CITY GUIDE: THE FRENCH SIDE OF LONDON

Written by Abbas Manai

Londres je t'aime written on tiles

Walk down a cobblestoned alley towards the Covent Garden piazza and you might feel like you’re walking through the fabric of time. With a bustling bazaar, jugglers, clinking wine glasses and crowds of starry-eyed spectators, it will greet you with a quiet glamour that is both timeless and new.

Or, if you feel like it, take to the backstreets, weaving between the neon-illuminated theatre buildings and ale-smelling pubs packed with merry people from all corners of the world, and you’ll soon be transported to Shanghai – with the most scrumptious dim sum takeaway in town. And if your heart is hungry for adventure, follow the distant echoes of music to step into the world of Soho...

This is the magic of London – a city that blends different cultures, languages, traditions and cuisines into one unique experience. To see this city through the eyes of two Frenchies who’ve fallen hopelessly in love with it, follow our trail of must-see London landmarks that have the most curious links to France.

“By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can show.”
— Samuel Johnson, 1773

TRACES OF FRANCE IN THE HISTORY OF ENGLAND

Natural History Museum, London, United Kingdom Natural History Museum, London, United Kingdom

Trafalgar Square: Nelson’s lions

Even war can give way to beauty.

Napoleon’s raging ambitions to rule across Europe were shattered at the Battle of Trafalgar, when Admiral Nelson defeated the French and Spanish fleets, halting Bonaparte’s plan to invade Britain. Sadly, the Admiral never got to celebrate his victory, as he was transported home in a cask of brandy. But the nation was drunk on pride – many sculptures, statues and monuments were erected to mark the victorious battle. Nelson’s Column with the four lions at its base is the symbol of Trafalgar Square and, oddly, the thread connecting this landmark with France.

You see, the lions were made from cannons found aboard the French and Spanish ships, melted down and sculpted by Sir Edwin Landseer. And the panel scenes on the four sides of Nelson’s column were made from captured French guns.

In the footsteps of Charles de Gaulle

“Nothing great is done without great men, and they are great because they wanted it.”
Charles de Gaulle

In his memoirs, Churchill referred to Charles de Gaulle as “l’homme du destin” – the man of destiny. When he fled to London, de Gaulle didn’t speak a word of English. But that didn’t stop the newly appointed general from making a BBC radio address calling all the French, and especially the military, to join him in London and continue fighting. It was a speech that would change the course of history.

From the historic BBC building, to a wartime watering hole at St James’s Square known as the Petit Club Français that was frequented by French exiles, their friends and Charles de Gaulle himself, to a life-size bronze statue of the general near the headquarters of the Free French Forces at Carlton Gardens, London is sprinkled with dozens of cultural and historical pockets that have preserved the stories and secrets of La France Libre. You just need to know where to look…

If you fancy a trip back in time, follow in the steps of Charles de Gaulle and the Resistance movement to discover mysterious wartime London.

The Tower of London: a palace, a fortress, a prison

The story of the Tower of London starts with a French duke, William the Conqueror, or William I of England, as he became known after conquering England and crowning himself king. The French duke was promised the English crown by his friend and first cousin Edward the Confessor, King of England, who later betrayed him by naming a powerful earl as his successor. William the Conqueror arrived on England’s coast with a fleet of hundreds of ships, seeking what he thought was rightfully his – the English crown.

The great Battle of Hastings ensued, from which the Duke of Normandy emerged victorious. This would set in motion a slow but steady transfer of French culture, architecture, language and cuisine that can be found and felt in England to this day. Nervous about a possible rebellion, the Conqueror began to build a fortress that would remind defeated Londoners about the new king’s royal power. Nearly 1000 years after its construction, the fortress still inspires awe, fear and wonderment.

The stone for the Tower was brought all the way from Caen, France, and it took the French masons almost 20 years to build it. The fortress was unlike anything ever seen in England, and throughout history it has guarded royal possessions and served as a lavish palace as well as a prison for enemies – and even as a zoo at one point in time!

Many of the ceremonial traditions have been retained and continue to delight curious visitors. But beware – it is said that ghosts still haunt the Tower, which was once a hot spot for royal executions…

THE CULTURAL TIES THAT BIND FRANCE AND ENGLAND

Mount Street Printers, London, United Kingdom Mount Street Printers, London, United Kingdom
“The English language is like London: proudly barbaric yet deeply civilised, too, common yet royal, vulgar yet processional, sacred yet profane.”
Stephen Fry

Oh my word – have you been speaking French all this time?

When he disembarked on the coast of England in 1066, William the Conqueror brought with him a piece of France that took root in the island. Anglo-Norman, the old French, quickly became the language of the English elite – a way for the country’s crème de la crème to broadcast their status to society and distinguish themselves from the poor.

The adoption of the French language was so swift and deep that 29% of the English words used today come from French. Unsurprisingly, most of them are clustered around topics that were relevant to the country’s elite, such as food, fashion, lavish living and the law.

Some of the most popular words shared by the French and English include: menu, restaurant, chef, ballet, chic, couture, petit, silhouette, critique, entrepreneur, boutique, avant-garde, R.S.V.P. (Répondez S’il Vous Plaît), fiancé, femme fatale and many more!

So, when was the last time you spoke French without realising it?

The ‘French Ghetto’

“What I like most of all in London is the fog. It is the fog that gives London its marvellous breadth. Its regular massive blocks become grandiose in this mysterious cloak.”
Claude Monet

Many famous French artists, from literary legends like Voltaire to master Impressionists like Monet and Tissot, sought refuge in London during turbulent times at home. Some found success here, while others struggled to make ends meet – but all discovered their own curious London that made a mark on their work.

The French Impressionists in exile forged a particularly strong bond with the city, depicting it from various angles and perspectives in their now famous paintings. Their tight-knit community found support from local educators, artists and art dealers, and the artists kept together, choosing Soho, which later became known as the French Ghetto, as their main socialising spot. Their cafes and restaurants, such as the Café Royal and Maison Bertaux, are still there today – perhaps serving the new generation of French artists.

The Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House harbours a fantastic collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, including some of the most iconic works by Manet, Degas, Monet, van Gogh, Gauguin and Cézanne. What better thing to do on a rainy day in London than gaze at Monet’s landscape of Antibes in southern France? Très bobo.

A SECRET POCKET OF FUN

The London Eye, London, United Kingdom The London Eye, London, United Kingdom
“In London, love and scandal are considered the best sweeteners of tea.”
John Osborne

Soirée Pompette: a taste of France à la Moulin Rouge

With freely flowing rivers of vin rouge, live acts, cheap plonk and a game of bingo to crown the night, Soirée Pompette is a treat like no other. From the moment you enter the charming cabaret, you’re in for a coquettish Moulin Rouge experience. And not only because of the spectacles that await you, and the red-cheeked host named Miss Pompette, but also because you can only speak French here!

If an eccentric night filled with a cheekier form of French culture is right up your street, brush up on your conversational French and step into a world of fun, s’il vous plaît!

Merci.
PHOTOS: Peregrine CommunicationMichael D BeckwithNik Guiney
WORDS: Tomas Laurinavicius