Come with us to discover the most beautiful interiors in the City of Light, and the stories that shaped them.
La Grande Dame of Paris stores
Galeries Lafayette is one of Paris’s grandest department stores. At its heart
there lies an architectural masterwork: la coupole – the dome – soars 33 metres
above a sea of French boutiques, from Dior and Chanel to Lacoste and Lancôme.
The schematic drawing
of the dome in the store directory makes it look as if a ballistic missile is
lodged vertically, ready to launch. Conceived in 1912 by architect Ferdinand
Chanut, the stained-glass structure rises dizzily in 10 sections, the peacock
array of panels a cross between the rich blues of Chartres Cathedral’s
stained-glass windows and the riotous reds and oranges of a ’50s jukebox. Three
tiers of arched balconies overlook the generous expanse below, their railings
worked in elaborate wrought iron tracery.
A century ago, business at Galeries Lafayette depended
almost entirely on French textiles. That has all changed today, but a French
commitment to le patrimoine national – the national heritage – lives on in la
coupole. ‘The 10 coats of arms around the base of the dome represent the 10
French cities that were most important in the textile industry,’ explains
Marion Lacoume of the store’s archives department. ‘Lyon for silk, Amiens for
velvet, and so on.’
This extravagance was all part of a plan to outdo a nearby
archrival, Printemps, whose own glass-and-ironwork-covered atrium rose six
stories, and the feel of a Byzantine bazaar was intended to urge clients into a
buying frenzy within a dreamlike environment. The so-called ‘midinettes’ –
girls working in the area who would hurry their lunch to allow more time for
shopping – responded with fervour, and the store’s fortunes flourished.
site became a landmark. At the height of her career in 1950, Edith Piaf sang at
Galeries Lafayette to boost post-war spirits. The street outside was closed to
traffic and an enormous crowd gathered before an outdoor stage to listen to her
sing La Vie en Rose. Paris Come with us to discover the most beautiful
interiors in the City of Light, and the stories that shaped them
- Metro: Chaussée d’Antin – La Fayette
Deyrolle: The old
Housed in a 17th-century house on the busy rue du Bac, the venerable Deyrolle
is one of Paris’s oldest continually operating shops. The ground floor is given
over to lovely gardening equipment, from calfskin gardening gloves to
stainless-steel bulb planters, but the real show is upstairs – a cabinet de
curiosités like no other.
Pale green walls with delicate gold stencilling grace a
formal salon filled with stuffed animals. Zebras, lions, bears, birds, and
antelope are arranged as if at a cocktail party – the animals’ lifelike air is
both disconcerting and droll, as though they had finally prevailed and
displaced humans. Woody Allen got the joke and imagined a surrealist wedding
party in these rooms for his latest film, Midnight in Paris.
The original founder, Jean-Baptiste Deyrolle, a noted
taxidermist and entomologist, started the business in 1831 on the rue de la Monnaie.
Fifty years later, his grandson Emile moved Deyrolle to its present address,
and today rooms are still filled with collections of insects, shells, geodes
(crystal rock formations) and butterflies – all for sale – in wooden display
cabinets that recall those of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle across
Deyrolle also prides itself on an enduring tradition of
protecting nature for future generations. ‘Every animal and insect under this
roof was acquired in accordance with the Washington Convention on Endangered
Species,’ says Francine Campa, the shop’s deputy manager. ‘We have arrangements
with zoos, animal parks and circuses to take animals that have died.’
The shop provides an encounter with the French approach to
natural history: the urge to classify and collect in the name of science; a
preoccupation with the beauty of specimens and their presentation; and the
impulse to combine strange objects and animals in quirky assemblages. Nature
should not only instruct us, you sense here, it should also enchant us. An old
conceit, surely, but one that persists with flair in this singularly French
La Pagode: From Japanese
gift to cinema
The only way to see the extravagantly decorated interior of the cinema La
Pagode (The Pagoda) is to view a film there. They don’t feature Hollywood
blockbusters. This is one of the few remaining cinémas d’art et d’essai in
Paris: small, independent houses that show art films you are unlikely to see at
As is so often the case in Paris, La Pagode started as
something else, in this case an elaborate orientalist bauble, built in 1895 by
the owner of Le Bon Marché department store as a present for his wife. But this
gesture didn’t work for madame – within a year she had run off with her
husband’s business partner. Used by subsequent owners for parties and banquets,
this Japanese-themed architectural confection became a cinema in 1931, a
precursor to the arthouse cinemas that were so important in establishing the
French New Wave. In the ’50s and ’60s, directors as varied as Cocteau, Truffaut
and Rohmer brought their works to La Pagode for projection, discussion and
Architectural fantasies have a tough time in today’s world,
and La Pagode is no exception. Registered by the French government as an
historic building in 1990, the structure is in need of comprehensive
In the richly ornamented Salle Japonaise, the embroidered
wall hangings, elaborate gilt crane and dragon sculptures, and energetic
ceiling paintings are impressive, but you can’t help noticing a sheer net
stretched overhead the full length of the room. Flakes of paint ‘very rarely’
fall, according to the ticket taker, but that’s like being told that the
rickety bridge you’re thinking of crossing has only collapsed a few times.
La Pagode has been threatened before. Director Louis Malle
joined a successful call for its protection in the ’70s, and the French have a
good track record of protecting their monuments classés. But you may want to
lay eyes on this strange and alluring theatre in case yet another round of
budget cuts spells its demise.
In the summer, tea is served in the bamboo garden. And if a
black cat darts about, don’t be alarmed. ‘That’s Maïs, our house stray,’ the
young cashier explains. ‘She’s named after the only thing she would eat when we
found her – corn. She can’t bring bad luck!’ Let’s hope her spell works for La Pagode.
- Metro: Saint-François-Xavier
Saint Serge de
Radonège: Russian folk in the heart of Paris
Hidden in the far reaches of the decidedly untouristy 19th arrondissement, the
Russian Orthodox Church of Saint Serge de Radonège (93 rue de Crimée, 19th arrondissement; 00
33 951 320 166) is not a place often
stumbled upon. Through a simple green iron gate is a path that leads to the
small church, screened by chestnut and birch trees, that seems a vision from
rural Russia. It has dark panelling, pierced and stencilled with bright orange
and green flourishes, and inside, a small painted chapel whose every inch is
covered in Russian folk motifs and simple Byzantine designs.
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.
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
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.’
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.
The Gare de Lyon and
its renowned restaurant, Le Train Bleu, were built as part of an ambitious
project to showcase Paris for the Universal Exposition of 1900. Designed by
architect Marius Toudoire to feature the delights of fin-de-siècle France in
ostentatious splendour, his giddy extravagance is everywhere apparent.
Once inside Le Train Bleu’s revolving door, the chaos of one
of France’s busiest train stations disappears entirely. The cacophony of
trains, announcements for passengers, whistles and flapping pigeons all
dissolve into a realm of subdued tones. The dimensions of the main dining room
are colossal, the light wondrous.
Eleven and a half
metres overhead, every last bit of the ceiling is covered with the blessed
excesses of France in 1900: groups of statuesque, scantily clad goddesses and
nymphs (or are they showgirls?) flanking formally attired men, vistas of the
Côte d’Azur, all engulfed in more gold cherubs than even Louis XIV imagined.
This place makes Versailles look almost sedate. There is no dress code for
patrons of Le Train Bleu. ‘Only the English call ahead to enquire about
appropriate attire,’ confides the maître d’hôtel, José Benavente. ‘“Just don’t
come naked!” I tell them.’
A partition separates the two main dining areas: the Salle
Dorée, or Gilded Room, is resplendent in gold; the adjacent dining area is
similar, but its plaster cherubs have all been left ungilded. Parisians of a
certain age still recall that during the war, only German officers were
admitted to the Salle Dorée; the lower ranks had to do without the gilt. In
later years, Coco Chanel, Salvador Dalí and Brigitte Bardot were all regulars,
though no doubt they sat where they pleased.
The restaurant was named after the fabled Blue Train, whose
indigo-painted sleeping cars took Europe’s wealthy from the Gare de Lyon in
Paris to the Riviera, with all the languor of la belle époque. These days, the
world’s fastest train leaves from the same station and rockets to Marseille in
three hours – a far cry from the leisurely pace of Le Train Bleu’s decadent
US-born Thad Carhart
lives in Paris and is the author of highly acclaimed memoir The Piano Shop on
the Left Bank (£8.99; Vintage).
The article 'Paris, the inside story' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.