The Louvre museum, Eiffel Tower, and Chateau de Versailles are well-known landmarks in Paris that often top tourist itineraries in the French capital. But, unbeknownst to many, the city has a handful of under-the-radar museums and palaces whose riveting histories are only revealed through exclusive private tours with their owners or historians.
These extraordinary sites, often shrouded in mystery, have started collaborating with luxury travel curators, recognising the appeal of an exclusive experience that goes beyond the ordinary tourist attractions.
One such curator is Singapore-based bespoke travel designer Intriq Journey who was about to take me on a whirlwind tour that would reveal the captivating histories and artistic treasures of Paris in an entirely new light.
A refuge for an Empress
We start with Chateau de la Petite Malmaison, a 19th century residence belonging to the first wife of Emperor Napoleon, Empress Josephine Bonaparte. It was her special place for hosting friends and indulging in her love for botany and animals.
As I stepped through the steel gates, another world unfurled. The urban sprawl of Paris faded away, and in its place was a foliage-filled wonderland, dressed in rich shades of green after a spring shower, framed by gray skies overhead. Through the trees peeked the white walls of the chateau, and at the top of a flight of stone steps stood a smiling Stefan Czarnecki, the amiable gentleman who owns and lives in the mansion.
Located in the town of Rueil-Malmaison — a 30-minute drive from Paris — the mansion was bought by Czarnecki’s father in 1947. Czarnecki now dedicates his time to making this hidden gem’s history come alive through concerts by young musicians, soirees, and guided tours like mine.
His voice conveyed an affection for the place as he pointed out features such as the section where a steel and glass greenhouse once stood — architectural innovation that was ahead of its time but was eventually destroyed as it fell into disrepair. In his narration, the chateau’s ornate furniture and paintings, as well as the garden with numerous plant species such as bald cypresses, pelargoniums, and roses, drew a vivid picture of a sophisticated empress with artistic senses, even though her relationship choices were often less than ideal.
A treasure trove of Napolean Artifacts
My group then traipsed over to Palais Vivienne, the last private royal residence in Paris that is owned by Pierre-Jean Chalençon, who bought the place eight years ago.
Chalençon has one of the largest private collections of Napoleon-related artifacts in the world, with over 2,000 such items filling every corner of Palais Vivienne — ranging from an original tapestry of the emperor by famous weaving town of Aubusson in central France to Josephine’s official divorce certificate from Napoleon. And while crockery, jewelry, and paintings abound, the real treasure of Palais Vivienne is 52-year-old Chalençon, who is a television celebrity and a fixture at auctions with Napoleonic items.
Following him around the different rooms was like watching a happy child among his favourite toys. Colourful in fashion and witty in his expressions, Chalençon regaled us with stories of how he started his collection when he was 18 and how he had organised exhibitions on Napoleon in China, America, and Europe to raise awareness of the historical figure. He also shared his admiration for the ruler who rose from rags to riches — unlike other French emperors who were born into power (“like Donald Trump, you know?”) — and his passion to work with contemporary artists to create Napoleon-themed artworks.
As he explained the significance behind each item and how he painstakingly re-gilded the original gold motifs that had faded away from neglect, I mused about how art pieces not only shed light on their creators but also the passion of their collectors. “I love Napoleon,” declares Chalencon. “He was a visionary ahead of his time.”
A gentleman’s club in a courtesan’s home
Still, nothing beats the scintillatingly salacious stories in the Hotel de La Paiva, the last grand residence among the few that used to line Avenue des Champs-Elysees. The hotel had belonged to Esther Lachmann, an infamous courtesan who hustled her way from the dregs of Russian society to the favour of male Parisian artists and aristocrats.
Hotel de la Paiva is also home to The Travellers Club, a private gentleman’s club that originated in London as a place where well-travelled men of status would entertain their distinguished foreign guests. Female membership is still forbidden, but male members can bring their spouses to certain events.
Our guide, Pierre-Andre Hélène, was a well-known art curator and historian, whose dulcet tones and crisp enunciation made for an entertaining tale of the 19th century residence and its owner — a confident woman with a survivor instinct. The residence boasts Moroccan details and lavish materials like onyx and silver in the bathroom, rich red walls, gilded frescos on the ceilings, and nude sculptures dotting the house.
At the end of the tour, we stopped by the iconic central staircase made out of yellow onyx. Along the wall was a relief of a naked woman seated astride a sea creature — clearly a depiction of Lachmann. One of the traditions of the Travellers Club was for new members to place their hands on the figure’s exposed bottom. The irony of it all was amusing — centuries later, Lachmann still had men eating out of her hands.
Intriq Journey’s co-founder and director, Jess Yap, shared that art and cultural tours like these are usually requested by those who value the in-depth knowledge of their guides.
“Post-pandemic, we see our guests tend to travel longer. We are also seeing a surge in experiential travel as well as multi-generational travel — to bond and reconnect. When curating an art tour, we find out whether the level of appreciation is for general, basic knowledge or an in-depth appreciation. If it’s the latter, we would work with museum curators and historians to elevate their experience.”
The company also works with a local partner at each destination. In this case, it’s Paris travel agency ArtLuxury Experience, whose founder and chief executive officer, Olivier Rérolle, personally oversaw each tour. He also organises private events upon request at these venues, which are typically out of bounds to the general public.
Stepping into the view
Lesser known venues are not the only ones seeking new ways to put themselves on travellers’ radars. For instance, Le Bristol Paris — the first “palace” in France and a distinction accorded to only 31 luxury hotels by Atout France, the country’s official tourism development agency — is venturing into the Web3 realm to offer unique experiences that are not available even to regular guests.
It launched 11 non-fungible tokens (NFT) in March, with each NFT valued at eight ethereum (approximately 14,000 to 15,000 euros, or S$20,600 to S$22,100). Buyers of these NFTS are entitled to a five-year membership in the hotel’s private Web3 community, L’H3ritage Club, which has privileges such as weekly access to the rooftop swimming pool usually reserved only for guests and being privy to secret cocktails and signature dishes at the hotel’s bar and restaurants.
An exclusive experience is also randomly allocated to each NFT, which owners would only discover upon purchase. Examples include a day out with the hotel’s head sommelier in a vineyard that is typically out-of-bounds to the public or a gourmet barbecue on the hotel’s rooftop terrace.
I had a taste of such an experience when I was invited into the hotel’s Willy Wonka labyrinth of ateliers responsible for milling organic flour, churning out intricate pralines and crisp pastries, and ageing local cheeses in a bricked cave — all for use in the hotel’s restaurants. I breathed in the intoxicating aromas of butter and cacao and resist the urge to grab a pack of freshly made gnocchetti sardi from the steel shelves that are part of the latest pasta additions to the house-made inventory.
Le Bristol’s head of marketing and e-commerce, Thomas Mattei, shared, “The goal was to surprise, to experiment, and to have fun with the hotel.” He shares that the interest in the hotel’s NFT was encouraging since no one expected a hotel as traditional as Le Bristol to be the first in France to enter the Web3 community. “Even our regular guests ask about it.”
In the pipeline are collaborations with high-end jewellery and watch brands as well as closed-door interactions with blockchain movers and shakers. The hotel is also working towards accepting cryptocurrency as a mode of payment for stays.
And while it is a bold departure from the usual hotel experience, I was glad that the personal touch, the mark of true hospitality, remained paramount. The staff were personable without being pretentious, and though there was a steady stream of arrivals and departures on my last day, they remained unflappable and smiling throughout.
Mornings on my suite’s terrace overlooking the indoor courtyard were refreshingly tranquil as I nibbled on housemade macarons with piping hot tea. It’s a perfect setting to peruse how the discovery of lesser known palaces and museums, as well as new experiences at Le Bristol shine a completely different light on a city I thought I was familiar with. Being able to linger at these places in the company of custodians passionate about passing on their stories truly reinforced the joy of slow travel.