Paris - the City of Light
Updated: Sep 16, 2021
Its sobriquet “la Ville Lumière”, (“the City of Light”) earned during the Enlightenment, remains appropriate, for Paris has retained its importance as a centre for education and intellectual pursuits. Also known as “the city of love”, Paris looms large in the imaginations of many a young (and old) romanticist.
France often gets a bad rap as a travel destination, for the disdain allegedly shown to foreign visitors. Susie did not have fond memories of her time here many years ago, but I convinced her to give it another try so I could experience it myself. And I am so glad I did – I loved it!
Paris is one of the most expensive cities in the world, so we had a tiny apartment (maybe 10’ x 15’) on the left bank. The bed had walls on 3-1/2 sides and there were mirrors everywhere in the minuscule bath to make it seem larger, but actually was kinda disorienting! C’est la vie – hot water & fast Internet, and close to the metro, the Seine, and the Eiffel Tower, with many cafes & shops nearby. After unpacking (as much as possible) we went out for drinks next door (yuck), and crepes (yumm!) next door to that place.
With only 5 nights in Gay Paree before meeting friends in Amsterdam, I was “volunteered” to plan our activities, packing in as much as possible. I chose a 5-Choice Explorer Pass by GoCity, that provided substantial discounts on 5 (out of ~30) attractions. So first on the list Saturday morning was a guided tour of the Eiffel Tower. We walked 20 minutes to meet the small group just outside the entrance, where our guide gave us a history of the tower and the surrounding area. We had to go through 2 security and 1 sanitary (Covid) check to enter and get in the queue for the inclined lift to the 2nd floor, where we got more details on the surrounding areas, then put on the lift to the top.
The tower was conceived for the 1889 World’s Fair & a competition organized for it's construction. It was named for Gustave Eiffel whose company won the contract, designed and built it. 1,063’ tall, the tower was the tallest man-made structure in the world – for 41 more years. Our guide said that true to their reputation the majority of Parisians denounced the tower as a unsightly monstrosity, and should have never have been built – or at least torn down as soon as the exposition ended. However, the communications antenna at the top were too valuable for the military, and thus it remained.
Painting was ongoing while we were there, with several areas blocked off. In 1900, in his book " The 300-Meter Tower ", Gustave Eiffel wrote, "We will most likely never realize the full importance of painting the Tower, that it is the essential element in the conservation of metal works and the more meticulous the paint job, the longer the Tower shall endure."
The Tower has been repainted 19 times since its initial construction, an average of once every seven years. It has changed colour several times, passing from red-brown to yellow-ochre, then to chestnut brown and finally to the bronze of today, slightly shaded off towards the top to ensure that the colour is perceived to be the same all the way up as it stands against the Paris sky. True to their reputation, most Parisians complain bitterly every time the colour is changed. I am not a fan of the current colour either – red - or yellow - would be better!
After a decent lunch at a streetside bistro we walked down to the river and used another
pass to take a boat tour on the Seine with Bateaux Parisiens sightseeing cruise, one of the oldest lines. These were large double decker boats named after famous French actresses – we were on the Catherine Deneuve. We sailed upriver, past iconic sights including the Musée d'Orsay, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and the Pont Neuf bridge. Also enjoyed the apartments and walkways along the river, reminiscent of so many movie scenes. The audio app we downloaded to our phones was sub-par; too much cheesy music and the app stopped every time the camera was used. I was also disappointed we did not go downstream far enough to see the quarter-scale replica of the Statue of Liberty, given to France by the US to commemorate Bastille Day. Unfortunately, it was given to France on July 4th – instead of July 14th! Doh.
The afternoon had warmed up nicely, so we lounged around Eiffel Park, watching the hustlers hawking wine, trinkets & games of chance, and posing with French Mickey. I tried a kir cocktail on the way home – it was delicious! Grabbed some shrimp at the grocery and tucked in for the night.
I had booked a walking tour of the Montmartre district for the next afternoon, so we opted to take the BigBus tour and hop off at the closest stop over that direction. The upper deck provided a good view of the city, and it had a decent audio system to plug into. We passed by Champs de Mars, Napoleon’s Tomb and the Palais Garnier Opera house, the setting for Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera.
OK – need to get off here. We still have an hour to walk 20 more minutes – just enough time for a cappuccino and croissant, and they were just as delicious as they should have been! Score. Back on the street we find our group of 10 (from 6 diff countries) meeting with Sara in front of a Starbucks.
Right across the street is one of the most famous cabarets in the world – the Moulin Rouge.
Fabled hangout of French & expat bohemians, the establishment was opened in 1889 to allow the very rich to come and 'slum it' in a fashionable district. Flowing champagne, live music, famous dancers, plentiful courtesans, lavish décor and a new dance craze – the can-can, assured it’s success. The place was loved by artists, including Toulouse-Lautrec whose posters and paintings secured rapid and international fame for the Moulin Rouge. Fun Fact: Moulin Rouge means the red mill.
The Montmartre is a large hill (130 m high) on the Right Bank and the surrounding district is named for it. Know for the artistic community, nightclubs, mills and the white-domed Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur on its summit.
Sara was an excellent guide – very knowledgeable and humorous. She pointed out many historic buildings and sights, including Les Deux Moulins café where part of the movie Amelie had been filmed and a room close by where Van Gogh had lived. We posed in front of “the Wall of Love” - 612 tiles of enameled lava, on which the phrase 'I love you' is featured 311 times in 250 languages.
She pointed out the many Wallace Fountains, which Sir Richard Wallace of England designed and intended to be beautiful as well as useful, providing clean drinking water to all, after the siege of Paris.
I really fell in love with this part of town. Many of the streets were quiet, and lined with lovely, well maintained old buildings, leafy trees and flowering plants. It was easy to picture the famous artists of the past sitting on a bench painting the peaceful scene, and indeed there were a few local practicing artists and musicians about.
Another historic building we viewed was the Bateau-Lavoir ("Washhouse Boat"), past home to many
famous artists & writers, and currently housing aspiring creative types. Originally a ballroom, then a piano factory, it became a rundown structure divided into tiny rooms sharing one bath, where the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Gertrude Stein squatted, while propelling the French literary scene to the fore. The nickname supposedly came from the amount of creaking & swaying in the old building, resembling the wash boats on the Seine.
Sara pointed out the house where Dalida (famous French actress & singer) lived, and the bronze bust of her in the adjoining leafy square. Good luck to all who rub her, ahem, bust. Moving on we spy the sculpture of Dutilleul - The Le Passe-Muraille Sculpture. A favorite children’s story, Dutilleul's superpower was to be able to pass through walls - until he couldn't.
We continue up the hill, finally reaching Moulin de la Galette. Operating since the 17th century, millers made a ‘galette’, that is a small brown bread, served with plenty of local wine. This was a popular gathering place for bohemians in the 19th century, and still is today.
A few more steps upwards and we reach the summit of Montmartre, where the magnificent Sacré-Cœur Basilica stands. Conceived as an act of penance following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, it is the 2nd most visited landmark in Paris. Imposing statues of King Saint Louis and Saint Joan of Arc guard the entrance, flanking wide white steps.
We ventured inside and were rewarded with the beginning of a service, when the famous pipe organ built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll began to play, washing the huge hall with wonderful waves of sound. Absolutely wonderful. We lingered until the audience began to sing.
Stepping back outside, we admired the 180° view of the city to the north. Whew. Ok. That was a busy afternoon. Let’s go sit down somewhere. Strolling leisurely downhill, we find a bistro recommended by Sara, but cannot gain entrance, as our primitive, paper CDC cards are not accepted! Only digital Vax certificates.
So - back up the hill to a nice open area with several outdoor cafes and take a seat, enjoying the pleasant weather and music from an acoustic guitarist nearby, who took that moment to sing some Cat Stevens for ma Cherie! A glass of champagne and some escargot – magnifique!
After walking back to the stop for the BigBus and waiting for a while, we discovered that we were too late for the last pickup there. Dang. Missed about 2/3 of that tour, including the Arc de Triomphe. Oh well. Into the metro and back home to the room.
Monday (August 30) was museum day – with a walking tour of the surroundings and history
of the Louvre, and “fast pass” entrance (although lines were nothing like pre-Covid). The Louvre is a central landmark of Paris, especially since the large pyramid (which serves as the main entrance) was completed in 1988. It is the 2nd largest art museum in the world.
We used the Rick Steves audio app again which worked well most of the time, but we got lost a bit & had to do some sleuthing. And asking the docents. So all of you know the most famous piece here – a small portrait, probably of the Italian noblewoman Lisa Gherardini, painted by Da Vinci. The Mona Lisa is considered the pinnacle of Italian Renaissance art, and I will leave it at that!
Venus de Milo - from the Greek island of Melos was another of the famed statues residing here. There were entire rooms dedicated to different periods and areas of art history, from ancient Greek to Roman to African. The museum was busy, but we always had a chance to get a good view of every piece, and were not hurried along.
The Apollo Gallery was filled with glass cases displaying ornate royal dinnerware & French crown jewels. Necklaces, earrings, tiaras and bracelets of solid gold encrusted with precious gems. Prominently featured was the Crown of Louis XV with the Regent Diamond set in the lower part of the fleur-de-lis in the front, while eight of the famous Mazarin diamonds are set in the other seven fleur-de-lis.
We took a break for a decent lunch inside before exploring more of the vast rooms. We lasted longer than we thought we would, but finally reached “museum-saturation point” and made our way to the exit, the metro, and back to mini-room. Found a great Asian buffet shop close by, and had a feast in the room while watching Community! (streaming through Netflix on my laptop, thru HDMI cable into TV. Sometimes have to use a VPN connection)
One more day in Paris, so we are going BIG! The Palace of Versailles! Starting out as a small
hunting lodge in the country for King Louis XIII in 1623 to get away from the city, Versailles was enlarged by subsequent kings until reaching it’s current, enormous proportions.
When Louis XIII died, his wife Anne & son Louis XIV had to content with fallout and disfavor from the King's unpopular financial policies. In 1661 Louis XIV took power at age 23 and moved the court to Versailles, where he could have total control over virtually everything. By most accounts, the Sun King, was an accomplished and just ruler, propelling France to eminence as the superpower of Europe while engaging in almost continuous warfare. He was also a patron of the arts and enjoyed music, literature, and art, as well as billiards and hunting. According to historian Philip Mansel, the king turned the palace into “an irresistible combination of marriage market, employment agency and entertainment capital of aristocratic Europe, boasting the best theater, opera, music, gambling, sex and (most important) hunting”.
The palace is laid out with 2 long wings extending north (the Royal Chapel & Opera) & south (the Hall of Battles), and a smaller wing (the Hall of Mirrors) projecting west towards the Gardens. The Royal Apartments were in the west wing, where the king had 7 apartments – one for each known planet. Every room was lavishly decorated with gilt borders, painted frescoes of the ceilings, exquisite furniture, statues, and paintings.
The Hall of Mirrors, the most famous room of the palace was just brilliant. 240’ long with very high ceilings, 357 mirrors line the east wall, opposite huge windows opening onto the gardens. Crystal chandeliers provide additional light, and the ceiling is adorned with 30 frescoes depicting the Sun King’s first 18 years of reign. This is where the Treaty of Versailles was signed, ending WWI.
Moving along outside, we can gaze out over 800 hectares (about 2000 acres) of the Jardins du Château de Versailles – designed by André Le Nôtre in the French formal garden style. Impeccably manicured lawns, gardens and plantings border walks, avenues, and the main concourse, leading to the Grand Canal. Groves of orange trees were replanted every year.
Another amazing feature of the gardens were the fountains – over 1,500 of them by some
accounts. From small pools tucked away behind a hedge, to giant basins with elaborate sculptures, spouting water high into the air in choreographed displays. All of these fountains needed a plentiful supply of water under pressure, and that was a problem that persists to the present day. Ever more complicated solutions were devised, from holding ponds to towers with elaborate pumping systems, to diversion canals from the river. There was never enough water to run all the fountains simultaneously, so when the king would take a stroll through the gardens, the fountaineers would whistle to each other to turn on and off the nearby fountain as he approached!
It is difficult to comprehend the enormous amount of labor and funds it took to build, furnish and maintain a palace like this. Almost half of the finances of France by some accounts. Louis XIV was by far the biggest spender, but Louis XV and XVI also poured funds into Versailles, among other estates.
By 1789 the French Revolution was gaining steam, the populace had enough and drug the royal family out of Versailles and over to Paris. Louis XVI was executed by guillotine in January of 1793 and his wife, Marie Antoinette suffered a similar fate in October.
Versailles underwent various stages of neglect and repair and was partly declared a museum in 1833. Since 1952, restoration and preservation has progressed significantly, and today it stands as a stunning testament to the power and glory of 17th century France.