Rome had its Coliseum, London had the Tower Bridge, Amsterdam had its canals, all the great cities in Europe had something unique, distinctive, and extraordinary. When one thinks of Paris, what is the first thing that comes to mind? How's about a hint (at right)... Hmmm. Wasn't hard, was it?
This chapter of the Paris travelogue covers the parts of the city I toured on the second half of my bus trip, mostly to the west and south of the Ile de France. It includes the famous Eiffel Tower, the Champs Elysées, and the imperial district of Les Invalides.
It's hard to imagine that the Eiffel Tower was reviled when it was unveiled. It was also hard to imagine that it was used as an advertising banner at one time. But in modern times, it was simply the Tower, and we viewed it was unmistakeably Parisian. Unfortunately, like many visitors to Paris, we were unlucky and caught the Tower on a wet, overcast day. But this was not the only glimpse of the tower we got. The previous night, while a winter fair was taking place on the Champs Elysées, we took a ride in a heated enclosed ferris wheel. From there, we noticed that the Tower hosted a whole array of flashing lights, almost like a Christmas tree. The lights only flashed on periodically, like a thousand cameras taking pictures at a basketball game.
The picture in the first photograph was taken from the front foyer of the Palais de Chaillot located across the river from the Tower. The river is not visible in the photo -- the span of road leading from the tower to the pool in the foreground was actually a bridge (that hosted a large number of non-Europeans pawning off low-grade souvenirs and knock-off items). The Palais and its adjacent Jardins du Trocadero were impressive in their own right. Some of the sculptures scattered about were something to see. The beautiful sculpture in the second photograph was an example of this art.
Back to the first photograph, visible beyond the Tower was a long mall similar to that found in Washington, DC. This was the Champ de Mars that led to the École Militaire (the military school) and the headquarters of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, the very organization that maintains a database of World Heritage Sites, a number of which appear in this website.
Also nearby were the Invalides and the site of Napoleon's Tomb, seen in the third photograph on the following day -- when it was sunny. (No, we were not permitted a redo of the Eiffel Tower, unfortunately). These buildings were extraordinary. More than just a simple crypt, it was a celebration of the contributions Napoleon made to French culture. The interior was round with a sunken basement for viewing. A corridor wrapped and provided access to various alcoves that were dedicated to Napoleon's successors or some historical events. Down in the basement, surrounding the tomb itself, were wall sculptures that symbolically represented the civil codes and government institutions that Napoleon Bonaparte created during his rule, the so-called Napoleonic Code. The whole building was definitely worth a careful, thoughtful look.
Back across the Seine River past the Grand Palais came the roadway that perhaps even the casual tourist has probably heard of -- Les Champs Elysées, the grand street running from the Arc de Triomphe to the northwest to La Place de la Concorde to the southeast. The fourth photograph shows one view of this roughly one-mile-long boulevard. The Champs was far more than just another four-lane highway. It was a center of culture and activity unlike any other street in Europe. During the same evening when my group took in the winter festival at the Place de la Concorde, we walked the entire length of the Champs down and back. The trees were present for the first half of the walk. Hidden beyond them on both sides of the roadway were parks containing outdoor cafés and concert grounds that were quiet at the time but came alive in the summer. Beyond the parks, one of the city's grand fashion districts began. Even during a bitter cold and windy night in January, this place was overrun with activity. We popped into a couple cafes and stores in order to warm up on our walk, and we encountered large numbers of tourists and gourmands seeking the latest designed clothes and five-star cuisine. My group consisted of typical Americans -- blue jeans and the like -- so we did feel slightly underdressed, but we got over it.
At the far end of the Champs, of course, was the Arc de Triomphe, visible in both the fourth and fifth photographs. The fifth was one of my all-time favorite nighttime shots ever, taken from the middle of a pedestrian crossing. There may be dozens of archways like it across Europe (including elsewhere in France), there were few that match the size and importance of this one. There were also few that are kept in as good shape as this one... it was kept like new for a long time. The Arc was in the center of a traffic circle that was accessible by underground passage from the outside. After I took this shot, we went underground and surveyed the Arc from the inside. The decor was terrific.
As for La Place de la Concorde, that too was a massive traffic circle. Its main fountain, with its black and gilded sculptures, marked the center of the plaza. Surrounding the plaza was a number of impressive monuments and landmarks. These included a famous Egyptian obelisk that had to be restored due to erosion, a grand orangerie, and a whole host of other statues and sculptures. It also hosted the aforementioned festival, and probably hosted other such events through the year.
If one was short on time when planning a trip to Paris, it's hard to vote against the western half of Paris. Carrying most of the major outdoor attractions, it would seem to be the logical choice during the summer or fair weather. For those who prefer indoor venues, those are described in the chapter on Paris-Est!
Trip taken 12-13 January 2001 -- Page Last Updated 28 September 2006 -- (C) 2001 Tom Galvin