This is the second part of a series of posts looking at some of the settings that Marie-Thérèse, my main character in Overture, would have known. How do you cover Paris in one blog post? I’m not even going to try. Instead, I’ll focus on a few of the places that are mentioned in the book.
Although I have invented some of the villages in Aveyron, where the story partly takes place, I have used only real places in Paris. You don’t mess with Parisian street names!
When Marie-Thérèse learns that they are moving to Paris, she asks her former teacher, Mademoiselle Raynal, to describe the city. This is her teacher’s reply:
“Now, where shall I start? You’ve seen the pictures in my books, of course, but those show the famous buildings like the Louvre and the Tour Eiffel. The best way I can describe Paris is that it’s like a series of joined-up villages, without fields or woods between them, but with attractive public gardens. The centre of Paris has wide streets and grand buildings, many of which were built less than fifty years ago. The streets in the older quartiers are narrower and more winding. You’ll remember from our geography lessons that the River Seine runs through the middle. It’s wide there but crossed by many bridges.”
The “less than 50 years ago” refers to the rebuilding and modernisation of Paris under Baron Haussmann.
La Gare d’Austerlitz
This is Marie-Thérèse’s first sight of Paris in 1901, a busy station that served much of Southwest France, including Bordeaux, at the time.
The station was built in 1840 and was originally called la Gare d’Orléans, since that was the principal destination it served. It was completely rebuilt in 1860. In 1900, the name was changed to la Gare d’Austerlitz, in honour of Napoleon’s eponymous victory in 1805.
Also in 1900, the line was continued to the terminus at the Gare d’Orsay (now le Musée d’Orsay), but Marie-Thérèse and her mother alighted at Austerlitz because it was nearer to their destination. Much later in the book, she returns from Bordeaux after receiving bad news, ending her journey again at Austerlitz.
The 11th arrondissement
This district of Paris, on the Rive Droite of the River Seine, was a favourite destination for migrants from Aveyron and the Auvergne in the late 19th century. They established a number of restaurants here, often combined with a coal merchant’s business.
On moving from Aveyron, Marie-Thérèse’s destination is la rue Daval, in the 11th arrondissement, not far from La Bastille. The street is the location of the Bistrot Mazars, an Aveyronnais Restaurant run by Marie-Thérèse’s Aunt Berthe and Uncle Henri. They have moved to Paris from Aveyron in search of a more profitable occupation. The Bistrot Mazars is an invention, and there was never a restaurant by that name in the rue Daval. But it seems a plausible location.
Like many of these neighbourhood restaurants, the Bistrot Mazars has its regular clientele, mostly people who worked or lived nearby. But Aunt Berthe has ambitions to expand both the restaurant’s capacity and its reputation.
Now a trendy and lively part of Paris, the 11th arrondissement is bordered by Père Lachaise cemetery. Le boulevard Richard-Lenoir, the home of Simenon’s fictional Commissaire Maigret, is also located in the 11th.
These were the former market halls in the 1st arrondissement, which housed Paris’ main wholesale food market for centuries. The market was transferred to Rungis and La Villette in 1969.
Known as le ventre de Paris (the belly of Paris), les Halles received tonnes of produce every day from farms and smallholdings outside Paris. The nickname also gave rise to Emile Zola’s novel, Le Ventre de Paris, which takes place largely in and around les Halles. Somewhat given to long and breath-taking descriptions, Zola’s evocation of the market stalls and their produce is quite stunning.
In Overture, Marie-Thérèse accompanies her aunt to Les Halles on one occasion to buy produce for the restaurant. This includes stockfish, or unsalted dried fish (often cod). When reconstituted and mixed with crushed potatoes and hard-boiled eggs, this becomes the dish known as Estofinado, an Aveyronnais delicacy.
Louis XIV established this theatre in 1714 in the Place Boieldieu in the 2nd arrondissement. Its full name is le Théâtre de l’Opéra-Comique. It was the headquarters of l’Opéra Comique company until 1971.
On her days off from working in her aunt’s restaurant, Marie-Thérèse loves to walk and explore Paris. During one of these walks, she comes across the theatre and hears a well-known opera singer of the time, Emma Calvé, rehearsing. Emma, who was also born in Aveyron in real life, becomes Marie-Thérèse’s idol. The theatre also becomes a symbol of Marie-Thérèse’s singing ambitions.
Conservatoire de Paris
The Paris Conservatoire of Music was formerly located in the rue Bergère, which is now renamed rue du Conservatoire. The Conservatoire was established in 1795 and moved to that location in 1796, where it remained until 1911, when it moved to la rue de Madrid. The Conservatoire moved yet again in 1984 to much more spacious premises in the Cité de la Musique in the 19th arrondissement. The well-known French composer Gabriel Fauré was its director between 1905 and 1920.
Marie-Thérèse has an unfortunate encounter with the Conservatoire. I’m not going to say too much, or I’ll give the story away! Interestingly, her idol Emma Calvé, applied there but was apparently rejected. This didn’t stop her from going on to become one of the most famous opera singers of her era.
A number of other streets and sights are mentioned in Overture, but these are the ones that have perhaps the most significance in Marie-Thérèse’s life. It would simply have been too clichéd, and most unlikely, for her to have gone up the Eiffel Tower or wandered the corridors of the Louvre.
Look out for Part 3, about Bordeaux.
Overture is available in Kindle and paperback formats from Amazon.
You might also like:
Copyright © Vanessa Couchman 2019. All rights reserved.