Virtually There: France

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

These picks of the best of French culture — from Rock français and Nouvelle Vague to Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and the Louvre — will lift you from the mundanity of everyday isolation and transport you to the streets of Paris and Marseille, to the Lavender fields of Provence and the vineyards of Burgundy. And while it’s not quite the same as truly being there, think of this, perhaps, as immersive research to enhance your knowledge and your stay when the time comes to lavish all of our attentions on beautiful France once more.

Which Virtual Exhibitions to Visit

A part of me feels that the online Louvre experience — a small collection of 5 virtual tours and an interesting enough bunch of videos — is missing something. While bumbling along on a virtual tour, one skips along the empty corridors with a swift left-click, admiring art, reading the occasional placard and noting the absence of people. But it’s impossible not to be struck by just how incomplete it all feels. It’s almost as though the loitering crowds are all a part of the experience. Or perhaps the isolation is just getting to me. But if one has always wanted to walk the empty halls of the Petit Gallery, the ornate galleria d’Apollon or the Sully Wing and the Egyptian Antiquities stored therein — unperturbed by those swollen crowds, then these virtual Louvre tours should be perfect.

If on the other hand, it’s views that you’re looking for, then one can do no better (virtually speaking) than to ascend to the roof of the beautiful Palais Garnier to take in the entirety of that iconic Paris skyline (there’s an Eiffel Tower one too). And afterwards, take a virtual tour of the Opéra National’s enchanting interiors. And if being trapped underground while being trapped indoors doesn’t sound too intimidating, the virtual tour of the Paris Catacombs offers a limited, but intriguing view of Paris’s skull-filled underground chambers. Away from Paris, this tour of the Plateau de Valensole plunges would-be virtual travellers into the very centre of Provence’s fragrant lavender fields for intimate moments of internet travel bliss. And for those missing winter travel, this surprisingly immersive tour of the mighty Mt Blanc offers sublime top of Europe views without the effort needed to make it to the top.

What To Eat & Drink

In the spring opt for a crisp bottle of Alsace Gewürztraminer to surprise your senses with a flavourful journey along the Rhine and the France/Germany border. Pair a lean steak with a fruity Pinot Noir, a grape that conjures a sense of place like no other, and close your eyes to envision the glorious vineyards and antique villages of Burgundy. When the breeze blows summer through the window, cook a batch of classic moules marinière for a hint of the French coast, or a rustic Poulet Vallée d’Auge to bathe in the apple orchards of Normandy. Cheese lovers should scrape a portion of melted Raclette atop a plate of freshly boiled potatoes, or mix beef stock, white wine, onions and gruyere for a delicious Onion Soup and a dip into the ambience of Montmartre.

Those with a sweet tooth, and who are lucky enough to live in London (New York’s Spring Street store is open for takeaways too), should dial Dominique Ansel (World’s Best Pastry Chef of 2017) into Deliveroo and order a batch of the chef’s world-famous, and just ridiculously tasty Cronuts. While those with a flair for baking should consider cooking up a batch of creamy Dunes Blanches to conjure the sugary romance of Bordeaux.

Music To Listen To

Set the mood for a French dinner night or balcony soirée by popping on the French classics. Try Edith Piaf’s Non, Je Ne Regret Rien, or zip forward a decade or two to the sublime rock n roll guitars and delicate tones of Françoise Hardy’s Ce petit coeur or Le temps de l’amour. But if one prefers their music a little more modern, then try the 80’s-tinged, neon-soaked electropop of Yelle — with standout tracks L’amour parfait, Ä cause des garçons, and Je veux te voir — perfect additions to any French-language playlists. Alternatively, take a dip into current French pop music with this Spotify playlist, or the best of the classics if you’re looking for something a little more laid back, and a perfect accompaniment to a little light reading. A favourite, Emilie Simon, mixes light orchestral vibes with delicate vocals and electronics to create layers of ambience with a melancholic, yet sometimes playful edge — perfect for days spent ruminating on the delicate beauty of France.

Spotify is a good resource for soundtracks too, with OST’s for films such as Amelie and Midnight in Paris, and compilations such as Vive Le Cinema providing an evocative, cinematic soundtrack for a French-themed evening.

Movies to Watch

Classic arthouse cinema offers a treasure trove of film to dive into, so much so that a top 100 could never do it justice. But of the classics, Les Enfants du Paradis — that sees the fates of 4 men intertwined in their love for a beautiful woman — makes for a fabulous introduction — starring the inimitable Arletty, no less. Of the later Nouvelle Vague movement, Jean-Luc Godard’s surprisingly fresh À Bout de Souffle wraps a crime noir story up in some of the most alluring shots of Paris ever committed to film. But modern cinema has its highlights too. From the deliriously pretty Amélie — that follows bob-haired Amélie in her mission to spread happiness on the vibrant streets of Paris, to Luc Besson’s more under the radar Angel-A, with Paris portrayed in stunning high contrast black and white with the statuesque Rie Rasmussen entangled in a gritty love story with Jamel Debbouze. Netflix’s Marseille is a good series for those wanting something to binge, and useful for adding a little southern colour to one’s French vocabulary too.

If one finds themselves pining for that heavily romanticised, Eiffel Tower besotted vision of France then step outside of French cinema to Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, a witty and sentimental film starring Owen Wilson as a screenwriter, who, whilst on holiday in Paris, gets thrust back in time — via a vintage Peugeot — to 1920’s Paris and a flamboyant party with the Fitzgeralds. Another light comedy option is the surprisingly charming My Old lady that pairs Kevin Kline with Maggie Smith — as surprisingly fitting a pair as Pinot Noir and Chocolate Ice Cream — as Kline’s character arrives from New York to sell his inherited Paris apartment… with Maggie Smith providing the snag.

Books to Read

As with film, a lot of the aspirational, or rather, cliched images of France are found in a foreigner’s mind. And perhaps no better is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. Set amongst the glamorous backdrop of the French Riviera in those most roaring of ’20s (not these ones) with a fashionable cast of characters as iconic as those Fitzgerald surrounded himself with in life. A good accompaniment to this would be Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which is, at its core, a collection of notes from Hemingway’s life spent amongst the glitz of 1920’s Paris with artists such as the Fitzgeralds and Gertrude Stein, collated to form a vivid, romantic portrait of the city of lights and the artists who called it home.

But those seeking a French view of the country and a, somewhat heavy look into French (and wider European) politics and culture should dive into Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables — one of the most celebrated novels of the 19th century, which is, at its core a criticism of the French political and judicial systems and something of a call to arms for social reform. But as Hugo put it, it is “a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day…”. Poetry lovers, on the other hand, should read Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal. Once called an affront to public morality and banned from sale, Baudelaire successfully moved the boundaries of artistic expression with the book’s deeply illicit and macabre imagery that Victor Hugo referred to as a ‘new thrill in literature’.

And for something a touch more modern try Leila Slimani’s Chanson Douce (or Lullaby in English editions) that explores the intimate relationship between a family and their babysitter — and took France by storm, winning the author the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2016.

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