48 hours in: Belle Epoque, Paris
Discover the decorous architecture, fine food and Bohemian spirit of the French capital's 'beautiful era' this spring.
Saturday 02 May 2009
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WHY GO NOW?
The French capital fell under the spell of the Belle Epoque from 1880 through to the start of the First World War. Catch the atmosphere of the "beautiful era" this spring, when the honey-hued buildings are bathed in sunshine and the flourishes of the turn-of-the-century architecture are perfectly illuminated. Stephen Frears' film, Chéri, on general release from next Friday, captures this age of decadence, when art, fashion, food, philosophy and the bohemian spirit thrived in the French capital.
Eurostar trains (0870 518 6186; eurostar.com ) from London St Pancras, Ebbsfleet and Ashford arrive at the Gare du Nord (1) in impressive time and style. The Paris terminus predates the Belle Epoque, but its interior was rebuilt in 1889 and has some appealing touches.
Flights from most UK airports arrive at Paris Charles de Gaulle. The city centre can be reached on line B of the suburban railway, the RER (ratp.info). An €8.20 (£6.80) ticket takes you to Gare du Nord (1), Châtelet (2) and St-Michel (3) stations. A few flights arrive at Orly. Take the Orlybus to Denfert-Rochereau station, which is on RER line B and two Métro lines. A single is €6.30. The metro and RER networks comprehensively cover most of the city. Single fares for journeys within the Paris boundaries cost €1.60, but more economical is a carnet of 10 tickets for €11.40. A one-day travel card covering zones one to three costs €8.80.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Remnants of the Belle Epoque are scattered all over the city, most visible in the landmarks built for the World Fairs of 1889 and 1900: the Eiffel Tower (4), the Grand (5) and Petit Palais (6) and Pont Alexandre III (7). The Right Bank (north) and Left Bank (south) are split by the river Seine, with the arrondissements spiralling clockwise from the centre, near the Louvre (8). Bohemian Montmartre presides over the city from a hill in the north, with its landmark white church, the Sacré Coeur (9), dating from the Belle Epoque. The main tourist office (10) is at 25 rue des Pyramides (00 33 1 8 92 68 30 00; parisinfo.com ) near the Jardin des Tuileries.
The grande dame of Belle Epoque hotels is the Hotel Lutetia (11) at 45 Boulevard Raspail (00 33 1 49 54 46 46; paris.concorde-hotels.com ). The building, in the Left Bank's well-heeled St-Germain district, celebrates its centenary next year and bears the hallmarks of the golden age. Look out for reliefs of fruit on the exterior, lashings of marble and Art-Deco styling inside and listed stained-glass windows. Doubles start at €240, room only.
A Belle Epoque bank has been newly transformed as the Hotel Banke (12) at 20 rue La Fayette (00 33 1 55 33 22 22; derbyhotels.com ), close to the Opéra Garnier (13). Much of the original structure, from the façade to the mosaic floor in the expansive lobby, has been meticulously preserved, but the rooms (from €193, room only) have all the style you would expect from the upmarket Spanish hotel group, Derby.
The Holiday Inn Paris-Opéra (14) at 38 rue de l'Echiquier (00 33 1 42 46 92 75; ichotelsgroup.com ) plays it safe in the décor stakes, but does boast a period dining room. Doubles from €135, room only.
TAKE A VIEW
... of Beaux-Arts brilliance from the wildly decorous Pont Alexandre III (7) to the neo-classical Grand (5) and Petit Palais (6), all built for the 1900 World Fair. Walking from the Left Bank to the Right, catch a glimpse of the gold-capped obelisk on the Place de la Concorde to your right, the steel-and-glass-roofed Grand Palais straight ahead, then turn around for a view of the Eiffel Tower (4), built as a temporary structure for the 1889 World Fair. The bridge is a riot of Art Nouveau lamps, cherubs, nymphs and gilded statues.
Haute couture flourished in turn-of-the-century Paris, with many of the fashion houses based on the Rue de la Paix (15) near the equally superior Opéra Garnier (13). These days it's a more pedestrian thoroughfare of offices and shops. However, the Parisian fashion houses can be found under one spectacular roof at Galeries Lafayette (16), the department store at 40 Boulevard Haussmann (00 33 1 42 82 34 56; galerieslafayette.com ). Lacroix, Givenchy, Chanel and more are scattered between 10 storeys under a vast Art Nouveau glass- and steel-domed ceiling. Open 9.30am-7.30pm daily except Sunday, until 9pm Thursday.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Restaurant Vagenende (17), 142 Boulevard St-Germain (00 33 1 43 26 68 18; vagenende.fr ) is listed as a historic monument. The brasserie is largely unchanged since it opened over a century ago, with wood panelling, mirrors, copper fittings and a patterned glass ceiling. The €22 set two-course lunch features classic bistro fare, from oysters and onion soup to choucroute and beef bourguignon.
TAKE A HIKE
Where Haussmann bulldozed the city to make way for his grands boulevards, the Belle Epoque saw more fanciful and organic architecture. One of the most prominent architects of his time was Hector Guimard, most famous for his canopied Art Nouveau Métro stations and whose legacy can be found in the 16th arrondissement.
Start at the top of Rue la Fontaine (18) near Ranelagh Métro station and head west. On your right at number 14 is the Castel Béranger. This 1898 residential building stands out immediately for its intricate turquoise steel doorway. Across the road in another Guimard building is the Café Antoine and an unusual Art Nouveau blue-and-white road sign for rue Agar just beyond. At number 60 is the villa-style Hotel Mezzara, designed by Guimard for a wealthy textile manufacturer. The building's exterior features in Chéri as the home of the protagonist Léa (Michelle Pfeiffer) and features delicate tendril-style balconies. All his buildings have his signature and completion date etched into the pale stone façades. Continue towards the end of the road, turning back in a hairpin into Avenue Mozart, where the Hôtel Guimard (19) is at number 122. This was the architect's elegant residence, completed in 1912 with dainty masonry in the cut stone. Another Art Nouveau road sign – Villa Flore – is on your left.
There's no shortage of fin-de-siècle culture in Paris, whether it's the converted 1900 World Fair railway station, now the Musée d'Orsay (20), with its Impressionist masterpieces; or the Grand Palais (5) and its three separate exhibition spaces. But a real insight into Belle Epoque life can be gained at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs (21), 107 rue de Rivoli (00 33 1 44 55 57 50; lesartsdecoratifs.fr). Officially part of the Louvre, its galleries comprise furniture and objets from medieval France to the present day, including Art Nouveau interiors. Stand-out displays include a bedroom from a 1903 Hector Guimard apartment building, Hôtel Nozal – a bed, chairs, cupboard and chaise longue intricately carved from pear wood; a 1904 dining room with a cascading lamp of coloured glass; and reassembled rooms from coutourier Jeanne Lanvin's Paris apartment. The museum opens Saturday-Sunday 10am-6pm, Tuesday-Friday 11am-6pm, Thursday until 9pm; €8.
Turn-of-the-century Montmartre was a hive of creative and bohemian abandon, presided over by artist residents such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, Pissarro and Van Gogh. While old haunts like the Moulin Rouge are now little more than tacky tourists magnets, the Hôtel Royal Fromentin (22), 11 rue Fromentin (00 33 1 48 74 85 93; hotelroyalfromentin.com), whose lobby is the site of the former Don Juan Cabaret (1894-1954), has revived the art of absinthe drinking. The "green fairy" can be enjoyed for €6 in a suitably green bar, surrounded by reproduction Art Nouveau posters and absinthe paraphernalia.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
A more refined experience can be had at Bofinger (23), 5-7 rue de la Bastille (00 33 1 42 72 87 82; bofingerparis.com). This Art Nouveau brasserie, tucked off Place de la Bastille, was the first place to introduce draught beers to Paris. Today it's a listed building, with a glass-domed ceiling, padded leather banquettes, dark wood and brass fittings. The mostly Alsatian menu features full-on fare, such as duck foie gras (€18) and pig's trotters with chips and bearnaise sauce (€17).
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
Montmartre wasn't only a place of vice. In a square at 19 rue des Abbesses is the church of St-Jean de Montmartre (24) (00 33 1 46 06 43 96; saintjeandemontmartre.com ). Built in 1904 in Art Nouveau style, its lofty, red-brick structure is particularly imposing. It was nearly demolished for its unconventionality at the time of construction but has stood the test of time. Mass (in French) is at 10.30am; free guided tours are offered every fourth Sunday from September-June at 4pm. Open 9am-noon and 3-7.30pm the rest of the week.
TAKE A RIDE
Turn around from St-Jean de Montmartre to face one of the only two remaining Guimard Métro entrances in the capital: Abbesses, with its Art Nouveau entrance featuring a glass and leaf-green steel canopy. Hop on line 12 in the direction of Mairie d'Issy, change at the next stop (Pigalle) on to line 2 and exit at the last stop, Porte Dauphine. Here stands the other Guimard entrance, in similar decorous style.
OUT TO BRUNCH
Zip back into the centre and alight at Bonne Nouvelle for the De la Ville Café (25), 34 boulevard Bonne Nouvelle (00 33 1 48 24 48 09; delavillecafe.com ), a harbinger of cool in the otherwise run-of-the-mill grands boulevards. By night the industrial-style room, once a Belle Epoque bordello and later a brasserie, is filled with the young and glamorous. But in the day a more unhurried ambience prevails with brunch served in the original dining room. A main dish such as grilled steak tartare with a fried egg, an elaborate salad or smoked salmon with scrambled eggs and blinis, plus bakery basket, yoghurt, fruit juice, and tea or coffee, weighs in at a very reasonable €20.
A WALK IN THE PARK
Belle Epoque novelist Marcel Proust spent his most maudlin years after the death of his beloved mother in Paris, but regularly took to the leafy surrounds of the pretty Parc Monceau (26). Its late 18th-century anglophile architect filled it with follies including a rotunda and a Corinthian colonnade; latterly statues of Guy de Maupassant and Frédéric Chopin have been added. It is a compact space bursting with greenery and flowers; open 7am-8pm daily.
ICING ON THE CAKE
The resting place of Proust and scores more Belle Epoque luminaries – including Colette (author of Chéri) and Jane Avril (leg-flailing muse of Toulouse-Lautrec) – is the Père Lachaise Cemetery (27). Buy a map for €2 from a vendor outside on boulevard Menilmontant then follow the shady walkways through one of the world's most visited cemeteries. It opens at least 9am-5pm daily, with longer hours during the week and in summer; admission free.
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