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Paris by Train
One of the very best ways to arrive in any European city is by train and as a means of transport for getting from one city to the next, particularly throughout the European Union, it has a great deal going for it. To begin with there are no long check-in times before stepping on board. You can leave it until the last minute to buy a ticket and then sit back and watch the countryside, villages and towns slip past your window.
And while in Paris, try the Paris hop on hop off Bus. These sightseeing excursion buses are open on the upper level and put you in control. When your sightseeing is done hop back on the bus to the next stop on your Paris tour!
Ah, but it takes much longer we can hear the dedicated flyer say. Well, not necessarily. In fact it might be quicker than you think, simply because there are less delays; you don’t have to turn up a couple of hours before the flight takes off and you don’t have to travel an hour or more from the airport to get into the centre of the city. And then there is the feeling of actually enjoying the train as opposed to the horrible business of jamming yourself into a cheap-ticketed aeroplane, fastening your seatbelt, putting your hands together and praying for the whole thing to end as soon as possible. Oh, and there is one more agreeable and very politically correct reason to take the train. It’s by far the most environmentally friendly way to travel!
Having said all that, of course, things can and do go wrong. Trains get packed to the gunnels as well, refreshments can be scarcer than water in the desert and you end up struggling with luggage because the racks are groaning with someone else’s bags.
Over the years we have done a good deal of train travel throughout France. And France just happens to have one of the best train services in the world. For us our journey begins in North East England right on the Scottish border. We head for London from our very own Berwick station with GNER (Great North Eastern Railways). This train company is one of the best in Britain and is responsible for high speed trains between London and Scotland. Three and a half hours later, all being well, we should be heading across London to Waterloo to pick up the Euro Star for Paris.
What makes this possible and so pleasurable is the Channel Tunnel. It takes about twenty minutes to go through the tunnel and once into France the Euro star travels at speeds of 180 mph.
We were heading for one of Grace Leo-Andrieu’s wonderful boutique hotels. She is responsible for some of the most luxurious small hotels in the world and this one is no exception. For generations, the discreet ancienne regime style building at 7 Rue du Berri has housed one of the last bastions of traditional hospitality - Hotel Lancaster. A beautiful intimate hotel of sixty bedrooms built around a honeysuckle scented courtyard; there are no armies of uniformed flunkies and no glitz, instead, there is a fundamental understanding of the importance of the highest levels of personal service and of the innate quality of every aspect of the hotel from the precise shade of the bed linen, to the basins hewn from solid marble and the collection of fine antiques and artefacts which decorate the hotel. If the maxim that ‘God is in the detail’ were ever applicable to a hotel, The Lancaster is that hotel.
Since it opened in 1930, the hotel has had just three operators, the legendary hotelier Emile Wolf, the Savoy Group and Grace Leo-Andrieu. Fittingly, when Grace Leo-Andrieu restored the hotel on its acquisition in 1996, she, like Emile Wolf sixty-five years previously, personally oversaw every detail of the works, including the restoration of much of the hotel’s extensive collection of pictures and antiques.
The feeling is of a private home, albeit a connoisseur’s home, with painstaking attention to detail, from the beautifully restored marble staircase patinated by a century of use, to contemporary sandblasted white oak panelling in the reception set off by the stained iroko architraving and skirting boards.
And then Leo-Andrieu's exacting attention to detail kicks in again from the fresh flowers in each bedroom, the hotel's own line of scent, Contemporel, and the hand-cast bronze room number plaques. Beautiful fabrics abound throughout the hotel - carefully chosen Toiles de Jouy, Damassé and Indienne, many with their own themes - Voyage en Chine, Marchands d'Etoffes, Le Singe Savant, and the specially woven Braquenié carpets which enhance the curtains.
A nice touch is the Marlene Dietrich suite. She made the hotel her home on visits to Paris and as a tribute to the thirties screen idol it is decorated in the star's favourite colour of lilac. A Von Sternberg original drawing of Marlene hangs above the bed.
A single night in this beautiful hotel certainly wasn’t enough and there was no chance to have dinner there because we had been invited to a restaurant full of promise overlooking the rooftops of Paris. It sits in the Avenue Montaigne which is very much Paris’ fashion street. Walking there on a summer’s evening was a pleasure as we passed every designer shop under the sun! Then, you get to number fifteen and you have arrived at Maison Blanche.
From the moment we stepped inside we were greeted warmly by the restaurant manager and shown to our table. The smart waiters in black suits couldn’t offer us a table at the huge floor to ceiling windows but we decided to go further back in the restaurant and occupy what they call a silk booth. It is obviously designed for couples who can’t keep their hands off each other because you are completely enclosed with only one side open. This allows you a view of the rooftops outside, plenty of opportunities to gaze into each other’s eyes and give your order to the waiter. So, with views of the Eiffel Tower and the higgledy-piggledy roof tops of Paris, and a nice large table covered in a crisp, white tablecloth, we gave our order.
We began with the season’s first Provence asparagus, accompanied by black truffle zabaglione and vinaigrette. We also tucked into duck foie gras with a grapefruit and baby leek salad which was delicious. All this wonderful food came to us with a troubling background music which was getting on our nerves, simply because of its incessant drum beat. Modern electronic dance music or ‘garage’, we think they call it. Boom, boom, boom, boom - it seemed to penetrate our bones until we could stand it no longer so we called our waiter to ask him why it was that this particular and extremely monotonous, background noise was deemed to be an accompaniment to such a beautiful meal.
‘It is part of the restaurant ambience,’ he assured us. ‘One of two CDs that we regularly play,’ he went on. Despite our complaints the music continued and it did nothing to enhance our meal which was a pity because we went on to have superb grilled Brittany lobster and sautéed veal sweetbreads.
The puddings consisted of a chocolate tart with goat’s milk cream and a fantastic pineapple gratin, which came with ice cream and tapioca! It was extremely good! Meanwhile the drum beat hammered into our heads and we drank our coffee in double quick time and left vowing to go back on one condition only. They change their music!
7 Rue de Berri, Champs-Elysees
Leading Small Hotels of the World
Telephone: (33-1) 4076 4000
Maison Blanche Restaurant
15 Avenue Montaigne
Telephone: (33-0) 147 235599
Keith and Lynne travelled from their home in Berwick upon Tweed in England with their favourite train company in Britain.
GNER provides high speed intercity train services along Britain’s east coast main line linking England and Scotland along a route of almost 1000 miles. Trains call at some of the most important tourism and commercial centres in the UK. GNER has a reputation for offering high standards of customer service and travelling with GNER should be a very pleasurable experience.
More than a decade ago Eurostar changed the way people travel to Paris and Brussels from London. In fact, they have doubled the amount of visitors travelling from London to both these cities. In the autumn of 2007 Eurostar is moving to St Pancras next to Kings Cross and St Pancras will become London’s new Eurostar terminal. It will cut journey times to Paris running entirely on a purpose built line all the way from London to the Channel Tunnel. We can’t wait!
For Bookings contact: Rail Europe, the UK’s leading supplier of European rail tickets. www.raileurope.co.uk
London Hilton Gatwick Hotel.
If you’re flying in to London Gatwick and you need an immediate overnight stay at a decent hotel the Gatwick Hilton is perfect. It’s right there at the airport so no travelling to get to your bed! On a recent trip we arrived in our room just after the end of full room service (it stops at 11pm when a basic service kicks in) but the staff were amazing and at 11.15pm they were still willing to cook up juicy fillet steaks and deliver it all to our room with a bottle of claret And our executive room was first class too. It’s the only hotel linked by covered walkway to the South Terminal at Gatwick Airport and the hotel is 30 minutes away from central London. All rooms have high speed internet access. Family room sleeps five and executive rooms have executive lounge access.
Eyewitness Travel Guide to Paris, published by Dorling Kindersley.
Husband and wife, Keith Allan and Lynne Gray are travel writers and photographers based in Berwick upon Tweed on the English/Scottish border. They have worked for The Times, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, House and Garden, Scotland on Sunday and The Herald. For more than twenty years they have worked as freelance producers and reporters for BBC Radio, working from their own independent studio for BBC Radio 4, Radio 5 and Radio Scotland as well as the BBC’s World Service.