When Cognac producer Courvoisier invited me to join their new luxury guided tour to discover more about the Golden Age of Paris, of course I did not hesitate to accept.
The Golden Age of Paris, often called the Belle Époque (1880-1910), was a period of energy and optimism when haute couture was invented (right here in Paris!), the arts flourished and France saw a great number of scientific and technological advancements. It was an era when pretty much anything seemed possible.
At the Exposition Universelle of 1889, the Eiffel Tower was unveiled as the entrance arch to the world’s fair, where it stood as the tallest structure in the world at that time. A lesser known fact is that Courvoisier Cognac was presented at the grand opening of the Tour Eiffel as one of the drinks of choice.
As the official cognac supplier to Napoléon III, Courvoisier would go on to win the wine and spirits gold medal at the Exposition Universelle that year, its second win after the Exposition Universelle of 1867.
Following a rebranding exercise in September 2015, Courvoisier has a contemporary purple and champagne-gold design and new livery details inspired by the steel structure of the Tour Eiffel.
Come along on the tour of Paris landmarks that conjure up the Belle Époque:
Monumental and imposing, the Palais Garnier, the Paris opera house, on the boulevard des Capucines is a building that is hard to miss. The first project by a young and unknown architect named Charles Garnier, its architectural style was opulent but neither entirely baroque, nor gothic or romantic. When asked by Empress Eugénie, Garnier responded “Why Ma'am, it's Napoléon III style”. Rumor has it that Garnier was not invited to the opening in 1875 and had to buy his own ticket. Oops!
Address: 8 Rue Scribe, 75009 Paris
Art Nouveau with its nature-inspired motifs and dramatic curves came into prominence during the Belle Époque period. Nowhere in Paris can we find a better example of Art Nouveau architecture than at 29 avenue Rapp on the Left Bank. The Lavirotte building, designed by architect Jules Lavirotte, is one of the few surviving examples of Art Nouveau architecture in Paris today.
In comparison to the classical Haussmann-style buildings Paris is best known for, the Lavirotte building takes inspiration from the female form and is richly-decorated with animal and floral details using a multitude of materials. It won the prize for the most original new facade in the 7th arrondissement in 1901.
Round the corner from the Lavirotte building, at 3 square Rapp, stands the building Lavirotte lived in – yet another well-preserved example of his bold Art Nouveau style. Don’t miss out on the lovely surprise view of the Tour Eiffel when you are done admiring the facade.
Address: 29 Avenue Rapp, 75007
Today better known for its art galleries, antique stores and bookstores, this quaint neighborhood is also where one of the oldest churches in Paris, the Église de Saint-Germain-des-Prés, is located. The church is all that remains of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés following an explosion of a gunpowder storeroom on the grounds of the monastery.
Address: 3 Place Saint-Germain des Prés, 75006 Paris
Sit on the terrace of famous café Les Deux Magots and relive the glorious days of the past when the neighborhood was frequented by artists such as Claude Monet, Picasso and Hemingway. And while you are there, go ahead and treat yourself to a French coffee – coffee and cognac (Courvoisier of course) – an indulgent mid-afternoon pick-me-up.
Address: 6 Place Saint-Germain des Prés, 75006 Paris
Rue de Furstenburg
In rue de Furstenburg, one of the most charming streets in Paris, it is easy to imagine life during the Belle Époque, overflowing with the newfound extravagance of fashionable upper class ladies. They changed outfits three times a day and frequented Le Bon Marche, the department store which had revolutionized the way women shopped, as detailed in Émile Zola’s celebrated novel, Au Bonheur des Dames.
Originally a railway station built for the 1900 Exposition Universelle, it has now been transformed into one of the largest art museums in Europe, housing a remarkable collection of impressionist artworks and Art Nouveau decorative arts.
Address: 1 Rue de la Légion d'Honneur, 75007 Paris
Pont Alexandre III
We stopped at the majestically ornate Pont Alexandre III, said to be the most beautiful bridge in Paris, complete with Art Nouveau lamps, nymphs and gilded winged horses. The bridge would have been a good vantage point to see the original site of the 1889 Exposition Universelle but unfortunately, most of the structures built for the World’s Fair were not preserved.
Grand Palais, Petit Palais
The fashion aficionados among us will know the Grand Palais for the elaborate, no-expense-spared Chanel fashion shows that Karl Lagerfeld stages every year. Beyond that, it’s not possible to speak of the Art Nouveau movement without mentioning the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais, both built for the 1900 Exposition Universelle. Their magnificent Art Nouveau ironwork and nature-inspired motifs are similar to those at Lavirotte. Trivia: Do you know the Grand Palais still boasts the largest glass roof in Europe?
3 Avenue du Général Eisenhower, 75008 Paris
For the last stop of the tour, we adjourned to Le Fouquet’s adjoining bar Le Lucien for an early apéro. Le Fouquet’s has been a true Parisian institution since it was founded in 1899 during the Belle Époque and remains popular today among celebrities, movie stars and politicians alike.
When served neat, the Courvoisier XO is pretty to look at with its dark amber hue and is surprisingly smooth. But first, take a quick whiff to fully appreciate its complex aromas of vanilla, citrus and floral notes.
Address: 99 Av. des Champs-Élysées, 75008 Paris
Beyond an after-dinner drink for men in smoking jackets, cognac can also be drunk in a cocktail, just as we did. The Honey Sour is a definite crowd pleaser, consisting of crushed ice, honey, Courvoisier XO, lemon juice, almond liqueur, ginger and pepper. Whoever knew that cognac can be such a girl’s drink too?
Tourists with a bit more time can head to the Courvoisier Château in Jarnac, about four hours by train from Paris, to sample some of Courvoisier’s most iconic cognac blends and learn more about the history of the cognac house.
Discover more Cognac dreams with Courvoisier
For Paris tours
For an experience at the château
Pictures: Brandie Raasch, Story: Wee Ling Soh