Turning disused city train tracks into urban parks are all the rage these days. The grandaddy of them all, the Parisian Promenade Plantee was opened in 1993. Other city railway gardens around the world now include New York City’s The High Line, Sydney’s The Goods Line, and Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail. Philadelphia has set in plans in motion to create City Trail Rail Park. On the other hand, Paris has yet another disused railway track, the Petite Ceinture, which lies abandoned and unloved. It is a Parisian tale of two city railway gardens creating the best of times and the worst of times (with apologies to Charles Dickens).
The Promenade Plantee
We have walked with the children on the Promenade Plantée (“Planted Promenade”), also known as “La Coulée Verte”, a disused above-ground railway line which has been converted into a beautiful urban garden. The promenade runs along the Rue Daumesnil in the 12th arrondissement.
The Promenade Plantee served as the model for the fabulous High Line elevated garden in downtown New York City which was opened in 2010. Having walked both the High Line and the Promenade Plantee with the children, each park has a totally different feel. The Parisians have made the Promenade Plantee gracious and elegant with lots of plantings, archways etc. The High Line by contrast has a more contemporary garden design and feels more casual.
This Parisian promenade runs for almost 3 miles from the Bastille to the Bois de Vincennes. My children loved it and wanted to keep walking all the way to the end. We turned back half way worried they’d be exhausted and need to be carried back. Next time, we should bring scooters so they can zip along even further.
The views of the tops of the Haussman houses and the boulevards below are lovely. The zinc roofs of the Parisian buildings shimmer in the sun. The Parisians who are lucky enough to overlook the Promenade must have a fabulous view.
There were lots of locals out and about on the Promenade Plantee. Blending effortlessly into the city landscape as if it had always been intend to be a viaduct garden, I could see what attracted the planners of the High Line into creating a New York version. By the way, if you are a fan of Julie Delphy, you may recognise this park from the romantic film, Before Sunset (2004).
The Chemin de Fer de Petite Ceinture
Contrast this urban oasis with the Chemin de Fer de Petite Ceinture (“Little Belt Railway”) nearby in the 20th arrondissement. The Petit Ceinture is a railway that loops around central Paris for 17 miles. The precursor to the Parisian Metro, it was abandoned in 1934 when the Metro came into existence and proved to be so much more efficient.
Recently plans have been proposed for things to do with the Petite Ceinture. Plans to sell off bits of the Petite Ceinture (which sits on valuable land) are contentious many consider the railway to be part of the nation’s heritage. I’ve read there are over 200 species of flora and fauna that live along the rail tracks. I would think the Petite Ceinture would be a perfect film location for a post-apocalyptic movie.
One entrance is on Rue Florian right across the Philippe Starck’s budget-friendly design hotel, Mama Shelter. In fact, parts of the railway tracks are visible from the terrace of the hotel restaurant.
I had read about in in a post by Messy Nessy Chic, one of my favourite blogs. Unlike when Nessy went, the day I was there, the gates were open but no welcoming flea market was about. I wandered in and up the makeshift ramp of compost to get to the tracks. I didn’t get very far before I found homeless people bunking down and a group of teens smoking stuff. It seemed sensible to leave since I was alone. Apparently in some parts the views are as good as on the Promenade Plantee.
You could tell some people were trying to grow vegetable patches. Someone had even planted a sedum garden on the bottom of an overtuned car. There is a desolate beauty about the place. Once the area turns trendy (usually not far behind a Starck hotel) the French authorities may finally decide to fix it up.
I wandered back to the former train station entrance, the Gare de Charonne, which is now a cafe and music venue. The grandiose architectural details and soaring ceilings of the station are perfect for a grungy gig venue.
One city, two city gardens both made from disused railroad tracks. They could not be more different from each other. Interestingly, the Promenade and the Petite Ceinture intersect in South-East Paris. Perhaps one day their paths will cross with both of them properly beautified.
Depending on where you want to sightsee, you will want to stay nearby if you are short on time. These two city gardens are in different arondissements – the Promenade Plantee is in the 12th arrondissement and the Petite Ceinture section I saw was in the 20th arrondissement.
This post is linked with City Tripping.
In a beautiful city such as Paris, you know that something has to be really special to be listed among its most beautiful buildings.
My favourite church in Paris, Saint Chapelle, is tiny in comparison to other Parisian monuments but it is like stepping into a jewel box. This church has the largest collection of 13th century stained glass in the world that is still located on-site.
The History of Ste Chapelle
Saint Chapelle is a 13th century Gothic chapel created for King Louis IX of France for his collection of royal relics. Louis IX took his Catholicism seriously, went on a couple of Crusades, and eventually was sainted for his efforts. Louis IX also wanted a chapel where he could worship without leaving his palace. Besides, the chapel would also solidify his position in the Christian world as its pre-eminent king.
Louis’ collection of impressive relics, purchased from the Emperor of Constantinople, was very important to medieval Christians. The collection included the Crown of Thorns and parts of the True Cross. In fact, these relics and the cases built to house them cost a lot more than the building of Saint Chappelle itself!
The Paris 3D website has a very cool 3D artist’s digital reconstruction video of how Saint Chapelle would have looked in the 14th Century.
The Inside of Ste Chapelle
From the outside Saint Chapelle looks fairly ordinary. It’s a completely different matter though when you go inside. Louis IX wanted bling and he got it! The inside is covered in stained glass, paint and gilt. Built to house the relics, the inside was grandly decorated to resemble the inside of a reliquary itself.
There are 15 huge stained glass windows that are 50 feet high and show scenes from the bible. At one end of the chapel there is a giant rose window. The chapel contains almost 8000 square feet of stained glass!
It’s very clear that the stonework is there simply to show off the stained glass windows. The stone columns appear very minimal and fade into the background.
Saint Chapelle is located on the Isle de la Cite in Paris next to the Conciergerie. The chapel just about survived the French Revolution but had to be reconstructed. Many of the relics and reliquaries got dispersed or melted for their gold. Some of the relics got sent over to the Notre Dame Cathedral, including the crown of thorns and true cross. During World War II, Hitler visited Saint Chapelle during his one and only visit to Paris.
The Restoration of Ste Chapelle
The restoration of Sainte Chapelle has taken 40 years. Restorers wanted the chapel finished in time for the 800th anniversary of the birth of Louis IX in 2014. Each of the stained glass windows was carefully dismantled and laser cleaned. Although most of the chapel has been restored, much of what you see is still the original chapel.
Here’s a clip of the statue of the Archangel Michael being replaced on top of the chapel in 2013 as part of the ongoing restoration.
Visiting Ste Chapelle:
Sainte Chapelle is located close to the metro stop, Cite. It is open every day from either 9-5 (winter) or 9-6 (summer). Adults pay €8.50 a ticket and children under 18 enter for free. It is included in the Paris Museum Pass if you have one (children under 18 and EU residents under 26 qualify for a free Paris Museum Pass).
A visit to Sainte Chapelle won’t take very long but it shows that great things come in little packages. If you can only take your children to one Parisian church before they start a mutiny, I think Saint Chapelle is your best bet.
You can also visit the Concergerie next door which has some parts of the old medieval palace remaining. Older children may be interested in seeing the cells where prisoners from the Terror, including Marie Antoinette, were kept prior to their date with the guillotine. If your children are anything like mine, they are fascinated with ghoulish things.
On my last visit to Paris, I was lucky enough to see Cartier: Style & History, the largest exhibition of the master jeweller’s couture works to date. In all honesty, I was blown away by how well this exhibit was done. The craftmanship involved in Cartier’s couture jewellery makes each piece a work of fine art.
Louis Francois Cartier established his eponymous jewellery store in 1847 in Paris. Cartier became quickly known for fulfilling the fantasies of the mega-rich heiresses, actresses and royalty who commissioned couture pieces to bedazzle society.
The Cartier exhibit is massive with approximately 600 pieces of jewellery, desk and dressing table items and other opulent incidentals.
The jewellery tracks the nuances and fashions of the periods during which they were commissioned, such as Art Deco or the fascination with Ancient Egypt, India and China. They also give an insight into the owners’ tastes, quirks and foibles.
The exhibit starts with a revolving display of famous tiaras, among them the Halo tiara worn by the Duchess of Cambridge at her wedding. Because nothing spells filthy rich like a sparkling tiara (or two or five).
And the tiaras kept coming, fast and furious, throughout the show.
Presumably when a society lady wanted to buck the trend on tiaras, she’d go with a jewelled comb.
The leather-bound sales ledgers detail the sales and records of customers. This exhibit shows alongside the jewellery, the invoices, drawings and plaster casts that tell the backstory of some of the pieces. Each design starts off as a pastel drawing and then gets cast in plaster to create a mould for the final creation. Each piece is painstakingly crafted and can take hundreds of hours to finish.
I also liked the photographs, portraits and film clips which showed the owners wearing their prized possessions. There is a nice family portrait of Marjorie Merriweather Post (American heiress to the Post cereal fortune) wearing jewellery probably equivalent to the gross national product of a small Caribbean nation. Another mother-daughter portrait shows Queen Elizabeth II wearing a flower brooch with the flawless 23.6 carat Williamson pink diamond in the center.
Cartier definitely seemed to work with a plethora of American heiresses which would fit with the times. The newly-moneyed Americans would have been fascinated with the French flair shown by Cartier artisans. No discussion of wealthy Americans would be complete without mentioning a Vanderbilt. The cigarette case shown below of gold, platinum, enamel and diamonds was made in 1932 for Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt.
This necklace was in Cartier’s Tutti Frutti style and was made for Daisy Fellowes. Daisy inherited her American grandfather’s fortune (inventor of the Singer sewing machines) which helped finance her love of Cartier pieces. Her favourite piece was apparently this Tutti Frutti necklace made with emeralds, diamonds, sapphires and rubies.
Shown alongside the jewellery also are some of the couture outfits which are just as intricate and bespoke.
Evening dress from 1924 detailed with gold and pearls
The Cartier stories are legendary. One of the most famous items in the exhibit is the Patiala Bib Necklace. The story goes that the Maharaja of Patiala dropped by Cartier in Paris with his servant who was carrying a bucketload of gemstones. Cartier were instructed to make something suitably traditional and yet reflecting the Art Deco of the times which would outbling the other maharajas. Cartier artisans described the instructions as a ‘challenge’ but they rose to the occasion.
In the 1970’s Mexican actress Maria Felix showed up at Cartier with a baby crocodile in tow. Cartier made 2 jewelled crocodiles for her which can be worn together as a necklace or separately as brooches. Weighing it at a total of 60.02 carats of diamonds and 66.86 carats of emeralds, these crocodiles could be considered upcycling in the style of the rich and famous. The ear clips made for Maria Felix below were so heavy that they were worn around her earlobes for support. Lucky she had two, so her head was evenly balanced!
A selection of Princess Grace’s jewellery, including her 10.47 carat emerald-cut diamond, has been loaned to the exhibit too. The engagement ring is absolutely stunning (and massive). I’m pretty sure Quasimodo would have gotten a ‘yes’ if he’d proposed with that ring. She loved it so much she wore the ring for the filming of High Society!
Elizabeth Taylor had quite the collection of Cartier. Her third husband Mike Todd gave her the diamond and ruby necklace. Richard Burton gave her the famous La Peregrina pearl for which Cartier created a necklace.
Elizabeth Taylor necklace
The panther became Cartier’s emblem since the 1920’s when it was pioneered by Jeanne Toussaint, the company director at the time. They became all the rage when Wallis Simpson became a fan with her iconic panther brooch balanced on top of a walnut-sized sapphire.
A panther on a sapphire made for the Duchess of Windsor (1949)
Wallis Simpson would have been an ideal Cartier customer. Her motto was “if you can afford it, then there’s no pleasure buying it.” That also sounds like the motto for people who racked up thousands in debt before the credit crunch. Unlike those poor suckers, Wallis Simpson was married to a former King of England whose family would rather pay than deal with more bad publicity.
Jeanne Toussant also designed Wallis Simpson’s flamingo brooch. What is it about society women and brooches?? Do they run out of space on their body to display jewellery? I’ve always associated brooches with rich old ladies, an attitude which itself shows how times have changed.
Cartier: Style and History is on at the Grand Palais until the 16th of February, 2014. The exhibit shows the amazing detail, artistry and craftsmanship involved in couture jewellery that photos simply cannot do justice. If you have the chance to visit Paris, this exhibit is a total must-see.
Other than the window displays at the big department stores, how else does Paris jazz itself up? Well, the CIty of Lights is big on lights, naturally.
We went to the Christmas market on the Champs Elysses. It was fun and very crowded. Not particularly oozing in charm but it had the essentials — random Christmas treats and mulled wine. We munched out way through crepes, waffles, sugar-coated pretzels and some marshmallowy/chocolatey French delicacy.
We enjoyed riding on the giant ferris wheel which gave unsurpassed views over Paris. More by luck than planning, we were on the ferris wheel just at the right time before the sunset. The golden hour was beautiful and by the time we were done, the lights had come on the Eiffel Tower.
There are ice rinks dotted around the city, including the Champs Elysses Christmas market and in front of the Hotel de Ville. The carousels are free over Christmas too.
We stumbled across some revelers for Santacon, too. They seemed remarkably civilised for a Santacon on a Saturday night in Paris. In case you don’t know, Santacon is an annual meet-up for people dressed up as Santas to party and to spread Christmas cheer. Occasionally, Santacon descends into a raucous, drunken mess by night’s end. This year, Santacon covered 320 cities in 44 countries across the world.
The Parisians Santas were infinitely better behaved than the Santacon crowd in New York City (see the video here) or even those Santas here in London.
For a more traditional Christmas activity, we visited Notre Dame for their famous Nativity which was beautiful and quite modern. Visitors were asked to fill out a prayer for peace which I thought was a nice touch. Apparently over 2 million people visit this Nativity scene every Christmas.
We were at the Cathedral at the same time as a Scouts Mass. The voices of the choir echoed throughout the church as they had done for hundreds of years past. As impressed as I was, I can see how it would have been incredible and uplifting for people in the Middle Ages to have been enveloped by such beauty.
We enjoyed our trip to Paris in the festive season very much. In fact, however, I’ve not told you about the best part of our trip – the Cartier: Style and History exhibit at the Grand Palais which was just stunning. Even my son thought it was cool. More on that exhibit coming soon!!
New York City has a whole host of stores that go to town with their Christmas displays – Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdales. In London, we have Harrod’s, Harvey Nicks and Selfridges that get all creative with their store windows. What about the department stores in Paris? Parisian department stores have massive store fronts – Printemps is spread across two buildings and Galeries Lafayettes is across three. That’s a whole lot of windows to decorate!!
The store windows at the Galeries Lafayettes are a real treat with animatronic and computer-controlled puppets. They tell the really sweet story of a little red-haired girl whose toys come to life and enjoy playing in the snow and partying with her.
Galeries Lafayettes also has a series of windows promoting the new live action French Beauty and the Beast movie which will be released in France in February 2014. The sets look sumptious and stunning and I’ll watch anything with Vincent Cassel!
The tree inside is a 65 foot giant tree extending four floors under the stained glass mosaic dome. The tree is strung with 2 miles of lights and topped with a giant owl. The tree skirt is a little village scene with animals who circle around the tree. Every hour there is a light show which was a little lame, frankly.
This year, Printemps have their store windows dressed by Prada. I am loving the cool dude Prada bear and the little girl bears in their colourful party dresses.
Each year, Printemps also do a floor show to entertain shoppers during the busy weekends. This year, the floor show was a wizard with magic tricks which was not as good as last year’s show. The 2012 show was a mannequin who came to life and then was swept off her feet by a dashing male dancer. The romantic couple were serenaded by an opera singer. My children (especially my daughter) were entranced.
Last year, it was Christian Dior who festooned the store windows with dolls dressed in vintage dresses ice skating in the park. Absolutely charming.
The Printemps giant Christmas tree on the inside was fairly traditional with lots of sparkle and a giant advertising banner courtesy of Prada.
A Christmas display by two big name Parisian department stores – Which do you prefer? I honestly loved both.