Photo by Tara Donne
Photos by Tara Donne
When in Paris, do as the Parisians do: Get out of the city and eat, drink, and dance away your cares.
Just outside Paris, a secret world has offered city dwellers an escape for centuries. In the charming towns along the Marne River, generations of revelers come together to eat, drink, dance, and enjoy the season.
“When you cross the bridge,” Baptiste Leveillard leans in close to tell me, “it’s another world.” He’s on the dance floor, bathed in spangled light from a revolving disco ball, boogying with his year-old son, Valentin, in his arms. As the band plays a bouncy tune, the rest of the crowd starts line dancing. French people, line dancing! Another world, indeed.
I’ve just crossed the wooden footbridge to La Guinguette de l’Île du Martin-Pêcheur (The Guinguette of Kingfisher Island) on the Marne River, a 20-minute train trip southeast of Paris. The geranium-lined bridge leads to a terrace bordered with 100-year-old chestnut trees. Strings of colored lights zigzag overhead. Young people, older folks, and multigenerational families sit at long tables covered in red-checked oilcloth. Beyond, there’s a simple wooden building with more tables and a dance floor that opens onto the terrace. Dancers spill outside.
The scene (sans disco ball) could be right out of a Renoir painting. In fact, guinguettes—riverside pavilions offering simple food, cheap wine, and live music and dancing—have been a part of French culture for centuries. Their heyday came during the Belle Époque, around the turn of the 20th century, when hundreds lined the rivers outside Paris.
Today, only a handful remain. But the guinguettes’ mystique—as magical, carefree places where strict social rules don’t apply—holds a powerful place in the French psyche. If you’ve ever been mesmerized by a dreamy, sun-splashed impressionist painting showing women in frothy dresses being twirled about by men sporting jaunty boater hats, you’ve gotten a taste of it. And that feeling is what still draws nostalgic city dwellers seeking a summertime escape.
“Everybody in France knows the banks of the Marne,” declares Leveillard, raising his voice over the lively music. “Everybody knows the guinguettes.” The term guinguette (pronounced gan-GET) most likely comes from the word giguer, “to dance a jig.” That verb spawned the nickname guinguet for the cheap beverage of choice—“a wicked little green wine,” according to a 1750 dictionary—served at the guinguettes and said to be so sour it would make goats dance.
The guinguettes’ mystique—as magical, carefree places where strict social rules don’t apply—holds a powerful place in the French psyche.
I start my guinguette meal with a traditional friture d’éperlans (fried smelt), lightly battered and served whole. It resembles a plateful of shoestring fries with eyes. Following Riousset’s lead, I use my fingers to dip them in aioli, then pop them—heads, tails, eyes, and all—into my mouth.
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The proprietor, Jean-Yves Dupin, a friend of Riousset, stops by to visit. “I had to turn down 200 or 300 people who called today for reservations,” he tells us. On this beautiful, warm Saturday night, the whole world wanted to be here. But he has room for only about 300. “La guinguette est vie,” he says, his tired face lighting up: “The guinguette is life.”
I ask Dupin why his guinguette is thriving when so many others have closed over the past hundred years. “Many have failed due to economic reasons,” he explains. “They are part of French popular culture, but they’re a demanding business. You work very much in the summer but little in the winter.” Two world wars and the introduction of the automobile made it impossible for guinguettes to sustain their Belle Époque glory days. “After the war, in the ’60s, Parisians had cars,” he adds. “They could go farther away. We lost them.” (Today, in central Paris, a new wave of summertime-only “modern guinguettes” has sprung up along the Seine, offering food and music if not a total escape from the city.)
But Dupin developed a formula for success. “A guinguette is one of the rare establishments that embraces all the generations, from children right up to grandmothers,” he explains. Dupin caters to them all, with an eclectic blend of live music ranging from traditional accordion standbys to pounding rock. “We have here much joy, many good surprises!” he exclaims. “Everyone comes to a guinguette. The miracle, that’s it!”
Chez Gégène, for Sunday lunch. The riverside tables are packed on this hot, sunny afternoon, so we sit indoors with our expat friend Luz, who has made the 15-minute train ride from Paris to join us, along with her shih tzu pup, Pierre.
Later in the morning, at the nearby Nogent-sur-Marne marina, we hire an electric boat to explore the river’s green waters. I want to feel what it must have been like for weekend revelers in times past, taking a promenade sur l’eau (river excursion) before pulling up at the dock of a guinguette.
As we putter along, we have a prime view of grand villas on the banks, as well as a few modern buildings sullying the terrain here and there. We pass by the leafy Île des Loups (Island of Wolves) and the Île d’Amour (Island of Love), once home to long-gone guinguettes and still accessible only by water. Boating offered sunshine, fresh air, and a bit of privacy back in the days when a proper single woman couldn’t be alone with a man in the city. Seen from our little craft, the trailing branches of willow trees look like curtains that would be perfect for hiding a canoe during a romantic interlude.
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Later, Chez Gégène’s manager, Bernard Nicolau-Bergeret, walks me around the interior, explaining the photos and murals lining the walls. “This,” he says, pointing to a painted frieze around the smaller of two dance floors, “depicts all the amusements that were here in the past. It was the Disneyland of its day!”
“La guinguette est vie,” he says, his tired face lighting up: “The guinguette is life.”
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During the Belle Époque, guinguettes tried to outdo each other by offering more and more outlandish attractions. One, called Robinson after Robinson Crusoe, had platforms built in trees, with curtains you could close for privacy; waiters would send food and drink up in baskets by pulley. Slides, swings, and shooting galleries were all common. At Chez Gégène, it was possible to ride a camel, play on adult-size seesaws (“We call them ‘ass bangers’ in French,” Nicolau-Bergeret informs me in his resonant, chain-smoker’s voice), race donkeys, or ride on wacky tandem bicycles with seats facing opposite directions. You could also demonstrate your strength by punching the stomach of a formidable-looking mechanical boxer. “In those days, it was easy to impress a woman,” Nicolau-Bergeret observes. “Now, you have to iron, wash, and change babies!” A more modern mural gets kinkier and funnier the more I examine it. There are couples dirty dancing, a woman standing on her hands in a rowboat, revealing stockings with garters—and whoa, I’ve just noticed a dominatrix in a bustier brandishing a riding crop while sitting atop a man on all fours. “That’s the imagination of the painter!” Nicolau-Bergeret claims.
“So did these things ever go on?” I pry.
“Non! It’s proper here!” Nicolau-Bergeret maintains, flashing a slightly wicked smile. The bawdy pictures are all part of the fantasy, the sense of escape.
After experiencing the Marne’s pleasures, we head up the Seine. Guinguettes northwest of Paris were among the favorite haunts of the impressionist painters, whose late 19th-century emergence coincided with the guinguettes’ heyday. Caillebotte captured men paddling along in simple, tippy boats known as périssoires (death traps). Monet and Renoir set up their easels side by side at La Grenouillère (The Froggery), so called because of the young women swimmers, nicknamed “frogs,” who hopped about in the water. But Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party is perhaps the most famous depiction of guinguette life. This masterpiece, a scene on the balcony of Maison Fournaise in Chatou, illustrates how the classes mingled: There’s the wealthy art patron Charles Ephrussi, three actresses, a poet, a journalist, a bureaucrat, a couple of painters (including Caillebotte), and a seamstress who would become Renoir’s wife.
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