Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Visiting the Banque de France (National Bank of France)

Bar of gold at the Banque de France. Each bar weighs between 10.88 and 13.37 kilos.

I wrote the following post about visiting the Banque de France during European Cultural Days before I learned that it' not open to the public this year. Keep it in mind for 2015! 

Gold bars and ingots aren't all that glisten at the Banque de France. The Central Bank of France, created on January 18, 1800 by Napoléon Bonaparte, is partially located in the luxurious Hôtel de Toulouse in the first arrondissement. Formerly a private residence, it was built between 1635 and 1640 by French architect François Mansart (famous for popularizing the Mansard roof) for King Louis XIII's Secretary of State, Louis Phélypeaux.

During the French Revolution, the residence was confiscated as national property and used as the French National Printing Office. Printing machines were installed in the historic building and the sumptuous Golden Gallery, built to expose Phélypeaux's works of art, was used as a store room for paper.

The Hôtel de Toulouse was purchased by the Banque de France in 1808. The Golden Gallery, which was in a state of disrepair, was used solely for the annual stockholder's meeting and the launch of government bonds.

In the 1870s, the building was totally dismantled room by room before being meticulously restored. Missing architectural elements, paintings, frescoes and statues were replaced by replicas.

La Tasse de chocolat (The Cup of Chocolate) by Achille Leboucher and Charles Rauch. 

If you visit the Banque de France during European Heritage Days, be sure to look at The Cup of Chocolate located in the antechamber. Ever since I first saw this painting in 2012, I've wondered why the painters, or perhaps the Duc de Penthièvre, decided to portray the family with cups and saucers of chocolate in their hands. It almost looks as if it could be an advertisement: "Chocolate, the treat for the elite".

The courtyard garden of the Banque de France

In addition to seeing the interior of the Hôtel de Toulouse (with the exception of the Golden Gallery because it's currently closed for restoration), you'll learn about the history of the Banque de France and how to identify counterfeit bills. A gold bar and ingot are the glittering finale.

Interesting fact: In response to counterfeit photographed bills, the Banque de France issued the first colored notes in 1862. They were blue.

The Golden Gallery at the Bangue National de France is closed for restoration in 2014.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Château de Vaux le Vicomte invites its social media fans for an unforgettable soirée! #FanVLV #VauxExperience

Château de Vaux le Vicomte

On Saturday evening, Stéphane and I stood in the courtyard of Château de Vaux le Vicomte with a group of fifteen strangers. While we had only traveled from Paris, several of the guests had driven over 500 kilometers to attend a very special soirée. The occasion? Vaux le Vicomte's premiere evening dedicated entirely to its social media fans. As we gathered around Community Manager Juliette Dagois, she explained that it was their way of expressing Vaux le Vicomte's gratitude for our support on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest.

Social media table at Vaux le Vicomte invites you to share your #VauxExperience

The agenda included  a private tour of the château with co-proprietor Alexandre de Vögué, a stroll through the gardens magically illuminated by more than 2,000 candles, a private dinner and a firework display for the grand finale.

While the evening was remarkable from start to finish, I was most impressed by the fact that several of the fans were visiting Vaux le Vicomte for the very first time. They were active supporters of the château without ever having seen the harmony and elegance of its French formal garden or the grand ceiling with its eight muses in the Salon des Muses. That's the power of social media!

Whether you live 5 or 500 kilometers from Château de Vaux le Vicomte, you can be a #FanVLV by liking it on Facebook and/or following it on Twitter. Share your photos and participate in the discussion. If you would like to help preserve this masterpiece of French architecture in a more substantial fashion, join the Friends of Vaux le Vicomte Association.

Upcoming events at Château de Vaux le Vicomte include European Heritage Days on September 20 and 21, Chocolate Palace from November 8 to 11 and Christmas at Vaux le Vicomte December/January.

Château de Vaux le Vicomte
77950 Maincy

Dessert, a sweet tweet (treat) for Vaux le Vicomte's social media fans!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Hôtel de Talleyrand (George C. Marshall Center): A "must-visit" for Americans in Paris during European Cultural Days (September 20 & 21)

Inside the Hôtel de Talleyrand, Paris

Important notice: the Hôtel de Talleyrand is open on Sunday, September 21, from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.

If you're in Paris during the European Cultural Days on September 20 and 21, be sure to add Hôtel de Talleyrand to your list of places to visit. This historic building, with a spectacular view of the Place de la Concorde, has played a significant role in numerous historical events. Of the time that this hôtel particulier (private residence) belonged to Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, Victor Hugo famously wrote in Choses Vue:

In the Rue Saint-Florentin there are a palace and a sewer. The Palace, which is of a rich, handsome, and gloomy style of architecture, was long called "Hôtel de l'Infantado"; nowadays may be seen on the frontal of its principal doorway "Hôtel Talleyrand". During the forty years that he resided in this street, the last tenant of this palace never, perhaps, cast his eyes upon this sewer.

He was a strange, redoubtable, and important personage; his name was Charles Maurice de Périgord; he was of noble descent, like Machiavelli, a priest like Gondi, unfrocked like Fouché, witty like Voltaire, and lame like the devil. ...

During thirty years, from the interior of his palace, from the interior of his thoughts, he had almost controlled Europe. ... He had come in contact with, known, observed, penetrated, influenced, set in motion, fathomed, bantered, inspired all the men of his time, all the ideas of his time; and there had been moments in his life, when, holding in his hand the four or five great threads which moved the civilized universe, he had for his puppet Napoleon I ....

View of the Place de la Concorde from the Hôtel de Talleyrand 

He did all this in his palace; and in this palace, like a spider in his web, he allured and caught in succession heroes, thinkers, great men, conquerors, kings, princes, emperors, Bonaparte, Sieyès, Madame de Staël, Châteaubriand, Benjamin Constant, Alexander of Russia, William of Prussia, Francis of Austria, Louix XVIII, Louis Phillippe, all the gilded and glittering flies who buzz through history of the last forty years. All this glistening throng, fascinated by the penetrating eye of this man, passed in turn under that gloomy entrance bearing the architrave the inscription HOTEL TALLEYRAND.

Well, the day before yesterday, May 17, 1838, this man died. Doctors came and embalmed the body. To do this, they, like the Egyptians, removed the bowels from the stomach and the brain from the skull. The work done, after having transformed the Prince de Talleyrand into a mummy, and nailed down this mummy in a coffin lined with white satin, they retired, leaving upon a table the brain,--that brain which had thought so many things, inspired so many men, erected so many buildings, led two revolutions, duped twenty kings, held the world. The doctors being gone, a servant entered: he saw what they had left: "Hulloa! they have forgotten this." What was to be done with it? It occured to him that there was a sewer in the street; he went there, and threw the brain into this sewer.

After Talleyrand's death, the hôtel particulier remained the property of the Rothschild family for over a hundred years. After World War II, it was rented and then purchased by the US Department of State. From 1947 until 1952, it was the headquarters of the Marshall Plan, the postwar American reconstruction plan for Western Europe.

In 2010, the Hôtel de Talleyrand re-opened its doors after a magnificent restoration that took nine years and cost approximately $5 million. A team of over 150 French artisans resurrected the original light-gray tone of the walls, gildings, wood panels and parquet floors, which are considered to be among the finest examples of 18th-century French decorative art. 100 private and corporate donors from both sides of Atlantic contributed to the project.

Hôtel de Talleyrand (Exceptionally open for visits on Sunday, September 21, from 10:00 am until 5:00 pm)
2 rue Saint-Florentin
75001 Paris

Hôtel de Talleyrand

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Add Château de Valençay, the former residence of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, to your Loire Valley itinerary!

Château de Valençay in the Loire Valley, France

With 71 historical sites, it's difficult to know where to start when planning a trip to the Loire Valley. While many people concentrate on the "C" castles - Chambord, Chenonceau and Chaumont-sur-Loire - consider moving further along in the alphabet. Continue all the way to "V" for Château de Valençay, one of the most attractive Renaissance castles in the region.

Although it was built on the ruins of an old feudal castle in 1540, Valençay's claim to fame is that it was the home of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, Napoleon Bonaparte's foreign minister, at the beginning of the 19th century. Talleyrand, whose club foot and political machinations earned him the nickname "the lame devil", was a man of many contradictions. During the time that he was the Abbot of the wealthy monastery of Saint-Rémi-de-Reims, he devoted most of his time to gambling and women, his two great passions. After his excommunication from the church, he switched careers from religion to diplomacy.

Napoleon instructed Talleyrand, who was both admired and mistrusted by his peers, to acquire a beautiful estate that could be used for entertaining noteworthy foreigners and ambassadors. In 1803, Talleyrand purchased Valençay, which was partially funded by Napoleon, sight unseen. It turned out to be the perfect choice.

The Blue Salon at Château de Valençay in the Loire Valley

The elegant Empire-style furniture, paintings, sculptures and other precious objects give visitors a rare glimpse into life during the Napoleonic era. One of my favorite rooms was the surprisingly modern kitchen, the domain of Antonin Carême. Known today as the founder of Great French Cuisine, Carême created a year's worth of completely original menus using seasonal products for Talleyrand's illustrious guests. Not only did Carême invent thousands of recipes (including vol-au-vent), lighten dishes with sauces, use different herbs and lay the foundations of modern French cuisine, he also shared his expertise by writing several memoirs.

In keeping with the historical importance of French cuisine at Valençay, the châteaux features renowned chefs from the Tables Gourmand de Berry. On the first Thursday of every month, one of the association's chefs reinterprets a traditional recipe and invites visitors to sample the finished dish.

The Theatre at Château de Valençay in the Loire Valley

If you have the good fortune to visit Valençay on a Wednesday afternoon (2:00 pm) or Sunday (11:00 am and 12:00 pm), be sure to join the guided tour of the theatre. This beautifully preserved jewel was built at the request of Napoleon for the Spanish princes who were imprisoned, albeit in a golden cage, at Château de Valençay. The well-preserved decor and backdrops are unique in France.

In more recent history, the château was spared by the occupying German forces during World War II because the owner at the time, the Duke of Valençay, managed to establish his neutrality as Prince de Sagan (duchy of Sagan in Prussian Silesia, now part of Poland). Thanks to this technicality, one of treasures of the Louvre Museum, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, was safely sheltered at Valençay and remained unscathed during the war.

The 53 hectare estate offers many surprises, including an outdoor ballroom and a Spanish tavern that were built to entertain the Princes during their long captivity, a pond where ice was collected during the winter, a bats' cave and the tuffeau caves left after the stone used to build the château was extracted. Four-seater electric golf carts are available for rent (30 minutes for €12.00).

Château de Valençay
2, rue de Blois
36600 Valençay

Click here to see additional photos of the château and estate taken during my visit.

Château de Valencay in the Loire Valley, France

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The super cool ice wall and other contemporary art at Le Meurice in Paris

♥ Le Meurice - my parting message on the ice wall

Paris is a fast-paced city. It seems that I'm frequently rushing from the latest exhibition to the newest show. One of the downsides is that I all-too-often miss some fascinating sights.

Take Le Meurice as an example. During the years that I've lived in Paris, I've visited this lovely palace hotel on the Rue de Rivoli for drinks at Bar 228 and afternoon tea at Le Dali on numerous occasions. That's why I was so surprised when the bellhop showed me the super cool ice wall, where guests are invited to etch comments, when I checked into the hotel for #EmbraceParis. "Is this new?" I queried. When he replied that it wasn't, I shook my head in wonder. How had I missed it?

"Le Baiser" by Zoulikha Bouabdellah was the first winner of the Meurice Prize for Contemporary Art.
(Photo credit: Le Meurice)

Something else that I learned during my three-night stay at Le Meurice is that Salvador Dali was a regular visitor of the 180 year old hotel, hence the restaurant that bears the name of the famous Spanish artist. To carry on its role as a patron of the arts, the palace hotel founded the Meurice Prize for Contemporary Art in 2008 under the impetus of general manager Franka Holtmann. In doing so, Le Meurice asserted its support of young artists.

The Meurice Prize for Contemporary Art is an international award with an endowment of €20,000. It concerns all disciplines in the visual and plastic arts (painting, sculpture, installation, photography, video, etc.) and distinguishes a project of international stature, proposed by an artist and their gallery, two weeks before the FIAC contemporary art fair in Paris.

Lesson learned: I'm going to start dedicating more time to noticing my surroundings and less time to running from here to there. Maybe I'll even start hanging out at Le Meurice like Salvidor Dali. It will give me the opportunity to more fully appreciate the Dalinien chair with feet in the form of ladies shoes, a lamp with drawers and Le Meurice's recognizable lobster on a telephone in Le Dali. 

Salvador Dali at Le Meurice (1974). ©Huper-International Press.