What is the mood like in Paris? Autumn is the best season to find out. The Salon d’Automne was the annual exhibition which launched Cubism and, a century later, we still see this most beautiful of cities through the eyes of its revolutionary painters.

And you can taste it through chefs. In Anthony Bourdain’s favourite bistro in Belleville, a fabulous caricature of Frenchness, I sit next to a corpulent local noisily enjoying a joue de cochon. Hearing our English, he shakes his head: ‘You poor people. You have not the fuel.’

Condescension is an art form in France. It wasn’t long ago that a president of Republique wondered about how one could trust a country such as ours with such bad foods.

Visionary: The Louvre’s glass pyramid, a 'Parisian grand projet' designed by the architect I. M. Pei

Visionary: The Louvre’s glass pyramid, a ‘Parisian grand projet’ designed by the architect I. M. Pei

Coffee and croissants at a cafe in Paris. Stephen's go-to spot is Café de la Mairie in the Place Saint Sulpice

A cafe in Paris that serves coffee and croissants Stephen’s go-to spot is Café de la Mairie in the Place Saint Sulpice

French food is currently undergoing a periodic re-examination. Haute cuisine is gone. Ditto nouvelle cuisine. Bistronomy did not disappear completely, but the most significant event of the gastronomic year Paris was the departure Alain Ducasse (the Plaza Athenee’s super-sophisticated chef) to be replaced by Jean Imbert (an arriviste with a flair for simplicity).

London has now become the global restaurant capital, at least for its variety and vitality, so a French menu can feel very antiquated, since it is meat-centric. Parisians have a better balanced diet than us.

The courtyard of the Castille is a great place to contemplate the endless mystery of Anglo-French relations. It is a simple, elegant hotel in Rue Cambon that is next to the HQ Chanel. This is La France profonde as far as style, luxury and elegance are concerned.

I ask Alexandre Cochet, the hotel’s marketing director, for his diagnosis of Paris’ mood today. He claims that many international visitors are returning to Paris, but few from Britain.

Why is it so difficult to make a reservation at a restaurant when things are so quiet? Monsieur Cochet shrugs in that French way (it’s their second language) and explains that French restaurants have often been sniffy about online bookings. They don’t even bother answering the phone.

I will eat a simple croque monsieur and a white carafe at a sidewalk cafe as a revenge. My favourite is Café de la Mairie in the Place Saint Sulpice, the very essence of Paris with change from €20.

Meanwhile, how absurdly French that the elitist Ritz — where a martini in The Hemingway Bar costs €34 (£28) — is adjacent to the egalitarian Ministry of Justice, while a few yards away on the Rue de Rivoli, shops are boarded-up, proud stone defaced with graffiti, dossers snoring in sleeping bags and gutters running with rubbish. Paris is in a confused mood.

Even in difficult times, the French desire for luxury outweighs all other considerations. This summer, Bernard Arnault’s Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH) colossus completed the boggling refurbishment of the 1910 Samaritaine department store. The design includes a stunning atrium designed by Eiffel.

Stephen says the Fondation Louis Vuitton, pictured, 'looks like the aftermath of an explosion in a builder’s depot'

Stephen says the Fondation Louis Vuitton, pictured, ‘looks like the aftermath of an explosion in a builder’s depot’

Richard Rogers’ colourful Pompidou Centre, pictured in the centre, is now nearly 50 years old

Richard Rogers’ colourful Pompidou Centre, pictured in the centre, is now nearly 50 years old


Fully vaccinated travellers can visit France as tourists — the NHS Covid Pass is accepted as proof.

A ‘sworn statement’ that you do not have symptoms must also be completed, which is best to print and then fill out by hand via the French ‘entry requirements’ of gov.uk. Pass sanitaire is required to enter restaurants and bars. See uk.france.fr/en.

You can also download the Tous Anti Covid App and follow the steps.

Masks are not to be worn in public, except at cafe tables and restaurants.


The brand-new Cheval Blanc hotel is located on the Seine-side. It is crammed full of serious art to show its ambition and cost. When I ask about restaurant reservations, I’m given a don’t-even-think-about-it look.

The Cheval Blanc is the hospitality version of LVMH’s Pharaonic ambitions in the arts, best appreciated in the extraordinary Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Bois de Boulogne: a fantastical edifice by Frank Gehry which looks like the aftermath of an explosion in a builder’s depot.

This Gehry design is just the latest of Parisian grands projets where France’s impressive estimate of its own importance has been expressed by foreign architects. Richard Rogers’ Pompidou Centre, now nearly 50 years old, is one example; I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre is another.

These museums are great places to visit, but they have become too dependent on tourism. These museums are not places that can be used to contemplate art or to understand France.

I prefer a less self-conscious Paris everyday, if it is possible to describe a culture so egregious in modest terms. I always visit the lively street market in the Left Bank’s Carrefour de Buci and bring home pungent cheeses and expertly butchered rabbit.

If it doesn’t sound too maudlin, dead Paris is also my favorite. There is the starkly beautiful Monument de la Deportation, a subterranean retreat beneath the scaffolded Notre-Dame: a haunting space devoted to French Jews not spared in Hitler’s war. This is a hauntingly thrilling experience in modern France, which has so many unresolved social disputes.

Or, more cheerfully, to the Pantheon, the great university cathedral modelled on London’s St Paul’s. Here you can commune with the ghosts Rousseau, Voltaire, and Josephine Baker.

Even better, to appreciate la gloire de la France, to the Montparnasse cemetery where you find buried Baudelaire, Serge Gainsbourg and Andre Citroen, whose car company’s chevrons adorn his monument.

Paris traffic, largely Citroens, is still quite shocking. But once you were brave enough to find a spot, you could park in that space, pavements included. Today, Mayor Anne Hidalgo orchestrates politically-instigated congestion. The city fumes in an indignation-filled conga-line.

The French are heroically proud of their sense of grandeur, despite the embarrassing situations they find themselves in. The French novel is no longer what it was. French cinema isn’t what it used to be. Ditto cars. Citroens of today lack the creativity and beauty that their ancestors had.

Pictured is the 'starkly beautiful' Monument de la Deportation, devoted to the French Jews of World War II

Pictured is the ‘starkly beautiful’ Monument de la Deportation, devoted to the French Jews of World War II 

Pictured is the Pantheon, which Stephen describes as 'the great university cathedral modelled on London’s St Paul’s'

Pictured is the Pantheon, which Stephen describes as ‘the great university cathedral modelled on London’s St Paul’s’

Stephen says that you can appreciate 'la gloire de la France' in the Montparnasse cemetery, pictured above

Stephen says you can appreciate the ‘la Gloire de la France’ at Montparnasse Cemetery, pictured above

Thus, it is one of the ironies of the Macron era that its greatest achievement is the €132m restoration of the Hotel de la Marine, the French Admiralty building on Place de la Concorde.

This retro tour de force came in the same year that an over-ambitious submarine deal embarrassingly sank, taking the navy’s (and France’s) pride with it. Take the train from Paris. It’s easy. The Eurostars second generation lacks the original’s quirky charm but are more modern and airy. I doubt Raymond Blanc, one of France’s most successful exports, is himself in the galley, but his autograph roast vegetables and trout are surprisingly good.

Eurostar’s Gare du Nord has always been a test of French attitudes. Although it once had an imperial feel, the architecture has seen decline over its entire history. Since Eurostar began in 1994, the station’s slumminess always seems a calculated insult to travellers. In Brexit Britain, London’s superb St Pancras suggests openness and optimism while the Gare du Nord offers a lavatory for transients.

Recently, a plan to make the whole site a Babylon of glitzy shopping was presented and quickly rejected. This is rare French self-effacement.

After so many years, I am delighted to be back in Paris. It remains impossibly wonderful, a city that always gives what the late writer, James Salter, calls a ‘feeling of approval in life’.

You also sense that there is something wrong. There are sometimes shadows in the City of Light. 

Classical statuary and even a tribute to Bardot — the Metro is a revelation 

By Andrew Martin  

Paris guidebooks include the Metro as a means to get between attractions. It’s not billed as an attraction in itself. While the London Underground is fascinating, the Paris Metro is stunning.

We’re going to hear a lot about the Metro in the coming years because, under the banner ‘Grand Paris Express’, it will be hugely expanded.

There will be line extensions — the first opened late last year, adding four new stations to the northern end of Line 14 — and four new lines will be built by 2030. There are some advantages to the system as it stands.

Glamour of the Metro: Art Nouveau meets cafe society. These Art Nouveau entrances were designed by Hector Guimard, Andrew reveals

Glamour in the Metro: Art Nouveau meets café society. Andrew reveals that these Art Nouveau entrances are the work of Hector Guimard. 

Most of the Metro system was built between 1900 and 1920, Andrew reveals

Andrew reveals that most of the Metro system was built in 1900 to 1920.

The Typical Station

One benefit of going to Paris on Eurostar is that you’re plugged straight into the system: you’re on the platforms of Gare du Nord Metro after descending just a few stairs.

Metro was built close to the surface by digging a trench, inserting 2 tracks, and then covering it with dirt. This creates vault-like stations which are pleasingly reminiscent to the wine cellar at a chateau.

The Metro was built in a simple design. It features white tiles with bevelled edges that sparkle under electric light. The station name is written on a blue enamel plaque. This is still the basic look.

Classic entrances

These consist of a green iron railing, from which two triffid-like stems rise, with orange lanterns at the tip that resemble flowers. 

Hector Guimard’s Art Nouveau entrances were created to give the impression the radically modern (but electric) Metro was organic and natural.

Lines 12 und 13

Culture: A Metro mural depicting Parisienne life. 'The Paris Metro is beautiful,' says Andrew

Culture: A Metro mural depicting Parisienne life. Andrew says that the Paris Metro is beautiful.


Grand Paris Express will extend Metro service to the far suburbs. It has been called Europe’s largest infrastructure project.

On some lines, the trains have tyres, allowing for faster braking — hence a faster service.

The first engineer of the Metro, Fulgence Bienvenüe, was a pioneer of electrical traction, but he lit his house with candles and favoured horse-drawn transport for his personal use.

ADEMAS, a French society that renovates prewar Metro trains, offers English-speaking tours of the system (ademas.metro.paris).

Most of the network was built by the Compagnie du Chemin de Fer Métropolitain, but in 1910, a separate company, the Nord-Sud, built two lines: 12 and 13. The stations are made of white bevelled tiles with additional details in rich autumnal colors. 

The best-preserved Nord-Sud station is Solférino on Line 12, but see also the concourse between Lines 12 and 13 at Saint Lazare, the Piccadilly Circus of Paris. This Nord-Sud’s masterpiece has a Moorish style and has been compared to a Turkish bathtub.

We like a theme

There are 30 Metro stations with special themes. Advertising is not allowed in these stations. Louvre-Rivoli station on Line 1 is full of Classical statuary — replicas of pieces displayed in the museum above. The walls at Tuileries station, also located on Line 1, look like a scrapbook devoted to important moments of French cultural life. These include the birth of Brigitte Bardot and Josephine Baker’s erotic 1920s dance performances.

Line 14

This is the latest and most advanced, and it is deeper than any of the others. It was the first train to be automated. I enjoy sitting at the front of the train pretending to drive it. (On the older trains on the line, there is a mock-up of a control panel, labelled ‘For Children Only’.) Line 14 trains travel fast and appear to be racing down a street at night, as the tunnel lights look like street lamps.

It is a stunning view

The effect of the Metro’s surface is amazing. Line 3, which crosses the Seine twice, is the best for views. The crossing to west is between Passy et Bir Hakeim. It affords views of Eiffel Tower.

Line 5 also crosses the river. It emerges on the right bank, where the train swirls around the Paris morgue before shooting into the roof of Gare d’Austerlitz on the opposite bank. 

Andrew Martin’s latest novel, Powder Smoke, is out now (Corsair).