48 hours in: Belle Epoque Paris
Discover the decorous architecture, fine food and Bohemian spirit of the French capital’s ‘beautiful era’ this summer.
Why go now?
The French capital fell under the spell of the Belle Époque from 1880 through to the start of the First World War. Catch the atmosphere of the ‘beautiful era’ in early summer, when the honey-hued buildings are bathed in sunshine and turn-of-the-century architecture is perfectly illuminated. Stephen Frears’ film, Chéri, on release in Irish cinemas now, captures this age of decadence, when art, fashion, food, philosophy and the bohemian spirit thrived in the French capital.
Aer Lingus (0818 365 000; www.aerlingus.com) flights from Dublin and Cork arrive at Paris Charles de Gaulle, as do Air France (01-605 0383; www.airfrance.ie) services from Dublin and Shannon. The city centre can be reached on line B of the suburban railway, the RER (ratp.info). An ¤8.20 ticket takes you to Gare du Nord (1), Châtelet (2) and St-Michel (3) stations. If you land at the city’s second airport, Orly, take the Orlybus to Denfert- Rochereau station, on RER line B and two metro lines. A single is ¤6.30. The metro and RER 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 Époque 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 and Left Bank are split by the river Seine, with arrondissements spiralling clockwise from the centre, near the Louvre (8). Bohemian Montmartre presides over the city from the north, with its landmark Sacré Coeur church (9), from the Belle Époque. The main tourist office (10) is at 25 rue des Pyramides (0033 1892 683 000; parisinfo. com) near the Jardin des Tuileries.
The grande dame of Belle Époque hotels is the Hotel Lutetia (11) at 45 Boulevard Raspail (0033 149 544 646; paris.concorde-hotels.com). The building celebrates its centenary next year and bears the hallmarks of the golden age. Look out for reliefs of fruit outside, marble and Art Deco styling inside and listed stained-glass windows. Doubles start at ¤240, room only. A Belle Époque bank has been transformed into the Hotel Banke (12) at 20 rue La Fayette (0033 155 332 222; derbyhotels.com), close to the Opéra Garnier (13). Much of the original structure 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 (0033 142 469 275; ichotelsgroup.com) plays it safe with décor, but boasts a period dining room. Doubles from ¤135, room only.
Take a view
...of Beaux-Arts brilliance from the 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.
Haute couture flourished in turn-ofthe- century Paris, with many of the fashion houses based on the Rue de la Paix (15). These days it’s a more pedestrian thoroughfare. However, the Parisian fashion houses can be found under one spectacular roof at Galeries Lafayette (16) — at 40 Boulevard Haussmann (0033 142 823 456; www.galerieslafayette. com) — scattered between 10 storeys under a vast Art Nouveau glass and steel-domed ceiling. Open 9.30am-7.30pm (except Sundays), until 9pm Thursdays.
Lunch on the run
Restaurant Vagenende (17) at 142 Boulevard St-Germain (0033 143 266 818; vagenende.fr) is listed as a historic monument. The brasserie is largely unchanged since it opened more than a century ago. The ¤22 set two-course lunch features classic bistro fare.
Take a hike
Where Haussmann bulldozed the city to make way for his grand boulevards, the Belle Époque saw more fanciful architecture. One of the most prominent architects of his time was Hector Guimard, famous for his canopied Art Nouveau metro stations, still to be seen in the 16th arrondissement. Start at the top of Rue la Fontaine (18) 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 Hotel Mezzara, designed by Guimard for a wealthy textile manufacturer. The building’s exterior features in Chéri. All of his buildings have his signature and completion date etched into the pale stone façades. Continue towards the end of the road, turning back into Avenue Mozart, where the Hôtel Guimard (19) is at number 122. This was the architect’s residence, with dainty masonry. 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). But a real insight into Belle Époque life can be gained at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (21), 107 rue de Rivoli (0033 144 555 750; www.lesartsdecoratifs. fr). Officially part of the Louvre, its galleries comprise objects from medieval France to present. Stand-out displays include a bedroom from a 1903 Hector Guimard building, Hôtel Nozal; a 1904 dining room with a cascading lamp of coloured glass; and reassembled rooms from couturier Jeanne Lanvin’s Paris apartment. The museum opens Saturday-Sunday 10am-6pm, Tuesday-Friday 11am-6pm, and Thursday until 9pm;€8
Montmartre was a hive of creative abandon, presided over by artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, Pissarro and Van Gogh. The Hôtel Royal Fromentin (22), 11 rue Fromentin (0033 148 748 593; 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, surrounded by 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 (0033 142 728 782; bofingerparis. com). This Art Nouveau brasserie was the first place to introduce draught beers to Paris. Today it’s a listed building. The mostly Alsatian menu features full-on fare, such as duck foie gras (¤18) and pig’s trotters (¤17).
Sunday morning: go to church
Montmartre wasn’t only a place of vice. At 19 rue des Abbesses is the church of St-Jean de Montmartre (24) (0033 146 064 396; saintjeandemontmartre. com), built in 1904 in Art Nouveau style. It was nearly demolished for its unconventionality. Mass (in French) is at 10.30am; free tours are offered every fourth Sunday from September- June at 4pm. Open 9am-noon and 3pm-7.30pm the rest of the week. Take a ride Turn around from the church to face one of the only two remaining Guimard metro entrances in the capital: Abbesses. Hop on line 12, change at Pigalle on to line 2 and exit at the last stop, Porte Dauphine. Here stands the other Guimard entrance.
Out to brunch
Alight at Bonne Nouvelle for the De la Ville Café (25), 34 boulevard Bonne Nouvelle (0033 148 244 809; delavillecafe. com), a harbinger of cool. By night the industrial-style room, once a Belle Époque bordello, is filled with the young and glamorous. By day, brunch is served in the original dining room. A main dish plus bakery basket, yoghurt, fruit juice, and tea or coffee, is a very reasonable €20.
A walk in the park
Marcel Proust spent his most maudlin years in Paris, but regularly took to the leafy surrounds of the Parc Monceau (26). Its late 18th-century architect filled it with follies; statues of Guy de Maupassant and Frédéric Chopin have since been added. Open 7am-8pm.
Icing on the cake
The resting place of Proust and scores more Belle Époque luminaries is the Père Lachaise Cemetery (27). Buy a map for ¤2 on boulevard Ménilmontant then follow the shady walkways through one of the world’s most visited cemeteries. It opens at least 9am-5pm daily; admission free.