Gilets jaunes

15 December 2018

With thoughts of a nice warming coffee and maybe a cake in the Jardin du Luxembourg cafe evaporating, we peered through the locked gates and wondered what to do next. It was one o’clock and both of us were cold, damp and feeling rather hungry. Our early breakfast seemed like a lifetime ago and we’d been walking more or less the whole time since then. The little cafe we’d stopped at before on Boulevard Saint Michel sprang to mind so we headed towards it.

As we walked we theorised about the locked gates of the park.

”Perhaps something has happened inside?” Commando suggested. “That police van must be there for a reason.”

”I wonder what though?” I said, “There was no one inside the gates that I could see and no police in the van.”

“It could be anything but, after the terrorist attack in Strasbourg last week, I guess they’re taking no chances, France does seem to have more than its fair share of these things.”

This was a sobering thought, News footage of the aftermath of Tuesday’s attack in the Strasbourg Christmas market was fresh in my mind. Five people had died and eleven were injured by a French Algerian terrorist with a gun and a knife. He managed to escape the scene in a taxi but was eventually found on Thursday and died in a shoot out with police. The attack was never going to stop us visiting Paris because these things can happen anywhere, but the locked park gates suddenly took on a sinister significance.


La Croissanterie was a welcome sight. We stepped inside to a world of mouthwatering treats and the wonderful smell of coffee. The young man who served us spoke perfect English and was quite chatty. He seemed surprised to learn the park was closed.

“Perhaps it is because of the Gilets Jaunes,” he suggested.

Of course we’d heard all about the Gilets Jaunes on the news at home. The yellow vests movement was sparked by an online petition in May 2018. The petition, aimed at economic justice and motivated by rising fuel prices, government tax reforms and a spiralling cost of living, had almost a million signatures. By November, the online rumblings had become protest marches, with roads and fuel depots blocked. The protesters all wore yellow high vis jackets, the kind everyone has to carry in their car in France in case of an accident or breakdown.  The French are, at the best of times, a militant nation and President Macron, with his ‘let them eat cake’ attitude and smug smile, seems to be quite unpopular. He would probably do well to read his French history and see where such attitudes have led in the past.

Inevitably, some of the marches turned into riots. Those in Paris on 1 December were particularly nasty with more than one hundred cars burned and the Arc de Triomph vandalised. For this reason we’d decided to avoid the area around Champs Elysees where it seemed most of the problems occurred. 

When we left the cafe the young man warned us to be careful in case the Gilets Jaunes were about. It wasn’t long before we saw signs that they were. Soon after we crossed the Seine and were back on Boulevard de Sébastopol, close to Rue de Rivoli, we saw a long line of blue police vans at the side of the road. Amongst them was a strange tank like vehicle that we assumed was for a water cannon. There were no yellow jackets anywhere in view but we knew they must be nearby. Perhaps this explained the locked parks.

A few moments later a couple of men in yellow vests passed us. Whether they were protestors or just workmen of some kind we couldn’t tell but they seemed fairly harmless. We carried on walking and the rain kept on falling.

Five minutes later, as we were approaching the junction with Rue du Borg L’Abbé, we heard sirens. The gendarmes were obviously on the move. All the blue vans we’d just passed came speeding up the road, including the scary looking tank. WE stopped to watch and I took the video below. Before they reached us they turned off onto Rue aux Ours. We breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever was going on was obviously not ahead.

Gilets Jaunes Paris December 2018

We kept on walking but we didn’t get far. As we approached the zebra crossing we saw a huge crowd of people walking down the road towards us. The Gilets Jaunes had found us! It seemed they had also somehow evaded all the police. Commando came over all protective and tried to stand in front of me as they turned and marched in front of us along Rue de Turbigo. They didn’t look very scary as far as I could see though so I got out my phone and began to film them. It isn’t every day you get caught up in a mass protest march after all. The video I took is below.

Gilets Jaunes Paris December 2018

There were an awful lot of Gilets Jaunes and Commando kept trying to get in front of me so I soon gave up filming and just took photos instead. None of the protesters seemed in the least bit threatening. In fact, they all looked to be having rather a nice time, walking along with their yellow jackets and placards chatting to each other. They seemed to be a mixture of all ages and classes, not at all the militant young hooligans they’d been portrayed by the press.

It was a good ten minutes before the crowd of protesters thinned out enough for us to get across the road and continue our journey. In all that time we hadn’t seen a single gendarme. A few hundred yards further up the now empty road though, a whole group of police in full riot gear came past us. With their flack jackets, visored helmets and, most scarily, machine guns, they looked way more frightening than all of the Gilets Jaunes put together.

It was raining even harder by now and it was quite a relief to know the protesters were all behind us now. At least we thought they were. Then, as we were approaching the junction of Rue Réaumur, we saw blue flashing lights ahead. Another mass of police vehicles, white ones this time, were careering across the junction. Either there were more Gilets Jaunes about or the police were spectacularly bad at finding them.

On we walked, rather hoping the police didn’t manage to catch up with the protesters. From what I could see the yellow vests looked to be far more harmless than the police and I didn’t like the idea of them being tear gassed, water cannoned, or shot at. When we came to Boulevard Saint Denis a whole host of police vans were parked up and a small crowd had gathered at the crossroads to see what was happening.


After a few minutes of standing watching nothing much happen Commando decided to walk up Boulevard Saint Denis and see what, if anything, was going on. Against my better judgement, I followed. When we reached the Porte Saint Martin we found a scene of chaos. Half the road was blocked by police and protestors and the traffic was backed up trying to find a way around them.

On a different day I might have admired the beautiful monumental archway, commissioned by Louis XIV in 1674. The Porte Saint Martin was built by architect Pierre Bullet, a student of François Blondel who built the nearby Porte Saint Denis,  to honor the capture of FrancheComté. It replaced the original medieval gateway in the wall built by Charles V in around 1356 to protect the Right Bank of the city. Today all I could think about was tear gas and freezing water.

Luckily the protesters began to march off along Rue Saint Martin and we escaped the teargas and water cannon, if not the traffic jam. When we set out on our quiet afternoon stroll our main worry had been the rain. In the end our walk turned out to be far more eventful than either of us could ever have imagined.

It was beginning to get dark by the time we got back to the hotel and, after a quick freshen up, we went back to our favourite cafe for a warming hot chocolate followed by a bite to eat in Au Baroudeur. The day hadn’t been at all how we’d umagined but it certainly wasn’t lacking in interest.

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The best laid plans…

15 December 2018

From the outset it was clear finding and running the Paris parkrun was not going to be simple. It was much further from the hotel than Commando had thought, 8.6 kilometres to be exact, or 5.3 miles in real money. Walking wasn’t really an option as we needed to be there at nine o’clock for the start, besides, there was far too much chance of getting lost and Commando needed to save his energy for running. On top of all that we had to somehow find the start in a very large park with very few parkruners.

The weather forecast was for heavy rain, which wasn’t ideal, but, when we left the hotel at half past six, it was bitingly cold but dry. We stopped off in Cafe Du Nord for a quick breakfast. This turned out to be delicious but not quite as quick as we’d hoped. The service was excruciatingly slow and time was ticking by.

Eventually, just after seven, we were back out on the street. The Metro station was easy to find, buying a ticket and finding the correct platform, not so much. There was a moment when Commando came close to going back out onto the street and getting a taxi instead. In hindsight this might have been a better, if more expensive, plan.

By quarter past seven we had finally made it to the right platform and were patiently waiting for the train. Briefly, we felt like real Parisians. According to the train information our journey should have taken about forty five minutes, giving us ample time to get into the park and find the start. Well, in theory anyway.

We had to change trains at Odéon but this went fairly smoothly, although it was quite a relief when the train began to move and we knew we were going in the right direction. The map on the wall told us there were a lot more stations between Odéon and Porte d’Auteuil than we’d expected and they seemed to be passing by far slower than we’d have liked. Commando was getting grumpier by the second, sure we wouldn’t make it in time. I was trying hard to be positive but was worried about the walk from the station to the park. The night before I’d translated the directions from metro to start line into English but they didn’t exactly make sense. Once we got there though, I hoped things would be a little clearer.

When we dashed off the train into the freezing air it was almost nine o’clock. At top speed we marched up the hill towards the park, aided very slightly by my translated directions. It was supposed to be around eight hundred metres from the metro station. All of it was up hill and, when we reached the top, there was no sign of a start line. By now it was after nine o’clock and the only runners we could see were already running.

We never did find the start line. There was a lot of angry stomping around the park, mostly by me, and a few cross words. We could have stayed and enjoyed the park but we were both too annoyed at this point so, barely speaking to each other, we stomped back down the hill and got back onto the metro. By this time it was packed and we let a couple of trains pass because we didn’t fancy playing sardines.

By the time we got back to Gare du Nord we could almost see the funny side of it all. Almost… Commando got changed out of his running gear and we went to our favourite cafe Cafe la chaufferie, on Boulevard de Denain, for chocolat chaud. This is possibly the best hot chocolate in the entire world. You get a small jug of melted dark chocolate and another jug of steamed milk, need I say any more? Mmmmm

Over our deliciously warming drinks we discussed what to do to fill the rest of the day. So far it hadn’t rained but it was bitterly cold and rather dismal. Commando suggested a visit to the Louvre but I really wanted to be outside despite the cold. In the end we decided to walk to Jardin du Luxembourg created in 1612 by Marie de Medici. The park is beautiful with lots of interesting statues and fountains and, if we got too cold, there was a museum in the Orangerie and a cafe where we could have warm drinks and food. It sounded like a plan.

So, pulling hats and scarves close about our faces, we began to walk along Boulevard de Magenta. Brisk walking kept us warm although there was a hint of rain in the air that didn’t bode well. At the junction of Boulevard de Magenta and Boulevard de Strasbourg we had to turn but first we had to cross the road. While we stood shivering and waiting I snapped a photo of the bustling entrance to Gare de L’Est.

A row of decorated Christmas trees stood outside the Church of Saint Laurent but the doors were closed so there was no chance of a look inside. It struck me that, while everything in England had been ablaze with lights and tinsel since mid November, Paris barely seemed to realise Christmas was just ten days away. A little further on we did see a vendor half blocking the pavement with a stack of Christmas trees for sale. The smell of pine was wonderful but no one seemed to be buying. Perhaps the French are not as Christmas obsessed as the rest of the world or maybe Paris is too beautiful to need extra festive decoration?

On any other day I’d have been stopping and taking photos all the time, much to Commando’s annoyance. Today though, it was too cold to stop unless it was strictly necessary so we marched on with our heads down against the icy, slightly drizzly air until we reached Rue de Rivoli. Here there was another brief stop to cross the road and take a couple of photos of the Tour Saint-Jacques through the trees.

The tower was once part of the Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie (Saint James of the butchery). Built in the sixteenth century, most of the church was demolished shortly after the French Revolution. The stones were carted off and used to build other things. The quirky tower with its array of strange statues at the top was left as a landmark to pilgrims heading for Santiago de Compostela. 

On our last visit to Paris I went into the park and spent quite some time looking at the tower. The sky was blue then and it was nowhere near as cold. Today, standing still really wasn’t an option unless we wanted to turn into icicles, besides, the gates to the park were closed for some strange reason. As we’d had no intention of going inside this didn’t seem like much of a concern and we walked on towards the river.

When we reached the next junction the Seine and Pont au Change were in front of us. As we waited to cross the road I took a photo of Quai de l’Horloge (quay of the clock) and the Concierge. From here, the Eiffel Tower looked close enough to touch but it was far too cold to even think about visiting, even if the views over Paris would have probably been worth freezing for.

There is a small plaque on Pont au Change commemorating the French resistance fighter Jem Harrix, who died here on 19 August 1944 at the beginning of the Battle of Paris, an uprising staged by the Resistance. At that time, Paris had been under German occupation for more than four years and, although the allied forces had landed on the beaches of Normandy and were approaching, Paris was still occupied. The battle lasted until 25 August and opened the way for the Allies to enter the city.

We stopped for a moment to admire the view from the bridge and try to imagine what it must have been like here during those dark days. A Bateau Mouche passed beneath us but it seemed to be almost empty. It was certainly not the weather for sightseeing by boat.

We didn’t dally long on the Île de la Cité. A few spots of rain were beginning to fall so, apart from a brief stop to photograph the gilded gates of the Palais de Justice and another from Pont Saint Michel, we marched onwards hoping to reach our destination before the heavens opened.

On we went along Boulevard Saint Michel, hurrying now. Although it was the middle of the day the light was so poor it seemed like dusk. Boulevard Saint German was lined with little Christmas Market huts but we pressed on.

A little further on it was tempting to stop at the  Thermes de Cluny, the ruins of Gallo-Roman thermal baths built in the third century to romanise the ancient Gauls. The Musée national du Moyen Age might have been interesting and would certainly have been warmer than the street, but we had our hearts set on Jardin du Luxembourg and, as we were almost there, we passed the museum by.

When we reached Place de la Sorbonne, dominated by the dome of the chapel of Sainte Ursule, we knew we didn’t have far to walk. My mind had already moved ahead to the cafe in the park and I was imagining a warming cup of coffee and maybe a cake.

When we reached the park gates on Boulevard Saint Michel though, they were closed. This seemed a little odd but, undeterred, we walked along Rue de Medicis towards the next gate. This too was closed though and outside it was a police van. It really didn’t look like it was our day…

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Reunited

Dancing faun bronze by Eugène Louis Lequesne
Dancing faun bronze by Eugène Louis Lequesne

23 November 2014

Just as I was about to sink down onto the steps where we’d sat the day before watching the toddler playing football and put my head in my hands in despair there was a tap on my shoulder. When I turned around there was Commando. He’d been sitting on one of the green chairs in the sun waiting for me and I hadn’t noticed him when I passed. He was pretty cross but I fell, sobbing into his arms, so relieved to see him. Continue reading Reunited

Lost in France

image

23 November 2014

Everyone knows I have a talent for getting lost. It’s something I do with monotonous regularity and, usually, it doesn’t bother me. In fact I’ve found some pretty interesting things that way and I always know it’s only a matter of time before I find my way back to somewhere familiar. Ok, so there has been the odd time, in the middle of the woods, when my stomach has tightened momentarily and I’ve had visions of being found as a skeleton under a tree.  GPS has often been my saviour but, on Sunday, it was a different story altogether. I was lost, frightened and in a state of panic. Continue reading Lost in France

Bonjour Paris

Wet pavements and sunshine, bonjour Paris
Wet pavements and sunshine, bonjour Paris

22 November 2014

On Saturday there was a plan, of sorts. This involved finding our way across the city armed only with a map and three separate objectives. We emerged from the hotel to wet streets and sunshine, it had obviously been raining at some point but the sky looked reassuringly blue. We got off to a good start, we knew which direction to go to start out. Continue reading Bonjour Paris