This modern-day boulangerie commemorates a famous Siege of Paris hot air balloon escape
Amid the bustle of the long, tree -lined avenue Gambetta in Paris’s 20th arrondissement is a particularly eye-catching sight. A bakery with an old-fashioned facade and a hand-made doorknob shaped like a…hot air balloon.
Even more surprising: the panels on the facade that once probably listed the different types of bread and pastries that were sold there are now large frescoes of one of the most famous events that took place during the 1870–1871 Siege of Paris.
On October 7, 1870, dynamic statesman Léon Gambetta, who had proclaimed the new Third French Republic from a window of the Hôtel de Ville just a few weeks before, donned a fur coat and stepped inside the wicker basket of a hot air balloon called L’Armand-Barbès. Along with his fellow politician Eugène Spuller and pilot Alexandre Trichet, Gambetta soon soared above the Place Saint-Pierre, at the foot of Montmartre, a popular site for balloons to take off during the Siege.
Most of the balloons that left the besieged city did so mainly to deliver mail from blocked Parisians, and to release homing pigeons. But Gambetta’s ballon also had a mission: get him and Spuller past enemy lines so that they could help run the government and try to organize aid for Paris from French troops in other parts of the country.
Unfortunately, despite his dynamism, Gambetta never managed to accomplish the latter. The Parisians remained besieged by the Prussians until January 28, 1871.
At least he and his fellow passengers arrived safely outside enemy lines, ultimately reaching their destination, the city of Tours, by land transportation. Although most of the 66 balloons released during the Siege did land safely, many ended up in Prussian occupied territory, went way off course (The Ville d’Orléans set a distance record, landing all the way in Norway!), or even, in two cases, crashed into the sea, leading to the deaths of two balloonists and a number of carrier pigeons.
Gambetta did a number of incredible things in his life. Triumphantly proclaiming a new, idealistic government regime in front of a roaring crowd is something few human beings will ever get to experience. At the time, so was flight.
Hot air balloons were the first real way people could reliably take to the air. There were a number of unmanned predecessors, but the first successful hot air balloons that could carry people were developed in France by the Montgolfier brothers, with the first official flight taking place in 1783. The exploit was so famous that to this day, a hot air ballon in French is une montgolfière.
(That said, during the Siege of Paris, they were referred to as ballons or ballons montés, due to the French love of differentiating terms even for laypersons; each word signifies a hot air balloon that uses a slightly different technique for flight — hot air (montgolfière) versus gas (ballon monté).)
Hot air ballons largely remained a novelty until about a hundred years later, when besieged Parisians needed a way to communicate with the outside world. Postal workers who snuck outside the city walls were captured and executed by the Prussians, and dogs carrying mail sacks were (surprisingly?) unreliable. But balloons, which eventually took off at night so as to be hard for the Prussians to spot and fire at, proved a pretty good, albeit one-sided solution (The balloons couldn’t fly back into Paris). The regularly released hot air balloons during the Siege became the first world’s first regular, large-scale airmail service.
Still, common as balloon flight was during the Siege, not many civilians got into the basket and flew away in one. It’s thrilling to imagine what Gambetta, who had likely never dreamt of flying in a hot air balloon, must have felt as he rose skyward.
It makes sense that Gambetta’s flight would be commemorated in some way…but a bakery seems a strange way to do it, not in the least because the scarcity of flour during the Siege of Paris and the horrible new version of bread that was the result became forever associated with this period. As you might remember from a previous entry on this blog, the notoriously bad Siege bread was even preserved and sold as souvenirs!
And yet, this modern-day bakery, called La Gambette à Pain, not only features paintings of Gambetta’s flight on its facade; look inside and you’ll see what seem to be four commemorative plates of the event on the wall behind the cash register, as well as an old portrait of Gambetta himself, behind what seems to be a cracked glass frame.
I don’t like to bother people who work in busy places, and most Parisian boulangeries are usually quite busy, despite there being so many of them. But I couldn’t resist. And so, one day in late June, I headed to La Gambette à Pain, at 86 avenue Gambetta, to see if I could find out what inspired its intriguing decor.
I was welcomed kindly by a worker who told me that the plates behind the counter weren’t from the 19th century, shortly after the flight, but instead were modern creations. That seemed almost unbelievable to me — who is still commemorating Gambetta’s flight today, cool as it was? But when I looked closer, I noticed, first, that the date written on one of the plates was “1871”, while the flight took place in 1870, something that wasn’t likely to have been forgotten in the years following the notorious Siege.
And then I registered something else: All the cracks and discolorations I’d chalked up to age were actually…illusions.
It turns out, the current owner (who asked to remain anonymous) told me, when they chose to set up shop here in 2009, founder and award-winning artisanal boulanger Jean-Paul Mathon (notably named Paris’s best baker in 2010, by culinary guide Gault & Millau) and his team wanted to learn more about the man who gives his name to this Parisian neighborhood and its Metro stop.
There are lots of interesting things about Léon Gambetta, but the balloon flight especially captured their fancy. And so, they decided to make the bakery an homage to Gambetta and, especially, that particular aerial adventure. The plates, portrait, and paintings outside were commissioned from trompe l’œil artist Pierre Ducordeau, sometime before 2018.
Sadly, that’s the year this talented painter died. But at least his art lives on. I’m a particular case, of course, since I’m fascinated by the Siege of Paris. But I imagine that lots of people in the neighborhood must be charmed and maybe even intrigued by these portrayals of a man in a top hat and fur coat flying above the windmills of a bygone Montmartre. I know my eight-year-old son, who I brought along, was delighted and intrigued by them.
One of the frescos. The white flecks at the top right are the sky and leaves of trees reflected in the glass that covers it.
The Gambette à Pain is a critical darling and neighborhood institution, known for its sandwiches (which my son and I can confirm are delicious) and its artisanal breads, including its signature offering, an apple cider-infused baguette known as…La Gambette, a portmanteau of “Gambetta” and “baguette”.
If you’re in Paris and want to stop by La Gambette à Pain, it’s a fun little gem of unusual art and delicious bread and sandwiches, exactly the type of place I highly encourage visiting!
Just a warning, though…like many places in Paris (very much including boulangeries, which makes it hard to get our daily baguette at the moment…), La Gambette à Pain is closed for the month of August. If you visit another time of the year, it’s normally open from Monday through Friday, except holidays (check online or call before you go).
I’m fascinated by souvenirs of the Siege of Paris, and La Gambette à Pain houses some very unusual ones: really just illusions of actual Siege souvenirs. And yet, in its own right, the place is a delightful monument to a strange era and one man’s sense of duty and adventure.
I do have to wonder, though, what the frustrated, bread-deprived Parisians who experienced the Siege would think about this choice of boulangerie decor!
A Beauty and the Beast retelling set during the 1870–1871 Siege of Paris, Hearts at Dawn has been selected as a Historical Novel Society Editors’ Choice book. It’s currently available in Kindle and paperback formats and is part of the Kindle Unlimited Library. I hope you’ll give it a read!
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Until next time!