France: Paris Hotel St James A joint 20th wedding Anniversary/birthday surprise

December 2014

My husband Dave is the most incredible gift giver;  he’s just so damned good at it.  December marked our 20th anniversary followed a day later by my birthday.  He warned me in advance of a surprise and when I needled him for clues, said emphatically that it would be UK based.  7am the following dark December morning in a taxi…and passing a black van en route to which Dave remarked “Do you think that van is filled with evil men?”.   Perplexed I noticed the number plate…666 MEN.   Yeah he’s funny too. Driving to Kings Cross area I  wondered aloud if we were heading to visit my Northern family.  Thinking a few days spent with his mother-in-law for such a momentous occasion a rather unique if foolhardy excursion for my husband… when there we were, bags in hand, standing on the platform at St Pancreas with the departure boards for Eurostar blinking significantly above us.  I think I might have shrieked, I was definitely grinning ear to ear. I was also surprised given Dave’s general antipathy towards Paris… but clarification came when he told me where we were staying; the magnificent Hotel St James; the only Chateau within the city limits of Paris. http://www.saint-james-paris.com/#/index/

Greeted by concierge, led to the check in desk where a fake fluffy black cat reclined very realistically along the counter and signed photographs of Robert DeNiro and the 14th Dalai Lama graced the wall behind the desk (‘were they in bunk beds?’ asked my old friend Kate when I told her they also stayed here)…we were shown to our room.  Led past the taxidermy zebra heads mounted in the hall, the tumbling glittering stack of chandeliers and up a sweeping staircase in a riot of black and white, leopard skin fabrics and towering blood red enameled bedroom doors.  Stupidly I had forgotten to bring a camera so my iphone photos cannot do this feast of opulent design any credit ….so I’ve nicked some from the internet.

We ate that evening at the decadently Michelin starred restaurant; forgoing earlier reservations elsewhere that would have meant braving the rain and cold of a Parisian winter.  Having stuffed our faces earlier in the day at lunch we skipped the starters to the limited mains menu, a cheese board (attractively pungent to Dave..) and a selection of Petit Fours. The generously gifted bottle of Tattinger champagne from the hotel left in our room to celebrate our anniversary (2 glasses and I’m anyone’s) meant forgoing the wine list for me but Dave obligingly indulged. The waiter was lovely; the hotel and dining room staff refreshingly un-stuffy and humorous; and the resident (real live cat) wandered around as we ate…so un-Parisian.
An added bonus was the Olafur Eliasson immersive light exhibition at the Frank Gehry designed Louis Vuitton foundation: https://www.fondationlouisvuitton.fr/fr.html   A 15 minute walk in the rain from the hotel; through the park cawing with many ‘Murders’ of crows and skittering vivid red squirrels (haven’t seen one of those in the UK for years) and the Gehry building rises like an enormous curved silver fish above the trees at the park’s exit.
I was lucky enough to see Olafur Eliasson’s celebrated Weather Project on 2 separate visits in London’s Tate Modern several years ago and this latest exhibition doesn’t disappoint. http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/exhibition/unilever-series-olafur-eliasson-weather-project/olafur-eliasson-weather-project  Staff warn before entering  the galleries that the exhibits may “highlight feelings of disorientation and possible confusion”. Walls appear far away or non-existent but on inspection are mirrored within reach when approached but move rhythmically when brushed by my fingertips; creating an undulation which gently throws your depth awareness askew.  A pitch black entrance with an upward sloping floor confuses your feet and sense of direction before you reach a softly glowing amber horizon which seems to pulsate as it hypnotizes.  It’s emotionally intense; wonderfully disorientating and embracingly soothing.
The exterior wall of vibrantly glowing yellow-backed mirrors along a walkway flanked by water, share some visual impact but didn’t elicit any particular feelings above being aesthetically pleasing; and felt more like an exiting architectural afterthought to the main exhibition.
After the exhibition and a cafe lunch of huge sandwiches we wander in to the area of the city known as Le Marais.  Strolling along the Rue de Rosiers and Rue St Antoine in the old Jewish Quarter past the delis, bakeries and Eastern European Jewish restaurants.  Wishing for an emptier stomach to be able to sample some of the mouth-wateringly enticing pastries in the windows.  Old apartment buildings overlooking small squares and pretty independent boutiques; you are not far from the beautiful Places des Vosges which I remember from a business meeting many years ago with PIAS.  This is my favourite re-discovered area of Paris. We hop on the metro back to the hotel… to relax, to dress (me head to toe in black pencil skirt and BIBA-esque blouse; feeling a little self conscious in our extravagant surroundings) and to drink the champagne before dinner; far too quickly than is necessary, experiencing a pleasant overall squiffiness.
 
 
After a night of luxurious surroundings; we checked out of the beautiful Hotel St James; headed to the Eurostar station to leave our bags in lockers before going out walking for the day before our 6.45pm train back to London.  Old favourites like the Sacre Coeur, with the weathered carousel sheltered at the foot of its steps…still has the capacity to romance even under a grey December sky.
And something I don’t remember from being inside this magnificent Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris on previous visits; these silver statues that oddly resemble molten mercury, you half expect them to liquify as you watch them; they seem curiously juxtaposed underneath the towering stone pillars and traditional statuary.
It’s hard to leave Paris without a visit to the sprawling Pere Lachaise Cemetery https://www.parisinfo.com/musee-monument-paris/71470/Cimetiere-du-Pere-Lachaise known worldwide for being the burial place of The Doors singer Jim Morrison.  Romanticised in his early death, upheld as a ‘poet’ more than a songwriter, Paris seems a befitting place for him to have gorged himself on a last deadly cocktail of drugs; to die young and revered in this city of infamous poets. Constant graffiti and vandalism with arrows sprayed on graves lining the routes leading to Morrison’s, has now been cleaned away.  No doubt alleviating the distress of the families with relatives buried here whilst simultaneously eradicating some of the mysticism that a young rock n’ roll death mythologizes. Temporary metal barriers are now erected in front of Morrison’s headstone preventing any close encounters (when I was last here in the early 90s you could walk up to it unobstructed) ; the famously graffitied stone bust of his head long removed.  But straggled groups of woeful bands of youth still gather at the barrier and tearfully mumble to each other in their mismatched artfully arranged clothes and idealistic dreams. It’s easy to mock and easier vwith age to discredit youthful hero worship when in reality it’s not so long a journey back to one’s own. 
To everyone that knows him; born naturally to sarcasm it was far more fun for Dave to point out the family tombs where he thought I should find my last resting place.
This one below was my favourite; depressing but beautiful.
Chopin’s grave is well tended and dignified; though I don’t think he was ‘A Fred’ in life. Morrison’s grave below; a newer graffiti addition on the tomb in front requesting it’s removal was rather amusing.  This lousy photograph taken on my phone held above the barriers.
And so back home – to more birthday presents and a lovely large bunch of white roses sent by my old friends Sandra and Tony on Vancouver Island in Canada. Inside the large white box was a hand molded lifesize anatomically correct chocolate skull given to me by Dave; macabre but stunning…he knows me well.  You can see (and buy) them here: https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/115839827/100-chocolate-skulls-anatomically  No intention of ever eating it as it’s too beautiful a thing to destroy so I’m currently looking for an old Victorian display case to put it in.

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