Something new to visit
8th September 2021
Over the past few months I have been seeing a number of adverts for the newly refurbished Hôtel de la marine in Paris. This is one of the famous buildings looking out onto the Place de la Concorde and the obelisk. Lots of history to the building made it look like an interesting place for a visit.
It looked grand and following a wash-out of July and August, summer was finally making an effort to make itself present. I looked out for decent weather and time slots that suited and as I have my wrinkly card for SNCF a trip, 1st Class, down to Paris is not too expensive, especially at the times of day that I want to travel.
As things turned out, by booking fairly late in the day, I got more than perfect weather — apart from the wind, but more on that later.
I had booked my self-guided tour for 1400 hours which gave me ample time to get to Paris for lunchtime, take the Métro down towards the Louvre and the Tuileries gardens.
The sun was out and I was already starting to cook. The flower beds were getting watered but despite that some of the displays were looking as tired as I was already feeling.
There were a lot of people out and about and it was difficult enough to find a bench where I could eat my sandwiches without encroaching on the two metre rule. I don’t care if it’s open air and a metre would do. I want space.
Feeling better for having something to eat and a bottle of Orangina I made my way up through the gardens towards the Place de la Concorde. Turned right and sought out the entrance which was not desperately obvious — the give away was the security guard checking our passes.
Hôtel de la marine
Long before it became the Place de la Concorde (in 1795) this large square was constructed as the Place Louis XV and intended to display an equestrian statue of the king flanked on the southern side by the Seine and on the north by twin palaces facing onto the square, which would be surrounded by balustrades.
All went according to plan and the square and palaces were created. Now what do we do with them ? In 1765 it was decided that the building to the east (nearest the Louvre) would be used as a furniture repository for the royal palace. Intended to only take up a portion of the building, within two years the entire building was being used — must be tough being so rich you can fill a second palace with your cast-off furniture and BBQ equipment.
The intendants took full opportunity to ensure that the building was comfortable because it soon became their home as well as a storage and workshop for the upkeep of the inventory. For twenty-five years the building and staff looked after the requirements for the royal palaces of Versailles, Compiègne, Fontainebleau, Marly, Choisy, Trianon, Rambouillet, Saint-Germain-en-Laye and Montreuil.
The Garde-Meuble was responsible for the upkeep of the royal furniture as well as the purchase of new items. From the royal bed down to the simplest chair ; from the royal collections of arms, jewels and regalia down to the kitchen ware and bed sheets.
Then came the revolution.
The story goes that on the 13th July 1789 the crowd got hold of the weapons on display in the building and the following day opened fire on the Bastille prison with canon mounted on silver plated chassis that had been offered by the King of Siam to Louis XIV in 1684
Then on 16th September 1792 the royal jewels were stolen by a crowd of about forty people. They made off with swag worth about thirty million francs (which would be considered a lot of money today — without even taking into account inflation).
The Naval Ministry takes over
The revolution forced Louis XVI to leave Versailles and return to Paris. This also meant that all the ministries working from there were also forced to come back into the capital. This was all very well but where were they all supposed to go ?
The Ministère de la Marine, took over part of the second story of the palace. Within ten years the ministry occupied the entire complex. It would remain there until 2015, giving the building its new name : Hôtel de la Marine.
So what happened to all the furniture (less the stolen crown jewels) ?
Seen as a symbol of the Ancien Régime (old order) much was just sold off or melted down for the metals. A lot was simply burnt.
Then the new folks in power realised that, well they also rather liked having nice furniture and somebody would need to look after it. Thus in 1800 a new Garde Meubles was created, but this one wasn’t royal, it was the Garde-Meuble des Consuls, which didn’t suit Napoleon when he crowned himself Emperor, and he upgraded it to an imperial institution. After lots of ups and downs it became the simple Mobilier national in 1870 following the defeat of Napoleon III.
The institution moved around a lot and was for a long time situated on the ground that is now the Musée du quai Branly, which I had visited last year. It is, these days, situated on the former site of the Gobelins gardens not far from the Jardins des plantes. Sounds like a possible future visit as the exhibitions are open to the public.
Approaching from the Place de la Concorde you are struck by the two identical facades of the Hôtel de la Marine on the right and the Crillon Hotel and Automobile Club de France on the left.
They symmetry is perfect and very much within the norms of what the French at the time considered a classical style.
When the Ministry moved out in 2015 the building was put under the remit of the National Monuments committee who undertook a massive restoration between 2017 and 2021 to return the building to the sumptuousness of the 18th Century. In carrying out the restoration discoveries were made of the original decor dating back to the royal palace.
Having passed through security (health and bombs !) I produced my ticket at the desk and was given my headset. There are different audio tours available concentrating on slightly different aspects of the history of the building. You can either do just the grand public rooms or add the intendant’s rooms as well. I did the latter, visiting the entire offering.
I started off, then, in the intendant’s chambers. The position of intendant was a prestigious one and the two gentleman given the role during the building’s royal period ensured that their rooms were suitably comfy. What you see today is the work of the second intendant, Marc-Antoine Thierry de Ville d’Avray who took over in 1786.
He would be arrested by the revolutionaries and was killed in the prison de l’abbaye alongside about three hundred others during the massacre of the 6th September 1792.
You visit his offices, meeting rooms, personal bedroom (his wife had her own bedroom) and bathroom — with running water, which must have been the equivalent of having an indoor toilet back in the day.
There is also a small mirrored room which was very much in keeping with the age of light.
Between his and her apartments there is a cosy dining room and a living room. It is all beautifully fitted out and feels quite intimate. Apart from the fact that at times you look out the window and see the great square with its obelisk you could forget that you are within one of the premium sites of Paris.
Then you reach the reception areas.
High society revolved (revolves ?) around the great receptions held by those in power, who made very certain that those attending understood just how much power they held.
You couldn’t just have visitors come in through the front door, trip over the cat and plonk themselves down in front of the TV. No, they needed to approach everything via a grand staircase. The design of the building was vertical — you went, up, to the reception areas and, in the case of this building, the exhibition areas showing off the excellence of French crafts.
Within the great hall were held balls to celebrate the coronations of Napoleon and later Charles X as well as receptions throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
It is in these public rooms that you can see the greatest traces of the Navy’s occupancy. Portraits of admirals and sea-faring heroes such as Jean Bart the corsair. There are lots of anchor motifs as well as signs that Napoleon had passed by as well.
Within the offices alongside, the navy made all of its major decisions for over two hundred years.
In one of the rooms there is an interactive display allowing you to follow the exploits of some of France’s greatest explorers across the globe. With the ballroom itself are three revolving mirrors which are screening the scenes from a ball with whirling dancers giving the sensation of standing amongst them.
Out on the balcony you get to look out across the Place de la Concorde. In 1770 it was the scene of the festivities for the marriage of the Dauphin and his wife Marie-Antoinette. It was from here that the Deputies observed the execution of Louis XVI on 21 January 1789 and that of Marie-Antoinette on 16th October.
Her death sentence was signed by Fouquier Tinville in the intendant’s library.
Throughout the visit you are accompanied by the audio guide which not only does a really good job in pulling you into the story but also in guiding you around with phrases like : “Go though the door on your left and you will reach the dining room.”
All in all a good visit. Get a sunny day and the views are fabulous.
A few parks and ice-cream
A couple of years ago I had walked through the Parc André-Citroën where you find the Ballon de Paris a tethered balloon in which you can take a 150 metre ascent to overlook the city and the river. A balloon of this sort is usually described as a Montgolfière in French, after the two brothers who pioneered their flights but ballon (ball) is sometimes used, though to my mind more for a small balloon rather than a dirigible.
That first visit, I hadn’t even realised their was a balloon and I had missed out, this time I was better organised and so, with a near cloudless sky, I took myself off in search of the park. It is a bit further down than the Eiffel Tower and although the Métro station takes the name Javel-André-Citroën it is still a wee bit tucked away behind the buildings.
Javel is the name of this area of Paris and gave its name to a chemical factory which produced eau de Javel. Definitely not for drinking purposes as javel has become a generic French word for bleach.
Coming into the park the balloon was on its way down and I headed for the ticket office. There were only about a dozen people waiting but sod’s law was that the guy two in front of me was the last member of the following ascent and at that point they announced that as the wind was rising it would be the last run. So that was a bit disappointing.
Oh well. I wandered around the park which isn’t just an expanse of lawns but also a number of smaller areas landscaped in different styles and with a variety of plants. Many of them nicely shaded.
Opposite the park is an amazing collection of glass fronted buildings in the form of archways, Le Ponant, which houses amongst other things the CEA (Atomic Energy Commission) and the Préfecture de Paris et d’Île-de-France.
What next then, how about ice-cream ? That means another train ride towards the Jardins des plantes. Yes, you can get ice-cream anywhere in Paris but since that first visit with the parents a few years ago buying one there and wandering the pathways has become as good a way of finishing a day in Paris as any other.
Louise is a small chain of ice-cream vendors. It is all hand made and the milk comes from a single herd of cows in the Pyrénées. They have two kiosks in the park ready to sell you a tub or a cornet from about twenty different flavours. Just don’t go Tuesday afternoon because they are closed.
The wee lad in front of me was acting the maggot and was very lucky that, when he managed to drop his cornet within seconds of receiving it, the vendor made up a fresh one.
The day came to a close then, as it had started, sitting in the shade looking at the flowers. I made my way back up to the Gare du Nord and grabbed a very good salad opposite whilst waiting on my TGV to whisk me back to the north.
Posted : 9 September 2021