Paris is without doubt the city of Europe. With a history that rivals any other, Paris holds first place in almost every category you can name. The architecture is renowned with even the most mundane building having an ornate facade and probably massive statuary that is several hundred years old. My only complaint is that there is too much. I feel that you could visit daily for years and yet still find areas that lie undiscovered. As a result, in four days only the most iconic of Paris' monuments could be covered.
The journey starts with Eurostar leaving now from St Pancras International which was opened at the end of 2007, having previously used Waterloo as its London base. The station cost an enormous amount of money (800 million apparently) and it seems to display the British ambivalence to rail travel. There are two small restaurants where the queues reached 25 minutes wait-time for not very interesting food. The building is large, but curiously unimpressive. The most attractive part being the exterior now called the St Pancras Chambers formerly the Midland Grand Hotel. The entrance hall was chaotic and reminiscent of airports in days gone by. The security, an inevitable adjunct to 21st century travel, was only a minor inconveience but I was surprised at the French passport control. Whatever happened to the European Community? Enough moaning, the journey was comfortable, smooth and fast, arriving at the Gard Du Nord some 2 hrs and 20 minutes later.
The race to see Paris is on.
The Louvre Museum is the largest museum in France and is the most visited museum in the world. Nearly 35,000 objects covering 5000 years are exhibited in an area of over 60,000 square yards. The building which now contains the museum began as a fortress built in the late 12th century and the foundations are still visible. Over the years the building has been extended many times creating the building that we see today.
In 1672, Louis XIV moved the royal court to the Palace of Versailles, leaving the Louvre to display the royal collections, including a collection of antique sculpture. During the French Revolution the Louvre was used as a museum and opened in 1793 with an exhibition of paintings. Napoleon further expanded the museum and at one time, was even called the 'Musée Napoléon'. WHen he was defeated at Waterloo, many of his spoils of war were returned. The collection has continued to increase through donations and gifts. Today, the collection is divided between Egyptian; Near Eastern; Greek; Etruscan and Roman Antiquities; Islamic Art; Sculpture; Decorative Arts; Paintings; and Prints and Drawings.
It also famously houses the Mona Lisa (which may or may not be a fake!) The glass pyramids, the central one of which houses the museum entrance and visitor centre, were built during the 1980s.
The Tuileries Gardens now occupy the site of the Tuileries Palace which was deliberately burned down in 1871 and were finally demolished some twelve years later. The gardens stretch from the Louvre westward to the Place De La Concorde. The octagonal Place De La Concorde was originally dedicated to Louis XV and contained a statue of the king on horseback (which was destroyed during the revolution) when it was renamed 'Place De La Revolution'. This was the period of its darkest history as it became the home of 'Madame Guillotine' either outside the building that is now the Hotel Crillon or where the obelisk now stands. Estimates vary but many thousand people died on this implement before the revolutionary powers finally executed Robespierre and brought the "Terror" to an end.
The obelisk that stands in the Place De La Concorde originally stood outside the temple at Luxor and was dedicated to Rameses II. It was given to France by Mehmet Ali and in 1836 it was erected in its present position in the centre of the Place. The two fountains were built at the same time and the gold capstone was installed late in the twentieth century.
Moving west from the Place De La Concorde is the most famous avenue in the city, the Champs-Élysées, named after the Elysian Fields in Greek mythology. It is probably the most expensive street in the world and in a city of famous names has some of the most famous. The avenue leads to one of the other world-famous Parisian buildings, the Arc De Triomphe.
The Place De l'Etoile, sometimes called the Place Charles De Gaulle after the French President, contains the monument at its centre. There are twelve avenues leading to the Place giving it its other name of the 'star'. The arch was begun in 1806 after Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz but not completed until the 1830s by Louis-Philippe. The monument lists all of Napoleon's generals and the battles they fought. The outside of the arch is decorated with monumental sculptures each represnting some event from French history. After the first World War the arch was used to host the tomb of the unknown warrior and there are now several bronze plaques commemorating more recent French battles.
Returning to the Seine down the Avenue De General Eisenhower passes by the Petit and Grand Palais The Grand Palais was built for the Paris Exhibition of 1900. Similar to the British Crystal Palace 1851, the Palais is a steel and glass building that is also being renovated at this time (mid-2009). On the other side of the avenue is the Petit Palais, built at the same time as its larger sibling it is now a permanent museum of fine arts. The avenue leads down to the Seine and the Pont Alexander III with its marvelous quartet of gold-leafed statues on ornate columns. to the South of the bridge is the Hotel Les Invalides.
Les Invalides is a complex of museums which include the Musée de l'Armée; Musée des Plans-Reliefs (models of fortified towns); Musée de l'Ordre de la Libération and L'Eglise de St-Louis-des-Invalides. Louis XIV founded Les Invalides in 1670 as an old soldiers home (hence the name 'hotel les Invalides', duh!), funded by a levy on soldiers serving in the army at the time. The foundations were laid in 1671, and the final building housed 4,000 soldiers. The dome was begun in 1706. These museums embody the idea that more is definitely more. Whereas many museums have just a selection of artefacts, here there are thousands of examples, way too many to take in.
Les Invalides supplied the arms which helped fuel the French Revolution of 1789 which started on 14th July (which became Bastille Day after the storming of the prison). The other noteworthy event in the history of Les Invalides is the interrment of the body of Napoléon I.
In 1840, the British government finally gave permission to return the Emperor's remains from St. Helena. On 8 October 1840, the body was exhumed and then transported to France. On 15 December 1840 a state funeral was held and the body was laid to rest temporarily in St Jerome's Chapel until the tomb could be completed. Napoleon's sarcophagus is located in the crypt under the dome and on 3 April 1861, Napoléon's body was moved to the crypt. More in keeping with an Egyptian Pharoah than an European soldier, the size reflects the man's ego rather than his physical stature. Also in keeping with Egyptian tradition, the body is encased in multiple coffins.
To the West of Les Invalides stands the Eiffel Tower. This was built for the Exhibition of Paris of 1889 which commemorated the centenary of the French Revolution. Gustave Eiffel's design was the winner of the competition. The then Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, opened the tower, probably the first and last time a Brit has been asked to open anything in France. As today, you can't please all the people all of the time and a collection of the great and the good, including Emile Zola, objected to its construction. Needless to say, their protests came to nought although it was planned to demolish the tower after 20 years. This nearly went ahead but fortunately technology saved the day as the antenna on the top platform were seen as essential and both French Radio and TV have since used the platform for transmission. Intentionally or otherwise, it overtook the great Pyramids (or possibly Lincoln Cathederal) to become the world's tallest building until the Empire State Building took the honour in 1931. When you stand beneath the tower it seems amazing that it only took about 300 workers two years to build it compared to the approximately 3,500 workers and 14 months for the Empire State. The Eiffel Tower has three platforms. The Jules Verne (a very up-scale restaurant) is on the second platform and the top platform has a bar, the inevitable souvenir shop, and Gustave Eiffel's restored office.
Moving East along the South bank of the Seine takes you to the islands in the middle of the river where the Notre Dame de Paris ('Our Lady of Paris') is the Gothic cathedral on the Île de la Cité. Notre Dame is probably one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture having been restored by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the mid-1800s. The name refers to Mary the mother of Jesus, the central figure in Roman Catholicism. The Church makes use of flying buttress which allow larger windows and more light into the nave. During the French Revolution, much of the cathedral's treasure and property suffered damage and it had to wait until the 1800's to be completly restored. There cannot be many belfreys that have a song composed for the bells, but the Disney film 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' managed it with "The bells of Notre Dame". In real life there are five bells and no Quasimodo (with apologies to Victor Hugo). The biggest, Emmanuel, is located in the South Tower, weighs around 13 tons, and is rung every hour and for various occasions and services. The other four bells are in the North Tower, which are rung for various services and festivals. The bells are no longer rung manually, but are rung by electric motors.
Staying with the religious theme, the next major tourist attraction is the Sacre Coeur on the top of the hill in Monmartre, the highest point in Paris. This church saw much controversy during its formative years and several attempts were made to prevent its completion. The foundation was laid in 1875 but was not completed until 1914, just in time for the first World War which delayed its consecration until 1919. Named as the "sacred Heart of Jesus" the church was built in a Byzantine style in fine French travertine which continuously bleeds calcite, keeping the outside beautifully white in the face of ever-increasing levels of pollution. The courtyard to the West is the stage for a variety of street performers and, more disturbingly, beggars. Whilst on this subject, I don't think any of us was prepared for the almost constant pressure of young women begging. Some just knelt on the pavement in an attitude of prayer with a cup placed in front. Others having asked for English speakers, would then push a scrap of paper with a written request for money into the face of anyone who admitted to speaking English.
Perhaps the most disturbing, to me at least, is the practice of some women to dress in either gold or silver cloaks with pseudo-Egyptian masks and stand motionless for long periods except for a deep bow rewarding any contribution. These 'statues' adorn every tourist attraction. The hotel concierge referred to them as professional beggars as they are plainly not poor and probably not particularly needy. With their 100% covering it is impossible to determine their nationality (or even in fact if they are male or female) but they are becoming a tourist attraction in their own right, like the street mimes, with people taking photos with the 'statue' and paying for the opportunity.
For David Brown fans, the final stop is St Sulpice, a short walk from the avenue St Germain, the main artery on the South bank. This wonderfully massive building (second in size to Notre Dame) is presently being completely restored having turned a dull shade of black in the polluted air. Apart from "The Da Vinci Code", St Sulpice is perhaps better known for the three Delacroix murals in the South-West corner of the church and its main church organ, completed in 1862, and constructed from parts of the earlier organ.