Episode 8: Belle Epoque Paris

Galeries Lafayette, Paris

Close your eyes and picture Paris and it may well be Belle Époque Paris you’re imagining: the Eiffel Tower, exuberant cancan dancers at the Moulin Rouge, the insouciance of everyday life captured In Renoir’s painting Les Grands Boulevards, the stylish gaiety of a Toulouse Lautrec Poster. The Belle Époque is the name given to the period between 1871, when the misery of the Siege of Paris was over, and the onset of World War One in 1914.  So, over forty years of peace and excitement for the future, a time when new technology brought all sorts of wonders, from improved transports to impressive new developments in architecture.  Artists, musicians and writers flocked to Paris with their new ideas and their determination to enjoy life.  It was a time when stylish new buildings were put up, so it’s quite easy to ‘find’ the Belle Époque in Paris today. This post tells you where to look.

The Opéra Garnier

The Opéra Garnier in Paris
The Opéra Garnier

Opened in 1875, the Opéra Garnier ushered in the new era. New techniques allowed the building of a giant metal structure to support the domed ceiling and the artist Marc Chagall was commissioned to decorate it with scenes from 14 different operas. No fewer than 18 different sculptors were hired to carve the decorations and statues, 24 different types of marble were sourced and the interior was an overblown extravaganza of red velvet and gold leaf, not to mention the 7 tonne bronze chandelier with its 340 crystal lights. Visiting today, you can still feel the glamour of the exciting new era. There are lots of possibilities: going to an opera, taking a guided tour or looking around on your own, perhaps with an audio guide.

The Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower sparkling at night
The Eiffel Tower sparkling at night

Built in 1889 as the stunning showpiece for the Universal Exhibition, the Eiffel Tower represented the best that the engineers of the day could deliver. 300 workers toiled for two years to build it and it was the tallest building in the world. Such was the world’s fascination with it that two million visitors saw it in its first year, including Edward the Prince of Wales, eight African kings and Buffalo Bill. It was supposed to be temporary, but the Parisian authorities changed their minds about that when they realised how profitable an attraction it turned out to be. It was not universally popular; some found it an ugly monstrosity, including the author Guy de Maupassant who claimed to enjoy eating in its restaurant because ‘It’s the only place in Paris where I don’t have to see it.’ Its 20,000 lightbulbs make it a spectacular showpiece every evening, especially on the hour (until 1.00 am) when they sparkle for five glittering minutes.

The Grand Palais and the Petit Palais

The roof of the Grand Palais in Paris
The Grand Palais

The World Exhibition of 1900 brought the world to Paris and Paris built a host of stunning buildings to impress her visitors, including the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais. At the Grand Palais, used for major exhibitions and easily viewed from the river, a 45m cupola soars above the city, supporting a graceful glass roof and its stone and ironwork facades are Belle Époque architecture at its best. At the nearby Petit Palais, which houses the City of Paris Art Collection and is free to visit, look out for the wrought iron staircases and the grand gallery. The Alexandre III bridge was also built for the exhibition, to connect the two Palais with the Invalides on the other side of the Seine. Perhaps the city’s most beautiful bridge, it is decorated with art nouveau treasures such as gilded lamps, statues, nymphs and cherubs and is a popular spot for photos and film scenes!

The Galeries Lafayette

Looking up into the dome of the Galéries Lafayette in Paris
The dome of the Galéries Lafayette

This well-known department store, the Galeries Lafayette in Boulevard Haussman originally opened in 1895 as a small haberdasher’s shop, then grew its reputation as a ‘magasin de nouveautés’, selling all the novelties the new times could provide. In 1912 it was refurbished in a grand manner, with a sweeping central staircase modelled on the one at the nearby Opéra Garnier and a beautiful domed roof decorated in art nouveau style with stained glass panels in stunning jewel colours. Make sure you stand in the centre so you can see up into all five floors to admire the stunning décor – their seasonal displays are legendary – and be sure to visit the rooftop terrace for marvellous views over Paris. There are various tours and classes on offer – everything from wine to heritage to macaron baking – and also several café and restaurant options. Other Belle Époque stores in the city are Printemps (also in Boulevard Haussman) and Bon Marché (in the 7th arrondissement)

St Jean de Montmartre

The Saint Jean de Montmartre church in Montmartre, Paris
Saint Jean de Montmartre

This unusual church, St Jean de Montmartre, known locally as ‘Notre Dame des Briques’ (‘Our Lady of the Bricks’) is in Montmartre, just opposite the Abbesses metro station. Completed in 1904, its façade is indeed red brick, designed to be appropriate for the new industrial age, and its elegant interior is in art nouveau style. The pillars are slender because the building is made of reinforced concrete supported by a metal framework and the decoration of geometric patterns in bronze and blue and gold ceramic is stylish, but unlike any church from an earlier era.

The Gare de Lyon

Inside Le Train Bleu restaurant at the Gare de Lyon in Paris
Le Train Bleu restaurant

Travel became easier in the Belle Époque as trains were modernised and stations like the Gare de Lyon were fashionably designed in keeping with the exciting new era. Look out for the lavish carvings and chandeliers, more in keeping with a hotel or a palace than a station, and especially for the station restaurant, Le Train Bleu where wealthy Parisians would dine before heading south for the summer. It is still a restaurant today and while eating there you can enjoy its sumptuous décor: golden carvings, upholstered wooden furniture and chandeliers from a bygone era. You can also still enjoy the painted scenes which decorate the walls and ceilings. Artists were specially commissioned to design pictures of the landscapes which travellers would pass through en route to Lyon or Marseille.

Metro Stations

Abbesses métro station in Montmartre
Abbesses métro station

Many of these were opened in the early years of the 20th century and often retain their original style, designed by Hector Guimard and characterised by dark green wrought iron railings and intricate metalwork designs around the lamps and station signs. At Abbesses in Montmartre, you can still see a beautiful glass canopy over the entrance, all supported by a delicate curving steel framework. Très Belle Époque! 

Listen to the podcast

Suggested reading

Dawn of the Belle Époque by Mary McAuliffe
Twilight of the Belle Époque by Mary McAuliffe

links for this post

Opéra Garnier
Eiffel Tower
Grand Palais
Petit Palais
Galeries Lafayette
Bon Marché
St Jean de Montmartre
Le Train Bleu

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