Thursday, June 12, 2014

All Aboard!

Residents of Paris were pretty astonished recently when this full-sized steam engine took up a prominent position on the esplanade in front of the Institut du Monde Arabe in the 5th arrondissement.

Fully restored in the last few years, this gleaming behemoth spent its active life speeding through towns and cities, over mountains, along coastlines, carrying passengers on the fabled routes of the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul and beyond.

Just adjacent, a row of sleek carriages has attracted long lines of visitors every day, waiting patiently to climb the steps and explore the interiors. This week, we snagged a couple of tickets, and happily clambered aboard the legendary train that became the magic link between two worlds.

Launched by the Compagnie International des Wagons-Lits, this elegant logo became a symbol of style, comfort and luxurious travel. Its founder, a Belgian named Georges Nagelmackers, fell in love with the Pullman Cars he saw in the United States. Returning home, he set about developing sleeper carriages for Europe, and in 1883 inaugurated the first voyage of the Orient Express. The train left from the Gare de l'Est in Paris to music by Mozart. 80 hours and 3,094 kilometers later, it arrived at Sirkeci Terminal in Istanbul. Cleverly, Nagelmackers put together a group of passengers for this first ride who would quickly spread the word: 20 journalists and writers, all of whom lavishly praised this new form of travel, setting off an explosion of eager travellers.

Once on board, it was not hard to see why. Just one glimpse of the shining, polished wood, the linen shades and glowing hardware offered an invitation to an earlier era.

At the end of each corridor, these small oval Lalique windows had a little "sieve" like half-moon panel that could be opened to allow fresh air to circulate.

Entering the Golden Arrow carriage ("La Flèche d'Or"), we found ourselves in a salon setting of ten tables and twenty armchairs, where you could take your breakfast, lunch or dinner. Or where you could sit and watch the world roll by, catching up with the latest news in Le Figaro...

...or you might enjoy reading about journeys to the Middle East, whilst smoking your gitane, drinking wine, or even smoking your hookah!

In an era when "Orientalisme" was definitely the rage, some people took it all to the max, like the French writer, Pierre Loti, who certainly dressed the part, and lived in Turkey for many years, a place that inspired seven of his novels. Perhaps that's his hookah on the table above!

Graham Greene was a frequent traveller on the Orient Express, using his corner seat to bang out new books on his typewriter -- and, apparently, also enjoying "Old Lady's Dry Gin"!

You might have a quiet game of Patience on your own, with a nice cup of tea...

...or perhaps indulge in a more intense card game. Given the cigar in the ashtray, the chips, the billfold, and the rather menacing knife, this looks to be a lot more serious!

Everywhere you looked, the "Wagons-Lits" logo -- WL -- was evident, on this ashtray...

...stamped on the coffee service, and embroidered on all the table linens.

Between the windows of this carriage, and at either end, these beautiful glass panels by René Lalique cast a lovely transparent sheen. It just all took your breath away!

 Between the Lounge Car and the next carriage, the Conductor's corner seat held sway in the corridor, with the galley to its right. Here, on the gleaming zinc counter, trays would be assembled to bring you breakfast in your sleeping compartment, or refreshments to your lounge seat.
We passed on into the Sleeping Car. Originally, the Orient Express was made up of only five cars: a Lounge Car, two Sleeping Cars, a Dining Car, and a Luggage Car, for a total of maybe 25 or 30 passengers. Unimaginable in today's world of travel! Toilets were at each end of the corridor, but everyone had their own washbasin and two or three bunk beds. As the negligee might suggest, the privacy offered by these sleeping compartments gave rise to many secret trysts. Léopold II of Belgium had his own private carriage, where he had many a rendezvous with his mistress, Cléo de Mérode. Mata Hari used the seclusion of the compartments to invite foolish victims into her bed!

One of many interesting night-time tales on the Orient Express concerns this gentleman, President of France, Paul Deschanel, who suffered from mental instability. On 23 May, 1920, he was on board the train going to Montbrison. At 11:15 pm, as the train was moving very slowly, he escaped by throwing himself out of the window of his compartment. Somewhat bloodied and in his pajamas, he wandered around the countryside until he was recognized by a railway crossing guard. Meanwhile, back on the train, no one knew he was missing for more than seven hours!

No trouble recognizing this man, though. "Bond...James Bond", who spent the night aboard the Orient Express with a character named Tatiana Romanova in the film "From Russia with Love".

A double sleeping compartment gave you space for a record player and a bottle of wine on one side, a place in the middle to hang your lovely peach silk nightgown, and a shaded alcove for whatever came later. There was a time, in the 1920s, when the sleeping compartments on the Orient Express were referred to as "une maison close" (a bordello, essentially)!

The final compartment in the Sleeping Car provided the perfect segue to the next carriage:  the grisly corpse of Cassetti, alias Ratchett, stabbed with more than a dozen knife wounds, blood staining the carpet (note the Wagons-Lits logo on the blanket!). The train is blocked on the tracks by a massive snow storm....

Who Dunnit??

Ah, but of course, that's a case for Monsieur Hercule Poirot to solve! Here's his armchair, signature bowler hat and cane and, on the table, the passports of all the passengers.

Agatha Christie was a frequent traveller on the Orient Express, journeying to join her husband, Max Mallowan, on his archaeological digs in Iraq. In January 1929,  the train was stuck in a massive snowstorm, passengers had to hunt and eat wolves to survive. Reading the news reports gave Agatha Christie the idea for her best-seller "Murder on the Orient Express".

There was no shortage of music and entertainment on board the Orient Express. Josephine Baker rode it many times, Diaghilev (a loyal patron) and his dancers performed, not just in the salon, but also up and down the corridors...

 ...and this spacious bar with its exquisite marquetry decor, signed by René Prou,  provided ample liquid refreshments for the passengers.

By 1889, you could begin your journey in London, travel to Paris by train and ferry, and pick up the Orient Express there, carrying on down to Constantinople. Luxurious hotels sprang up along the way, La Pera in Istanbul, Le Winter at Luxor and the Old Cataract at Aswan.

By the 1920s, you could travel from London to Baghdad in eight days...

...explore the wonders of Egypt and beyond. It was a another, far more exotic world from Piccadilly or the Champs Élysées.

On a train leg from Cairo to Suez in 1909, I noticed that the menu included "kippers" among the breakfast offerings. Not exactly exotic, but I would certainly have ordered them!

The end of the journey for most people was Constantinople, anchoring its position on the Bosphorous, marking that tangible shift from West to East. 

The Orient Express trains ran on the original route until 1977. A shorter trip from Paris to Vienna continued to operate until 2009, when service ceased. There's talk that the SNCF -- France's national railway --  plans to reintroduce an Orient Express train service to Istanbul, using modern engines and carriages.

I love trains, but I'm not sure that would work for me. Having just immersed myself in the world of this wonderful exhibit, I know I would find myself looking back nostalgically to that earlier time, when you packed your steamer trunks, boarded the train at the Gare de l'Est, and emerged 80 hours later in a mysterious Oriental paradise.

And with this post, dear readers, it's time for Matthew and me to pack our trunks and suitcases. We are heading home next Wednesday! Thank you, as always, for following our various adventures, thanks for the comments and the emails. The blog will return in January 2015.

À bientôt!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Jewel in the Crown

Of all the chateaux I have visited here in France, the one I love the best lies at the end of this classic "allée" of lime trees in Maincy, near Melun, about 55 kilometers southeast of Paris. Matthew and I were there many years ago, and when my brother came over from England for a few days recently, I took the chance to revisit this gem, known, simply, as Vaux-le-Vicomte.

The property, then just a minor fief, was bought in 1641 by this gentleman,  Nicolas Fouquet, at the time a rising star in the French government. By 1657, he was Louis XIV's Superintendent of Finances, was a big patron of the arts, known for his generosity, and also known for his ambition.
He used these traits to bring together, for the first time, three of the most influential designers of the 17th century: the architect, Louis Le Vau, the landscape architect, André Le Nôtre, and the painter-decorator, Charles Le Brun. In renovating Fouquet's chateau and gardens, this trio created what became known as the "Louis XIV style", that inspired Europe for more than a hundred years.

The chateau sits on a north-south axis, with its elevations symmetrical to this axis. The interior of the castle is, similarly, almost symmetrical, balanced around the central Grand Salon.

With its delicately painted ceiling, this lovely, double-storey, oval-shaped Salon faces out into the garden, the upper and lower windows filling the space with light. Le Vau took the idea of its shape from studying drawings and engravings of Italian buildings, incorporating them into Vaux-le-Vicomte. Together with the vestibule on the north side of the building, these two rooms were originally an open air loggia, and still have the feel of an "outdoor" setting.

On either side of the Grand Salon, other rooms reflect the arc of history and style. In "La Chambre des Muses", the walls and ceiling are adorned with paintings and tapestries of muses...

...with the center ceiling painting showing the Muse of History, after whom our adorable grand daughter is named: Clio!

Monsieur Fouquet spared no expense on the fittings and furnishings of his chateau. This elegant desk in the library commanded center stage of an already beautiful room...

...whilst the Salon de Hercules gave M. Fouquet a chance to show his impressive collection of bronzes...

...and in the dining room, a video in the mirror reveals ballroom dancers in full 17th century attire!

The most lavish room on the ground floor was created especially for Louis XIV himself, a King's Bedroom where Louis would sleep when he came to visit the chateau.

In contrast, the upstairs rooms are smaller but always in proportion to the scale of the building. Nicolas Fouquet's bedroom, glowed with a red velvet canopy bed, flanked by Gobelin Tapestries. It was so inviting, I wanted to climb up and snuggle down under the covers!

The designs for these tapestries were, again, by Charles Le Brun.

Not to be outdone, Madame Fouquet's salon showed exquisite tilework, wall treatments and a beautiful oriental cabinet.

In the lower levels, a vast kitchen spoke volumes of the banquets and feasts Nicolas Fouquet planned to host. His chef and maître d'hôtel, was none other than François Vatel, renowned for his cuisine.

With an array of copper cookware like this, it would be hard not to produce incredible dinners -- one pot for almost every need!

From inside the Grand Salon, the windows look onto the gardens, stretching out over a mile and a half, all the way to a statue of Hercules in the far distance, that marks the limit of the "formal" layout. Using the laws of perspective to create this magnificent view, André Le Nôtre installed water basins and canals, fountains, gravel walks and pattenered parterres that became the classic, formal French garden.

He placed the canal at the lowest part of the terrain, so it is not visible from the upper levels. It takes a leisurely stroll (or a gentle ride in a golf cart for those of us with arthritic limbs!) to traverse the pathways and "discover" the basins and canals. 

Looking back from the lowest level, you can see how the gently rising ground gradually moves your eye upward, back to the splendor of Louis Le Vau's building, which has been described as "a true model of harmony between architecture and landscape."

At last, the work was all complete. On August 17, 1661, Fouquet invited the King and Court to a lavish fête to inaugurate his chateau. Molière's play "Les Facheux" was premiered in the gardens, François Vatel served a sumptuous dinner, there was music and a dazzling, enchanting firework display.  It should have been the greatest triumph of Fouquet's life.

However, this gentleman had other ideas! Jean-Baptiste Colbert was Mazarin's private secretary. It was Mazarin who had appointed Fouquet as Superintendent of Finances. Jealous of Fouquet's success, Colbert began to plot against him, insinuating to the King that Fouquet was financing the work on Vaux-le-Vicomte by embezzling funds from the State Treasury (in fact, it was Mazarin who was the guilty party).  The lavish gala inauguration was the last straw. It was all too impressive, too luxurious.  Three weeks later, Fouquet was arrested, charged with misappropriation of public funds. Deemed guilty, he was initially banished from France. Louis, however, was still not satisfied. Fouquet's sentence was changed to life imprisonment. He was incarcerated in Pignerol, where he died on March 23rd, 1680.

Voltaire famously wrote: "On 17 August, at six in the evening Fouquet was the King of France: at two in the morning he was nobody." 

Following Fouquet's arrest, Vaux-le-Vicomte was closed down, most of its furnishings and treasures seized by the King. Louis also took the three creative geniuses behind the chateau:  Le Vau, Le Brun and Le Nôtre with him, and instructed them to build him something even bigger and grander. In May, 1682, Versailles was completed!

Madame Fouquet continued to live at Vaux-le-Vicomte until 1705, when she sold it to a Marshal de Villiers. The estate changed hands several times, before falling into disrepair, forgotten and abandoned.

Happily for Nicolas Fouquet's legacy (and for the rest of us!), this gentleman appeared in 1875: Alfred Sommier. An industrialist and art lover, he was also an enthusiast for history and architecture. He bought the chateau, and began the long years of restoration of both the buildings and the gardens. Today, his direct descendants continue the work he began 140 years ago.

Perhaps it's the human drama of triumph, tragedy and betrayal that makes this beautiful spot so appealing to me. Certainly, that's part of it. Over and above all that, though, I just love how balanced it all is, the buildings in scale with the gardens and the whole sheltered within a forest of glorious mature trees. Somewhere, Nicolas Fouquet is smiling!

À bientôt!