I’ve never been the biggest fan of the game that’s played by funny-shaped men with funny-shaped balls and watched by well-spoken chaps called Sandy and Alistair. But I do like Paris. So when my two best mates treated me to a rugby trip there to see Scotland limbering up against France before their World Cup campaign, I said: “Merci beaucoup.”
These guys are veterans of the international rugby tour. They have favourite bars and favourite barmen who know them by name. They know their cognac from their Armagnac. And they know the best places in Paris to buy Cuban cigars.
We popped into the Picasso museum so we could say we’d ticked the culture box. Then it was off to the Highlander Bar to watch a strangely passionless Scotland team struggle to get a shot on target against Georgia. They deserved to lose.
The rest of our first evening was a bit of a blur. We wound up in the Epi Dupin eating cod and drinking Pouilly Fume. We stopped for a nightcap in our local bar, the Danton, where Eric the barman plied us with “vieille prune”, Old Prune, a drink that matched our complexions to perfection. The last time the Scottish rugby team won in Paris was 1999 so we had to put up with a good deal of teasing. Years ago, my mates had presented Eric with a wooden spoon. This was now inscribed with the scores from half a dozen French victories.
The next day dawned with the promise of more eating and drinking. Breakfast in Paris is a serious occasion. The coffee is always magnificent but the miniature French baguette, the tartine, fresh from the oven and slathered with butter and jam is a highlight. Nobody can make a better omelette than the French so I had one, brown at the edges and deliciously runny in the middle.
Sitting at the corner window, I had the perfect view of the day beginning. A waiter crossing the road with a giant sack of full-size baguettes. A tramp setting up his paper cup on a doorstep. Runners jogging towards the Jardin de Luxembourg. Scooters just missing each other at the crossroads.
There was a lengthy debate over breakfast about where we should go for our lunch. I had an ace up my sleeve here. There is a famous place inside the Gare de Lyon called Le Train Bleu. The last time I was there it had a Michelin star.
It’s not just the food that makes it spectacular. The ceilings are painted with scenes from the Renaissance and there are golden cherubs and naked women writhing up the walls. Waiters walk at high speed to and fro bearing trays of this and that with one hand held high above their heads. To save agonising, there are a number of well-balanced set menus with matching wines. The service was impeccable, the wines were just right for the food and we all had to adjust our belts by a notch once we’d disposed of the cheese course. We chose another bar to digest everything, settling it all down with a coffee, a brandy and a fat cigar.
By 8pm we’d almost forgotten we’d come all this way to watch a rugby match so off we set for the Stade de France. The luck of the draw put us right among the French fans so there was wind-up and counter wind-up. The French war-cry is “Allez les Bleus!” but their team took the field in red and the Scots were in blue. “Allez les Bleus!” we yelled and so did they, out of habit.
The first half was a little dull but the game exploded into life in the last quarter. Scotland had a man sin-binned, the ref turned a blind eye to a stonewall penalty in the last five minutes. The French had pipped us once again.
When we got back to the Danton, Eric had already inscribed the latest score on the wooden spoon. But as we pointed out to him, the margin of victory had diminished to just three points. And after all, we said, you won against 14 men.