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Brassens and the Bassin de la Villette

I’ve never been a big Georges Brassens fan. I’ve heard the lyrics are what really made him famous, but I could never get past the almost hillbilly-sounding tunes. But as he’s one of France’s most beloved musicians of all time, I thought I’d put it on the schedule for last weekend’s Tagalong Tour that would include a little stroll down the canal to see what’s new along the Bassin de la Villette.

The exhibition is interesting if you want to know why he was so famous. After all, the music is easy enough for anyone to sing along, and he was not a flamboyant Lady Gaga of his time. It seems to be more about what he represented: liberty. He wasn’t just a musician, he was a poet, a rebel against society, the epitome of the everyday guy who just wants to make his music and be left alone (he reportedly suffered from stage fright). As mentioned in the brochure (which surprisingly exists in English as well):

“How do you evoke a personality so popular but so voluntarily unspectacular? So eloquent and profuse in his lyrics and so secretive in his way of life? The Cité de la Musique wanted, beyond the stereotypes, to present him from an unprecedented and, at times, surprising angle.”

Walking through the exhibition I couldn’t help but notice the people, French people of all ages from a young punk with pierced eyebrows to an elderly woman with tears in her eyes, transfixed by the images and sounds. It was clear that Brassens will forever invoke bucketfuls of nostalgia I’ll just never understand as a foreigner. But at least now I have a new admiration for the artist.

“Brassens & La Liberté” is at the very contemporary Cité de la Musique in the Parc de la Villette at the north-eastern edge of the city, through August 21. Open Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday noon-6pm, Friday-Saturday noon-10pm. Tickets are €8.

After the exhibition we strolled through the Parc de la Villette, formerly the city’s slaughterhouses, and down the Canal de l’Ourcq to the Bassin de la Villette (the waterway connecting the Canal St Martin to the Canal de l’Ourcq above Stalingrad metro). 

It was hot and dusty, so we stopped into the first péniche café that looked shady, the Antipode (aka Abricadaba Théâtre, across from 55 Quai de Seine). You pick up your own drinks (water, juice, soft drinks, beer, wine, and cocktails from €2) from the bar below deck and then find a space overlooking the water. Open weekends 10am-2am, weekdays 4pm-2am. Concerts from €6-10.

From here we could see locals playing pétanque along the quay, a brocante flea market on the far side, and an endless procession of young, shirtless men rowing along the canal. Okay, there were a few fully-dressed women in canoes, too, but who notices that?

To the north of us was the St Christopher’s Inn youth hostel (and Belushi’s Bar), and to the south the facing MK2 theatres with terrace cafés of their own. A picture-perfect Saturday afternoon in the 19th arrondissement. 

If you haven’t been up to the Bassin de la Villette yet, I highly recommend it. A tip? Bring your skates or rent a bike to get around, it’s a vast area to cover on foot. You can also take the leisurely 3-hour Canauxrama cruise to the Parc de la Villette from the Canal de l’Arsenal (at Place de la Bastille). The annual jazz festival, Quai Jazz, will take place along the bassin on June 12 from 2-8pm.

I know, you’re all just looking for eye candy. Et voila! Don’t let the Parisian tans blind you, they’re working on it!

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  • I've loved George Brassens since 1965 when I first went to France – finally got to the park named after him in the 15th – Porte de Vanvers Metro – very nice place to walk around.