Until right now, you went to Lens in northern France for second-division football and slag heaps and other fine mining memories. You might also have used it as a base from which to see Great War battlefields. What you didn’t get much of was world-class culture. As you wouldn’t in Wigan, so you didn’t in Lens. The depressed former coal town apparently had problems beyond the reach of Raphael.
Which is precisely why, in a splendid burst of reverse thinking, the place is about to open an art gallery of astounding breadth and brio, containing works from across the history of human creativity. In the year’s major French cultural initiative, the Louvre has broken out of Paris to establish its first provincial base on a disused colliery site hemmed in by miners’ housing estates.
President François Hollande inaugurates the Louvre-Lens next Tuesday. It opens properly to the public on December 12. It is no mean branch office. The €150 million (£121m) building is of deceptive simplicity, a succession of four connected rectangles, and a square, all in aluminium and lots of glass. It has been kept long and low – a single storey – to avoid crushing locals with worthiness. The Japanese architects want the neighbours to come in, not stay stuck outside, awestruck. It could be a big leisure centre – which, in a sense, it is.
Reuters – Top Paris art galleries and the Palace of Versailles have weighed in against an unpopular push to extend wealth tax to art, complaining in a letter to the government that such a move could drive historic collections out of France.
The daily Liberation printed an excerpt from a letter it said was signed by the heads of the Louvre, Versailles, the Musee d’Orsay, the Pompidou Centre and others and sent to the culture minister and President Francois Hollande, saying the tax would crush the art world.
“There’s a risk that France will contribute to the disappearance of historic collections that have been passed down through the generations,” Liberation quoted the letter, written on Friday and also signed by several city mayors, as saying.
Spokespeople for the various art galleries could not be reached for comment.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault appeared to sound the death knell on Tuesday for the push for art works worth over 50,000 euros $64,700 to be included in assets used to calculate a person’s fortune, saying the Socialist government opposed it.
“Artworks will not be included in the calculation of wealth tax. That’s the government’s position,” he told Europe 1 radio.
Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac cautioned that the proposal was not buried yet.
“We will have a frank discussion with the Socialist group. It is possible for a government to be beaten by its parliamentary majority,” he told France Inter radio.
Currently, only assets like real estate or cash savings count towards wealth tax. Net assets of more than 1.3 million euros are taxed at 0.25 percent on top of income tax, and the rate doubles to 0.5 percent for assets above 3 million euros.
Whenever life is beautiful, I like to add a soupcon of French 1960s pop to the equation. It’s my way of heightening the experience, like adding a Technicolour dropper to your black-and-white life.
It can transform the dullest experience. A touch of Yves Montand‘s La Bicyclette is enough to morph your daily commute into a carefree jaunt on a merry double-decker bus where everyone suppresses indulgent smiles. When life is a little flat, Brigitte Bardot‘s Bubblegum is the perfectly wonky soundtrack to raise a wry smile. And Edith Piaf‘s Sous Le Ciel De Paris, well, that is for when life needs to be just a little bit more bearable. It’s just one of those things, like Madeleines, perhaps.
There is simply never a situation, I feel, that cannot be vastly improved by the addition of French accordion and French cake. Okay, I realise I’m veering dangerously close to another French lady who liked her cake a bit too much, and things didn’t end well for her, so, moving swiftly on …
What I’m trying to say is I am a Francophile. I love France — the art, the food, the way of life, the weather, the beautiful cities.
My idea of a perfect day is running around Paris until I fall down from exhaustion (or from too much Kir pêche), but that happens way less often than I would like.
Surprisingly, good authentic French restaurants are thinner on the ground in Ireland than you might expect and the best ones don’t tend to shout about themselves.
Take Les Freres Jacques on Dublin’s Dame Street. This restaurant has been quietly here since 1986 (no mean feat in itself) and most people pass by its unassuming window without even noticing it (its doorway is off-street, around the side of the Olympia).
Can I wear a beret? It’s a classic black Spanish one. I’m not in the army.
A Roz Chast cartoon in a recent issue of the New Yorker shows a guy wearing a Basque beret (the most common style) in the street. Nobody is really looking at him, but he is thinking angrily to himself, “I’m allowed to wear a beret! Plenty of people all over the world wear a beret!”
The thing is, of course, they don’t: Only the very oldest of old men in the smallest of towns in France and Italy still do; the rest of the beret purchasers are either planning a fancy-dress costume (a “painter,” usually, with white smock and palette and floppy bow) or hoping to join the Guardian Angels. There is also a small contingent of elderly professors (political science, philosophy, classics) who emulate Jean-Paul Sartre and Che Guevara in pictures from their youth; they’re sweet, in their buttoned trench coats, but you don’t want to look like them.
Once the alarums of battle had faded, he shipped a few barrels of the local tipple home. The rest is history and the Cognac house still bearing the Hennessy name is a world leader.
For visitors to the region, discovering the secrets of its famous double-distilled spirit aged in oak casks is essential to the Cognac experience, but there are other charms.
Following are some tips from a correspondent with local knowledge.
From Paris, Cognac is a roughly three-hour train journey via Angouleme, around 20 miles from Cognac. You might want to hire a car either from Angouleme, to cut out the slow-train section, or on arrival in Cognac.
From Cognac station, it’s a brisk walk or a short drive to the old town centre.
10:30 a.m. – Drop off your bags and restore yourself with a coffee and perhaps a “pain au chocolate”, known as a “chocolatine” in the Cognacais strain of French.
The Cognacais themselves are affectionately nicknamed cagouillards after the juicy snails that patrol the vineyards.
The main square Place Francois I, named after the French Renaissance king born in Cognac, has a cluster of cafes. It also houses the grand, newly restored Hotel Francois I and a statue of the mighty monarch on horseback.
11 a.m. – Walk down the cobbled streets to the sleepy Charente, the river once used to ship Cognac. Some of the main cognac houses, Hennessy included, line the banks.
Take your pick of which one or ones you would like to visit.
Hennessy has a state-of-the-art visitor centre and throws in a short boat trip, Remy Martin offers a train ride and Otard is housed in the chateau, where Francois I was born at the end of the 15th-century.
All give seductive accounts of the rich history and romance woven around one of France’s most prized products.
France’s luxury conglomerates now dominate ownership, but generations after they were founded, members of the original families still work in the cognac houses and are proud, aristocratic ambassadors of their brands.
Strange Random Cognac Quote:
“The great thing about making cognac is that it teaches you above everything else to wait-man proposes, but time and God and the seasons have got to be on your side.” – Jean Monnet
- 1795 Cognac for sale in world’s most valuable drinks collection (telegraph.co.uk)
- New French whiskey adds to that nation’s scope (timesunion.com)
- What Makes A Gourmet Food Store Great? Tasting Cognac Makes It Easy. (yellowflat.wordpress.com)
- French Ambassador Celebrates Cognac (politics.usnews.com)
- Juhles, Local Gourmet Shopping Experience on rue Du Faubourg-Saint-Denis (eveinparis.wordpress.com)
- Cognac Masterclass Live WebTV Show (spittoon.biz)
- Beyond Wine and Beer: 8 Famous Local Drinks to Taste Around the World (bootsnall.com)
- Champagne Cocktail Ideas & Holiday Champagne Cocktail | Pottery Barn (potterybarn.com)
- Why is there cognac in my Sazerac? (cold-glass.com)