Sunday by the Seine

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Guinguette Auvergnate ©Annabel Simms

You don’t need a car or a fat bank balance to experience the pleasure of lunch by the river within an hour of Paris. But you do need a sense of adventure. I’m talking about modest places where you can sit for hours over lunch surrounded by local families, and the bill is around 20E per person including wine. Here are three such establishments, all family-owned, that I discovered by chance while exploring the train network around Paris.

Le Bord de Seine, Issy-les-Moulineaux 20 minutes from St-Michel to the RER C station  Issy Val de Seine, plus a 15-minute walk

A humble-looking café/restaurant, it is opposite the Ile-St-Germain, but you would not guess this from the outside. I discovered its enviable location by going through an unobtrusive door at the back marked Toilettes. It leads to a terrasse complete with cane-backed chairs and tables, overlooking the boats moored on a narrow stretch of the river and the park on the island opposite, framed by pots of geranium and ivy. The little green bridge with red crisscross iron railings on the right is actually the side road, which leads to the island.

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Along the Seine © Annabel Simms

The café is Algerian-owned but seems to be the restaurant du quartier for the neighboring French families. The decor is restfully out of date, with blue, gray and white floor tiles and a vintage table football machine in good working order. The couscous is excellent, homemade and generous. You can have more conventional French dishes, but nothing fancy. The bill for a couscous merguez, a bottle of their best Algerian wine and coffee came to 40E for two, but would have been half that had we contented ourselves with a 50 cl carafe of Côtes du Rhône.

Getting there
From the station at Issy Val de Seine take the rue Rouget de l’Isle, which leads to the Pont d’Issy. Do not cross this bridge. Instead, follow the river south along the Quai de Stalingrad with the park of the Ile-St-Germain on your right for about 600 meters until you come to the restaurant at the corner of another small bridge.
This bridge is a good starting point from which to explore the Ile-St-Germain. Looking over its railings to the right you can see the Eiffel Tower in the distance. The park, full of families with prams on Sunday afternoons, contains a tall fiberglass sculpture, La Tour aux Figures, by Jean Dubuffet. West of the bridge, the island is mainly residential with an interesting mixed legacy of styles: older housing originally built for the Portuguese and North African workers at the Renault factory (closed down in 1989) on the neighboring Ile St Séguin, and modern housing for the recent wave of French yuppies. The CLM-BBDO advertising agency has its headquarters here, designed by Jean Nouvel. The short riverside walk from the western tip of the island to the Pont de Billancourt, overlooking the barges moored along the Issy side, has been carefully signposted, complete with orientation tables.

A good free RATP map of the area is available – ask at the ticket-office for no. 5, Ouest Parisien.

The Guinguette Auvergnate, Villeneuve-St-Georges (Triage), 15 minutes from Gare de Lyon to the RER D station at Villeneuve Triage, plus a two-minute walk

It is a traditional guinguette, that is, a restaurant where working people used to go to eat or dance to the sound of the accordion, a Parisian tradition, which has been enjoying a revival since the 1990s. I have been back several times because I love the relaxed family atmosphere and the view of the Seine from the geranium-framed windows of the narrow boat-shaped dining room or the terrasse in fine weather. The decor, the food, the clientele and the prices seem to be in a 1950s time warp. The adjoining room is reserved for private parties where the guests usually end up dancing, looking like something out of a Renoir painting.

The food is traditional family cooking with some Auvergnat specialties such as saucisson sauce Aligot, a sausage served with a cheese-pungent potato purée and lots of garlic. The three-course menu at 17E is good value and there is a wide choice of dishes à la carte. The plats du jour at around 12E might include tête de veau sauce gribiche (calf’s head with caper sauce, President Chirac’s favorite dish) or civet de biche (stewed doe) in season. A bottle of St Pourçain, the house wine is 9.50E. I recommend starting with a kir Birlou, an aperitif made with white wine delicately flavored with chestnut and apple, an Auvergnat specialty.

 Getting there
The restaurant is on the river just opposite the train station, a great advantage if you don’t want to walk much.
If you do, there is a pretty 3-km walk north along the river to another station at Choisy-le-Roi. Turn left as you leave the restaurant and follow the Avenue de Choisy for 150 meters before turning onto the towpath. Continue, past the railway bridge, until you come to the next bridge, the Pont de Choisy. Take the steps up from the towpath to cross the bridge to Choisy-le-Roi station on the RER C line, 15 minutes from St-Michel. The RATP map of the area is no.13, Sud Parisien.

La Terrasse de la Plage, Samoreau, 50 minutes from Gare de Lyon to the SNCF station at Vulaines-Samoreau sur Seine, plus a 20-minute walk along the river

The Terrasse is the poor man’s answer to the Riviera, a kilometer south of the riverside cottage of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who retired there in 1893. It is picturesquely situated on a rustic stretch of the Seine facing the forest of Fontainebleau and a sailing club, beside a path leading from the river to the old village of Samoreau. The “plage” is a grassy stretch of towpath, and the “terrasse” is a circular wooden stand surrounded by shaded tables and chairs. You can sit here for hours facing the river, listening to the peaceful murmur of local families lingering over traditional snacks such as salade de lentilles avec saucisse Montbéliard (a bargain at 7E), merguez/frites with salad, or gauffres (waffles). The plats du jour, such as chicken or steak, are around 10E. A 50 cl pichet of a good vin de pays from Perpignan will set you back 6E.

Getting there
From the Gare de Lyon take the SNCF line to Melun and change there for the train to Montereau (6-min wait), getting off at Vulaines-Samoreau. Cross to the other side of the tracks via a little underpass and follow a side road, the Voie de la Liberté, across the D39 to the roundabout, which leads to a bridge across the river. The pretty towpath walk to the Terrasse starts just under the bridge.
If you also want to visit Mallarmé’s house, which has been restored as a small museum, turn right at the roundabout onto the road instead of left onto the towpath, and continue for about 100 meters. The little landing stage where Mallarmé kept his boat is opposite the house, which contains the original furniture. It has a restful, not too tidy garden, with green slatted chairs shaded by old fruit trees.

Le Bord de Seine, 9 km SW of Paris 172 Quai de Stalingrad, 92130 Issy les Moulineaux, tel 01 40 93 02 11 Open every day except Saturday until late, as it is also a hotel.

La Guinguette Auvergnate, 16 km SE of Paris 19 Avenue de Choisy, 94190 Villeneuve-St-Georges (Triage), tel 01 43 89 04 64

Open every day except Monday in the summer until late, as it is also a hotel. Dancing in the evening on the second and last Friday of the month, and after lunch on the second Sunday of the month all year round; admission at these times 31E including menu and wine.

La Terrasse de la Plage, 54 km SE of Paris 77210 Samoreau, tel 01 64 23 95 51 Open until 11pm seven days a week from May to September

Musée Stéphane Mallarmé 4 Quai Stéphane Mallarmé, 77870 Vulaines, tel 01 64 23 73 27 Open 10 am to noon and 2-5pm every day except Mon. Admission 3E

 © Annabel Simms 2005, author of An Hour From Paris, (Pallas Athene) //www.annabelsimms.com