Category Archives: France

Belle Epoque beauty in Galerie Vivienne

For a glimpse of Belle Epoque Paris, take a stroll through Galerie Vivienne.

The Librairie in Galerie Vivienne
The Librairie in Galerie Vivienne

Some of the most beautiful but most often over-looked features of Paris are its Passages and Galeries. These small, elegant arcades which date back to the beginning of the 19th  century, were inspired by the Arab Souks and covered markets of the Middle East and North Africa. This is evident in the architecture with its arches, rounded windows, domes and Egyptian tiles.  It is also reflected in the original purpose of the galerie which was to allow shopkeepers to display their wares, shoppers (especially Parisiennes Bourgeoise) to browse or buy and pedestrians to pass from one area to another, under cover from the weather and away from the clamour and dirt of the streets.

Most of the Passages and Galeries are located on the Rive Droite, or Right Bank, in the Premier Arrondissement. But the best one of all is in the centre of a square bounded by  landmarks of Palais Royal, La Bourse and La Place des Victoires and La Bibliotheque Nationale.

Galerie Vivienne, between Rue Vivienne, Rue des Petits Peres and Rue des Petits Champs, was the brainchild of Marchaux, then  Deputy of La Chambre des Notoires. It was begun in 1823 and opened to the Public in 1826. With its beautiful mosaic floors, its wrought iron staircases, its glass rotundas and its exotic, Arabian decoration, not to mention the  sophisticated boutiques, bookshops, salons de the and cafés, it was a favourite Parisian haunt until the Second Empire, when the galleries were superseded in popularity by the Grands Magasins or Department Stores.

Today, Galerie Vivienne is home to a number modern boutiques but still has some authentic, old Paris, shops which sell letter paper, etchings, pictures as well as the fascinating and impossible to leave, antique bookshop Librairie Jousseaume. It still houses elegant cafes and salons de the, like A Priori, where the chocolat chaud and the cheesecake are legendary.

The Passages and Galeries take the tourist away from the glaring, blaring, fast-paced Paris of the 21st century and back to another age of quiet charm and gracious quiet surroundings, to another, older Paris.


Rue de Montpensier, a hidden Paris gem

Tucked in between Rue de Richelieu and le Jardin du Palais Royal, in the Premier Arrondissement of Paris, Rue de Montpensier is short and narrow, little more than a lane, not big enough even to feature on the standard hotel publicity map.

In the daytime Rue de Montpensier is thrown into shadow by the tall buildings on either side; little traffic passes on the one-way thoroughfare, just slow cars cruising for a park or cutting into and out of the surrounding main roads; few shoppers pass through the back entrances to the Antiquaires and the chic boutiques which face the colonnades of the Palais Royal on one side and only a few more browse in the basement Art Gallery and the workshop of Couturier, Louise Piquant on the other. The restaurants and bars, if they’re open, do a quiet day-time trade. A steel-shuttered shop-front, some faded signs, dates and inscriptions on buildings hint at the street’s past lives.

But Rue de Montpensier is not dead. This is the heartland of Paris theatre, with La Comedie Francaise at one end of the street and Le Theatre du Palais Royal at the other. And when the theatres come to life so does Rue de Montpensier.  In the late afternoon doors and shutters open on bars and restaurants, waiters in waistcoats and long aprons plant tables and chairs on the pavements, signs light up and blackboards with menus avant et après spectacle come out. In the early evening people begin to trickle into the street, squeezing their cars into improbable spaces, chaining their bikes to unlikely places or clicking sharply on impossible heels over the worn cobble-stones. As the sky begins to fade, doormen in evening dress take a last smoke outside Le Theatre du Palais Royal. Neon letters flick on spelling out the play of the season.

Across the road, wedged into the corner next to the arched stone passage through to Rue de Richelieu, the tiny Bar Entre’acte serves aperitifs “avant spectacle” with snacks of bread and goats cheese. Here, thespians sit at tables on the pavement, surrounded by potted geraniums, until the theatre bell calls them to their seats.

Just around the corner the restaurant Les Reflets de Scene offers a menu of old French favourites like Salade Lyonnaise, Canard a l’orange, Coquilles St Jacques, Crème Brule and mysterious tartes, at 20 euros for two courses and 25 for three – avant et après spectacle, bien sur! The friendly, funny and helpful waiter Tom will cheerfully guides the confused to a choice of both food and wine.

Hidden in the alleys, under the arches and up or down the stairways around Rue de Montpensier, are bars and cafes, just perfect for a post theatre nightcap.

Palais Royal

Just opposite the Louvre, are the magnificent buildings and beautiful gardens of Palais Royal. They are steeped in history, whispering with a thousand stories and  haunted by hundreds of ghosts.

The Gardens of Palais Royal
The Gardens of Palais Royal

Built in 1624 by the architect Jacques Le Mercier for Cardinal Richelieu, the palace was first known as the Palais du Cardinal. When Richelieu bequeathed it to the Crown, it became the Palis Royal and was in turn home to Louis XIII, the young Louis XIV, the Dukes of Orleans and the seat of the House of Bourbon.

In 1641, Cardinal Richelieu established the Theatre du Palais Royal, which still operates as a theatre today, at the far end of  the palace, on the corner of Rue de Montpensier. Here, Moliere staged his plays and Lully performed his operas to entertain the Sun King, Louis XIV. Le Theatre du Comedie Francaise at the other end of the complex, on the Place du Palais Royal, facing the Louvre, has been centre of French theatre since the time of Napoleon

In 1784 Louis Phillippe II, Duke of Orleans, opened the palace gardens to the public. The architect Victor Louis restructured the surrounding buildings and enclosed the gardens with colonnades.

From the 1780s to the mid-1800s, Palais Royal was a hub of Parisian social activity and political intrigue. Businesses flourished under the colonnades. Cafes sprang up, among them the one where, in July 1789, Camille des Moulins leapt onto a table and exhorted his fellow revolutionaries to take arms and storm the Bastille. Restaurants were established, like Le Grand Vefour, which still operates today as a grand and rather expensive Bar Americain, Bar Anglais, and Brasserie. There were businesses and shops, like the one where Carlotte Corday bought the knife she used to stab Jean Marat. Gambling dens, bordellos and prostitues also plied their trade under the arches.

The apartments around Palais Royal, have been home to many famous Francais and Francaises, like the novelist, Colette who lived here in the early 1900s.

Palais Royal today houses the offices of the French National Government, the Conseil d’ Etat, the Constitutional Council and the Ministry of Culture. Across its forecourt Daniel Burens 1986 sculpture stretches like a forest of black and white stone stumps, where people sit and rest in the sun while children jump and dance precariously.

The Palais  garden is a tranquil spot where couples stroll beneath the trees, workers on lunch breaks read on benches, mothers and au pairs watch children potter in the fenced playground. There are still restaurants and cafes under the colonades and sumptuous shops, selling art, antiques, fashion and exquisite toys.  Buskers entertain passers by and the homeless find a refuge for the night in secluded doorways

And every day at 12.00 midday,  at Palais Royal, the Noon Canon, set up in 1786, captures the rays of the midday sun, ignites and fires a shot.

La Place de la Concorde

Emerging from the Metro, even the most intrepid traveller will find La Place de La Concorde a little daunting. The roar of the incessantly whirling traffic makes you want to turn and run for the shelter of the nearby Tuilleries gardens. But don’t, persevere, there’s a lot to see and La Place De La Concorde has its own fascinating history.

Place de la Concorde at the time of the 2007 Rugby World Cup
Place de la Concorde at the time of the 2007 Rugby World Cup

Designed in 1755, the octagonal shaped place was originally named La Place Louis XV, after the King of the time.  His stone image, on horseback, stood at its centre.

During the French Revolution, the statue of the Louis XV was torn down and a guilloutine erected in its place. The square was re-named “La Place de la Revolution” and it was here, watched by cheering crowds, that Louis XVI was executed on January 21, 1793. His wife Marie Antoinette was put to death shortly after.  In 1794 more than 1, 300 people fell victim to the guilloutine in a single month.  The square became a terrible place and its stones were stained with the blood of the people killed there.

In 1795, the guilloutine was removed and the square was renamed Place de la Concorde. At each of the angles of the octagon is a statue, representing eight great cities of France. Two Romanesque fountains represent the rivers and seas. On the northern side of the place are two magnificent stone mansions, dating back to the time of Louis XV. Today one of them houses one of the world’s most luxurious hotels, Le Crillon.

During World War II Le Crillon served as the headquarters of the High Command of the German Army and  La Place de La Concorde became the centre of occupied France.  The obelisk, which today stands on the spot where Louis XV once sat astride his stone horse, is decorated with hieroglyphics celebrating the reign of Ramses II. It once marked the entrance to the Luxor Temple and was gifted to the people of France by the Egyptian Government in 1833.

Finally, La Place de La Concorde forms part of the great vista of avenues, arches, squares and gardens that stretches all the way from ultra modern La Défense through the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs Elysées, across the Place de la Concorde, through the Tuileries gardens to Le Musée du Louvre.

Notre Dame, the heart of Paris

Notre Dame de Paris stands, like a majestic Gothic flagship, on the Eastern end of the Ile de La Cite, in the centre of the River Seine, at the heart of Paris.

Notre Dame
Notre Dame

In a sense, it’s also at the centre of France, as Point Zero, the designated reference point for measuring distances along the roads leading out of the capital, is located in the square in front. Tradition holds that the visitor who stands at Point Zero ensures a return to Paris.

Spiritually, too, Notre Dame is at the heart of Paris and of France. It is home to the Archbishop of Paris and as the Cathedral of Paris, is the city’s largest and foremost place of worship. It has been the stage for many great state occasions, both religious, like General de Gaulle’s thanksgiving Mass at the end of World War II and secular, like the Coronation of Napoleon.

Notre Dame is one of the earliest and finest examples of Gothic architecture.  Conceived by Bishop Maurice de Sully, Notre Dame took 182 years to build – the duration of the entire Gothic era! The foundation stone was laid in 1163 and it was finally completed in1345. It reflects not only the different ideas and skills of the generations of stone-masons, carpenters, labourers and architects who worked on it but also the developing Gothic movement. The like of the stained-glass rose windows in the north, south and west walls had never been seen before. Neither had the famous flying buttresses, now a part of the majesty of this architecture but which were, in fact, an innovation born of the necessity to support the thinner walls, which developed stress fractures as they rose higher.

Like most great old Parisian monuments Notre Dame has been battered by the storms of history. During the Revolution, it was threatened with destruction as a bastion of the detested church and aristocracy. But while its windows were smashed and its statues beheaded – in the belief that they represented the French Kings, the church and it bell were saved. Under the new regime it became a “Temple to Reason” then a warehouse for storing food. In 1845 it was restored and used as a church again. But in 1871, the Paris Commune decided to burn it down. Once more it was saved. In 1939, fearing an attack from German bombers, the then Archbishop had the precious stained-glass windows removed. They remained hidden in safety for the duration of the war.

Like all ancient buildings, Notre Dame has been buffeted by time and the elements. In our times, maintenance, repairs and restoration are continuous and the cathedral’s face is often hidden behind an armour of scaffolding and mesh screens. However, Notre Dame was not always so well cared for. During the nineteenth century, it had fallen into such a state of disrepair that demolition seemed likely. Salvation this time came from an unlikely source. The novelist Victor Hugo, a great admirer of the Cathedral, wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the “beauty and the beast” love story of Quasimodo, the hunchback bell-ringer, who lived in the cathedral tower and Esmeralda, the beautiful gypsy who danced in the square below. The novel captured the imagination of the Parisian public and highlighted the plight of the church. A fundraising campaign was begun and Notre Dame was redeemed and restored..

Victor Hugo’s story has become one of the immortal classics, translated into hundreds of languages, retold in thousands of versions, in countless plays and in numerous films, including the charming Disney cartoon. In the process, Notre Dame, too has been immortalized, its fame spread to the four corners of the earth. Millions of tourists come to climb the 387 steps to its tower and to marvel at the stone monarchs of Judea and Israel standing guard on its façade. Pilgrims, Catholic and non-Catholic alike flock to Mass here.

Yet,  for all the queues, the crowds and the constant movement, Notre Dame is first and foremost, a place of prayer and the spirit. There a smell of incense and lilies, a dim light, pierced by muted rays from the rose windows and deep shadows. There are prayerful, peaceful corners where lighted candles and tokens of petition and thanksgiving bear testament to the faithful. Notre Dame is still a church.


Lose Yourself in the Louvre

When sun doesn’t shine, the air is cold and damp and the whole of Paris turns to grey, escape to the Palais du Louvre and lose yourself in its rambling galleries of treasures.

View from the Louvre
View from the Louvre

The site between the Rue de Rivoli and the Seine at the end of the Jardin des Tuileries, has been occupied by fortresses, castles and palaces since the 12th century. But it was the Sun King, Louis XIV who built the magnificent Palais du Louvre that stands there today. It became a Museum in 1793, after the French Revolution, and since then it has housed the treasures of the nation as well as a vast and continually growing wealth of art and artefacts from around the world.

There is no official starting or finishing point to the Louvre. The journey of discovery through the giant U of four floors is entirely a matter of personal choice. A guided tour of course will take you systematically around the high interest areas and an audioguide will talk you methodically through the collections. For the independent explorer, museum maps are clear, multi-lingual and laid out floor by floor, with collections coded by colour. Of course, you can always simply ramble at will and let one thing lead to another.

Whatever your particular passion in art, it’s all here at the Louvre; Oriental antiquities from Mesopotamia, Iran and the Levant, dating back to 7,000Bc, Egyptian antiquities from the earliest times to Cleopatra, Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities from the 3rd Millenium BC to 6AD, paintings, from the mid 13th century from the French, Italian, Spanish, Flemish, German and Dutch schools, Sculptures from the late Middle Ages to the mid 19th century from France, Italy, Spain and Northern Europe, objets d’art from the middle ages and the Renaissance  as well as decorative arts from the 17th and 18th centuries, jewellery and furniture, Islamaic Arts from Iran, Central Asia and India, prints and drwaings including the Edmond de Rothschild collection. Some, like La Jaconde or the Mona Lisa are world famous and are constantly surrounded by crowds of touriists, while, others, like many of the artefacts from Oceania, in their quiet gallery down on the ground floor, are little known and never crowded out.

The Louvre is as fascinating, too, for its own history, architecture and decoration as for the collections it contains. Two rooms are dedicated to the history and architectural development of the Louvre. But, as you browse through the other galleries, look above, around and beyond the paintings, sculptures and artefacts, the ceilings and the walls have their own stories to tell.

A promenade on the Seine

If you can’t get out on the River Seine when you’re Paris, then take a promenade along its banks.

Life on the Seine
Life on the Seine

La promenade (the walk or stroll) has always been a favourite French leisure activity. La promenade was a feature of Louis XIV, the Sun King’s day. A retinue of courtiers, his gardener Andrea Le Notre and a full orchestra accompanied him as he promenaded the purpose built paths of his grand palace at Versailles. Old French novels, paintings and photographs are full of references and depictions of promenades. Still now, any lunchtime, evening, weekend or holiday, the streets, allees and riverbanks of Paris teem with promeneurs  – families, couples, groups and singles.

There have been countless tourists guide books written about picturesque and interesting Paris promenades, guaranteed to keep the visitor safely to a tried and trusted path, with maximum monument, cafe, charm and vista value.  But whether you follow a prescribed route or ramble at will, the promenade is the best way to explore this city and most importantly, to see it as it really is.

A walking plan for the  the Seine
A walking plan for the the Seine

One of the best routes for a Paris promenade is along the River Seine. Life on the river is endlessly fascinating. Barges piled with containers make their way out to the coast. Barge people, lines of washing strung along their decks, wave as they pass on their way up river. Bateaux Mouches cruise slowly by, crowded with tourists, while a disembodied voice counts off the monuments for them. Houseboats bob gently along the banks. On their decks, screened by potted gardens, their occupants    lounge in deckchairs.

Joggers pant past. A few fishermen doze over motionless lines. Painters dab away at their canvasses against the sunny stone walls.

Spanning the Seine are the famous Paris bridges, each quite individual, each with its own story and each definitely worth a detour for a different view of the river.

It’s also worth a detour to browse in the Bouquinistes or booksellers’ Seine-side stalls for old editions, comics, magazines and other unexpected treasures.

All along the Seine there are famous Paris monuments – the Conciergerie, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay. There are also many beautiful but unknown Parisian buildings.

If you’re strolling the Seine in summer, you might find yourself on Paris Plage, surrounded by bikinis, sandcastles, ball games, the scent of sunscreen and all the trappings of the beach, save the surf and the salt.


Parlez-vous francais?

It’s often said that if you don’t speak French, you’ll have a terrible time in France.

The Eiffel Tower by night
The Eiffel Tower by night

There are countless scary examples of just how that terrible time will manifest itself and no amount of late nights trying to learn French phrases and French Adjectives will help you; waiters will ignore you while the other patrons in the cafe smirk over their cocas and croque monsieurs at your mounting discomfort and impatience; shop assistants will patronise and diddle you; taxi-drivers will deliver you to the wrong address, shout at you, then take off with your change; hotel receptionists will sneer at you, give you the room with the broken telly, next door to the one for rent by the hour, overlooking the courtyard with the rubbish bins where the dero sings all night, then shrug, mystified and uncomprehending when you complain; if you seek help or directions in the street, even pre-fixed with a humble “Excuse me, do you speak English?” you’ll be brushed off with a “Non! Désolé” (whatever that means!) The list goes on …

It’s just as often said that the French can all speak English, they just refuse to, to make life difficult and because, “of course, they hate the English!” Examples here are rather thin, but there one or two afloat about the waiters who will take an order in English from the flirty girl with the long legs while flatly ignoring the desperate finger-clickings and thunderous glares of the middle-aged man with the short black socks under Roman sandals.

Both statements are, of course, generalisations. True, there are those who have an unhappy time in France because they don’t speak French, but there are many others who have the time of their lives in spite of it. True, many French people do speak English, but many don’t and some are reluctant to, not because they’re obtuse or detest anglophones, but because, like people the world over, they’re afraid they’ll embarrass themselves. Perhaps if they took English lessons from someone like AJ Hoge, they’d be a little more likely to speak English, though I doubt that many French natives are going to take time out of their days to make life that bit more easier for tourists.

While competence in French is no guarantee of a fabulous séjour en France (even a few of the totally fluent have been heard to complain of some of the outrages from the list above) usually any gracious effort to speak the language is appreciated as the gesture of goodwill and respect that it is. It smooths the way and opens the door to communication.

So dust off the schoolboy or the schoolgirl French! Reach for the Lonely Planet phrasebook – it covers pretty well every contingency (and proposition!) At the very least, polish up the Oui! Oui!, the Non! Non!, the Monsieur, the Madame, the Merci, the S’il vous plait, the Bonjour! and the Au Revoir! Even a little language goes a long way.