Should you be flying to Paris with Ryanair from whatever take-off point in Europe you’re travelling from, you’ll arrive in Beauvais. It’s all so much more manageable than Roissy and even though there’s no direct rail link from Beauvais airport to Paris, the capital is easily reached by
bus or taxi. Ryanair is often criticised for flying to airports that are some considerable distance from named destinations, but in this case, there’s much to be said for using its services to Beauvais.
And once you get to Beauvais, there’s much to be said for exploring the town itself, which is full of
fascinating historical places. For starters, the cathedral of St-Pierre in the town centre dates back to the 13th century; it lost its spire in the 16th century, but that doesn’t detract from its wealth of Gothic architecture. On the outside of the cathedral is the Horloge Astronomique and it’s well worthwhile
seeing the procession of figures as the hour strikes.
The whole area around the cathedral, the medieval quarter of Beauvais is full of intriguing
small streets, all drenched in authentic historic atmosphere. Not far away is the national tapestry museum; Beauvais and tapestry-making have been synonymous since the 17th century. The tapestry factory was founded in 1664 and was nationalised during Napoleonic times. For anyone interested in fabric design and making, this is a wonderful place to tour.
If on the other hand, you’re fascinated by aviation, Beauvais is a good place to start. The
Beauvais-Warluis aviation museum, just south of the town, has a great collection of old aircraft, displays and documentation. Its treasures include a display on the D Day landings on the Normandy beaches in 1944 and a restored V1 bomb from World War II. The other aviation museum, also on the southside of Beauvais, is even more intriguing. It’s the Musée des Dirigeables, devoted to airships. It’s a small, privately funded museum and the facade of the museum looks like an ordinary house. But inside this wonderfully eccentric collection, there’s loads of stuff about the old airships.
One tragedy in particular is well commemorated. On October 5, 1930, the R-101 airship was on its way from England to India, when it came down in bad weather just three km from the site of this
museum, and burst into flames. So, lots to do and enjoy at Beauvais, quite apart from using its airport to make an easy access into Paris.
Mind you, we’re coming right into the peak holiday months of July and August, when the Bison Futé, the route planner, will indicate horrendous traffic jams on the main autoroutes, especially to the south. The French are so logical about so many things, so it has always amused me that they
totally refuse to think laterally about their summer holidays. Everyone insists on going on holiday at the same time, with the result that holidaying families often spend endless hours stuck in traffic jams. The sensible thing would be to stagger holiday times, but this is evidently a logical step too far.
I was struck by the futility of going to popular places during the French summer holidays when I saw just how many people go in mid-summer to Belle Ile, a delightful and quite large island off the south coast of Brittany. It’s a 14 km sea journey from the Quiberon peninsula and the island has some lovely
small towns, harbours and beaches, all idyllic looking. In the 1870s and 1880s, Claude Monet was so struck by Belle Ile’s beauty that he started doing paintings of its rock formations. When they were shown in Paris in 1887, they created a sensation, and laid the foundations for the island becoming a haven for artists.
The island has a permanent population of about 5,000,but during the peak tourist season, from July 15 to August 15, something like 35,000 tourists, mostly French, can be seen on the island each day in search of solitude on the beach! Yet as I know myself, if you pick the right time, you can really enjoy the tourist sights of France.
One August, we spent a week in Paris, and despite the fact that many facilities were closed because
their owners had decamped to holiday in the traffic jams on the way to the Cote d’Azur, we still found plenty of places, including restaurants, open and not nearly as busy as during the rest of the year. Paris that August was so memorable that I would almost recommend exploring Paris then in preference to any other time of the year.
One of the places well worth seeing in Paris during the quiet season is the Musée Jacquemart-André, in a splendid late 19th century building on the Boulevard Haussmann in the 8th arrondissement. It has an extraordinary collection of rare furniture, tapestries, objets’ d’art, you name it, you’ll find it there. It’s owned by the Institut de France, connected to the five leading French academies, and it’s run by Culturespaces. That organisation runs other such sites as the train and car museums in Mulhouse in Alsace and the battlefield of Waterloo in Belgium. The reason why the Musée Jacquemart-André was
in the news recently was because it was the venue for a Swiss company, Savelli, to launch the world’s first luxury smartphone designed for women.
A strange makeover befell the Grand Palais the other day. Karl Lagerfeld was staging a show for Chanel and just for the day, the interior of the Grand Palais was transformed into a ruined theatre. Why anyone should want to see a fashion show in such surroundings beats me, when there is so much real-life destruction going on in other parts of the world, especially Syria.
But people in France often love a show like this that’s slightly over the top, just as they love any suggestion of scandal, preferably involving a well-known personality. A former call girl, Zahia Dehar, fits this particular bill ideally. She was born in Algeria in 1992 and in 2010, just before the French team took part in the World Cup football series, some of its players were involved in a scandal involving under-age call girls. The case against two of the players was subsequently dropped because they said they weren’t aware that Dehar was 16 at the time. Her involvement in this and other scandals, heightened by her posting indiscreet photos on Twitter, have earned her the nickname in the French media of la scandaleuse. She subsequently became a fashion model and launched her own range of lingerie and a perfume named after herself, which she did in collaboration with Karl Lagerfeld. Now she’s opened her own fashion and cake shop in Paris - all the publicity and notoriety hasn’t done her the slightest bit of harm!
But at least, the French had a fashion anniversary to celebrate the other day. July 6 was the 67th anniversary of the invention of the bikini a Paris fashion designer Louis Réard. For years, of course, not so much the bikini as the monokini has been the norm on French beaches. Going topless on French beaches has been de rigeur for so long that no-one takes the slightest bit of notice - very sensible!
Another recent scandal has really got the French going. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy recently went on a trip to New York and Air France not only covered the €11,000 cost of her return flight, but even the €500 airport taxes involved. It just so happens that the chief executive of Air France, Alexandre De Juniac, once worked as an aide to her husband Nicolas, until last year, President of France. At the moment, Air France is cutting €2 billion from its costs, which means shedding loads of jobs, so the
special treatment that Carla received has gone down very badly with the French public at a time of increasing austerity.
Talking about airlines, I can’t see the French media or media elsewhere in Europe being as
inventive as the Washington Post. Last Saturday, July 6, an Asiana Boeing 777 aircraft crashed as it came in to land at San Francisco airport. The next day, as part of its reportage, the Washington Post had the tape of the conversation between the control tower and the plane’s cockpit crew in the minutes before the crash, up on its website, for anyone to listen to. All fascinating stuff, but when
will the European media ever be so ingenious?
Mind you, something else has just come to light that will demolish traditional views of France as a
tourist destination. France is still the most popular country in the world for tourists and one of its attractions is that whether you are in a big city or a tiny village, you’ll be able to enjoy a meal that has been carefully prepared and cooked on the spot. Now, a survey that has just been done by the national union of workers in the hotel, restaurant and café sectors, has found that a third of all restaurants in France admit to using factory-prepared dishes that have been deep frozen, as a means of saving a lot of time and money. Restaurant owners says that the proportion of establishments taking this short cut is actually much higher.
This really undermines one of the main reasons for going to France, enjoying traditional food that has been prepared in time-honoured traditional style by a chef slaving over a hot stove. Now, it looks as if the traditional image of French dining out is all a big sham! These days, you might as well save money, stay at home and enjoy a factory-produced meal straight from the chill or frozen cabinet in Tesco!
One piece of music, incredibly popular, that I was listening to the other day brought in unexpected
recollections of the Latin Quarter in Paris. The Concierto de Aranjuez is one of the most popular of all Spanish pieces. It was written in 1939 by Joaquin Rodrigo, who had been blind from the age of three. He and his Turkish-born wife, Victoria, a pianist, had moved to Paris after the start of the Spanish civil war and it was while they were living in the Latin Quarter that Rodrigo composed
the famous piece. It was long thought that the haunting slow movement was a tribute to the massacre at Guernica, but no, it turns out that Rodrigo was inspired to these haunting melodies by the miscarriage his wife suffered in her first pregnancy.
As for the piece itself, it had its first performance in Barcelona in 1940. Years later, in 1974, Rodrigo transcribed it for harp and orchestra. In 1999, the king of Spain elevated Rodrigo to the Spanish
nobility,making him the 1st Marquis of the Gardens of Aranjuez. Rodrigo died in 1999, after reaching nearly 100, and he and his wife Victoria are buried in the cemetery at Aranjuez, while the title passed to their daughter. It’s an intriguing story behind a wonderful piece of music and it all has a specific Parisian connection.
Finally, this week, a little cause for celebration with one of my own books. Earlier this year, a book was published that I did on the history of Achill Island, Ireland’s largest island, and which contained
many old photographs. As soon as it was launched, the grapevine went into overdrive, helped by Twitter and Facebook. So despite the irrelevance of so little coverage in the traditional mainstream media,the book just took off.It’s now
sold out and is in the process of being reprinted.Just a small indication of how
and why the social media have become so important.