THERE is one thing about the great capitals of Europe that has so far escaped the geographers, namely, that some of them are masculine and others feminine.
London, Berlin and Moscow are masculine cities. Paris, like Vienna, is pronouncedly feminine.
Not that the human feminine element is in the majority or in any sense dominant in the French capital—in all great agglomerations of humanity there are approximately as many men as women. It is the atmosphere of Paris as a whole that has something feminine, something soft and alluring about it; that indefinable something that gives Paris its famous animated, sparkling, vibrating air and, one might almost say, saturates the very pavements with an erotic fluid.
For more than a century painters, poets and journalists have been trying to solve this secret of the City of Paris; the secret that has made her the Queen of Cities; the secret that lends her name, the five letters P A R I S, a magic sound throughout the whole world. None has succeeded in surprising the secret—but everyone who has come to Paris for the first time has succumbed to her fascination.
However, even though the equation may never be completely solved, one may endeavour to call attention to some of the essential characteristics and consider the most important elements that go to the making of the harmonious, living total effect produced by the city.
There is, in the first place, the light of the Seine Valley, a most peculiar, softly diffused light that lends the whole of Paris, its every street, every tree, every stone, an extraordinary and unique patina. The ordinary mortal is normally as little conscious of the light that his eyes absorb as of the air he breathes with his lungs. It is only on special circumstances, as for instance in a wood rich in ozone or in the twilight of dawn, that he breathes and sees consciously. The light of the Seine Valley is no mere theatrical effect, like a sunset behind a mountain peak, but something that is constantly present and by that very fact eludes awareness, though it is an essential ingredient of the City of Paris, which it envelops like a delicately-woven, hazy, amorphous veil. Just look, from this angle, at a few pictures by the great French impressionists like Manet and Monet, Cézanne, Renoir and Corot. They are all hazy with this peculiar light; the famous stippling technique of the impressionists, those vibrating, whorled dabs of colour are its best expression. (Generally speaking, unless you happen to be an expert, you had better leave everything in the Paris jungle of art alone and concentrate exclusively on the impressionists. The Louvre is a chamber of horrors for those who wish to see everything—but if you only see a few good Manets, Cézannes and Renoirs, you will have gained something and will have got a breath of really great painting.)
Then make the following three experiments with the light of Paris; it will bring you closer to experiencing Paris than many hours of sight-seeing in a charabanc. First, walk, preferably very early in the morning, from the Gobelins down the Rue de Mouffetard. Walk slowly, leisurely, as there are many things worth seeing in the Rue de Mouffetard, of which we will speak later. Straight in front of you you will see the cupola of the Pantheon floating through the light—and then you will realise what it is that is so extraordinary about this light. You will have a still more wonderful view if you stop on a clear day on the corner of the Boulevard des Italiens and the Rue Lafitte, and look up the latter. You will see, a few hundred paces ahead, the Trinite Church, and beyond it, fantastic like the enchanted castle of the fairy tales, the almost supernatural vision of the pale steeples of Sacre Cœur. And that in spite of the fact that the famous Sacre Cœur is a rather abominable structure from the architectural point of view. For in the transfiguring light of Paris, architecture in many cases counts for less than the general effect. The Trocadero, which has just been pulled down, was certainly an ugly building, yet it had a remarkable urban-scenic charm.
Your third experiment with the light of Paris will take place at sundown, during the famous “heure bleue,” when the contours of the buildings seem to soften and to merge into the dusk. Take half an hour’s walk, at about this time, on the Island of St. Louis. Start your walk in the Cité, crossing behind the Notre Dame the St. Louis Bridge to the Island. Go round the Island, strolling along the shore, on the Quai de Bourbonne, Quai d’Anjou, Quai de Bethune, until you come to the Pont de Tournelle, where the statue of the Virgin stands in the middle of the bridge like a note of exclamation. Pause beside this note of exclamation and glance across at the Cité. You will obtain a back view of Notre Dame that is known to few people. Then you will see a few trees, with one foot in the water, so to speak, and bare or in flower or in leaf according to the season. You will also see a few people standing on the quay and apparently angling, but in reality they are merely gazing into the air and reflecting what sort of apéritif they are going to drink. These are no “sights”; they are simple things—a few trees on the edge of the water, a man who appears to be angling, and perhaps also a barge with red and green stern lights floating down the Seine, apparently with a cargo—but all this, set in the blue-grey light of sundown, is like a Cézanne come to life, and more truly Paris than all the great boulevards, to which the true Parisian strays as rarely as a true Seine fish on to the hook.
But enough about the light. Those who have eyes to see will see it, and those who fail to experience it are in any case hopeless. Nor is it our intention to take up your time with the architecture of Paris. All you wish to know about Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance styles or about Florentine influence, you can learn from your Baedeker. There is only one observation we wish to make concerning the general architectural character of the streets of Paris, to wit, our discovery that the reason you feel so “homey” in the streets of Paris is the fact that they have walls. Naturally, this refers to the average Paris street, composed of average houses, and not to the few reinforced concrete exceptions in the city. These street walls, that is to say the perspectively closed and wonderfully soothing view of the façades, arises from the fact that all the houses have high porte-fenêtres that end level with the ground. The porte-fenêtres have low iron railings running horizontally along the entire frontage and often shaped into a continuous series of very narrow balconies. There are no projecting balconies, no disturbing unevenness. This unbroken horizontal line produces that severely harmonious, perspectively soothing impression of the streets that every foreigner senses, without recognising the cause of the mellow, homey feeling that comes over him while strolling in the streets of Paris. The nature of the building material also contributes in a great measure to this pleasant impression; most Paris houses are built of a sort of limestone, and this assumes that wonderful silver-grey to grey-black patina that is the characteristic colouring of the city.
Then, of course, there are the famous mansards, gables and chimneys which, in the upper regions, burst the severe harmony of the street scene with a crazy pattern of zigzags and tapers. Mimi Pinson and the impecunious poet of the garret room have long been dead, but the architectural garret romanticism, the Baroque paradise of the poor tenant, is immortal, like the name of Francois Mansart, who invented this charmingly crazy idea of living in sooty pigeon lofts.
And so we come to the remarkable species of humanity that inhabits this city, to wit, the native Parisian.
There are two categories of native Parisians. The first category is composed of hotel porters, maître d’hôtels, taxi-drivers, dealers in luxury goods, etc.; these live for and by the foreigner and belong to that international bastard tribe that the tourist often confuses with the true native, which is, of course, just as wrong as to judge the true Londoner by the standard of the Savoy or the Cumberland. The second category, the true Parisian, is just as unique as the city in which he lives; it is he—and above all she—who gives Paris its characteristic, living impress.
The most peculiar and at the same time the most typical thing about the life of the Parisian is the fact that it represents a superficially improbable mixture of laziness and industry, an idyllic, countrified quality and city-bred sophistication, a love of pleasure and pedantry. All these contrasts are represented more completely and unostentatiously in a greengrocer’s shop in the 16th or 18th arrondissement than in a hundred novels. Here is a warrant for the 100 per cent. Parisian petit bourgeois, and the longer you know him the more will you agree that the description in the warrant fits him.
1. Loves good food, good drink, bad music, bad cigarettes, good clothes for women, bad clothes for men.
2. Dawdles, loiters, loafs, seems always to be sitting at a café and doing no work whatever, yet he looks twice at a sou before he spends it, and is so capable and efficient, in an unobtrusive, un-German way, that he retires from business on the stroke of his fiftieth birthday, and buys himself a house in the country in order to devote the rest of his life to growing radishes.
3. Practises no sports apart from reading the sports columns in the papers, leads the most unhealthy life imaginable, and lives to a ripe old age. Lives in his district as though in a village, does not go to another district for months or years, but knows Paris as well as he does his own hand. Apparently never reads a serious book, but good books in France run into umpteen editions. Has no library, the bouquin, printed on poor quality paper and with a yellow cover, being thrown away or sold to a dealer when done with. No living author appears in bound volumes. Culture is not a domestic decoration to be exhibited on a bookshelf, but an article of consumption.
4. The Parisian is an individualist in excelsis; he lives his life in his own way, and according to his own ideas, and will have no interference from anyone. Yet there is no city in the world with a more passionate collective political sense than Paris. He hates processions and festivities of the German pattern, but when he does demonstrate he goes the limit, with a gun and barricades, as in the Sacco and Vanzetti affair on February 6th, 1934, or in the case of the great Bastille gathering of the Popular Front in 1935.
5. The Parisian, and particularly the Parisienne, drives the Freudians to despair, for they know nothing about “repressions” and “complexes.” Timidity, prudery and the inferiority complex are strangers to the Parisian. They laugh and shout and “spoon” in the underground as freely as at home. The children do their “small business” in the street—and also on picture postcards—and this is regarded as most amusing. And they say things, in good as well as in bad company, that would stagger an Englishman or a Central European. And—again—they kiss and cuddle everywhere, in the bus, at the café, in the street, and no one takes any notice. For—and this is another contrast—in spite of all his apparent frivolity and gay life the Parisian is a veritable puritan in matters relating to marriage and the family. They are exemplary fathers and mothers, and you will find that all the talk, scribbling and movie-play about l’amour, the cuckold and the femme infidèle is not meant seriously, just like the angling in the Seine.
The thing that leaps to the English visitor’s eye about the glamorous traits of the Parisian and his mode of life, is the fact that a good deal of the Parisian’s life takes place in the street. The terraces of the cafés with their coloured sail-cloth awnings are right in the street; you lunch at a restaurant that is half in the street; and at the foires (fairs), of which there is always one in one quarter or the other, the jostling crowds likewise disport themselves in the street, while on Sundays the great boulevards of the centre and the outer ring of the city are a teeming corso of badauds (loungers). And in the evening the concierge and the small shopkeeper place their chairs outside the front door in order to enjoy, in the form of all-pervading odours, the menu of the whole block, and to watch the cats and the mangy dogs which he loves with a tender affection. (Thoroughbred animals are an abomination to the Parisian; he regards a pedigree in animals in the same light as foppishness.)
On the whole, the true Parisian is the least known species of humanity in the whole of Europe. For he withdraws from contact with the foreigner as a snail withdraws into its shell. “My home is my castle” to-day applies far more to the French than to the English; for the apparently reserved, shy Englishman thaws up on closer acquaintance, becomes cordial and friendly and invites the stranger of yesterday to his hearth and home; whereas the apparently frank and charming Frenchman only permits the foreigner to approach up to a point, but inwardly he preserves for years a barely perceptible yet unbridgeable distance, gladly and frequently inviting a business friend or a superficial acquaintance to a restaurant, but hardly ever to his home.
That is why it is so difficult to learn to know the real Paris and the real Parisian. We have said that Paris is a feminine city, and this is also true in the sense that you must woo her with alert senses and a tender heart for a long, long time, just like a woman, before she opens up to the stranger.
But Paris is a worthwhile conquest. Those who confine themselves to tourist traffic areas and international haunts will no doubt enjoy themselves and get their money’s worth even if they learn no more about Paris than the Etoile and the Champs Elysées, the great boulevards and a few striking spots on Montmartre and Montparnasse.
But if you have a sense for the charming, hidden treasures of the world, if you wish not only to flirt with a lovely city but completely to possess her, then you must “knock about” in the small bistrots (public houses), go to the small suburban cinemas, travel about by Metro—second class!—instead of by taxi, take your apéritif out on the Porte de Glignancourt or in the outer half of the Vaugirard, take a stroll on a Sunday afternoon in the small streets about the Place d’Italie or on the outer boulevards or on the Butte Chaumont, leaving your Baedecker at home and allowing chance and the mood of the moment to direct you. Then you will return home from your bold expeditions through the labyrinth of Paris with some sort of an interesting episode, a slang word picked up here or there, a Daumier scene impressed oh your mind—one of those precious trifling experiences which will endure in your memory far longer than all the monuments and “magnificent” sights, and which constitute the principal and personal enjoyment of the intelligent traveller.
It is one of the peculiarities of this city that whereas the foreigner feels at home almost instantly in the street, at the cafés, etc., he feels strange and uncomfortable between the four walls of his hotel or apartment.
Naturally, this does not apply to the great luxury hotels, whose atmosphere is the same all the world over, i.e., un-national and impersonal. Put an experienced traveller on an aeroplane with bandaged eyes, and remove the bandage in a medium-class hotel room at your destination, and he will immediately tell you, by the furniture, the wall-paper, and a hundred and one typical trifles, what city you are in. But set him down in a room at a luxury hotel and, unless there is other evidence, he will never be able to determine whether he is at the Ritz in Paris, Berlin, London, Vienna or Warsaw. Of this type of hotel we mention here:
Meurice in the Rue de Rivoli, where King Edward VIII as Prince of Wales used to stay;
The Ritz in the Place Vendôme, where you will still encounter what used to be described as the “international aristocracy”;
The Crillon, with its famous view over the Place de la Concorde;
The George V in the street of the same name, which is the youngest among the large hotels in the international class;
And Claridge’s, the Bristol, Majestic, etc.
Next to the exclusive luxury hotels there is in Paris, as elsewhere, the type of hotel that is defined as “first in the second class”; that is to say, large establishments like the Lyons’ hotels which provide the greatest possible comfort without possessing the exclusive note of the first-named category. However, the English traveller ought to know from the outset that French hotels of this category have not attained the high standard as their English equivalents. The service is not so prompt and unobtrusive as in the English hotels, the house telephone does not function so accurately, the head porter is not a walking encyclopaedia, while the maids are less “ladylike” and the waiters less gentleman-like than on the other side of the Channel. On the other hand, the traveller has a greater measure of personal freedom in the French hotel, in that he is accorded unrestricted control of his room or suite, and is entitled to receive visitors of either sex at any hour of the day and night. This is regarded as a matter of course, and neither the head porter nor the rest of the staff take any notice of it.
As examples of the category defined above we mention the following hotels: Ambassadeurs on the Boulevard Haussmann (which is not to be confused with the famous restaurant of the same name in the Champs Elysées); Regina in the Rue de Rivoli, and Lutetia on the Boulevard Raspail.
In addition, there are countless medium-class and small hotels which you will find in any district, and which it would be impossible to enumerate. This category is recommended to those who propose to spend several weeks or months in Paris without paying too much for accommodation. But you will not be paying “too much” if you are charged from £2 to £4 per week—according to district—for a medium room with bath at a medium-class hotel. As regards the various districts, the foreign tourist centres are naturally the most expensive, while the purely Parisian districts are the cheapest. The districts round the Opera and the Madeleine, the Champs Elysées and the Montparnasse, are comparatively expensive. The Quartier Latin, which is inhabited by students with traditionally slender purses, and the Montmartre, which many foreigners visit but few stay at, are somewhat less expensive. The hotels are cheapest in the quarters inhabited by the lower middle-class, such as the 14th and 15th arrondissements, that is to say round the Porte de Versailles and in the vicinity of the Porte d’Orleans, where in recent years many modern new buildings have been erected; these are occupied by many artists and intellectuals. The working-class districts round the Porte d’Italie, Belleville and the Bastille, are naturally cheap, but are hardly of account to foreigners in the matter of comfort and cleanliness.
As a general rule the differences in hotel prices in the various districts are accompanied by almost equal differences in standard and quality. If, in a “cheap” neighbourhood, you wish to have a fairly decent bed and bathroom at a fairly decent hotel, the price will go up in proportion with your increased requirements.
In particular, the question of a separate bathroom is decisive in this connection. The desire to take a daily bath is regarded by the medium-class French hotel-keeper as a crazy foreign foible, and a separate bathroom as a luxury for which the foreigner must pay a luxury price. There is a large number of new hotels in Paris where every room has a separate “cabinet de toilette” with a wash basin each for the upper and lower parts of the body and a separate W.C. Only the bath tub has been forgotten everywhere. On the other hand, the aforesaid vessel for the hygiene of the southern portion of the anatomy is all the more in evidence, a constant nightmare that pervades every small hotel room and leaps to the visitor’s eye—and olfactory organs—immediately upon his entry, but which the small hotel-keeper obviously regards as an important ornament.
And this brings us to the atmosphere of the small hotel. Many thousands of Englishmen of limited means live at these small Paris hotels, in tiny, loudly wall-papered rooms characterised by a remarkable idyllic hideousness. “Comfort moderne, Gaz, Electricité, Eau Courante,” reads the proud legend on the signboard outside. And within, in the dark hall, ensconced in a glass cage, sit the watch-dogs and dreaded tyrants of the tenants—the concierge and his wife. Another cage, iron-trellised, awaits the visitor further on. It is “L’ascenseur,” the pride of the house, which rises with charming leisureliness up the shaft, wheezing, moaning and creaking as though it were climbing nothing less than Mont Blanc. If there are two passengers in the lift they have the choice of travelling to the upper regions tummy to tummy or back to back—and many a marriage owes its existence to tender beginnings on a journey between the ground floor and the garret. You are disgorged by the lift on to a dark corridor, then you are in your room.
The first thing that catches your eye is the washbasin, with the aforementioned ominous complement, which is made of enamelled iron and stands on four rickety legs. Then you see the vast French double bed with two pillows, which automatically steer a single person’s thoughts in a certain direction. A third important piece is the false fire-place with the imitation marble mantelshelf and the imitation Venetian looking-glass above it; the awful example of the Englishman who thought that the fireplace was genuine and tried to light a fire in it, whereupon the whole hotel went up in smoke, should serve as a serious warning to the inexperienced.
Finally, we must mention the walls of the room. They are made of plaster and covered with paper, so that, on the one hand, every sneeze in the adjacent room causes your own to shake as though from a fairly violent earthquake shock, while on the other hand the more intimate life of your neighbours becomes an open book to you. After all, people with a clear conscience need have no secrets from the world. As regards the wall-paper, it is populated either by flowers or by birds in all colours of the rainbow, so that you see them even when your eyes are shut; but if you suffer from insomnia you may amuse yourself, gratis and for nothing, by counting the birds or by discovering the profiles of old men or the outlines of strange beasts in the rest of the design, as you do with “nigger in the pile” sort of puzzles. The most charming thing in small hotels is the telephone, which is installed in the concierge’s cage; when the tenant is rung up by a friend he may dash down the dark winding staircase from the third or sixth floor, only to find that the line has been disconnected.
So much for the small hotels. As we have said, they have their own poetry of discomfort, of ease and unease, which soon ensnares and fascinates the tenant, so that he often remains for years in the same impossibly tiny room in which he at first thought he could not bear it another day. This, too, is part of the magic effect of Paris.
Of boarding-houses (Pensions de Famille) there are fewer in Paris than in other large European cities, perhaps mainly because the sacred tradition of restaurant meals is too strong and too attractive to the foreigner as well for him to tie himself down to boarding-house meals. Nevertheless, there is a number of good boarding-houses in Paris. Prices are from about 10s. per day for full board-residence. However, as we have said, it is rather fun to feed at restaurants, and unless you prefer quiet or must avoid restaurant food for dietetic reasons, you are advised not to go to a boarding-house.
Flat hunting for a long stay in Paris is, in view of all this, no simple problem. It is best to read the newspaper advertisements (Intransigeant, Paris-Midi and Paris-Soir daily contain a large selection of Locations meublées advertisements), but there is also an information bureau run for the benefit of tourists by the association of Paris hotel-keepers (La Centralisation Hôtelière Française, 4 Place Vendôme), where information re accommodation, prices, etc., of the individual hotels is supplied free of charge.
It takes some time before the visitor is able to distinguish the various parts of Paris, the individual quartiers, according to their peculiarities, and—for his own orientation—to group them in a clearly surveyable manner.
The first classification that automatically settles in the foreign visitor’s mind after the first few days is a differentiation between the North and South Poles of the city, that is to say, between Montmartre and Montparnasse. Each lies on a hill, a mont, and they are connected by a main artery of the Metro, which is known as the “Nord-Sud” line.
Then, gradually, the centre of the city becomes crystallised in the mind as a complete whole. It forms an almost rectangular square block, bounded at the upper edge by the great boulevards and at the lower end by the Rue de Rivoli, from the Place de la Concorde to Chatelet.
An extension of this city block, like an arm extended towards the west, is the Champs Elysées and the Quartier de l’Etoile, the smartest part of Paris. And, finally, approximately between the city and Montparnasse, between the centre and the “South Pole,” lie the Quartier Latin and the Quartier du Luxembourg, the strongholds of the students and intellectuals.
Each of these five centres becomes associated in the foreign visitor’s mind with a definite, specific function. The centre and the first part of the Champs Elysées is linked with shopping. The region comprising the upper part of the Champs Elysées and the Etoile is the place for afternoon walks, for loitering aimlessly, for lounging in the big cafés at apéritif-time, for car parades to the Bois. The two poles, Montmartre and Montparnasse, are the centres of the night life of Paris. The Montmartre, in particular, does not exist for the foreign visitor by day. Finally, there is the Quartier Latin—well, here you meet, at the students’ cafés round the Sorbonne, the type of people who are very intellectual but very impecunious, who withdraw to their beloved quartier as a snail withdraws into its shell and will not be lured to the “smart” districts on any account.
That, roughly, is the practical geography of Paris from the foreigner’s viewpoint. In fact, 90 per cent. of all the foreigners in Paris will be found in the five centres mentioned here. The rest of Paris is the realm of the natives.
If you wish to know something about these other parts of Paris, then the best thing to do is to spread out a map of the city on the table and travel round the centre in a clockwise direction.
Start on the eastern side, that is, to the right of the city, at the eastern extension of the great boulevards. Here, from north to south, runs the Boulevard de Strasbourg and its extension, the Boulevard de Sebastopol, dead straight like a wall, and this is in fact the Chinese Wall that separates fashionable Paris from the poorer districts. Here, in the extreme north-east, you will find the pronouncedly proletarian districts of La Villette, Belleville and Menilmontant, the Whitechapel of Paris, yet very different in character from London’s East End. The difference lies in the southern, Mediterranean tinge of Paris which we have already mentioned and which endows even the worst misery with a remarkable, shimmering picturesqueness that is strongly reminiscent of Italy. A walk through this district is eminently worth while, and in many respects far more edifying than lounging perpetually at Weber’s or at the Dome. But you must not keep to the great outer boulevards; stroll aimlessly through the small streets and alleys, particularly where they go uphill. On the other hand, you may safely omit to visit the Père Lachaise, which is also in this district. You will know more about the great men who are buried here if you read their works, or about their deeds, than if you inspect the memorials that mark their graves. One gravestone is like another.
The wide strip between the outer boulevards (Boul. de la Villette, Boul. de Belleville, etc.) and the Republique-Bastille line is rather colourless and tedious. On the other hand, the districts between Republique-Bastille and Republique Boulevard de Sebastopol (third and fourth arrondissement) are most lively and colourful. There is, for instance, the modern ghetto round the Rue de Temple with its indescribable misery—all anti-Semites who think that the name Jew and financial power are synonyms ought to be taken for a walk here. Then there is the district round the Bastille, one of the oldest in Paris; and finally the Ile St. Louis, a magic sleeping-beauty island in the heart of the Metropolis, a visit to which at dusk has already been recommended in the first chapter.
Near by is the Cité, the cradle of Paris (since this was the site of the Roman city of Civitas), one of the chief attractions for foreign tourists, with the Notre Dame, the Palais de Justice (and also the Prefecture of Police, with its boring manipulations of residential permits). We will give these a miss, in common with all the typical “sights” which the tourist may look up in an ordinary guide—our object is to describe the less known, less familiar features, of the city.
For the same reason we will not pause in the adjacent world-famous fifth arrondissement, the Quartier Latin and its environment, the magnificent edifices of the Pantheon, Sorbonne, Luxembourg Palace, etc., and will rather take an aimless stroll in the fantastic labyrinth round the Rue de Mouffetard and the Place de la Contrescarpe, in the small streets east of the Place Saint Michel and behind the Pantheon, that picturesque jungle of medieval Paris. That is the district of the real students, the real garret and Grub Street romance, far more so than the famous Boul. St. Michel itself. Those who sit about here in the big cafés, at the Capoulade, Dupont-Latin and Source, represent the dandyhood of the university with their excessively self-conscious, sham Bohemian manner, their noisy, somewhat arrogant behaviour, their boulevard girls and stuffed shoulders. Do not let them bluff you. They are not the real denizens of Grub Street. The real down-at-heel intellectuals sit in the lecture rooms or in the small bistrots, or walk, absorbed in highbrow talk, in the remoter parts of the Luxembourg Garden. They have no money for the sham grisettes of the Capoulade—there are prostitutes in the Quartier Latin who pretend to be students or the mistresses of students—and they look for sweethearts among the daughters of the concierges or among the assistants of the cleaning and dyeing establishments of their quartier, or try, in a touchingly comic manner, to get off with the governesses in the Luxembourg.
The Luxembourg Garden! If you carefully avoid the sometimes abominable statues and plaster casts, you will see many delightful idyllic things. There is, for instance, the big pool where the children sail their wonderfully well-rigged ships. The sailing ships are hired by governesses and mothers at 3 francs per hour from the “Admiral,” a lame ex-soldier of the Great War. Naturally, the adults derive more enjoyment from this game than the children. They stand round the pool and exchange expert remarks about tacking, port side and lee side, the force of the wind and tacking. The children themselves are fairly blasé and one is inclined to suspect that they are only engaging in the show for the benefit of their elders. Then there are those famous old gentlemen with their croquet games. They have their own playground and no one under fifty is allowed to join in the game. Most members wear beards and the ribbon of the Legion of Honour. They never cease quarrelling but only come to blows very occasionally, and they are masters of croquet. There is also a “Long Thumbs” club, membership of which is similarly confined to gentlemen of mature years. They play a sort of tennis with a high net, featherweight balls and enormously long rackets, the rules of which are a mystery to all but themselves. The game is not played anywhere else in the world, though experts assert that this comic sport is the ancestor of tennis. The famous Guignol is a puppet show, where the children take their elders as a reward for good behaviour. Then there are the three famous goats, with their gay bells, on which children from three years upwards can have a ride. However, as far as the students are concerned the chief attraction of the Luxembourg are the governesses and the girl students. It is amusing to watch the tragi-comedies that take place here at every turn, when, for instance, a pretty girl sits down on a hired chair and is within five minutes surrounded by earnest-looking young men.
Close to the Quartier lies the thirteenth arrondissement, which is partly (round the Place d’Italie) purely proletarian, but has small islands of art, such as the Boulevard Arago, where there are many cheap studios to let.
If we continue, still in a clockwise direction, we now come to the Montparnasse, which is also a centre for artists and foreigners in Paris. The heart of Montparnasse is the corner by the Métro Vavin, with the famous cafés Cupole and Dôme (the third of these famous cafés, the Rotonde, closed its doors in 1935). The more outlying parts of the fourteenth and fifteenth arrondissements are mainly inhabited by the lower middle class, but there are a large number of new buildings here which, particularly round the Porte d’Orleans and the Porte de Versailles, have developed into strongholds of the foreign element. Farther out, on both sides of the Porte d’Orleans, and round the very lovely Parc de Montsouris, an entirely new town has grown up—the Cité Universitaire, in which many countries and French provinces have erected veritable palaces for their students; a second, new Quartier Latin, though for the present lacking in colour and tradition.
If we return to the inner belt, we will find that here too, on the left bank of the river, the city becomes more “middle class” the farther west we go. The Boulevard St. Germain and its immediate vicinity, in particular, are famous for their patrician palaces. Close to this district are the political and diplomatic quarters of Paris, centring in the Chambres de Deputés and the Quai d’Orsay. The “Institut de France,” stronghold of the “forty immortals,” is also here, embodying (and perhaps also ossifying) the oldest French tradition and attracting both admiration and ridicule. For the Academy of the Immortals has long ceased to represent the intellectual flower of the nation, and its cult of tradition has to a considerable extent degenerated into a conservatively reactionary mentality.
Our circular tour has brought us to the Seine once more. We see before us the vast area of the Eiffel Tower, the Champs de Mars and the Dôme of the Invalides, a very modern upper middle-class district. But if we cross the Seine we shall be entirely in the realm of the upper middle class, among the “right people,” in the exclusive residential district of Auteuil and Passy, which adjoins the Bois de Boulogne in the west, and, in the north, the Champs Elysées and the Avenue de la Grande Armée, its extension beyond the Etoile. Still further north the dignified restfulness and peace of this specifically residential quarter is relieved by the gay life of the Ternes district, whose smartness naturally also has its seamy side. For just as in Montmartre (but not in Montparnasse), the amusement industry in this quarter comprises a large quota of a certain element, and if to the superficial observer the Ternes district appears to be dominated by ladies of the “half-world,” to the initiated it is clear that it derives its characteristic tone from their male protectors, which is naturally one of the least gratifying aspects of Parisian life. During the Stavisky case, in particular, a great deal was said and written about the “gangsters of Ternes,” of “Joe le Terreur” and his gang, and the whole unwholesomely glamorous agglomeration of shady financiers, impresarios, unsuccessful boxers, sinister men-about-town, film hangers-on, and members of the “upper underworld.”
But all this is only evident to the initiated, and it should not be assumed that the district is “dangerous” to the foreign visitor; to say that would be utterly ridiculous. The romantic age, when the underworld held up individual persons demanding their money or their life, is as distant as the post-chaise and wigs. These people operate on a large scale and in an up-to-date manner; they do not worry about trifles.
On both sides of the Champs Elysées there are high-class residential areas, which, as you proceed along the Champs Elysées, merge into the shopping district, continuing along the Nord-Sud line from the Gare Saint Lazare as far as the Place de la Concorde, bordering on the centre.
The whole of this middle-western part of the city is still in the sign of the Second Empire and the famous Monsieur Hausmann, Prefect of Napoleon III, who built the wide avenues and boulevards.
To the north of the city, beyond the Boulevard Hausmann and the great boulevards, is a business quarter which, however, is already palpably under the influence of Montmartre, which towers above it. The small shops so typical of Paris, the little stationery, hardware, provision and other shops, alternate in colourful variety with the places of amusement in the Rue de Faubourg Montmartre, the Rue Pigalle, etc. The Casino de Paris and the Folies Bergère are here, in addition to countless establishments which by day modestly conceal behind a modern, respectable façade their anything but respectable nocturnal functions.
East of this we come upon the large railway station, Nord and Est, to the Boulevard Strassbourg—the “Chinese Wall”—at which we began our circular tour. To the north lies Montmartre itself.
What is the Montmartre like by day? A hill crowned with a vast, fortress-like church; a late medieval village with narrow streets, steps, corners, cats, children, sleepy prostitutes, bumpy pavements, and refuse boxes at every turn. That is the enchanted panorama of the slopes which were formerly covered with luxuriant vineyards. But the southern slope of the hill looks down on the famous series of northern boulevards (Clichy, Rochechouart and La Capelle); and upon these are strung, like coloured pearls, the Place Clichy, Place Pigalle, and Place Blanche. It is true that many respectable citizens live on Montmartre, and it is equally true that the majority of its inhabitants belong to the industrious, hard-working part of the people of Paris. And yet the people here give the impression that they have not had sufficient sleep and as though their real existence only began when the lights blazed up in the evening.
You also see in the cafés, particularly in the vicinity of the Place Pigalle, from early afternoon onwards, those peculiar men who seem to have been born with their hats on their heads and a cigarette stuck into the corner of their mouths, men who, in some indefinable manner, betray at a first glance that they belong to the class that supplies most of the material for the more thrilling columns of the daily papers.
Finally, still farther north, on the other side of Montmartre, there is another belt of miserable proletarian quarters, from Batignolles to La Chapelle, and it is here that, at the Porte de Clignancourt, you will find the famous “Flea Market,” with which we will deal in greater detail farther on.
And the centre, the heart of the city, the quarter situated round the Opera?
During our circular tour we have been travelling round this quarter without touching it. And, in fact, the City of Paris, in spite of its monumental historical buildings—Louvre, Palais Royal, the Opera, the Madeleine, Pont Neuf, Place Vendôme, etc.—has become the most un-Parisian portion of this wonderful city. Except for the buildings, everything is here intended for foreigners and by foreigners. And with the exception of the small streets between the Bourse and the Halls, the febrile, pulsating life of the centre is an undigested foreign body in the real Paris. The great boulevards—Md. Madeleine, Italiens and Capucines—are, despite their strident, excited turmoil, just as colourless and tiresome as Piccadilly Circus, the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin or the Kärntnerstrasse in Vienna.
So we repeat our advice—if you really wish to know Paris go to the native quarters. The central parts of all great cities in the world increasingly tend to assume the same dreary metropolitan character; they appear like the tedious, over-technical reflection of the metropolis of the future, somewhat, like Everytown in Mr. H. G. Wells’s film or, more horrific still, like the penetration or the dreadful thing called Americanism.
Of all the arts that thrive in Paris one has attained the highest perfection—the art of idleness. In no other city in the world are such varied, subtle and strenuous methods of idleness practised as in Paris. For real idleness is a difficult business demanding knowledge and experience. But with the Parisian this cheerful art is innate. The geographical scene for the practice of this art is the café.
There are many kinds of cultivated idleness and many kinds of cafés. What they all have in common is a certain railway waiting-room aspect, with long upholstered seats along the walls and narrow avenues of chairs. The rainbow colours of apéritifs and liqueurs behind the desk also represent a common feature. So does a certain easy arrogance of the waiters, the acute discomfort of the seating and the extreme cheeriness of the atmosphere. Again, typical of them all are the small saucers marked with the price of the refreshments served, from which the visitor may build pretty castles, rising to various heights according to the number of drinks consumed by him.
The hours of the café and of the sacred idleness of which they are the scene, are evenly distributed. Shortly before 12 midday is the time for the apéritif, while shortly after 1 o’clock begins the hour of the after-dinner coffee. The “hour” lasts till 3 or 4 o’clock. But 5 o’clock is already the time for the evening apéritif, which lasts till 7, and 9 o’clock sees the commencement of night business at the café. You will observe how strenuous idleness can be.
In the warm season people sit on the terrace of the café, which is designed to impede pedestrian traffic as much as possible and therefore occupies half the pavement. In the cold season the big cafés have brasiers on their terraces. There is a terrific stench of coal gas, which naturally adds to the cheeriness of the atmosphere.
There are various types of cafés. There are, in the first place, the vast luxury establishments of the Champs Elysées, like Triomph, Colisée, Select, etc.; then the famous Weber in the Rue Royale, which is the rendezvous of the business world; the noisy big cafés along the Grandes Boulevards, like Maxeville, Madrid, and all the rest, where at the time of the evening apéritif there are crowds of unescorted young ladies, so that the innocent foreign visitor may quite easily find himself arriving alone and departing à deux. On the Boulevard St. Michel are the big students’ cafés Capoulade, Dupont-Latin, etc., which we have already mentioned in another connection. On Montparnasse there are the Dôme, Coupole, Napoli, Paillette and other cafés which were formerly the meeting-places of artists from all over the world, but are to-day the haunts of sham Bohemians who would like to be taken for artists, though they have nothing in common with real artists beyond their impecuniosity. But these are merely signboards rather than real Parisian cafés. The cafés round the Place Clichy, the Place Blanche and the Place Pigalle on Montmartre approximate more to the genuine article. With the exception of the respectable middle-class Wepler café, where respectable citizens take their families, the majority of the Montmartre cafés have a very mixed clientele—and none but the keen observer will be able to distinguish the right kind from the wrong.
The old Parisian custom of after-theatre suppers is only maintained to-day by a few cafés, such as Wepler’s, Weber’s, and the Café de la Paix by the Opera, which used to have a resounding reputation but which has now become far less distinguished.
But the really genuine Parisian café is the small establishment that is called not café but bistrot. It has few tables, and most of the patrons stand round the counter, for the price of refreshments consumed standing is only a third or a quarter of the “sitting” prices. The most important features of the genuine Parisian café include the gambling machines and the telegraphic tele-writer.
The endless strip of paper that creeps all day long from the apparatus bears the Havas bulletin with political reports and Bourse quotations and, above all, racing results. The Parisian of the lower middle-class is a passionate punter, but he does not go to the race-courses, and places his bets with the local bookie. And while the races are run, he stands at the counter in his bistrot and follows with intense excitement the strip of the tele-writer recording the results. On Sundays, in particular, there is brisk business at the bistrots during racing hours.
The idea that he might pay a visit to the race-course would seem too adventurous to the genuine bistrot frequenter.
It is both fantastic and moving to sec how keen the Parisians are on playthings. And the trade is making constant strenuous efforts to provide ever new toys, for they go out of the fashion very quickly and must be replaced.
But automatic roulette survives all these modes. Here the player throws a 5-sou piece into the slot and has the chance of receiving back 10 or 15 sous in the form of a free refreshment voucher. Only the most conservative Frenchmen adhere to the good old game of dice, with the aid of which they decide who is to pay for the apéritif.
This passion for games and amusement is also catered for by the great foires, one of which is sure to be proceeding in one quarter or another at practically any time of the year. On such occasions the city streets suddenly change into a country fair ground with teeming crowds and countless tents and booths in which you can see or buy the most improbable things, from honey cakes to radio apparatus, and from recently patented tin-openers to framed oil prints. Soothsayers and suburban fakirs erect their tents side by side with rifle ranges. Flower vases and canaries, petrol lighters and gramophone and a hundred other things merge into a chaos of sound and colour. But here too it is the gaming booths that play the principal rôle. There are huge roulette and Japanese billiards sets, jeu de massacre and lotteries; there’s something to be won everywhere, yet in the end you lose your last sou. And overtopping all the tumult, there is the blare of giant loudspeakers as they pour out the latest song hit over the whole fair ground, and the people feel like children on holiday.
In addition to these seasonal fairs there are also permanent markets that you can visit any day in the year, such as the fantastic bazaar for second-hand cars at the Porte de Vincennes. But foreigners should be on their guard—to buy a second-hand car in Paris is a most risky business, as some of the dealers are sly scoundrels, worthy successors of the horse-dealers’ guilds, from which the garage guilds are historically descended. The cars are doped, just as horses used to be doped, in this case with a misleading new coat of paint or with a faked speedometer or by the use of specially heavy motor oil for the test drive, and so on. If you require a second-hand car, your best course is to apply direct to the makers, who usually sell little used test cars or returned cars at reasonable prices after a thorough overhaul.
A second permanent market is the world-famous Marché de Puce, or “Flea Market,” at the Porte de Clignancourt. There you will find absolutely everything, from rusty nails and second-hand hairpins to complete house furniture, pictures and antiques. A stroll through the “Flea Market” on a Sunday is one of the most amusing things Paris has to offer. However, you will have to forget about the romantic illusion that you may discover among the grimy lumber a genuine Rembrandt or Picasso. That really used to happen on the Marché de Puce formerly; but to-day the antique dealers, art dealers and their agents are far too keen and alert to miss such bargains, and the market dealers also know how to conceal behind an innocent expression a great deal of expert knowledge. However, it is still an iron rule of good manners in this market to offer a third of the price you are asked to pay, and then come to terms at about half.
Having visited the “Flea Market,” you simply must not omit to patronise the big café of the Cité d’Occasions, the Ritz of beggars, second-hand dealers and the like. You sit on a rough wooden bench and order either frites or fritures at the unit price of 30 sous, with half a litre of Vin Rosé, and enjoy the rare pleasure of studying types and typical scenes on the spot. At the same time, you are advised to take a little bicarbonate of soda after your meal at this café.
What the “Flea Market” represents in the field of discarded lumber, is embodied by the bouquinistes in the intellectual world. The bouquinistes are the second-hand shops of the intellect, and strolling and browsing among the billions of printed pages can be an adventurous pastime. Of course, in this case too, you must renounce all hope of discovering a genuine Daumier or a particularly valuable etching and securing possession of it for a few francs: but these shops are still a veritable mine of precious finds and curiosities. You can still purchase leather-bound classics at low prices, as well as early prints, atlases and etchings of all kinds. The vast second-hand and remainder stores, where you can buy works which were fashionable and popular yesterday but are completely forgotten to-day, symbolise the transient nature of the things of the spirit. The paper jungle of detective novels is a veritable Eldorado to those who like this kind of literature. There are more murders, poisonings, stabbings and miraculous escapes to the square yard in these places than even the most sensation hungry reader can digest. And side by side with death there is Love, books with more or less unambiguous frontispieces which the foreigner inspects furtively and with a blush, but which the Parisian browses in with frank delight. By the way, there are special shops for such books and illustrations all over Paris.
The big Paris parks also provide some of the “minor pleasures.” Each of these places has a character of its own. The Parc Monceau is the typical “pitch” of the children of well-to-do middle-class families. If you spend half an hour in this park with open eyes you will observe the pale faces and listless expressions of the middle-class children of Paris, how carefully they are smothered in clothes in order to guard their bodies from an access of fresh air, and how intolerably unpleasant the governesses are.
The Buttes Chaumont is a working-class park which is particularly crowded on Sundays. The Tuilleries, with its magnificent view of the Louvre and the perspective of the Champs Elysées, is a typical city island—a few cubic yards of ozone in a sea of petrol fumes. The Luxembourg Garden we have already mentioned. The Bois de Boulogne is no longer a park, but—as its name shows—a proper wood. In the morning you can go boating there or you can feed the swans, and at midday you may lunch at the delightful island restaurant. At night, however, walking in the Bois is a somewhat delicate matter. It goes without saying that the silent avenues exercise a magnetic attraction on lovers who lack normal facilities for courting, and if they happen to own a car the attraction extends to the vehicle as well. Unfortunately, the Bois also attracts those elements who derive profit from these idylls in various ways.
Opposite the main entrance of the Bois, near the Porte Maillot, lies the Luna Park, a paradise of innocent amusements on a fine summer evening. Here, at last, technical progress is divorced from all constraint and is exclusively in the service of nonsensical fun, nonsensical fun with many subtle tricks. There is the scenic railway, the laughing cabinet, the haunted house and other things that appeal to the child in grown-ups. But there are also great terraces and dance halls, gay throngs and many girls and, particularly on Saturdays and Sundays, you can still see here a type that is fast dying out, namely, the Parisian seamstress, the typical midinette, who otherwise can only be met occasionally—and singly—on the Metro.
The Paris Zoo was for a long time treated by the City Fathers in a most step-fatherly manner. However, to-day Paris nevertheless has a modern zoo at the Porte de Vincennes which is worth a visit.
It is really impossible to recount all the “minor pleasures” that Paris has to offer; opportunities for them crop up everywhere, just as the grass pushes through along the tram-lines.
There are the numerous passages, each a little bazaar-world in itself. Then there is the famous Musée Grévin on the great Boulevards with the comic chamber of horrors; the Detective Museum on the Boulevard des Italiens, which will make you shudder; the Cabaret de Néant on the Boulevard du Clichy, where patrons eat from coffins, listen to their own funeral oration and, with the aid of a clever lighting effect, can see themselves as corpses in a mirror; the Kermesse in the Berlitz Palace, near the Opera, where you can go motor-boating on an artificial lake; and finally—to conclude on a note of exclamation—the Eiffel. Tower itself, which you must ascend at least once in your life, partly in order to enjoy the view, partly in order to satisfy your own conscience.
But if you do go up the Eiffel Tower keep it a dead secret and do not mention it to anyone, as, for some unfathomable reason, such an undertaking is regarded as ridiculous and provincial, though of course the Eiffel Tower belongs to the past and has something grandfatherly about it.
Let us begin with the simplest and most respectable evening entertainment, to wit, the cinema.
In silent film days French production was far behind German and American film production. Pantomime alone does not suit the French temperament, which demands a combination of speech and gesture as a medium of expression, and so, just as the most famous French chansonniers have failed on the wireless and on the gramophone because their inimitable gestures are necessarily absent, so French stage-craft failed on the silent screen.
But since the film acquired speech French film production has received a tremendous impetus and has, for instance, far outstripped German production. There are to-day some great French directors who, as far as artistic merit is concerned, though not in the matter of equipment and financial means, are fully equal to the American directors, as, for instance, Duvivier, Feyder, René Clair, Lherbier, Renoir and Benoit-Lévy. There is a large number of French actors who have greater depth and power than the Hollywood stars who usually become petrified after their initial successes and thereafter only act themselves. We may mention at random Annabella, Claudette Colbert, Simone Simon, Danielle Darieux, Gaby Morlay, Florelle, and, among the men, Charles Boyer, Harry Baur, Armand Bernard, Max Dearly, Larquey, Raimu, Fernandel, and Jean Murat. The list could be extended almost ad infinitum.
A number of Paris cinemas show English films in the original versions. A list of them will be found each week in the Semaine à Paris, a programme periodical which is indispensable both to foreign visitors and natives wishing to know their way in the labyrinth of theatrical, cinema and variety entertainments.
If you wish to see English films do not allow yourself to be misled into visiting a small cinema, as at such places the films are shown in a synchronised form, and this destroys their entertainment value. Thus you must always find out beforehand whether a version originale is being shown. But for French films you may go even to the smallest cinema, though the big cinemas are the most convenient, in that performances are continuous till 2 a.m. Seats at night and at matinees are considerably cheaper than at other times. (Matinees, by the way, take place in the morning.)
The Paris theatres might be better than they are. If you will promise not to repeat this, we will advise you, in confidence, not to see serious plays in Paris, unless, of course, you are prepared to be bored in the sacred name of tradition. In that case, however, you may go straight to the Odéon or the Comédie Française. These are two State theatres, and they have truly great traditions dating from the time of Molière, but in recent years they have been just carrying on and living on their past fame.
In addition to the Comédie Française and the Odéon, the Opera and the Opéra Comique are also State theatres. As regards the musical standard of the Opera, certain criticisms might be made in connection with the orchestra as well as the singers; but the opera ballet is still unique of its kind and possesses in Serge Lifar, for instance, a young dancer of considerable talent. But in the case of the Paris Opera the merits of the performance do not count so much as the monumental setting and the atmosphere of immortality that fills its foyer, its halls, and under its famous suspension lights. The Opera as a whole is one of the most notable places on earth.
There are a great many private theatres, more or less good. Successes and flops alternate according to the season. There is, for instance, the “Gymnase,” which belongs to Henry Bernstein, the great master of dramatic technique, who writes the plays for the theatre; whether you like him is a matter of taste. The plays written and performed by Sacha Guitry are always roaring successes and are patterns of French comedy wit, though with a heavy admixture of sheer routine workmanship. This year he was at the. Théâtre de la Madeleine.
The smaller theatres of the type of Michel or Mathurins, which used to be very good at one time, have considerably weakened. On the other hand, the Athenée, under the management of that actor of genius Louis Jouvet, has received a strong impetus and has this year had sensational and well-deserved successes with two plays by Giraudoux.
The Théâtre de la Michodière is managed by Victor Boucher, one of the great comedians of the old school, whom it is worth seeing even in second-rate plays. Then there are a few theatres which, more or less successfully, engage in pioneering experiments and aim at a high literary standard. These include the Atelier, the Vieux Colombier, the Théâtre Montparnasse and the Oeuvre.
The great Pitoeff, unfortunately, has no theatre of his own, and, of course, the theatres with literary aims are continuously beset with great financial difficulties, for Paris theatre-goers are conservative and prefer to see the plays of the successful craftsmen like Henry Bernstein and Sacha Guitry rather than the works of a Crommelynck or an O’Neill, which are far above them from the literary point of view but are not “hits.”
Among the great comedy craftsmen we include Louis Verneuil, whose latest play is now running at the Théâtre de Paris. The Théâtre Pigalle is in a category of its own. It was built by Henry de Rothschild as a real luxury-bijou theatre, with the sly idea of having his own plays produced in it. The ambitious millionaire flopped badly with his very first play, but fortunately the theatre survived, and has been carrying on with half literary and half snobbish experiments.
The musical comedy in the classic Viennese sense has been relegated somewhat to the background in favour of a mixture of revue, vaudeville and musical play, in which form the Paris theatres have sometimes produced excellent pieces; for; generally speaking, the Paris theatre is the better the more it leaves literature and reality behind. The Bouffes Parisienne, for instance, recently scored great successes in this type of play with “Simone est comme ça” and “Flossie.”
Those who like plays that make their flesh creep still go to the classic Grand Guignol, where one-act plays of horror and obscenity alternate like hot and cold douches, so that the audience may easily leave the theatre with a spiritual cold in the head. The demand for thrills is also catered for nowadays by the Deux Masques and the Capucines, which show real detective thrillers.
The revue is still the most typical Parisian theatrical product, and the only one that has not deteriorated.
The revue is not a homogeneous form of art and has many variants. Revues are shown by the big music-halls, the small cabarets, and also the legitimate theatres; but they are very different forms of art. Perhaps the most delicious is the small, literary, satirical revue of which Rip is the incomparable master. This year his “Tout va très bien” goes at the Nouveautés. In the Rip revues the scenery and nudity counts for less than the extremely witty, topical and charming book and the musical hits.
Even more intimate in setting are the miniature revues which are shown in the old literary cabarets, which are called not cabarets but Théâtres des Chansonniers. Scenery and “dressing” are completely ignored here. The first part of the programme is usually filled with solo numbers, then follows the “revue,” which is really a loose sequence of scenes with a common basic idea. Here everything turns on the literary and political-satirical note, with a veritable fireworks of wit. The famous domestic chansonniers of these small theatres, such as the Noctambule, Théâtre de Dix Heures, Lune Russe, Deux Anes, etc., mostly write their own songs. These popular idols of the public include Martini, Jean Marsac, Souplex, and so on.
These cabarets also have a long tradition. They were fathered—or grandfathered—by the great Aristide Bruant, the singer of Montmartre, the singer of the apaches, the little vamps with the red shawls, the Bohemians, beggars and clochards. Horrible murders and tender love, daggers and roses, hearts and unmentionable parts of the anatomy, mingled in his chansons to a saucily sentimental, strongly revolutionary mixture. Bruant was really a late edition of Francois Villon, a successor of the medieval bandit-poet whose figure was recently revived in the “Opera de quat’ sous.” He was a great poet, this Aristide Bruant, with his black velvet jacket, his, phenomenal necktie, and his colossal black sombrero, and he enjoyed an enormous popularity in the old Montmartre and in the Paris that was the heart of the world.
A whole generation of chansonniers had sat at his feet. Then, with the turn of the century, came industrialisation, the new world, and apaches and Bohemianism were swept into the dustbin. Those who wanted to continue the old Montmartre tradition at all costs gradually sank in the morass of a sham jollity. This still continues.; the Cabaret Bruant (without the Master, naturally), the Chat Noir, and the Rat Mort still exist, and if you enter one of them the waiters and waitresses will still greet you with some obligatory rude “witticism” like “Tête-croquemort”; but all this is pitifully sad and stale, like beer that has gone flat. Nor are the obscenities dished up to visitors by some ancient female calculated to inject cheerfulness into the gloomy atmosphere.
The genuine heirs of the French cabaret are those who have kept the old tradition alive by adapting it, to the living spirit of the times and giving it topicality. They are the cabaret-theatres we have mentioned—Dix Heures, Noctambule, etc.
There is another type of pure cabarets which are also successors to the great Bruant tradition, but with a different tendency; they concentrate not on witty topicality but on the cultivation of the old French chanson and folk-song. There is no stage at these cabarets. The audience sit round plain tables all over the room, and it is they who decide which of their favourite songs should be sung. Two such establishments that are really worth visiting are the Lapin agile in the Rue des Saules on Montmartre, and Caveaux des oubliettes rouges near the Place St. Michel, behind the church of St. Julien le Pauvre. It is best to visit either of these between 10 and 11 at night; it is a tradition of both that visitors should drink cerises, a delicious cherry brandy.
The big music-halls and variety theatres are very different from these. They do not go “all out” for wit and subtle points, or the charm of old chansons and the intimacy of the old Paris, though the really good big revues contain traces of all these. But the main thing is large-scale production, an impressive mobilisation of light effects, scenery, costume and nudity, a dazzling Niagara of eroticism. Folies Bergère and Casino de Paris still lead in such productions and deserve their undiminished world fame.
In addition to the Folies and the Casino there are a number of big and medium theatres of this type, with or without a specific character. There is the Alcazar, which specialises in nude revues, but this is by no means so exciting as it sounds, for too much nudity renders the spectator indifferent. The Alhambra, under its new management, has recently experienced a tremendous revival; it specialises in variety, and the careful selection of the best international artists and turns has raised it to the level of the famous Hamburg Alcazar and the Berlin Scala. The A.B.C. is a happy mixture of cabaret and revue theatre with excellent solo turns. And, finally, the Empire, in the Ternes district, is a cross between circus and variety and generally has very good programmes.
The Paris circuses will also attract those who like this sort of entertainment. There are two large circuses, the Cirque d’Hiver and the Cirque Medrano, where the Fratellini Brothers, clowns of real genius, have been scoring their triumphs for years.
That completes the most important directions for “Paris After Dark.” For concerts, lectures, etc., it is best to consult the daily press or the Semaine à Paris. Generally speaking, club life is far less developed in Paris than in London.
However, there is a very curious semi-public debating club which meets at various places and at irregular intervals. This is the Club du Faubourg, which organises debating evenings on all possible and impossible subjects, from the question of “Franco-German rapprochement” to the problem “Should wives be beaten or not?”
However, you need not necessarily go to a theatre, cinema, cabaret or music-hall every evening in order to enjoy yourself in Paris. The most pleasant evenings are often the result of an improvised programme. But the right mood for such improvisation can only be adduced by a good dinner consumed in congenial surroundings. That produces the necessary inspiration, and on a fine spring or summer evening a stroll through a quarter you have not yet visited, or a bottle of wine consumed in the garden of the Mère Catherine on the enchanting Place de Tertre, with the glittering diadem of the city at your feet, is just the right thing, and better than a predetermined programme for the evening.
It has become the fashion, wherever the subject of “Paris After Dark” is mentioned, whether in novels, travel descriptions or newspaper articles, to begin, figuratively, with a heavy sigh and say: “Ah, the real night life of Paris is a thing of the past! To-day everything is only stage-managed for the benefit of foreigners and the whole place is flooded with Americans!”
Strangely enough, those who wail so much about the foreigners are foreigners themselves. There is nothing more contemptuous in the way of accents than that with which a foreigner in Paris refers to a foreigner as a foreigner.
The Parisians themselves know very well that the real night life of any city exists for and by foreigners, that that is in the nature of things and could not be otherwise. Paris, in particular, is much frequented by foreigners, and it was just the same in our grandfather’s time, the time of the alleged “real” Paris.
The changes which have undeniably occurred in the night life of Paris are not due to the naughty Americans and Mr. Cook’s charges—without them there would in fact be no night life at all, only general bankruptcy. The alterations in the general aspect of nocturnal life in Paris are a direct consequence of the great upheavals in the social structure of the city itself, which have come to pass since grandpa’s time. The romantic apaches and Bohemians were driven out not by the foreigners but by industrialisation and capitalism, in the economy of which there is simply no room for these romantic classes. The Bohemian artists have either starved to death, or risen to success by talent and grim industry, or merged with the parasitic class of the gigolos. The romantic and individualistic apache has given way to the brutally sinister gangster type. The war between the underworld and the world and the war of the underworld cliques among themselves, has become just as horribly modernised and industrialised as society as a whole. And the Parisienne, who lent fragrance and magic to the old Paris, has also passed through the same process.
The former type of Parisienne, about whom our grandfathers used to rave, who was glorified in novels and operas and who was the embodiment of Paris to the passionate youth of those days, the little seamstress, the midinette of Montmartre, the sweetheart of artists and students, is no more. What has happened to this enchanting creature? The answer is simple. With the general industrialisation she had to abandon her airy existence in the fourth estate; the seamstress became a factory worker, the sweet lower-middle class girl became a bitter proletarian. The whole Bohemian world, together with their sweethearts, who were not really poor (they had no money, but that is something different from being poor) were crushed by the febrile rhythm of booms and crises. Of course, as a section of the middle class they still exist, and in France they are even more numerous than elsewhere, but the girls of this class do not become midinettes but mannequins, and that is something quite different.
The type of girl who to-day takes the place of Murger’s “Mimi” is no importation from America but a logical product of our age—were charming, but cold, calculating, a careerist; her femininity, her girlish sweetness, are no longer an end in themselves but only a means to an end.
To return to our muttons after this necessary digression, this change is particularly evident in the establishments upon which the world fame of Parisian night life was founded, the so-called bals. The famous bal in the Moulin de la Galette and, if we ignore the programme of turns, also at the Moulin Rouge and the Tabarin, was formerly completely dominated by fascinating young girls. To-day these establishments, with the old, glorious names, are rather colourless, and the youth who goes to them in the childish hope of picking up a girl friend for himself, goes empty away. The last great and really popular bat, the Bal Ballier in the Quartier Latin, closed its doors last year for ever.
Nevertheless, there still are a number of little Bal-Musettes with a genuine “local colour,” where you dance to the traditional accordeon, a very sentimental and very squeaky instrument, paying for every dance. When a dance is over the attendants enter the hall roaring Envoyez or A vos poches, and not until you have paid up are you allowed to go on dancing.
At other places dancing is included in the price of refreshments. The most colourful and temperamental among these Bal-Musettes will be found in the Rue de Lappe (near the Bastille), and in the other poor districts round the Place d’Italie, the Père Lachaise, and also in the Rue de la Huchette, behind the Place St. Michel; but the Rue de Lappe, establishments are the best.
But, as we have said, you must not expect to come upon apache romance at these genuine popular amusement places. The public is composed of working men, small shopkeepers, and girl shop assistants on the one hand, and prostitutes and semi-prostitutes with their male friends or hangers-on.
Outwardly this mixture gives an impression of homogeneity, and the foreigner will hardly be able to distinguish between the shady portion and the respectable, hardworking but poor young people. However, it is worth while taking a close look at this strange world; these establishments are not dangerous to the foreigner unless he behaves in a stupid, provoking manner. You can dance with any girl present who accepts your invitation, you may even make love to her in a light-hearted but charming manner; but if you are tactless she will turn her back on you, and if you should become insistent you may be decorated by the young swains present with a lovely black eye.
The girls at these Bal-Musettes are, as we have said, no longer of the legendary midinette type, but the wonderful charm of the genuine Parisienne has not been lost in spite of all the changes and exigencies of the times. They still possess the same unrestrained, boisterous drollery when in high spirits, the same tender, lightly come-hither expression as they look into the eyes of a partner with whom they are in love, the same natural grace in their style of dancing, with the wonderful short hip movement and the immobility of the shoulders throughout; the same innocent knack of saying the most awful things which they do not mean in the least.
The corresponding male youth is less pleasant, and they make you wonder, as frequently happens, in Paris, how such charming femininity can exist side by side with such unpleasant types of men.
The negro bal in the Rue Blomet is in a class of its own. Up till a few years ago it was only frequented by negroes and other coloured people, who revelled there in a racial talent for dancing bordering on frenzy. But then the place was “discovered” and now, on ball days, the Rue Blomet is blocked with cars and white visitors, and has become a rather snobbish affair. Nevertheless, it is worth a visit.
So much for balls. For the sake of completeness, however, we may mention some of the great representative affairs that occur periodically, such as the Bal des Petits Lits Blancs, which is held once a year and is attended by Paris society, from the President of the Republic downwards, continuing the great tradition of the former Opera Ball. There is also the Bal des Quat’s Arts, the classic affair of the artists, which formerly used to be a rather hectic business but is less so to-day.
And, of course, there is the national festival on July 14th, the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, when the whole of Paris—literally—goes dancing in the streets and squares, the traffic being limited and diverted. On that day the people reign supreme, and they dance all day and all night with unparalleled abandon, until they drop from sheer exhaustion. That is still the genuine, the truly genuine Paris, which will probably continue for at least another century.
The night establishments proper, the Boites de Nuits, crop up afresh in Paris every season like mushrooms after the rain. Many of them go broke after the first season and are obliged to close their glamorous doors. Most of the boites have a more or less good programme of turns, some have special lighting effects, while others boast a famous host or a famous clientele or a good supper cuisine, or merely gaily decorated walls. Preferences and vogues change from season to season.
It would be impossible to give even an approximately complete list of the boites, and we will only mention a few typical representatives of this kind of establishment. There is the Lido on the Champs Elysées, where you dine on the edge of a swimming bath and where you can indulge in a swim yourself or, if you choose, you may confine yourself to watching the water babies maintained by the establishment. Everything here is brand new, with many technical teasers.
On the other hand Le Ciro, the Florida and the Perroquet are old established and famous, and still have distinguished clientele. On Montparnasse you will find the good old Jockey, chockful, noisy, colourful, cheap and amusing. The dance hall in the basement of the Cupole is more respectable in tone. The Viking has a decorous, preponderantly Scandinavian clientele, with an excellent Swiss cuisine. The College Inn and the Boule Blanche are quieter places with good pianists and a permanent clientele. The Cabaret des Fleurs, whose star is the famous Kiki, is cheap and mixed.
In the Quartier Latin the better-off students amuse themselves at the “Gipsy Bar.” On Montmartre the most notable night establishments are the famous Russian boites, “caves,” and dance-halls, which offer good sentimental balalaika music. (But the waitresses are no longer grand duchesses and, according to some, they never were.
Au grand jeu in the Rue Pigalle has recently become rather popular; it has a good programme of turns.
So much for the boites; it would be useless to enumerate any more of them, as ultimately you will in any case follow the advice of a personal friend or of the all-knowing head porter at your hotel.
As the night advances and we become more and more enterprising as our spirits rise, we become interested in an aspect of Paris that is not mentioned in the guide-books, and which is referred to by old gentlemen with a wink or with a click of the tongue, an aspect that rises to the mind unconsciously whenever the name of Paris is mentioned. The Parisian’s attitude to the “secrets of Paris” is far more natural; he cannot understand why people distinguish between night clubs which are to a considerable extent populated by cocottes, and those no less traditional establishments which they inhabit completely. The visitor drinks his wine, champagne or cocktail at these places in the same manner as anywhere else, and he need take no notice of the peculiar functions of the house.
To an Englishman this attitude may appear terribly frivolous and shocking, and from his point of view he is undoubtedly right. But the Frenchman, from his point of view, regards these traditional establishments of his capital city merely as amusing and rigolo, and as such harmless and natural. And this is proved by the fact that he not only talks about them gaily in novels or in company, but also likes to take his wife “on the spree,” just as he would take her to a boite de nuit.
Thus, those who have a mind for this sort of adventure need not consider themselves as beyond the pale. Any Parisian friend will advise him, with the most natural manner in the world, where they may take their wives and where they had better not take them. If you have no friend in Paris, and are in doubt, consult the worthy copper at the Porte St. Denis, for instance. He will not be surprised at all and will advise you in the friendliest possible manner.
The traditional conclusion of a nocturnal expedition in Paris is a gratinée or onion soup in the morning. It is most enjoyable in the grey twilight of dawn when you are beginning to feel out of sorts. The place to take the onion soup is in the vicinity of the market halls, the stomach of Paris, with its fantastic mountains of vegetables, flowers and sundry edibles, which in the somewhat unreal mood of “the morning after” strike one as particularly dream-like. But the onion soup may also be taken at the traditional Chop du Negre in the Rue du Faubourg Montmartre.
At all events, you should visit the market hall at least once at about this hour. It is an unforgettable experience. Besides, such a visit is part of the code of honour of night rovers.
And after that, before going to bed, you may take a quick ride up to the Sacré Cœur, in order to see the sun rising over the eternal city, to catch a glimpse of the delicate pastel colours that form a halo in the haze enveloping the Seine Valley, and to capture quickly a little more of the secret of the city—before you are overtaken by that nasty feeling of the morning after the night before.
Joseph Conrad once said that what struck him most the first time he visited Paris and became for him henceforth the hall-mark of “Latin civilisation” was not the monuments, statues or parks, nor the Louvre with all its wonderful treasures, but the keen, almost fanatical, devotion the Frenchman has for bonne chère, for good eating.
That, or something like it, was Joseph Conrad’s opinion of the French, and allowing for a touch of exaggeration, there is nothing to add to it. The French are like that.
The underlying principle of French cooking is simplicity. The French cook never aims at making queer and exotic tasting mixtures, though sometimes English people who are only accustomed to roasts, grills and boiled vegetables get that impression of French cooking. The sole and unique purpose of the French cook is to get the gastronomic maximum out of each thing, whether meat, fish or vegetable. That is why the French, to the surprise and disgust of many English visitors, so often serve a single vegetable as a whole course. The Englishman likes his meat, potatoes and vegetables all together on the same plate, and even likes putting a mixture of all three down his throat at each mouthful. To the French, that is merely an insult to good food. They serve vegetables usually with the meat course, but just a few carefully selected vegetables designed to bring out the taste of the meat or fish. How often have I seen English visitors clamouring for more potatoes when they are served a “filet de sole” in a Paris restaurant with two small steamed potatoes!
Even the Russian hors d’œuvres are already a mixture, a series of salads, whilst the famous French hors d’œuvres consist of one entirely separate element at a time.
French cooking possesses some fourteen hundred sauces to give the indispensable aroma to the various dishes, and yet no French cook wants to die without giving France at least one more new sauce.
This reputation of French cooking is no new thing. Victor Hugo once said proudly: “Everything changes, and the only thing which remains immovable across the centuries and fixes the character of an individual or a people, is its cooking.”
In France, on practically every menu, you will read the wise words: “A meal without wine is a day without sun” (un repas sans vin est une journée sans soleil). For, in addition to its cooking and its sauces, France has the best, and in any case the most varied, list of wines in the world, and has always linked up inseparably the worship of good food and the worship of good wine.
At any rate, what is quite certain is that if the idea came to you in a restaurant or in someone’s home to drink champagne after the soup course, you should drive the thought from you like a pest, as otherwise your reputation of one who knows would be lost for ever. Everyone in France, from the highest to the lowest, knows that champagne is only drunk with a roast or with the dessert. Usually, at what is called a “modeste” meal, you will begin with white wine, continue with red, and finish with champagne and liqueurs. The two main rules of wine-drinking are:
(a) Delicate wines, with a “bouquet,” should be served before the heavy, coarser, wines;
(b) The quality of the wines served should go in crescendo.
To enumerate all the special dishes of French cooking would be sheer waste of time, for you would immediately forget them all. There are too many. Especially when you think that, apart from Paris, the capital of the world in cooking, France itself has ten or so big gastronomic centres, such as Lyons, Marseilles, Strasbourg, Dijon, Rouen, Nantes, Vienne, Grenoble, Castalnaudry, and a whole series of other cities famous for their specialities.
Strasbourg represents the German influence in France, with its excellent sausages, sauerkraut and lovely Alsatian wines.
And what about Paris? Hasn’t Paris any specialities?
When all is said and done, Paris is the quintessence and concentration of all the regional cooking of France and even of foreign cooking too. In Paris, each dish has its special restaurant and its own particular cook. In the old days, the gourmets of Paris used to eat on the run, as it were; they would have their soup in one restaurant, their fish in another, their meat course in another, etc. Even now, if you want a fish meal, go to Prunier; though let me whisper in your ear that if you go to Pascal instead, at the Porte Saint-Denis, you will eat just as well, and instead of paying 50 or 75 francs, will pay 15 or 20 francs. You have certainly heard too of the Tour d’Argent, that wonderful Paris restaurant—expensive though—where each diner who eats duck (naturally they only serve whole ducks ordered in advance) receives a slip certifying to posterity that he had the honour of eating the 7,689th duck cooked there since the restaurant was founded.
For meat there is not better restaurant than the Ecu de France, and for oysters and hors d’œuvres there is the famous Larue.
In Paris you can eat the food of any country you like. Chez Korniloff, the former cook of the Tzar, you can taste all the perfections of Russian cooking; while at Little Hungary and the Danube Bleu, you will be served the best dishes of Hungary and Austria. Scandinavian cooking is excellently done, and fairly cheaply, at the Vikings or the Patisserie Danoise.
There is a restaurant, too, near the Paris wine market called Ducottet, where they serve a perfectly delicious Coq au Vin, and at the top of the Boulevard Saint-Michel a little restaurant, Chez Emile, whose speciality is Escalope à la crème. But the greatest joy of all is to find a favourite little restaurant for yourself, and keep the secret jealously from all but your boon companions. You will have to go through many disappointments and much suffering before you succeed, but when you have done so, how delightful to be able to say to your friends: “I know a little restaurant where …”
Anatole France has made famous the Rôtisserie de la Reine Pedauque, 6 Rue de la Pépiniére, not far from the Gare St. Lazare. In the centre of Paris there is also the excellent and not very expensive La-Grille (Rue Montorgueil), and in the Latin quarter, on the Place Saint-Michel, the Restaurant Rouzier. The big cafés in Montparnasse, such as the, Coupole, the Dôme and the Select, serve very good meals at moderate prices. You can also eat well at the Café Versailles, opposite the Gare Montparnasse, and at the famous Closerie de Lilas, at the corner of the Boulevards Montparnasse and St. Michel, which used to be the favourite rendezvous of the Paris writers and artists, in the days of Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde and the Parnassians.
Afternoon tea, even in Paris, is served much more rarely than in England. But in Paris at any rate you can get excellent tea with all the accessories at Sherry (Rond-Point des Champs Elysées), Rumpelmayer (Rue du Faubourg St. Honoré), Au Danube Bleu (Rue Royale), and at the Pâtisserie Danoise (Avenue de l’Opéra). And, of course, in the tea-room in Smith’s bookshop, Rue de Rivoli. Tea is quite good, too, now in most of the big cafés on the Champs Elysées or the Grands Boulevards.
Good eating is certainly one of the main attractions of Paris, which I doubt it will ever lose, and you will certainly not be the only one to say, with a smack of the lips as you tell of your visit to France: “And then … the food is so good.”
But take care and remember the quip of Alain Laubreaux: “The more you love, the more you love loving; and the more you eat, the more you love eating.”
Is it then a passion, a dangerous rival to other delights?
As Voltaire said: “The love of good food is the last love, which consoles one for all the others.”
Despite the devaluation of currencies, despite the dressmakers abroad who cleverly get away with sketches of Paris models before they even come out, Paris is still a paradise for women who like to dress well and in the latest fashion. It is full of subtle temptations which Eve can never resist, and poor Adam raises his eyes to heaven and takes his note-case, from his pocket for the hundredth time.
Dressing and clothes may be looked at from two quite different angles: the wearing of the clothes and their making. Paris is a delight from both points of view, though I have often heard visitors refuse to admit that the Frenchwoman dresses any better than the women abroad or in his own country.
Personally, I think that the failure to admit the excellence of the Frenchwoman’s taste comes from a fundamental misunderstanding. The Englishman or American is probably right when he looks round him in the streets of Paris and says or thinks that in his country the girls are far smarter. So they are, on the average. The girl who works in an office or factory in America or England is far better paid than the French girl. The standardised level of taste is therefore higher. But where France wins every time is first in the highest domains of dressmaking, where only the rich may tread, and secondly whenever the less fortunate Frenchwoman has time to think out and maybe make her own dresses.
Every Frenchman who visits New York or London is struck by the high standard of neatness and even chic he sees in the girls going to work or coming home from work in the subways or tube. But he is also struck—and Frenchmen have an eye for these things and for women which the English and Americans find rather shocking in a man—by the sameness of it all. In Paris he is accustomed to seeing each woman dressed quite differently, even if utterly failing in her effort to be smart in an individual way, and to seeing every now and then something almost perfect in conception, though perhaps not in quality of fabric, on some quite poor little working-girl or harassed mother. That is Paris. A rather low standard of general elegance, but absolute perfection in the heights and flashes of genius even in the depths!
As far as dressmaking is concerned, let us start with the “Haute Couture” and the well-filled pocket books. The dressmaking centre, dressmaking being essentially a mobile art, has followed the general movement of decentralisation in Paris from the Opéra towards the Etoile, and everyone with a name in the creation of fashions can be found somewhere between the Madeleine and the Champs Elysées: Rue Royale, Rue du Faubourg St. Honoré, Avenue Matignon. It is in that small radius of a mile or so that the wonderful creations, which make women dream the world over, are planned and carried out.
If you are very young, very slender, and are not afraid of being a little unusual, get yourself dressed by Marcel Rochas, the youngest of the advance-guard dressmakers of Paris. He will leave you youthful and svelt, while at the same time giving you some ingenious and paradoxical touch as tenuous and as hard to define as an intuition. If, on the other hand, good dame nature has made your lines sculptural, go rather to Mme. Besançon de Wagner, the artist who presides over the destinies of the House of Maggy Rouff, and whose models are always so lovely and have such a noble bearing.
If you are looking for something to wear at tennis, golf or skating, there is nowhere else to go than to Madeleine de Rauch or her neighbour Vera Borea; for a smart and yet slightly unconventional afternoon tailored costume, the best house is Molyneux. Evening dresses are a speciality of a Madeleine Vionnet, for whom the art of draping has no secrets. Your evening wraps and day coats should be made at Worth’s, where the taste is so absolutely sure, both respecting the established traditions and yet open to the adventurous fashion of to-morrow.
Finally, if you are fond of the throw-back to the fashion of 1900, go chez Schiaparelli, that marvellous creative artist who has just revived the tulle train and who reigns over the dresses of Hollywood from the Place Vendôme to which she has remained faithful.
And you shouldn’t forget either Jeanne Lanvin, that remarkable little seamstress who has climbed to the front rank of creative dressmaking, or Chanel, to whom we owe, among other things, the fashion of short hair, or Jodelle, or Robert Piguet, two of the younger dressmakers with a great future ahead of them, or Jenny or Louise Boulanger.
Many of these dressmaking establishments have opened special hat departments; others present their models with hats specially created to accompany them by Maria Guy, Jane Blanchot, Suzanne Talbot, Gaby Mono, Rose Descat, Reboux, those fairy-fingered artists who make a success of everything they touch.
The long established division of labour among the establishments of fashion has quite ceased to exist, and all the dressmakers now, show fur coats. They work these precious skins into infinitely graceful shapes, without a thought for their value, and the time is over when the fur coat which the bride receives as a gift on her marriage-day lasts, often mended, but never changed, a whole life-time. The furriers have naturally replied in kind to this trespassing on their territory, and Révillon—to mention only the greatest—adds each season to his department of wraps, sport costumes, etc., completely or almost completely denuded of fur.
Each season sees the renewal of the ceremony of the presentation of the new collections. A group of beautiful girls files backwards and forwards in the salons of the dressmakers showing off all the perfections of the latest creations. And the type of mannequin is itself a sign of the house they serve; the slight and disdainful mannequins of Marcel Rochas, the tall graceful women of Maggy Rouff, the charmingly impudent mannequins of chez Schiaparelli with their curls imprisoned in hair-nets of a former age.
But what are you going to do if you can’t afford these subtle refinements and the prices charged in these world-famous dressmaking establishments? Is there nothing in Paris for the new poor?
Yes, Paris has something for everyone. The big department stores all have excellently equipped dressmaking departments. For instance, at the Trois Quartiers you will find just the gay little dress you want; at the Printemps, the loveliest blouse; at the Galéries Lafayette, the hat that just suits you; at the Louvre, the comfortable and elegant coat which will make you beautiful at very little expense.
Some of the big dressmakers, too—for instance, Lucien Lelong and Callot—have recently opened a special department of models reproduced in a limited number of copies which, although they are perhaps less sumptuous than the models of their main departments, carry none the less the mark of their genius and talent.
You should go also to the Samaritaine de Luxe on the Boulevard de la Madeline, that recently built and brilliant offshoot of the old “Samar” of Père Cognac-Jay, which has been for so long the store of the worker and small shopkeeper.
Then you have the alternative of going to the many establishments on the Champs Elysées, where dresses are sold for 50, 150 or 250 francs and to which more than one smartly dressed Parisienne has recourse when she finds she hasn’t got just the dress she wants at that precise moment.
Gloves and handbags for sport should be bought chez Hermès, the saddler of the Rue Faubourg St. Honoré, and for the afternoon and evening chez Alexandrine. If you have more modest tastes or less money, remember that Grenoble is the fatherland of beautiful gloves and buy at one of its Paris representatives on the Avenue or Place de l’Opera.
In the Rue Royale, at the Grand Frédéric or Henri à la Pensée, you will find, together with their lovely knitted pull-overs, the thousand and one accessories which go to make, or unmake, an otherwise perfect dress; a well-placed clip, a smart belt, etc.
For your more fanciful and artistic jewellery, go chez Lancel, who by the way also sells lovely little handbags—or take a walk along the Rue de Rivoli under the arcades and drop into any of the hundreds of little shops which sell unusual and charming stones that can be renewed or lost without financial disaster.
But if you want to make other people feel that you are a real Parisienne, you must absolutely scent yourself with her perfumes. There is plenty of choice. Guerlain makes for her those subtle and discreet perfumes, which no one notices but which make just the whole difference. There are Coty’s perfumes and those of Molinard, which summon up all the flowers and all the springtime of Grasse and its colourful fields. And finally, the dressmakers themselves, those magicians of Paris, have their own special perfumes, cleverly adapted to go with each dress they offer, with each fashion they create.
At present, in practically every branch of sport, French players are well up to the level of their foreign competitors, and the youth of France, although perhaps with less military discipline about them than in some other countries, are just as enthusiastic and keen sportsmen as the youth of England or the United States. The primitive stadiums of former times have long been ousted by up-to-date sports grounds where every day, and particularly on Saturdays and Sundays, hundreds of thousands of girls and young men, as well as men and women of every age, are the spectators of big sporting events or themselves practise some kind of sport.
If you are keen on football, you will already know that in recent years France has made immense progress in this sport, and that the French teams are to-day worthy rivals of the best teams in Europe. Should you be intending to stay some time in France and want to carry on with football, you will find any club in Paris or the Provinces only too glad to welcome an Englishman.
When going to a football match in France you should keep in mind the fact that, just as in England, the capital is far from being the centre of French football, and that among the sixteen teams of the first professional league, only two belong to Paris: the Racing Club de France and the Red-Star Olympic. Those two names alone should suffice to show you how deeply England has influenced France in the field of football and for that matter in every other field of sport as well.
The Racing Club is one of the leading football teams in France, and every year organises several big international matches at the Stade Olympic of Colombes (built at the time of the Olympic games in Paris, in 1924). For instance, there is the famous match Arsenal v. Racing, which usually takes place in November. Then, it is at the Colombes stadium that the biggest national event of the year takes place on the first Sunday in May, the final of the Coupe de France, played in the presence of the President of the Republic.
The popularity of football has cast rather a damper on that of rugby. This, I believe, is equally true in England.
However, the real centre of French rugby is not in Paris, but in the Midi and Basqueland: Perpignan, Toulouse, etc. The capital only plays a secondary rôle. The big matches, as in the case of football, take place at Colombes or at the Parc des Princes or at the Jean Bouin stadium or at the Buffalo stadium.
There was a time—between 1927 and 1932—when French tennis was practically unrivalled throughout the world. No Englishman interested in sports will ever forget the names of Lacoste, Borotra, Brugnon, Cochet or Suzanne Lenglen, difficult as her name is to pronounce for the English tongue. Their brilliant exploits drew on the youth of France to take up this comparatively new sport, and in a few years the number of men or women playing tennis in France has increased by about a million! Paris and its surroundings alone have several thousands tennis courts, both open-air and closed, most of which are at the disposal of club-members or visitors at quite reasonable prices. At the same time, I must add that the Englishman will probably find sport a much more expensive pastime in France than in his own country.
The reputation of the Roland-Garros Stadium (Bois de Boulogne), often referred to as the French Wimbledon, needs no advertising. That was where the American and British teams struggled in vain, from 1927 to 1933, to wrest the Davis Cup from France, and where finally Perry and Austin at last succeeded in winning back this precious trophy. Since the French have lost the Davis Cup, French tennis has not yet been able to find any successors for the star players of former times, and with the Challenge Round, Paris has also lost one of its greatest sporting and social events of the year. However, the international championships, organised every year in May, the heats of the Davis Cup and a large number of other tournaments, most of which are held at the Roland-Garros stadium, still constitute a first-class programme of tennis attended by a large number of English and American visitors—not to speak of the players!
French athletics has been going through a period of acute crisis since the Ladoumégue affair. You will probably remember that Ladoumégue, the greatest runner in France—perhaps even in the world—was disqualified by the French Federation for failing to keep to the rules of amateurship. The lack of great champions and even the boycotting of official events by the public has taken away practically the whole attraction of this branch of sport in France, and it has become pretty well impossible to organise any really big championships.
However, there are a dozen or so stadiums in Paris and its suburbs with more or less up-to-date equipment, and if you want to train yourself, you have only to join one of the men’s or women’s clubs and you will be able to work at any sport you like under the supervision of competent trainers. Among the women’s clubs, I would particularly recommend the Elizabeth stadium; at Montrouge, and for the men, again the Racing Club at Colombes, the Jean Bouin Stadium at the Porte d’Auteuil or the Pershing stadium at Vincennes.
Although France has such an immense coast-line, swimming is still the “poor relation” of French sports. Despite the French swimmer Taris, who counts among the best swimmers in the world, swimming events are fairly rare in France, and Paris has perhaps less swimming baths than any other capital in Europe.
In recent years the gap has been filled to a certain extent by the opening of some new pools, such as the Pontoise (Rue de Pontoise) and the Lutetia (at Sèvres).
Among the older swimming pools, the Molitor at the Porte d’Auteuil is the smartest, and the Tourelles, at the Porte de Lilas, the biggest and cheapest.
Thanks to the energy of the young American manager and organiser, Jeff Dickson, and the modernisation of the Palais des Sports at Grenelle, winter sports, particularly ice-hockey and skating, have gone ahead very fast in Paris.
You can still skate at the old Palais des Glaces in the Champs Elysées, which used to be one of the world’s marvels at the end of the nineteenth century, or in winter you can go to the Molitor swimming pool.
The Palais des Sports, mentioned above, is the temple of Parisian boxing, and has already seen many world championships and international fights.
A more popular ring, and more picturesque too, is the Central (57 Faubourg Saint-Dénis), which is, as it were, the antechamber to pugilistic glory, where the young provincial fighters show what they are worth before going on to bigger matches at the Palais des Sports. The boxing at the Central has therefore kept all its liveliness and enthusiasm and the public goes into a wild ecstasy of cheering, hissing and whistling, even at times going to the pitch of driving boxers, referees and managers out of the ring.
A visit to the Central on a Thursday evening or Sunday afternoon is absolutely essential if you really want to know Paris. It isn’t on the list of entertainments usually given to tourists, but you will never forget that high-pressure atmosphere if you do go there.
Rightly enough, cycling is considered to be the national sport in France. France has no less than four million young men who go in for cycling as a sport. In the circumstances, it is not surprising that the biggest road cycling event in the world is held in France: the Tour de France.
The Tour de France is reserved to professional racers, and every year lasts at least a month, covering a distance of some 3,500 miles across the whole of France. Organised by the newspaper L’Auto, which makes annually several million francs out of it, it is gradually losing its sporting character and becoming an immense spectacle advertising the various makes of cycles and their accessories.
The big racing tracks in Paris are the Palais des Sports, the Buffalo and the Parc des Princes.
The Paris automobile track is about 15 miles outside Paris through the Porte d’Orleans, at Linas-Montlhéry, and, thanks to its excellent construction and surface, a large number of world records in motor and motor-cycle racing have been beaten there.
Since the War, golf has become far more widely played in France, though it has not attained the popularity it has in England.
The best golf courses are probably those of the American Golf Club at Ozoir-la-Ferriére (Seine-et-Marne), the Chantilly Club, the Golf de Paris à la Boulie at Versailles and the Fontainebleau Club.
Finally, you will probably not want to leave France without going to some of the race meetings at Auteuil or Longchamps, and without putting your shirt or part of it on a “dead cert.”
As far as betting goes, there is not need for you to risk catching a cold in the rain at Maisons-Lafitte. At every corner of the street there are small cafés which are at the same time branch offices of the P.M.U. (Pairs Mutualité Urbaine).
These little cafés are thoroughly typical of Paris, with the table shoved against a window, behind which the daughter of the house or the “patronne” herself books bets for hurried people up to the very last minute before the race. Taxi-drivers, actresses, very respectable business men, and less respectable and far more attractive girls, press round the table feverishly trying to decide which horse is going to lose their savings for them this time.
Special dailies and weeklies will give you all the information you need as to the form and chances of the various horses, and at the same time generously give you absolutely infallible “tips.” But before putting your money down, think over the words which Alexandre Dumas, son, author of La Dame aux Camélias, pronounced just before he died: “My last desire is to begin my life over again twice. Once to win back the amounts I have lost betting on horses, and the second time to lose them once more.”
Nature has been far less generous to the environs of Paris, as regards quaint or picturesque spots, than is the case with certain other European capitals. But where nature has been ungenerous, or even niggardly, man has built mansions, laid out parks and avenues which render this region so attractive from the tourist’s point of view that even without the proximity of Paris it would have become world famous.
The expression “environs of Paris” immediately recalls to everyone a name that is universally known, even in the most distant corners of the globe. Hugo Victor once said:
“I am not rich, but I offer 100 francs each to all those who, having visited Versailles, truthfully declare that they have not been enchanted by it.”
This town of 70,000 inhabitants, which lies some 11 miles from Paris and is the capital of the Seine et Oise Department, has little to offer that is of interest to the tourist.
But there is the Palace!
I will assume that you have three days at most, and we shall therefore go through the magnificent residence of the last of the French kings in top gear, so to speak. It is perhaps unnecessary to remind you that Versailles was a simple hunting-lodge during the reign of Louis XIII and was transformed and extended according to the grandiose plans of the architect Mansart, the man who gave his name (“mansard”) to the special Parisian type of garret. It is said that the construction of the Palace cost 60 million francs, but Voltaire was the first man to suspect that this amount was increased to 100 millions out of the “secret fund,” which was then already in existence; but in either case the amount was colossal for the seventeenth century.
Louis XV continued the embellishment of Versailles, but his successor, Louis XVI, was already driven out by the Revolution, and the Palace never regained its former grandeur except under Napoleon, and particularly under Louis Philippe.
It is not our intention to enumerate here all that there is to be seen at Versailles. No doubt you will visit, first of all, the famous Hall of Mirrors where, on January 18th, 1871, the King of Prussia was proclaimed Emperor of Germany and where, on June 28th, 1919, Germany and the Allied Powers signed the Peace Treaty.
You, Madam, will probably leave your husband in the Hall of Mirrors and go round to the Queen’s apartments, the “petits appartements de Marie Antoinette,” and also to the room where, in October 1780 Marie Antoinette sought refuge, half clad, from the revolutionary mob. Marie Antoinette’s apartments were originally appointed for Maria Theresa, then for Marie Leczinska, the wife of Louis XV.
Up the magnificent “Queen’s staircase” you will reach the apartments of the notorious Madame de Maintenon, including her all too famous bedroom. After passing through countless other rooms and ante-rooms and up a number of stairs, you will end up in the Salle du Congrés, where every seven years the two French Chambers meet to elect the President of the Republic.
The Park of Versailles is quite as famous as the palace itself. It is undoubtedly the most perfect masterpiece of a “French garden,” and was designed by the architect Le Nôtre for Louis XIV. On great festivals, as well as on every first Sunday of the autumn months, the “Grandes Eaux” present one of the most enchanting spectacles in the world. You will roam for hours round the fountain pools and statues of this truly royal park, and you will always come upon spots you have not yet discovered or upon avenues that you have missed so far.
Close to the Palace of Versailles you will find the two Trianons, which are a kind of annexe to Versailles. The Grand Trianon was also built by Mansart at the order of Louis XV, who went there to rest from the tedium of the court. It was here, in the Great Hall, that in June 1920 the Peace Treaty between Hungary and the Allies was signed. The Petit Trianon, built during the reign of Louis XV, was a favourite retreat of Marie Antoinette. Its gardens are famous for its charming little Temple of Love, which alone has more visitors each year than the whole of Versailles.
Less famous than Versailles, but better situated from the panoramic point of view, the Palace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, about 13 miles from Paris, with its museum, its terrace, and its wood, is a first attraction for tourists.
Before you reach the palace itself you will come upon an association with your own country—the church of Saint-Germain contains the tomb of the Stuart king James II, who died in Saint-Germain in 1701, where he fled after the revolution of 1688.
Saint-Germain, too, was the scene of the signing of a Peace Treaty, that with Austria.
What will delight you at Saint-Germain will be not the palace itself but the terrace, which is more than 7,000 feet long and 90 feet wide. It is supported by a high wall and extends from the Henri IV Pavilion to a wide bastion upon which the gate leading to the wood opens.
The wood is one of the finest in the environs of Paris.
A few minutes’ journey from Saint-Germain is the Palace of Malmaison, which is one of the most strikingly historic, and at the same time artistic, relics of the Napoleonic era.
It was built by Napoleon’s first wife, the Creole woman Josephine, and was for a long time, particularly during Napoleon’s long absences, the scene of social and artistic events that gave ample food for scandal. It was the witty Saint-Beuve who said: “Napoleon the soldier was conquered at Waterloo, but Napoleon the husband was defeated at Malmaison.”
It was here that Josephine lived in retirement after her divorce, and that she died in 1814.
In the Emperor’s bedroom you will see the iron bedstead in which Napoleon slept on St. Helena, as well as his death mask. The ladies like to pause for a long time in the bathroom on the first floor, which contains Josephine’s dressing-table, a masterpiece of its kind of the period.
Rambouillet, 10 miles from Paris, is older than Versailles and was already famous in the sixteenth century. It was here that Francis I died in 1547 and Charles V abdicated after the revolution of 1830.
To-day Rambouillet is the summer residence of the President of the Republic, and the great presidential hunts in the vast Forest of Rambouillet are world famous.
The palace itself contains a few historic rooms, such as the bedroom where Napoleon spent the last night before going into exile on June 25th 1814, Marie Antoinette’s boudoir, and the Emperor’s bathroom.
Fontainebleau is some 40 miles from Paris and, like Versailles, has little of interest to offer to the tourist, its fame lying in its palace and forest. The former is one of the oldest of the great palaces in France and already existed in the twelfth century. It was a favourite retreat of Catherine de Medicis, and it was here that Pope Pius VII stayed when he came to Paris especially to crown Napoleon. Napoleon spent more than 12 million francs on redecorating the palace, and by an irony of fate it was here that, on April 5th 1814, he abdicated.
The different wings of the palace include the apartments of Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, the Pope and Madame de Maintenon respectively, and rival even Versailles in point of luxury. As to the forest, it is the largest in the environs of Paris and would take several days to explore even superficially. Heinrich Heine, the German poet, boasted that he knew every tree “by name” in this forest.
Chantilly, the French Newmarket, is about 25 miles from Paris, and is the French centre for training race-horses. The town also has a magnificent palace that is a veritable art museum and a famous railway station and forest. Also, it was here that the French General Staff had its headquarters from 1914 till 1917.
The Palace, which consists of the Great and Small Palaces, has been rebuilt several times since the thirteenth century. It comprises the magnificent “Condé Museum,” with pictures by Rembrandt, Poussin, Titian, Watteau, Raphael, Veronese, Van Dyck, Botticelli, etc.
Is a quarter of an hour’s journey from Chantilly, and was the most advanced position on the way to Paris that the Germans occupied for a few days in 1914, devastating and burning it.
Senlis is famous for its eleventh-century palace, its thirteenth-century Notre Dame cathedral and its Gallo-Roman arenas.
Compiègne is close to Senlis and also has a famous palace. But you must first of all visit, in the annexe of the Town Hall, the Virenel Museum, with its famous collection of 30,000 lead soldiers of all types.
The palace, built by Louis XV, was occupied by the English in August 1914, by the Germans in September, and finally by the Allied General Staff from March 1917 until May 1918. It contains several hundred rooms, which you will probably not have the time to look over, but you will like its wood, which is almost as large as the Forest of Fontainebleau, and was the favourite rendezvous of the “great lovers” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. If the trees of this wood could talk, they could tell us a great deal about the loves of Madame Pompadour, Josephine, Georges Sand, Alfred de Musset, Chopin and the young Victor Hugo.
Before returning to Paris you must look in at Enghien-Les-Bains, about eight miles from the capital, on the shore of a charming lake. The place has thermal springs, and the casino nearest to Paris.
Two miles farther on, at Montmorency, you will find many reminders of Rousseau. The Rousseau Museum and L’Ermitage contain a great deal of material that recalls the strange life of this great romantic of the eighteenth century.
France is essentially a country of variety, more perhaps than any other country in Europe. You can find practically anything you want there, if you only know where to look, so wide is the range, of climates, scenery, products, and even races and languages.
You can’t go anywhere in France without finding something to amuse, interest or startle you out of yourself.
This variety is not only one of place and history, but has taken root too deep down in the customs and mentality of the people.
The Frenchman of the south does not see life and society with the same eyes as his compatriot of Flanders or Brittany, and even in the south itself there is very little in common between the talkative and braggart people of Marseilles and the cold and taciturn men from the Bordeaux or Basque provinces.
And yet these people who seem so different, and who are so different, share certain very definite characteristics which mark them out as Frenchmen from all the other peoples of Europe and which you must know if you are to understand them at all.
Provincial France particularly, as compared with Paris, has a number of features of its own which you will always find in any of the thousands of small towns which go to make it up.
The small provincial town is grouped around a few main buildings: the principal church or maybe the Cathedral with its Bishop’s or Archbishop’s Palace alongside, the Prefecture where the Prefect of Police appointed by the Government has his headquarters, and last but not least the “Mairie,” the Town Hall where the Mayor presides. The latter buildings usually date back to the end of the last century, as is obvious from their architecture. And then, finally, there is the railway station, more often than not located some little way from the centre of the town.
The whole business of the town goes on around this centre—which is frequently no more than a single street, square or promenade. The hotels, cinemas, cafés, restaurants and shops are all there, a few steps from the Church, the Préfecture and the Town Hall. At certain times of the day the people of the town assemble there with the regularity of monks at office—and woe to him or her who dares to transgress the unwritten law!—they exchange news and weave rumours into the fabric of the town’s daily gossip.
Turn into a side street now and let the contrast soak into you. There is no longer any bustle or movement. The pavements and cobble-stones are practically deserted, and the blank faces of the houses look down at you with that grave and sleepy look which only the houses of a provincial town can give.
At the gates of the town begins a kind of small scattered suburb, where the manufacturers and craftsmen have their workshops and the workmen their dwellings. It is in these suburbs that you will usually find the garages and petrol stations.
The cafés play an important part in French provincial life. They take the place of clubs, which are entirely unknown.
Every day at the same times the same clients, what the French call the “habitués,” can be found in the same cafés, playing billiards, or dominoes or cards. The usual card games are “piquet” or “belotte,” the latter being almost the national card game, and finally, in the last few years, bridge, which is still only played in the well-to-do classes. If they are not playing games, they are discussing business or—the inevitable politics.
Politics is by far the favourite subject of discussion in the small provincial towns, and each café has its own particular colour. The people of the “Right” would never think of frequenting the “Left” café and vice versa.
The thing that worries the foreigner most in the French café is certainly the thorny problem of the “tip.” The café waiters, according to a tradition which the French are the first to criticise, are not paid by their employer but live exclusively by their tips. That is what makes it so important for the foreigner to know exactly what is expected of him.
In principle, as everyone knows, the tip is supposed to be 10 per cent. of the amount paid. But at cafés 50 centimes is the minimum tip. For a drink ranging from 5 to 10 francs, you have to give a 1 franc or 2 franc tip. Only when you get beyond the 20 franc limit can you fall back on the strict 10 per cent.; and even then it is usual to give a little more.
I might mention in passing, particularly for English visitors, that in France drinks are paid for when you leave and not when you are served, as is the case in England.
The French are far more friendly to foreigners in the provinces than in Paris, and it is comparatively easy to get into conversation with them. Once the ice is broken, they will invite you first to the café for an apéritif, and then, if the acquaintanceship ripens, to dinner in a restaurant.
The only thing they won’t do, except if you have become real friends, is to invite you home. It is not your being a foreigner that makes them refrain from inviting you; they treat other Frenchmen in exactly the same way, and they would be the first to be surprised if they thought you took umbrage at it.
The French only eat two meals a day: lunch (Déjeuner) at about midday and dinner (Dîner) between seven and half-past. Lunch is hardly the word, of course, for a French déjeuner, which is usually a much bigger meal than the English lunch. But then the French have practically nothing for breakfast (which is called petit déjeuner); as a general rule just a cup of coffee and a “croissant” and sometimes only a cup of coffee. Afternoon tea is absolutely unheard of, except in the very big centres, and it is better even to avoid asking for it, as tea in France is well known to be utterly undrinkable unless you have it in one of the big hotels frequented by foreign visitors.
The déjeuner and dinner are both thoroughgoing meals. The first usually consists of hors d’œuvres, then a meatdish served with vegetables—though sometimes the vegetables are served separately afterwards—and finally a salad, cheese and dessert. It is worth noting that in France the cheese comes before the dessert. The bill of fare is practically the same for dinner, except that the hors d’œuvres are replaced by a soup. Usually in the provinces the wine is included in the price of the meal, unless you want something special from the wine-cellar.
I suppose that the real reason why, as I mentioned earlier on, the provincial Frenchmen is easier for a foreigner to get on with than a Parisian is that the latter is no longer attracted by curiosity for the unknown. But to the provincial the foreigner has still got the flavour and prestige of a man who has arrived from distant places, and when he enters into contact with a foreigner he feels that he is venturing into new and unknown territory.
The French, let it be said in passing, have more respect for the English than for any other foreigners.
But if the provincial Frenchman is more communicative than the Parisian, his communicativeness is purely relative.
The famous “wall of private life,” so much talked about in French literature, remains an insurmountable obstacle.
Never ask a Frenchman how much money he is making or earning; never try to find out what his religion is; he will merely think you a tactless bore.
On the other hand, being a Frenchman above all else, he will talk to you without the slightest embarrassment about subjects which in other countries are discreetly ignored or talked round. If you ever get him going on the eternal subject of women, and there are no ladies present, he will enter into the most delicate details with the greatest complacency and directness of language.
The provincial Frenchwoman is just the opposite. Although there is nothing in the least prudish about her, and she is always extremely reticent and perhaps even stiffish in the presence of strangers, you will find it very difficult to get to know her. All this applies primarily to the women of the small towns, for in certain middle-class circles of Lyons or Marseilles they make a point of being more Parisian than the Parisians themselves, and even adopt foreign customs and manners, particularly those of England and the United States.
Everywhere in the world, in Tokio as much as in London or New York, the words “Côte d’Azur” summon up to all and sundry the enchanting picture of a country of everlasting sun, of the Mediterranean with its peculiarly intense blue, of a cloudless and radiant sky, of the Carnival of Nice with its fairy-like fancy-dress balls, its battles of flowers, of Cannes, Mentone, St. Tropez, of a land of laughter and gaiety, the crowning beauty of Provence and indeed of the whole of France.
What can I possibly say then of the “Côte d’Azur,” or French Riviera, which is not known ten times over to my foreign readers, and particularly to the English-speaking peoples? However, to say nothing would be worse, so let those who know already please skip!
The fame of Nice is nothing new. Already, many centuries ago, in the time of the Phoceans of Marseilles, it was the most important town on the Riviera. It was founded two thousand years ago in memory of a successful battle won against the neighbouring Ligurians. Hence the name of “Nicaea,” which means “Victory.”
Nowadays this big town of 250,000 inhabitants is both a summer and a winter resort, a theatrical, artistic and sporting centre, a pivot of social life. And at the same time it is a refuge for those who seek quiet and rest, for the aged and retired, as well as for the artist and writer.
In Nice, as practically everywhere on the French Riviera, the English or American visitor is utterly at home. English is spoken in almost all the shops, restaurants and hotels, and at every step he takes he runs into someone he knows from home.
The pride of Nice, the finest avenue on the Riviera, and one of the most famous of the whole world, is even called “Promenade des Anglais.” It runs from the Palais de la Jetée to the Californie, along 5 miles or so of the incomparable Baie des Anges.
It owes this name to the English colony who in the last century lived preferably around the Croix de Marbre. Their hotels and pensions were all in that quarter; it was there that they built their first church and their cemetery is still there, though to-day no longer used.
Nice is much more than merely the favourite spot on the Riviera for foreign visitors from all over the world; it is also an important town which offers its own inhabitants as well as its visitors innumerable pastimes, distractions and amusements.
All that is best and latest in the way of shows and plays can be seen at the music-halls and theatres of Nice; they come on there immediately they appear in Paris, and sometimes even before. Every day the “cercles” and big hotels give tea-dances and gala-balls.
But perhaps the most powerful attraction of Nice is, and always has been, its casinos, the most cosmopolitan places for gambling on the Riviera. You may think that it is only in Monte Carlo that gambling goes on. This is quite a wrong impression. Nice alone has no less than five big casinos.
The first of these, the Palais de la Méditerranée, is considered to-day to be one of the most luxurious and up-to-date casinos in the world. If you go into the gaming rooms, with their roulette, trente-et-quarante, baccarat, écarté tables, any time between January and March, and look round at the people playing there, you will probably see, among other famous personalities, princes and even reigning sovereigns, H.M. Gustav V of Sweden seated democratically between a cotton merchant from Sydney and a Polish engineer or Japanese student. You can see there the greatest names in industry, finance, literature, art or science, standing behind the players, or trying their luck either with the modest green counters of five francs or perhaps with the more imposing “plaques” of 100, 500, 1,000, 5,000, or 10,000 francs.
Then in the Place Masséna you have another casino, the Casino Municipal, meant for a wider public, which has not only the usual roulette and baccarat tables, but the additional attraction of a number of tables of “boule” at which the, lowest “mise” is one franc!
Those are the two biggest casinos, but there are three others which are just as suitable for those who want to try their luck with or without “systems”: the Casino de la Jetée Promenade, looking out on the sea, the Nouveau Casino, and the Eldorado Casino which was destroyed by fire in March 1936 but will probably be rebuilt and in full swing again soon.
To give an idea of the popularity of the casinos, you have only to remember that every year hundreds of millions of francs change hands over the green tables, and that in 1935 the French Treasury was the richer by more than thirty million francs of revenue from the tax on gambling in the Nice casinos.
You needn’t be surprised, then, if in the very hall of your hotel a man, speaking English or French, usually with an oriental accent, comes up to you—just as in Monte Carlo—and tells you that he has got THE secret of winning at roulette, in half an hour and without any risk, a hundred thousand francs with only five hundred francs to start with.
He would be delighted to place his “system” at your disposal. All you have to do is to buy his booklet of thirty-two pages, in thirty-two languages, among which Esperanto and Yiddish, for the small sum of 127 francs 95 centimes.
In Nice you can easily find the room to suit your taste and your pocket. If you can pay a lot, there are plenty of first-class hotels, and if you can’t, there are “pensions” without number where you can get simple but cleanly lodging and food for the lowest prices. Prices have dropped enormously everywhere in the last few years, and even at the Negresco—the meeting place of the very highest cosmopolitan society, of the Spanish Royal Family, of the biggest cinema and stage stars (and also the favourite hotel of Léon Blum, the leader of the French Socialist party!)—you can get rooms from 40 francs a day upwards and full board and lodging for 90 francs upwards. The Ruhl is even cheaper (30 and 80 francs). Its clientele is more specifically French. For instance, it is patronised by most of the French statesmen and by the higher ranks of the French army—among whom General Gamelin, Chief of the French Headquarters Staff. At the Hôtel d’Angleterre, where the King of Sweden has stayed every year for the last twenty-five years, the prices of the rooms start at 20 francs and those of full pension at 50 francs. The Beau Rivage, Imperator, Luxemburg, Méditerranée, Plage, Royal, West End and Westminster fall more or less into the same category.
As for Cimiez, the very elegant quarter perched up on the hill some little way from the sea, most of the big hotels there are only open in the winter season. At the Hermitage, the Riviera Palace, and the Winter Palace, where the British aristocracy come to winter, prices range from 40 francs without pension and from 80 francs with pension.
For those who cannot afford these prices, there are plenty of cheaper hotels, both near the sea and up in Cimiez. Near the sea you can choose between the Haller, the Prince et Bellevue, the Suisse, the Château Ferber, the Everest, the Le Minaret or the Trois Epis, all of which have rooms from 12 francs and full pension from 30 francs upwards. The same prices are charged in Cimiez at the Alhambra, Grand Hotel, British Hotel Faletto, Floride, Helios, Petit-Palais and English Hotel Montmorency.
Finally, on the Monte Carlo road, there is the Grand Hotel de Mont-Boron, the favourite retreat of writers, where rooms can be had from 20 francs and full pension from 40 francs.
Apart from these hotels there are a good hundred “pensions” and small hotels where you can have full pension for between 25 and 30 francs a day, and rooms from 10 francs a day.
Ten per cent, has, of course, to be added to these prices for service, and then the special “taxe de séjour,” which is only levied on the first twenty-eight days of your stay and ranges from 65 centimes to 3 francs 90 centimes a day, according to the type of hotel at which you are staying.
You can get all the particulars you want concerning hotels, and even villas and furnished flats and apartments, from the Syndicat d’Initiative de Nice (13 Place Masséna). If necessary, they will answer you in English.
Practically all the hotels of any size have restaurants where you can get “table d’hôte” or “à la carte” meals for prices ranging from 10 to 35 francs (wine included). But if you want to try the local dishes, you should go to one of the restaurants of the Quai des Etats-Unis (for instance, La Pergola) or Chez Buteau in the Old Town, whose dishes, particularly the fish and the raviolis, are famous throughout the whole of France.
When you feel like dancing, you have only to drop into one of the big hotels of the Promenade des Anglais (particularly the Negresco and the Ruhl, or the Palais de la Méditerranée) round about tea-time, and you will find a thé-dansant in full swing, with a magnificent floor and band at your disposal. The drinks need not cost you more than 10 francs apiece. In the evenings, the same hotels give gala balls with special numbers put on by the leading French and foreign film and stage stars. In the season there is also dancing at the Casino de la Jetée and the Casino Municipal. The most cosmopolitan cabarets and dance-halls are at present the Perroquet and the Plantation, where drinks will cost you anything from 15 or 20 francs upwards. The latter seems to have a particular attraction for writers and artists, and you will often see there, among many others, the famous German writers Heinrich Mann and Walter Hasenklever.
Most of the big cafés are on the Avenue de la Victoire, but some of the others are worth visiting too: the Café de Paris, for instance, on the rue Pasterelli, which has an orchestra and is mainly frequented by the French themselves. There is the Massena too and the Albert 1er. The Albert 1er seems to be particularly popular and crowded nowadays, perhaps because of its orchestra. Then you can pass a very enjoyable and refreshing hour or two sitting outside the big cafés of the Promenade des Anglais, such as the Café de France and the Montparnasse de Nice with its medley of writers and artists of every nationality.
Now that you know pretty well all there is to tell about hotels, restaurants, casinos, cafés, and places to dance, I shall go on to talk about more serious matters, such as clothes for the woman!
Perhaps you are not aware that in Nice and on the French Riviera in general, the average standard of elegance and chic is far higher than in any European capital.
At the gala balls of the Negresco or the Ruhl, presided over by Maurice Chevalier, Mistinguett or Marlene Dietrich, you will see more examples of the very latest fashions than even Paris or London could show you, except two or three times a year.
And you mustn’t forget that the famous Promenade des Anglais is really and truly a promenade, somewhere to stroll and lounge about in, as the Avenue de Bois in Paris used to be before the War, or the Kärtnerstrasse in Vienna, or the Corso de Danube in Budapest. Between 11 and 12 o’clock in the morning no self-respecting Nicoise, or even Nicois, would think of failing to take a stroll in the Promenade des Anglais so as to get a glimpse of the latest thing worn by the Baronne de Rothschild or Madame Titulesco or Mrs. Morgan. In a single morning, if that kind of accountancy happened to interest you, you could count a dozen or so genuine princesses, marchionesses, countesses and grand-duchesses, with or without their princes, marquises, counts and grand-dukes, seated in arm-chairs or stretched out in deck-chairs along the Promenade.
Let’s sit down here on the terrasse of the Café de France, sip a drink, smoke a cigarette and chat idly about the people around us and passing us.
“Talking of duchesses, whoever is that darling little Japanese opposite? I’m sure I’ve seen her before in Biarritz.”
“Nothing more likely. She’s the new ambassador—or should one say ambassadress—of Japan in X … She’s a first-class golfer and has even been woman golf champion of Japan three times.”
“And that attractive young man over there, with his brief-case crammed with papers, talking so earnestly to the older man beside him?”
“That, my dear lady, is the Archduke Francis Joseph; one of the most assiduous visitors of the French Riviera, and at present a publicity agent. He is talking to the Director of …”
“And those two girls, dressed like a couple of sisters, with such typical Slav faces?”
“You’ve hit it first guess. They are two Greek princesses, cousins of the Duchess of Kent. You’ll find them tomorrow presiding over the Carlton Gala in Cannes, which has been organised for the benefit of the Russian widows and orphans of the War. I believe the Queen of Italy is going to be there in person.”
“There is a great deal to see and do in the afternoons. There are fashion shows, the International Horse Show, in which the finest riders in Europe take part, the races, the regattas, not to speak of the casinos which open at 2 o’clock in the afternoon.”
“But perhaps you will manage after all to get an afternoon free. In that case, you’ll just have to do some shopping, won’t you? You’ll find all you can possibly want in the subsidiaries of the big Paris shops. The shopping centre is the Avenue de la Victoire, while the Nice’s Rue de la Paix, with its dressmakers and jewellers, is the Jardin du Roi Albert 1er, just behind the Hôtel Ruhl.”
“Well, it’s ever so kind of you to give me all this useful information. Just before I go, do tell me who that old man is over there, just getting into that lovely limousine. I’m sure I’ve seen his photo in the papers.”
“I should say you have! That visitor, who as a matter of fact is very rarely seen in public and prefers to take solitary walks between Mentone and Monte Carlo, is none other than Sir Basil Zaharoff, the most mysterious man in Europe.”
By now you will certainly have come to the conclusion that Nice is just nothing more than a collection of dance places, restaurants, casinos, theatres, cafés, and fashion shows. Are there no museums, churches or historical monuments worth seeing in Nice? Quite a neat answer to that question has already been given by Paul Valéry when he said that “Nice’s richest museum, finest monument and most beautiful statue … is the sea!” But that is not, of course, the whole story or the only answer.
Nice has plenty of museums, monuments, picturesque sites, and curiosities of art or nature to be seen, and perhaps I am not going beyond what my rôle of guide warrants when I add that you really should see them.
“But whoever wants to shut themselves up in a museum on such a marvellous day?”
“There’s something to be said for that too. And yet, perhaps you don’t know that a few years ago an American woman crossed the Atlantic with no other end in view than to see a single picture in a Nice museum.”
“You’re beginning to make me curious.”
“… and that, inspired by the same picture, a Japanese professor composed a poem of three thousand verses which had a striking success in Japan when he got back.”
“Curiouser and curiouser! Or rather, call a taxi and take me off immediately to look at this extraordinary picture.”
“Here we are now. This is the Villa Cheret. Don’t jump out in such a hurry, you’ll bang your head! It’s on the first floor. This is the room. You see, the Salle Marie Bashkirtcheff, and over there is the famous self-portrait painted by the unfortunate Moussia whose ‘Journal’ has been translated into thirty-two languages.”
“It’s not bad. But really, I don’t see what all the fuss is about!”
“Look more closely. The lips still carry the marks of a revolver bullet fired by Marie Bashkirtcheff herself. She was seriously ill, only twenty-four years old, and a few weeks before her death she tried to destroy this unrelenting effigy of her lost beauty with a revolver.”
“You got that out of a novel by Elinor Glyn. If you don’t stop, I’ll cry.”
“Come along then. To cheer you up, we’ll go round to the Nice Lawn Tennis Club, which is quite near, and if you have any luck you may even get a game with the King of Sweden. Oh, wait a minute, though; I’m afraid your game’s off. I forgot that this week there is an international tournament on and the King will be playing in the doubles with your champion Perry. But come along anyway. We shall see some good tennis, even if we don’t get a game ourselves.”
“That was a lovely afternoon. First art and then a first-class tennis tournament. Now, before going home to change, just tell me what that church or castle is up there on the heights in the distance with that enormous dome. For the last three days I seem to be seeing it wherever I am, from the Promenade des Anglais as well as from the window of my hotel.”
“Oh, that! That’s the Nice Observatory, the cupola of which is one of the marvels of the world. It was built by the famous Eiffel and weighs about a hundred tons. And by an amusing application of Archimedes’ law, it simply floats on water like a boat. Your Queen Victoria, when she was in Nice—and she was here fairly often, as you know—used to visit it each year on foot, although it is about 4 miles outside the town. If it weren’t already 6 o’clock I’d suggest running up to see it in a car.”
“I’ve got an appointment at 7, but perhaps we might fill in the time by going to the Old Town, which I have heard so much about in London.”
“The Old Town is as picturesque, with its winding streets, its washing hanging out of all the windows, and its innumerable children tumbling over each other between the wheels of the passing cars, as Palermo, Naples or Marseilles, and far cleaner too. The dark passages, the old churches, and even the street fountains are full of historical legends and memories. Oh, look! We’re in the Rue de la Préfecture. Do you see number 14 over there with the plate fixed on it? That’s where the famous violinist Paganini died on May 27th, 1840—‘the devil’s pal’ as they called him, whom the Bishop of Nice refused to bury ‘for having preferred women to the Mass,’ and whose body lay for three years on the slab of Villefranche before being buried in Genoa.”
“You certainly seem to know all the gossip of the Riviera.”
“Pretty old gossip that! As far as the gossip of the town to-day is concerned, the best spot to pick it up is at the golf club.”
“I thought Nice had no golf clubs.”
“Of course it has. The Nice Golf Club is not in the town itself, but about 7 miles out at Cagnes-sur-Mer. It was the favourite golf club of Edward VIII when he was living at Golfe Juan in 1935.”
“We’ll go there at the very first opportunity. To-morrow afternoon if we can. My friends in London will get positively ill with jealousy when they hear I’ve had the same professional to teach me as the King.”
“No difficulty about that. If I were you, I’d go at the same time to the Auberge de Cros in Cagnes where he often used to lunch after a game of golf. As a matter of fact, there is rather a good story about his first visit to the Auberge. He went there with a few friends and the innkeeper, a woman, hadn’t the remotest idea who he was.”
“‘I want a Bouillabaisse,’ he said, ‘I’m just dying of hunger.’”
“‘A Bouillabaisse, sir!’ exclaimed the inn-keeper, ‘I couldn’t give you a Bouillabaisse to-day, not if you were the President of the Republic. Why, I haven’t got any lobsters or any other fish in the house.’”
“‘And if he were the future King of England, what then?’ joked the Prince’s private secretary, Major A.”
“She suddenly recognised who her guest was and grew pale. An hour afterwards they all sat down to a wonderful Bouillabaisse Nicoise.”
“Not a bad story! You must take us to this inn of yours to-morrow at the latest.”
“Yes, but the funniest thing of all is that since that day the poor woman suspects every foreigner of being a prince or a queen incognito, and if you only go there with that new hat of yours she’ll probably take you straight off for the Duchess of Kent in person.”
Whatever corner of the world you may come from—Birmingham, Sidney, Chicago or Shanghai—you will certainly have heard or read times out of number of the Carnival of Nice.
And one day you will arrive at the Place Massena, the porter of your hotel having given you a little booklet of tickets (the last, he says, in the whole of Nice) for all the spectacles of the Carnival. With guide-book in hand and camera slung over your shoulders, you take your place with a little thrill of pleasure in one of the best rows of seats just opposite the Casino Municipal.
The immense square is crammed full. The neighbouring streets too are just a mass of people, and not a window in sight is empty. Several bands of the local firemen and infantry regiments are playing waltzes, cacaroudchas, and Provençal tunes. You feel more than a bit excited, and have already started to think of what your best friends at home will say when you describe the unforgettable scene.
Then suddenly a shout rises from the crowd:
“Here they come!”
And there at last is His Majesty Carnival the 57th, or is it 63rd? preceded by heralds, children and the grotesque carnival chariots.
The bands strike up. Children and grown-ups alike shout with joy.
The procession enters the square and goes round it. three times. A few confetti drift down on to your coat. And then, without any warning, it is all over. The musicians are wrapping up their trombones and putting their violins into their cases. The people are moving slowly out of the rows of seats.
On your way back to your hotel, as you cross the magnificent Jardin du Roi Albert 1er, you can’t help feeling a bit disappointed. You murmur that nowadays, at a peak-period of technical achievement and consummate showmanship throughout the world, what you have just seen is just a little thin for a Carnival of Nice. You’ve seen better at the cinema, music-hall, or even theatre. There was nothing very unexpected or terribly impressive about that.
The Carnival is an excellent excuse for escaping from the office, for seeing the sea and listening to the restful murmur of the waves on a bench in Nice or Cannes, for being “together.” But as far as the solemn and long-awaited entry of His Majesty Carnival is concerned, take my friendly hint and don’t expect to be carried away to the seventh heaven of delight and amazement.
Even the flower battles are full of fun, ragging and humour, but there is nothing grandiose about them … at Hollywood they do them far better.
Nowadays Nice has practically as many visitors in summer as in winter. A dozen or so beaches have been arranged and thousands of bathers prefer the reliable sunshine and calmness of the Mediterranean to the capriciousness of the Atlantic or Channel.
The most elegant beaches are the Plage Beau Rivage and Le Ruhl Plage, the most popular and crowded the Aquarium Beach and the Grande Bleue.
But for all that there is one big disadvantage in Nice, and that is the entire absence of sand. If you want real sand you have to go to Juan-Les-Pins or Cannes. It would be sad for Nice, but from the bather’s point of view I don’t suppose you would regret for a moment the change over to Cannes or Juan.
Nice has a come-back in any case, which makes up a great deal for the lack of sand. It has the unique privilege for a summer and winter resort of offering you bathing and winter sports simultaneously.
If you want, you can take a bathe in the morning (from March 15th onwards), then shoot up to Beuil at two and a half hours’ distance in a car, and there have a bout of ski-ing at a height of nearly 5,000 feet. Or you can go to Peira-Cava, which is even nearer. In the afternoon you can come down again to the warm shores of the Mediterranean and look in at the Negresco to find out who are the latest arrivals from Paris.
There is plenty of scope for yachting too. In the port there is the Club Nautique; or you can go to Villefranche or Cannes, a yachter’s paradise, where any of the old sailors in the port will be delighted to give you full particulars should you suddenly be filled with longing to hire the yacht of the ex-Kaiser, the Tsar, a dethroned Sultan or the Dolly Sisters. They’ll offer you a cruise if you like to the Ile Sainte-Marguerite opposite or even to Madagascar. But be careful! These historical yachts are pretty old and may reserve some nasty surprises for you when you’re out at sea. It even happens that the captain gives you a price per day, and then adds, with a perfectly serious face, that if the boat sinks on route the price is only payable up to the day you go down.
If Nice is the sea, then Villefranche is its port, and the most beautiful and picturesque of the whole coast along with Cannes and St. Tropez. This little town of 6,000 inhabitants, not quite 4 miles from Nice, was discovered, thanks to its particularly valuable location, first by the French Navy, which made a naval port out of it, and then by a few Parisian painters and writers. The big Italian liners call at Villefranche on their way to the United States or South America.
The first writer to discover it was Jean Cocteau, and he and his followers established their headquarters in the Welcome Hotel (rooms from 15 francs upwards, pension from 40 francs). They mixed with the picturesque and cosmopolitan population of the ports (there are two of them), and began building their own boats and canoes. Then a swarm of American, Chinese, Hungarian, Portuguese and even French painters invaded the town to sketch and paint the French and foreign naval officers, the colonial soldiers and sailors, dancing at eleven in the morning in the small bars and cafés of the port with handsome Italians, Nicoises, or the beauties of Villefranche itself, while the poets and writers wrote feverishly, in a dozen or so different languages, novels, odes, tragedies and picturesque tales culled from the life of Villefranche.
There are some famous names among these writers and artists: Michael Arlen, Foujita, Picasso, the decorator Vincent Korda, Van Dongen. Sometimes even the aged Kipling himself would leave his retreat at Mentone to join the group in Villefranche. Sooner or later a legend grew up around this set of artists, and in Paris, London and New York they were dubbed the Villefranche School.
Unfortunately, the depression has scattered this curious community of writers and artists, and to-day only Cocteau and a few friends keep up the tradition of the Welcome Hotel and the Villefranche School.
The climate of Villefranche is the hottest of the whole Riviera. If you like to eat your bananas freshly picked, you can do it easily enough in Villefranche, where there are almost as many banana trees as orange trees.
As for the famous Naval Battles of Flowers, look up what we have already said about the Carnival of Nice … and don’t fail to see them, preferably accompanied by a friend.
About 3 miles from Villefranche, going in the direction of Mentone, you come into Saint Jean-Cap-Ferrat, where you will find one of the smartest hotels on the whole Riviera with restaurant, dancing, tennis courts, and swimming pool: the Grand Hotel Cap Ferrat. Full pension can be had there from 50 francs.
Not far from the Cap lies Beaulieu-sur-Mer, part of which is very appropriately called “Petite Afrique,” where the climate is nearly as hot as in Villefranche (Hotels Bristol and Bedford, rooms from 30 francs).
I’d have to write whole pages if I merely wanted to list all the famous people who possess, or have possessed, one or several villas around Cap-Ferrat and Beaulieu. The great Spanish writer, Blasco Ibanez, whose charming villa, where his widow still lives, is just a little farther East, once said that “with the wealth of the people living between Villefranche and Mentone you could buy half Europe.”
To realise that this is merely a very slight exaggeration you have only to remember that the king of armament vendors, Sir Basil Zaharoff, lives not far from Beaulieu, and that going round the Cap you are as likely as not to run into at least one of the Morgan or Vanderbilt families, not to speak of the big writers and artists like Maurice Maeterlinck. One of the loveliest estates on the Riviera is the only too notorious Château Thompson at Cap-Ferrat, which Pola Negri is said to have bought last summer for the bagatelle of over £300,000.
Before reaching Monte Carlo you are bound to fall in love with the charming Cap d’Ail and Eze, from the heights of which you get a unique view of the whole Riviera.
Beyond Monte Carlo there is Cap Martin to be reckoned with. This used to be the favourite spot of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, and even the austere Emperor Francis Joseph came to join her there from time to time. At present the luxurious Hôtel Cap Martin has been turned by Mr. Titulesco into the chief meeting-place of the diplomatists, a kind of Riviera offshoot of the League, where Sir Samuel Hoare (when he was at the Foreign Office), accompanied by Baron Aloisi or President Benes, would talk over the grave problems of the hour from an angle, and under a sky too, quite other than at bleak Geneva.
Three famous and magnificent roads lead to Mentone, the most important town of the coast after Nice: the Grande Corniche, which has the most beautiful view, the Moyenne Corniche, which is the most modern, and, oldest of the three, the Petite Corniche.
In recent years Mentone (25,000 inhabitants) has lost a good deal of its world-wide fame to its younger competitors, particularly Juan-Les-Pins and St. Tropez. For all that, this frontier town is wonderfully located, and with its calm avenues, beaches and streets, and despite its casino, cinemas, and dance-halls, remains almost the ideal place for a rest cure. Being less fashionable than Nice or Cannes, it has become a kind of retreat for the older generation, and especially for the older aristocracy.
The town is built in Italian style and full of old churches, ruins and monuments, such as the ancient Palais des Princes de Monaco, the Church of Saint-Michel, the house in the Rue Bréa (No. 2) where Pope Pius VII once lived and where the Catholic sovereigns, the Queens of Spain, Portugal, Italy, etc., came each year in pilgrimage.
Most of the hotels in Mentone still date back to the time of its prosperity. The smartest and most luxurious are the Hotel Imperial (80 francs), Winter Palace and Riviera Palace (30-50 francs).
The Hôtel Annonciata (pension from 50 francs) is where the famous French statesman, André Tardieu, has retired during the last few years, and he can be seen quite frequently with other leaders of the French Right parties taking long walks or drives towards the fine golf course of Sospel.
About 2 miles from Mentone the Pont Saint-Louis already marks the Italian frontier. It is a fascinating spot for the visitor. Constructed of a single arch of some 70 feet, it spans a savage ravine at a height of more than 200 feet.
To the Pont Saint-Louis and back was one of the favourite walks of Rudyard Kipling, whose villa was not far from Mentone.
It is currently said that in the last few years whilst the towns and beaches between Nice and Menton have slightly declined in popularity, those in the other direction from Nice to Cannes and even further have become more and more fashionable.
Whether that is really true or not, it is certain that the younger generation prefers Juan-Les-Pins or St. Tropez to Cap-Ferrat or Monte Carlo, and that whereas the King of Sweden spends a large part of his annual stay on the eastern coast of the Riviera, King Edward VIII, when still Prince of Wales, passed two successive seasons in Cannes and Golf-Juan.
We have already referred to the fine golf course of Cagnes-sur-Mer, but even if you are not a golfer, spend at least one afternoon in this unique spot on the Riviera which the great French painter Renoir may be said to have discovered and which, since the War, has remained the favourite town of the artists and writers. Built on a hill, Haut-de-Cagnes, with its old castle of the Grimaldi, its century-old street, its terraces and overhanging gardens, its old church and its cosmopolitan society, is an island of sheer beauty, cut off from the rest of the world and from the noise of the big towns. Its charm can only be equalled, perhaps, by the most picturesque villages of Andalusia or Sicily. The view from its heights, the vivid colours, and the sudden glimpses of outline and shade at the corners of its streets, have such an attraction for painters that last year a journalist was agreeably, though justifiably, surprised to see Winston Churchill sitting opposite the Old Town Hall busily engaged in finishing a painting.
A dance in the evening, in the open air, Chez Jimmy, on the Place du Château, with a moonlit view of the Alps and of the sea, will certainly be one of the memories you will treasure up from your stay on the Riviera.
From Cagnes let us leave the Mediterranean a moment and strike inland up through Vence, where the peasants, at harvest time, will gladly give you a few of their excellent grapes to taste; through Saint-Paul to Grasse, the town of the great painter Fragonard (at all costs visit the Musée Fragonard!), the capital of the French perfume industry. You can buy on the spot a few bottles of the leading marks of perfume after seeing the flowers bought, the ingredients checked and the liquid composed before your very eyes. The various factories of Grasse, which is a town of some 20,000 inhabitants, sacrifice about 10,000 tons of flowers each year on the altar of sex-appeal! Would you have believed, dear lady, that it is the flowers of the Côte d’Azur which add that fatal touch of sorcery to your already irresistible charm?
Come with me just a few miles further inland and you can claim to have seen one of the most amazing natural spectacles in the whole of the South of France: the Gorges du Loup. Even the road is worth seeing, dug, as it is out of the rock, through the valley of the Wolf to the Wolf’s jump (Saut du Loup). Then another winding road will lead you up to Gourdin, a small village located at an altitude of nearly 3,000 feet. When the famous American millionaire Gould saw the view from this village, he was so carried away that he asked an architect how much it would cost to reproduce the same countryside, with the view over sea, valley and gorge, in California!
But we must get back to the sea. If I take you any further inland I shall soon be describing Paris to you! Just after Cagnes, there is Antibes. A very peculiar place indeed. This is nothing to do with its fort, handsome and impressive as that is; but Antibes has the unique privilege of having more cats than anywhere else in the world. And since you have no doubt come to the Riviera as a visitor, and you might find it difficult to get around with half-a-dozen cats (Antibes has thousands of them), we shall pass on hastily to Juan-Les-Pins.
I’m sure you must have had this charming beach described to you already; perhaps as the most immoral, or at any rate least respectable, of France’s post-War resorts. This may, for all I know, have been the reason which impelled you to come and see it. It is always best to check up these rumours first hand!
A little earlier I pointed out that unlike Mentone and even Nice, Juan is essentially a beach for the younger generation. You will find ten times as many less-than-thirties there than more-than-sixties. And I may add, for what the information is worth, that despite a decree of the prefect of police stuck up on all the walls, but which nobody reads, you needn’t be afraid of any gendarme coming to check up the length or weight of your swimming suit. And since the sand on the beach is soft and of excellent texture, do not fly the very innocent temptations of Juan-Les-Pins, but come and see for yourself that besides being a famous centre for all forms of water sports (for instance, water-ski), it is really no less virtuous a spot for lounging and bathing than anywhere else in Europe. At Le Provençal, one of the most up-to-date hotels on the Riviera, you can get full pension from 50 francs upwards.
Golfe-Juan, between Juan-Les-Pins and Cannes, became famous last year when the then Prince of Wales came to spend his holidays there in the magnificent Villa Le Roc.
I should need a whole chapter to tell all the stories going around concerning the last holidays of King Edward VIII, who spent most of his time either sailing about in his yacht or at Cannes, where I need hardly add he was accompanied at every step by hundreds of journalists, photographers and sightseers.
Cannes, which has been nicknamed the most silent town in the world, has always been a particularly popular resort for English society people. It has a casino, several dance-halls, a number of first-class hotels, a magnificent promenade called the Croisette, and has none of the noise or other drawbacks of a big town. That is why many people prefer it to Nice.
Its beaches are the smartest on the Riviera—the famous Palm Beach, which used to be the favourite beach of the Prince of Wales, heading the list. If the Promenade des Anglaise in Nice gives you in winter a panorama of “all Europe,” the Croisette of Cannes offers in summer an admirable selection, and none the worse for being a selection, of all those who really count in the capitals of Europe or America.
In August you’d think you were in Paris when the season is in full swing. The barman of the Malmaison of the Grand Hotel is none other than the famous ex-heavy-weight champion of the world, Georges Carpentier; big advertisements announce the arrival of Antoine, the king of hairdressers; that slim negress, with the perfect back, coming out of Miramar, is Josephine Baker, the Black Venus, and the automobile which has just drawn up in front of the Carlton belongs to Lord and Lady Mountbatten, cousins of King Edward VIII. The hotels on the Croisette are all luxurious palaces. Each of them, the Martinez, Miramar, Carlton, Majestic, Grand Hotel, have lowered their prices in the last two or three years by at least 30 or 40 per cent. In all of them you can now find rooms for 40 or 50 francs and full pension for 80 or a 100.
There are plenty of cheaper hotels too, in Cannes as well as in the suburbs or adjoining towns. For instance, you can stay at Cannet up on the heights, where you have wonderfully fresh breezes and a perfect view, or again at Super-Cannes.
Cannes is also an ideal centre for the golfer. You can get an excellent game at the Cannes Golf Club at La Napoule, or if you prefer more picturesque surroundings you can run up to Mougins, an ancient Roman village, where there is another golf course. At Mougins, after or before the game, you should climb the tower of the monastery and see from there the immense coast-line of the whole Riviera. With a good telescope you can even make out Corsica.
There is no longer any need to advertise the excellences of the Cannes tennis courts. Their reputation has already gone the round. There are myriads of them, and you have only to follow the example of the Prince of Wales, who played one day at the Cannes Lawn Tennis Club, the next at the Gallia Lawn Tennis Club and then in succession on the courts of the Hotel Metropole, Carlton and Beau Site.
Most of the clubs have international tournaments at least twice a year, and the very best French and foreign players take part in them.
Cannes shelters an immense colony of political refugees. There are former members of the Russian nobility everywhere. They take an active part in all that is going on around them, though some of them prefer to live almost exclusively among themselves. There are refugees from other countries as well. Venizelos lived in Cannes for many years (his name has even been given to one of the streets), and the other exile from Greece, King George II, was often to be seen there too. Queen Amelie of Portugal, the former Queen of Rumania, the family of the former Sultan of Turkey, and of course Alphonse XIII of Spain and his followers, are all assiduous visitors to the big hotels of the Croisette or to the magnificent villas on the outskirts of the town.
There is one visit that you absolutely must make before leaving Cannes; but only if you are a man, or unless women readers are prepared to dress up in one of their husband’s suits, tuck their hair under a wide trilby and carefully wipe the lipstick from their lips. For I am referring to the famous monastery of the Iles de Lérins, opposite Cannes, and no feminine foot is allowed to cross the threshold. Even apart from the monastery, the islands are themselves lovely places, and on leaving Saint Honorat you should also visit the Ile Sainte Marguerite to see the fort and the prison of the Iron Mask.
By now you have only a few days left, so we had better hurry away from Cannes before you lose all chance of seeing the many charming and interesting places that still remain to be seen on the French Riviera. If you leave via Bocca, perhaps you will see Maurice Chevalier at the window of his villa, with the beautiful Kay Francis and Lilian Harvey (whose own villa, I forgot to mention, is at Cap d’Antibes).
You will pass in succession La Napoule, Theoule-sur-Mer and La Trayas, three small but attractive resorts which are becoming better known and appreciated each year. Then the magnificent Riviera road, the Corniche d’Or, will carry you towards Saint Raphael and Sainte Maxime.
Saint Raphael (10,000 inhabitants) is both a winter and a summer resort, but the growing reputation of Sainte Maxime, and especially of St. Tropez, has rather put it in the shade in recent years. Sainte Maxime is a thoroughly gay and lively place, frequented more by the French than by foreigners, and gaining in popularity every year. Along with St. Tropez, which was discovered just as Villefranche and Cagnes by painters and artists owing to the incomparable quaintness and charm of its old port, Sainte Maxime is gradually becoming one of the most fashionable resorts of the French Mediterranean coast and is competing seriously with Nice and Cannes.
When you get out of your car or bus at St. Tropez Ville, on the Place du Quinzième Armée, which is such a banal square, like thousands of others in the small provincial towns, and when you set out to see the beach, after visiting some of the finest beaches in the world, you will be utterly unable to understand the ever-increasing popularity of St. Tropez. “What, you will exclaim, is this hole-in-the-wall all that some people can find to prefer to Monte Carlo or Deauville? But it’s sheer madness!” You are just making up your mind to leave immediately and never set foot in the place again, when by chance your wandering footsteps lead you through some narrow and dark street out into the old port, the port of St. Tropez.
In the twinkling of an eye, you will understand what Signac, Segonzac and other painters who discovered the place meant when they said that from the artistic point of view the port of St. Tropez is worth Cannes, Villefranche and even Marseilles all lumped together. And you will also understand why writers like Colette and Kessel admit that they have found their best inspiration in this crowd crammed with snobs and sightseers, who invade this tiny place of some 300 yards long, which constitutes the port, every year in increasing numbers. On a summer evening, especially Saturdays and Sundays, life in that short span of quay and pavement is as vibrant and intense as in any capital or seaside resort of the world.
There is something difficult to explain and difficult to convey in this semi-smart, semi-bohemian, semi-Near-East atmosphere which marks out St. Tropez from any other place. Fifteen years ago the town was totally unknown, and even to-day, in view of the lack of good hotels, it is better only to go there after first renting in advance a room or apartment either at Sainte Maxime, or at Beauvallon or again Lavandou. Beauvallon and Lavandou are as a matter of fact quite well-known little resorts themselves.
After St. Tropez, which is so very 1936, it is worth while stopping a moment, if only for the sake of the contrast, at Hyéres, the first and oldest of the Riviera resorts, which people were visiting more than a century ago before they had ever heard of St. Tropez. It is still frequented, though not as popular as it used to be.
Toulon, the biggest naval port in France and the chief town of the Var Department, must also be mentioned among the seaside resorts of the Riviera. It is a town of about 150,000 inhabitants, and its wonderful stretch of waters would make it a place of attraction even if it were an unimportant locality. The constant presence of French and foreign men-of-war gives the town a particular flavour of its own, which is strengthened by the crowds of sailors and coloured soldiers—a youthful, military and exotic flavour. But whatever you do don’t take photos anywhere near the port or soldiers’ barracks, for you may quite easily be mistaken for the spy of a foreign power!
Even Toulon does not entirely end the long list of interesting places on the Côte d’Azur. There is still a whole series of small seaside villages and beaches, and if you want to spend a really charming afternoon I should advise you to stop at Olliolues-Sanary, which has become since the arrival of Nazism in Germany the Weimar of the emigrant German writers and artists. The two Manns, Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, among others, always spend a part of their year there, and have turned this little village, which is not unlike Cagnes, almost into a smart and cosmopolitan centre. They have also brought it wealth, for, among other things, 1936 will see the opening of a casino in Sanary, the final seal setting it for ever in the rank of famous resorts of the Côte d’Azur.
Since you almost certainly came to the Riviera through Provence and Marseilles, whether you were too fast asleep to know it or not, we might as well go back to Provence by the same route and drop in for a few hours or, better still, if you have the time, for a few days at that most amazing of the Mediterranean ports, Marseilles.
Marseilles is so many things at once that I really don’t know where to begin talking about it. It has the reputation of being France’s breeding ground for gangsters, and I must admit, with all the necessary reservations and pinches of salt, that there is something in that idea. On the other hand, you mustn’t run away with the notion that when you visit Marseilles you are going to see rows and rows of drug-smugglers, white-slave traders, and international gangsters wherever you go, any more than you really expect to meet them when you visit Liverpool or the port of London.
Funnily enough, from the gangster point of view, there is a great deal of likeness between the port of Marseilles and the port of London. Both London and Marseilles are important ports for trade with the East, and they have both picked up a lot of local colour from that fact as well as plenty of undesirable people whose job it is to see that both East and West, they don’t mind which, are well supplied with narcotics. In both places you would be well advised not to wander about the dock districts at night, looking as though your pocket-book were bursting with fivers!
As a matter of fact, quite apart from gangsters, Marseilles is one of the most fascinating cities in France. It is the second biggest, with something like a million inhabitants, and is perhaps one of the most cosmopolitan spots in the world. When I say “Cosmopolitan,” I am no longer talking about “cosmopolitan society,” in the sense I used it when describing Nice or Cannes, but about a real mixture of men of all races and nationalities, bargaining, arguing, chattering, gesticulating, and sweating away at the innumerable jobs of work connected with the trade of the world. The port is particularly interesting from this point of view, and perhaps the sun and blue sky and the bubbling temperament of the Marseilles people themselves adds some peculiar flavour to the port of Marseilles which is shared by hardly any other port in the world.
The people of Marseilles are notorious throughout France for being incorrigible chatterboxes with a real genius for doing nothing busily and doing it gracefully. They are essentially southern and Latin. Constant contact with foreigners—not foreign tourists but the real traveller who spends his life selling and buying in obscure corners of the world—has given them a real taste for adventure. This taste for adventure sometimes takes the form of action, and when it does no one can beat a man from Marseilles for boldness and quick decision, but it usually breaks out in their imagination only and colours their whole mentality and talk with something fantastic and exotic.
I suppose that is the real psychological origin of those wonderful “histoires marseillaises” which keep the whole of France going in side-shaking laughter from one end of the year to the other. They usually turn round the fantastic adventures of Marius and his wife or partner Olive, and naturally enough a good 50 per cent. of them are only just fit for the smoking-room. They remind me sometimes of the stories told in Ireland, which are so utterly different from the English “jokes.” In England, the snappier the joke the better; the Englishman wants to get the “point,” as he calls it. The Irish and the Marseillais see things quite differently; for them, the story is just a background for the embroidery, and each time you hear one of their stories you will find some new detail added, some excruciatingly funny incident, which has only the vaguest connection with the real “point.”
As you will see, I am quite purposely not telling you where to go in Marseilles and what to see. It isn’t that kind of town. There are things to see, but you have only to ask your hotel porter and he will give you all the information you want. No! For me, Marseilles is essentially a town to wander in and get lost in and to discover for yourself. If you have any feeling for towns and people at all, you will spend some of the most exciting days and hours of your life strolling through the streets or by the Old Port (why not the new port for that matter?) or dropping in to small bars and striking up conversations with the first person whose face appeals to you.
There is just one piece of information I must give you—concerning that most important question of food! Marseilles, and particularly the restaurants of the Old Port and of the Cannebière in the heart of Marseilles, is famous for its Bouillabaisse, and don’t forget it. If you have never had it in your life, have it in Marseilles first. If you have already had it elsewhere, have it again in Marseilles: it will taste quite different.
Going from Marseilles, the most natural place in Provence to stop at first is Avignon. I won’t for a moment disguise the fact that I am entering here on ground which is sacred to me in more than one sense. To me Avignon, and then Arles and the other Provençal towns, are the most wonderful places in France. I am not asking you to share this impression with me. I know how personal these matters are. But I warn you that if you don’t visit Provence, and especially Avignon and Arles, then you will always be to me, however much you go to other places, the man who has never been to France!
Arrange your trip so as to reach Avignon in the evening. Then, when you have taken your room and put your suitcase in it and had a wash, go out and wander round in the only main street until you find a restaurant which suits your purse and looks attractive to you, and have dinner with a bottle of Château-Neuf-du-Pape. That wine must be your first introduction to Avignon. It is a rich mellow wine, not as heavy on the liver as most Burgundies are (in fact it isn’t a Burgundy, though many wine lists will insist on putting it with the Burgundies!), and it will put you in just the right mood for taking your first glimpse of Avignon. When you’ve had that wine you’ll probably want to take a day off to see Château-Neuf-du-Pape itself where it is grown, and I would be the last person to dissuade you from that pious pilgrimage.
When you have your pipe or cigar, or even cigarette, comfortably lighted, take a stroll—you won’t want to do anything else—along the outer boulevards and let the feeling of those lovely fourteenth-century ramparts all round the town sink into you. There will probably be a moon, and those corrugated massive walls will gleam softly at you and give you peace of mind and soul!
Sit there in a café, any café at all, and have a coffee or liqueur and think a bit of the people who made those walls and who knew so well how to combine sheer beauty of line with the practical and ruthless purposes of war. That is just one thought that may come to you; there will be plenty more.
Then, if you have time, stroll back gently into the town and up to the Palace of the Popes. You will see it again by daylight, but the night-time impression of those massive perpendicular walls in the utter silence of that part of the town is something worth having and something you will never forget. The only impression I know to equal it is to walk round the whole of the outside of Chartres Cathedral in the pitch dark and feel its big body kneeling beside you.
In the day-time, your first visit must be to the Palace of the Popes again. Avignon is the Palace of the Popes. You will get again that impression of grimness and terrific power that you had in the evening, but now you will be able to see the wonderful beauty of those severe unrelieved lines and the amazing play of clear-cut blocks of light and shade which their very severity creates. When I was there last the guide was a fascinating person. A real Provençal with walrus moustaches, who told his tale with thoroughness and humour, and every now and then burst into a snatch of Provençal song to ring the echoes of those vast halls. Perhaps he is still there. For your sake I hope he is. He will, of course, try to hurry you too much, but que voulez-vous? He has to earn his bread like the rest of us.
The Palace of the Popes contains some amazing early medieval mural paintings, attributed—one of them at any rate, if I remember rightly—to one of the medieval workmen who built the Palace.
When you have finished with the Palace of the Popes, if you can, there is much else to see in Avignon. For one thing, there is the lovely Romanesque cathedral of the thirteenth century, with the gilded statue of the Virgin on the western tower. The view from the tower is worth seeing too, if you can face the rather rickety climb.
Avignon has the advantage, too, of offering you many lovely things to look at in the open air. The walk to Villeneuve-Lès-Avignon is particularly fascinating. Just above the long and rather giddy bridge which will take you across the Rhône, there is the old twelfth-century bridge of Saint Bénézet, only half of which remains, but the ruins flung out into midstream have lost none of their grandeur or beauty. A very small Romanesque chapel is still standing on one of the pillars. Then you are in the country and will slowly climb up the dusty road of Villeneuve and sit down on the grass beside the ruined castle of Saint André, with its round, wonderfully preserved and amazingly powerful-looking turrets. You will enjoy sitting there, and will be almost sorry to have to take the road back again into the town.
If you like walking, it is worth your while walking to Orange from Avignon. The country is lovely and the silence after the bustle and noise of a Provençal town is just what is wanted to enable your impressions to get sorted out before new ones come piling on to them.
Orange was a favourite town of Shelley’s and you will see why immediately. Anyone so soaked as he was in classical art is bound to find it irresistible. It is not often one gets the chance of seeing a Roman theatre in really good preservation, and that is one of Orange’s chief attractions. In fact, plays are still given in the old open-air theatre, and if you can arrange to be there when there is a play on, I need hardly say, don’t miss it.
The Triumphal Arch of Tiberius is there too, and one of the very finest of its kind. Despite yourself, you’ll probably be reminded of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and if you’re not careful, you may even find yourself saying: “What a tiny little thing, compared with …!” If you do feel that temptation come over you, remember that Queen Victoria herself, the first time she saw the Triumphal Arch of Orange, exclaimed: “As soon as I get to Paris, I shall go to the Invalides and tell Napoleon that the Triumphal Arch in Orange is infinitely grander than the one he put up in Paris!” She was right, and I’m sure you’ll agree with her, if you really use your eyes.
Avignon is the town I admire most in Provence. Arles is the town I love most.
Perhaps one of the agreeable things about it to the man jaded with living in a big capital or big modern city is the fact that although it used to be one of the most important and wealthiest cities in the South of France, it has no longer any importance at all industrially and commercially. The people there just carry on in incomparable surroundings, impregnated with the history of Rome and medieval Europe, doing small jobs and being happy about it. What a relief!
Arles is another place that I am almost inclined to leave it to you to discover. It is a place to browse in, to stand and stare in. But there are so many unique things of beauty and interest, that I must mention some of them.
First and foremost, there is the old Cathedral of Saint Trophime, perhaps the finest Romanesque church in the whole of Southern France, dating in parts from the seventh century. The main portal is just a riot of lovely carving, not quite so riotous as the portals of Chartres, but reminiscent of them nevertheless. When you enter, after that first glimpse of intricate medieval carving, the contrast of the interior is like a sudden plunge into cold water. It is utterly plain. Massive pillars supporting squat, rounded arches—the whole church seems to be made up of huge slabs of rounded stone. But the beauty of that simplicity! Sit in that dim, almost grim, atmosphere a moment, and let the inspiration of it get hold of your heart. Then another abrupt contrast! Out through a side door and through a dark passage and you are suddenly confronted with one of the most graceful little cloisters in the world. Again the intricate ornament, and again the sunshine, striking brightly down on the green patch of grass in the middle. You will want to come there again and again, and repeat ad infinitum this succession of sharply contrasting lovelinesses.
Another unforgettable impression Arles will give you is of the Roman amphitheatre. I like it better myself than the one at Nîmes, though the latter is in better condition. It is a striking sight, this half-ruined arena which will seat some 25,000 spectators. The best way to visit it is to go there when it is in use, in the evening sometime, when the young men of Arles go there to have a bit of fun with the bulls. I am not asking you to a bull-fight—though there are bull-fights in Arles as well as in Nîmes—but to the swift and thrilling game the Arlesians play when they send the young bulls, or more usually young cows, into the arena with cockades between their shoulders and padded horns, and run and shout and dart around the flurried and angry animal in their efforts to pluck the cockade off and carry it away as a trophy. The arena is only semi-lighted, and the people in the arena and looking on really seem to belong intimately to those old walls and worn stone steps, as if there had never been any fall of the Roman Empire.
If you have any time to give to Arles and its surroundings, you certainly must go to Les-Baux, and I’d advise you to walk it, if you possibly can. Set out on the road from Arles to Les-Baux (about 11 miles, but the whole of the last 5 miles is fairly steep climbing) in the early morning, the earlier the better, and make your first stopping-place the Abbé de Montmajour. This weird jumble of architectural styles is perched on a hill about 2 or 3 miles outside Arles, or rather part of it is perched on the hill and the rest is at the base. At the bottom there is a lovely bare-walled Romanesque church of the tenth century, with fascinating chapels in the crypt vaguely reminiscent of the catacombs in Rome. Then just a little way up the hill lie the ruins of a twelfth-century cloister; and right on the top of the hill the remains of a Renaissance monastery knocked to pieces in the French Revolution. The whole place is overgrown with a riot of flowers and creepers and clouded with myriads of dancing butterflies. I have spent many a spring day there wandering among the ruins and sitting among the dwarf trees on the hill-top, looking out over the hazy plain stretching away to the Rhone and to the walls of Arles.
From there you will have a long stretch of flat but pleasant walking, if the sun isn’t too high, until you get near the famous windmill of Alphonse Daudet, which is still a place of literary pilgrimage. It is about there that the winding hill starts, and the country suddenly changes into savage rocky land thick with gorse, heather and thyme. A perfect place for a knapsack lunch if you can stand that overpowering perfume of the thyme.
At last Les-Baux comes into sight, seemingly hewn out of the rock of the precipitous hill on which it stands. There are a couple of hotels there where you can get good food and pleasant lodging, but I would particularly recommend the one at the farther end of the town whose dining-room looks straight out over a sheer precipice on to the Devil’s valley, which is supposed to have given Dante his inspiration for the Inferno.
Les-Baux is all remains. The population itself is just a remnant. It used to be an important town in the Middle Ages, and is still quite large from the standpoint of the number of houses and streets. But there are no more than a hundred inhabitants in all now, and hardly any of them under seventy years old. They are just the hangers-on of a past age, hoping to pick up occasional scraps from the tourists. All of them almost wear the badges of guides, and sell picture-postcards or souvenirs.
The whole of the top of the hill consists of the scattered remains of a famous château, one of the principal Provençal courts of love in the Middle Ages, where the nobles and ladies of the time performed their strange rituals of Chivalrous love. Not orgies at all, but love games, with recitals of poetry and gallant and courtly deeds and gestures, all stereotyped into the well-known bowings and scrapings of a vast minuet.
It is an amazing place though. The castle was in great part burrowed out of the side of the cliffs, and the hill is still punctured with innumerable caverns and passages which were once rooms and halls. The air is invigorating and the view for miles out over the plains of Provence unforgettable. Go there on a week-day, when you will avoid the crowds of charabancs which come snorting up to it on Saturdays and Sundays.
Quite a lot of people seem to go through life under the fixed impression that all the high mountains of Europe are in Switzerland; and that you have to go to Switzerland if you want snow and ice and winter sports. Yet the French part of the Alps is quite as high and quite as good for winter sports as anything they have in Switzerland; in fact, I add in a shameful whisper that the highest mountain in Europe, the Mont Blanc, is in France.
Another notion that people seem to be unable to get rid of is that mountains and mountain-climbing are absolute inseparables, and that anyone who goes to the Alps for any other purpose than ski-ing or bob-sleighing or climbing must be crazy. However, mountains have not only ups but also downs, and to me I have always found the valleys one of the most charming things about the mountains. This is all a very roundabout way of telling you that you can’t do better than to see, and stay in, the lovely valleys of Savoie and the Dauphiné, or spend a summer by the shore of one of the many mountain lakes in those provinces.
For instance, you should try the French side of the lake of Geneva for your summer holidays. It has the advantage of being considerably cheaper than the Swiss side and also of being a bit less fashionable. Its only drawback is that the Swiss side gets more of the sun, but you’ll only notice that in the evenings.
Evian and Thonon are the two principal French centres of the lake of Geneva. They are beautifully situated, and you can get all the boating and swimming you want from their admirably equipped shores. They are practically opposite Montreux, and if the fancy takes you, you can easily run over to Switzerland for a day by the regular boat service which makes the tour of the whole lake. Even if you don’t want to go to Switzerland it is really worth going round the lake in those small steamboats, breaking your journey for lunch at any spot on the shores you happen to find attractive. As far as Evian is concerned, I should advise you to try the Hôtel Gallia. It is a little outside the town, on the slopes, and there is a wonderful view from its windows and garden over the whole lake. I know nothing nicer than to sit on a balcony in the evening, smoking and drinking, watching the twinkling lights on the opposite shore and breathing the cool breezes off the softly shining lake.
Evian is also an admirable centre for excursions, particularly the tour by the famous route des Alpes.
Annecy is another lovely place to spend a holiday or a week in. The lake of Annecy is smaller than that of Geneva, but it gains in intimacy what it loses in size. Personally, I think it is far more beautiful than the lake of Geneva, with the mountains rearing up far closer to its shores and reflected in its immensely deep waters. The town is full of canals, and has even been rather foolishly called the Venice of Savoy; although apart from the mere existence of the canals there is not the remotest resemblance between it and Venice. It is the former capital of the Dukes of Savoy, before the princes of that house settled in Turin, then in Rome as the Kings of Italy. It is an old town, and full of delightful old streets, with covered-in sidewalks. It has a very interesting Archbishop’s palace to be visited after payment of a tip to the concierge, and a small and peculiar castle cut off from the rest of the town by two rapidly flowing canals.
If you are going there for the sake of the lake rather than of Annecy itself, I should advise you to stay at Talloires or Menthon, on the left bank looking from Annecy. Talloires is a beautiful old village, right at the bottom of a huge mountain, and has a special white wine of its own which is worth trying, though you will probably find it too bitter. There is an ancient abbey there too, half turned into a hotel, where you might as well stay. There are cheaper hotels in Talloires, but I think the Hôtel de l’Abbaye is really the most comfortable.
Aix-les-Bains in the same region is also well worth seeing. If you suffer from rheumatism, the sulphurous waters there have been famous from the very earliest time as a remedy. The town was founded by the Romans. To-day it is unquestionably the smartest of all the French watering places. It has a big English colony of regular visitors, among whom you will often see Mr. Stanley Baldwin. When you go there, don’t fail to sit down on the terrace of the Villa des Fleurs near the casino, which is the really chic place in the town. On the left you will see a little square, and on it the pastry-shop where the Aga Khan met a little sales-girl who has since become the Begum. If I were you, I should stay at the Hôtel International Rivollier, Avenue de la Gare. It is not the biggest in Aix, but is certainly one of the best. When you eat in town, try the Restaurant Belles Rives in the port. They will serve you delicious fish straight from the lake.
The Lake of Bourget is more savage than that of Annecy, but it is very beautiful in its own way. One shore is quite flat and marshy, whilst the other rises abruptly into the mountains. On the latter shore, between the sheer sides of a mountain and the dark waters of the lake stands the Abbey of Hautecombe. In its crypts lie the remains of the Dukes of Savoy, the ancestors of the present King of Italy. As a matter of fact, Hautecombe is a little piece of Italy on French territory. The religious order which founded it still lives there, and it can only be visited with permission. If you take a boat round the lake (you can hire a motor-boat in the port of Aix-les-Bains), go right up to the end of the lake, as far as the picturesque village of Chalaz, where a canal begins, linking the lake with the Rhône.
From Aix-les-Bains you can also go up to Mont Revard, another famous watering-place, situated at a height of over 6,000 feet. There is a wonderful view from there over the whole range of the Alps. A recently constructed Telepheric, amazingly planned and carried out, will take you up there in a few minutes.
Not far from Aix-les-Bains, as you go up a wide and pleasant valley, stands Chambéry, an important industrial town of 25,000 inhabitants. It is rather a dull place. There is hardly anything of interest there apart from the castle and a peculiar monument flanked by four elephants, offered to his native town in the seventeenth century by a Frenchman who had become Nahab in India.
The hotels are not up to much in Chambéry. If I were you, I should stay at Aix-les-Bains and have lunch or dinner in Chambéry at the Restaurant du Chapon Fin, Place du Palais de Justice, where you can ask for one of the local specialities, creamed chicken.
A few miles south of Chambéry opens the fertile and richly cultivated valley of the Isère, the Grésivaudan, where you will probably be surprised to hear there are quite a large number of tobacco plantations. I’ve never smoked the tobacco grown there—as far as I am aware!—and never intend to. But it is an interesting and unexpected fact. On the left there is an immense chain of granite mountains, the Belledonne, with its famous and dangerous peaks, the Megève and the Barre des Ecrins. It would be madness to try to climb them unless you are absolutely sure of yourself, and even then you should take a guide with you. Every year the Megève, the most deadly of the French mountains, claims several victims.
Before entering the Grésivaudan, if you are fond of wild landscapes and want your nature served to you unadorned and desolate, follow the Isère back up as far as St.-Pierre d’Albigny and the Arc up to St.-Michel. You will be in Maurienne, one of the most curious and isolated parts of Savoie, where the Moors from the Mediterranean came and settled down in the Middle Ages and remained for many centuries. Even now you will find there many absolutely pure Arab and Berber types. The valley, recently industrialised owing to its many waterfalls, terminates in the pass and tunnel of Fréjus and the station of Modane, on the frontier of Italy.
If the savage beauty of Maurienne does not tempt you, push on straight to Grenoble, the capital of the French Alps and an important industrial and university town. A great many foreign students come there to learn French (so they say!), especially Scandinavians, and they give the town a gay and youthful cosmopolitan atmosphere.
The Place de Verdun, where the Préfecture and the University are, is a magnificent square well worth seeing. You should also visit the cathedral and, above all, the museum. In the vast halls of this museum you will find a unique collection of modern paintings. Not even in Paris could you find so many famous modern works grouped together in one building.
The spot to meet for apéritifs in the evening is in one of the cafés of the Place Grenette or the Place St. Louis, where all the principal hotels and restaurants are to be found.
While you are in Grenoble, it is a good idea to get in a supply of gloves. It is the principal European centre for their manufacture, and the families of the glove-makers form the very reserved aristocrats of the Dauphiné.
Apart from the Hôtel des Dauphins, in the Place Grenette, there are plenty of good hotels in Grenoble, among which should be mentioned the Hôtel d’Europe and the Grand Hôtel, the former on the Place Grenette and the latter not far away in the Rue de la République.
Grenoble owes its reputation not only to its own charm, but also to the numerous excursions of which it is the centre. One of the most interesting of these is to the monastery of the Grande-Chartreuse. You can get there by autocar in a few hours. Or, if you should like to make it into a two or three days’ walk, go up the main road about ten miles and then turn off right into the woods and follow the paths right through to Saint-Pierre. It is a marvellous walk, and well worth the struggle up the mountain slopes.
The monastery is built at the foot of a big grim mountain, the Grand Som. When you see the wildness and isolation of the spot, imagine what it must have been like in 1084 when Saint-Bruno and his companions arrived on foot with no roads or paths to guide them, and built little wooden shelters for themselves out of the pine woods at the base of the mountain. At that time the woods were full of wolves. The monastery has been burnt down three or four times since it was founded in 1084, but the present buildings date back all the same to the late Middle Ages. It is sad to think that this order, one of the most fascinating in the history of Western Christendom, should have been driven out of France by the authorities in 1903. The monks took with them the secret of their wonderful Chartreuse liqueur, and now manufacture it in Spain at Tarragona.
Another excursion you should make from Grenoble is to the Vizille and its château, the property of the President of the Republic. He never sets foot in it. The château is a fine example of Renaissance building, erected between 1611 and 1620. Uriage is another interesting town near Grenoble, a very elegant watering-place situated in a neighbouring valley and overlooked by an old castle. There are all sorts of other excursions into the mountainous valleys round about to be made from Grenoble.
In winter Grenoble becomes a big winter sports centre. The most famous resort is Villard de Lans, in the mountains to the south of the town, with magnificent ski-ing slopes and bob-sleigh tracks and a large number of good hotels. Perhaps, though, you will find it more amusing, though less comfortable, to stay at the chalet hotels of the Col de Porte, on the road from Grenoble to the Grande-Chartreuse, or of the Recoin, at the foot of the Croix de Champrousse above Uriage.
My English friends have a very deplorable habit of ignoring entirely the centre of France on their visits abroad. They come to Paris for a time, and then shoot off by a night express to the Côte d’Azur or to the Alps, without giving a single thought to the magnificent country through which they are passing. Personally, when I am going south from Paris, I always travel by day. It is more tiring I know, but I can never see enough of that gradually changing landscape and climate as the train pounds its way right down through the whole of France. And there is one spot which, as I pass it, always makes me long to get out and walk. I don’t know its name, and so far the train has always been going too fast to let me accede to my impulse, but it is in Burgundy in the midst of those wonderful billowing wooded hills: a little village half hidden in a hollow. I have often walked in Burgundy, and to me it is one of the loveliest regions for walking in the world.
Even if you are not keen on walking, Burgundy is worth a visit, if only to see Dijon, the capital, and Lyons, one of the most important towns in France. For one thing, Burgundy is a place of pilgrimage—or should be—for all wine-lovers; there is no wine in the world to touch Burgundy for richness of flavour, quality and variety.
Dijon, which is a town of about 75,000 inhabitants, is the former capital of the powerful and wealthy dukes of Burgundy. It still has many beautiful monuments, witnesses of this glorious past. Besides the cathedral and the Church of Saint-Michel, you should pay a visit to the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, to the Palais de Justice and to the Museum which contains the tombs of two of the most famous Burgundian rulers, Jean the Fearless and Philip the Bold.
But the most attractive thing about Dijon is its cooking. It is one of the gastronomic centres of France, and every year the Gastronomic Fair meets there. Among the many hotels of the town, I prefer personally the Chateaubriant in the Avenue du Maréchal Foch. But you should have at least one meal—it will certainly not be the last—at the Restaurant des Trois Faisans where you will drink an incomparable Meursault. All the other wines of Burgundy can be had there too, for the villages with the glorious names of Romanée, Chambertin, Nuits-St.-Georges, Corton, Pommard, Volnay, are only a few miles away. At Dijon itself they manufacture an exquisite sort of gingerbread and the well-known Dijon mustard.
Lyons, the town with two rivers, the Rhone and the Saone, is one of the oldest towns in France. It was the capital of Roman Gaul and remains the French religious metropolis. With its 500,000 inhabitants, it is an important centre of the silk industry and derives from that fact most of its present prosperity. Despite its wealth, however, Lyons is rather a dismal town, with something mysterious about it and its river fogs. The people have a well-established reputation for unfriendliness and coldness. It is practically impossible for a visitor to get to know them, although their coldness by no means excludes serviceableness or politeness.
There is nothing much to see at Lyons in the way of monuments. However, if you are there, it is worth having a peep at the Church of Saint-Jean, the Hôtel de Ville, and the sanctuary of Notre Dame de Fourvière, which is built in rather a pretentious style on the top of a hill where the Rhone and the Saone meet. Lyons also has a very fine park, the Parc de la Tête d’Or.
Although the main streets of the town are all very busy, the centre is the Place Bellecour where most of the big hotels and cafés are.
Lyons too is famous for its cooking, and contains perhaps the most celebrated restaurant in France, that of Mère Fillioux, 73 Rue Duquesne. Perhaps you are thinking that in that case it must be too expensive for words. Not at all! You can lunch or dine chez Mère Fillioux for between 25 and 40 francs. The menu is always the same: Saucisson, Poularde, quenelles, fonds d’artichauts, with foie gras, vanilla ice covered with a raspberry cream. It is a wonderful meal, and worth eating more than once.
They say that on holidays in Lyons you will find no one in the streets; they are all at home spending the day eating!
The valley of the Loire has often been called the garden of France, and it is eminently worthy of its name. In this lovely garden, with its rich soil, graceful vines, breezy forests, watered by a beautiful river running between the gentle slopes of green hills, the kings of France of the Renaissance period built a whole series of famous castles, almost all perfect of their type.
The whole way along the Loire from Orleans to Angers, there is not a village in the region, whether it be in the district of Tours, Blois or Anjou, which is not a centre of lovely walks and of good food and drink, for we are now in one of the richest parts of France, not only from the economic standpoint, but also from that of cooking. The climate is mild—if anything you will find it just a bit too rainy. The inhabitants are the most friendly in France, and it is in Blois and its surroundings that the best French is supposed to be spoken, so much so that the labourers, it is said, talk like academicians.
The Loire is both the political and the geographical centre of France. A few hours from Paris by train or by road, it is particularly convenient for a rapid visit, since you can see everything there is to see in a few days. All you need to do is to follow the course of the Loire, along which all the towns are located, and from there make excursions out to the places of interest.
You reach the Loire at Orleans, a town celebrated for its delivery from the English by Joan of Arc, after crossing the vast, rather monotonous plain of La Bauce with its rich fields of wheat stretching away out of sight for hundreds of miles. On the outskirts of the town you pass through a district all split up into hundreds of nursery-gardens, for Orleans is one of the best known spots in France for flowers and plants of every kind. The town has about 70,000 inhabitants, and despite recent improvements is a bit cold and grim. The people of Orleans seem to have caught their character from the town, and are rather mistrustful and difficult to get on with. There is very little to see in the town apart from the Cathedral Sainte Croix with its statue of the Maid. But it is worth visiting on May 8th each year, when the raising of the siege by Joan is celebrated in the town by festivals and historical processions which are distinctly out of the ordinary run. You can, of course, go to see the famous vinegar works, Orleans being one of the chief producing centres in the world. The town has some good hotels, particularly the Hôtel Terminus near the station. As for restaurants, I should recommend the Hôtel Saint Aignan on the Place Gambetta.
From Orleans it is worth motoring or walking, if you have the time, to Blois by the lovely road which follows the banks of the Loire. Immediately you come into the town, you will be struck by the big castle and its graceful François I front. The château was built originally in the twelfth century and was changed a good deal between then and the fifteenth century, without in any way taking away from its beauty. That is one of the things which has struck me on my visits to England. In England medieval architecture seems to come to an abrupt stop round about the thirteenth or fourteenth century. In France the art was carried on and developed to a much later period. The Loire châteaux are particularly wonderful examples of this, and I think they will certainly strike you as unlike anything you have been accustomed to associate in England with the word “castle.” Inside the Château of Blois you will see the room where the Duc de Guise, head of the Catholic party, was assassinated at the order of King Henry III of France during the wars of religion. The town is full of twisting and precipitous streets with quaint old houses.
Have a meal at the Restaurant François Premier near the château. They will serve you food such as the guests of the château must have eaten, particularly the Pheasant and Lark Pâtés washed down with Anjou wines, and as dessert a local sweetmeat of almonds, called “délices.” Alongside there is an excellent hotel, the Hôtel de France, where the cooking is also first class.
From Blois go on up the right bank of the Loire as far as Vendôme across the green countryside so often sung by Ronsard. In Vendôme there is the most beautiful church in the region, the church of the Trinité, and a château with impressive underground passages and chambers. On the left bank, as you go up the valley of Cosson, you will find the Chateau of Chambord, perhaps the most famous of all the Loire châteaux. Built by François Premier on the edge of a lake, the bell-towers and the massive towers underneath them are reflected in the still water. You can imagine the nobles having a feast up in the château, and then the peasants working all night thrashing the waters to keep the frogs quiet.
The road stays on the left bank after leaving Blois and passes through Amboise. On the bank there stands another château famous, or rather infamous, for the bloodthirsty executions which took place in it during the wars of religion. In the small town at the foot of the château there is a much appreciated restaurant, where you can get the specialities of the country at very moderate prices: rillons en cassoulette, matelote des tonneliers, geline de Touraine, etc. The best place to taste the Vouvray wine is a few miles farther on, where it is grown, on the right bank of the Loire, just before reaching Tours.
Only the north section of this town of nearly 80,000 inhabitants has kept its medieval atmosphere. The old houses are grouped around the Cathedral Saint-Gratien and the Basilique Saint-Martin, a place of refuge in the Middle Ages and one of the oldest sanctuaries in France. It contains the relics of the evangeliser of the Gauls. At the Grand Hotel near the station you will be extremely comfortable and will be served excellent food. Don’t forget to ask for the “Rillettes,” which are one of the specialities of the town.
Going up the valley of the Cher from Tours you should drop in at Chenonceau, which is only about 20 miles away. The château there was owned by the celebrated favourite of François Premier, Diane de Poitiers, and is hardly inferior to that of Chambord in beauty. As you go down the Loire valley still farther, you will come across a small old town named Langeais, with a château dating back to 1464. It is still absolutely intact, and from its towers you can get a lovely view over the whole valley. Opposite, on the other bank, there is another town with another château, Azay le Rideau, the château standing out white against the mass of green vegetation behind it. A noteworthy fact about this château is that it is built on a system of pile-work. Motor-buses will take you there from Tours.
Still keeping to the left bank of the Loire, you will arrive in Chinon, where, as you will remember from Bernard Shaw’s play, if from nothing else, Joan of Arc convinced the Dauphin of her mission. Unfortunately, the château there is in ruins. At Chinon there is a wonderful red wine, which you can get nowhere else, and some excellent special dishes. To drink the wine and eat the dishes, I should advise you to go to the Hôtel de France, at the foot of the château.
Saumur, which is the next town down the Loire Valley, is a small place of some 16,000 inhabitants, chiefly famous for its delicious wines. Its only claim to social distinction is the existence of a well-known cavalry school. In the Rue Montcel there is an admirably conserved fifteenth-century house. You will also find the Church of Saint-Pierre of the twelfth century worth a visit or two, and the château is mainly interesting as typical of the transition between the military architecture of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance style. The best hotel in the region is the Roi René, on the island between the two forks of the Loire.
Finally, bordering on Brittany and outside the valley of the Loire properly so called, there is Angers, a big and beautiful old town of 86,000 inhabitants. Like Saumur, it has kept its old quarters intact amid the houses of the new town, under the protection of its château and cathedral.
Among the many interesting things to see in Angers, handed down from the days when it was the capital of the Dukes of Anjou, who subsequently became the kings of England, there is the Tour Saint Aubi, which was once the keep of a Benedictine abbey now occupied by the Préfecture. You should also look at the Tour de Villebon, dating from the ninth century, the Gothic cathedral of Saint-Maurice, and the château built in the time of Saint Louis, and which is one of the finest medieval fortresses in France. Finally, there is an interesting museum devoted to the works of the sculptor, David of Angers. For good food and wine and comfortable lodging, I heartily recommend the Hôtel du Cheval Blanc near the cathedral.
As soon as the spring really begins to set in and Paris leaves me a few days of freedom, lovely as the city itself is in that season, I like to slip away to some quiet spot in the countryside of Normandy.
Normandy, “la Verte Normandie,” is truly one of the most charming of all the French provinces. With its green meadows, clusters of trees and wooded hills and valleys, it has something of the same attraction as the typical countrysides of England and conjures up here and there inevitable memories of Sussex, Hampshire and even in certain spots of Somerset and Devon. The analogy must not, of course, be carried too far. Normandy is no mere replica of some other country. It is utterly itself and utterly French. But I have found that my English friends are more at home there and need less effort to adjust themselves to their new surroundings than practically anywhere else in France.
It is a province particularly rich, too, in works of art, and you will find some lovely or curious building in every little village and corner of its countryside, a silent witness to its long and deeply eventful past.
For me, of course, who live and work in Paris, it has another and by no means negligible attraction, and that is its closeness to the capital. It is practically at the gates of Paris with modern means of transport, and in less than an hour by train or bus you are already among its fields and woods. The same advantage holds good for the Englishman as well; he has only to cross the Channel to Dieppe and there he is!
The whole of Normandy turns on the Seine as its axis, and with its wide extent of coast-line on the Channel it is the natural gateway to France, magnificently decorated and embellished by the genius of its inhabitants.
It was from the coast of Normandy that Julius Caesar set out to conquer Britain. It was up the Seine that the Norsemen penetrated to the heart of France in the Middle Ages. And it was on the banks of the Seine that they finally settled down, tired of their distant raids, and gave their name to the country.
Nowadays it is possible to trace with almost complete accuracy which parts of Normandy were chosen for settlement by each of the Viking nations, the Danes and the Norwegians (or, if you will, Norsemen). Thus the Norwegian emigrants preferred Upper Normandy and the right bank of the Seine, whilst the Danes fixed on Lower Normandy on the left bank as well as on the peninsula of Cotentin up as far as Couesnon, which is the frontier of Brittany.
In Upper Normandy, a region relatively drier, more split up into compartments, crossed with forests and moderately high and fertile plains, certain characteristics inherited from the ancient Norsemen still remain. For instance, the farms are usually some way back from the roads and are composed of several separate buildings.
In Lower Normandy, on the other hand, where Danish elements are predominant, the farm buildings are all adjoining and grouped round a square court, giving directly on to the road.
The same differences can be seen in the character of the inhabitants. The Upper Norman is essentially adventurous, full of imagination, at times even fantastically so, whereas the Low Norman is more down to earth, methodical and cold. It was from Upper Normandy that William the Conqueror set out, as well as the bold navigators and explorers who later on discovered the Canaries, the islands of the West Indies and Canada. But once these lands had been discovered, it was the Low Normans who peopled and exploited them.
It is the Low Normans, too, who deserve most the reputation, which all the Normans enjoy indiscriminately in France, of being hair-splitters and makers of eternal law-suits.
A particular term is used in French to describe the special characteristics of the Norman countryside: “bocage,” which might almost be translated “grove-land” or, with greater banality, “woodland.” On its rich and sea-dampened soil, crossed by innumerable streams, a luxuriant vegetation has sprung up, and at every hand you will see pasture lands thickly covered with the greenest of green grass with their browsing herds of cattle or horses. The fields are all surrounded by close hedges separating them from the roads and from each other, and are crisscrossed with innumerable apple-trees. The cider and meat from Normandy are both famous.
As I have already said, it is above all in springtime that Normandy attracts me away even from the flowers and trees of Paris, when I can take my fill of the white hawthorn in the hedges and when all the apple-trees are in full bloom.
The Norman coast is in some ways a separate region, communicating, with the inland countryside by narrow valleys at right angles to the sea. The coast-line is nearly 400 miles long, and is shaped like a widely-opened crescent with the mouth of the Seine in the centre. On either side of the Seine, and particularly to the left looking seawards, there are a number of lovely and famous beaches with very fine sand: Deauville, Trouville, Cabourg, etc., while as you get nearer the two points of the crescent the coast-line becomes more and more precipitous.
In the North-east there are the enormous chalk cliffs of Etretat, Fécamp and St. Valéry en Caux, something like those of Dover, moulded into natural pillars and arches by the sea. In the region of Cotentin, on the other hand, the coast is covered with immense granite rocks.
Finally, to the West, on the frontier of Brittany, a row of hills cut by narrow gorges where rivers rush down in rapids and falls has earned for this region the name of “Swiss Normandy.”
Rouen is the capital of Normandy, and I cannot impress on you too earnestly the absolute necessity of seeing it, even if you have to leave out the rest of Normandy to do so. It is a big town, built almost entirely on the slopes running up from the right bank of the Seine, and it positively bristles with spires and towers. It is not very far from Paris. About 90 miles of a very pleasant journey along the winding valley of the Seine. Through trains from the Gare St. Lazare in Paris get you there in a little under two hours.
On the way, as you pass Les Andelys, you will see on a promontory the towering ruins of Gaillard Castle, an immense fortress with three successive circles of wall each more than 15 feet thick. It was built in 1196 by Richard the Lion Heart.
Rouen, which is also an important commercial and industrial city of 120,000 inhabitants, has preserved from its past history as capital of Normandy a perfect welter of monuments of the Middle Ages, and it is this which has given it the name of “La cité gothique,” or “La ville musée.” Luckily for you, and I may add for myself too, practically all these monuments of the past are grouped together in quite a small area, as in most old towns.
There is first of all the Cathedral, pure Flamboyant Gothic in style, begun in 1202 and only finished in the sixteenth century, with its spire 512 feet high and its two towers, one of which carries a bell weighing approximately 20 tons. It contains the tomb of Rollo, the first Scandinavian chief of the Normans. Alongside is the Archbishop’s Palace and the Church of St. Maclou, both of which are remarkable specimens of later Gothic architecture.
The street opposite the Cathedral’s main entrance leads to the Clock Tower, which contains the oldest iron clock in the world, dating from 1389. A little farther along, on the left, you will find the Palais de Justice. I can still remember how surprised I was, the first time I saw it, at the perfection of the style. I used to think that Gothic architecture was almost entirely religious, and that the civil specimens of it were bound to be much inferior to the cathedrals and churches.
Going up the Rue Jeanne d’Arc, which is one of the main streets of the town, you will come across the Musée des Beaux Arts, sheltered discreetly behind the trees of the Square Solferino.
This important museum contains a very fine collection of ancient and modern paintings. In particular, you can see there some beautiful specimens of the work of the best painters of the Romantic period, Géricault and Ingres, as well as a whole series of drawings of the French School of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But it is on the first floor that you will find the most fascinating collection in the museum: a set of pottery unique in the whole of Europe. In particular, I shall never forget my first delight at the old Rouen pottery, with its warm shades of colour and that wonderful tone of red, characterised by the exclusively floral inspiration of the decoration.
Leaving the museum by the Rue Thiers, which runs into the Rue Jeanne d’Arc on the left, you will come into the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, and behind the statue of Napoleon, cast from the bronze of the cannons captured at Austerlitz, you will see the Town Hall of the old Norman City. The building was formerly an Abbey; the Abbey church, consecrated to St. Ouen, is on the right. It dates from 1318 and is considered to be typical of the pointed Gothic style at its very best.
The whole of Rouen is impregnated with the grand and poignant memory of Joan of Arc. Personally, I can never go there without making a pilgrimage in heart to the places where she passed the last days of her life.
All the vestiges of the life and death of Joan are centred round the street which bears her name and which crosses the old town from end to end, running from the river up to the Boulevard de la Marne near the “Rive-droite” station. Starting down the street from this boulevard and taking the first turning on the left, you will find the Tour Jeanne d’Arc, the remains of the ancient castle where Joan was tried by the ecclesiastical court. There is a small museum there devoted to souvenirs of the Maid. A little farther down the Rue Jeanne d’Arc, at No. 102, there is a courtyard where you are shown the foundations of the tower in which she was imprisoned, and whence they took her on May 30th, 1431, to lead her to the stake on the “Place du Vieux Marché. You reach this Place by turning to the right down the Rue Rollin opposite the Palais de Justice. A mosaic has been placed in the pavement to mark the exact spot where the stake stood, just in front of a small pavilion set up in 1931 in the style of the fifteenth century to commemorate the fifth centenary of her death.
When you have seen these witnesses to her trial and burning, go down the Rue Jeanne d’Arc as far as the river and there you will find the Boiëldieu bridge from which Joan’s ashes were flung into the Seine. Every year on May 30th, the day on which the people of Rouen solemnly celebrate Joan’s memory, a bouquet of roses is cast into the Seine from the same bridge.
The Cours Boiëldieu is the centre of Rouen’s social life. It is a short promenade planted with trees on the right just before you come to the bridge. When you have tired yourself out looking at the old town, and I can assure you you’ll feel the strain climbing up and down the narrow precipitous streets, sit down for a drink at one of the many cafés on the Cours Boiëldieu. I can strongly recommend the Café Victor, the really “chic” café of Rouen. The best hotels are around there too, such as the Hôtel d’Angleterre and the Hôtel de France.
Visitors who want to be particularly comfortable should try the Hôtel de la Poste, in the Rue Jeanne d’Arc, with its 150 rooms and bathrooms. But there are plenty of other good and moderate-priced hotels in Rouen. You can get any information you want in this connection at the Syndicat d’Initiative, 8 Place des Arts.
As for restaurants, they are legion, and it is hard to go wrong in Rouen, which is famous throughout France for its cooking. But if you are particularly anxious to taste the special dishes of Rouen—Sole Normande, Canard à la Rouennaise, Gélée de Pommes—washed down with excellent old cider, try the Restaurant de la Couronne at the hotel of the same name on the Place du Vieux Marché.
If you are looking for something less elaborate, a light lunch for instance, go to any of the “Brasseries de Cidre,” where they will serve you, in more or less genuine medieval surroundings, first-rate sparkling cider accompanied by all the famous Norman cheeses: Camembert, Pont-L’Evêque and “fromage à la crème.”
Before leaving Rouen you must have a glimpse of the town as a whole. About 2 miles to the south-east of the town there is a hill called the “Bon Secours,” standing about 500 feet above the Seine, from which you can get a wonderful view of the old medieval city. A tram and then a funicular railway (Line Mesnil-Esnard) will take you there in a few minutes. It stops at the Pont Corneille, the first bridge down-stream from the Pont Boiëldieu.
Rouen is the best possible centre for excursions in Normandy, whether you want to go by rail or by car, but there is one excursion you absolutely must make, and that is down the Seine to the port of Le Havre.
In a straight line from Rouen to Havre, the distance is not more than 50 miles. But by the Seine, which curves in and out continually, it is more like 80. The small Seine steamers do the trip in six hours.
There is nothing boring about this six hours’ journey down the Seine in a small steamer. The country is beautiful, and at every instant some fascinating or historically interesting site comes into view one side or other of the river.
The steamers, too, are very comfortable and you can get something to eat and drink at the buffet on board. They run from June 1st to October 1st, departure times varying with the tide. To reserve places you have to apply at the Quai du Havre at Rouen, not far from the Cours Boiëldieu. The steamers call constantly at riverside places along the way and the tickets allow you to break the journey if you want to. The landing place is at the Pont Boiëldieu.
Within the first mile the steamer calls at Croisset on the right bank, and you should visit there the house where the great Norman novelist Flaubert died. Farther on, short stops, still on the right bank, will enable you to give a rapid glance at Dieppedalle, Biessard and the Val de la Haye, where a column has been erected to commemorate the transfer of Napoleon’s ashes from St. Helena; Sahurs, too, with its strange church.
On the other bank you can get a glimpse of the square towers of the castle of Robert le Diable, that ferocious ancestor of William the Conqueror. This bank, with its steep white cliffs pierced in places by deep grottoes, has practically no landing places, except at La Bouille, a picturesque village at the foot of chalk cliffs more than 300 feet high. The Seine then pass through a forest region without any interest other than its natural beauty.
About 20 miles or so from Rouen the steamer comes to Saint Martin de Boscherville on the right bank, the ruins of the first of the famous Norman abbeys which are scattered along the whole of the lower course of the Seine as you approach the sea. It dates back to the time of William the Conqueror, and its chapter-house is one of the earliest specimens of pointed Gothic. Ten miles farther down, after the steamer has passed the second of the big bends in the Seine after Rouen, the ruins of another abbey come into view on the right bank: the Abbey of Jumiéges, founded in the sixth century. The remains of this Abbey are considerable, and the Abbey church, the towers, the cloister, chapter-house and guest-house offer a kind of retrospective survey of Norman architecture from the eleventh to the fifteenth century.
About half-way the steamer reaches Caudebec-en-Caux, which overlooks the last segment of the Seine before it opens out into the estuary. Already you can feel the sea-breeze; in fact, it is at Caudebec that a huge tidal wave more than 6 feet high sweeps the whole 200-yard width of the river, at the rate of 30 feet a second, at the time of the equinoctial tides.
You should get off at Caudebec and have a look at the old houses in the Rue de la Boucherie as well as at the church. The front of the church and its towers, over 170 feet high, are masterpieces of the Flamboyant Gothic style which has been carried to so high a degree of perfection in Normandy.
A few miles down the river there is the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Wandrille, whose vaulted refectory, more than a 100 feet in length, built in the thirteenth century, is a famous piece of architecture well worth seeing.
Then you come to Villequier, known chiefly owing to Victor Hugo’s poem on the death of his daughter, who was drowned there in 1843.
The estuary of the Seine begins at Quillebœuf. The river here is full of sandbanks, between which the steamer has to pick its way carefully. The barges prefer to reach Havre by the canal which begins opposite Quillebœuf at Tancarville.
On the spur overlooking the town stands a forbidding-looking castle with squat towers of between 40 and 60 feet in height. From then onwards, the estuary gradually widens out until it is finally more than 6 miles wide.
Soon the high buildings of the transatlantic port of Havre begin to show themselves on the right, and the steamer finally accosts at the Southampton Quay after crossing the whole of the outer port protected by its two immense stone breakwaters.
Le Havre is a big modern city of 150,000 inhabitants, and is the first tidal port ever built. It was constructed in the reign of François I, its founder, during the first half of the sixteenth century.
If you are interested in people you will certainly be interested in Le Havre. Any seaport is fascinating to a student of human nature, and Le Havre is no exception. It is an almost entirely modern town and a very busy transatlantic port, and it contains nothing of historical interest except the Hôtel de la Marine on the Place de l’Arsenel, not far from where the Rouen boats stop, which has a Louis XIV façade richly decorated in maritime motifs. Around about the Place de l’Arsenel you will see a certain number of interesting old houses and some sailors’ cabarets full of life and movement.
If you are anything like me, you will want to see the whole port thoroughly and at your leisure. But the best way of getting a first general impression is either to take a motor-boat at the Place Gambetta, where they are on hire, and go through the twelve immense docks on water, or else to get on the tramway No. 3 which runs alongside the docks as far as the Eure dock on the other side of the port. There, near the gigantic modern transatlantic railway station, you will be able to visit the Normandie if you have the luck to be there during one of its calls at the port.
As far as hotels go, if you are thinking of staying in Le Havre any length of time, there are plenty of them and of every degree of comfort and price, just as in any other big port. The most famous is perhaps the Frascati on the port, I Rue Duperrey. And for eating you couldn’t do better than try the Filet de Sole, 108 Rue de Paris, where besides serving an excellent version of the dish to which the restaurant owes its name, they will give a succulent “Poulet à la Havraise.” I can’t describe the dish exactly, as I am not sufficiently well versed in the art of cooking, but if you like chicken you will certainly like the Havre way of doing it.
For those who have a particular passion for fish I should recommend La Petite Tonne, a small sailors’ restaurant, 28 Rue de Paris. I suppose they just have to cook fish well, as otherwise I cannot imagine a sailor going there to eat it.
An extremely hilly road leads out of Havre and takes you the whole way along the coast as far as Tréport. You are not bound to take it, of course, but if you are not in a hurry, it would be a pity to miss it, as it is an exceptionally lovely coast road.
Your first stopping place would be at Etretat, which is a well-known holiday resort, famous for its cliffs pierced by immense natural archways. Although living is far from cheap in Etretat, you can get a really good meal at a moderate enough price at the Rôtisserie of the Golf Hotel.
After Etretat, you will come into Fécamp. This little town has a fascinating old museum and a lovely church, the church of the Trinité, which is one of the earliest examples of Norman Gothic. If you want a drink, or to stay for dinner, try the Hôtel du Grand Cerf at the entrance of the town.
Fécamp is followed by a whole series of small ports and well-known beaches: St.-Valery-en-Caux, Les Petites Dalles, Veules, etc., all of them hidden among the trees in the dip behind the cliffs.
Lastly, there is Dieppe, which is the first place a large number of English visitors see and far more worth seeing than most of them imagine. It is a relatively big town of some 25,000 inhabitants, a busy industrial centre, fishing port and bathing resort. In summer, of course, it is rather crowded for those who like quiet and the absence of their fellows, as it is the nearest beach to Paris and one of the nearest French beaches to England. But for all that, it has all the delightful characteristics of a fishing village, a seaport and a fashionable resort rolled into one, though I wouldn’t lay too much accent on the “fashionable”!
Dieppe has some lovely buildings too (how few are the French towns which have not!). There is its thirteenth-century church of Saint-Jacques, its early sixteenth-century church of St.-Remi, which marks the passage from the Gothic to the Renaissance style, and then the castle dominating the whole town from the top of the cliff. About 4 miles away there is another castle, the Château d’Arques, which will remind you of the battle fought by King Henry IV at the end of the Wars of Religion. It was built by the uncle of William the Conqueror. Among the many good hotels in Dieppe I would recommend especially the Royal down on the seashore or the Hôtel des Arcades, which is famous for its fish.
Le Tréport, about 12 miles along the coast, is another very popular resort, and you will see there a very peculiar-looking Hôtel de Ville built in mosaic and another church of Saint-Jacques, this time in the Flamboyant Gothic style.
All the way from the mouth of the Seine to the mouth of the Orne extends an immense plain of sand, a perfect contrast in yellow to the green fields of Normandy behind it. This is the celebrated Norman coast with Trouville and Deauville as its social and popular centres. They have somewhat lost their popularity and renown in recent years, but there are still plenty of people who go there in summer and for week-ends.
Honfleur, opposite le Havre, on the other side of the Seine estuary, is a typical Norman port with picturesque docks and a lovely old church. The peculiar thing about this church, the Church of Sainte-Catherine, is that it is entirely built in wood, and yet is one of the purest examples of Flamboyant Gothic. The Hôtel du Cheval Blanc is a good hotel to stay at, but personally I prefer the Hôtel St.-Siméon, on the Trouville road crossing the beautiful forest of Touques.
Trouville-Deauville, which are only kept apart by the small river La Touques, form for all practical purposes a single vast resort, with everything anyone could possibly wish for a holiday. There are luxurious hotels by the hundred, cafés everywhere, two casinos, magnificent sports grounds, and a hippodrome. Deauville is the smarter of the two, especially along the Boulevard Eugène Cornuché and the famous wooden promenade behind the immense beach. If you want cheaper hotels, I should go to the Hôtel de France in Trouville, 34 Quai de Joinville, or the Hôtel Jouvence in Deauville, 121 Avenue de la République; you could take your meals in the same avenue at the Restaurant Moulin à Vent.
Lisieux, the holy city of Normandy, is at a convenient distance from Deauville, and even if you do not happen to be interested in Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus herself, and in the many souvenirs of her life, with which Lisieux is crammed, you will find it a charming old town. It has a beautiful cathedral and old church, and there is a simplicity about the people that you will certainly find attractive.
The whole length of the coast from Deauville onwards is one huge seaside resort frequented mainly by the French upper classes: Villers sur Mer, where the Greenwich Meridian passes, Houlgate and Cabourg. The latter is just nothing but a seaside resort. It was built for that purpose along a magnificent stretch of sand and all its streets point invitingly to the casino.
Caen is the second most important town in Normandy. It is a busy metallurgical and commercial centre with some 55,000 inhabitants, but is at the same time a famous university town. It has even been nicknamed the “Norman Athens.”
In the centre of the town stands the Church of Saint-Pierre. The two other principal monuments of interest are the Abbaye aux Dames (Ladies’ Abbey) and the Abbeye aux Hommes (Men’s Abbey), built by William the Conqueror and Queen Mathilda, each at opposite ends of the town, to expiate the sin they committed in marrying despite their relationship. Both are lovely examples of Romanesque architecture at its very best.
Caen has plenty of good hotels. You cannot do better, as a matter of fact, than to stay at the Hôtel Terminus opposite the station, or if you prefer something rather less pretentious and cheaper, go to the Hôtel Malsherbes on the Place du Maréchal Foch, where they make a wonderful dish of the famous “Tripes à la mode de Caen.” Even if you have never been able to bear the thought of tripe, once you have eaten it there you’ll change your mind.
Bayeux, a small provincial town to the west of Caen, has a cathedral which is considered to be a really marvellous example of medieval architecture. The portal is sculptured with figures representing the life of the English saint, Thomas à Becket. In the neighbouring bishop’s palace, a tip to the concierge will give you the unique privilege of seeing the famous tapestry of Queen Mathilda, usually referred to as the Bayeux tapestry, which consists of fifty-two scenes embroidered on a cloth of over 200 feet long, representing the conquest of England by the Normans. If you look very carefully, but don’t do it when you’re with a party of ladies, you’ll see some very amusing little incidents which are practically never shown on the reproductions of the tapestry. You will find the Hôtel du Lion d’Or very comfortable and a first-class place for a meal.
On the other side of the Cotentin peninsula, opposite the islands of Jersey and Guernsey, just where Normandy runs into Brittany, stands one of the seven marvels of the Western world: Mont-Saint-Michel.
You get to it through Avranches, a small town perched on a hill overlooking the whole of the famous Mont-Saint-Michel bay. There is nothing much to see in the town itself, but it is a useful place to stay in for excursions. For instance, you can stop at the Hôtel Bonneau near the station, and after taking a quick look at the town, go on to Pontorsaon and Mont-Saint-Michel. The famous abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel is built on a tiny island near the coast and accessible on foot at low tide. The whole construction points sheer up into the sky, and towers over the coast and countryside around it.
It is a fortified monastery, protected by immensely thick walls with only one entrance. In the whole of history, never once did anyone succeed in capturing it. Inside its walls is a small village of about 300 inhabitants with excellent hotels where they make a speciality of all kinds of wonderful omelets. The Abbey, properly so called, consists of three stories, a perfect warren of stairways, corridors, vaulted halls and chapels, which will take you several hours to see. One of the most remarkable things in it is the church with its “Dentelle” (lace) stairway, named after the light and gracefully carved stonework of the balustrade. There is the cloister too, famous throughout the whole world, decorated with 227 small columns of red granite, and the immense Salle des Chevaliers, with its four naves, monster pillars and monumental fireplaces.
From Avranches you should also visit Granville, a picturesque town enclosed by an old wall and perched on a rocky promontory. From the top of the church of Notre Dame there is a fine view out to sea, which is particularly worth seeing in rough weather. There is a certain amount of gay life there too in the hotels and casinos.
The Breton Peninsula has been compared frequently to a monk’s head. The centre, which represents the tonsure, is almost uncultivated, consisting of waste lands where furze and other wild plants grow, while the jagged and fertile coasts form the luxuriant growth of hair. The sterility of the interior of Brittany, the cutting-up of its coasts into a multitude of cantons, all these factors explain the extreme dispersion of the Breton population which, because of that, has made contact only recently with the rest of the country. This relative isolation explains in turn why this vast region presents an aspect, customs, even a language, absolutely different to those of other French provinces, even of the neighbouring ones. And it is that difference which is the cause of its profound originality and of its attraction. It is almost another country.
The Bretons are either fishermen or peasants. But whatever their occupation, they present the same characteristics. Generally they are distrustful when first meeting a stranger, retiring automatically behind a wall of silence, and not emerging until after a long acquaintance. It is absolutely futile to try to have a conversation with a Breton peasant who does not want one. Your efforts will come to nothing. On the other hand, once he has confidence, the Breton will prove a joyous companion glad to render service, and very hospitable. One should add that in remote villages there are still elderly people who do not speak French, or who pronounce it in a way unintelligible to a foreigner. Naturally, it is quite another thing in the towns, which are much the same as any other French provincial towns.
The jagged coast stretching for hundreds of kilometres from the sandy bay of Mont Saint-Michel to the desolate rocks of the Point of Penmarch at the end of Finistère, would be enough in itself to make the Breton coast one of the really beautiful places of the world. It changes with extraordinary abruptness from gay and popular beaches to sheer rocks of a grim beauty all their own. The seaside climate is influenced profoundly by the Gulf Stream, and it is because of this fact that at Paimpol, for example, fig trees flourish in the fields. A robust population of fishermen lives in the large and small ports which cluster around its bays and its deep “rivers,” kinds of fjords which cut far into the interior. But each one has been able to preserve its own physiognomy.
One of the most famous of these is Saint-Malo, an old town of corsairs originally built on a small rocky island and spreading later on to the mainland to form a large and popular bathing resort. The old town, however, which is almost entirely surrounded by the sea, has kept its rather time-worn originality with its old houses, its picturesque fish market and its ramparts, one of the towers of which has the heroic and humorous name “quiquengrogne,”* its château decorated with enormous towers, and its ancient cathedral, the Church Saint-Vincent, which presents, though quite naturally, a curious assemblage of architectural styles ranging from the twelfth century to the Renaissance. Avoid the noisy and terribly crowded beaches of the new town, and if you are seeking sand and sea, go either to Paramé, to the right of the old town, or to Saint-Servan, to the left. There is a convenient tram service. Finally, on the other side of the “river” Rance, there is Dinard, the exclusive beach and seaside resort of the “Emerald Coast.” A boat service makes the crossing from Saint-Malo in a few minutes. You will find at Dinard an atmosphere not unlike that of Cannes or of Deauville, especially on the promenade des Alliés, with its three casinos.
At the end of the “river,” which runs inland for some 17 miles and which also has a boat service calling at Saint-Malo and at Dinard, is Dinan. It is a very ancient fortified town built on a steeply sloping plateau dominating the whole region, as in all old feudal towns. You shouldn’t fail to see the chateau where, among other curiosities, are kept some of Napoleon’s hairs; nor the Cathedral Saint-Sauveur with its Flamboyant Gothic nave covered with wood, nor the ramparts nearly two miles long.
At Saint-Malo I should advise you to stay at the Hôtel de l’Univers, Place Chateaubriand, where they serve a wonderful and unique speciality, angouste à la crème. At Dinard, where there are hundreds of hotels, bars and restaurants, I sugggest the Hôtel Marjolaine, rue Levasseur, in the heart of the town near the English Club. The proprietor of this hotel was once chef at the English Court. At Dinan, the Hôtel de la Poste, opposite the château, is very comfortable.
Saint-Brieuc, a large town of 25,000 inhabitants, has been able to keep intact, as Saint-Malo has, its old quarter in the centre of the modern town. An old bishopric, its principal monument is the Cathedral (Saint-Etienne), which dates from the twelfth century. There are also numerous quaint old houses. Aside from the traditional Hôtel Terminus near the station, there are good hotels at Saint-Brieuc, notably the Hôtel de France, on the Champ de Mars in the centre of the town. From Saint-Brieuc one leaves for the tour of the whole coast as far as Paimpol, the most famous of all the small ports of this region, from which the fishermen set out for Iceland, and the setting of Pierre Loti’s celebrated novel, Pêcheurs d’Islande. A short crossing of fifteen minutes will take you to the red granite cliffs of the Ile de Bréhat.
From Saint-Brieuc, you can also go to Guingamp, a small inland town in a lovely valley where the Saturday before the first Sunday in July there is an important “pardon” at the Church Notre Dame du Bon Secours, a religious ceremony peculiar to Brittany and extremely colourful. Among the hotels of this town, the Hôtel du Commerce is remarkable for its meticulous cleanliness. You might almost be in Holland!
From Guingamp, across a somewhat severe but typically Breton landscape, you will come to the calm and austere bishopric Tréguier, with the spire of its magnificent cathedral dominating the entire town. The numerous gardens in the courtyards of the houses give this city a unique atmosphere. To the west, Lannion, a small town situated on a river, has several curious old houses, but the most interesting thing about it is undoubtedly the steep coast near by, the “Coast of Granite.”
Continuing along the coast, you next arrive at Morlaix, which has many interesting churches and a gigantic modern viaduct which overlooks the entire town. Well organised autocar tours enable you to visit all the surrounding region. Stop at the Hôtel d’Europe, Rue d’Aiguillon, but take your meals at the restaurant de la Tour d’Argent, Rue des Lavoirs. While going down the “river” of Morlaix, you should visit Carnatec, a pretty and popular beach, Saint-Pol-de-Léon, an old bishopric where the Chapel de Kreisker has an open-work belfry over 200 feet high, and Roscof, a port celebrated for its lobster and for the mildness of its climate. Most of the early vegetables eaten in London are exported from this coast.
From Morlaix, after heading inland and crossing the Monts d’Arée, the line of small hills separating maritime Brittany from the interior, you should visit the region of Huelgoat. It is wonderfully situated, and its small wooded valleys and maze of rocks are particularly fascinating. The most famous is the Grotto of Artus, which has the same story told about it as in Wales.
Brest, a large military port and important commercial city, of 75,000 inhabitants, is for all intents and purposes the capital of maritime Brittany. It has few objects of interest for the visitor, apart from its impressive military port whose roadstead, protected by a narrow channel, shelters the French Atlantic fleet. It is the Portsmouth of France. Naturally there are many hotels of all classes, among which I can especially recommend the Hôtel Moderne, Place Anatole France, at the entrance to the city. A sailors’ restaurant, the Restaurant de l’Océan, 46 Quai de la Douane, offers an excellent choice of sea food. But the clientele is rather mixed, While visiting the roadstead, an immense anchorage which could easily hold all the warships of Europe, it is better not to take photographs near the many forts and outworks which defend it.
From Brest you should go to Plougastel-Daoulas, the picturesque locality on the other side of the roadstead, which has a curious calvary surrounded by 150 stone figures.
In the centre of the large peninsula, which extends from the other side of the bay of Audierne to meet the great billows of the Atlantic, rises Quimper, the most Breton of all the towns in Brittany, where the Cathedral Saint-Corentin shows all the phases of the historical development of the Breton style, and where the museum of Breton antiquities, installed in the buildings of the ancient bishop’s palace, contains a unique collection of documents on old Brittany. Among the hotels choose the Hôtel de l’Epée, Rue du Parc, where you will find the local gastronomic specialities, filet de sole Saint-Corentin and pâté de perdreau au foie gras.
From Quimper you absolutely must take the excursion which, by Douarnenez, sardine fishing village and important centre of the canning industry, and Audierne, another important fishing port, leads to the most desolate, but most grandiose, region of Brittany, the Pointe du Raz, the Baie des Prépassés and the wild Ile de Sein.
A long angular rock whipped by the winds and the sea’s surging, the Pointe du Raz is hollowed by a tremendous funnel, the “Hell of Plogoff,” where the waves, as they are engulfed, thunder like cannon shots. One must be careful in advancing along the bare summit, especially not to be blown over into the abyss by a gust of wind. From the farthest point the view extends across the narrows sown with foaming reefs which separate the mainland from the Ile de Sein. On the right is a bay with the sinister name “Bay of the Dead,” where, according to the Breton legend, on All Souls’ Day all those who have died during the year meet to await the black vessel which will carry them to the other world.
One reaches the Ile de Sein by a boat service which leaves from Audierne. Two hours are amply sufficient for the visit of the small, windy treeless territory where the women are dressed always in black, where all the men are fishermen, and where almost all the wooden articles, including the furniture, come from shipwrecks. A Druidic sanctuary, Sein has numerous reminders of that distant and mysterious epoch. Its church was built of stones brought from the port on the heads of the women of the island. At its far end rises the lighthouse of Ar Men, near which the sea is always so dangerous that one can never approach it, and the keepers are forced to regain their post by means of a rope.
Sometimes the whole southern part of Brittany is called “Breton Brittany,” of which the most southern city is Nantes. As a matter of fact, it is undoubtedly the part of this province where the customs have remained most individual, perhaps because of its inhabitants’ lack of natural vivacity, which a Breton song describes in these terms: “The inhabitants of Lower Brittany are as lively as broomsticks.” Sown with wastelands, with heather and with furze, deeply infiltrated by the sea, which even on the coast near Vannes forms a sort of small inland lake, the Morbihan, this part of the country is covered with megalithic “menhirs ” and “dolmens ” which are the main curiosity.
Nantes, a big city and important port of 150,000 inhabitants, is the centre of this region. Situated at the mouth of the Loire, it is particularly important from the commercial and industrial standpoint, with its outer harbour of Saint-Nazaire which has the same relationship to Nantes as that of Le Havre to Rouen. In the centre of the city is the Rue Crébillon, where the citizens of Nantes come to stroll during idle hours, as well as on the Place Graslin, its prolongation. From there, by the Rue Voltaire, you can stroll round to see a graceful little manor, the manor of Jean V, and beside it the Musée Dobrée, one of the richest archeological museums of France. The Cathedral Saint-Pierre, built in 1434, has a magnificent nave some 300 feet long. In the right transept is the tomb of the Duke of Brittany, François II, and of his wife. Stop preferably at the Hôtel de Paris, near the Place Graslin, the rooms are comfortable and you will taste a highly appreciated speciality, croustade aux champignons arrosée de muscadet. From Nantes you can go down the Loire to Saint-Nazaire, a big busy transatlantic port, but where there is really nothing else remarkable to see. North of Nantes stretches a huge swamp where you can shoot water-fowl if you happen to like that sport. It is the Brière made famous by a recent novel by Alphonse de Chateaubriand. But access to it is difficult and it is better to be accompanied by someone of the locality.
Between the Brière and the sea spreads a whole region of beautiful beaches: Pornichet, le Croisic, la Baule and le Pouliguen, composed of large strips of sand between the sea and the vast salt marshes. Inland is Guérande, an old town fortified by enormous ramparts decorated with large towers.
Finally, to the north, is Vannes, situated at the end of the small inland sea, the Morbihan, strewn with as many islands, it is said, as the days in the year. Vannes has 25,000 inhabitants. It still has very beautiful old houses, and its cathedral in the Flamboyant Gothic and Renaissance styles is unforgettable. But the town is above all a centre for interesting excursions. The main one leads to Sainte-Anne-d’Auray where at Whitsuntide pilgrims flock to its miraculous fountain. Several miles farther on in the direction of the peninsula of Quiberon, known by the unfortunate landing of the Royalist troops during the Revolution, stand the enigmatic “alignments of Carnac.” In ten rows, each longer than a kilometre, rise 1,099 gigantic “menhirs.” Beyond, at Kermario, 982 more raised stones of large size repeat the same inexplicable alignments. In all the region there are no less than 3,000 of these extraordinary megalithic monuments, some of which bear mysterious hieroglyphics.
At Vannes, apart from the Hôtel du Commerce et de l’Epée, I would recommend a restaurant with an amazingly genuine atmosphere of antiquity, the Restaurant Gillet, Place des Lices.
Practically all the trains going to the Pyrenees and the Basque-land pass through Bordeaux, so it will be no trouble to you to spare a day to this very interesting town. I don’t mean that it is full of historical monuments or beauty-spots, but it will give you an excellent idea of an absolutely typical big French provincial town, the centre of an important commercial and agricultural region for many centuries.
Bordeaux is one of the biggest towns in France, with a population of 250,000 inhabitants. It is a port town, and the port is usually an extremely busy one, for despite the fact that it is more than 50 miles from the ocean on the Gironde, the wine trade has made it the fourth most important port in France. A bridge of seventeen immense arches spans the 700 yards width of the river, and along the river banks there are more than 5 miles of busy docks. You have to cross this famous bridge to enter the town from the station, which, as in most French towns, is located at the outskirts.
The centre of Bordeaux consists, characteristically, of a few streets and squares only: the Place des Quinconces, with its casino surrounded by a large number of restaurants and bars, and the Allées de Tourny. Turning left from the Place des Quinconces, you will find yourself in the celebrated Bordeaux quarter of Chartrons where the big wine merchants live. They form the very exclusive and proud aristocracy of Bordeaux. Unlike this aristocracy, the people themselves in Bordeaux are a very gay and friendly lot, full of jokes and always poking fun at someone. This joking spirit is made even more charming by their sing-song southern accent.
From the Allées de Tourny you pass through the Rue Fondaguège and reach the ruins of the Palais Gallien, a Roman amphitheatre of the second century, and the Church of Saint-Seurin, with its fourth-century crypt. These are the only really old monuments in Bordeaux.
On the other side of the Cours de l’Intendance, which cuts the town into two approximately equal parts, there is a twelfth-century cathedral well worth visiting, as well as the Museum of Painting and Sculpture containing more than a thousand works, mainly of the French school, and the Bonie Museum with a rich collection of Eastern and Far Eastern art.
Among the first-class hotels I should choose the Hôtel de Bordeaux, on the Place de la Comédie, just off the Place des Quinconces, or the Hôtel du Chapon Fin, which lives up to its name by giving wonderful food. If you prefer somewhere cheaper, you should try the Hôtel Bristol in the Rue Franklin. There will be no trouble about finding a good restaurant; they all serve excellent food in Bordeaux. But, whatever you do, don’t make up your mind to try out all the wines of Bordeaux! You would be there weeks, and even then I doubt if you would have tasted them all. As far as wine goes, get one of the Bordeaux people to advise you. They know all about their own wines, and are certain to introduce you to many marvels you have never heard of before.
Some 30 miles from Bordeaux begin the Landes, an immense pine forest planted to keep back the encroaching sand dunes of the Gascogne coast. The region is full of picturesque inland lakes, some connected up with the sea by a canal, the others isolated. The most celebrate is the Etang d’Arcachon, which has a very popular beach and rich beds of oysters which you can taste at the Hôtel Victoria, Boulevard de la Plage. Farther on is the Etang de Biscarosse, an important flying-boat base, and the Etang de Soustons with the ancient town of Vieux Boucau.
Once you have crossed the Adour, you are in the Basque land. They are a strange people, the Basque; sober, sparing of words, always dressed in black, and of entirely unknown racial origins. Their language is hardly understood at all by anyone outside the country, and etymologists are still struggling to assign it to some definite family. Despite their reserve, the Basque people are most hospitable and remarkably clean. This cleanliness is particularly striking to anyone who arrives from the other provinces of Southern France.
The whole length of the Basque coast is just a succession of smart resorts, full of society people from France and Spain. From Bayonne to the Spanish frontier the coast road runs along a whole series of magnificent estates, hotels, beaches, sport or pleasure grounds. In the first place, there is Bayonne itself, rather a big town of 30,000 inhabitants, the main attraction of which is the busy little port whence in the old days the sailors used to set out whale-hunting. Then Biarritz, the most famous of the Basque resorts, which stands in the same rank as Deauville or Cannes for smartness and popularity. The town has several casinos and a mass of hotels of every class. The most elegant part of the town is to the right of the Rochers de la Vierge, along the immense beach. Just before you come to these rocks you should turn in at the fascinating Musée de la Mer, which has been recently reconstructed and contains an aquarium full of the strangest and most exotic fishes. Among the welter of good hotels you couldn’t do better than to stay at the Hotel Biarritz Salins-Thermes, Avenue de la Marne, behind the big casino. The prices are moderate, and you will find the rooms extremely comfortable, even luxurious, and the cooking excellent.
You should make the excursion from Biarritz to the Spanish frontier either by car or by the picturesque little tramway which runs along the coast road. The trip will take you through Saint-Jean de Luz, which in my opinion is the most pleasant of all the Basque resorts. At the Grille Basque you will think yourself suddenly transported into some strange land, when they serve you their Basque-Spanish dishes.
But if you really want to feel the profound charm of the country, you must go inland and stay a while among the little white peculiarly shaped houses, scattered over the green hills planted with apple trees. But perhaps you have not got the time to stay in one of the small Basque villages? In that case you must at least make an excursion either by car or by the auto-cars that leave Biarritz every day, up the Nive valley, through Ustaritz, Cambox, and Saint-Jean Pied de Port, right across the whole country into Bearn, or through Mauléon and Oloron, two lovely little sunny towns with steep winding streets, to Pau.
Pau, the former capital of Bearn and in the old days the residence of Henry IV, who lived in the beautiful château dominating the town, has rather gone out of fashion in recent years. But many visitors still come to it, either to see the château or attracted by its mild and sunny climate. There is a wonderful view of the mountain ranges from the Boulevard des Pyrénées. The clear waters of the “Gave,” at the bottom of the town, are full of fine trout, and with the “garbure,” a kind of cabbage soup, these trout form the gastronomic speciality of the region.
The best hotel to stay at is the Hôtel Beaumont, 5 Place Royale, and although the cooking is good, I should advise you to take your meals at the Restaurant Café Royal, a few steps away.
The Champagne district of France has attracted many English visitors since the War, and although the majority originally came for sentimental reasons, they “discovered” the Champagne in the process. Nowadays Rheims, the chief city of the region, is not the only place foreign tourists include in their itineraries when travelling in this part of France, which is not to say that Rheims in itself is not a worthy goal. On the contrary, its world-famous cathedral is still one of the most notable sights of its kind in the country, despite its “war wounds,” while its wine cellars also deserve a visit.
However, as far as wine cellars are concerned Epernay has the avdantage over Rheims, in that it contains the cellars of the world-famous Mercier brand of champagne. These cellars constitute a veritable underground city, entirely hewn into the rocks. If you can spare the time when in Epernay, communicate with the proprietors, Maison Champagne Mercier, 75 Avenue de Champagne, who will be pleased to let you see this noteworthy sight at any time, both on weekdays and Sundays or holidays.
The Mercier cellars are perhaps the only new thing the writer can tell you about the Champagne, for nowadays, largely owing to the “publicity” given it by the War, the region is very well known. You have no doubt heard of the wonderful vineyards stretching for miles in the Marne Valley, while every schoolchild knows all about Verdun.
Sedan, Charleville, Troyes and Soissons are all places with historic associations, and all bear traces of the Great War.
You will see beautiful churches in every town and village in this region, and grim medieval castles are also not lacking.
But the scenery of the Champagne, with its rivers, forests and flower-carpeted fields, is truly charming. In addition, the inhabitants, consistently with the chief product of the region, are cheery and friendly, particularly towards English visitors.
Less well known than the Champagne are the two provinces Alsace and Lorraine. Indeed, it would require a whole book to describe their charm and attraction from the tourist’s point of view.
Alsace and Lorraine are generally thought of as a single unit, which, to a certain extent, they are. In the main, however, they differ from each other in many essential respects, and the difference can perhaps be conveyed best by comparing Lorraine to a dignified, sedate young lady, and Alsace to a gay and mischievous miss.
But you will like both, of that there can be no doubt. If you enter these provinces by car in the south of Alsace, by the Upper Vosges whose granite slopes no longer mark a frontier, you will be able to read the past and present history of the towns and villages as you pass them, or through them, in the ancient castles, old churches and busy farms, all set amid breath-takingly lovely scenery. You will come upon those strange and beautiful lakes, the Green, White and Black Lakes, which lie 3,000 and more feet above sea-level.
The Vosges Range, some 70 miles long, from Belfort to Saverne, with its majestic but accessible summits, such as Grand Ballon, Hohneck and Douon, and the green Passes of Schlucht, Bonhomme and Sainte Marie, is in itself worth a trip to this part of France.
And between the ridges nestle the valleys in which the life of the country proceeds. There is something human about the landscape of Alsace. In an indefinable way it tells the history—past and present—of the inhabitants, just like the eyries of the robber barons of olden times and the luxury hotels of modern times that crown some of the ridges tell a story of their own. Yet the towns and villages, the homes of the Alsatian people tell the most interesting story of all.
Strasbourg, the chief city of Alsace, is an old-new town with an infusion of picturesqueness and colour from the surrounding villages. Its architecture is typically Alsatian when taken as a whole, and if to-day its life is that of a modern European city, it is so in a gay, typically Alsatian way.
Colmar, Mulhouse and the other Alsatian towns present a similar picture on a smaller scale, while the villages with their striking rural architecture, their hardworking yet always cheery and hospitable inhabitants, are so many gems in the diadem of a beautiful country.
Lorraine is similar to yet different from Alsace. Lorraine is a mixture of delicate half-tones and industrial realism. We need only mention the gentle poetry of the Moselle landscape, a scene of water, hills and sky. The magnificent panorama of the region of Abreschwiller and Dabo is difficult to forget once you have seen it.
Lorraine also has its quiet urban charm, as for instance in Metz, which is intensely and charmingly French, despite the many traces of the German régime.
The gracefulness of Nancy is another aspect of Lorraine’s urban charm.
Finally, along the Moselle as far as Thionville, the tourist can see Industry in full blast. The geometrical architecture of the factories and blast furnaces is most impressive, and their red glow at night stabs the darkness like a triumphant song of achievement.
Corsica may affect you in one of two ways. You may take away with you the impression of a barbarous island delivered up to a hoard of ruffianly blackguards and murderers, where bathrooms are strange rarities; or you may see it as the perfection of rugged beauty, the home of noble savages of great eloquence and amiability alone capable of producing a man of the stature of Napoleon.
There is something in both conceptions of Corsica. If you really think bathrooms and cocktails are the hallmark of civilisation, you will be right enough in regarding the Corsicans as uncivilised. Despite recent strenuous efforts to bring the island into line with the requirements of the modern tourist, it remains, considering its accessibility, one of the most backward spots in Europe from the point of view of luxurious accommodation for travellers.
There is something too in the idea that the Corsicans are ruffians and murderers. On points of honour they are only too ready to shoot, and once the murderer has taken to the “maquis”—the Corsican bush—he takes a lot of finding. In some cases, as anyone who has read the papers fairly recently will know, some of these chance murderers were able to live thirty years in that wild inland bush without ever being found by the police. There have been real bandits too, who held up people, postmen, and others, and shot them if they were not quick enough in getting their pocket-books out. But the gangster-bandit notion has been grossly exaggerated, and in any case the recent clean-up effected by the French police has pretty well cleared the island of that kind of pest. So you needn’t be afraid of going to Corsica from that point of view any more than of going to Normandy or Paris.
There is only one point on which any stranger has to be careful, and that is not to do anything the Corsican regards as an insult to himself and his family. To put it more concretely, don’t call him a dirty dog in a language he can understand, and above all don’t wink at his wife or daughter. The wife and daughter won’t appreciate it, and you may merely find yourself in the unpleasant position of being the unwilling cause of sending an otherwise harmless citizen into hiding in the “maquis” for the rest of his life.
Well, now that you have screwed up your courage to come to Corsica, and feel a bit more reassured about your pocket-book and your wife’s jewels, what should you see? I warn you that there is a great deal to see, and that the best way of seeing it, if you can manage it, is to see it on foot. No! I forgot. There is an even better way of getting to know it, recommended by Napoleon himself. “The best way of knowing Corsica,” he would say, “is to be born there.” But everyone has not the same luck as he had, so you will have to put up with walking or riding in a car, whichever suits you best.
Corsica is the third most important island in the Mediterranean, after Sicily and Sardinia, with about 300,000 inhabitants. It has a lovely climate, both in summer and in winter, but I would advise you to go there in spring, when it is not yet blazing hot, and when the roads have become passable on the heights and the snow has melted.
If you want what is called “confort moderne,” I should stay if I were you at the Grand Hôtel or the Hôtel des Etrangers in Ajaccio, the Cyrnos or the Grand Hôtel de France in Bastia, and in the Hôtel de l’Europe in Ile Rousse. Prices are moderate everywhere.
Even if you don’t carry a guide-book, you are almost bound to go to Ajaccio first and then to the house on the Place Lactitia, where was born on August 15th, 1769, the most famous of Corsica’s children—Napoleon.
The whole town of Ajaccio is just crammed with souvenirs of Napoleon: street-names, museums, statues, and all. You will land from the ship on the Quai Napoleon, extending on the right into the Boulevard du Roi Jerome (Napoleon’s brother), and opposite the Quai Napoleon stands a white marble statue of the First Consul.
On the right, again, is the Hôtel de Ville with the Musée Napoleon on the first floor.
Continuing your visit of the town, you will find yourself going along the Avenue du Premier Consul, with the Rue Napoleon and the Place Lactitia on the right.
In the cathedral you will be obliged to look at the marble font in which Napoleon was baptised, and a little farther along on the Place du Diamant, the biggest square in Ajaccio, rises the equestrian statue of Napoleon and of his four brothers looking out seawards.
In Cardinal Fesch’s Palace there is the Imperial Chapel where the remains of the Bonaparte family lie.
Even the busiest street in Ajaccio, turning off the Place du Diamant, is called the Cours Napoleon.
If by that time you are not yet tired of Napoleon and determined to take the first opportunity of slipping off to Bastia where no person of such outstanding fame was born, your guide, in addition to feeding you with a number of very doubtfully authentic personal tales about Napoleon, will certainly lead you off to the Grotte de Casone, where the Corsicans say Napoleon used to come and work as a child.
Thirteen kilometres outside Ajaccio there is a really fascinating château, the Château de la Punta. The peculiar and unique thing about it is that it was constructed almost entirely between 1886 and 1894 out of stones brought from the Palais des Tuileries in Paris, which was burnt down at the time of the revolution in 1871. The north façade used to be on the Place du Carrousel, while the south façade, which faces Ajaccio, comes entirely to the last stone, from Paris. The balustrade of the terraces is the only part that was not “made in Paris”; it belongs to the former Château of Saint-Cloud.
Anatole France, who at that time (1886) was still at the beginning of his career, was immensely amused by this reconstruction and wrote in an article: “Corsica has just launched a new fashion. Henceforth when the English find that Westminster Abbey has housed the Lords of the Thames long enough, they will burn it down or destroy it … and twenty years later the Hindus or the Canadians will set up the same building in Bombay or Calcutta.”
In any case, you will certainly not regret your excursion to the Château de la Punta. The big salon and the whole first storey are admirable picture galleries, and a path leads from the château through the “maquis” to the peak of Pozzo di Borgo at an altitude of some 2,000 feet, from which you can get a magnificent view over the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Ajaccio and the mountains of Corsica.
Bastia (12,000 inhabitants), which is about 90 miles from Ajaccio, is considered to be the most important commercial town in Corsica. It has far less historical souvenirs than Ajaccio, but you will find it perhaps even more attractive as a centre for excursions and walks.
Calvi is a small town of some 2,500 inhabitants and is one of the innumerable places in Europe which claim the privilege of having given birth to Columbus, much to the annoyance of the people of Genoa. There is a plate up on the house where he is supposed to have been born in 1441.
It would be possible to fill up pages more with descriptions of the innumerable beauty-spots and excursions of which Corsica, the “Island of Beauty” as it is called, is full and overflowing. But you are bound to see them; the island is not big enough to miss them. And it will be sufficient for you to have received some idea of the atmosphere of the place and the character of the people. In any case, the Corsican is a natural guide, and no one could introduce you more enthusiastically or fluently to his little country than he can.