Guinguettes et Les Bords de Marne

Today was again hot (28C) and sunny. I took a canal trip from Place de la Bastille to the Marne and then up the Marne to Bry-sur-Marne.

The theme of the trip was guinguettes. One definition is café populaire où l’on peut danser, le plus souvent en plein air. That is, fun cafes where you can dance, mostly outside. While there were many in many places at the height of their popularity, the Marne river edges (les bords de Marne) had quite a concentration.

Our lunch stop location was one of the few remaining. The opening picture was taken from my table in the open air section of Chez Gégène.

While the canal boat had a capacity of 200, there were only 40 or so on this trip. Further, 35 of the 40 were part of a group tour that was taking the boat only from Place de la Bastille to the lunch stop. That is, five of us were making the round trip. Beyond that, there was only a single non-French person, me.

This meant that the commentary was done differently. One the way up to lunch, everything was in French. After lunch, I got a one-on-one with the guide in English. I got some of the French, but certainly could not really keep up.

The lower Marne is quite nice and, of course, canal boat travel is always smooth and slow.

We boarded at Port de plaisance Paris-Arsenal, which is very close to the Metro Bastille stop. There is a canal that goes upstream from there (and immediately enters a long tunnel), but we headed downstream to the Seine.

There is an écluse (lock) between the canal and Seine that drops us by about 2 m. Then into the Seine and upstream for a spell. It does not take too long to come to where the Marne branches off to the left.

Going up the Marne there are two more écuses and a medium-length voûte (tunnel). This voûte cuts off a large non-navigable oxbow piece of the Marne. The river has come so far back upon itself that this shortcut is quite short.

At this point, we are in the section where the guinguettes were largely located. We went up to Bry-sur-Marne then did a U-turn and came back downstream a little to the lunch location. We left the dock at 9h00 and got to lunch at 12h00.

I had one of the formules for lunch: Terrine de lièvre, Moules frites. That is, a hare terrine and then steamed mussels with fries. We had from 12h00 until 14h30 for lunch, so I also ordered a café espresso and sipped it while doing some reading.

My introduction to guinguettes began on the return journey.

Guinguettes rose to their popularity from the middle 1800s until the start of WWII (about 1939).

The attraction was cheap wine, music, dancing, and swimming. They were outside of the Paris city limits and thus did not pay the Paris taxes. Other former towns, like Montmartre, had been brought into Paris by Napoleon III. Being well outside of Paris made things much cheaper. The Seine was mostly polluted, but the Marne was still quite nice. Dancing had been the pleasure of the rich as one needed a large space, think a ballroom. But, the outdoors space in the country provided space for dancing for everyone.

I think it was 1906 when dimanche (Sunday) was declared a non-working day by the government. Now even the working people had some time for pleasure. Later the government declared ten holidays a year. More time for drinking, dancing, swimming. People continued to have available time and wanted to use it to party until the start of WWI (about 1914).

At the end of WWI (about 1918), there was a large sigh of relief and people wanted to return to their partying ways. The guinguettes revived and continue to flourish. This was also the era of Jazz and general partying in a lot of the world. That the US had prohibition and France did not, as well as a strong US dollar, brought many to the guinguettes.

Of course, the start of WWII (about 1939) ended the party. France was quickly overtaken and experienced a bad time of it. Unfortunately for the guinguettes, the end of WWII did not bring back their popularity.

The automobile changed travel. It was easy for Parisians to get to the south of France instead of to the Marne. Television changed entertainment. Dance halls changed dancing. The Marne became polluted and swimming was banned. The guinguettes fell into disuse and disrepair.

This tour talking about the guinguettes is a nostalgic tour. It appeals to those old enough to know things before WWII (a very small group at this point), to those who heard about guinguettes from their parents (that would be the “baby boom” generation), and those from recent generations that want the simplicity of the “old times” back.

I enjoyed learning about guinguettes. There still are some and there are some trying to relaunch themselves, but it is an uphill battle.

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