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Paris + Literature

The Myth of Normal

Like Colette, we prefer passion to goodness. The great French novelist purrs in The Cat (1933), “The June evening, drenched with light, was reluctant to give way to darkness.” And, “June came with its longer days, its night skies devoid of mystery which the late glow of the sunset and the early glimmer of dawn over the east of Paris kept from being wholly dark.” She too was a lover of “The giddy horizons of Paris.”

Writer and poet Charles Baudelaire caused quite the stir in 1857 with his risqué poem collection Les Fleurs du Mal. One of the tamer pieces is The Swan. Roy Campbell translated it into English in 1952, including the line, “Old Paris is no more (cities renew, quicker than human hearts, their changing spell).” Two years later, William Aggeler also translated it. His version includes, “Paris changes! But naught in my melancholy, Has stirred! New palaces, scaffolding, blocks of stone, Old quarters, all become for me an allegory, And my dear memories are heavier than rocks.” All those Haussmannian boulevards must have seemed so sharply new.

Nancy Mitford, as always, is right. In Don’t Tell Alfred (1960), the Francophile novelist continues, “… past acres of houses exactly as Voltaire, as Balzac, must have seen them, of that colour between beige and grey so characteristic of the Île de France, with high slate roofs and lacy ironwork balconies. Though the outside of these houses have a homogeneity which makes an architectural unit of each street, a glimpse through their great decorated doorways into the courtyards reveals a wealth of difference within. Some are planned on a large and airy scale and have fine staircases and windows surmounted by smiling masks, some are so narrow and dark and mysterious, so overbuilt through the centuries with such ancient, sinister rabbit-runs leading out of them, that it is hard to imagine a citizen of the modern world inhabiting them.”

Frédéric Dassas, Senior Curator Musée du Louvre, told us at the Remembering Napoléon III Dinner in Camden Place, Chislehurst, Kent, “Walk through Paris with open eyes. We still have Paris in Europe!” We will. We do. We’re full of passion for this city. Especially riding through Paris with the wind in our hair. On the back of a motorbike, weaving through rush hour traffic, speeding down narrow streets, zooming round the uninsurable l’Arc de Triomphe roadway, this is life in the fast lane and the overtaking one too. Sporting Mary Martin London and Isabel Marant of course. Selina Hastings writes in her biography of Nancy Mitford (2002), “She found in beautiful Paris happiness of spirit …” Soon we will be deuxième étage living it up. We’re not always good but we’re always passionate.

Then there’s the Manifestation! We head up Montmartre for a hawk’s eye view of Montparnasse. Sacré Coeur.

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Hôtel Chateaubriand Paris +

We Don’t Have Beef

Hôtel Chateaubriand is the sister of Hôtel Washington in the golden triangle at the very heart of the French capital. Romain Rio Hotels, the best of Paris. They’re located off Champs Élysées. The 4th Edition of the Michelin Guide to Paris (1960) describes that most famous of avenues, “Leaving Clemenceau’s statue to the right in the square of that name, we cross the Avenues des Champs Élysées, and not without turning to enjoy the view towards the Invalides. To the left stands the Marigny Theatre built in the reign of Napoléon III. Close to this is La Bourse aux Timbres – the Stamp Market – where collectors meet on Thursdays and Saturdays.”

The Guide continues, “You pass a number of drinking fountains; these, like many others in Paris were the gift of a generous English philanthropist, Sir Richard Wallace (1818 to 1890), and are named after him. Sir Richard spent a number of years in Paris and gave away a large part of his fortune for charitable purposes. He was a popular respected figure, and received many honours both in France and in England. Turning to the right you follow the Avenue Gabriel opened in 1818. Shaded by magnificent trees, the gardens which you follow lie at the back of the handsome mansions of the Faubourg St Honoré. The first of these on your way is the Élysée. Its fine railings were wrought in 1905. To the right, there is an attempt at a natural garden; the paths meander between undulating lawns with trees rising here and there. To achieve this effect Haussmann cut down many of the fine rows of elms. Turn to the right when reaching the Concorde.”

And now for that heavenward grand tour of Le Chateaubriand, floor by floor, room by room. Deuxième sous sol: archives, bureaux, lingerie, vestiaire du personnel. Premier sous sol: bureau, chambre 10, cuisine, salle à manger. Rez de chaussee: accueil, chambre 20, chambre 30, hall d’entrée, jardinet du premier sous sol, petit salon, grand salon. Premier étage: chambres 101 de 105, jardin. Deuxième étage: chambres 201 de 205. Troisième étage: chambres 301 de 305. Quatrième étage: chambres 401 de 405. Cinquième étage: chambres 501 de 505, terrasse. Sixième étage: chambres 601 et 602.

The interior decoration of this fine Haussmann building isn’t for minimalists. It’s even more spruced up in the festive season. Romain Rio explains, “Like a score, Hôtel Chateaubriand draws harmony from every detail from the imposing chandelier in the patio to the velvet and crocodile lounge chairs in the sitting room… through the powder pink doors coming straight from a Venetian palace to the black fire surround from the palace of Versailles to the bull’s eye window… note the 18th century portraits, the collection of beetles… in this place I reinvent the story of each object, making it timeless yet wildly contemporary.”

The grilled and gated and gilded entrance hall leads into a spacious reception area linked to a basement dining room by a winding staircase overlooking the patio, or glazed courtyard, to the rear. A pair of antique doors opens into the lift: it’s like being encased in a beautiful wardrobe. Clive Staples Lewis would approve. Timber panelled walls and a trio of bowler hat lamps are reflected in a gilt framed hostess mirror. Soothing classical music serenades guests as they ascend – at least in this case – to the penthouse suite.

Ah the penthouse suite! Occupying the lion’s share of the top floor of a Haussmann building: this is what life’s all about. The walls are hung with stretched silk hand painted in places. An enormous gilt picture frame doubles as the bedhead of the equally enormous bed. The en suite bathroom is a pleasure of black marble with an electric shuttered window, not that you’d want to block the view spying on the mansarded neighbours opposite. Everybody in Paris is always saying “C’est la vie.” At Hôtel Chateaubriand it’s, “Vraiment, c’est la vie!”

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Hôtel George Washington + Le Petit George Restaurant Paris

French Connections

The Francophile Charles Dickens would still recognise the Golden Triangle of Paris. Dickens on France edited by John Edmondson in 2007, “Dickens first saw Paris in July 1844, when he and his family were travelling through France on their way to Italy. He was instantly enthralled: ‘I cannot tell you what an immense impression Paris made upon me. It is the most extraordinary place in the world. I was not prepare for, and really could not have believed in, its perfectly distinct and separate character.’ This first, fleeting visit marked the beginning of a friendship with the city that would last for the rest of his life.”

To quote Joseph Roth in The White Cities: Reports from France 1925 to 1939, “Over the rooftops of Paris there is a smiling baby colossus of rude health.” A baguette’s throw from Champs-Élysées and a croissant’s toss from l’Arc de Triomphe lies Hôtel George Washington, one of two independent boutique Parisian hotels (the other is Hôtel Chateaubriand) owned by second generation hoteliers and siblings Romain Rio and Méryll Collette. Assistant General Manager, Camay Tan, explains, “The Rio family are personally involved in both the decoration and day to day operations. It’s a unique ‘guest home’. All 20 guest rooms are individually decorated: every single detail was created and specially made. Hôtel George Washington is both classical French and contemporary.”

A love of interior design is clear from the custard colour and navy trimmed reception hall to the 27 meter high seascape mural painted on gold leaf seen from the elevator behind a glass panel to the Marmara marbled bathroom filled with The Ritual of Ayurveda products. “There’s a focus on really good materials,” says Camay. There’s also a focus on individuality: domed objets d’art; Grecian urns; sculpted shirt collars; Indian feathers. In the duck egg blue reception rear reception area opening onto an intimate courtyard are bookshelves with hours of distraction. Titles include ‘American Fashion’, ‘La Lumière de Londres,Putman Style’, ‘Le Style Hitchcock. Joseph Roth springs to mind again: “… it’s so well appointed that it almost corresponds to my notion of a seventh heaven.”

In Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s short story The Camel’s Back character Perry exclaims, “Take me upstairs. If that cork sees my heart it’ll fall out from pure mortification.” Channelling your inner Perry, close your eyes and dream of the ideal Parisian hotel bedroom. And open your eyes in the fourth floor bedroom of Hôtel George Washington. As you gaze through the pair of French doors clasping Juliet balconies and a trombonist serenades you from the street below (no, not artistic licence, this is Paris), it’s clear some dreams come true. There’s an elephant in the room. Or at least one over the bed. And a herd in the Ralph Lauren wallpaper. “It’s so unique, that’s one of my favourite bedrooms,” Camay confides. “Our bedrooms are very large for Paris. They all have double beds with a bath and rain shower in the en suite bathrooms.”

“We are in the business area of the Golden Triangle of Paris,” she confirms, that iconic 8th Arrondisement. “Do you know how the Arrondisements are numbered? They are ordered like an escargot, the numbers swirling around in decreasing concentric circles. We kept the façade of Hôtel George Washington and refurbished everything else behind. At Hôtel Chateaubriand we were able to keep the original form inside. Hôtel George Washington is a Haussmann townhouse with a ‘noble’ second floor which has a balcony. Our service is very personal – our team have been with us a long time. Our clients are a very good mix of leisure and business travellers.”

The Rios also own Le Petit George a few doors up on Rue Washington. Quirky neon lettering on the awning reads “Sincère et Malicieux”. Has Tracey Emin been en ville? We have an aperitif: “Champagne is an integral part of French culture!” Camay relates, “Monsieur Rio’s inspiration for this restaurant was the same expression of luxury as the hotels, from opulent linen tablecloths to silver cutlery, bringing back attention to detail. We wanted to change part of French dining culture and bridge the gap between bistro and gastronomy: ‘bistronomy’. It’s a unique dining experience.” The all-female run establishment is a hit with lawyers and bankers midweek and well informed travellers at the weekend. “We attract a really good lunch crowd and are busy Monday to Friday. Lisa l’des Forges is Chef and Melisande Malle is Sommelier and Manager.

The décor is an essay in understated elegance in a language only the French can compose. A marble and brass bar stretches along one party wall and the kitchen to the rear is only visible through a small serving hatch. There are no pictures on the walls: we are the living art in this space. “There’s a Chef’s Table in the basement for 10 people,” leads Camay. Joseph Roth once more, “Paradise is downstairs, in a basement. But it’s so well appointed that it almost corresponds to my notion of a seventh heaven.”

There’s plenty for seafood lovers on this evening’s menu. Anchovies for hors d’oeuvre (Anchois de Cantabria); caviar for entrée (St Jacques de Bretagne à cru, purée de choux fleurs, caviar de hareng fumé); and octopus for plat (Poulpe grille, joue de porcelet, haricots); accompanied by an aromatic Domaine de l’Enclos 2018 Chablis by Romain et Damien Bouchard. “We have a passion for natural wine produced without sulphite,” Melisande shares. “We’ve all the classics and also like to educate with new wines. It’s a very elaborate wine list!” No food fatigue here: “Lisa changes the menu three times a week,” confirms Camay. “They are dancing in the streets of Paris,” reported Joseph Roth. That’ll be us; we’re in rude health.

Charles Dickens witnessed at first hand the dramatic transformation of Paris. Dickens on France edited by John Edmondson 2007, “It was transformed, under the aegis of Napoléon III, by Georges Haussmann, Préfet de la Seine from 1853 to 1870. Haussmann had many of the old streets in central Paris demolished to make way for a system of long elegant boulevards that brought structural unity to the city… Dickens witnessed the progress of this Haussmannisation at first hand. He told W H Wills in a letter of October 1862 that a group of theatres on the Boulevard du Temple ‘that used to be so characteristic’ had been demolished ‘and preparations for some amazing new streets are in rapid progress.’”

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Parc Morceau Paris +

Oh Em Gigi

“You have to live near the Parc Monceau,” opined Nancy Mitford. “Well, they live up by the Parc Monceau. We must all meet up one day soon.” David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding Prime Minister, established his Paris headquarters at Hôtel Le Royal Monceau last century. Parisienne Maud Rabin remarks, “It’s so beautiful; lots of movies have been made here.” The park is surrounded by gorgeous townhouses and apartment blocks with penthouses and attics catching glimpses over the high treeline of the flights of fancy immortalised by Claude Monet.

The public park was established by Phillippe d’Orléans Duc de Chartres, a cousin of King Louis XVI, following the Duc’s marriage to the Princesse de Penthièvre. He commissioned the writer and painter Louis Carrogis (better known as Carmontelle) to design the gardens – they still retain a painterly quality. Carmontelle subcontracted the Duc’s architect Bernard Poyet and a German landscape architect Etickhausen to design a series of follies in an informal layout. An Egyptian pyramid on a lawn and a Roman colonnade reflected in a pond of waterlilies and an English bridge over a stream continue to delight visitors.

It’s not Paris if there’s no hint of Haussmannia. Monsieur Georges Eugène of course managed a spot of 19th remodelling of the park under Napoléon III. Set in an exclusive quartier of the 8th Arrondisement, wealthy Jewish banking families such as the Camondos, Rothschilds and Péreires established residences skirting the perimeter of the park. You really do have to live near the Parc Monceau.

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St Paul + St Louis Church Paris

Nous Emmener à l’Église

St Paul and St Louis Church Facade Le Marais Paris © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

In the very heart of the village of St Paul in the very heart of the quartier of Le Marais in the very heart of the 4th Arrondisement in the very heart of Paris is St Paul and St Louis Church. There is nowhere more atmospheric to be on a late Saturday afternoon in the depths of winter than this candlelit thin place resonating to the thrilling grandeur of organ playing.

St Paul and St Louis Church Le Marais Paris © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Paul and St Louis Church Dome Le Marais Paris © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Paul and St Louis Church Angel Le Marais Paris © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Paul and St Louis Church Balcony Le Marais Paris © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Paul and St Louis Church Ceiling Le Marais Paris © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Paul and St Louis Church Carving Le Marais Paris © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Paul and St Louis Church Cross Le Marais Paris © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Someone, somewhere, recently asked us what the sign INRI means above a crucifix. The acronym stands for the Latin phrase ‘Jesus Nazarenus Rex Judaeorum’. John 19:19 explains, “Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, The King of the Jews’.”

St Paul and St Louis Church Candles Le Marais Paris © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Lavender’s Blue + Montparnasse Paris

Positive Capability

Montparnasse Tower Paris © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The 14th Arrondisement hosted the vanguard of 1920s avant garde Paris. Writer Alice Toklas called it “the city of boulevard bars and Baudeloire”. Poet Guillaume Apollinaire went further: “a quarter of crazies”. Marianne Faithfull now calls it home, from riding in a sports car to missing the moon. Behind Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s homogeneity and square cut gentility lies the mysterious courtyard life of Paris played out under the shadow of Montparnasse Tower. It’s a 32 second lift ride to the 59th floor of the tower to view the sacred horizontality from the profane verticality.

Montparnasse Tower Panorama Paris © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Montparnasse Tower View Paris © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Montparnasse Tower Eiffel Tower View Paris © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The skyscraper was completed in 1973 to the design of Eugène Beaudouin, Urbain Cassan, Louis de Hoÿm de Marien and Jean Saubot. The tower’s height, all 210 metres, was not universally welcomed. It didn’t quite accord with Baron Haussmann’s rule that no building should be taller than the width of the boulevard on which it stood. Two years after Montparnasse Tower’s completion, President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing banned buildings over 32 metres in central Paris. In recent times, the limit has been relaxed to 50 metres but only on a case by case basis. Wallpaper* provides a contemporary reassessment, admiring the tower’s “wonderfully gridded curtain wall” before adding, “The redevelopment of the down-at-heel area around Gare Montparnasse in the early 1960s was, by and large, a piece of inspired city planning.”

Montparnasse Tower Rooftop Paris © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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George V Hotel + L’Orangerie Restaurant Paris

Perfumed Notes | As Myrrh from the Tree

“The physical transformations of Paris can be read as a ceaseless struggle between the spirit of place and the spirit of time.” Eric Hazan

Lunch in Paris is always a good idea. Even on the city’s saddest day – Nôtre Dame is smouldering. It would be a tremendously good idea to go to a hotel with three Michelin starred restaurants one of which has three Michelin stars. Les trois pour Le Cinq. Praise be for Four Seasons George V and its most intimate offering L’Orangerie. Just 18 covers; that’s 18 seats, that’s 18 people, that’s 16 other guests. It took Head Chef David Bizet a mere eight months after opening to snap up a Michelin star. We never tyre tire of the gastronomic galaxy. We’re all dressed up (Calvin Klein | Duchamp | Vivienne Westwood) with somewhere to go.

“By the way, did you know that in Paris everyone has the best bakery at the end of their street?” Inès de la Fressange

We are swept through reception on a French flow of impossibly suave direction, past achingly orgiastic triple epiphanic inducing ceiling tipping floral arrangements – lavender’s lemon – through Le Galerie to our table d’haute. Normandy born David shares, “As someone who loves nature, it is important for me to work with the wonderful products of the French regions. My cuisine has a particular elegance and subtlety, and my take on the product can be appreciated in both its taste and visual appearance.” He further describes his cooking as “a traditional French contemporary cuisine of elegance, refinement and femininity”.

“There are little things that thrilled me more… it is one’s own discoveries – an etching in a bookstall, a crooked street in the Latin Quarter – a quaint church in some forgotten corner, these are all the things one remembers.” Samuel Barber

The interior of L’Orangerie is as starry as its culinary accreditation: a crystalline prism presents a welcome foil to the solidity of Lefranc + Wybo’s original Art Deco white stone architecture. Designer Pierre-Yves Rochon used 2.5 tonnes of glass, 160,000 pieces of Carrara marble and a few Lalique lamps to up the ante, to max the effect, to dazzle with pizzazz. L’Orangerie overlooks the Marble Courtyard; it’s perpendicular to Le Cinq and opposite Le George (the third restaurant). We could easily get distracted by this visual feast and that’s before the feast on (textured, sculptured and abstract) plates arrives. There’s a new axis tilting lunch menu and Charles, the Monsieur Divay variety, Directeur of L’Orangerie and Le Galerie is here to explain, “We’ve more vegetables and seafood on our new menu.” Fantastique! We want to savour the vegan and pescatarian savouries.

Incidentally, the sixth Michelin Guide published by André Michelin, the 1926 edition, set out its raison d’être: “For a certain number of important cities in which the tourist may expect to stop for a meal we have indicated restaurants that have been called to our attention for good food.” Restaurants were graded in three categories, as they are today, from one star “simple but well run” to three stars “restaurants of the highest class”. La Tour d’Argent was one of the first Parisian restaurants to achieve the ultimate recognition.

“All of the sadness of the city came suddenly with the first cold rains of winter… but now it’s spring… Paris is a moveable feast.” Ernest Hemingway

Very incidentally, second floor apartments attract a premium in Paris. Much of the city was rebuilt in the 19th century under the direction of Georges-Eugène Haussmann. A uniformity of design meant the ground floor of blocks was usually commercial with the shopkeepers housed immediately upstairs. The wealthy lived on the second floor or “étage noble”. Far enough from street noise but not too many stairs to climb. The most generously sized apartments with high ceilings and long balconies are still on this floor. Monsieur Haussmann blessed Paris with four square streets of gold, a little bit of heaven come early. The lost and found generation. Paris is always worth it. Sequins of events on a glittering grid.

“The copper dark night sky went glassy over the city crowned with signs and starting alight with windows, the wet square like a lake at the front of the station ramp.” Elizabeth Bowen