It feels like it was only yesterday… Less than a century ago, many a Parisian could be found letting their hair down at one of the many guinguettes – open-air cabarets – that lined the Seine and Marne rivers. The term “guinguette” is of uncertain origin but probably derives from guinguet, a middling wine made from grapes grown near Paris. It is often forgotten that until the 19th century, the Ile-de-France region was home to the country’s largest vineyard with up to 75,000 acres of vines before the Revolution broke out in1789.
But the ties between guinguettes and the history of the French capital go back further still. It all began in the late 17th century. Paris was nowhere near its current size and did not extend beyond the major boulevards that crisscross the city today. All goods entering Paris were taxed. To avoid the tax, bars began setting up shop just outside the city limits in areas such as Montmartre, Belleville, Ménilmontant, Charonne, Bercy, and Vaugirard, which were all still villages at the time. Some of the more popular guinguettes included Le Bœuf Rouge, Le Coq Hardi, Les Vendanges de Bourgogne, Le Tambour Royal, and Chez le Père Desnoyer. People went there to drink wine and dance to music played on the violin, viola, and musette, a small bagpipe.
Some Parisians would venture all the way to the Marne River, about six miles away, to mingle with locals at rustic taverns, such as L’Ermitage, L’Arche de Noël, and Au Cochon de Lait. But things began to change when the Vincennes railroad line opened in 1859. Ordinary city-dwellers from Paris could now take the train from the old station at Place de la Bastille to several towns along the Marne. Which more and more people began to do, drawn by the charming bucolic landscape and hilly vineyards that the river meanders through before feeding into the Seine between Charenton and Alfortville.
On the other side of Paris, further downstream on the Seine, Ile Saint-Denis also attracted many Sunday visitors. Families would come to the island – accessible by bridge since the 1850s – to swim, fish, or row, which was a popular pastime at the turn of the 20th century. Others came to dance. Many of the Italian immigrants living on the east side of Paris would bring their accordions with them. In fact, it was Italian and Auvergnat musicians who started the tradition of bal-musette dances. Needless to say, wine flowed freely.
An Artist’s Delight
During the Belle Epoque, there were hundreds of guinguettes around Paris. No two were alike. Some had a more rustic architectural style; others were neo-Gothic, rococo, or Moorish. One thing they all had in common, however, was an outdoor area, which sometimes created an atmosphere similar to that of an amusement park. Many Impressionist painters were drawn to the guinguettes for their aesthetic charm and the spectacle they offered. Pissarro, Cézanne, Monet, and Renoir all painted scenes along the Marne and the Seine. Manet’s painting The Luncheon on the Grass may have been inspired by the landscapes of Ile Saint-Denis. Alfred Sisley also produced several paintings of the Seine and its bridges.
Later, star photographers such as Robert Doisneau and Willy Ronis captured images of Sundays at the riverbank. A number of movies were also set at guinguettes along the Marne, such as Julien Duvivier’s They Were Five (1936), Jacques Becker’s Casque d’Or (1952), and Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965). Maurice Chevalier, Charles Trenet, and other popular singers expressed, each in their own way, the simple joys of relaxing and having a good time at these riverside dance halls.
During their heyday, guinguettes also served a variety of local fare, from fried eel and gudgeon, to sautéed rabbit, beef stew, and coq au vin. But the most popular dishes were matelote (a freshwater fish stew) and moules-frites (mussels and fries). Drinks such as Anisette (a licorice-flavored liqueur) and mulled wine served with brown sugar, cloves, or cinnamon were ubiquitous. But the “little white wine” from Lina Margy’s popular 1943 song “Ah ! Le petit vin blanc” is most commonly associated with guinguettes.
The One and Only Chez Gégène
Although there were guinguettes all along the Marne, from Lagny to Charenton, the most popular ones were in Joinville-le-Pont (Jullien, Le Petit Robinson, L’Elysée-Palace, Printania, Les Bibelots du Diable) and Nogent-sur-Marne (Maison Convert, Le Vieux Pêcheur, Au Grand Robinson, Le Casino du Viaduc). But the most emblematic of them all is without a doubt Chez Gégène, which opened in Joinville in 1914 and became famous in the early 1950s thanks to the song “A Joinville-le-Pont” performed by actor André Bourvil (“A Joinvill’ le Pont; Pon! Pon!; Tous deux nous irons; Ron! Ron!; Regarder guincher; Chez! Chez!; Chez Gégène!”). The refrain is light-hearted and simple, but with its lively musette accompaniment the song was a huge success.
People used to swim in the Marne until it became too polluted shortly after World War II. François Cavanna, the late editor of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, who grew up in Nogent-sur-Marne, wrote about swimming in the river in his childhood memoir Les Ritals. But the era of the guinguette is over. The curfew imposed in 1940 during the German occupation dealt a severe blow to the industry. Then, the rise of rock music and the twist in the 1960s sounded the death knell for the accordion and the bal musette. More and more Parisians also began travelling beyond the city’s suburbs, preferring to vacation at beach or mountain destinations.
More conventional restaurants have now replaced most of the guinguettes along the banks of the Marne. But places like Chez Gégène – where tango and waltz dancers can still indulge their passion – and L’Ile du Martin Pêcheur in Champigny are keeping alive a tradition that has left a strong imprint on the culture of Paris’ working classes.
Article published in the July 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.