Saturday, February 19, 2011

MONUMENTAL PARIS: a gem of architecture and culture

I wouldn't say that it is without a sense of pride that I started to think writing about possibly the most esthetically pleasing city in the World. Paris, the city of lights, city of love. Many an artist has written about your gracefulness and enchanting tales of grandeur. Rio has natural beauty but Paris gets the first price for monumental appeal. Along with other European cities such as Rome, Madrid or London, Paris is one of those must visit cities of the World. Not only does it have amazingly beautiful architecture but it also harbors equally amazing refined shopping, winning and dinning unequaled the World over. Along with art, fashion and a unique sense of joie de vivre, Paris delivers a stunning performance for the ones who are lucky enough to come within its inner realms. Voted one of the three most influential cities in Europe in 2010, Paris has had a long history of invasions, chaos and spectacular flourishes.

Historical building in the Marais District

With beginnings around 4200BC, the Paris metro area known as the "Ile de France" (The Isle of France) has grown, over the centuries, into the modern city we know today. The first permanent settlement, Lutecia, located on today's Île de la Cité, was born under the Romans in 52BC and prospered over a vast period of time. The architecture of Paris is closely linked to its history. Blessed with both domestic and foreign influences in its styling, grandiose Paris is an osmosis of various styles coming together to form what is today a treasure of art in building making. Most of what can be seen nowadays dates back to the XIX century and is the result of vast urban remodelling begun by Hausmann. For centuries, the city had been a labyrinth of narrow streets and half-timber houses but with Haussman's plans, entire quarters were leveled to make way for wide avenues lined with neo-classical stone buildings of bourgeoisie standing.

Avenue de la Grande Armee and the modern La Defense area in the background
Haussman's era buildings near the Place de L etoile

Les Champs Elysees, Paris famous avenue


Here is a simple way to get a feel of what Paris is like when you only have 3 days to spare. Again this is what I did and I am sure there are many more options out there. First of all walking is the best way to see this city. The driving conditions are not best and the traffic is horrible. Let alone finding a parking space. Therefore Metro is king. It virtually takes you, within minutes, wherever your mood may lead you. It is affordable and fast. There is a system of multi-day pass which allows you to take unlimited trips on the rail system. I think some passes include the RER, Paris Metro Transit system which reaches CDG International Airport from where you might land and leave from. That is when there are no strikes of the transportation system ! 
The best plan is to map out your route for the day, thinking about the sunlight to get those National Geographic looking shots. Start early since you will be easily walking a good 10 miles total in one day. Wear comfy shoes and go off on your Paris adventure.

Metro Station entrance design typical of its 1900 beginnings
Tourists flock to the Louvre Museum where Mona Lisa is exposed. By the way I hate that pyramid ! 

A Paris must do, if you have time, is to visit the Louvre Museum. One of the world's largest museums, the most visited art museum in the world it is housed inside the Louvre Palace, which began as a fortress built in the late 12th century under Philip II. Remnants of the fortress are still visible. The building was extended many times to form the present Louvre Palace. In 1682, Louis XIV chose the Palace of Versailles for his household, leaving the Louvre primarily as a place to display the royal collection, including, from 1692, a collection of antique sculpture. Across from the Palace is the Jardin des Tuleries, covering about 63 acres (25 hectares) and still closely follows a design laid out by the royal landscape architect André Le Nôtre in 1664. His spacious formal garden plan drew out the perspective from the reflecting pools one to the other in an unbroken vista along a central axis from the west façade, which has been extended as the Axe historique.

Garden of the Tuileries, Jardin des Tuileries in the heart of Paris. Place de la Concorde is in the background
Sit and enjoy the sun rays while at the Jardin des Tuileries

The Place de la Concorde is located at the west end of the Jardin des Tuileries. Filled with statues and fountains, the area was named Place Louis XV to honor the king at that time. The square showcased an equestrian statue of the king, which had been commissioned in 1748 by the city of Paris, sculpted mostly by Edmé Bouchardon, and completed by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle after the death of Bouchardon. During the French Revolution the statue of Louis XV of France was torn down and the area renamed "Place de la Révolution". The new revolutionary government erected the guillotine in the square, and it was here that King Louis XVI was executed on January 21, 1793. The square was then renamed Place dede la Concorde. The center of the Place is occupied by a giant Egyptian obelisk decorated with hieroglyphics exalting the reign of the pharaoh Ramses II. The two fountains in the Place de la Concorde have been the most famous of the fountains built during the time of Louis-Philippe, and came to symbolize the fountains in Paris. In film The Devil Wears Prada, Andrea Sachs throws her phone into one of the fontaines de la Concorde.

The Southern Fountain and the Obelisk at Place de la Concorde
The Champs Elysees Avenue from Arc de Triomphe (Etoile Circle)
Crossing the Place de la Concorde to the West leads the visitor to the Champs Elysees. Named in French for Elysian Fields, the place of the blessed dead in Greek mythology, this prestigious avenue is home to cinemas, cafés, luxury specialty shops and clipped horse-chestnut trees, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées is one of the most famous streets in the world, and with rents as high as USD1.5 million annually per 1,100 square feet (92.9 square metres) of space, it remains the second most expensive strip of real estate in Europe after London's Bond street. When on the Champs Elysees make sure to stop at Ladurée, a luxury cakes and pastries brand based here. It is known as the inventor of the double-decker macaron, fifteen thousand of which are sold every day. They are considered the best macaron shop in the world. Once you have strolled the 2 kilometers (1.25miles) you will find yourself at the Arc de Triomphe ("Triumphal Arch") which honours those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars, with the names of all French victories and generals inscribed on its inner and outer surfaces. Beneath its vault lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I. I used to work down the street from the Arc at Avenue Marceau back in 1986 and passed by it everyday ! 

Arc de Triomphe

A handsome walk from the Arc down the Avenue Kleber leads to the Trocadero, a square housing the Palais de Chaillot, a monumental museum complex built in 1937. It is in the Palais de Chaillot that the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948. It was also the initial headquarters of NATO. From this point, one can admire the grand view of the Gardens of the Trocadero, the Jena bridge (Pont d' Iena) and the Eiffel Tower accross the river. Built in 1889, it has become both a global icon of France and one of the most recognizable structures in the world. The tower is the tallest building in Paris and the most-visited paid monument in the world as millions of people ascend it every year. Named for its designer, engineer Gustave Eiffel, the tower was built as the entrance arch to the 1889 World's Fair.

Trocadero Gardens and Eiffel Tower

Iena bridge and Champ de Mars under the Eiffel Tower

The tower stands 324 metres (1,063 ft) tall, about the same height as an 81-story building. Upon its completion, it surpassed the Washington Monument to assume the title of tallest man-made structure in the world, a title it held for 41 years, until the Chrysler Building in New York City was built in 1930.  

Close to the Trocadero is the famous Passy Cemetery, opened in 1820 in the expensive residential and commercial districts of the Right Bank near the Champs-Élysées. By 1874 the small Passy Cemetery had become the aristocratic necropolis of Paris. It is the only cemetery in Paris to have a heated waiting-room.
A long list of authors, celebrities, royalties and aristocrats are buried here. 

Grand mother and grand daughter lay side by side in this grave sheltering the remains of Iranian Royalty

Trocadero Metro Station
After all this walking around you will need a definite break by taking a ride on the Paris Metro. Maps of the network are everywhere and you just need to find out the line number and its final destination to hop on the correct train to your desired destination. 

We continue on to Montmartre, a hilly neighborhood in the northern part of the city recognisable by the white-domed Basilica of the Sacré Cœur on its summit. Montmartre is also famous for its nightlife. Pigalle Square is famous for being a tourist district, with many sex shops on Place Pigalle and the main boulevards and prostitutes operating in the side streets. The neighborhood's raunchy reputation led to its World War II nickname of "Pig Alley" by Allied soldiers. The Divan du Monde and the Moulin Rouge, a world-famous cabaret, are both located in Pigalle.  

Sacre Coeur on Montmartre Hill

The view from the Sacre Coeur Basilica on top Montmartre Hill
The view from the Basilica atop the hill is beautiful. One can admire most of Paris from this point. The tall building on the right is the Tour Montparnasse. When you do so make sure you keep an eye on the gypsy kids running around. They might just ruin your day if you are not careful. From the basilica, one can explore a maze of small streets filled with bars and cafes, restaurants and small shops, bakeries and clothes stores. One of them located at the junction of Rue Lepic and Rue Cauchois, the Cafe des deux moulins takes its name from the two nearby historical "windmills", Moulin Rouge and Moulin de la Galette. The interior consists of a bar area and multiple small tables at which one might sit and enjoy a piping hot espresso. The café has gained considerable fame since its appearance in the 2001 film, Amélie, in which it is the workplace of the title character. 

The portrait of Amelie hangs on the back of the Cafe des Deux Moulins
A short subway ride East of Montmartre is the Père Lachaise Cemetery, officially called the Cemetery of the East. The largest cemetery in Paris, it is reputed to be the world's most-visited cemetery, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually to the graves of those who have enhanced French life over the past 200 years. It is also the site of three World War I memorials. At the time of its opening, the cemetery was considered to be situated too far from the city and attracted few funerals. Consequently, the administrators devised a marketing strategy and in 1804 with great fanfare organised the transfer of the remains of La Fontaine and Molière. The strategy worked so well it now holds 300,000 bodies buried there (the population size of Venice, Italy !), and many more in the columbarium, which holds the remains of those who had requested cremation.

Two of the World most famous artists are buried there close one to another. Edith Piaf, born Édith Giovanna Gassion, was a French singer and cultural icon who became universally regarded as France's greatest popular singer. Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was an Irish writer and poet. After writing in different forms throughout the 1880s, he became one of London's most popular playwrights in the early 1890s. Today he is remembered for his epigrams, plays and the tragedy of his imprisonment, followed by his early death.

Like a city, the Pere Lachaise Cemetery has main streets, lanes and a numbering system to locate graves.

Edith Piaf

A sentimental note left by an admirer says: "Edith I love you, because of you I have no regrets"

Oscar Wilde's grave is covered with loving grafittis
L' Ile de la Cite is Paris historical heart and soul. Most scholars believe that in 52 BC, at the time of Vercingetorix's struggle with Julius Caesar, a small Gallic tribe, the Parisii, lived on the island. At that time, the island was a low-lying area subject to flooding that offered a convenient place to cross the Seine and a refuge in times of invasion. After the conquest of the Celts, the Roman Labienus created a temporary camp on the island, but further Roman settlement developed in the healthier air on the slopes above the Left Bank, at the Roman Lutetia. The island houses Notre Dame de Paris, a Gothic cathedral of the Catholic Archdiocese of Paris: that is, it is the church that contains the cathedra (official chair), of the Archbishop of Paris. Notre Dame de Paris is widely considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture in France and in Europe, and the naturalism of its sculptures and stained glass are in contrast with earlier Romanesque architecture. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, a novel by Victor Hugo published in 1831, centers its story around the Notre Dame Cathedral.

Ile de la Cite and the Seine River

Exquisite sculptures adorn the front of the Cathedral

Notre Dame de Paris

Steps leading to the Seine at Ile de la Cite are a favorite hangout for Parisians

The river Seine, the life line of Paris, like an artery in its heart pumping commerce and life into the city for centuries, flows down to the Atlantic ocean which it reaches at Le Havre. Along its celebrated banks lay countless buildings which have shaped its character and history. Thirty seven bridges span its course in Paris alone. Some of those bridges became landmarks of their own. The Pont the la Concorde links the square by the same name and National Assembly of France on the rive gauche, the southern bank. 

Pont de la Concorde (Concorde Bridge)

Bateaux mouches on the Seine river from Pont du Carousel
Since the Seine is centrally situated in Paris, a boat tour covers a great deal of the city. Both the Left Bank (Rive Gauche) and the Right Bank (Rive Droite) are visible from the boat. Passengers can see, among other sites, the Eiffel Tower; Notre-Dame Cathedral; the Alexander III Bridge, the Pont Neuf; the Orsay Museum, and the Louvre Museum. Passengers can also see Les Invalides, Napoleon's burial site. The term Bateaux Mouches is a registered trademark of the Compagnie des Bateaux Mouches, the most widely known operator of the boats in Paris. Because of the success of the company, it is wrongly used colloquially to refer to all boats operating on the river. Bateaux Mouches translates  to "fly boats" which comes from the name of the boatyard they were originally manufactured in Lyon called Mouche. More than a way for tourists to experience Paris, the Seine is also a commercial waterway widely used as shown in the picture below. 

Commercial barge traffic on the Seine 

One of Paris oldest shop started in 1638 still open in 2010. 

The Rue des Rosiers lays at the center of the Jewish quarter unofficially called "the Pletzl" (Yiddish for "little place"). During the last ten years, the Rue des Rosiers has become notable for fashion. The quaint boutiques of days-gone-by have given way to gleaming minimalist showrooms for some of Europe’s trendiest labels. Not following the Western holiday schedules, Rue de Rosier shops have become the meeting point for Parisians who want to eat out and shop on Sunday, Christmas or during any of the off days. Well worth the visit !

The Ace of the Fallafel is a re known snack on Rue des Rosiers
The Place des Vosges, in the same area of Le Marais, is the oldest planned square in Paris. Originally known as the Place Royale, the Place des Vosges was built by Henri IV from 1605 to 1612. A true square, it embodied the first European program of royal city planning. Inaugurated in 1612 with a grand carrousel to celebrate the wedding of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria, is the prototype of all the residential squares of European cities that were to come. What was new about the Place Royale in 1612 was that the housefronts were all built to the same design of red brick with strips of stone quoins over vaulted arcades that stand on square pillars.

Place des Vosges

Place des Vosges
No tour of Paris would be complete without a visit to the Opera house a few Metro Stations away from Place des Vosges. Founded in 1669 by Louis XIV as the Académie d'Opéra it shortly became the Académie royale de Musique. The company primarily produces operas at its modern theatre Opéra Bastille which opened in 1989, and ballets at the older Palais Garnier which opened in 1875.

The Garnier Palace, Opera house of Paris

As always the best way to experience a place is to be there, get up close and personal with its smells, tastes, atmosphere and vibe. So what are you waiting for ? 

1 comment:

  1. One recommendation I would give for people visiting Paris, open your eyes from the top of the buidings to the bottom, architecture is so rich through the centuries, it's just unbelievable !
    Different institutions (private or public) do renovate monuments or buildings to keep our "patrimoine" safe for our best pleasure !