Stylist steps back in time to the heart of Paris' fashion district - via the Orient Express...
There are few less glamorous places on earth than a McDonald’s branch in London Victoria on a cloudy August morning, but this is where I find myself as I prepare to board the world's most decadent train - aka the Orient Express.
ABOVE: Ticket barriers are a thing of the past at the Orient Express check-in lounge
One of the many quirky charms of this world-famous mode of transport is its incongruously placed check-in lounge. I must have passed through Victoria thousands of times, yet I've never before spotted this corner of Art Deco genius - emerging with a waft of Harry Potter magic beyond a tired line of Boots, Starbucks and Costa.
Everything about the Orient Express is glamorous, right down to the growing pile of designer suitcases, hat boxes and shoe bags that decorate the gold-embossed luggage trolleys. This once luxury Paris-Constantinople line is famed for its elaborate dress code and I'm surrounded by what must be the most well-heeled crowd of travellers ever.
Forget the sunglasses and statement bags that go hand-in-hand with airplane chic: the Orient Express is all about beads, feather boas and exotic gowns, all chiming perfectly with this season’s 1920s Great Gatsby-inspired trend.
ABOVE: Salmon and Bellini's: not your average fry-up
Queues and ticket barriers are a thing of the past as we're welcomed aboard Cygnus, an exquisitely restored 1930s British Pullman train. Outside lies the usual grey outline of London on a weekday, but it’s a view that somehow fades amid our plush surroundings. We’re sitting in what is possibly the closest you could get to a real-life version of a Poirot novel; a carriage resplendent with ornate upholstery, burgundy lamps, mosaic floor designs and gold mirroring.
Even the toilets are a cut above, with walnut panelling and acres of space. By the time brunch is served - salmon, scrambled eggs and apricot puff pastry tarts topped off with a seemingly endless supply of Bellini's - I've decided this is the kind of a commute I could do every day...
ABOVE: Our carriage awaits...
This experience is geared to re-living the joie de vivre of a golden age of travel - an effect that's enhanced as we depart the Pullman (accompanied by a live band playing jaunty ragtime tunes) and transfer to the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express in the French town of Calais Ville.
ABOVE: An Art Deco lamp of the kind Agatha Christie would be proud of
Here, the historic Wagons-Lit carriages lie in wait to whisk us off to Paris by nightfall. If the last train was elegant, this one is even more so - wherever you look, there's original Art Deco features such as oval tinted windows, mirrored vanity closets and brass bells. Wandering the miles of narrow corridors, it's not hard to imagine the dashing passengers of another century living it up in style.
The little touches also help conjure up a feeling of retro decadence: we’re served welcome champagne as we arrive in our individual cabins and are encouraged to write postcards to everyone back home – the crew sends them for free once the train arrives at its final destination of Venice.
ABOVE: Dinner aboard the Orient Express is a stately affair - no polystyrene cups here
Dinner is, as expected, a very decadent affair. Alaska royal crab, avocado tartare, and petit fours are served on bespoke china and crystal goblets (what else?).
ABOVE: Anyone for Alaskan crab?
Afterwards, we retire to the bar carriage where there’s actually an Agatha Christie cocktail in a nod to the author's eponymous best-seller, Murder On The Orient Express. It’s made from an ingredient of each of the nine places across Europe where the train stops and if you correctly guess them all, you get a prize (it's not clear what - our guessing skills weren't up to much).
As the bright lights of Paris emerge, the bar’s live pianist starts playing Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me To The Moon. Anywhere else it would be cheesy, but on-board the Orient Express, it’s just perfect and sets the mood for the night ahead.
ABOVE: Hotel de la Tremoille: the one-time home of jazz greats
Our next stop fast-forwards a few decades from the Orient Express in its 1920s zenith to Hotel de la Tremoille, the hub of Paris’ thriving jazz scene in the 1960s. Like the train, this boutique hotel radiates a certain je ne sais quoi and it’s easy to see why fashion editors and designers flock to it (advance booking is recommended during Paris Fashion Week).
An original 19th century Haussman building, it comes complete with sculptured wrought iron balconies, marble fireplaces and an Aubusson tapestry in the main stairwell. The view from my fifth-floor balcony could have come straight out of Amelie. It’s just big enough to peer nosily into the loft apartments opposite, catch the shimmering peak of the Eiffel Tower at night and listen to the hum of activity drift up from the street below as I eat breakfast there in the morning.
ABOVE: Breakfast on the rooftops of Paris
For all its traditional ambiance, La Tremoille caters to the fashion crowd with a subtly construed interior design where period features meet contemporary chic. In the Le Louis bar, where once upon a time jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong gathered to razzle dazzle the crowds, a grand piano and deep raspberry sofas vye for attention next to chrome coffee tables topped with candles and bowls full of orchids.
ABOVE: The Le Louis bar combines cool aesthetics with retro chic
The rooms are full of fun, personal touches. I make good use of my vast collection of Molton Brown toiletries (everything from Paradisiac Pink to Heavenly Gingerlily shower gels) and am a firm fan of the drop-off hatch by my door where breakfast appears, as if by magic. But perhaps best of all is a welcoming tray of Ladurée macarons: heaven in a box. Sadly they don’t last long…
ABOVE: Down the road from Hotel de la Tremoille, the Sienne awaits - it's rather inviting
Another draw of Hotel de la Tremoille is its enviable location in the heart of Paris' Golden Triangle. Champs Elysees, Avenue Montaigne and Avenue George V are all in easy walking distance, offering endless opportunities to max out your credit card in the city's finest Haute Couture shops. For those with a little less appetite to spend, there's a lovely view of the Eiffel Tower across from the Sienne at the end of the road and the picturesque Tuillerie Gardens are also nearby.
ABOVE: The giant clock (one of a few) in Musée d'Orsay
The Musée d’Orsay, a 20 minute walk away along the Sienne, is also worth a visit - not least because of its recently unveiled "Nouvel Orsay" renovation. A highlight of this for me is the giant window built in the shape of an Art Deco-style clock on the top floor (above), with beautiful views of the city below.
Those who want to dig a little deeper into the history of both the former railway station and its dazzling collection of Renaissance, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art can contact Context Travel, a network of scholars and specialists who offer guided tours of a whole range of high-profile sites on top of their usual research and teaching work.
ABOVE: Food at 110 de Taillevent. What to go for first?
The museum has its own beautiful restaurant - full of gilt and Chandeliers - but if you're in search of something a little less traditional, you won't be short on choice. One of the greatest food capitals in the world is home to a growing number of hip and eclectic new launches. One of these is the newly opened 110 de Taillevent brasserie in Paris' 8th district. Combining rich, intricate dishes (think sea bass tartare, beef steak in peppercorn sauce and a braised fillet of Pollock in squid ink) and quirky design elements (the walls are lined with empty glass wine bottles that catch the light), it's old meets new in one delicious foodie experience.
It's this blend of traditional romance and contemporary chic that, for me, Paris does best. I started my trip in the Roaring Twenties on the Orient Express, moved on to the swinging 60s at La Tremoille (with a touch of Napoléon influence) and drank up a whole host of eras inbetween - from Impressionist art to the cutting edge of A/W13 trends.
Something old, something new - what better way to experience the City of Light?
Hotel de la Tremoille (hotel-tremoille.com) – 33 156 52 14 00. Autumn-Winter rates from €345 per night (valid from the 21 of October 2012 until the 25 of February 2013 – subject to availability)
Venice Simplon-Orient-Express - (vsoe.com) - 0845 077 2222 Prices start from £570.00 per person from London to Paris or vice versa
For more information on Paris please see Paris Info (parisinfo.com)
Words: Anna Brech