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Sightseeing in Paris

The sights of Paris are enough to fill an entire library of travel books. The following are only some jewels in the treasure trove, to coin a phrase! They can be divided into famous monuments, palaces, churches, gardens/green spaces (jardins), areas/quarters and museums.

Monuments

To people the world over, the Eiffel Tower is synonymous with the skyline of Paris and with France itself. The Tower was the brainchild of architect Gustave Eiffel, already famous as a builder of iron bridges. When he first suggested the idea, it was assailed by controversy.

Eiffel went ahead and built the tower for the World Exhibition in 1889. In 1909, it nearly became a scrap heap but the fact that it could be used as a radio antenna rescued it and the world of architecture gained a gem. Paris at night from the top of the tower is nothing short of magical.

The other famous monuments of Paris include the Arc de Triomphe that was planned by Napoleon to celebrate his victories but was completed only 15 years after his death. Just outside city limits, west of Paris is the Grande Arche, with an absolutely stunning view when you reach the top in tubular glass elevators. The crypt of the Pantheon is the highest point of the Left Bank and the place where the tombs of several famous French names like Louis Braille, Voltaire and Victor Hugo are.

Charles V built the Bastille Prison to guard the eastern entrance to his capital. History buffs will know that the Bastille secured for itself a permanent place in posterity after revolutionaries stormed it in 1789, marking the beginning of the French Revolution. Nothing remains today but memories of those killed, by a figure of Liberty. The glass fronted Bastille Opera and the Arts Viaduct are other attractions in the area. Father Lachaise Cemetery (Cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise) is the final resting place of several luminaries including Chopin, Proust and Gertrude Stein.

Charles Garnier’s world-famous Opera Garnier boasts a lavish interior with an opulent display of tapestries and mosaics and the Grand Escalier (grand staircase) made of imported coloured marble. A Marc Chagall painted ceiling along with a six-ton chandelier adorns the extravagant auditorium.

Palaces

The Ministry of Culture now occupies Palais-Royal built in the 1630s. The Palace has an altogether charming garden bordered by arcades and boutiques. This garden became the starting point of the revolutions of 1789, 1830 and 1848.

The Elysee Palace is the French president’s official residence and place of work An example of beautiful stained glass is the Conciergerie – a 14th century former palace next to the Ste-Chapelle.

Museums

There are over a hundred museums in Paris and one can easily spend a lifetime studying their collections, therefore only a few are listed below.

Once the home of kings and now the world famous art museum, the Louvre has an intimidating collection of displays. The museum’s main attraction is the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.

Some of the other masterpieces include the Code of Hammurabi, the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Lacemaker by Vermeer and Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the people. If you want to get even a rudimentary sense of this treasure, calculate on spending at least two days here. The glass pyramid built by I.M Pei in front of the museum is a daring modern piece of architecture and also an entrance to the museum and the shopping arcade underground, known as the Carrousel du Louvre. The Modern Art Museum with an emphasis on modern art after the war is what is famous in the centre.

Bridging the gap between the Louvre and the Modern Art Museum is the spectacular Musee d’Orsay. A former railway station now converted into one of the premier museums of Paris, the Musee d’Orsay holds the finest collection of impressionist art. On view are works of masters like Cezanne, Renoir, Degas and Monet. If you have time to see only one museum besides the Louvre, this is the one to go for!

The Hotel des Invalides was earlier used by wounded war veterans and founded by Louis XIV in 1674. It now includes the Musee de l’Armee and Napoleon’s tomb. The Centre Pompidou north of the Louvre is named after the postwar French President Georges Pompidou and has become allegedly the most visited cultural site in Paris due to its single-minded focus on promoting modern art.

For an update on 65 Paris museums minus the waiting in line at tourist offices, the Carte Musees et Monuments is invaluable. You can pick up a copy at any museum or Metro station or buy a pass that will give you entry to major museums.

Churches

The Cathedrale de Notre-Dame de Paris, a crowning achievement of Gothic architecture, is awe-inspiring even to the most jaded eyes. It is a structure renowned for its sublime symmetry and poise. The stained glass rose windows inside are breathtakingly pretty.

Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame triggered off an effort for the centuries-old cathedral to be restored to its past glory in the early 19th century. Interestingly, Notre Dame can be said to be the heart of Paris - points around the city are measured from a sundial in front of it. The Basilique du Sacre-Coeur (the Sacred Heart Cathedral) crowning the Butte de Montmartre is the other famous Paris landmark. Its 112m-bell tower is the highest point of Paris and affords an aerial view for at least 50 km.

The La Madeleine church looks like a Greek temple and boasts ornately decorated walls plated in gold.

The colossal Church of St-Eustache, also known as the Cathedral of Les Halles speaks volumes about the transition between Gothic and Classical architecture.

The domed church of St-Augustin is one of the more recent churches, having been constructed only in the 1860s. The oldest standing church in Paris is the Eglise St-Germain-Des-Pres, a battle-scarred, weathered and old but proud denizen.

Gardens

The Jardin des Plantes opened in 1640 to grow medicinal plants for King Louis XIII, and now has museums for natural science, a zoo and an aquarium, as well as gardens.

Paris’ most famous Left Bank Park, the Jardin du Luxembourg has tennis courts, flower beds, alleys lined with trees as well as a large pond. The Jardin des Tuileries, at the western foot of the Louvre, are huge formal gardens that began during the reign of Catherine de Medici and were completed after being improved upon by Andre le Notre.

The Arc de Triomphe was planned by Napoleon to celebrate his victories but was completed only 15 years after his death. The Champs-Elysees of course, is the city’s most famous avenue. Sloping gracefully, and laid out as a garden sweeping away from the Tuileries, it is now lined by cafes, restaurants, movie theatres and chic arcades. It looms over what the Parisians call L’Etoile (The Star). Under the archway lies the Unknown Soldier of France with the flame rekindled every evening at 6.30.

The Place des Victoires is a circular area dominated by a statue of the Sun King Louis XIV on a bronze horse. The Place Vendome is a well-proportioned 17th century example of architecture. 1,200 cannons were allegedly melted to build the central pillar! The oldest square in Paris, the Place des Vosges, was built in 1605. A calm aura pervades this square with its soft pink bricks and cloister-like arcades. Place de la Concorde is Paris’ most famous square where over 1000 people, including Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were guillotined. A gift from the then viceroy of Egypt is the obelisk that was erected here in 1833.

Quarters

In terms of area/quarters, the Marais area is hard to beat for atmosphere. It is one area that still retains most of its pre-revolutionary architecture. It houses a significant Jewish minority and the Parisian gay scene, and comes alive on weekends with scores of partygoers.

The Montparnasse area became the watering hole of the avant garde in the 1920s, when luminaries like Miro, Kandinsky, Picasso and Hemingway came here to sit in cafes and talk late into the night. Montmartre is well loved for its old world charm – steep winding streets, ivy-covered cottages and cafes. The Latin Quarter is so named because it is the historic site of education and learning, which was imparted in Latin till as recently as 1798. La Sorbonne, Paris’ most ancient university and the hub of Parisian student life is the highlight of this area.

Paris is surrounded by islands (Ile is the French term for ‘island’). The Ile de la Cite used to be the heart of Paris, when in the 3rd century BC it was inhabited by the Parisii, a Gallic tribe of fishermen and sailors. The Ile St-Louis is a residential area that glows softly with the light of cast-iron lamps after dark.


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