Step into the timeless world of guinguettes
Take part in one of the most enjoyable of French popular traditions – eating, drinking and dancing at a guinguette, in the open air, by the river… This one is on a tiny island, reached by a raft. When you step off the raft onto this particular island on the Marne, less than half an hour away from Paris, you step into the timeless world of guinguettes.
Guinguettes are so called because “le petit blanc” – the modest but lively white wine of the Paris region they used to serve, made people giguet (ready to dance a jig). Scores of open-air restaurants serving this wine and its traditional accompaniment, petite friture (fried whitebait), opened along the banks of the Seine and the Marne during the 19th century, attracting the working people of Paris, who continued to go there right up to the second world war. They would spend Sunday afternoons beside the river, eating, drinking and listening to traditional French songs sung to the accordion, until they felt ready to get up and dance. Popular with artists as well as with artisans, the guinguettes evoke the music of Jacques Brel, the films of Marcel Carné and the novels of Georges Simenon, all of whom came under their spell, and they’ve never entirely “disappeared from the affection” of Parisians.
In the last ten years or so there has been a revival of this tradition, with old-established guinguettes such as Chez Gégène at Joinville now featuring in the guidebooks and the bal musette waltz being taught at dance classes. The guinguette on the Ile du Martin-Pêcheur (Kingfisher Island) dates from 1991 and is less well-known. However, it’s already so popular that you will have to book your table and when you get there, you’ll see why! The few yards separating the island from the mainland make all the difference. As you make the “crossing” (it’s ridiculously easy) you’re instantly drawn into a sense of happy complicity with your fellow passengers – you’re all escapees from the mainland and the rhythm of everyday life. Seated at long tables outside, people of all ages exchange smiles of enjoyment. Everyone is relaxed, savoring the pleasure of the moment, whether they intend to dance or not!
I have danced there once – a breathless rock’n’roll – but the first time I went, the service was so slow that we had to leave without dancing, to catch the midnight train back to Paris. We were overtaken on the towpath by the young couple from the next table, who insisted on giving all four of us a lift back to Paris in their tiny car, with two of us illegally perched on our partners’ knees. It was their first visit too, and we all agreed that we would be going back.
It’s a three-quarter kilometer walk from the station to the guingette…
Turn left from the station into the place de la Gare. Turn right into the boulevard de Champigny and continue across the bridge, the Pont de Champigny. Take the steps down from the bridge on the left and follow the Quai Victor-Hugo for about ten minutes until you see the raft. Five adults can easily be pulled across by a child.
RER A2 trains to Boissy St-Léger, stopping at Champigny St-Maur, leave Paris every 10 minutes. The last back is at 12:25am.
Car: A4 from Porte de Bercy to Joinville, then cross the bridge onto avenue Gallieni, which becomes avenue Roger Salengro. Just before the railway viaduct, take the rue de la Plage on the right, then turn left onto the Quai Victor-Hugo.
When to go
A Sunday afternoon in summer is best if you want to enjoy the dancing without having to leave, like Cinderella, at midnight to catch the last train. Saturday evenings tend to be so popular that you may have to book several weeks in advance.
NB: You could easily combine a Sunday afternoon at the guinguette with a morning stroll and lunch at the Domaine Sainte Catherine in Créteil, two stops away on the same RER line. See feature on Créteil in May issue of Paris Voice.
L’Ile du Martin-Pêcheur, 41 Quai Victor-Hugo, 94500 Champigny, tel: 01 49 83 03 02 (restaurant reservation advisable). Open in summer, for lunch (noon to 5pm at weekends) and for dinner (8pm to 2am, Wed to Sat). In winter, open Sat evening & Sun lunch only. (Closed Dec-Mar)
You’ll hear traditional French chansons played on the accordion at the tables and can dance to the same style of music at the bal musette held on Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons. Admission to the bar/dancefloor without eating is free, unless a live band is playing (usually rock’n’roll), in which case admission is 11E. This happens one Sun per month – ring to check.
The traditional petite friture is available, as well as more standard fare, (menus 24 & 28E). The food and wine is acceptable, for the price. That is, some of it is “a mild rip-off.” But, not a “tourist rip-off,” as there are, in fact, no tourists… The service is good-natured, yet can be extremely slow. However, no one seems to mind!
Copyright Annabel Simms 2003, text adapted from her book “An Hour From Paris” (Pallas Athene 2003), available from //www.pallasathene.co.uk as well as at WH Smith, Brentano’s, The Red Wheelbarrow and other Paris bookshops. Can be contacted at //www.annabelsimms.com