The Weasel

I always thought the Pont Neuf a romantic spot, but did not realise its priapic aspect until I visited a small wine bar called Le Taverne Henri IV
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One of my favourite spots in Paris is where the westernmost tip of Ile de la Cite, the island which sits in the middle of the Seine like a grounded ocean liner, touches the Pont Neuf. I always thought the bridge a romantic spot, but did not realise its priapic aspect until I visited a small wine bar called Le Taverne Henri IV. Opposite a mounted statue of the king who built the bridge in 1609, it does a nice line in plates of pate and cheese.

Sitting there, savouring my delightfully whiffy plate of cinq fromages de la vallee d'Aude, I was pleased to learn that I was following in the footsteps of another celebrated customer. A brass plaque on the wall points out that the bar was a favourite of Commissaire Principal Jules Maigret. Truly, le patron (as Maigret's faithful sidekick Lucas always refers to him) mange ici. Above the sign, there are a couple of photographs of the detective's creator, Georges Simenon. One shows the great man early in his career, puffing on the inevitable pipe, while posing beside an assemblage of chimney pots. The other reveals him in old age, still with pipe, in a bootlace tie. He was looking in pretty good shape, considering that he had (by his own estimate) made love to 18,000 women.

It occurred to me that the prolific wordsmith might have been sustained in his ardours by a singular product sold in Le Taverne Henri IV. This is a kind of jam called "Confiture du Vert-Galant", said to have vertus aphrodisiaques. During my visit, this potent sideline prompted great interest among diners in the bar - one lady asked the proprietor: "C'est garantie?" - but only one went so far as to make a purchase. Despite the pleadings of Mrs Weasel, I invested 40 francs in a pot of aphrodisiac jam. I should add that my interest was purely gastronomic.

A leaflet accompanying the product explained its association with the wine bar: "History says that the good king Henri IV, nicknamed the vert- galant (evergreen lover), used to have this jam regularly before meeting the shepherdesses who were his favourites." In fact, it turned out to be made of bilberries, "together with 35 spices selected for their aphrodisiac qualities". It tasted rather good and, as the leaflet boasts, scooped a Cordon Bleu at the 1995 Salon International de la Confiserie. But Mrs W complained: "It's not very stiff, is it?" She was, of course, referring to the jam.

Though she expressed delight when I volunteered to take her to the Paris Opera, my wife's smile contracted slightly when I admitted we were taking a 30-franc tour of this gloriously over-the-top building. Completed in 1875, every square centimetre is encrusted with baroque elaboration. As we made our way down to the labyrinthine basement, I noticed a small brass dragon scuttling up the balustrade. This mirror-lined cavern inspired Leroux to write his chiller about the disfigured ghoul who inhabited these precincts. Some of the spooky atmosphere dissipated, however, when we discovered that the cellar housed a large exhibition devoted to the tutu. Most of the visitors taking an interest in costumes from Le Lac des Cygnes and Le Casse Noisette were rather soigne young men.

Still, I mused, while making my way up a wild eruption of staircases, at least the Opera had resisted the temptation to capitalise on its association with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Despite being the biggest theatre in the world, its bright-pink auditorium was surprisingly small. It was like being inside a gigantic strawberry. The high-sided boxes which lined the balconies were reminiscent of horse stalls. Many of the 2,200 seats have no view of the stage, though everyone can see the mural by Chagall which brightens the ceiling.

"Can we have some room, per-leese?" bellowed a pettish American voice as we stood near the palatial dining room. It emerged from a diminutive theatre director who was orchestrating the entrance of a phalanx of singers for a forthcoming festivity. Suitably cowed, the gaggle of rubber-necking, rucksacked tourists to which Mrs W and myself had become attached, shuffled to one side. When the teensy taskmaster announced himself satisfied with the manoeuvrings of his cast, he began rehearsals. Here was a treat. Mrs W was, after all, going to hear a spot of opera for the modest three quid entrance fee. A tenor mounted a small stage and puffed out his breast like a courting pigeon. Would Verdi, Puccini or Bizet flow forth? In retrospective, it was inevitable. His rendition of the theme from The Phantom of the Opera haunted me for days afterwards.

The high point of our Paris trip occurred when I decided we should go up in the ferris wheel in the Tuileries gardens. Mrs W has a distinct aversion to heights, so this took some persuasion. "Everybody looks fine," I insisted. "There's no screaming. It will just be a nice view." I pointed out that the wheel was merely 60 metres high (200ft), compared to the 152 metres (500ft) of the Millennium wheel planned for London's South Bank. (The French, it hardly need be said, have now announced a wheel that will be somewhat higher.) Her fears placated, we clambered into one of the wheel's saucer-shaped cars. Unfortunately, I had forgotten about the blase French attitude to safety. There were no harnesses, or safety bars, nothing to hold you in - merely a low rail at the back of our seats. We took off like a rocket.

The worst thing about rides is that there is no getting off. Once on, you're there for the duration. A second or two later, we were whizzing over the Louvre. Her eyes hidden behind mirrored shades, Mrs W directed a fixed rictus in my direction. "LookSacreCoeur," I managed to spit out before we hurtled earthwards. A few rotations later, we swayed at the ride's apogee while some people got out at the bottom. Clutching the rail behind me as if my life depended on it (it did), I pointed out the blue pipes on top of the Pompidou Centre. Mrs W was unimpressed. Then we were off again. "Whataniceview," I repeated in an anguished mantra. "NotreDameMuseed'OrsayLesInvalides EiffelTower."

When we were released from the wheel's clutches, I said: "That was a bit unexpected. Still, it was spectacular." "Was it?" my dear spouse replied. "I never opened my eyes once."

During an outing to the Chateau de la Roche-Guyon, a rambling pile overlooking the Seine 40 miles northwest of Paris, I was intrigued to see an exhibition devoted to two Britons who were involved in a curious episode at the castle a few years ago. Perhaps you've never heard of Sir Francis Blake or Philip Mortimer? It's quite understandable, since the duo are the creations of Belgian cartoonist Edgar P Jacobs. Unlike Tintin, created by his compatriot Herge, the multi-volume adventures of Blake and Mortimer have never crossed the Channel. This is a pity because they're both pukka chaps prone to interjecting archaic Anglais into the dialogue.

"By Jove! Ahmed, vous etes l'obligeance ce meme," declares the flame- haired Mortimer in Le Mystere de la Grande Pyramide. "All right! Bon sang!" chips in Sir Francis. The exhibition provides biographies of the two heroes. Mortimer is the scion of a proud Highland clan, while the aristocratic Sir Francis Blake (ed Eton) is the son of the "Countess de Killarney". Every detail is spot-on, except I have doubts about Blake's birthplace, described as "Carmarthen en Angleterre"

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