My memory tends to capture random moments in life, and one of which was a claim made by a French lecturer that she lived in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. Not that I had any interest in her home address, but it was the tone of voice, an astringent sense of pride, that caught my attention. Perhaps both the astringency and pride were because the 16th arrondissement was the quintessential bourgeoisie district.
Paris’ sixteenth arrondissement, also known as the ‘Passy’, is a good neighborhood to appreciate opulent 19th century architecture no only because there are abundance of them in pristine condition, but more importantly, there are few distractions. Lingering among the grand apartment blocks, one seldom rubs shoulders with herds of tourists. Ground-floor retail spaces are mainly occupied by coiffures, dry-cleaners, boulangeries and the odd real estate agents, instead of flamboyant shops, Needless to say, Passy hosts a number of posh schools, top museums, parks and embassies.
Don’t be fooled that this district is all about predictably boring bon vivant, the majestic and tranquil neighbourhood set a stage for plenty of drama throughout history; joy, sorrow and some madness. Gerard de Nerval walked a herring at the end of a leash on Rue Berton before committing suicide. On the same street, Maurice LeBlanc ‘fit vivre’ to the gentleman thief Mauric LeBlanc. At number 24, a rustic gate closes the courtyard of Balzac’s house, used to escape creditors who rushed to his home. A clandestine cinema discovered under the Palais de Chaillot by the police in 2005, with “armchairs” cut in stone and a fales bomb to threaten intruders. While the Palais des Congrès at Porte Maillot was the site of Luna Park from 1909 to 1948. This amusement park owed its name to the English word “lunatic”, because you had to be sufficiently crazy to play this kind of games. Its main attraction was the Scenic Railway, a roller coaster of almost two kilometers, traveled at a crazy speed. Its manufacture required 270 workers for two months, and used 270 kilometers of cables!
Despite its current quintessentially English name, St James is in many ways an epitome of the 16th arrondissement, where the fondness of the Once the Thier Fondation, the neo-classical mansion currently housed a hotel/club. Under the elegant façade, one finds the well-preserved grand stair case, an impressive collection of antique books, but at the same time a pair of stuffed zebra heads, infantry drums, Faro-bust shaped armchair handles, leopard-skin pattern wallpaper etc., and with a bit of luck, a black cat with a red leather neckband. The Napoleon III base tone set the stage for a mix-and-match crazy chic ambience. Tributes to the past of the place were paid in an effortless and playful manner; the marquee in the back garden resembled a hot air balloon as a reminder of the earliest airfield of Paris that once occupied the grounds of St James.
For some, Paris’ 16th is just right, and anywhere beyond le Triomphe is simply a bit too much. Not for me though! Emerging from Metro l’Odeon, all my senses will be instantaneously intrigued; the music by street artists blended with the conversation of people in the streets, the aroma of the food (the crepe by l’avant Comptoir in particular), the mixture of styles and colours, and as I sit down in fornt of l’Ambassade de Bourgogne to engage my sense of taste and touch by holding a glass of wine. Here is the 6th arrondissement, arrondissement du Luxembourg, the Latin Quarter.
From dawn to dusk, the Latin quarter is always filled with life; different sports being played at Jardin de Luxembourg in the morning; restaurants, bistros and bars full of customers enjoying good food and wine in the evening; La place Saint Sulpice occupied by the bustling and civilized antique market in the weekend.
Unlike the herds of tourists, ghastly souvenir shops and disgusting restaurants that cursed many places of interests in Paris and else, the vibe here is as invigorating as it is composed of a colourful spectrum of exquisite establishments, each specialized in their own niche. For example, instead of generic patisseries, here you will see a pastry shop that does nothing else but éclair, or a Japanese pastry chef blending iconic Japanese ingredients such as Mocha and black sesame into classic French pastries. Instead of generic chocolate ice cream, you will find a selection of chocolate ice creams and sorbets with cocoa beans from different ‘appellations’, plus the phenomenally delicious dark chocolate sorbet with raisin and whisky by a master chef who got tired of fine dinning restaurants, and opened a delicatessen/chocolatier.
Second-hand bookshops, independent eyewear makers, umbrella atelier, wine shop specialized in growers’ champagne … The quirkiest boutique I’ve discovered so far was a shop that specialized in vintage toys. I was the only customer in the shop throughout my time there, but they were in no shortage of business, as the place was well recognized by collectors all around the world.
You do not have to be an expert in their corresponding fields to enjoy those places. The owners of those places possess real passion towards the field they operate in, and they are more than happy to share their know-how with those who demonstrated genuine interest. A large chunk of my knowledge on Burgundy was kindly mentored by Phillip Sere, the owner of l’Ambassade de Bourgogne, a wine shop/bar dedicated to wine and some other stuff such as Scotch aged in Bourgogne barrels, Marc de Bourgogne, cheese and ham from Burgundy, and Boeuf de Bourgogne, only served when it is sufficiently cold outside. After years working as a consultant, Phillip eventually reunited with his real passion, showcasing the beauty of Burgundy under his own conception. Apart from a large personal selection of wine on offer, he also hosts interesting wine tasting sessions with themes such as Premier Crus that deserve to be Grand Cru, plus casual but informative education to overly-curious and relatively well-behaved customers like myself. Reading his bar menu always bring a smile to my face, not only because of the carefully selected wine by glass list, but also the description of the dessert, which reads ‘depending on the chef’s mood’.
Nothing is unnecessarily large or pretentious here; not even the flagship shop of Ralph Lauren on Boulevard St Germain de Pres. The quality is always quite serious, yet they seldom take themselves too seriously. You hardly feel any stiffness in the 6th arrondissement. Instead, there is a good dose of playfulness, such as the drop-down ceiling menu at l’Avant Comptoir, the quirky pop-ups at le Bon Marché etc.
To me, this is the best area to sense the meaning of ‘boutique’ and ‘particulier’. This makes every stroll in the area a journey of discovery, therefore it would be such a waste if your paces were rushed and stopped observing. Such is probably one of the inspirations for Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris’.
So, Paris’ 16th is tranquil, yet with no lack of exuberance and fun; whereas the 6th is bustling, yet ‘boutique’ and ‘particulier’; with one thing in common, both arrondissements are ‘trés chic et trés adorable’