the area, and reminds me strongly of small-town Aussie museums where they don’t really have enough history in the area to justify a whole museum and try to make up for it by dedicating a room to art-deco bathroom fixtures or some random inhabitant’s family tree. There’s zero coherency to the exhibits, with Neolithic stone fragments displayed beneath a Belle-Epoque era painting of someone-or-other and faced by some wooden Renaissance religious effigies. It seems strange, considering their strong links to medieval history, that there isn’t anything more particularly aimed at vaunting this, but I suspect from the emptiness and lack of information on the displays that this might be due to lack of funding.

A taste of history

The foires de Champagne (Champagne fairs) were 6-8 week long affairs that encompassed practically any and all goods – food, precious metals, livestock, cloth, trinkets, spices, whatever the merchants could find and make a profit on. By decree of Count Thibaut IV de Blois, there were 6 held annually, in 4 different major cities of the region: Troyes, Lagny, Bar-sur-Aube and Provins. The regular influx of visitors served to enrich these host cities, and the authorities began to provide guaranteed, free protection to merchants travelling to the cities in order to ensure that these profitable events continued smoothly. Over the 12th and 13th century, the towns grew in wealth and importance, so it makes sense that is this time from which the major buildings and the town’s fairly extensive ramparts date.
These ramparts, of which more than a kilometre’s length of the original 5km exist, are freely accessible. Following them makes for a pleasant ramble down cobbled roads and grassy lanes, with cultivated fields spreading wide on one side while you gaze over the rooftops of Provins on the other. Being there in the very beginning of spring, I revelled in noticing the first brave blooms of field-flowers along the path, even if the glorious sun that had accompanied me through my visit in the town itself was in the middle of setting.

There’s also plenty of houses from later periods, though, and walking through the town’s cobbled streets provides a reasonably picturesque mix of non-descript buildings that are difficult to place chronologically, and pretty examples of half-timber houses from around the 17th century.

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If you truly fall in love with the town, there’s sure to be a half-timber house like this one currently available for purchase

The rose of Provins (rosa gallica officinalis)

The town is also famous for the Provins rose, supposedly brought back to Europe from the Crusades by the local count, Thibaut IV, the same one who introduced regulations to the Champagne fairs. Also known as the Gallic rose,  the hardy flower was used in religious ceremonies and for medicinal purposes up until the late Middle Ages – to aid digestion when made into a syrup, relieving sore throats as a candy, and applied to the skin as a lotion. It’s still popular in dozens of different forms today, and you can find anything from rose-flavoured ice cream to coffee to liqueur in the various shops in the old town. Personally, I can recommend every rose product I sampled myself, which is to say: rose petal jam (excellent on waffles), rose ice cream and rose-infused honey!
All things considered, Provins makes a lovely daytrip if you’re in Paris or its environs, and is well worth a stop if you’re just travelling through the area. Particularly for those with children, who tend to be unimpressed by beautiful cities like Paris and much more interested in clambering over some city walls and sampling sugary pink goodness, it provides a fun and wallet-friendly experience of a small French town with a fair bit of interesting history to keep you occupied.
There’s also a number of spectacles, including regular bird of prey shows held on the ramparts, and medieval reenactments involving horses and knights, but as I didn’t bother coming at the right time I can’t proffer an opinion on them. Check out the Provins tourism site for more information!