The day began on a 6 am train, leaving Paris in the dark. Three and a half hours later, the sun was shining and I was in Limoges, porcelain capital of the world.
I had come to Limoges to visit a small porcelain workshop run by artist, Sylvie Coquet. The first adventure of the day was finding her. An unsuspecting taxi driver, used to driving customers only within the town, found himself driving 30 miles of country roads, going this way and that, searching for the illusive workshop. As there are no street signs you just have to know where you’re going…we didn’t. The driver stopped twice to ask people for directions, and both he and I felt like we’d found the holy grail when we finally reached our destination.
I went inside and waited, and waited, while Sylvie, dressed for the part in a blue smock covered in white porcelain dust, finished a lengthy phone call. While she talked, I marveled at her amazing designs. “This is going to be so fascinating,” I thought. Her organic shapes and textures were famous in the world of French porcelain.
When she finally hung up the phone, I explained that I was interested in learning about her process of porcelain making…
“That’s not possible,” she said. Turns out her process is a secret, you see.
At this point my brain is racing, thinking I’ve just traveled four hours to get here…now what? The answer came when Sylvie suggested she call a couple of the other, larger, porcelain factories in Limoges. I don’t know what she said, but she got me meetings at two of the most famous factories in Limoges, Royal Limoges and Bernardaud. She told me that I must leave immediately because they are waiting for me.
(Fortuitously, I had taken the name of the taxi driver, Michel, and his phone number…I caught him on his way back to Limoges.)
Back we drove, hurtling across the winding roads back to Limoges, first stop Royal Limoges. (At least we knew where we were going.) We found the factory but needed to find the office within a large conclave of buildings. Michel got out to ask, and we were back in the car swerving through dusty roads until we finally found a tiny sign that said, “Bureau.” I quickly paid him and he felt so bad, he handed me back 5 euros. Then again, maybe he was just paying me off so he’d never have to see me again.
Inside, every surface was covered with porcelain that looked like it had been there for hundreds of years…stacks of plates, shelves of cups and bowls, and the odd statue here and there. The Royal Limoges factory is the oldest existing porcelain factory still in operation in Limoges, there since 1797.
NOTE: I’ve been there since and there is now a McDonalds on the property. To attract tourists, or to stay afloat?
I wanted to look at everything, but I was whisked up a rickety staircase into a cluttered (but in a good way) office where I sat down at a wooden table with the illustrious head of the company, Lionel Delaygue, and his assistant, Frederick.
So now I’m in an actual MEETING, which isn’t really what I had anticipated. Thinking on my feet, I talked about wanting to design a line of porcelain, all white, with timeless shapes. They looked at each other, and I know that if I hadn’t been right in front of them, one or both would have rolled their eyes. Patiently, they explained what that would entail..but I really wanted all white? (Most designers came to them with designs for patterns to be put on the porcelain.)
It was decided that I should have a tour of the factory to look at the process (yay) and see some of what they make. Off I went, following Frederick through dusty passages that led to the various departments. There was the mold making room…
…and then the porcelain pouring area, where the liquid porcelain is poured into the molds.
Then there’s the kilns, where the first round of firing happens. (24 hours, 1800 degrees)
Off we went, over to the glazing room…
…then past another kiln for firing the glaze, and into the decoration division, where the porcelain goes through a yet another kiln to adhere the patterns.
Truthfully, when you see how complex and time-consuming the process is, you can understand why the finished product is so expensive.
Frederick was a saint. Not only did he use his precious lunch time (in France everyone goes home for a leisurely meal), he drove me to a restaurant so I could have lunch before my next meeting.
The restaurant was Le Churchill, a reference to its address on Place Winston Churchill. The chef was a close friend of Frederick’s, and with the mere mention of his name, I was welcomed like family. Chef Marion had spent two years in New York, so when I told her I was from the States, she flew to the piano, lifted the cloth off the keyboard, and launched into a French-accented rendition of “New York, New York.” The other diners were in shock. It was fantastic.
After a wonderful lunch, I bid my goodbyes and headed out to the next factory, Bernardaud. Fortunately, it was a short bus ride down the street and I was there exactly at 2:00 for my meeting.
The only problem was, there was no one expecting me. The woman I was supposed to meet had no idea who I was or why I was there. She confusedly brought me to her office and made a few phone calls. As luck would have it, there was a tour starting in five minutes…not only that, it was for a group of English students so the tour would be in English, and she was free of me.
I ran back down the stairs and glommed on to the tour, hoping no one would notice.
The history of porcelain was explained, and demonstrations of the mold making, porcelain pouring, kiln firing, and glazing techniques were conducted.
Feet covered in white porcelain dust, I have now fully immersed myself in the world of porcelain production.
It was 4:00 and I had just enough time to visit the National Porcelain Museum before it closed at 5, and before I caught my train back to Paris. I asked a kind elderly woman at the bus stop if this particular bus would get me there, and the answer was yes…however, once on the bus, the subject turned into a group discussion regarding where I should get off.
As it happens, I could see the museum from the bus, so I knew exactly where to get off. I assured everyone I would be fine.
While I was waiting to disembark, a very old man said to me, “Votre coiffure est tres jolie,” randomly telling me he liked my hair. Among all of the big adventures, those funny little moments are the ones that stick with me.
At the museum I got the audio guide, which is my new favorite museum thing. I first used one in Barcelona, at the Miro museum. It’s fantastic! Like your own personal tour guide, but you’re in control. If you don’t care about this or that piece of art (or porcelain as it happens) you just skip that particular explanation.
The museum was beautiful, made more so by the sun streaming through the tall windows. I wandered through porcelain from antiquity to the 20th century.
As I reached the end, I looked through the reference books while a very nice woman working at the entrance called me a taxi. I kind of hoped it would be Michel for an encore but, alas, it wasn’t.
I got to the train station in time to take a slightly earlier train and raced around like a maniac to change my ticket, as the train was leaving in five minutes. After the day I’d had, the last thing I wanted to do was fly around, looking sweaty and stressed, and thereby very un-French. I hopped on the train just as the doors were closing.
I got back to my hotel in Paris at 8:30 p.m., changed clothes, and went back out for dinner. I walked around the corner to Le Relais l’Entrecote…the famous hustling, bustling restaurant where tourists are always lined up outside waiting to get in. I pushed ahead of the parties of 2 through 5 and, sure enough, was seated, table for one, at a banquette in the back.
Why, you may ask, would I choose a crowded, noisy restaurant for dinner after a day like today? It’s easy…only two decisions are required, because they only serve one thing: steak frites. What color wine, and how do you want your steak cooked? I could manage that.
I contentedly dined on juicy slices of steak smothered in their secret green peppercorn sauce, and reflected on the (numerous) events of the day.
The early morning train ride seemed like a lifetime ago, and visions of porcelain tea cups danced in my head.