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The Splendor of Paris

The Eiffel Tower has become the symbol of the city of Paris.
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The Eiffel Tower has become the symbol of the city of Paris.

Little wonder Paris is the #1 tourist destination in the world. There are 6,500 years of history, 455 parks and gardens, 200 churches, 141 museums, and 120 statues in the Tuileries gardens alone. Twenty-five thousand artists reside in Paris. A thousand people live on picturesque river boats along the Seine. It’s a center of haute couture, haute cuisine, art and architecture, and most famously, romance…

Just how did Paris become the glorious City of Light?

The Grand Plan

Paris wasn’t always the romantic city of today. With the Industrial Revolution and influx of people seeking employment, the former walled medieval city grew rapidly in size and population. Dirty, overcrowded slums and urban impoverishment developed, depicted by Victor Hugo in Les Miserables.

Much of the grandeur of Paris is the result of the vision and megalomania of Napoleon III, who, in the mid-1800s, commissioned Baron Georges Eugène Haussman to create a modern city that would become the prestigious capital of Europe. The plan included efficient traffic flow, quick links to major train stations, and broad tree-lined boulevards leading to crossroads where grand monuments would represent the city’s —-and Napoleon’s– power and prestige.

Paris became a city of landscaped squares, gardens, and parks like the Bois de Boulogne and Vincenne. Place de L’Etoile was named for the pattern of avenues radiating like a star from a glorious monument, the Arc de Triomphe. The design is repeated around the Opéra Garnier.

Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel embellishes the courtyard of the Louvre, and the Colonne Vendôme soars nearly 150′ above one of Paris’ most exclusive districts.

Paris became a model for the rest of the world. The 1867 Universal Exhibition brought global recognition to Haussman’s comprehensive program. His influence spread to other major European cities, and even to Chicago.

The grand Universal Exhibition of 1900 showcased art, architecture, engineering and inventions. It featured the new Petit and Grand Palais of Fine Arts, Sacré-Coeur, Gare de Lyon, and the first Metro line. The escalator was revealed. A newly-developed Campbell’s condensed soup won a gold medal, still represented on its label, and Fauchon introduced fine ready-made foods. Gustav Eiffel’s metal tower, built as a temporary exhibit in 1889, became a symbol of the city.

Little wonder visitors continue to be enchanted by this stylish capital.

The Grand Sights

The Arc de Triomphe was erected to celebrate Napoleon’s victories and the glory of France. Situated on the busy Etoile, it is best accessed by a pedestrian tunnel on the north side of the Champs Elysées.

Grand Pont Alexandre III, Paris, France
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Grand Pont Alexandre III, Paris, France

Among the Bridges of the Seine, Pont Sully, like the Ponte Vecchio, was covered with houses for many years. The oldest, ironically named Pont Neuf, was built in Henri III reign to connect Île de la Cité with the Right and Left Banks. The most impressive is the Art Nouveau Grand Pont Alexandre III, built for the 1900 Universal Exposition. It’s replete with cherubs, nymphs, elegant lampposts, and gilded horses. The innovative single span design created an unobstructed view of the Champs-Élysées and the Invalides.

Concorde Square, (Place de la Concorde) is a majestic square with the 230 ton granite obelisk of Luxor, from the temple of Ramses II at Thebes. Originally Place Louis XV, there’s an equestrian statue of monarch and two fountains fashioned after those in St. Peter’s Square in Rome.

Champs Elysées, the most famous avenue in Europe, is an elegant 1 ¼ mile tree-lined boulevard of celebrated cafes, fashionable shops, luxury car showrooms, and countless tourists.

It took 7300 tons of steel to build the Eiffel Tower for the Universal Exhibition of 1889, which celebrated the hundredth anniversary of French Revolution. Scheduled to be dismantled after 20 years, it was saved when found to be useful as a radio link from the Pantheon to top of tower. Later used as a television tower, it became the best known monument in the world.

The inscription on the glass-roofed Grand Palais reads “a monument raised by the Republic to the glory of French art”. It is now one of the most highly regarded venues for international exhibitions. The Petit Palais across the street, also built for the 1900 Universal Exhibition, houses the Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, the collection of the city of Paris that includes Medieval and Renaissance paintings, 18th century furniture, French Impressionism, and Art Nouveau ceramics.

The island in the Seine known as Île la Cité retains remnants of Medieval Paris -— Notre-Dame, Sainte-Chapelle, Hôtel Dieu, Palais de Justice, and the Conciergerie, the royal palace turned prison for the likes of Robespierre and Marie Antoinette.

Leave it to Napoleon I to be entombed in a red porphyry sarcophagus surrounded by a gold-domed circular crypt. Hôtel des Invalides, former hospital for wounded soldiers, houses the finest military museum in the world.

Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris, France
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Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris, France

The Palace of Luxembourg was built in the 17th century for Marie de Médici, mother of Louis XII, in a design reminiscent of Pitti Palace in her native Florence. The gardens are a setting for a game of lawn bowling known as boules, for renting little boats for children, or, perhaps, for romance in the informal gardens in the west end…

“Museums are the cathedrals of the late 20th century, just as railroad stations were the cathedrals of the 19th century.” Yann Weymouth, assistant to Louvre pyramid architect I. M. Pei.

Musée du Louvre, the former Royal Palace, is the largest historic building in Paris. It showcases paintings, sculptures, and antiquities from around the world dating from ancient times to the 19th century. Renowned for the 2nd century statues of Venus de Milo and Winged Victory of Samothrace, it is da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, La Joconde, that draws the crowds. The controversial modern glass pyramid in the courtyard serves as a naturally illuminated central entrance with a spiral staircase and access to all three wings.

The cornerstone of Notre-Dame Cathedral was laid in 1163, and two centuries passed before it was completed. Immortalized by Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, after falling into disrepair, it regained its splendor as the site of the crowning of Napoleon by Pope Pius VII, the baptism of the imperial prince, the wedding of Napoleon III, and, in 1980, the mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II. Climb the 226′ tower for a spectacular view of the city, view the rose window as the light streams inside the sanctuary, and descend to the crypt.

The Orsay Museum (Musée d’Orsay) is in the glass-roofed station built for the electric railway and the 1900 Universal Exposition. It is now the link between the Louvre and Pompidou Center, with art in chronological order from 1848-1914. Since 1986 it has showcased the work of such artists as Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, Manet, and Monet.

The luxurious neo-Baroque Opera Garnier, or Palais Garnier, exemplifies Napoleon III’s magnificent Second French Empire style. Opened in 1875 for the opera and ballet, it is centered on an impressive square amid grand boulevards. It features a 98′ grand staircase and a ceiling painting by Marc Chagall in 1964.

Basilique Sacré-Coeur was built high on a hill with Byzantine domes and a bell tower for the 1900 Universal Exposition. Take the funicular up and walk back down the steep, crooked streets of Montmartre, an area known for artists, past and present.

A stunning structure that appears to be made almost entirely of stained glass, Sainte-Chapelle, was built in 1246 and completed in less than three years. Louis IX, “Saint-Louis”, wanted a reliquary for his holy acquisitions, Christ’s Crown of Thorns and a piece of the True Cross, purchased from the impoverished Byzantine emperor at Constantinople.

Place Vendome, the area surrounding the Ritz Hotel, was made famous by Lady Di and Dodi Fayed. It is the site of Napoleon’s Colonne Vendôme, made of the bronze from over a thousand cannons captured at the Battle of Austerliz, and topped with a statue of the “Little Corporal”. It was fashioned after Trajan’s Column in Rome.

What more could be said about Louis XIV’s showplace, Versailles, the palace that set the standard for the rest? Highlights are Grand Apartments, Hall of Mirrors, the Royal Chapel, gardens, and Marie Antoinette’s farm out back. It’s a short train ride outside the city.

If you are planning to visit a number of museums, purchase a Paris Museum Pass. You will avoid lines at the ticket desk and be more likely to pop in and out of smaller museums you pass by.

Panache

Explore Parisian chic. Attend a fashion show. Browse the designer shops of Dior on Avenue Montaigne, or Louis Vuitton on Champs-Elysées to discover what’s in vogue.

For the ultimate gastronomic purchase, stop at Fauchon, gourmet food and specialty shop on Place de la Madeleine.

Nightlife

Tourist buses flock to the Moulin Rouge or Folles-Bergère and the seedy Pigalle. For a sense of grandeur, catch a performance at the Opera Garnier, go to a concert in a grand cathedral, or attend a theater performance, perhaps at France’s National Theater, Comédie-Francaise.

Paris. C’est la vie!

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