Wednesday 13 December 2017

Paris: Time travel through the French capital

The Petit Palais (Small Palace)
The Petit Palais (Small Palace)
Galeries Lafayette
Musée d'Orsay
Musee Rodin
The Bouillon restaurant

Nick Trend

Nick Trend uncovers stunning reminders of the opulent Belle Epoque in France's capital

A year or so ago, I was taken out to dinner at the Bouillon Racine, a century-old Parisian brasserie in St Michel, tucked away between the Jardin du Luxembourg and the river. I was entranced.

Here was a dining room from a different era -- extravagant, light-hearted, decorative.

The windows and mirrored walls were patterned with curlicue tracery; the pale greens and gold paint were offset by bright floral ceramics; the coat hooks and light fittings sprouted ironwork foliage; even the chair backs and bar stools were twisted into elegant curves.

The Bouillon (the word means broth or stock) was one of several restaurants that became hugely popular with Parisians in the years before the First World War.

The artist Paul Gauguin was among its customers. For me, all this Art Nouveau ebullience triggered a moment of understanding. This was a side to Paris that I had never properly experienced.

The Bouillon was a survival from the Belle Epoque, when Paris became both decadent and beautiful; when the Metro, adorned by its Art Nouveau station signs, was opened; when the building of the grand hotels, the Eiffel Tower, the Opera Garnier, the Gare d'Orsay, the Grand Palais, changed the character of the city. It was the hedonistic backdrop to 'La Vie Parisienne' and the 'Folies Bergere'.

I first went to Paris in the late 1970s, when I was 17, and for me the city was then all about progress and modernity.

It was a city of grands projets and a gleaming transport system. The multicoloured Centre Pompidou and the underground shopping precinct of Forum des Halles next door had only recently opened.

The sleek new RER was flashing between central stations then streaking out to the distant banlieues and the extraordinary Charles de Gaulle airport, which extends its arms like a concrete octopus -- another radically new design that made other airports seem dull and dated by comparison.

Being young, I was also poor -- I never saw the inside of the great historic restaurants, the grand hotels or the opera house.

Of course, I wasn't blind to the great buildings of earlier eras -- I remember how much I loved the Rodin Museum the first time I visited -- but my impression of Paris was of a contemporary city with a radical architectural, technological and artistic agenda.

The dining room of the Bouillon Racine changed all that for me. I had already begun to sense the decline of 1970s and 1980s Paris.

Today, the Metro and RER are, frankly, getting rather grotty, Charles de Gaulle airport dated, Les Halles an embarrassment that is now being redeveloped, and the demolition of the old market it replaced an architectural crime.

I wanted to see more of an earlier age of optimism. The Belle Epoque didn't get that name for nothing. This was an era of confidence, prosperity and certainty.

The Second Empire was over, Baron Haussmann's remodelling of the city was far advanced, and Parisians were hungry for more glamour and more beautification.

The Eiffel Tower, built for the 1889 World's Fair, was a symbol of French engineering pride, and the 1900 Universal Exhibition made Paris the centre of world attention at the turn of the century.

It was a time when arts and crafts, cafés and restaurants became more and more available to a rapidly growing middle class.

The Belle Epoque couldn't last, of course. The First World War finally shattered its social, political and aesthetic certainties. But perhaps the moment that confirmed the end of the era was the riot that broke out at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in May 1913.

It was the premiere of Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Shocked by the violent movements of the dancers and the primitive rhythms of the music, the audience began to boo and shout, fist fights broke out, and the performance had to be halted.

The party was over. A new, more challenging artistic and cultural era was beginning that would make the old aesthetics seem, by contrast, overblown and superficial.

But if it now seems frivolous and fanciful, the Belle Epoque was always full of fun. It was this Paris that I wanted to explore, not the now faded and dated city of Mitterrand and Pompidou.

The Eiffel Tower needs no introduction; I didn't attend the 'Folies Bergere'. Nor did I eat in the Art Nouveau dining room at La Fermette Marbeuf and I couldn't afford Maxim's.

But here are some of the best sights, museums and restaurants in which to find a taste of Belle Epoque Paris.

The Petit Palais

The Petit Palais was built for the Universal Exhibition in 1900 as a pair with the Grand Palais opposite (now used for major art exhibitions). Its voluptuous stone and ironwork marks the high point of Parisian Belle Epoque architecture.

Now a museum of arts and crafts, it has one of the most underrated collections in the city, including an exhibition of art from 1900 with works by Renoir, Maillol, Bonnard, Rodin and Lalique, among others. See petitpalais.paris.fr.

Musee d'Orsay

The greatest collection of art from the Belle Epoque, and the decades that led up to it, is housed in one of the most elegant buildings of the time -- the former Orsay station.

The soaring architecture of glass and iron was another showpiece built for the 1900 exhibition, but by the 1970s it was redundant, and it was redeveloped as a museum to house the national gallery of 19th-century art.

Galeries Lafayette

The department store on Boulevard Haussmann still thrives as an outlet for many of the most famous French designer brands. Much of the shop is now fairly bland, but the vast Art Nouveau glass and steel dome, constructed in 1912, is still the showpiece at the centre of the building. See galerieslafayette.com.

The Musee Rodin

The gorgeous Hotel Biron mansion and its gardens, which house the museum of some of Rodin's greatest work, dates back to the 18th century and isn't part of the Belle Epoque from an architectural point of view.

But Rodin was the outstanding sculptor of the time, and he moved in here in 1908, eventually leaving the house and sculpture to the French nation.

On a sunny day it is surely the most beautiful museum in Paris. See musee-rodin.fr.

The Musee des Arts Decoratifs

Tucked away in a wing of the Louvre Palace on the Rue de Rivoli, several storeys of galleries here illustrate the history of French furniture making and decorative arts, including plenty of examples from late 19th and early 20th century.

The highlight among the Art Nouveau interiors is a bedroom from a 1903 Hector Guimard apartment, and a 1904 dining room with a shimmering coloured-glass lamp and wonderfully carved and inlaid furniture. See lesartsdecoratifs.fr.

The Opera Garnier

If you want to see a performance at one of Europe's most flamboyant opera houses, book weeks, if not months, in advance.

The Opera Garnier was opened in 1875, and the opulence of what is, strictly speaking, Second Empire architecture verges on kitsch, but it is tremendous fun -- the gaudy extravagance of the grand foyer and staircase are just a taster of the concert hall itself.

If you can't get a ticket, you can book a tour during the daytime. See operadeparis.fr.

Cafés and restaurants

Café de la Paix

Just around the corner from the opera house and built by the same architect, Charles Garnier, this is another Second Empire building, which came into its own during the Belle Epoque.

Maupassant, Zola and Diaghilev dined beneath the gilded, extravagantly corniced ceilings and among the Corinthian columns.

The dinner menu is expensive (€77), but you can have a salad on the terrace at lunchtime for €18 and there are some spectacular seafood platters. See cafedelapaix.fr.

Chartier

The most famous of the turn-of-the-century bouillons, Chartier's charming panelled, mirrored dining room lit by brass ball-lamp chandeliers has always offered excellent value.

You can still have soup of the day for €1, steak hache sauce poivre vert with frites for €8.50, and a bottle of Cotes du Rhone for €12.50, and the bill will be scribbled on the paper tablecloth. But you will probably have to queue for a table.

See restaurant-chartier.com.

Bouillon Racine

The Art Nouveau brasserie mentioned earlier strays beyond classic French dishes, including gazpacho and pata negra pork on its menu, for example. Evening menu €41. See bouillon-racine.com.

Le Train Bleu

Only in Paris would you go to a railway station to eat lunch or dinner.

When it opened in 1901, this fabulous restaurant overlooking the platforms was modestly called the Buffet de la Gare de Lyon.

That scarcely did justice to the padded leather banquettes, the great arched windows and glittering chandeliers, gold cornices borne up by stucco cherubs, and ceilings and walls painted with scenes from the Alps and the south of France. My favourite restaurant in Paris.

Menus start at €56 and might include saffron fish soup, braised ox cheek and dessert, plus half a bottle of wine.

Musee d'Orsay restaurant

The station may be defunct, but the restaurant lives on, with a setting arguably even finer than that at the Train Bleu.

At one end of the great glass-and steel building, raised above the main galleries, it feels like a Versailles drawing room, with a soaring trompe l'oeil ceiling and sparkling glass chandeliers.

It's good value, too: you can have a salad for €14.20 or a plat du jour plus a dessert for €20.50.

Open for lunch only, except Thursdays, when the museum is open in the evenings and menus, including drinks, cost €55.

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