Paris, the inside story

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The magnificent dome and balconies of Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussmann. (Izzet Keribar/LPI)
Discover the most beautiful interiors in the City of Light, and the stories that shaped them.

Come with us to discover the most beautiful interiors in the City of Light, and the stories that shaped them.

Galeries Lafayette: 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.

Increasingly, the 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 curiosity shop
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 town.

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 outpost.

  • Metro: Rue du Bac

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 a multiplex.

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 debate.

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 restoration.

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.

  • 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.

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 namesake.

  • Metro: Gare de Lyon

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.