Paris still gets a kick out of the can-can
My family have seen the show so many times — I can’t really explain how much they love it,” says Moulin Rouge performer Lucy Monaghan during the show’s interval.
Modelling a bright red, crystal-embellished outfit, the classically-trained dancer from Glasgow is standing backstage among rows of some of the 1,000 costumes she and her fellow troupe of performers model during the show.
One of the show’s “Doriss Girls”, she says her childhood ambition was to be a dancer and “it’s great to finally achieve that dream here”.
By being in the audience I’m also finally achieving my own ambition of experiencing what is such an intrinsically Parisian experience, having never made it whenever I visited the country, although admittedly that was mainly as a cash-strapped exchange student posted elsewhere in France.
Even entering the luxurious elegance of the theatre is an experience in itself, and we start dinner as the room begins to fill up. You can, of course, buy tickets just for the show if you prefer.
The dishes are good enough to be worthy of a round of applause, at a venue that has appreciated the likes of Edith Piaf, Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli. The resident show, Féerie, is an extravaganza created with an investment of €8 million. It’s a far more dazzling, Technicolor experience than I had expected, covering everything from the Moulin Rouge’s history to “a Gorgon in her temple surrounded by snakes” and dancers dressed as circus animals. At one point, six real miniature horses briefly appear on stage. Or at least I think they do – my senses are so overwhelmed it becomes hard to tell.
And while the famous can-can does feature, as it has at the venue every night since 1889, it’s just part of a performance that feels almost physically exhausting to watch.
I can therefore only imagine how it must feel for Lucy not just to perform again in the second half but to repeat the whole show later that evening.
The scenes are interspersed with international variety acts, including acrobats and the jaw-droppingly impressive Roller Pilar, a double-act on wheels that shred my nerves as they defy gravity to increasingly staggering effect.
It’s almost enough to completely divert your attention from the French capital’s recent trauma, before remembering that those who died in the terror attacks of November 2015 were also just out for an evening on the town.
Our taxi had passed the Bataclan – where 89 people were killed by terrorists – on the way to this theatre, whose stricter security is a testament to the attack. Nevertheless, during my two-day visit I’m struck by how Paris acknowledges what happened while defiantly moving forward with the reopening of the Bataclan last November, the rebirth of historic Parisian institutions such as the Ritz, and the city now hosting some 300 events a day.
Several hours before taking our seats at the Moulin Rouge, our trip had started on the inaugural Air France flight from Glasgow to Paris Charles De Gaulle, with business class proving an even more elegant start to the trip.
This was followed by a tour of the airline’s new business-class lounge in Terminal 2E, designed to create an environment inspired by the outdoors.
Featuring natural colours and broken up into separate spaces, it feels airy and welcoming. Particularly appealing is a small Clarins spa, which should feature in every airport lounge in my opinion. Even if you’re not travelling in business class you can use the lounge for €35 or €50 according to the time of day, subject to availability.
It’s then time to check in at our accommodation, Mama Shelter in the 20th arrondissement, near Père Lachaise Cemetery, the resting place of Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde.
The Paris Mama Shelter was the first of the chain’s premises to open. Its reception area is a little different to your standard hotel lobby, doubling as a shop selling its own range of organic toiletries and chocolate, displayed in glass cabinets. There’s also a spacious bar and restaurant area that proves a big draw as a venue in its own right, and the accommodation strikes the balance between being effortlessly stylish and trendy as only the French can.
My “Medium Mama” room is mainly monochrome, with the pristine white linen on my large, comfortable bed counterbalanced by the dark walls and carpet. It also has a decent sized desk “if you decide to be boring”, in the words of the hotel chain, and each room comes with a 27” iMac, offering free wifi and films, and serving as a photobooth and videobooth where you can model the cartoon masks that double as lampshades. Its only fault is that while the dark fittings and low lighting make for a cosy atmosphere at night, finding everything when it comes to packing my suitcase is a little challenging.
The following morning we’re taken on a guided walk around the city by tour firm Cultival, which aims to “live culture differently”.
Our guide starts with historical sites such as the Conciergerie’s public clock, the oldest of its kind in Paris, which dates back nearly 500 years, but also more modern reference points like the real-life Quai des Orfèvres police offices serving as a key location for fictional detective Maigret, and the tranquil but central Place Dauphine that has been home to French stars such as Simone Signoret and Yves Montand.
We end our tour at Notre Dame, such a familiar sight in the city, but one that takes on new significance when your attention is drawn to its detailed carvings and their surprising origins.
Next is a well earned lunch at L’Ecluse Grands-Augustins, the former L’Ecluse cabaret club with great views of Notre Dame.
Despite being in prime tourist territory it couldn’t feel any more like a genuine Parisian bistro, and we power through a selection of authentic dishes, including excellent charcuterie.
As we’re barely able to move after three courses it’s the perfect time for a tour of the city from a different perspective: from the Seine. We take a trip with Vedettes du Pont Neuf, starting by passing the Louvre and heading under some of the river’s 37 bridges.
It’s then time to head back to Mama Shelter for dinner, including a delicious ceviche and molten chocolate cake, before packing in anticipation of an early start next day.
All in all, I have possibly left some of my possessions in Paris, hidden in darkness in my hotel room, but on departure I wished part of me could also stay on in what is a unique and timelessly elegant city.