The last stage of the Tour de France has ended on the famed cobbles of the Champs-Elysees since 1975. Without a doubt, this is one of the greatest venues in all of sports history – its electric spirit not to be missed in one’s lifetime. BUT, the beginning of this year’s last stage presents a tempting alternative to the madness of central Paris and offers the veteran Tour de France fan a chance to see the final leaders of the Tour before they take the podium. In the case of the Green Jersey, that lead may be as delicate as … well, porcelain. That’s because this year’s Stage 21 commences in the Parisian suburb of Sèvres, home to the world-renowned Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres and Cité de la Céramique. That’s right, Sèvres is the world capital of porcelain, an art form in its own right that is surprisingly interesting and stunning. Sèvres has quite a bit of other offerings such as the former grounds of the Chateau Saint-Cloud (now the expansive Parc de Saint-Cloud), but is often overlooked.
Just getting to Sèvres is a delightful adventure, which makes for a great way to see Stage 21. The town, or commune, is a mere 8.7 kilometers down the Seine from Paris’ opulent Pont Alexandre III. Unfortunately, public ferries do not reach this far down the river, but the metro offers a short, albeit less-scenic forty-five minutes metro ride. For the best experience, though, why not rent your own bike via the city’s enormous bike sharing program, Velib, the largest of its kind in the world. For 3.70 euros round-trip, fans can get on their own two wheels to view the Tour start, not to mention see the Seine from its banks. Park at the 745 Ave. du General LeClerc station and take the short walk across the Pont de Sèvres for a vista down the Seine and of the ceramics compound made up of the porcelain museum and factory.
I know it may be hard to get excited about fine china, but as I’ve learned, this isn’t just any dishware. Since 1745, Sèvres has been synonymous with French ingenuity and aristocracy. While the Chinese developed porcelain more than one thousand years ago, it wasn’t until the late 17th and early 18th centuries that Europeans discovered the secret to making this exotic ceramic, initially in Rouen and more importantly in eastern Germany’s Meissen. Several French producers originated in the 18th century, but it wasn’t until King Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour alerted his Excellency to the exquisiteness of fine porcelain ware that the form took off. Three years after the factory moved across town from Vincennes to Sèvres, Louis obtained sole ownership of the factory with the explicit purpose of imitating Meissen. With a monarchical monopoly on production, Louis inspired the creation of what has been called “the most beautiful and desirable in the entire history of European porcelain.” It’s not hard to see why. Works by Sèvres printers and gilders are amazingly intricate designs, decorated with bright colors brought to life with floral sprays and painted stills and scenery. Royalty throughout Europe felt the same way because Sèvres’ clients included the heads of state across Europe and America. In fact, the British crown still owns and curates the world’s finest collection of 18th century Sèvres poreclain. Today, the factory and museum are operated by the French Ministry of Culture. The museum, founded in 1824, now houses a collection of 50,000 pieces from across continents and time periods, not the least of which are made by contemporary artists.