Paris, the inside story
How this church came to be here is a story full of the lore of France’s recent past. Originally the structure was a simple Lutheran church of brown brick, and its parishioners were German-speaking refugees who had come to Paris in the wake of the democratic uprisings that convulsed Europe in the mid-1800s. Initially poor to the point of destitution, gradually the German community flourished, but WWI changed everything: with the Armistice of 1918, the French government seized the property as war reparations and expelled the Lutherans. The site was sold to Russian émigrés in 1925, and the church was transformed.
Behind a velvet curtain, individual worshippers light candles in front of framed icons. They bow low and cross themselves in the Orthodox manner – their fingertips travelling up, down, right, then left – as the smooth floorboards creak gently beneath their tread. In an anteroom, a choir practises Slavic hymns, the rich bass of the men’s voices resonating below the women’s clear sopranos in simple, exquisite harmonies.
The vivid decoration on the walls and ceiling is the work of Dimitri Stelletsky and was finished in 1927. Overhead, the folded wings of angels cover the ceiling in a simplistic Byzantine style, their haloed heads nestled in the sea of feathers. The surroundings are modest, the church in need of maintenance, but the place conveys a tranquillity that is rare enough in any of Paris’s much-visited chapels.
- Metro: Laumière or Ourcq
Arts et Metiers Metro Station: Jules Verne meets the metro
When the French decide on a municipal project for Paris with real focus, they are capable of remarkable things. A case in point is the Arts et Métiers Metro station.
In 1994 the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, France’s pre-eminent institution of the applied sciences, celebrated its bicentennial anniversary with a radical transformation of its station. Belgian comic book artist François Schuiten and the writer Benoît Peeters – best known for their science-fiction graphic novels, Les Cités Obscures (Cities of the Fantastic) – were given carte blanche to turn their visions into reality.
Instead of the usual white ceramic tiles and bright fluorescent lights that give other Paris Metro stops the surreal glow of a subterranean hospital, the entire vault here is covered with dark, copper-coloured panels joined by oversized rivets. There are massive exposed gears overhead, and a series of steampunk portholes along the walls. This isn’t underground, it’s underneath the sea, and the commuters are passengers on some latter-day version of Jules Verne’s Nautilus. Everything suggests a dark, deeply mysterious plunge into the depths – even the Philippe Starck-designed rubbish bins are painted a coppery hue.
The sense of subaquatic seclusion is momentarily disturbed with the arrival of a modern train. A crowd made up of students and faculty from the Conservatoire, as well as artists and musicians, floods towards the exits as the Metro’s door-closing signal sounds. The train departs, and though most of the passengers have gone, a few stay behind to peer through the massive armature of the portholes, as if in search of a parallel existence.
There is a complete absence of advertising – a truly revolutionary concept in today’s world – and vandalism has not been a problem, as it is in other parts of the Metro system. ‘The public is deeply respectful of this station and its vision of an imaginary world,’ says Jean-Michel Leblanc of the public transit authority’s archives department. ‘There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else.’
- Metro: Arts et Métiers
Le Train Bleu: A return to la belle Époque
Never mind good taste, and forget the dubious appeal of cherubs and gold gilt and cavernous ceilings richly painted. All that is beside the point. The best way to think of a visit to Le Train Bleu is as a phenomenal time-travel machine. Nowhere else in Paris can the freewheeling spirit of la belle époque be experienced so directly.