When Travel for the Arts invited me to experience their Night at the Opera break to Paris I fairly jumped at the chance, having never seen an opera at the magnificent Palais Garnier. The rest of the itinerary sounded pretty seductive too; a Business Premier Eurostar return ticket, with lounge access ahead of travel and on-board cuisine by Raymond Blanc, an insightful tour of Palais Garnier, an overnight stay at the five star boutique hotel Pavillon de la Reine, pre-theatre dinner at the legendary brasserie Fouquet’s and the best seat in the house for Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito.
What sounded like too good a trip to miss proved precisely that thanks to Travel for the Arts’ expert organisation and their strong relationship Eurostar, luxury hotels and international opera houses and festivals. The UK’s leading opera, ballet and classical music specialist travel company, their bespoke service, Opera à la Carte, is designed for opera lovers who wish to travel independently whilst making world-class venues, productions and performers central to their holiday. With an all-round trip that was professionally co-ordinated, including our hotel stay and transfers, the entire experience was exciting yet effortless. Aside from those with a strong musical knowledge, Travel for the Arts holidays are also an ideal introduction for those looking to get into opera.
Adding a heavy dose of glamour to the proceedings, after a riveting tour of Palais Garnier and a chance to check into the hotel, our small party enjoyed a decadent pre-opera champagne dinner at the legendary Fouquet’s on the corner of the bustling Champs-Élysée and the prestigious George V; an iconic restaurant (and now a hotel) that has been hosting the great and the good since 1899, a fact boastfully, yet understandably, displayed in the form of black and white celebrity photographs cocooning diners with the age-old mystique of the place. With a Pierre Gagnaire menu featuring classic French dishes and those that herald the rebirth of the grand brasserie such as their unique take on a steak tartare accompanied by a shot of vodka, Fouquet’s is riding high following a refurbishment earlier this year. You’ll go a long way to find a restaurant as worthy of being paired with Palais Garnier on an evening out.
The obscenely opulent opera house, completed in 1875 for the Paris Opera, is not only a jewel in the crown of France’s architecture, commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew Napoleon III, and costing a staggering 36,010,571.04 francs, but is arguably the finest place to experience opera in Europe, if not the world. A venue that inspired the French novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux (Phantom of the Opera), it has long taken the name of Charles Garnier, then a relatively unknown young architect who successfully won the hotly fought design competition. There can be no grander atrium, nor such a magnificent gilded staircase in any other opera house, the pleasure of which was denied to everyone save wealthy patrons and subscribers until the 1930s; a fascinating slice of Parisian social history which certainly lends an added thrill when climbing them on the way to the Grand Foyer and your well-positioned red velvet upholstered box.
Willy Decker’s crisp interpretation of what turned out to be Mozart’s final opera (running until December 25 2017), with a libretto by Caterino Mazzolà, after Metastasio, this production of La clemenza di Tito (sung in the original Italian) proved enthralling from first to last due to a stellar cast including the acclaimed Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak as Vitellia, up-and-coming mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa in the castrato role of Sesto and tenor Michael Spyres, making his Paris Opera début in the title role of Tito Vespasiano, the brutal Roman emperor Titus who, according to Mozart, was actually rather admirable. It may have something to do with the fact that the work was commissioned to celebrate the coronation of Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor, as King of Bohemia.
With Palais Garnier having the largest stage in Europe, watching an opera of this size and scale is both exhilarating and exhausting. Therefore retiring to the small, 56-room Pavillon de la Reine, housed within a 17th century mansion, proved the perfect choice. Well deserving its recently awarded 5th star, with a superb location just off the romantic Place des Vosges in the Marais and a low-key, yet sophisticated style by Didier Benderli of Kérylos Intérieurs that is a welcome relief compared to the city’s larger, showier establishments.
My junior suite overlooked the hotel’s charming fairy-lit garden courtyard entrance, while the roaring fire in the comfortable lounge heartened me no end at the end of a deliciously long day. The well-stocked honesty bar is another inviting plus, as is the small but beautiful Codage spa complete with jacuzzi, where I made the most of some solitary chill-out time and a restorative 60 minute bespoke body massage after spending the following morning shopping (you won’t fully appreciate Eurostar’s unlimited luggage allowance until you’re coming home from Paris!) Refined but unpretentious, Pavillon de la Reine offers a relaxing environment in between business, sightseeing and, most tiring of all, spending money.
While it’s super that breakfast can be taken in-room (it is the city of love after all), the buffet, served in the plush lobby or the secluded courtyard come the spring, it is well worth getting out of bed for here. Constantly replenished hot items and a generous selection of the finest Parisian pastries and bread sit temptingly alongside fresh fruit, cereals and yoghurt, hams and French cheeses, with eggs and limitless coffee prepared to order. Pavillon de la Reine’s anticipated restaurant is due to open in 2018, yet I suspect the hotel’s regular clientèle will keep it a well guarded secret.
Reliable transfers ensured that we reached the Gare du Nord with plenty of time to unwind in Eurostar’s swanky new Business Premier lounge designed by Softroom, complete with walls of complimentary newspapers and magazines in French and English, a stylish sunken bar and permanent cocktail maestro to obey your every whim. The London Cocktail Club were tasked with devising the signature drinks menu including the aptly named Montmarte Mule, while Eurostar’s own gin, Toujours 21, helped to alleviate the typical sadness experienced on leaving Paris and convince me to go for the upgraded ticket again next time.
Wines, soft drinks, tea, coffee and delicious snacks overseen by culinary director Raymond Blanc were meanwhile available from the help-yourself kitchen-style areas. Designed to resemble a modern luxury Parisian apartment (I’d happily move in), the various zones mean there is an ambiance to suit every traveller’s mood prior to departure, from comfortable lounge seating and convenient work spaces to the trendy bar area where, almost forgetting that we were in a railway station, we toasted to a hugely memorable 36 hours.
1 night at Pavillon de la Reine, return Eurostar, departure and arrival transfer and 1 ticket to Opera de Paris from £695 per person based on 2 people sharing a twin/double room. To book visit www.travelforthearts.com or call 020 8799 8350. Stays at Pavillon de la Reine from €330 per room per night, based on two sharing on a B&B basis. To book: www.pavillondelareine.com; + 33 (0) 1 40 29 19 19