French Connection: Paris in a Bentley

January 5th, 2011

by Josh Max | Photography by Stuart Collins
Originally published as “French Connection” in Guitar Aficionado, Fall 2009 Issue

From the Arc de Triomphe to Montmartre and beyond, the City of Lights reinvigorates the musician’s soul. An American in Paris frees his spirit on the boulevards and in a Bentley Continental GTC Speed.

To spend time in Paris is to connect your mind, body, and soul to music of not only the distant past but also the buzzing present. Rock, electronica, jazz, folk, opera, art songs, and all manner of traditional music can be found here—in cafes, cabarets, clubs, and concert halls, as well as on the street and in the Metro. The city is a public stage in perpetual motion, presented in a setting rich with magnificent architecture, extraordinary history, and heady atmosphere. A week in Paris will change how you see, hear, and experience the world. And, if you’re a musician, possibly how you play.

Our Paris experience began on a direct flight via Air France out of New York’s JFK International. Onboard, French flight attendants that could moonlight as fashion models solicitously welcomed us. They made periodic breathy announcements that my wife and I, with our limited grasp of the language, naturally couldn’t understand. Undoubtedly they were telling us what to do in the event of an emergency, but it sounded as though they were describing a series of soothing spa treatments.

Eight hours later, we stood before the Arc de Triomphe, that colossal and iconic archway commissioned by Napoleon in 1806 to honor fallen soldiers and famously filmed as the city fell to the Nazis in 1940. Surviving that onslaught, as well as numerous oppressors through the ages, has imbued Parisians with contrasting temperaments: though quick to smile when something strikes them as funny, they are otherwise as deadpan as, well, the French. This unflappability is very much on display on the crowded boulevards and in the Metro alike, where the occasional bumps and jostles rarely escalate into arguments and fights as they do on New York’s subways. The locals suck down cigarettes—filterless and often self-rolled—unabashedly. And considering that the French were the inventors of personal style, it’s no surprise that their clothes, hair, and attitude are impeccable, whether one finds them on the street, on the job, or lounging at an outdoor bistro. Leave the baseball cap, sweats, and fanny packs at home unless you want to be instantly pegged as un rube.

We cabbed it from the Arc to our home for the week’s stay: the Radisson Blu Le Metropolitan, a private residence-turned-hotel. We dumped our bags and set out on foot for the Eiffel Tower, just a five-minute walk away, where we began to plan our activities.

It was tempting to close the eyes, drop a finger onto a visitor’s map, and just make a go of it—which is pretty much what we did each day, armed with a handy guide book and a list of “must-sees.” Wandering away from the Tower, our beacon for the week, we found ourselves in nearby Champ De Mars, a splendid blocks-long esplanade that morphs into the 305-year-old Invalides Gardens, lined with ominous-looking 17th and 18th century cannons. That led us to the immense Hôtel National des Invalides, founded in 1670 by Louis XIV, the Sun King, where some 4,000 wounded and disabled veterans of Louis’ three major wars had once been laid up. Here also lies the body of Napoleon Bonaparte, along with a few members of his family and military officers.

Escape: Artists
Seeking a more peaceful, freewheeling vibe, we took the Metro to Montmartre, a former artist’s colony perched high upon a hill to the north and formerly home to such world-renowned artists as Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, and Salvador Dali. The town’s name means “mountain of the martyr,” a reference to Saint Denis, the Bishop of Paris and patron saint of France, who was decapitated on the hill around 250 A.D. Today, Montmartre is a sculpted series of steep streets and stairways, still home to Paris’ alternative community shops, and bustling with bistros and lively nightclubs, including the notorious but now tourist-trappy Moulin Rouge. There are two must-see churches at Montemartre’s summit: the white-domed Basilique du Sacré Cœur and the Saint Pierre de Montmartre, purportedly the location at which the Jesuit order of priests was founded. Both provided stunning views of the entire city.

The next day found us at the Musée du Louvre, that planet-sized former royal fortress built in the 12th century. The Louvre rightly dominates central Paris; it is the most popular museum in the world, with some seven million visitors annually. More than 35,000 objects from the 6th century B.C. to the 19th century are on display among its 652,300 square feet. Even the most casual observer would require more than an entire weekend to browse its contents.

I, however, had a target. Following my map, I plunged through labyrinths, made wrong turns, and battled fatigue, until I came upon a crowd of about 100 people milling about in a side room. I edged my way to the front and beheld the most famous painting in the world, the inspiration for a famous song, and the subject of endless study, speculation, and admiration: the Mona Lisa.

She was tinier than I’d expected. A velvet rope prevented a close inspection of da Vinci’s masterpiece, but her presence and fame are palpable and compelling even from a distance. I paused in awe, snapped my photos, and moved on to view the Venus de Milo, Bosch’s Ship of Fools, Antonello da Messina’s Christ at the Column, Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, Rubens’ The Three Graces, and more, more, more.

Other museums and mind-expanding sights would follow: the Musée d’Orsay with its Rubens and Monets; the house of Victor Hugo, where the author wrote Les Miserables; the vast Notre Dame cathedral, and more. But for me, the Louvre is Paris itself and the measure by which one should forever compare any human aesthetic endeavor, including music.

Beyond the Boulevard in a Bentley Continental GTC Speed

You don’t see many exotics in Paris; I glimpsed exactly one Ferrari and one Aston Martin during my entire week’s stay. It’s easy to see why, too. Navigating the city’s tiny, chaotic streets by automobile is difficult, even in a small car.

No such problems are encountered when driving your exotic on the city’s outskirts and beyond, as we soon discovered. The day after our Louvre adventure, we set off via the Metro to Bentley Paris in Neuilly-sur-Seine, four miles from the center of town, where Didier Mevel, the dealership’s head sales manager, hosted us in his best GTC Speed convertible. Suddenly, we were transformed from daily 10-mile walkers to passengers engulfed in the hand-built splendor and sensuousness of this fierce new Bentley. The hot and cloudless day was perfect for lowering the supercar’s flop-top.

Having been intoxicated by the history and majesty of various historic sights over the last days, I was now firmly grounded in the present upon hearing that familiar, delicious roar-purr of the GTC Speed’s exhaust note. The 12-cylinder, six-liter, twin-turbocharged engine belched through twin-rifled sports tail pipes as the car glided smoothly on 20-inch rims. I was surrounded by luxury: a taut, fat three-spoke steering wheel that melted into my fingers; diamond-quilted hide with subtle Bentley emblems on the seat facings; drilled alloy pedals, and knurled chrome on the gearshift. Here was heaven in Paris.

Like most everything we investigated on our trip, this hand-built $231,400 car fit right in with the city’s love of quality, sensuousness, and elegant grandeur—this, despite the car’s English provenance. Since our GTC Speed came straight off the showroom floor and had no plates, we did not zip into Paris, but our short, local jaunt was a swank, plush thrill.

The late afternoon was spent at the Père Lachaise Cemetery, the largest boneyard in Paris, visited by hundreds of thousands of visitors yearly and the city’s fourth most-popular tourist site. Luminaries such as Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Frederic Chopin, and its most popular resident, Jim Morrison, are buried here, and it’s possible to spend hours walking the grounds in search of your favorite musician, politician, wit, or author.

Having purchased the necessary map at the entrance, we wound, wandered, and finally arrived at Morrison’s final resting place. A small gathering of Doors worshippers had gathered to pay their respects, which consisted of talking loudly and tossing cigarette butts on top of Mr. Mojo Risin’. Piaf’s grave, by contrast, was dotted with more respectful mourners and a friendly cat. But this burial ground’s charms aren’t limited to pausing and reading the headstones of the famous and influential; equally fascinating are the many graves that have fallen into severe neglect over centuries, telling their own tales via crypts with wide-open doors, nearly toppled headstones, and other spooky, macabre fun.

French Toast

Foot-weary and overwhelmed, we would collapse at night into our king bed at Blu Le Metropolitan, a heavenly respite after the day’s events. Though centrally located, the hotel is coolly comfortable and surprisingly quiet. In the morning, we rebooted our systems with a dip in their deep basement pool and, afterward, a daily breakfast of strong coffee, croissants, fruit, and sparkling water. On days when we needed a break from sightseeing, we simply opened our double windows and took in the pleasant view of bistros, pedestrians, and, of course, the Eiffel Tower. Plucking away on the Vox guitar I’d brought along, I had scant temptation to venture out, no matter how fervently the City of Light beckoned.

Of course, Paris isn’t all baguettes and berets. The weekend hordes on the Champs-Élysées are as crushing as those found in Times Square or Central London, and you’ve got to keep a vigilant eye on your wallet. The Eiffel Tower, one of the most universally recognized icons on the planet, is overrun day and night with both tourists and dozens of friendly men rattling cheap metal towers for sale on enormous rings. Michael Jackson had departed this earth four days before we got to Paris, and a troupe of teenage break dancers were taking full advantage of the opportunity, spinning on their heads to “Beat It” and “Billy Jean” for coins and huge crowds. It’s possible to get used to the volume of people, though, and the fun and free midnight trip to the Tower’s vast terrace for its hourly display of twinkly lights made a romantic nightcap at the end of each day.

Our last days were spent on tour buses and boats cruising up and down the Seine courtesy of Paris à la Carte, a hop-on, hop-off package deal with five tours and 58 stops. It’s a great way to see the city street by street, and at $51 U.S. per person, the price is right. You can buy tickets on line once you’re in Paris at GrayLine.com, or visit the Paris Convention and Visitor’s Bureau at en.parisinfo.com.

Paris hosted us, took lots of our money, made love to us, and sparked our spirits with music—in our hotel, in the Metro, in the jazz clubs, and, a mere hour before we had to leave for the airport, under our window as a strolling Dixieland band made its way up the street. One could not ask for a more fitting musical au revoir.

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